Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Maid of Salem (1937)

Claudette Colbert returns, her glamour able to shine through the confines of puritan garb. This time, she finds loves and happiness with an outlaw (Fred McMurray), outside the confines of her home in conservative, god-fearing Salem Massachusetts. All this comes crashing down when witch-hunting frenzy takes hold.

As far as I can tell, this is the earliest cinematic variation of the Salem Witch Trials. The few reviews that I've been able to find often compare this to Arthur Miller's infinitely better known play, The Crucible. And it’s easy to see why; besides sharing the same setting and historical event as a backdrop, the plot centers on a person whose love life gets them in trouble, and when they dare to protest and point out the madness of the trails, fall victim to its mechanisms. Unlike Miller, emphasis is placed on the gossipy and lynch mob atmosphere resulting from the accusations.

The movie blames the strictness of the society, and it’s discouragement of affection with families, as the cause of the troubles. The fits enacted by Ann are cries for attention and a way to hold some power in a loveless, abusive household.

The artistic design is very impressive, managing to conjure up a drab conformist community that views a new bonnet as something close to blasphemy. The cast is also very good; McMurray is adequate as the dashing romantic outlaw, but the rest of the villagers are made up of some fine character actors. Madame, Sul-Te-Wan, for example,as the slave Tituba, one of the early victims of the witch hunt, is incredibly impressive.

If I have some reservations, they mostly have to do with the the ending. Not to give anything away, but it is pure Hollywood. It just feels tied up too neatly, though I suppose if one were to scrunch up their eyes, they could interpret the last shot to be ambiguous and rather disconcerting. Also, there this a the character of the dr., whose sole purpose is to point out the obvious messages in the film. In other words, he’s the closest thing the films comes to an Arthur Dimmesdale equivalent.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Three Cornered Moon (1933)

They don’t make comedies like this anymore! Claudet Colbert leads a stellar cast in a slapstick comedy about a wealthy Brooklyn family, the Rimplegars that discovers they lost most their money in the crash of ’29, and have continued to do so, thanks to their mother’s (the delightfully dotty Mary Boland) limited economic know-how (and her four grown-up children needing to order a taxi each).

Though the sudden lack of funds moves the plot ahead, much of the humor results from the family's interaction with each other. The actors portraying the Rimplegars have great chemistry and repartee, especially the brothers, played by Wallace Ford, Tom Brown and William Bakewell. They fight and bicker plenty, but share great fondness and love for each other as well. When the going gets tough, they support each other; and when things come up roses, they celebrate like there’s no tomorrow, in scenes of such unbridled, ridiculous joy that it’s hard not to smile along with them.

That’s not to say there isn’t some sting in this apparent piece of fluff. Colbert’s fiancĂ©e/lodger is a struggling intellectual writer, the kind that keeps cubist paintings and continually muses about life’s lack of meaning. The film has no patience for this artistic type; though he is a romantic at heart, his idealism and devotion to his modern novel (whose prose consists of a strange kind of modern spur of thinking innuendo) costs him a chance to get a job and put food on the table. 
The critique of holding art above survival fits well with the contemporary times. After all it was the mother’s lack of understanding of stocks and keeping money that got them into the whole in the first place (her investment into the Three Cornered Moon mine was the beginning of their woe, hence the title). But this is a comedy, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Like Hallelujah I'm a Bum and Sullivan's Travels, it somehow manages to squeeze out laughs from the dark reality of the Great Depression, thanks to wit, heart, and a great cast.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Confess (1953)

Hitchcock films are usually divided into two groups: the ones that are continually discussed, re-evaluated and shown to film students--the classics (Pyscho, North By Northwest, Rear Window, etc.) Then there are the little known ones, the ones that only cinephiles know about, the less cared for films (Under Capricorn, Jamaica Inn, Stage Fright, etc). Today's film is part of the latter group, and alas, there are good reasons why.
The premise is as follows: late one night, a church caretaker (O.E. Hasse) tells Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) that he is a murderer. Since he does so in a Confessional, the priest feels that he cannot tell others of what was told to him. Unfortunately for him, what evidence the cops have point to Logan as the prime suspect.

            This potentially interesting premise gets a mostly lackluster treatment. None of the performances are particularly memorable. Not Clift, who is given plenty of angst time, but not enough chance to really show or give voice to his inner conflicts. Anne Baxter, as Clift’s love interest from before he joined the cloth, cried plenty but only moved me to frustration: often I felt like yelling at the screen "I know that you love this guy, and you told the cops about it, so why are you so modest on the darn stand?!!" Even the murderer, played overly sinisterly by Hasse, who starts out as a tormented grey-scale character quickly changes to a two-dimensional villain.
            Oh, and don’t get me started on the score. With some exceptions (Strangers on a Train  and High Noon) I can’t stand Dimitri Tiomkin soundtracks. His music usually alternates between extreme bombasticness or incredible sentimentality. This film is no exeption, and continually hearing his music over the action (his allows few non-musical moments) is enough to lower my what little liking I have of the movie.
           Despite all that, however, there are things that I do enjoy about the movie. The camerawork and framing are often beautiful, showing off some very nice-on location scenes of Quebec. The contrasts between strong sunlight and shadows are stark, and add an extra level of seriousness that the rather thin script barely manages to convey.
            On the whole, I would only recommend this film to those who are die-hard Hitchcock fans, and those who are interested in Catholic-themed films. And even if you do fullfill those requirements, a warning: this is pretty slow going.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Silver Cord (1933)

Based on a play by Sidney Howard, the set-up is deceptively simple: two brothers bring their girls to visit their doting, loving,  and perfect mother. The eldest (Joel McCrea) has recently married a biologist (Irene Dunne) who won't let matrimony prevent her from working; the youngest (Eric Linden) is engaged to a headstrong, straightforward girl (Frances Dee). It appears that Mother (Laura Hope Crews) is pleased with how things turned with her perfect boys. But the further plans she has for them don't take the girls into consideration.
            Now this is a movie that psych majors are sure to really enjoy. There is so much Oedipal subtext that is ridiculous! It is a fascinating portrait of the ultimate domineering mother whose extreme love for her sons is matched by her fierce lashing out at anything or anyone that could take them away from her. This self deluding monster doesn't for a moment think what she is doing is wrong. On the contrary, she considers herself a model of perfect motherhood, which is what makes her so terrifying. It's a real show-stopper of a role, and Ms. Crews’s melodramatic yet mesmerizing performance totally owns it.
            The rest of the cast is also very good: McCrea is fine as the stronger of the two sons, with the weaker one played by to a snooty, spineless perfection by Linden. The younger women of the cast deserve special mention.  Dunne and Dee are both straight-talking and strong-willed, and get plenty of time to shine.
            Now, this film is based on a play, and it shows it: most of the action takes place inside of the Mother’s house, the camerawork is static, and there are plenty of monologues galore. But the story and dialogue is interesting enough to prevent it from being boring. enough, and the interactions between the different people are effective, and often brutal.
            Though it does not have that much action, I can say with satisfaction that this film is very good and worth sitting: there is enough innuendo and drama to fill to keep one's attention.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Killer's Kiss (1955)

A once promising boxer turned palooka (Jamie Smith) is all set to move out of the seedy cesspool that is NYC to life of peace and quite in Seattle. He plans are briefly thrown out of wack when he saves a taxi dancer (Irene Kane) in the apartment across his from being attacked by her gangster boss/boyfriend (Frank Silvera). The boxer and the dancer find themselves drawn to each other, while the boss is figuring a way to take back what he believes is his.

If I had no idea who the director was after seeing this extremely low-budget film, I'd assume that he was a very talented individual who knew how to use the camera in interesting ways. If he was lucky, he probably went on do some nice-looking films, and plenty of TV shows. But since this is Stanley Kubrick's second turn as a director, I look at it more as a prelude of the much superior The Killing (1956), in addition to his other classic works. The gritty streets and crumbling buildings of NYC are well utilized to create an atmosphere of dread, assisted by interesting cinematography; The camera is place in front of a fish bowl to distort the features of the hero, and races down an empty street in a processed-negative dream sequence.

And though I have to give Kubrick well deserved credit for making a lot out of a little, the constant reminders of the minuscule budget he had to work with are hard to ignore. There are situations where "tell, don't show" is employed, usually when a character talks about events in voiceover. The actors are adequate, thought not particularly memorable. The plot is really nothing to write home about, lacking any real suspense or surprise in the story. The dialogue is bearable, though again, not great. It's kinda understandable why Kubrick never worked with an original script after this.

Kubrick fans and film noir conisuers should definitely should check it out. This is a case where creative stylistics win out over a rather bland story. Which is a shame; if the story matched up with the exciting visuals, this could have made a first-rate noir, instead of the okaish one that it is.