Roman Holiday

Director: William Wyler

1953

As I may have mentioned before I tend to have something against things that are considered classics. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, books (Jane Austen – turgid romance), music (The Beatles and Elvis – both vastly overrated), film (Citizen Kane – don’t even get me started on this rant, it’s in the book so it is on the cards), or even iconic people (John Lennon – nobody can be that pure and good its just nauseating), you can pretty much guarantee that I will either take an extreme dislike to it or out and out despise it. This seems to be the case with Audrey Hepburn I’m afraid. I’m not disputing that she was a beautiful woman because she really was stunning (throughout her life, not just her time in front of the camera as Hollywood royalty) but for me she just doesn’t really inspire me in the same way that she seems to for others when it comes to her films. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) was a perfectly pleasant film but was not life changing like so many people imply it has been for them. The same can be said for Roman Holiday.

As Joshua Klein says, “Roman Holiday itself actually presents the flip side to the Cinderella fable.” (282, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Hepburn’s Princess Ann escapes her ever constant minders and goes off to explore the city where she meets and, consequently, falls in love with Gregory Peck’s American journalist – all to no avail due to their relative positions in life making the relationship completely untenable. It’s a simple little movie with some glorious scenery thanks to Wyler shooting on location in Rome and it was a great way to spend a miserable winter’s afternoon but it’s not an essential part of my movie collection by any means.Roman_Holiday_1

“Peck and Hepburn are excellent as the two mismatched lovers, and Eddie Albert is perfect as Peck’s eager tagalong cameraman.” (282) I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with Klein’s opinion here, although Eddie Albert is memorable as the cameraman and provided a number of laughs. I just think rather a lot of credence has been given to both Peck and Hepburn as the film becomes older. There’s almost a sense of rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Audrey Hepburn, especially. By all means however watch Roman Holiday – it was a lovely film and the footage of Rome is fantastic and certainly made me want to visit. I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured of Hepburn than I was before and my favourite of her roles will continue to be as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

“She’d be cast as the ingenue many more times over in her career, but it was this film that officially and auspiciously marked her arrival.” (282)

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Winchester ’73

Director:Anthony Mann

1950

 To say I’m not a fan of the Western genre is a gross understatement. In fact it is the one genre that I struggle to watch – it always feels like a chore to watch a Western. Even Michael Fassbender could not keep me interested in a Western (Slow West, 2015, John Maclean), which if you knew me and how much I love Fassbender gives you some indication how insufferable I find the genre. As such it’s always with some trepidation that I approach a Western in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (and lord knows there’s a lot of them in there!!) I know, I know, I should go into every film with an open mind and no preconceptions but I just can’t seem to do that with Westerns.

“The Westerns these two men made together are unusually bitter and starkly beautiful, with fascinating overtones of moral uncertainty.” (249, Ethan de Seife, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Despite this rant Winchester ’73 wasn’t quite as insufferable as the other films in this genre I have watched for this blog. For one thing it was relatively short, coming in at just over 90 minutes. But more importantly there was some sense of an actual plot and very little brooding or posturing. And probably my favourite aspect was that while there was a damsel, as expected, she wasn’t so much in distress. In fact she was more than capable of looking after herself which in my opinion is a much better representation of women in that time. After all the Wild West was a tough place and living there couldn’t have been easy – sissy pampered prima donnas wouldn’t have survived in that period – no problem for Shelley Winters’ Lola. “The cast is extremely strong. Shelley Winters is excellent, and the supporting players include such versatile character actors as Millard Mitchell, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, and the incomparable Dan Duryea.” (249)

Winchester '73James Stewart is charismatic as Lin McAdams, who is very clearly the ‘White Hat’ or hero of this piece. He is quietly commanding without becoming dull and brooding like so many other leading men in Westerns. “His character, Lin McAdams, is an unusual hero – somewhat tentative, even if he is the film’s moral center.” (249)

IMDB gives the following synopsis for Winchester ’73 : “The journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another parallels a cowboy’s search for a murderous fugitive” and it sums up the narrative kind of perfectly. The much desired rifle, the titular Winchester ’73, is really the driving force for the narrative, going through numerous owners, while Lin’s hunt for a dangerous fugitive (or Black Hat) takes a backseat for the majority of the film before taking the lead during the film’s climax.

There was remarkably little melodrama which made the film so much more enjoyable for me – that and the lack of painfully obvious, and thus frustrating, musical cues of themes. All in all while I can’t say honestly that I will watch Winchester ’73 again it turned out to be the most engaging Western I have watched for this blog. Maybe I’ll even give Slow West another go on the back of this experience.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Director: Howard Hawks

1953

I had previously never seen a Marilyn Monroe film before and yet due to her iconic status I could name most of them and was very aware of her life. In some ways I wish I had never heard of Marilyn but then I ‘d either have to be much older than I am or have spent most of my life living under a rock. That same iconic status made it difficult to look past Marilyn and see the character, Lorelei.

There is no denying that Monroe is beautiful and talented. She is all doe-eyed innocence while being a master at manipulating the opposite sex. That innocence and naivety are bellied by her every movement from the sway of her hips to her breathy pouty voice. There was an initial interest in Lorelei but I found it was quickly dispelled when it became hard to separate the character from the actor.

 “Russell’s persona brings together raunchiness and practicality; Monroe is a potent mixture of slinky eroticism and childlike guilelessness, laced with a hint of savvy manipulation.” (283, Adrian Martin, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Instead I found Jane Russell‘s character, Dorothy (Lorelei’s best friend), much more interesting to watch. She is a more likable character due to her more forgiving nature. Lorelei is shallow and a bit vapid, only interested in money and status unlike Dorothy who falls in love at the drop of a at regardless of the man’s circumstances.

The majority of the film takes place aboard a trans-atlantic cruise ship which also happens to be transporting the USA Olympic Team, opening up the way for a whole slew of musical numbers utilizing their talents. It also allows for the slightly disturbing scene featuring the athletes in extremely tight, almost nude colored short shorts during one of Dorothy’s numbers. The costumes are just gorgeous and so glamorous!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Marilyn Monroe Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend“Typical of the 1950s, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an acerbic comedy about gold digging, unafraid to mix sentimental dreams with brittle sarcasm, glamorous magic with a materialist sense of what a girl must do to get by – a set of merry contradictions immortalized in Monroe’s oft-imitated “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend“. (283) There isn’t much of a plot – the film appears more a vehicle for its two stars, Monroe and Russell rather than being narratively driven. Due to the lack of plot the film plods along at a fairly slow pace, interspersed with musical numbers. It only really gains any real momentum in the final 15 minutes or so when Dorothy masquerades as the flighty Lorelei at a court appearance.  Watching Russell adopt all the things that made Monroe the pin-up she was during her lifetime and the icon she is now was the most enjoyable bit of the film for me. As Martin says, “the comic highpoint comes when the roles swap for Dorothy’s brash courtroom imitation of Lorelei.” (283) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Jane Russell Marilyn Monroe

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

1956

The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock“Hitchcock’s only remake of one of his own films raises the issue of the superiority of his American work to his British productions. Though the original 1934 version is witty, the remake is more lavish and expert, with some of Hitchcock’s most powerful scenes.” (325, BP, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I am coming to the conclusion that I am not much of a Hitchcock fan. Sure he may be the ‘Master of Suspense’ and have created many of the forms now used in thrillers or suspense movies, not to mention in the horror genre, but I just don’t find his films all that remarkable. In all honesty I prefer films based on his works like Disturbia (D.J. Caruso, 2007) which is a re-make, I suppose you could say, of Rear Window (1954).

Doris Day is the obvious Hitchcock blonde. She is much more capable than anyone gives her credit for, even her husband played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. As BP says, “Stewart indeed “knows too much”, not valuing his wife’s (Doris Day) capabilities.” (325) Indeed she is the one thinking clearly enough to discover the true location of her kidnapped son as well as where the ultimate set piece takes place in the stunning Royal Albert Hall, “one of Hitchcock’s best-ever set pieces.” (325)

I found the ending to be somewhat of a disappointment – the entire film careens towards the rescue of little Hank, finally culminating in the successful rescue and yet the final scene is lack luster with the family returning to their hotel room to discover the guests they so abruptly left behind sound asleep. The set pieces do keep the film ticking along and retained my attention just enough to be interested in the outcome. I particularly enjoyed Stewart climbing out of the church he has been locked in by the church bell rope which is both daring and amusing at the same time.

The soundtrack heightens the tension – all the classic elements of a suspense movie. There were times however when the sound was heightened unbelievably such as the immensely loud echoing steps as Stewart hurries down the road in search of Ambroise Chappell. It annoyed me and took me out of the story albeit briefly.

As I said at the start I’m now pretty sure that I am not a Hitchcock fan but we’ll see if that changes as there are a fair number of Hitchcock films included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

 

Bad Day at Black Rock

Director: John  Sturges

1955

“Set in an arid western landscape, to which the film’s CinemaScope ratio gives full value, and shot in color, mostly in blinding sunlight, Bad Day at Black Rock is sandwiched between a number of notable Sturges Westerns, including Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Yet despite its look, Bad Day at Black Rock is really more of a film noir, with its story of dark secrets in the past.” (308, Edward Buscombe, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The vistas are vast and bleak which is expected when the film is set in a desert landscape. The colours are bright and vivid which are at odds with the film noir tone of Black Rock. You expect a film noir to be in black and white with extremes of light and dark reflecting the tumultuous nature of the story.

It’s almost as if Black Rock can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. While it’s set in the desert and is awash with cowboys that’s about as far as it goes in terms of a Western. “There’s little action and hardly any gunplay” (308) two tropes that identify a Western film. It’s easier to list what elements of Film Noir Black Rock eschews than those it holds to. There is no femme fatale – in fact the film is almost exclusively male with only one female character in the entire town. And as I mentioned before no extremes between light and shadow.

Bad Day at Black Rock is […] a taut, expertly acted and directed thriller that pushes a fairly straight forward message about racial tolerance.” (308) The film highlights the views many Americans had towards the Japanese following Pearl Harbor. The inhabitants are unable to separate race from nationality – they cannot get past the fact that Kamoko was Japanese despite him living and working in America, and as we discover later having a son fighting for America in the War. This inability to overlook Kamoko’s Japanese heritage has disastrous effects and results in the whole narrative of the film.

The tension ratchets up as the inhabitants of Black Rock become increasingly uncomfortable about Macreedy’s (Spencer Tracy) presence in the town and his rather innocent snooping. And yet rather than allow him to go on his was way they instead force him to remain in the town. The craziness occurs because the men follow the dominant personality of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). They become pretty secular and are intent on protecting their dirty little secret by any means necessary, often resorting to bully like tactics, the sort you find in high school (and should really stay there!) Macreedy is unshakeable and, with the exception of one rather impressive fight, remains above all the petty tactics aimed in his direction.

I do not like Westerns, never have and I doubt I ever will. It’s the one genre that I have never really engaged with. I find Westerns boring and always overly long. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl and the Western is very much a male genre – it’s telling that the only Westerns I like are Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953) which is a musical and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and let’s face it, that’s more of a Romance. Black Rock was not a film that succeeded in holding my attention for the entirety of the film, and that’s not really a ringing endorsement for the film under an hour and a half.

Rebel Without A Cause

Director: Nicholas Ray

1955

From the career of one reluctantly iconic, short-lived actor to another.  Rebel Without A Cause is without question the film that James Dean is most remembered for. The two are forever in-twinned together – you say Rebel Without A Cause and people invariably say James Dean. Another splendid actor who not only had a tragically short life but one which ended at the real beginning of a promising career, with a mere three films under his belt. As with the films of River Phoenix there is a pervasive melancholy attached to Rebel in part because of the subject matter and highlighted by his untimely demise. “One reason why he and Dean were made for each other; it wasn’t just the actor’s style but his whole body that gave dramatic life to the turmoil within. Seeing Dean’s Jim is witnessing a character being born, growing from moment to moment before our eyes. That, of course, is fitting for Rebel‘s subject matter, but it also complements Ray’s direction in terms of how its acute physicality expresses the tormented vitality within.” (314, Geoff Andrew, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Dean is roguishly handsome and suitably troubled as the protagonist Jim Stark. It’s not hard to see how he become the superstar he was and remains to be today. Jim is struggling with universal themes of trying to find out who he is and coming to the realization that parents are fallible human beings with their own problems. It’s themes like this that keep a classic like Rebel Without A Cause relevant to today’s audience.

Rebel remains by far the best 1950s film dealing with the then-new phenomenon of teenage delinquency.” (314) Right from the off we know that the characters in the film are going to be delinquents of some sort having had our initial introduction to the main trio at the police station, with all three there for some sort of misdemeanor. The trio of Jim, Judy and Plato become this odd dysfunctional family with Jim and Judy taking on bizarre parental roles in Plato’s mind. Plato seems much more invested in their friendship than Jim does; he is much more intense in his feelings. Jim in particular becomes a strange sort of father figure to Plato, with the latter even calling Jim his father at times. Plato’s description of Jim, “You have to get to know him. He doesn’t say much. But when he does, you know he means it. He’s sincere” closely resembles that of James Dean.

“The often luridly expressionist hues and Ray’s typically fraught CinemaScope compositions evoke the feverish nature of adolescent experience.” (314) The colours are so vivid and seem all the more so when a large number of the images from the film are so often seen in black and white. It’s always a bit of a shock when I start watching Rebel because I forget that it was actually filmed in colour. Ray uses really interesting compositions mixing up the conventional shots in the way he places the actors. It gives the film and interesting visual dynamic. The chickee run is exhilarating with fatal consequences that end up certain events in motion. There is added tension to the race due to the real life demise of the star at the hand of a horrific car crash.

“Ray understands how, especially when young, we view our lives as drama. His immaculate sense of colour, composition, cutting, lighting and performance enhances the importance of the action.” (314) Plato becomes the third wheel to Jim and Judy’s burgeoning relationship and it’s one that develops remarkably quickly much like many relationships when you’re a teenager. Jim really understands Plato – he says exactly what Plato needs to hear in order to defuse the volatile situation; he turns out to be a fairly skilled negotiator even if the end turned out rather worse than anyone intended. The costumes are wonderful but then I have a nostalgic love for all 1950s fashion. In some ways Ray is subtly questioning, or mocking depending on how you chose to read the scene, the masculinity of Jim’s father by having him wearing an apron over his business suit while having a conversation with Jim over what it takes to be a man. Ray creates a visual representation of how Jim initially sees his father as being a weak figure in his life, unwilling or unable to stand up for his own son. Dean gives such an adult performance that you forget Jim is only actually 16. There isn’t a happy ending per se but something good comes out of tragedy of Plato’s death – Jim reconnects with is father. They end the film with a much better understanding of each other and have moved onto a new stage in their relationship as parent and child.

Singin’ In The Rain

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

1952

“Some films are held in high esteem for their impressive artistic breakthroughs or stunning acting debuts. Others are revered simply for being the best of a kind. Singin’ in the Rain falls into this latter category. It isn’t a pioneer in any real sense of the word, nor does it greatly advance the language of film, but few other pictures have so effortlessly and wonderfully encapsulated everything good about te movies: the joyous highs, the pitiful lows, and the perfect, perpetual seesaw between those two poles.” (Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Singin’ in the Rain is another musical I have grown up with and one I grow to love more every time I watch it (which is a lot!) I love everything about it … especially Gene Kelly who is just masterful. The songs are brilliant, the costumes are sumptuous and the dancing … well the dancing is beautiful and elegant and so effortless that it’s infuriating!! Although now known for the infamous Singin’ in the Rain dance number I have to say that my favourite part of the film is the dance sequence that accompanies the ‘Moses’ number It makes me long to be able to tap dance.

As part of the same retrospective of musicals at the BFI I watched Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen and it was just magical. To see, feel and hear an audience reacting to the film makes it so much more rewarding than watching it in a small group on dvd. The premiere of ‘The Dancing Cavalier’ was one of the more memorable parts – it was brilliant to watch our audience laughing at the film’s audience laughing at the disaster with the synchronization of sound.

Singin’ in the Rain has so many levels in the film that seem to parallel the events taking place during filming. The film is driven by Gene Kelly who not only starred in the film but directed and choreographed the numerous musical numbers; in a similar way the films within the film are driven by the star power of Don Lockwood. The studio system that ruled Hollywood in the 1920s, when the film is set, is being threatened by the emergence of the ‘talkies’. Again there is a parallel with the reality – the 1950s saw the advent of television so Hollywood was once again having to compete for audiences. Singin’ in the Rain is big, bold, bright and colourful and works best on the big screen!

Joshua Klein sums it up perfectly when he says “The world of movies and beyond is a better place with Singin’ in the Rain in it.” This is one of my ‘happy’ films – you know the ones, they always put a smile on your face no matter how many times you’ve seen them or how bad a day has been.