Some More Old Movies
I see it's been about six weeks since my last set of movie commentaries; in that post I defined an "old movie" as "one that was old when I was young, which is to say, something made before roughly 1960." So it looks like I've watched roughly one movie per week in that time. I haven't set out to watch old movies only; it's just that I've been recording them from Turner Classic Movies for a couple of years now at a much faster rate than I can watch them, so that the DVR is almost full. Also, we really need to get rid of "cable" TV (actually AT&T's over-the-phone-lines version, Uverse). It's a rather silly luxury since our viewing is limited to a little PBS, a little TCM, and college football from late August till the first week of January, and very little else. So since the DVR will probably go away with Uverse, I've been trying to watch some of what I've accumulated.
This is a Bogart & Bacall "vehicle," as the movie professionals say. There are four such, and this was the third. I have now seen all four of them, and I think this is my least favorite, though it's been so long since I saw To Have and Have Not that I can't be sure about that. There's a lot to like in this one, but the plot is pretty hard to believe. (The Big Sleep is not so much unbelievable as puzzling.) Bogart is a prison escapee wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Bacall is the girl who believes his story, helps him out, and falls in love with him. Bogart goes to a plastic surgeon who gives him an entirely new face, which is not the first hard-to-believe bit. It's interesting to see Bacall at this stage in her life and career; she was just twenty-three, and very beautiful, without the hard-edged quality that she developed later on, or at any rate is the way I tend to think of her. The San Francisco setting is photographed very nicely and is one of the most appealing features of the film.
I got that picture from a really nice gallery of stills here, as part of a review worth reading (the reviewer agrees with me, and then some, about the depiction of San Francisco).
The young Bacall again, but without Bogart. This was actually made between To Have And Have Not and The Big Sleep. It's based on the Graham Greene novel (with the The dropped from the title), which I haven't read, but which I suspect is a lot better than the movie. Made in 1945, but set in the '30s during the Spanish Civil War, it involves Charles Boyer, somewhat unconvincingly, as an agent of the Spanish government in England to procure help from English financiers, and Bacall, somewhat unconvincingly, as the daughter of one such financier. She meets the Boyer character and assists him in various ways. I didn't find it very involving, apart from a subplot involving a maid in the hotel where Boyer stays. There's a good bit of Greene-style dirty dealing, and perhaps the book makes more of it in that Catholic-noir way of his. Peter Lorre is in it, playing an especially unpleasant version of his typical character.
More Greene (the novel is called A Gun for Sale). It really was just a coincidence that I saw both these within a couple of weeks of each other. I liked this one better than Confidential Agent. I think of Alan Ladd as a cowboy hero, but he's the hired assassin of the title, and quite effective. Veronica Lake is the leading lady, a nightclub singer recruited into espionage, and I was impressed with her. I don't think I'd seen her before. As an actress in the pure sense she's no better than the average Hollywood star of the time, but as with most of those stars, she has a screen presence that makes her interesting. And she was really very beautiful. The plot is a pretty complicated crime-and-espionage story that kept me interested. I suspect some things in it were prettified from the Greene original, but I haven't read this novel either, so I don't know for sure.
I think I can give this away without spoiling too much: the assassin and the nightclub singer are thrown together against both the police and the criminals, and the treatment of that situation is an interesting contrast to the way it would probably be handled today. They would undoubtedly nowadays be in "love" and in bed together pretty quickly, but although there is a pretty strong romantic current flowing between them here, and there is one scene of great tenderness, they do not fully recognize it and don't act on it. I think it's more effective that way.
Veronica Lake had a very sad life.
Young Man With a Horn
This one again includes Lauren Bacall (maybe TCM was having some kind of Bacall festival). It was made in 1950, just two years after her last movie with Bogart. I don't know whether it was the character and the makeup, or the beginning of a change in her, but she's decidely--what was the word I used earlier?--hard-edged in this one. Hard and sharp. Her character is, to be blunt, a bitch. The film is based on a novel based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (a famous jazz trumpeter of the 1920s who drank himself to death at an early age). So, at two removals, the film probably shouldn't be taken as saying much about Beiderbecke, but it's a good story. Better than I expected, really.
Kirk Douglas is Rick Martin, the trumpet player, and I didn't expect him to be very good, but he is. He's even convincing as a trumpet player, doing the instrumental equivalent of lip-syncing to a sound track recorded by Harry James. Considerably more surprising to me, though it probably wouldn't be to someone more familiar with her career, was the excellent performance by the young Doris Day as a singer (and she can really sing) who loves Rick, but loses him to the spoiled and unhappy rich girl played by Bacall, who...well, to avoid spoilers, let's just say she's not a good influence. It's a darker and more powerful story than I expected it to be.
Another highlight is Hoagy Carmichael, whose character is a fellow musician and close friend to Martin. I don't suppose he was a very versatile actor, but he's certainly convincing and engaging in this role.
This was not recorded from TCM, but rented from Netflix. It had been in my queue for a long time, and finally found its way to the top. When it arrived, it sat here for several weeks before I felt like taking the time to watch it and I finally had to give myself a bit of a push, telling myself to either watch it or send it back. My resistance came from the fact that I expected it to be slow and somewhat less than gripping. Well, I was right. It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).
The plot could not be much simpler: an elderly couple (the wife is all of four years older than I) travel from their provincial town to visit their adult children. The children are busy with their own lives and don't quite know what to do with the parents. The parents stay for some days, during which time the wife begins to show signs of ill health, and return home. So low-key is the action, yet so significant, that to say anything much beyond that would involve some spoiling of the story, so I'll leave it at that. I think anyone who has raised children will be touched by it. And possibly many of those who have been children.
Ok, this is a radical shift, and not even an old movie by the definition I gave above, although it's thirty years old. It's an instance of the "very little else" besides PBS, TCM, and football that I watch on TV. I enjoy watching a Hollywood action movie now and then, and so I record one now and then, and watch it, usually when my wife is away, when I just want to relax with a beer and an undemanding movie.
This one turned out to be somewhat ineffective for the purpose: it's just too bad, and too mean. Everybody knows, I'm sure, about Dirty Harry Callahan, the Clint Eastwood character, a cop who doesn't let much stand in the way of his shooting criminals. The story has promise: the victim of a vicious rape is stalking and killing her assailants. But it's so stuffed with implausible shootouts and plot developments that I stopped taking it very seriously about halfway through.
The best thing about it was that I finally heard in its original setting the famous "Go ahead--make my day." Unless your education is similarly deficient and you feel obliged to remedy it, don't bother with this movie.
The only reason I'm writing it about it is that it strikes me as being of interest as a cultural phenomenon. To say it takes a tough line against criminals, and the toleration of crime, is like saying that the Daleks take a tough line against humans. Criminals in the Dirty Harry movies are not desperate souls reacting against an unjust society; they're simply bad people who do bad things because they enjoy it. To show them mercy is only to encourage further crime, and Harry as a rule shows none. There was a sort of fashion for this sort of movie in the 1970s and early '80s (this one was released in 1983), and it must have been rooted in a widespread sense of helplessness about the increasing rate of violent crime: not only was it increasing, but there was a general impression that the authorities had decided that they couldn't or wouldn't do much about it. Although crime continued to increase until the early 1990s, and is still much higher than it was in 1960, that impression must have changed. Or maybe the vigilante motif had just lost its appeal.