Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Reviews: 1944 Triple Feature

Still no good reasons to hit the ticketing theaters. In fact, while new carpeting was being installed this weekend in the hallways of our apartment building, the din of nailing and drilling and the smell of carpeting glue grew so intense that I almost schlepped over to The Lovely Bones just for a respite, but then I realized that I really needed to be sure of what I meant by "respite."

So instead, as I advertised last time, I'm still idiosyncratically renting my way through 1944, and the yields get better and better. I wrote my long reviews this week about an unlikely trio, all of them keepers: Maya Deren's experimental classic At Land, reviewed here; Henry Hathaway's increasingly gripping wartime aviation drama Wing and a Prayer, reviewed here; and the luscious oddity The Curse of the Cat People, producer Val Lewton's quasi-sequel to his 1942 hit Cat People, co-directed by a young Robert Wise and pipped by legendary American film critics James Agee as one of the best times, if not the best time, he enjoyed in a cinema in 1944. My review for that one is here.

Are you enjoying these 1940s excursions? Is it a nice break from all the awards-circuit hubbub? I have got a brand-new and much-improved Top Ten List for 1944, though those of you with more contemporary concerns should take heart that I have one coming for 2009 very soon. I've also been updating my personal Oscar ballots for 1944 and 1945; who knew To Have and Have Not, which I just saw for the first time (!) and absolutely loved, didn't qualify for Oscar's ballot until 1945, and still failed to net a single nod? The exclusion of Bogart and Bacall from the singularly weak fields for the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars that year is a particular travesty.

Anyway, though the format and timing of my Best of 2009 picks are less certain, I promise you'll get something. Despite my excitement about writing more reviews, and about delving more frequently than I usually do in January and February into earlier eras of cinema, I'm still eager to pay tribute to the peaks of last year's moviegoing experiences. Stay tuned next week for Monday reviews drawn at least partly from that trove... but hopefully I'll have another site update somewhere along the week between now and then.

(Incidentally, you'll notice that I have newly appended updated listings for the Cinematography and Screenplay categories in the Oscar-related section of my sidebar. I do enjoy following those categories as much as most of the others that are itemized there, I'm learning about more films I hadn't heard of by casting a refresher glance at those areas of the ballot, and as you'll note, the average Screenplay nominee has turned out, at least of late, to constitute a higher-quality outing than the average entrant in almost any other Oscar race.)

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Blogger Calum Reed said...

It's been a while since I watched To Have and Have Not, and although I didn't love it as much as you, I remember being wowed by Hawks' risque dialogue and the sizzling Bogart/Bacall chemistry. Juicy stuff.

But 1944 is simply incomplete without a viewing of Arsenic and Old Lace. A manic, hilarious, brilliant two hours, which probably contain the greatest comedic performance ever. Just saying :-)

6:55 AM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Just the incentive I need! I'll be moving on from '44 in short order, but not before I pick that one up.

11:33 AM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Michael Shetina said...

Well, I don't really like being a naysayer, but here goes: Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those acclaimed films whose appeal is totally lost on me. Priscilla Lane is... well, Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant's performance comes across as mannered rather than manic, and Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre - both of whom I love in other films - seem to be phoning it in. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are delightful, though. Hope you have a better time with it than I did, Nick.

And I'm glad you thought highly of Bacall's work in To Have and Have Not. She's limited, to be sure, but she's smashing in her films with Hawks. And I think her performance in Murder on the Orient Express is a lot more fascinating than Bergman's daffy Oscar-winning Swedish nanny (ninny?).

And A Canterbury Tale put me to sleep. And I am a die-hard Archers' fan.

2:44 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

So much to chew on! It totally makes up for my mild dismay at the downgrading of Woman in the Window (and like-not-love for the Sturges also) that you flipped for To Have and Have Not so much. Has it boosted your opinion of Bacall? Can't see how it couldn't -- her best work, I'd say.

In fairness, To Have probably deserves the top 100 spot I gave (years ago, now) to Woman. Cos I took another look at the Lang over the weekend, and, yeah, it ain't all that. Don't get me wrong, it probably remains my favourite Robinson perf, Bennett's smashing, and I do love the alibi the movie gives itself for all those paranoid coincidences, hokey old ruse or no. So I'm still very fond of it, but probably more in the "Picked Flick" kind of way than the true Top 100 way, if you see what I'm saying.

You've also reminded me I've got an old VHS of Curse of the Cat People knocking around somewhere, so can't wait to dig that out now too. 70 minutes is what we in the trade like to call a five-star running time.

4:21 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

I am so thrilled you loved Curse of the Cat People. The Lewton unit at RKO has long been an obsession of mine, and if that film might indeed be the strangest and least typical of them all, it's still one of my favorites.

Looking at your 1944 top 10, I have to wonder what you saw in Torment that I missed. And looking at your "enticing prospects", I should put in my vote for Henry V, by far Olivier's best Shakespeare film, and Lifeboat, because... I mean, come on, Hitchcock.

7:03 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Evan said...

Hi Nick, I previously used the name Evanderholy when I wrote on your blog about a month ago to thank you as a long time reader who had never commented. I will be using this name from now on.

I've definitely enjoyed these 1940's excursions. As I wrote you in the e-mail I sent (did you get it? I was worried it didn't get through.) I think your top ten lists and Oscar ballots for years in the past really help to shed a light on your overall tastes in a way the modern reviews alone can't.

I haven't seen "To Have and Have Not" in years, but I remember it being a lot of fun and that the Bogart/Bacall chemistry more than lived up to the hype. I've even read one review of it( that compared it favorably with "Casablanca". I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's definitely pretty great.

I'm not sure why I still haven't seen "The Curse of the Cat People" when I've enjoyed (if for atmosphere alone) pretty much every Val Lewton produced film I've ever seen, but I'll have to rectify that soon.

You've definitely piqued my interest in "Wing and a Prayer" and especially "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" which I've always heard good things about, but never quite at this level of praise.

Looking forward to your 2009 picks.

8:02 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Ah, the 40s - as far as American cinema goes, maybe my favourite decade. And certainly we're enjoying your 40s excursions (by 'we' I mean 'me', but I'll stick to 'we' if it means you spend more time reacquainting with 1944), and certainly a lot more than I ever enjoyed Curse of the Cat People (big Lewton fan here - but I prefer to think this movie never happened).

Much as I adore 40s noir, Wilder, Stanwyck, Robinson, Chandler and even the movie itself, I never quite felt that unrestrained worship of Double Indemnity that I think I should feel. Sure, it's flawless, clever, still exciting upon multiple viewing, but I just don't feel the crazy love for it that I do for Touch of Evil, Kiss Me Deadly, the great B-noirs of the late 40s (He Walked by Night, Gun Crazy, Detour) etc. That said, I don't really feel crazy love for any specific 1944 release as much as I do for the year as a whole. Double Indemnity is still at the top of that list.

It's followed by Jane Eyre (only B? will I forever be the lone champion of its moody, hypnotic mastery?), Miracle of Morgan's Creek (which I've seen maybe six times and still laughed long after the stomach pain set in), Murder My Sweet (do not move on from 44 til you've caught this) - all five star films.

Then I have Hail the Conquering Hero (again, only B? what happened?), Meet Me in St. Louis, Arsenic and Old Lace (it's gold, I hope you'll love it), Lifeboat (which I find more mesmerising than others seem to), Laura (which I love but clearly need to revisit), and To Have and Have Not. I've just realised, that's a blockbuster Top 10 right there. I'd even have to leave out the wonderful Woman in the Window (Lang's best American noir surely), and the slightly odd, slightly trashy, very warm and very enjoyable prestige horror The Uninvited. (I also need to revisit Henry V, since when I saw it, I was roughly 13, and I recognised maybe five sentences in total as intelligible English.)

I'm actually going through a similar geeky - I mean, ahem, idiosyncratic phase of my own - but rather than the sublime 40s, I'm tackling my pet hate: 80s cinema, filling in my blind spots year by year. I've just wrapped up 1980 (now I've seen enough to legitimately conclude, it was a miserable year) and I'm onto '81 (where this whole seeking out blind spots thing is paying off hardcore). I was thinking of publishing a 1980 mini-roundup in the next few days.

1:24 AM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger Glenn said...

Oh gawd, I hated Curse of the Cat People. That could be because Cat People would find itself with a comfy place in any top 20 of all time list and the "sequel" is just so different. I think I fell asleep right about the time Simone Simon showed up in the backyard for the fifth time.

5:58 AM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger Lev Lewis said...

Not to be cruel, but I'm sorta dying for you to see and review "Lovely Bones", which was so excruciatingly horrendous it has to be seen to be believed.

And count me in among the "Arsenic and Old Lace" supporters. Decidedly over the top, but so much fun. Although I do find it difficult to dislike anything starring Grant and Lorre, so I may be biased.

4:40 PM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

Nick, what did you think of Mai Zetterling's work in Torment? For years I only knew her as the heroic grandmother in The Witches, so I found it fascinating to see her inhabit a totally different character and at such a young age. I recently read All Those Tomorrows, her memoir, and watched Loving Couples, the first feature-length film she directed, and The War Game, a short she directed for the BBC, and really enjoyed all. I think she deserves to be mentioned more during discussions of great female directors.
I was happy to see you showed some love to Elizabeth Russell and Henry Daniell. Those two were really terrific. And you've wetted my appetite to see The Seventh Cross since, like Zetterling, I'm really only familiar with Jessica Tandy's work in her "golden years."

8:37 PM, January 29, 2010  
Blogger The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Here's how I see it: if you liked Bringing Up Baby then you will like Arsenic & Old Lace. Always a double bill viewing in my house. :)

5:25 AM, January 31, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Michael: Turns out I am absolutely with you on Arsenic and Old Lace, almost precisely to a tee, but I'm glad I found out for myself. I hate Bacall in Orient Express, but I was totally floored by how exquisite and clever and enticing she was in To Have and Have Not.

@Tim: Well, Woman's been graded back up... it's right on that B/B+ borderline for me, and on different days, its bigger weaknesses start to seem like its cleverest strengths, and vice versa. I can completely see why it's a Favorite. And do check out CCP, since I'm sure you'll love what there is to love. Just depends how much that is, proportionally, for you.

@Tim: I loved seeing a Bergman script directed with the kind of warmth and even the occasional humor (!) that Sjöberg brings to this one, plus a kind of physical earthiness that's just physical earthiness, without always straining for metaphysical resonance. I'm obviously a Bergman nut, so it's not as though I've been craving a break from him, but despite some big overreaches and shaky scenes, I found Torment consistently unnerving, palpable, and excitingly hard to get a fix on.

@Evan: I only haven't written back (which I'm SO sorry about) because I'll be so defeated to say anything deserving of your kind, generous, detailed letter... really touching! But nonetheless: I will reply. And as for what you said here: I was thinking about Casablanca all the way through To Have and Have Not (and am probably only the millionth person to do that), and I urge you to track down A Tree Grows in Brooklyn if you at all can. It's quickly becoming a personal touchstone. Have been passing it around the office to universal acclaim, etc.

@Goran: Would love to read your 80s roundups, since that is, indeed, a frustrating decade in terms of trying to find the well-disguised gems among all the floss. Will have to click over and see if you wound up posting some of them. Thanks for offering so many endorsements of specific favorites from '44 and some fruitful counterpoint to my own preferences. I've already said my bit about Jane Eyre in the review; as for Conquering Hero, its comic and satirical angles felt more predictable to me than those of Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and it lacked the exciting edge of tonal and sexual vulgarity that Morgan's Creek so often conjures, which makes Sturges' embrace of that film's characters all the more wonderful and funny. Definitely a solid yarn with some good yuks, but I didn't relate to it much more deeply than that.

9:31 PM, January 31, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Glenn: Ouch! Speaking of The Cat People! But you know I'm never one to hold back, either, when something's not my cuppa. :)

@Lev: Well, as advertised above, I didn't much get on with Arsenic in terms of finding it very "good," and you can sort of smell the desperation pouring off of Grant, can't you? Still, a roundly enjoyable sit, even though I always like Capra better when he's aiming higher.

@CCW: Zetterling doesn't have a great role in Torment, though she manages to sneak in a few notes that make her character more than an abstract tablet for the two guys to scrawl their competing neuroses and destinies upon (which the script would certainly have allowed). I can't say I leave Torment dying to see more Zetterling perfs, but I was curious for the same reasons you are. As for Tandy, she's not really a featured performer in Seventh Cross, which is a very guy-driven movie, but what she does in a few terse, simple scenes is "supporting" in the best way. See, too, the next year's Valley of Decision.

@JAR: I'll take Baby any day from that combo, though I admit my regard for that one has dropped steadily over the years, even though I love Hepburn and Grant in their better moments. (Though here, too, I can't find a whole lot of reason to pop Baby in when I can revisit them in Holiday instead.)

9:37 PM, January 31, 2010  

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