Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

Them!

Before Aliens, before Starship Troopers, before The Swarm, even before Tarantula (my recommendation here), Hollywood discovered that bigging up bugs into a threat to humanity could translate a prevalent human anxiety into a nerve-jangling cinematic experience. The year was 1954 and the movie has since became revered as a trendsetting sci-fi classic: Them!

As I have said many times on the site, I love films that put the audience immediately into the story without ponderous context-setting. Them! is a master class in the art. The film opens with a little girl (Sandy Descher), visibly in shock, walking mutely across the New Mexico desert. She is rescued by police, led by the brave and compassionate Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore). The cops investigate, finding homes torn open, people dead or missing, and a suspicious quantity of spilled sugar. When the horrifying nature of their atomically-charged adversary becomes apparent, the authorities call in a stout FBI agent (James Arness), an eccentric, elderly myrmecologist (Edmund Gwenn), and his equally scientifically gifted daughter, who is also a dish (Joan Weldon). A thrilling humanity vs. super-insect war ensues.

48. Them! (1954) | Wonders in the Dark

Hollywood has always had prestige directors who make big budget, A-list films. But in the era when many people went to the movies every week, the studios also needed competent, no name directors who could efficiently deliver movies of all forms on a tight schedule. Gordon Douglas was cut from that cloth: he directed 27 films for Warner Brothers in the 1950s alone, most of which were modestly budgeted films destined to be second features in theaters for a couple weeks and then be forgotten. But he could make a very good movie when he was given the tools, as was here courtesy of original story writer George Worthing Yates, adapter Russell Hughes, and screenwriter Ted Sherdeman. His artistically outstanding decision was to direct the first 30 minutes of this movie like a ghost story set in the eerie expanses of sand-swirled desert. After one of the most famous big reveals in sci-fi film history, the story then becomes a more conventional “bug hunt”, but Douglas handles that form well enough to bring the audience along with him.

Them! (1954)

Whitmore and Arness’s characters don’t make much sense, in that they start out as a highway patrolman and FBI agent and end up practically running the U.S. military’s anti-ant operations. But they are strong-jawed enough to be upstanding and believable action heroes. As a daffy but brilliant professor, Gwenn adds some welcome humor, and Weldon is credible as a confident and intelligent woman (not many of those in movies of this period) who catches Arness’ eye while also helping save our species.

The other attraction here are the Oscar-nominated special effects. By modern CGI standards, they are of course laughable. But at the time, they were pathbreaking. And in any event, part of appreciating old monster movies is finding the charm of the craft of SPFX creators in a pre-high-tech environment.

Categories
Action/Adventure Comedy

To Be Or Not To Be

To Be or Not to Be (1942) | BFI

Long before Mel Brooks got everyone laughing at Nazis, a Hungarian-born producer (Alexander Korda) and German-born director (Ernst Lubitsch) somehow persuaded Hollywood to take a major risk at the height of World War II: Combine an espionage thriller with screwball comedy! The resulting film met a decidedly mixed reception in 1942, but over time has become recognized as one of the great movies of the 20th century: To Be Or Not To Be.

The plot: A Polish acting troupe anchored by Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and her hammy husband Joseph (Jack Benny) have little to concern them other than Shakespeare and ardent fans — too ardent for Joseph in the case of a handsome young admirer of Maria’s (Robert Stack, in his film debut). But their lives, like the film itself, turn gravely serious when the Nazis invade Poland. When the Polish underground is threatened with exposure by a clever double agent (Stanley Ridges), they realize that their theatrical abilities must be called upon to pull off the deceptive performance of a lifetime. Can they fool the Nazis to save the underground, even if one of them has to impersonate you know who? An utterly original combination of adventure and laughter ensue.

This movie could have been a disaster, even offensive, given how it switches from farce to suspense to lightness to moral gravity and back. That it works so brilliantly is a powerful testament to Edwin Justus Mayer’s superb screenplay, a uniformly stellar cast, and Lubitsch’s directorial magic.

Lubitsch died suddenly in 1947 and had less enduring artistic impact than one might expect, perhaps because his comedic and romantic style were seen by post-war filmmakers as dated. But he was remarkably talented (His friend Billy Wilder has a charming explanation here of “the Lubitsch touch”) and his best films remain highly entertaining today. To Be Or Not To Be is particularly impressive because effectively combining such emotionally different tones would challenge a director in any era, but even moreso at a time of national peril (and indeed, some critics and audiences were put off by this film in 1942). I admire how Lubitsch slams down the gas pedal without fear. In particular, I have mentioned a number of times on this site that I appreciate films that don’t dawdle and explain too much at the beginning; on that principle I admire the outrageous, ludicrous, gut busting way Lubitsch starts To Be Or Not To Be.

I can’t end this review without paying tribute to another Hollywood legend. With all the world’s women throwing themselves at him, why did Clark Cable marry Carole Lombard? Asked no one ever. In her last film, she is luminous in her beauty, style, wit, and intelligence. The script gave Benny most of the explicitly funny lines and a tailor-made part, and he’s does well with it. Yet Lombard somehow outshines him just the same. Hollywood lost one of best performers of the era when she tragically died serving the war effort, but she’s still triumphing over her enemies today every time someone else watches this classic film and guffaws at a Nazi’s expense.

Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Assault on Precinct 13

Review: John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - Slant Magazine

I went through an enjoyable spate of watching early John Carpenter movies. Dark Star is an endearing ultra-low budget movie which highlights the emerging talent of Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and will likely always have a place in college sci-fi film festivals. But it’s too unpolished and uneven for me to recommend. In contrast, his next movie, made in 1976 with a larger (if still small in absolute terms) budget, is taut, thrilling, and well-acted from end to end: Assault on Precinct 13.

The spare plot is a reworking of Howard Hawks’ claustrophobic classic Rio Bravo (whom Carpenter also echoed in The Thing ). Highway Patrol Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the ostensibly ho-hum assignment of overseeing the closure of a near-abandoned police station. But of course it couldn’t be that easy: a vicious, well-armed street gang converges on the station to avenge the killing of some of their members by the police as well as by an enraged civilian whose family they victimized. After the gang’s initial assault kills the few remaining police officers, Stoker can only rely on a worldly secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) to hold off the horde. Superb action and suspense follow.

Assault On Precinct 13 – Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Review) at Why So Blu?

Carpenter boils everything down to the essentials here: the desperate human will to survive, how danger can draw out courage in some and fear in others, and how shared risks can make enemies learn to trust each other. He matches that thematic simplicity with a no-nonsense visual style and fat-free storytelling. And he draws effective performances from his no name cast, further attesting to his talents as a director.

The excruciating tension of the siege on the station comes in part from the zombie-like nature of the gang members (Indeed, Carpenter has acknowledged the influence of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on his script). The gang members barely speak in this movie, being a mindless, remorseless, deadly mob akin to those Carpenter summoned up so well in The Fog, Ghosts of Mars, and They Live. Their intended victims, like the audience, want to know why the villains are they way they are, but there is no sensible or reassuring answer: they want to kill, they will not stop, and that is all.

Carpenter really did it all here, writing a tight script with solid dialogue, crisp plot lines and some moments of black humor (including the legendary “ice cream” scene). His characters aren’t extremely well-developed, but enough so that you root for them. Also worthy of comment: Carpenter made an intriguing and I think productive decision to bend reality by making the street gang multi-racial, as are the defenders of precinct 13, thus avoiding what might have been ugly overtones if the dueling sides had been racially monotone. He also composed one of his best scores and even, under a stage name (John T. Chance) did the editing, which not incidentally is terrific, particularly in the actions scenes. Like Roger Corman, Carpenter was underappreciated for many years before being recognized as a masterful filmmaker. Assault on Precinct 13 shows that his talent was evident from the earliest days of his career.

p.s. I didn’t see the 2005 remake of this film and based on reviews I don’t want to.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Foreign Language Romance

Napoléon

Napoleon: 10 unmissable highlights from Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour  masterpiece | BFI

In 1927, the days of silent film were coming to an end, but some brilliant directors sent it out in style. William Wellman’s Wings and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise landed the first-ever Academy Awards, while in The Soviet Union Sergei Eisenstein’s October hit the screens. But a French film towered even over that mighty company in ambition, scope, and enduring fascination: Writer/Director/Producer Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

The plot: Well, take a deep breath, because this 5 1/2 hour epic covers a lot of ground (and incredibly, Gance wanted to make it only the first of a series of six movies!). The story begins when young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) is an eccentric, bullied schoolboy, already brilliant at strategy and tactics as shown by his triumph at a massive, extended, snowball fight. He grows into an impecunious, unappreciated young man (Albert Dieudonné), with little to comfort him other than his loving family of origin in Corsica. The French Revolution erupts, and Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), and Marat (Antonin Artaud) try to guide its fractious, passionate supporters, while Napoleon’s life is turned upside down by political events, forcing him into a dramatic escape from Corsica. But fate finally smiles on Napoleon when he is given command of the artillery at the Siege of Toulon, defeating the British and becoming a hero of the revolution. Returning to Paris and enmeshed in political intrigue as The Revolution devolves into The Terror, he finds time to romance the bewitching Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès), before being promoted to head the French Army in Italy, leading to a spectacular final battle against his country’s enemies. (Insert sound of reviewer pausing to catch his breath). But those are just the highlights of this mammoth cinematic event.

The Many Lives of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' - The New York Times

Everything about this movie is on an epic scale, the performances, the battles, the artistry, and the themes. And yet it’s in no way ponderous or pretentious; indeed it’s tremendously fun to watch, containing trilling action sequences, delightful moments of comic relief, and eye-catching humor and eroticism. The best way to see this film if ever you get the chance is on a big screen with a live orchestra. But though I suppose it’s a sin, you can still appreciate many of its virtues on a smaller screen.

The movie is also unforgettable because of Gance’s creativity as a filmmaker, as he fluidly shows off innovation after innovation in multiple exposure, triptych photography, fast cutting, special effects, cameras strapped to horses, and more. He was such an influential filmmaker that you will many times recognize moments that were echoed or consciously copied in subsequent films. My own favorite of these is the scene in which before a life or death battle, Napoleon confronts the ghosts of The Revolution, which almost perfectly prefigures Aragorn doing the same in the Paths of the Dead scene in The Two Towers.

Napoleon (1927) | The ominous ghosts of Saint-Just, Robespie… | Flickr
The Lord Of The Rings' Army Of The Dead Explained

Gance cut and re-cut Napoléon many times over the years. The original Paris release was 4 hours (which I suspect is about the right length as the 5 1/2 hour version has some slow spots). In one of the most astonishing feats ever in cinematic restoration, historian Kevin Brownlow painstakingly reassembled the film with input from Gance and financial support from Francis Ford Coppola. That preserved this treasure of the silent era for future generations, earning Brownlow an honored place in film buff heaven.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Narrow Margin

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

In an era of hundred-million dollar movies that suck, I increasingly appreciate the craft and inventiveness of filmmakers who quickly turned out high-quality films on a tight budget. To supplement my recommendations of B-movie gems like My Name is Julia Ross and Plunder Road, I hereby endorse a nail-biting noir with a no-name cast that was shot in two breathless weeks in 1950: The Narrow Margin.

Based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, with a screenplay by Earl Fenton, the movie has a simple, much copied plot premise: Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) has to make a perilous journey while protecting a former gun moll named Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) so that she can testify against the mob. Far from being grateful, she’s mouthy, sleazy, and denigrating…why can’t she be more like the goodly wife and mother in the next train car who catches Brown’s eye (Jacqueline White)? And how will he manage the heavies on board who offer him silver or lead?

This film is a triumph for then unknown director Richard Fleischer, who pulled off two impressive feats at once. First, no real budget meant no real stars, yet he got strong performances from the cast end to end. Second, despite 90% of the film being set on a train, it’s consistently kinetic and arresting when it could easily have been stagy or dull.

Of the main performers, Marie Windsor, soon to be known as “The Queen of the Bs” makes the strongest impression as a sexy, tough, bad girl. On the surface her character is reminiscent of Vera as played by Ann Savage in another famous low-budget noir that Goldsmith wrote, Detour. But Frankie has more dimensions to her nature than did Vera, as revealed in an intriguing plot development well into the movie. Of the smaller parts, Peter Brocco stands out as a businesslike gangster.

George Diskant masterfully handles the technical challenges of shooting a picture in tight spaces (I also liked his work during the tense opening sequence as Frankie and Walter encounter an assassin before they get on board). Diskant spent his career almost entirely in television and never photographed an A-movie, which is too bad given his fine work here as well as in another well-shot low budget film, Kansas City Confidential (My recommendation here).

After completing this movie so quickly for RKO in 1950, it drove Fleischer crazy that legendary weirdo mogul Howard Hughes became obsessed with it and would not at first release it as shot. Hughes’ proposed changes included reshooting the whole movie over again with bigger stars in the lead parts! He finally relented in 1952. Well-received upon release, The Narrow Margin’s reputation has only grown since, earning the film a place in every discussion of the best movies ever made on a shoestring.

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

p.s. Peter Hyams’ 1990 remake is an above-average film, but still a comedown from the original.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense

Seven Days to Noon

I make no secret of my disdain for flabby filmmaking. Many modern movies (e.g., almost every superhero movie of recent years) would be significantly better with a merciless edit of tiresome exposition, distracting subplots, saggy scenes, wordy dialogue, soulless CGI, and other forms of artistic bloat. I can hear the whines already “But I need that 30 minutes to show how the hero’s motivation goes back to his childhood trauma, to explain that his energy blaster works on the principle of microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and to have the authority figure character explain what the film is really about in his closing speech”. Stuff and nonsense. When films had smaller budgets and shorter shooting schedules, their makers were more economical in their storytelling by necessity, but the result was better rather than worse cinema. If you want a demonstration of that principle as well as an utterly gripping cinematic experience, check out the 94 thrilling minutes of fat-free brilliance in Seven Days to Noon.

Based on an Oscar-winning story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard, this 1950 film has a simple and terrifyingly realistic premise: a once-reliable military scientist could lose his head and decide to steal a powerful weapon. Said scientist, Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones, offering a compelling mix of threat and vulnerability), believes he can promote world peace by threatening to set off a powerful bomb in the heart of London in seven days if the government doesn’t renounce weapon building. A dedicated member of Special Branch (the ever sturdy Andre Morell) recruits Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) to aid him as he coordinates a national manhunt. But Willingdon is a crafty adversary, and hides in plain sight by taking rooms under an assumed name with a brassy London actress (a terrific Olive Sloane). Nail biting suspense and existential themes follow.

Seven Days to Noon (1950) - Cinema Cats

Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey’s tight script combined with the Brothers’ Hitchcock-level use of pure cinema, make this a truly breathless thriller, one of many that would channel post-war nuclear anxieties. The hero has no backstory because he doesn’t need one. The precise mechanics of the McGuffin are never laid out – it’s a bomb and we all know what a bomb is, so why bother? Willingdon doesn’t really explicit his motives until 75 minutes in, and even then there’s not an excess word in them. And many plot developments unfold entirely through a series of images or through effective quoting of superstar composer-to-be John Addison’s first score. At times it feels like watching the best of the silents, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

The Boultings avoided casting big stars, used some real locations, included colorful snippets of Londoners, and did not tart up the sets to look like anything more than battered, post-war London (Similar to what Sir Carol Reed had done the year before in Vienna while making The Third Man). This at times gives the movie, particularly the daytime scenes, the feel of Italian neorealism or an American police docudrama. But with its air of impending doom and Gilbert Taylor’s night time cinematography, it at other times has a more stylized, film noir feel. Of Taylor’s many arresting visuals, I will not forget any time soon the shots of Willingdon praying alone on his knees in a bomb-shattered cathedral. The realistic and stylized elements work together beautifully, recalling another brilliant “dangerous man on the run” movie from this period, He Walked by Night (recommended here).

I have recommended the Boulting Brothers’ tough film noir Brighton Rock and their sidesplitting I’m All Right Jack, but for me, their most remarkable achievement remains Seven Days to Noon. This film riveted me and at other times made me say “Wow” out loud. That the Boultings could make such different movies so skillfully is why they, while less famous than the legendary Powell and Pressburger, rank among the best British filmmaking partnerships of the 20th century.

Seven Days to Noon Blu-ray Release Date November 5, 2019

p.s. Gilbert Taylor lived to be nearly 100 and nearly three decades after this, was the cinematographer for Star Wars.

Categories
Action/Adventure

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Many film critics, directors, and actors have been asked in interviews to discuss their “guilty pleasures” meaning movies they liked but “really shouldn’t have” because they didn’t raise deep existential questions, explore morally elevated themes, or break new technical or artistic ground. Pretentious codswallop, that. No one should feel guilty about having a good time watching a movie whose sole purpose is to make two hours of life more pleasant. In that spirit, I once recommended the giant spider sci-fi flick Tarantula and will now endorse another think-free Saturday afternoon matinee: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Little-known producer Sy Weintraub had a penchant for breathing new life into classic adventure series. In the 1980s, he made worthy television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories starring the magnificent Ian Richardson (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). Prior to that, he made a sustained, largely successful effort to class up the hoary Tarzan movie franchise with bigger budgets, better scripts, first-rank actors, and on location filming. This included letting Tarzan do something he did in the books but not in films of the 1930s and 1940s: speak in complete sentences! Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, made in 1959, was the first of Wentraub’s tarted up Tarzan films and is arguably the best.

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

The very simple plot: Kenyan villages are being terrorized by a ruthless gang of British and German diamond seekers led by a tough career criminal named Slade (Anthony Quayle). After a violent raid during which Slade’s men steal gelignite, Tarzan (Gordon Scott) bravely sets out alone to bring them to justice. Under pressure from The Ape Man as well as their own greed and envy, the gang tries to stop feuding with each other long enough to defeat our hero. A chase up a mighty river, well-staged action sequences, and intrigue ensue.

Realism is obviously not at a premium here. Diamond mines are strangely well-lighted, the stock footage of African animals will not fool anyone, and everyone’s hair stylist is apparently just off-camera. But you came for thrills, not cinéma vérité, and director/co-writer John Guillermin’s movie consistently delivers on that score. The sequences where Tarzan traps the villains’ boat with falling trees as well as the climactic battle between him and Slade are particularly well constructed and executed. And devotees of the series get their full quota of Tarzania, e.g., vine swinging, crocodile wrestling, and jungle tracking. It’s also welcome that the bad guys are white Europeans out to rape the continent of its resources instead of being backward, violent, African stereotypes as in some of the earlier movies.

GREAT OLD MOVIES: TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE

Weintraub’s investment in name actors paid off particularly well in the case of Quayle, who is physically imposing enough to be a believable combatant for Tarzan while also being intelligent enough to create a rounded character. Slade is domineering in some respects, but overly lenient in others, and the revelation of his complex motives helps keep the viewer engaged. As an ex-Nazi, Niall MacGinnis gives a strong supporting performance (as usual, see my recommendations 49th Parallel and Curse of the Demon) as he artfully stirs up conflict among the gang for his own purposes.

The film also benefits from embracing the erotic vibe of the series, which has been present from its pre-Hays Code commencement. Boys in the 1930s fantasized about being Tarzan, but their sisters and mothers were thinking their own thoughts about sweating, loin cloth wearing beefcakes like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, while, according to Michael Caine’s autobiography, Maureen O’Sullivan cast her own lust-inducing spell on the audience. Without ever lapsing into tastelessness, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure follows in that tradition, with the physical powerhouse Gordon Scott as Tarzan, a young Sean Connery as the villainous O’Bannion, the exotic Scilla Gabel as Slade’s lover, and the elegant Sara Shane as Angie Loring, a spunky aviatrix who wants to monkey around.

So throw away your thinking cap, relax in your easy chair, and enjoy this exciting, entertaining film, which could leave you yelling “Aahuaaa uaaa uaaaaaaaa!”

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Turner Classic Movies

There’s an old jibe that “They don’t make movies in Hollywood, they remake them”. But sometimes they remake them so bloody well that audiences can’t help but stand up and cheer (see for example my recommendation of the Casablanca recycle job To Have and Have Not). A pluperfect example is the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk.

Let me clarify what was really being remade. Rafael Sabatini’s novel had been filmed before under the same name in 1924. That silent classic featured purpose built, full size replicas of battling sailing ships that were so realistic that they were spliced into many subsequent movies, including this one. But the origin of the 1940 adaptation of The Sea Hawk lies with a 1935 adaptation of a different Sabatini book, Captain Blood (my recommendation here). That film made Errol Flynn a superstar and Warner Brothers a mint, so they immediately planned to rework roughly the same story elements into a new pirate movie again starring Flynn, co-starring Basil Rathbone (though he declined the role), and directed by Michael Curtiz. The studio had a script draft as early as 1936, but Flynn was committed to a long line of films at that point, a number of them directed by Curtiz (including my recommendation The Adventures of Robin Hood). It was thus several years before Flynn and Curtiz could make The Sea Hawk, but it was well worth the wait.

The Sea Hawk streaming: where to watch movie online?

The plot: Unlike Captain Blood, in which Flynn starts out as a slave, becomes a notorious pirate, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies, in this film he starts out as a notorious pirate, becomes a slave, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies. Also unlike Captain Blood, in which he had an achingly unconsummated extended flirtation with a beautiful, high-born, English woman, in this film the woman is only half-English. You get the idea.

More seriously, there is one big difference between the two films, which resulted from the start of World War II. In the Sea Hawk, Hitler is thinly veiled as the King of Spain, a ruthless seeker of global domination. And in the movie’s best performance, Dame Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth gives a rousing speech about defending freedom that could have come out of Churchill’s mouth.

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Brenda Marshall plays the love interest this time around, but the film didn’t launch her to stardom as did Olivia De Havilland’s pairings with Flynn (Though one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, William Holden, clearly took notice: they married the following year). Marshall isn’t given a lot to do beyond looking lovely. If you want to see a movie where she gets a chance to show off her acting ability, check out my recommendation Strange Impersonation.

Claude Rains and Henry Daniell fare better as a couple of rotters, each played in their signature style, more charming for the former and more menacing for the latter. In the part that Rathbone declined, Daniell is just as good except that he couldn’t fence at all (Rathbone was a master swordsman). A double was smoothly spliced in for his extended duel with Flynn and it works just fine.

As for Flynn, he’s okay here but seems a tad less energetic than he was only a few years before; perhaps his health, never as good as the publicity machine made Americans believe, was starting to fade. But he certainly has enough gusto to keep the audience engaged, and he gets expert supporting help from many solid character actors, including Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and Gilbert Roland.

Of course a swashbuckler lives and dies by its action scenes, and The Sea Hawk’s are epic in scope and brilliantly executed. The big budget shows as does the ability of the autocratic Curtiz to get armies (er, navies) of actors to do his bidding. Cannons boom, swords flash, buccaneers swarm, and ships cavort on the high seas. The Sea Hawk is a ripsnorting adventure, the fact that it was another trip to the same well notwithstanding.

p.s. My recommendation is based on the 127 minute version. Shorter versions sometimes appear on television.

p.p.s. In case you are tempted to adjust your screen settings, the sepia tint in the scenes in Panama was in the original film.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

49th Parallel

Calling a movie “propaganda” is usually an insult. But making quality propaganda is a skill, and one well worth deploying when you are fighting the Nazis. In 1941, the British War Ministry approached Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for support of the then-failing war effort. Wanting to tempt the neutral U.S. into the fight, the emerging superstar duo of British cinema set the story of a deadly team of Nazi invaders in Canada (The film’s US title was “Invasion”). As it happened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor before the film opened in The States, so whether it would have helped tipped the balance will never be known. But there’s no doubt that 49th Parallel is a brilliant illustration of how wartime films can persuade even as they entertain.

Plot: After sinking defenseless cargo ships, a German U-Boat tries to hide in Hudson Bay. But the Canadian military closes in, forcing its resourceful, ruthless, true-believing Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman, convincing as usual) to lead his crew in a desperate dash across Canada. Thrills and human drama ensue, as does effective illustration of what precisely Nazism entailed and why all free peoples had to resist it.

Review: 49th Parallel - Slant Magazine

Pressburger’s story is reminiscent of the legendary western Winchester ’73 with the overarching narrative arc being a cross-country chase involving core characters, but the underlying structure being episodic. In each episode, new characters and settings provide an opportunity for the audience to see some of their favorite stars (e.g., Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey) and to comprehend a different aspect of Nazism, be it racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, contempt for the vulnerable, and even hatred of “decadent” art. It could easily have been heavy-handed but with this filmmaking team and cast, it’s supremely credible and stirring.

My favorite episode is the Nazis hiding out with a German Hutterite community. Its very much to the filmmakers’ credit that in 1941, when German immigrants were objects of suspicion and hostility in North America, the Hutterites are portrayed entirely positively. The scene where Lt. Hirth attempts to rally them to the cause of the Fatherland and the Hutterites reject him is particularly powerful. Subplots about a German crew member (Niall MacGinnis) who is taken by the Hutterite way of life and is punished for it by Hirth, and a Hutterite youth (Glynis Johns) whose faith is tested to the breaking point, are also powerful. The episode involving Howard as (what else?) an eccentric English scholar is nearly as fine. Kudos are also in order for multiple episodes showing First Nations people in a more positive light than was the norm in this era.

I’m not sure any country has had as much cinematic talent as densely packed as did Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. So much so that even after all this writing, I am just now getting around to mentioning how beautifully shot and perfectly edited the movie is, courtesy of Freddie Young and David Lean respectively. Five well-earned lifetime Academy Awards between those chaps; you can see why again here.

All in all, 49th Parallel is both crackerjack entertainment, affecting drama, and a compelling reason to stand up and sing O Canada!

p.s. Leslie Howard, whom the Nazis would murder in 1943, also did excellent work in my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, as did Niall MacGinnis in another of my recommended movies, Curse of the Demon.

Categories
Action/Adventure Science Fiction / Fantasy

WarGames

Matthew Broderick in WarGames (1983)

In 1983, tensions between the US and The Soviet Union were high, and fear of nuclear war was in the air. Meanwhile, American life was being changed by the rise of the personal computer, with nerds of all ages in the vanguard. Director John Badham weaves these two strands together with excellent results in WarGames.

Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ clever script centers on teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). David is an archetype: Someone who underachieves in all areas except that for which he has a genius, namely computers, video games, and electronics. Out of nerdly mischief and a desire to impress a girl from school (Ally Sheedy), David hacks into a computer system that he thinks is run by a software company, and starts playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”. But unbeknownst to David, he’s actually penetrated a computer system built by a different order of geek within the U.S. military (Dabney Coleman and John Wood) which has the autonomy to launch nuclear weapons. Adventure, suspense, and a useful lesson in game theory ensue.

WarGames (1983) Classic Movie Review 139 -

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This film is as 1980s as it gets. 80s hair, 80s computers, 80s video games, 80s nuclear fears, and Ally Sheedy too. Although “powerful” computers with modems into which you plug your rotary telephone handset may provoke some chuckles today, the story is as relevant as ever and maybe, with the rise of artificial intelligence, even moreso. And if you lived through this time, 1980s-ness of everything in WarGames may be an appealing exercise in nostalgia for the era.

The key to this film’s success is Matthew Broderick, in a performance that showcased why he would soon become a star. Despite the extraordinary proceedings around him, Broderick consistently makes David into an utterly believable teenager, with the jumble of ideas, emotions, and capacities that are common at that age. He has particularly good byplay with Shakespearean actor John Wood, who plays a computer scientist who has lost his son and his hope for humanity, and achieves a measure of restoration on both fronts from David.

The plot developments could have been credibility-straining, but the script is smart enough and Badham is skilled enough to sell everything to the audience. The film is particularly good at giving the audience just enough of a technical explanation to make plot points credible without ever turning into impenetrable nerdspeak. Some of the adult authority figure characters are a bit cartoonish, reflecting I assume the studio aiming for a teenaged audience. That said, I enjoyed re-watching WarGames in mid-life as much as I did when I was an adolescent. This film is superb entertainment, including its nail-biting and satisfying conclusion.

p.s. Look fast for Maury Chaykin as one of Broderick’s circle of turbonerds.