Month: February 2012

How to Outsmart Yourself

Who's the cat and who's the mouse?

James Stewart and John Dall play cat and mouse.

*Spoiler alert.

We are not smirking. Really. We’re not.

Okay, okay. We are smirking because we’ve just watched Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope for the twelfth time.

We never tire of this movie. We love it when smug, arrogant people get their come-uppance. And we love that Hollywood – itself rather smug and arrogant – knows exactly how to sucker punch the self-inflated.

In this film-done-as-a-stage-play, two rich young men named Brandon and Philip (John Dall and Farley Granger) decide to murder their friend. They are not motivated by hatred or jealousy. No, their goal is more scientific – lofty, even: they want prove that a perfect murder is possible. So they choose their friend, David, whom they regard as intellectually and culturally inferior. They see him as the best sort of victim because they can’t see him serving any useful purpose and, therefore, won’t be missed by society at large.

The murder takes place just ahead of a small dinner party that Brandon and Philip are hosting. Before guests arrive, these two shove the deceased in a large chest and decide to cover the chest with a tablecloth upon which they will serve dinner. (You know, so the guests can eat from this “altar”, as Brandon calls it.) That is pretty macabre, but that’s not the worst of it. Besides their old schoolmaster (James Stewart), the dinner guests include David’s father, his aunt and his fiancé, all of whom are looking foward to seeing David at the party.

Soon the guests arrive. Brandon (Dall) is beside himself with excitement. He’s dying to gloat about his clever murder; indeed, he almost wants to be found out so everyone can see how smart he is.

However, Philip (Granger) is disturbed not only by the murder, but by the fear of discovery. He begins to drink heavily and, despite Brandon’s orders to pull himself together, his behaviour becomes erratic.

No matter! Nothing will spoil Brandon’s evening! Dall is utterly mesmerizing as the smarmy young man who prods his increasingly-worried dinner guests. He gleefully eggs on David’s anxious father: Why is David so late? What horrible thing could have happened to him?

When Stewart’s character starts having suspicions, Brandon’s excitement only intensifies. Someone’s on to him! Whee! It’s the best night of his life! His whole demeanour screams: “Nyah nyah, you can’t catch me!”

Until the inevitable happens, as it must, because this is 1948 and, after watching the appalling Brandon strut around for over an hour, we are desperate to open a can of come-uppance – for poor David’s sake, if not for our own.

Hitchock filmed this movie in what appears to be one feature-length take. It’s fascinating to see how it’s done, if you can ignore the splits in the beams above the doorways (where the walls had to be moved to accommodate the cameras), and the weird close-ups of the backs of men’s suit jackets (as the crew changed film reels).

Yet, the staging is brilliant, as is the acting. Every single actor in this movie is terrific, which is another reason why we love watching it. Everyone is utterly convincing.

If you have never seen Rope – or if you haven’t seen it in a while – make the opportunity to see it soon. Its theme is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Rope: starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger. Written by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Universal Studios, 1948, 80 mins.

The Smackdown of Miss Gulch

We need a new travel agent

Toto enjoys a good song as much as the next guy.

That Miss Gulch must be one twisted person.

How could anyone have it in for Toto, the wee canine hero of The Wizard of Oz? Look at him trotting after Dorothy (Judy Garland) and listening rapturously as she sings to farm equipment. Are we really to believe that this is a dog who digs in Miss Gulch’s garden and chases her cat? As if! And even if he did, what else are gardens and cats for?

However, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and her ill-tempered green twin, the Wicked Witch of the West, have an insane hatred for Toto and are determined to destroy him. These two-in-one villains make their diabolical intentions clear from the very start of the film.

You know the basic story of The Wizard of Oz: A tornado uproots Dorothy’s house and transports her and the hapless Toto to the land of Oz. Unluckily for everyone, the house drops on the Wicked Witch of the East, which incurs the wrath of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West.

In order to get back to Kansas, Toto and Dorothy must travel to Emerald City, home of the Wizard (Frank Morgan), in the hopes that he can return them to Kansas. As they travel, they meet a curious cast of characters, ranging from Munchkins to a clumsy Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a talking Tin Man (Jack Haley) and a fraidy-cat Lion (Bert Lahr).

Toto is the perfect travel companion, with his ever-wagging tail and unflappable demeanor. He is just as happy to trot along the yellow brick road as he is frolicking on Uncle Henry’s farm. By the way he observes his co-stars, one gets the feeling that the movie is as entertaining to him as it is to us.

(On a side note, we are always puzzled by the weird “spa” scene as Toto and friends “freshen up” to meet the Wizard. How come everyone but Toto receives a treatment? Who can relax in that garishly-green atmosphere? Don’t the people of Oz ever get sick of the colour green?)

Of course, Toto is the hero of the film. It is he who escapes from the Wicked Witch’s lair to fetch the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion who eventually free Dorothy. If that weren’t enough, Toto also reveals the Wizard’s dark secret and brings the film to its happy conclusion. Ta-dah!

The 70th Anniversary Edition of The Wizard of Oz is on Blu-ray which, aside from an actual theatre screen, is the only way to watch this movie. The pasty Miss Gulch and the pea-green Wicked Witch have aged well over the years. But they are no match for our hero, Toto.

Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Margaret Hamilton. Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. Directed by Victor Fleming (along with King Vidor, Richard Thorpe and George Cukor). MGM, 1939, 100 mins.

Hey! Be sure to check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon. Click here for the full schedule.

The Naked Spur (1953)

I've been waitin' to use this thing

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell have a little chat with Ralph Meeker.

We simply cannot believe this! Get our agent on the phone!

We are are terribly dismayed to discover that the movie, The Naked Spur, features Robert Ryan - one of our all-time favourite movie bad guys – and we’ve never heard of this movie! Ever!!

Adding to our embarrassment, this happens to be one of Ryan’s best performances. Ryan steals every scene as a smirky, aggravating fugitive who manipulates those around him. And we had no clue!

Ryan plays Ben Vandergroat, a wanted man from Kansas with a $5,000 sticker price. James Stewart is Howard Kemp, a troubled and vengeful man determined capture Vandergroat and cash him in. Early in the movie, Kemp meets grizzled Jesse (a barely-recognizable Millard Mitchell), and Civil War vet Roy (Ralph Meeker). These three serendipitously capture Vandergroat, along with his unexpected companion (Janet Leigh).

Now, it turns out Kemp and Vandergroat knew each other back in Kansas. The opportunistic Vandergroat twists the tragedies in Kemp’s life to turn the other two captors against Kemp – and each other. These are the best parts of the movie: Stewart’s unstable character struggling to keep himself together, while Ryan’s smug character continually goads him.

Admittedly, we didn’t expect Leigh to be very good here, but we were wrong. She’s so natural in this element we wonder why she didn’t do a ton of westerns. She’s tough and feisty – and as unglamorous as any 1950s Hollywood make-up artist would allow.

For regular western fans, there’s lots of the typical action here, like yelling, chasing and shooting. But this is also a pensive film that examines the concept – and consequences – of getting revenge.

We are really quite embarrassed that we hadn’t heard of this movie before. Don’t let this happen to you! It’s not too late! Make sure you see it the first chance you get.

Starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan. Written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. Directed by Anthony Mann. MGM, 1953, 95 mins.

Treasure Island (1934)

Yo ho ho - we'll have a bottle o`rum

These blokes can't wait for the movie to end.

Many things in this movie disturb us.

People being run over by carriages or falling from a ship’s mast are one thing, but who told Lionel Barrymore to sing? Is Wallace Beery‘s hair real? Why does Jackie Cooper talk like Shirley Temple?

And why is this movie so boring?

We know, we know. Treasure Island is considered one of the greatest adventure movies of the 1930s. You probably know hundreds of people who say to you, “Dude, seriously, you gotta see it.”

Never mind the fact that we fell asleep (twice) during this movie. Part of our annoyance is this whole pirates-finding-buried-treasure scenario. Who in their right mind hides valuables in the dirt on the other side of the world? Why not just keep it and live it up? Surely there were people in 18th-century England who could fence hot property!

Okay, we’ll admit there are some interesting things about this film. The sets, for one thing, are terrific. But this is not a surprise considering the famously talented Cedric Gibbons was drafted as art director.

Also, Wallace Beery is superb as the growly-but-not-without-charm Long John Silver. The way he races through the movie on that wooden leg is something to behold. It looks like it could be painful but, if it is, Beery doesn’t let on. Plus, the parrot he schleps around is so utterly cool it makes you want to get one of your own.

Well, you might as well watch it. Just don’t put it on right at bed-time. Or after a glass of warm milk. Or, heaven forbid, both.

Starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and Lionel Barrymore. Written by John Lee Mahin. Directed by Victor Fleming. MGM, 1934, 110 mins.

Father of the Bride (1950)

Does this top hat make me look fat?

Spencer Tracy is ready for the Big Day.

True: Every time we see a Spencer Tracy movie, we nod and say, “That’s why he’s Spencer Tracy.”

Here, look at the opening scene of the beautifully-filmed Father of the Bride. Tracy sits in an easy chair in the midst of a glorious après-wedding mess. He casually rubs one foot and begins his direct-to-camera monologue with, “I would like to say a few words about weddings.” Then, with understatement, “I’ve just been through one.”

Tracy never seems to act; he just is, which always makes him fascinating to watch. This is important in a comedy like Father of the Bride where intriguing characters are the essence of the movie – because this is the plot: A man’s daughter gets married.

However, in the hands of the great Vincente Minelli, this low-action movie offers so many gems:

  • Joan Bennett’s performance as the mother-of-the-bride, a cheerful one-woman tour de force who happily dismisses any concerns about extravagance.
  • the trippy Billie Burke. Her voice and comic timing are always a treat.
  • a marvelous screenplay, which is the perfect vehicle for Tracy as a lovable curmudgeon who is determined to win just one argument, and never does.

Like us, you may be a fan of the 1991 remake with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton – what’s not to love? – but promise us you’ll watch the original. You won’t want to miss it.

Starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Directed by Vincente Minelli. MGM, 1950, 95 mins.