Movie Roundup: Pre-Vacation Backlog Edition (Part Three)

The Big Knife – A mid-50s adaptation of a Clifford Odets play that feels exactly like a mid-50s adaptation of a Clifford Odets play.  Director Robert Aldrich adds some noirish touches and a bit of visual flair, but the movie never really takes off from its stagy origins.  Jack Palance plays an actor with relationship problems who doesn’t want to sign a long-term contract with his studio (which would have been a terrible idea at the time, what with studios collapsing left and right).  The studio boss, played by Rod Steiger, as bigger signifier that we’re in store for a bunch of method acting indulgences, tries to blackmail him into the deal sicne he covered up a crime Palance had committed a few months earlier.  With Ida Lupino as Palance’s estranged wife and Shelly Winters (another method ringer) as a slutty wannabe actress.  It’s probably better than I’m giving it credit for, but I just can’t drum up much excitement for what is essentially candy for actors and playwrights.  The #25 film of 1955.

Man Hunt – A very fun action movie from director Fritz Lang.  Walter Pidgeon plays an English hunter (the World’s Greatest Hunter, naturally) who tracks Hitler down and almost gets a shot off against him before getting captured by Nazis.  He escapes and makes his way back to England, with head Nazi George Sanders hot on his trail.  Pidgeon hooks up with Joan Bennett then makes a lot of silly decisions that are nonetheless plot-necessary and which lead to some great chase sequences (including one with John Carradine) and a pretty intense, if ultimately ludicrous, finale.  A great, and occasionally literal, example of Fritz Lang’s penchant for characters that find themselves trapped in boxes of their own making.  The #7 film of 1941.

The Secret Beyond the Door – Another Fritz Lang thriller, this one a kind of variant on Rebecca or Bluebeard.  Joan Bennett again stars, marrying Michael Redgrave, who she meets on vacation in Mexico.  When she moves into his fancy house, she learns he’s pretty much totally nuts.  Turns out his hobby is recreating, in pain-staking life-sized detail, rooms wherein women have been murdered.  But the door to one of the room’s is locked, what lies beyond it?!?  It’s more prestigious and tasteful than it should be, what with a score by Mikos Rosza and cinematography by Stanley Cortez.  I longed for some low budget sleaziness or the barely controlled atmosphere of a Val Lewton film.  Instead, Lang keeps everything well under wraps, which makes for a fine, but not really great, film.  After seeing quite a lot of his films, I just don’t think I’m a Lang kind of guy.  The #8 film of 1947.

Anna Karenina – The version with Greta Garbo as Anna.  She’s the upper class wife who falls for the dashing soldier, and suffers for her infidelity.  Garbo’s pretty Garboish, pretty but icy and all that.  Frederic March is her lover, Count Vronsky, and much as I’ve learned to appreciate him in the last couple of years, there’s just no way any sane woman would ruin her life because of an unquenchable lust for Frederic March.  Especially when her husband is Basil Rathbone, who looks about the same but can’t help but be cooler.  Really though, the only really attractive person in the film (Garbo’s coldness turns me off, or maybe it’s that mullet she’s sporting) is Maureen O’Sullivan as Kitty.  I really couldn’t see why Vronsky didn’t drop all that Karenina melodrama for her instead.  The #16 film of 1935.

Dark Journey – A thoroughly enjoyable spy film with Vivien Leigh as a fashion designer who’s also a secret agent, or double agent, or triple agent, for England and/or Germany during World War I.  Complications for her complicated life ensue: not only are the counterespionage agents for both countries close to nabbing her, but her new boyfriend, Conrad Veidt, is a German officer and either she or he or both or neither of them are totally faking their affection for each other.  Director Victor Saville keeps everything light and the film flies by at only 77 minutes.  The #11 film of 1937.

Storm in a Teacup – A British attempt at capturing the magic of the American screwball comedy, one that doesn’t quite succeed.  Vivien Leigh stars and is funnier than you’d think she’d be, given that she almost never did comedy.  Rex Harrison is her co-star, and more surprisingly isn’t very good, especially considering that his performance in Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours is one of the best comic performances of all-time, screwball or otherwise.  Anyway, he’s an obnoxious journalist who comes to her small town and exposes her father, who’s running for office, as a snooty jerk who doesn’t care about poor people (specifically an annoying woman who refuses to license her dog and therefore the dog will be executed).  It all gets blown comically out of proportion (hence the title).  It’s got some really funny moments, but for the most part, Vivien Leigh is very, very pretty.  The #18 film of 1937.

The Big Clock – Halfway through this film noir, I realized I’d seen a remake of it.  Kevin Costner’s solid 1987 thriller No Way Out is based on it (though it confusingly takes its title from another, totally unrelated noir).  This one is better.  Ray Milland plays the editor of a crime magazine run by a Luce-esque magazine emperor played by Charles Laughton (sporting the worst mustache in the history of facial hair).  Milland wants to go on vacation with his family, but Laughton won’t let him.  When Milland misses his flight, he ends up drinking a lot with a sympathetic woman who just happens to be Laughton’s mistress.  Milland leaves without hooking up, but Laughton then shows up at the girl’s apartment and kills her.  When Laughton and George Macready (and a mute Henry Morgan) cover up the crime, all the evidence leads to Milland, who has in turn been put in charge of the investigation by Laughton.  Make sense?  It’s a double version of the investigating yourself noir subgenre and director John Farrow pulls it off so efficiently that it always totally makes sense.  The tremendous cast helps as well, and it also includes Maureen O’Sullivan and the always awesome Elsa Lanchester.  A slick film from an excellent year, so it only ranks as the #17 film of 1948.

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