Sunday, June 30, 2019


This post originally written for the Criterion Cast website in 2011.

One of the nominees for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar, the Danish film In a Better World is really two movies: In a Better World and In a Crappier World. Though really, the better one is only better by comparison to the other, just as the one movie here that is decent can only be described as "better" because its companion is so not very good.

Directed by Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, the team responsible for the original version of Brothers, In a Better World is a story of two families. Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, Season of the Witch) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) are a father and son who recently moved back to Denmark from London after Christian’s mother died of cancer. At school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), the eldest son of Swedish immigrants. Both of Elias’ parents are doctors, with his mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, The Celebration), working at the local hospital while his father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, Everlasting Moments [review]), shuttles back and forth between home and Africa, where he takes care of refugees. Marianne and Anton are having troubles due to infidelity on his part, so even when he’s home, they are apart.

Elias is bullied at school, and by sticking up for him, Christian gets picked on, too. Except Christian fights back, revealing a calculating, nearly sociopathic penchant for revenge. The weaker boy has discovered the wrong kind of role model. In a Better World is a movie about male aggression and the cycle of violence that perpetuates itself through modern culture. When Anton breaks up a fight between his younger son and another boy, the boy’s father (Kim Bodnia, Terribly Happy [review]) slaps Anton for touching his child. Anton backs down, but when he realizes this has caused Elias and Christian to doubt him, he tries to teach them a lesson about standing up for yourself without raising your fists. He may score an intellectual triumph when he confronts the man again, but Christian still thinks he’s a pussy and that a bad guy can only be taken down with his own medicine.

The stuff between the boys is actually pretty good, with both Rygaard and Nielsen turning in excellent performances as the meek supplicant and the angry young man. Theirs is a classic dynamic, and the portrayal of the hold Christian has over his protégé is particularly effective. The family drama that motivates them is not as interesting, but the grown-up world is supposed to be a little boring, that’s why the kids are so baffled by their parents’ behavior. The coming-of-age movie is the good one.

The bad one happens whenever In a Better World goes to Africa with Anton. Persbrandt is a strong actor, and his bearish physique and clear blue eyes make for a man of peace who could pose a credible threat if he so desired. His charitable work at the refugee camp is fairly familiar territory, and honestly, was done better on a couple of seasons of ER when Noah Wyle and Goran Visnjic’s characters made regular trips with Doctors Without Borders [review]. Even worse, there is a sanctimonious streak that runs through this portion of the film, particularly as Bier and Jensen try to connect everything back to the burgeoning violence back home. Are we to take away from this that a couple of boys building pipe bombs in the garage are only a few steps away from being brutal warlords, all it takes is their father figures failing them?

Things take a turn for the worse, both in terms of quality and story, after Christian’s big plan goes wrong. The final portion of the film indulges in the worst kinds of clichés, with obvious script choices leading to easy solutions. A lot of what happens wouldn’t make the cut in even the least credible TV movies. It turns out that all Christian needed was a sturdy hug and a good cry, and the resolution sells what good material there was right down the river. In a Better World needed some careful sewing work to draw everything together, but instead the filmmakers opted to slap bright, garish patches over the plot holes. The final scene and the tranquil nature photography that shows under the closing credits are supposed to make us feel peaceful and pleased with ourselves, but the idyllic glow can’t banish the shadows of disappointment. It just makes us recognize that In a Better World is a clumsily realized fantasy despite its earnest attempts to sell itself as serious drama.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Potentially the Pre-Code film that should be held up as the dictionary example of what Pre-Code films could be, Baby Face is a scandalous delight, as knowing as its main character and star, winking at the audience with salacious glee even as it accepts a Hollywood fate it can’t yet know will be the future norm.

Barbara Stanwyck (Forty Guns [review] stars as Lily, the titular “Baby Face,” though she is only called such once (and by John Wayne, no less!). At the start of the picture, Lily lives with her degenerate father (Robert Barrat, Captain Blood), who has turned their house into a speakeasy. Lily and their African American servant Chico (Theresa Harris, Cat People [review]) serve as barmaids in the gambling saloon, but the old man would have Lily do a lot more with their male clients if given the chance. And, make no mistake, the male clients are ready to do those things, as well. Lily is too tough for any of that, though, and too tough to give up or pack it in when daddy’s still blows up, killing him and shutting down the family business. She won’t knuckle under for nobody, she just needs a new direction.

That direction springs from a surprising source. One of the regulars at the speakeasy, an old European professorial type named Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), has been encouraging Lily to leave for a better life for some time, and he’s given her the instruction manual for how to do so: Nietzche’s Will to Power. Armed with this philosophy, and Cragg’s regressively progressive insistence that women have more natural tools to conquer the planet than men, Lily and Chico head to the big city. There, Lily begins working her way up the corporate and social ladder, using the one thing she knows the fellas want. Her body becomes a bargaining chip, her charms a negotiation tool. In each situation, she spots the top man and sets her sights on him, ultimately seducing him and then setting him up for the kind of fall that will allow her to leapfrog to the next step.

The best part of Baby Face’s racy drama is how unapologetic Lily is. Stanwyck is at her fiercest here, and her sexiest. The young actress prowls each scene with supreme confidence, only showing the audience an occasional glimpse of vulnerability, a brief aside when we are the only ones looking (god forbid anyone else on the screen spot it!). This sets us up enough emotional currency for us to buy into an ending where the character finally does have a change of heart, having met her match in playboy banker Trenholm (George Brent, later the star of many Bette Davis movies like Jezebel and Dark Victory). The “crime does not pay”-style happy ending that Baby Face was saddled with was imposed by censors, a portent of things to come, but with Stanwyck’s natural nuance, it plays as intentional.

Baby Face was released in 1933, just a year before the Hayes Code would go into effect. You’d almost think director Alfred E. Green (The Jolson Story) knew what was coming and decided to get all his ya-ya’s out before it was too late.  Baby Face aims at every taboo and hits them square on the chin. There is no antidote to Lily’s bad behavior, and more to the point, no escape from similar badness in the male world. Cops, politicians, bankers, average joes--all are capable of moral corruption. Only other women seem to provide any conscience, observing Lily at work, disappointed in how predictable the male population consistently proves themselves to be. And it’s Trenholm who ends up on the wrong side of the law, despite not meaning to.

Even as the movie ends, with Lily rushing to Trenholm’s aid, Green doesn’t dull its fangs. Lily seems to act almost out of fatigue rather than a moral epiphany. At some point everyone has to settle down, she can’t keep jumping from man to man, so why not go after the one who has challenged her the most?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


I remember Bugsy Malone being on television all the time when I was a kid. It was a mainstay of syndicated stations, showing up probably at least twice a year, thought it felt like more. Which makes it hard to explain why I never watched it. The opportunity was ever-present. In my memory, Bugsy Malone is classified as “drab” and “corny,” meaning something in my child’s brain clocked the commercials for the film and dismissed it. Best guess is I just wasn’t buying the conceit. I was a judgmental youngster, quick to dismiss and move on. Bugsy Malone’s game of dress-up didn’t strike me as believable.

And it starred Chachi from Happy Days. AKA “Charles in Charge.” AKA Scott Baio. I was way ahead of the curve on not liking Scott Baio. He was someone for my sister to swoon over, not me.

For those who don’t know, Alan Parker’s 1976 musical Bugsy Malone is a jazz-age gangster picture made for and starring children. All the roles are filled out by elementary and middle school-aged actors dressed in fancy suits and putting on airs. Songs are provided by maestro Paul Williams, who also wrote the score for DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise and appeared on The Muppet Show and in Cannonball Run. The kids themselves don’t sing, but are dubbed by adult voices--one of the weirder and least effective parts of the concept. I found myself watching the performers’ mouths to see how well they lip-synched, since the oversized voices never match well enough to the pint-sized belters to create a convincing illusion. (There it is. Not Buying the Conceit!)

Baio leads the film as Bugsy, a genial hustler with no allegiances. That is, until he meets Blousey (Florrie Dugger), an aspiring singer looking for a gig in the big city. In trying to help Blousey out, Bugsy gets caught in a gang war between speakeasy owner Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and his rival Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). There are also some sparks between Bugsy and his old flame, the town’s top torch singer, Tallulah (Jodie Foster)--but Bugsy stays true, even when Blousey challenges him.

Parker strives here for a blending of adult story with childish sensibilities, aiming for both audiences, juxtaposing our expectations of mob movies with the incongruous youth of the cast. One could argue that it exploits how un-innocent children really are, given that they are prone to selfishness and greed and other base impulses in a way that likewise informs the criminal minds of their elders. It’s a violent life with the teeth pulled out.  In Bugsy Malone, the gangsters shoot whipped cream and throw pies. Kids go on dates and indulge in romance, but sexuality isn’t even implied. Cars look like 1930s models but don’t run on gas, they aare driven by pedaling. No one swears, alcohol is juice or sarsaparilla, everything is safe and danger is only pretend.

Bugsy Malone is cute and probably would have charmed me had I watched it at the right age. At 47, I could only buy into it in fits and starts. Some stuff really works. Both Cassisi and Lev act circles around their castmates, making for convincing miniature gangsters. Both are character types that would be right at home in a Coen Bros. film, perfect for a kiddie matinee redo of Miller’s Crossing. Baio is even fine in his way; only Foster seems to be out of place, never looking quite comfortable miming someone else’s words or acting the grown-up.

Individual music numbers have pizzazz. The melancholy “Tomorrow,” performed by a janitor who dreams of dancing and the lonely chanteuse who believes in him, dredges up some strong emotions, mostly because its young onscreen performers bring an ageless sadness to their tapping--it’s not that the emotion transcends their young years, but that childhood is full of melancholy, too. On the flip, “So You Wanna Be a Boxer” is jaunty and fun, a perfect take on the boxing montage.

The rest I could take or leave. Just like with the lipsyncing, something about all their playing dress-up kept me at arm’s length. Maybe it’s that the script is just too conventional to consume me. Sure, Parker and his crew capture a lot of scenes just right, getting the look of other gangster pictures of the period--a romantic outing with Bugsy and Blousey would not have been out of place a few years later in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America--but it’s all simulacrum with no authenticity. The climactic pie fight is all kinds of goofy, with Jodie Foster getting the highlight, delivering an off-the-cuff “So this is showbiz?” followed by what looks like a genuine, unrehearsed laugh. But even here it feels like Alan Parker himself is only playing. Despite the appearance of chaos and the alleged record number of pies thrown, the sequence feels as controlled as everything else--an approximation of something that will only fool those who haven’t otherwise seen the real thing.

Sunday, June 23, 2019


This is the third and final collective review of the Criterion Channel’s bundling of several films under the “Columbia Noir” tag--multiple examples of 1940s and ’50s crime pictures released by the Columbia studio. These films are only on the streaming service through the end of this month, so you’ll want to squeeze the good ones in fast. Here is my first selection, and here my second.

The Lineup: Stirling Silliphant sits behind the typewriter again, just as he did for Columbia on Nightfall in 1957. The Lineup came a year later, and was directed by tough-guy director Don Siegel, known for Riot in Cell Block 11 [review], the 1964 version of The Killers, and perhaps most famously Dirty Harry [review]. Like that Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Lineup takes place in San Francisco. The film is a dual procedural, focusing one side on the cops investigating a drug smuggling scheme, and on the other, the two hired killers collecting the heroin from unsuspecting mules who have had the contraband hidden in their souvenirs from foreign countries.

It’s this more salacious side that dominates The Lineup, mostly due to the razor-sharp, unsettling performance by Eli Wallace (The Misfits [review]). He plays Dancer, a cold-blooded fixer with a singular drive. Robert Keith (Written on the Wind [review]) works alongside him as Julian, the mentor and handler for Dancer. Together they thug their way through the Bay Area, picking up the smuggled packages and leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. Wallach delivers a perfectly modulated performance, lacing Dancer’s precise actions and false pretenses with a callous indifference, the murderous impulse lingering just under the surface. It’s fantastic to watch, both riveting and menacing.

Siegel blends the drama with a more realistic shooting style, making a meal out of the San Francisco locales. This is especially noticeable in The Lineup’s climactic car chase, a crazy high-speed rush through the Presidio and beyond. It’s pretty exciting stuff, and closes the movie on a high note even while delivering the expected “crime doesn’t pay” messaging.

Pushover: Another Richard Quine effort (see previous review of Drive a Crooked Road), 1954’s Pushover begins by pinching its slugline from Double Indemnity, even going so far as to borrow one of its stars, before taking off in its own direction.

Indemnity’s Fred MacMurray shows up in Pushover as Paul Sheridan, a police detective who finds himself taken in by the femme fatale he’s been tasked to case. It’s no wonder, since Lona is played by Kim Novak (Vertigo [review]), here making her screen debut--though at this point more an alluring beauty than a capable actress. Ready to toss all caution and scruples to the wind for Lona, Paul attempts to discombobulate his own stakeout, leading to one colleague ending up dead and the other suspicious.

The screenplay by Roy Huggins, the writer behind the TV series The Fugitive, makes clever use of the limited cast and confined locations that a stakeout requires. Three cops: two in an apartment across the way from Lona’s and one in a car down on the street. In addition to Paul, there is Rick (Philip Carey, Mr. Roberts), a straight arrow, and Paddy (Allen Nourse, Odds Against Tomorrow), an older cop with a drinking problem, one step away from retirement but one stumble from losing his pension. Add to this dynamic whatever complications you can think of, but also factor in Rick developing a crush on Lona’s pretty neighbor (Dorothy Malone, perhaps most memorable as the sexy bookseller in The Big Sleep [review]). There are many collision courses of human behavior just waiting to explode.

Quine brings all the requisite shadowy cynicism to Pushover. It’s not quite as dark as Double Indemnity, but it’s fueled by a similar disappointment in the social contract. The plot is smart, but the dialogue isn’t very sharp, depriving Pushover of the sort of snappiness that could have nudged it into being a classic. That said, it’s still damn enjoyable, and worth it to see just how far MacMurray’s Paul will go to get the blonde.

The Burglar:  Though I have no memory of it, turns out I reviewed The Burglar back in 2014 and back then wasn’t impressed by its ragged style the way I was when watching it today. Notes I made during this viewing:

* jumpy editing, keeps a fast pace by cutting out connective tissue
* emotional extremities, psychological framing, the whole film has a feverish impatience spawned both from the pressure of guilt and sexual tension
* Duryea as a sweaty, repressed mess brings it all together. His restraint is juxtaposed by his henchman’s uncontrollable urges. The assault on Jayne Mansfield’s character is rough even now, but especially for 1957
* Police feel like they are in a different movie. The lackadaisical detective has more in common with Steven Geray in Columbia’s So Dark the Night [review]

Some of these thoughts are echoed in the longer piece, and though I’d be inclined to give The Burglar 3 stars instead of 2 nowadays, the rest of what I had to say still rings true. Read it for yourself:

The 1957 film noir The Burglar is the kind of film that I'm almost compelled to embrace and champion as a lost curiosity. Directed by Paul Wendkos, who went on from here to direct a ton of television, and adapted by David Goodis (Dark Passage) from his own novel, The Burglar is a bizarre, almost impressionistic take on the usual small-time heist drama. I say almost, as you'd be hard-pressed to make a case for its disjointed quirks being intentional. When it comes down to it, The Burglar is a bit of a mess.

Dan Duryea leads the low-rent vehicle as Nat, an equally low-rent crook who spies a wealthy woman's jeweled necklace in a newsreel. He and his crew track the lady down, and they send Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case her place. Once they know where the necklace is located and the lady's routines, the two other robbers (Peter Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy) stand on lookout while Nat climbs into the second-story window and cracks the woman's bedroom safe. Despite a narrow brush with the cops, the theft comes off. The high-profile target brings the heat, however, and Nat insists they lay low and wait to fence the ice until it's cooled off.

It's a smart plan, but a hard one to execute, particularly as the bad guys all start to go stir crazy rather quickly. Baylock (Capell) is wanted on other charges and is eager to get out of the country; Dohmer (Shaughnessy) is a mouth-breathing dope who can't keep his eyes--or hands--off of Gladden. Nat is protective of the girl, so he sends her away to Atlantic City to wait it out there. She ends up cavorting on the beach in her bikini (because, you know, she's Jayne Mansfield) and hooking up with a new fella (Stewart Bradley). Nat also winds up meeting a new lady, a tough gal on the make (Martha Vickers). As it turns out, neither of these lovers found each other by accident, and Nat and the boys have to race against the clock and dodge police barricades to get to Jersey before the whole plan goes kablooey.

If you think that sounds like a lot of story, well, it's actually kind of not. The Burglar has a rather small plot when it comes down to it, and Wendkos and crew spend a lot of time hanging around, mulling over the minor story points, repeating scenes and arguments until it's time to move on to the next set-up. It's all rather bizarre. Wendkos shares co-editing credit with Herta Horn, who apparently worked on no other movie before or after The Burglar. Together they whack at the narrative with what one would guess is a meat cleaver and gardening shears. The story jumps from scene to scene, often leaving out crucial connective details, though there is cause to wonder if they were ever there to begin with. A few sequences at the flophouse double up on each other, arguments between the batty burglars repeating as if it's the first time any of them had the same thought. Other story elements make little sense. Nat's sudden ability to roam the city, for instance, making it easy for his would-be girlfriend to find him even as the cops seem to have no clue as to where to look, while Baylock and Dohmer remain under house arrest, is an act of narrative convenience with no grounding in reality.

Yet, for as clumsy and ham-fisted as The Burglar can be, there are also daffy bravura moments, particularly in terms of visual approach. Cinematographer Don Malkames has a vivacious, unhinged filming style, developed as the cameraman on multiple musical revues, capturing live R&B and rock-and-roll. He is a master of artfully composed frames, preferring extreme angles and odd points of view. It's often hard to predict where his camera will end up. When Nat sends Gladden away, Malkames shoots from the ceiling, almost as if we were looking at footage from a security camera. In other sequences, he prefers odd perspectives--sitting in the driver's seat inside a car, peering out from the empty safe as the unsuspecting victim paces back and forth, taking a punch directly to the face. While the mis-en-scene doesn't always line up, it almost doesn't matter. Malkames has a command of both the beautiful and the grotesque.

Unfortunately, that's not enough to recommend The Burglar outright. The film was such a creative flop, it reportedly sat on the shelf for two years until Columbia saw an opportunity to capitalize on Mansfield's burgeoning fame. (Pete Kelly's Blues [review] was shot just before The Burglar , and 1957 also saw the release of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Kiss Them For Me.) Mansfield is certainly beautiful here, though her looks are played down in comparison to the bombshell image that was being cultivated for her. Her acting chops are less impressive. Only Duryea is on point, finding a solid footing for his tough-guy character despite the imbalanced production. By the end, he looks about as confused as the rest of us.

Sunday, June 16, 2019


I am continuing to work my way through the Criterion Channel’s “Columbia Noir” bundle, a collection of crime and melodrama spanning three decades of the Columbia studio. You can see my first group review here; it appears this collection will be off the Channel at the end of the month, so hurry if any of these sound like your thing.

Murder by Contract: This raw 1958 hitman picture from Irving Lerner is considered a B-movie classic, lauded by Martin Scorsese and others for its rough-hewn, independent style. It’s a bit like Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence [review] in that what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in earnestness.

Vince Edwards, who played Val in Kubrick’s The Killing but was probably best known as TV’s Dr. Ben Casey, stars as Claude, a self-motivated would-be contract killer looking to earn enough cash to buy a house on a lake far away from the grind. Claude’s m.o. is that he uses his brains rather than weapons, avoiding any pitfalls that might lead to the police tracking him down. After a few successful jobs, he is sent to Los Angeles to take out a nightclub performer (Billie Williams) about to testify against a colleague of Claude’s boss. With the trial a few days away, Claude decides to soak up Hollywood...only to find the time wasted when the girl proves harder to kill than he thought.

It’s funny to watch Murder by Contract now, as it’s hard not to think about the HBO show Barry, in which Bill Hader plays an assassin who tries to leave the life to become an actor. Too bad Murder by Contract has none of Barry’s wit, character, or even action. This is all pretty standard stuff, obviously done on the cheap, with little editing or rewriting applied to Ben Simcoe’s sloppy script. The narrative meanders, and Edwards appears committed to the role but incapable of delivering what that commitment requires.

Human Desire: Master director Fritz Lang had scored a noir hit with The Big Heat, also for Columbia, in 1953, and Human Desire sees him reuniting his principal cast a year later for another go. This time, Lang is adapting La bête humaine, the Emile Zola novel that also inspired Jean Renoir’s excellent 1938 drama of the same name [review]. Glenn Ford takes over the Jean Gabin role, playing Jeff, a fresh discharge from the Korean War returning to the small town where he grew up to pick up where he left off. Jeff is looking to resume his quiet life as a train conductor, renting a room in a house with his co-worker, the man’s wife, and the growing daughter who has eyes for the levelheaded boarder.

Enter temptation. On a random trip, Jeff crosses paths with Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame), who lays on the charm. Little does Jeff know that Vicki’s flirting is to distract Jeff from finding the body of the man her jealous husband, Carl (Broderick Crawford), just killed. As Jeff is drawn into Gloria’s web, he soon ends up covering for her misdeeds and heading toward the inevitable: he’ll have to kill the husband if he wants the wife all to himself.

Stylistically, Human Desire has more in common with Lang’s 1952 steamer Clash By Night than it does The Big Heat. The title says it all: this is a plot about base emotions and internal struggle. Grahame sizzles as the manipulative femme fatale, playing off nicely with Jeff’s more earthy paramour, the innocent who can see no wrong in the man she loves (a noir trope). Ford conjures some of that grinding anger that worked so well for him in Gilda [review], but the real star here is Broderick Crawford, who portrays Carl as scheming and black-hearted, but also nervous and insecure. He makes the violent creep almost sympathetic.

Drive a Crooked Road: Okay, now this is more like it. This 1954 crime piece from director Richard Quine (Sex and the Single Girl [review]) is sharply written and unflinching in its dark cynicism. Mickey Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a natural wunderkind with a car engine who also likes to race from time to time, but always comes in second. Ribbed at work for being short, and self-conscious about the scar on his face, Eddie is a lonely guy just getting by.

Enter into his life Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster, The Last Hurrah), a Beverly Hills swell with a car that needs his special touch. When Barbara takes Eddie outside the garage, however, it’s she who will be applying her own special touch. Barbara is a unique kind of femme fatale--she plays the part of the loving, open girlfriend so convincingly, there isn’t even a hint that Eddie is being played. Rather, it’s guys in Barbara’s social circle who eventually approach Eddie, looking for a driver who can navigate the winding California roads.

Quine makes great use of the landscape, from beach to mountain to the almost space-age confines of Eddie’s dealership. There’s a sparkle to it all that hypnotizes our protagonist, and though Eddie is an A-grade patsy, Rooney brings empathy to the role. You really feel sorry for the guy, and Foster is such a warm presence, so kind, it feels like a double betrayal when it goes wrong. These factors give special stakes to Drive a Crooked Road’s finale, affecting who we root for and why in a way that has more emotional truth than the standard noir payoff.

To see Mickey Rooney in a similar role, and also just to see another quality film noir, also seek out Quicksand from 1950.

Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur could bring style to any genre, be it horror like I Walked With a Zombie [review] or the quintessential noir Out of the Past. While his 1956 Los Angeles crime picture Nightfall does not necessarily rise to the level of that classic Robert Mitchum collaboration, it’s still a solid chase picture in its own right.

Aldo Ray (Miss Sadie Thompson [review]) plays Jim, a Navy vet built like a quarterback with a cool, gentle demeanor. Jim is hiding out in Los Angeles, where he is being watched by several pairs of eyes. Most notably, by two crooks, John (Brian Keith, The Parent Trap; The Pleasure Seekers [review]) and Red (Rudy Bond, On the Waterfront), bank robbers who ran across Jim in Wyoming while on the run. That tussle left one man dead and a bag of money went missing--money the pair of hoods believe Jim is hiding.

It just so happens the night they catch up with Jim is also the night he meets Marie (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate [review]), a lonely model who lucks out by meeting the one gentleman in Hollywood. Or so she thinks. Her chance encounter puts her in danger once Jim gives the bad guys the slip, and the two of them end up in a race to get out of town and find the cash.

Tourneur, working with a script by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night [review]), strikes an interesting balance here. The hunt has all the great tension of an urban thriller, while flashbacks to Jim’s story, and really the man himself, have the easygoing calm of a farmland drama. The blonde patsy is not your typical noir hero. His voice is soft, his vocation is art, his origins are rural; he’s a light fish swimming in a dark pond. That means when we shift to Jim’s terrain for Nightfall’s snowbound climax, things get a little quieter than we are used to in a noir showdown, but Tourneur and Silliphant are letting the characters dictate the action, bringing the hunter and the hunted full circle to have an ending that perfectly suits who they are.

Friday, June 14, 2019


This review was originally written for The Oregonian in 2013.

Long before the remake was a distant image in Nicolas Cage's rearview mirror, the original The Wicker Man was a cult horror classic.

Made in 1973 by English director Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police constable drawn to a remote Scottish island on the pretense of looking for a missing girl. Awaiting him is a bizarre pagan community led by the appropriately named Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The isolated detective finds himself in a surreal, increasingly dangerous world with no connection to the mainland.

Oh, and Britt Ekland dances naked.

Perhaps more weird than scary, and even at times a little goofy, The Wicker Man well deserves its reputation as an oddball delight. Though mostly seen in its shortened theatrical release, in recent years we have seena newly struck digital presentation of the “definitive" director’s cut, restoring most of his original intent.*

* NOTE: It is unclear which version is on the Criterion Channel.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Swing Time is pure joy.

The 1936 musical, directed by George Stevens and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is brimming over with bliss from its very first frame to the very last. Frothy and buoyant, the movie delights as a romance; cynical and witty, it also functions as an early 20th-century parable of American gumption. You can be a wise guy and a hustler, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart.

Astaire stars as Lucky Garnett, a hoofer looking to make his way in the world by marrying up. When his theater pals make him late for his own wedding, it gives his would-be father-in-law a chance to drive a wedge between suitor and daughter (Betty Furness). So it goes that Lucky and his pal Pop (Victor Moore), a magician and con man, head to New York--where Lucky will need to make a sizable sum in order to prove he’s good enough for the bride-that-wasn’t.

Upon putting shoe to pavement in the Big Apple, Lucky runs across Penny (Rogers), a city girl who doesn’t fall for his rap but ends up on the wrong side of his schemes anyway. When Lucky’s joking around gets the girl fired from the dance school where she teaches, he rolls the dice and taps his shoes to win it back for her, ultimately pairing up with Penny as a dance duo--their ambitions funded by his and Pop’s gambling profits until the team really gets up on their feet.

Along the way, of course, Lucky and Penny fall in love, but he still thinks he needs to honor his prior commitment to his fiancée and can’t just be straight about this predicament with his new paramour. Nor can he be straight in business, despite his promises not to gamble. It’s just not his way. How ever will this work out?

Swing Time is fun and snappy, set to the rhythm of Lucky’s lifestyle, and yet comfortable in its pacing. Stevens is not afraid to take time between musical numbers to let his characters be themselves and will let a conversation run long if it means adding to the drama. No one in Swing Time feels like they are in a hurry--Astaire will indulge a long look at Rogers, Moore will take the space he needs for a card trick or a sight gag--and yet the movie never drags, never feels lazy, and always finds the right cue to make its next move.

Astaire has a charming, unforced screen presence. He seems unaffected by script or camera lens, he is as naturally himself as he is graceful on the dance floor. It’s easy to see why he and Rogers made such a great pair. They are just as in tune in conversation as they are in choreography. Though made not long after the Hays Code was implemented, Swing Time still generates some real heat between its leads, and the jokes and situations still manage to be a bit naughty. These are Runyon-esque characters, sharp denizens of a softened underworld, but criminals and crooks and show people nonetheless.

There’s nothing to not really like about Swing Time. Even Astaire’s unnecessary turn in black face--the tribute to Bojangles Robinson could have been done with dance alone, adopting his skin tone adds nothing--seems tame and lacking in malice. And the famous routine where the star trades moves with three shadow versions of himself dazzles enough to make you forget the misstep.

Which is really the point of a movie like Swing Time: to make you forget. It’s smart escapist entertainment, a cut above, even as we hurtle into this whole other century. Effervescence, it seems, has no expiration date.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.