Month: January 2012

White Heat (1949)

Don't you dare talk about my Ma

James Cagney shows Edmond O'Brien who's boss.

“I made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

This is the tragedy of the legendary movie line: it looms larger than its context. When you hear the line delivered in the original movie, you can’t help but snicker because you’ve seen it parodied a million times. And therein, they say, lies the tragedy.

The “Top of the world, Ma” line is from White Heat, a must-see piece of film noir about a mentally-ill gangster (James Cagney) who breaks out of prison to hold up an oil refinery. It is a tense, cruel story of betrayal.

Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a gangster who is… um… weirdly devoted to his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma is the one who taught Cody about being on the top of the world. She is his world: she massages his crippling headaches; she keeps his gang in line while Cody is in prison; and, most importantly, she has never betrayed him.

Because this is a movie about betrayal, there are two inevitable train wrecks on the horizon. The first is Ma’s death. Cagney is gut-wrenchingly brilliant as the fragile Cody, reacting to the sad news about his beloved mother.

The second wreck is courtesy of Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), an undercover police officer who infiltrates Cody’s gang. Pardo becomes a kind of substitute for Ma in Cody’s twisted world – he massages Cody’s headaches and warns him of danger. Unfortunately, Pardo’s cover is blown at the worst moment, with explosive consequences.

Let us not forget Virginia Mayo, who is supberb as Cody’s opportunistic wife. She is glamorous and mean, and capable of utter treachery.

(On an irrelevant side note, watch for the mobile phones the police use during the scene at the oil refinery. Those things are the size of a car bumper!)

If you’ve ever wondered why all the fuss about James Cagney, or why Raoul Walsh is considered one of the great directors, watch White Heat. Even if you’ve never wondered, watch it anyway! We consider it to be one of the best movies ever made.

Starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Warner Brothers, 1949, 115 mins.

The Little Giant (1933)

This guy's worth MILLIONS

Helen Vinson calculates Edward G. Robinson's net worth.

We love how Edward G. Robinson says the word “coppers”. He spits it out, with contempt, like a swear word.

Now, you should know that we simply adore Edward G. Robinson and we won’t hear a negative word against him. We think he’s the greatest thing since gourmet chocolate sauce.

In the The Little Giant, Robinson is J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn, a Chicago bootlegger who quits the crime racket when Prohibition is repealed. Now that everyone can drink legally, what’s left for crime boss to do but cash in his millions and join high society?

This is Bugs’ Big Plan: He moves across the country to Santa Barbara – a land of “high-class dames” and no connections to his Chicago past – and rents a mansion with 14 bathrooms. (Fourteen!)

Alas, no sooner does Bugs move into this commodious home than he is glommed onto by a family of gold diggers. Sometimes it just don’t pay to go straight.

Bugs is an endearing character with zillions of great lines. When a Chicago acquaintance tells him he wouldn’t fit into high society, he replies testily, “Oh yeah? I’m just crawlin’ with culture.”

Oh dear! We’re running out of time and we haven’t even told you how delightfully despicable the glamourous Helen Vinson is, nor our amazement at how normal Mary Astor’s hair is. (We are always distracted by Astor’s quixotic hairdo in later movies.)

There is so much fun in this movie it’s hard to tell you everything. And you shouldn’t know everything, anyway, because you’ll want to see it for yourself.

Starring Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Helen Vinson. Written by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. Directed by Roy del Ruth. First National Pictures, 1933, 75 mins.

Love Letters (1945)

I promise I won't stab you, darling

Joseph Cotten wonders if he's hidden away all the sharp objects.

Who knew Jennifer Jones could be so creepy?

Wait! We mean it as a compliment. We think the ability to be creepy (and not cheesy) on film takes skill; to be subtly creepy and vaguely mysterious is real talent.

The plot of Love Letters is a bit complex, so please stay with us while we sort this out. Jones plays a woman who meets a soldier (Robert Sully); alas, he is sent to the front before she has a chance to determine his character. Sully, who is actually a big mean jerk, asks his best friend (Joseph Cotten) to write love letters to Jones. It is through these letters Jones and Cotten fall in love…only she thinks she’s falling for Sully.

Eventually everyone is sent home from the war. Jones and the Sully marry, but she discovers he is different from his fake letters. He is an unpleasant husband and winds up being murdered. Jones is convicted of the crime; however, she has acquired acute amnesia as a result of the murder and cannot remember anything, not even her own name.

Well! If this isn’t enough of a pickle, Cotten meets Jones in person and they fall in love (again) even though she has amnesia.

This sounds rather melodramatic, doesn’t it? Amnesia can be a convenient plot tool, particularly for daytime television dramas. However, it is completely believable in this movie, probably because the screenwriter is the notable Ayn Rand. (Yes, that Ayn Rand.) Rand’s script explores the nature of personal history – or lack thereof – but there’s lots of foreshadowing and danger, too. What will happen if all Jones’ memories come crashing back at once?

What will happen, indeed. Here’s where the acting needs to be clever: is Jones faking amnesia? Or does she really not remember? Will she end up stabbing Cotten just as her first husband was stabbed? And why do her eyes sometimes seem to roll around independently of each other?

And Joseph Cotten. He is one of the greats, in our opinion; we have never seen him give a bad performance. In this role he is a greatly conflicted man: does he give Jones a chance at life, knowing she may end his?

If you’re looking for a philosophical, slightly hypnotic film that keeps you guessing until the end, take at look at Love Letters. It’s one of those movies that everyone should be talking about.

P.S. Costume design by the fabulous Edith Head.

Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ann Richards. Written by Ayn Rand. Directed by William Dieterle. Paramount Pictures, 1945, 101 mins.

All the King’s Men (1949)

Yessiree! A king's life for me.

Willie Stark: A true man of the people.

Don’t you love movies that restore your faith in humanity?

Well, this ain’t one of them.

Here is a story of an unpolished, uneducated hick, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who becomes a very, very powerful state governor. He acquires this power the usual way – by crushing other people. Some of the wreckage he leaves behind:

  • his wife, who teaches him to read and coaches him though law school;
  • his campaign worker, with whom he cheats on his wife;
  • members of his cabinet, some of whom are forced to give Stark undated letters of resignation to keep on file.

Stark presents himself as a decent, upstanding man of the people, but look! He talks like a gangster and acts like a gangster. He has “boys” who rough up opponents, and he hires a “researcher” (John Ireland) who digs up dirt on political enemies.

Crawford is perfect as the populist politician. As Stark, he has shifty eyes and a menacing smirk – it’s as if he sees all the angles all the time and knows how to work them. His speech is rough but crafty, and he never loses his cool.

A typical Stark reaction: When he learns of sudden impeachment proceedings against him (Corruption charges! Are you surprised?), Stark races to the capital building. The driver can’t go fast enough! But, as he steps out of the car and into the anxious crowd waiting for news on the impeachment vote, he is calm and steely. “What’s the score?” he asks, as though arriving late for a football game.

The central question in this movie is this: Can a person do good using corrupt methods? Stark builds roads, schools and hospitals, all of which greatly improve the standard of living of the average person. But Stark’s generosity is expensive. Even though citizens can receive health care free of charge, they pay for it in other ways.

All the King’s Men is adapted from a novel by Robert Penn Warren, and is loosely based on real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long. You may have seen the terrific Sean Penn remake (2006); however, you really owe it to yourself to see the original.

Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and Joanne Dru. Written by Robert Penn Warren and Robert Rossen. Directed by Robert Rossen. Columbia Pictures, 1949, 110 mins.

Follow the Fleet (1936)

This is going to hurt me more than it`ll hurt you

See? Randolph Scott WAS young once.

If you’ve wondered if Randolph Scott was ever young, the answer is “yes”.

Need proof?

Follow the Fleet is a completely unrealistic but delightful story about dancing sailors meeting musical women and the ensuing chaos. There’s all kinds of mayhem that ends in the sailors staging a big fundraising show.

The film opens with a young Scott (as a non-dancing sailor) who meets a music teacher (played by Harriet Hilliard, before she became Harriet Nelson). Hilliard, who is taken with Scott, expresses admiration for the Navy.

She: If I were a man, I’d want to be a sailor.

He: I know what you mean.

But Scott gives Hilliard the brush-off due to her glasses and no-nonsense clothes. Enter Ginger Rogers with a new wardrobe and the advice that men don’t like smart women. But, Rogers explains, “It takes a lot of brains to be dumb.”

There’s nothing to take seriously here; there’s nothing but pure fun. Rogers is hysterical in a singing sequence where she battles the hiccups. Charming Fred Astaire makes dancing look like joy personified. And, of course, this movie would be nothing without the incomparable Irving Berlin, who composed the music and created songs that are still recognizable today.

Follow the Fleet is smart and entertaining movie. In our opinion, it’s one of the best Hollywood musical comedies ever made.

Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard. Written by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Directed by Mark Sandrich. RKO Radio Pictures, 1936, 110 mins.

Honeymoon Hotel (1964)

Love me, love my hair

Do Robert Goulet and Nancy Kwan share the same hairstylist?

We can’t believe we watched this entire movie.

Did we say “watched”? We were fascinated by it. Every aspect was mesmerizing:

  • Robert Goulet, with his slicked-back hair and oily demeanor.
  • The weird dance sequence by Nancy Kwan that occurs without warning and for no particular reason.
  • Keenan Wynn, who is always so much fun as the hypocritical boss-man.
  • Whether or not the hotel operator was one of the Mrs. Kravitzes in the old TV series, Bewitched.

We suppose there is a plot; however, we admit we were greatly distracted by the 60s-era furnishings and the unexpectedly contemporary hairdos. (Except for Goulet’s plastic-Lego-person hair. In one scene, he lays on a bed and rolls over, and his hair doesn’t even move.)

Oh right, the plot. When a man’s wedding is called off, his womanizing roommate (Goulet) takes him on a trip to a tropical island. Unbeknownst to them, the hotel they’ve checked into is for honeymooning couples only. This is where things get a little crazy.

We have to hand it to Jill St. John, who is such a good sport here. She plays the required ditz and is terrific at the physical comedy. She also has the best line in the movie. When Goulet asks her how she arrived at the tropical island, she says she flew in a big silver bird with champagne. “It’s only three bottles from New York!” she announces gleefully.

The acting in this movie is really good – way better than it needs to be – and this includes Goulet. (It was unfair of us to go on about his hair, wasn’t it?) Honeymoon Hotel depends on an over-the-top main character and Goulet carries the movie with seemingly no effort at all.

Ultimately, we can only recommend this movie if you have a peculiar interest in 1960s romps, or if you’re sick in bed and hopped up on cold medication.

Starring Robert Goulet, Nancy Kwan, Jill St. John and Keenan Wynn. Written by R.S. Allen and Harvey Bullock. Directed by Henry Levin. MGM, 1964, 90 mins.

The Browning Version (1951)

You'll get what you deserve - no more and certainly no less.

Mr. Crocker-Harris on his last day of school.

Warning: Do not see this movie without tissue, and never ever see it if you’re feeling down.

We know you won’t believe us when you do start to watch it. The language is about as stuffy as it gets, and the main character seems intolerably rigid and insensitive. It’s an old British movie, after all; how emotional can it possibly be?

But you’ll soon be sucked in. You’ll learn that even though it’s the last day of classes before the summer holiday, school master Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is as strict with his students as he has been all year. It’s the last day of school, for Pete’s sake! Lighten up!

Then we meet Crocker-Harris’ wife (Jean Trent), a woman with stylish dresses and a strange haircut. Look at how charming she is with the other faculty – especially with a certain science teacher (Nigel Patrick). But we can’t really blame her for this indiscretion, can we? After all, she is married to the likes of Crocker-Harris, a cold figure with outdated speech patterns.

However. This is a movie of layers and, as each one is lifted away, we discover that no one is quite as they seem. Then a student by the name of Taplow gives Crocker-Harris a book, the Robert Browning translation of Agamemnon, by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. We (as in yours truly) don’t have a clue what this book is about, but it doesn’t matter. You’d better have the tissue handy at this point. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

We know you’ll like The Browning Version. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel smarter and more literary.

Not that you aren’t already smart and literary.

Starring Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent and Nigel Patrick. Written by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Anthony Asquith. Janus Films, 1951, 90 mins.