The Caine Mutiny (1954)

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The Great Strawberry Case of ‘44

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1954, what a year for film! Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, A Star Is Born, On the Waterfront, Seven Samurai – to name a few. Among this year of outstanding films was The Caine Mutiny; a picture which has all the hallmarks of an event movie – based on a hit novel, an ensemble cast of big names, extremely lush production values. Aside from the high-end Hollywood spectacle on offer, The Caine Mutiny is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen. I appreciate these message pictures which came from producer and later director Stanley Kramer which show that people and life itself is complicated and can’t always be simplified to basic terminology. There is never a dull moment during the two hour run time of The Caine Mutiny, although director Edward Dmytryk wanted the film to be three and a half to four hours long and with the film being as layered as it is in its current form, it probably could work drawn out to a much longer length.

There’s little which would make the production values of The Caine Mutiny better. The film likes to show off those US Navy ships and their docks in the glorious new widescreen format. The only minor criticism would be the implemented stock footage which does stick out although considering such shots would have been near impossible to film then it’s understandable. Likewise, the typhoon sequence has some very impressive model work, convincingly making a pool (presumably) in the Columbia backlot look like the Pacific Ocean during a great storm. The music score is also one among one of composer Max Steiner’s best; romantic, exciting and even has a swashbuckling tone to it.

Actor Robert Francis is not a hugely charismatic presence with or without the other big-name stars but it’s fitting to cast an unknown and rather plain actor as the POV of the viewer. Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith is a character the average moviegoer can project onto as the average Joe entering this world for the first time. The romance subplot involving his love interest May Wynn (played by an actress who chose her stage name after this fictional character she played) is the one inclusion in The Caine Mutiny which is questionable; in other words, it has nothing to do with the main story and feels out of place. That said despite this I do enjoy these romance scenes as I am a sucker for this kind of 1950’s fluff such as the portion of the film in which they go out to Yosemite National Park – the most romantic location imaginable. Full of waterfalls, mountains, horse riding, an orchestrated version of the song “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”, and no sign that there is a war going on (not to mention May Wynn is not bad on the eyes).

The cast and performances in The Caine Mutiny are exceptional. I never felt like I was watching actors but rather actual nay personal (we even get a pre-fame Lee Marvin in a small part offering some comic relief). I do find their military etiquette to be very pleasurable to listen to with there never being a moment when anyone sounds rude. Van Johnson, the boy next door himself is surprisingly commanding in the role of Lieutenant Steve Maryk. Even the scars on his face which he obtained from an accident when filming A Guy Named Joe (1943) are not hidden with makeup, helping to aid his performance.

Fred MacMurray, on the other hand, is an actor I find far more interesting when he is cast against type as is the case in the role of Lieutenant Tom Keefer; an elitist snob who thinks the Navy is beneath him and is much more interested in writing his novel. – His character is very much the opposite of Van Johnson’s. His thing of playing an amateur psychiatrist was just a little game to him until it later dawns on him the seriousness of the situation. However MacMurray’s performance is very subtle, you barely catch onto these traits unless paying close attention to his performance, another aspect which really gives The Caine Mutiny such re-watch value.

However, let’s talk about the main star of the show. Queeg; a name as infamous as Bligh. The role of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is one of the finest performances of Humphrey Bogart’s career (and the inspiration for one of my favourite Red Dwarf episodes). Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all played tyrannical ship captains in what I view as the Tough Guy Tyrannical Ship Trilogy (The Sea Wolf, The Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts).

Queeg is one complex character whom alone makes the movie worth watching multiple times to fully dissect him. There is a subtle, pathetic streak to Queeg (even his posture is rather bent at times); he fails to bond with his crew even though he earnestly tries. During the first meeting with his crew, he brings out a pair of clacking metal balls upon viewing a crew member with an un-tucked shirt; metal balls which just make things feel awkward and uneasy (he probably would have a fidget spinner if the movie were made today). – From day one it’s not hard to see why the crew did not warm up to him. While it could be argued Bogart is too old for the role of Queeg (it is stated in the film he was an ensign only 8 years earlier), this can more than easily be looked over as Bogart is so good and synonymous with the role. Even a moment in which Queeg talks with such confidence in relation to the missing quart of strawberries while simultaneously buttering crackers is very entertaining to watch.

The question does have to be raised if the crew had it too easy before Queeg came on board? Like the vessel in Mister Roberts, The Caine is a slack, dead-end ship. Regardless Queeg plays by the book to an obsessive degree and he overreacts to the breaking of rules which are trivial in the grand scheme of things as seen in the famous missing strawberries scene. His obsessive pre-occupation with the rules also puts the ship in danger as seen during the minesweeping sequence. Likewise, during the typhoon sequence in which the actual mutiny on board the Caine occurs, Queeg is clearly terrified and becomes paralysed with this fear. Yet Queeg is not the villain of The Caine Mutiny, he does not act in malice and it’s easy to empathise and feel sorry for him. – “A captain’s job is a lonely one. He’s easily misunderstood”.

The final third of The Caine Mutiny is comprised of a court-martial and oh is it gloriously fascinating as I am glued to the screen and eating up every word of it. Unlike many other Hollywood courtroom dramas there are no over the top hysterics but rather the actors remain subdued. That doesn’t make it any less intense though, thanks in part to the powerhouse acting presences of Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall as Lieutenant Barney Greenwald and the prosecutor Lieutenant Commander John Challee respectively.

It’s surprising the United States Navy would be involved in a film which portrayed a mentally unbalanced man as a captain as well as involving a mutiny (albeit a legalistic mutiny and not a violent one). The word “Mutiny” is even in the title of the film although I’m sure they would rather have played play linguistic semantics and called it an “Incident”. The film even opens with the disclaimer “There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy” – itself a disputable historical fact. Mayrk (Van Johnson) initially has difficulty obtaining a lawyer to defend him as the Navy’s lawyers refuse to be in the position of having to testify against a commanding officer. While a film like this can be interrupted in many different ways, I’m left feeling it doesn’t paint a great picture of the navy establishment due to the ignorance on display with the dismissing of the crew’s actions based on a preliminary investigation. As Greenwald puts it bluntly “I think that what you’ve done stinks”.

I remember during my first time watching court marital, the moment which really stuck with me was the point brought up by the prosecutor asking Maryk how he was able to diagnose a mental illness without having the qualifications to do so. This struck me as an incredibly thought-provoking point although watching the movie years later it’s become apparent to me the prosecutor’s use of sophistry when questioning those at the stand. In relation to the aforementioned point, the prosecutor asks Maryk if he has had training in psychiatry or medicine to which Mayrk answers “none”. He also asks Mayrk to define the terms “schizophrenia“, “manic-depressive” and define the difference between “paranoid” and “paranoia”, all of which he fails to do. Isn’t it obvious to determine if someone is mentally unwell even with little knowledge of the subject matter?

Mayrk clearly does not have the ability to effectively defend himself on the stand and looks weak as a result. He is also asked immaterial questions about his school grades which his lawyer Greenwald raises no objection to (nor does he object to anything during the trial). Due to his unpreparedness, Mayrk reluctantly accepts the prosecutor’s narrative that himself and not Captain Queeg is in the wrong (“Isn’t it possible that, under pressure, you became erratic and couldn’t understand the captain’s sound decision?”). We also see the prosecutor put words in the mouth of the Lee Marvin character after he referred to the Captain’s actions as “strange”. The prosecutor then proceeds to straw-man him before he has a chance to defend himself which he clearly doesn’t the intellect to do so and accepts the mischaracterisation of what he may have been attempting to say.

Similar lines of questioning are used when the prosecutor asks Keith “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” followed by asking who is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering; an ensign who has spent little over a year abroad a ship or an experienced captain of eight years? Isn’t such a question irrelevant when the sight of a foundering ship is obvious? Keith does deal nicely with the lines of questioning he receives such as when the prosecutor asks condescending questions such as “did the captain rave and make insane gestures” while waving his hands about, to his sarcastic response of “Thank you for your expert opinion” in relation to Keith’s response about the captain’s state. At one point Keith is asked “Are you aware that the captain has been pronounced completely rational by three qualified psychiatrists?”, to which he responds “They weren’t on the board the Caine during the typhoon sir”. Oh! #ThugLife.

Greenwald does a far more honourable job at questioning and is much more of a class act, not taking part in fallacies. He also knows how to play the game when it comes to the delicate matter of questioning a Naval officer of whom to disrespect would be a punishable offence. He states: “It’s not the defence’s contention that Lieutenant Commander Queeg is a coward. Quite the contrary. The defence assumes that no man who rises to command a United States naval ship can possibly be a coward. And that, therefore, if he commits questionable acts under fire, the explanation must be elsewhere”.  That said I’m not a legal expert so I’m happy to be corrected or challenged on these observations.

When Queeg does take to the stand, Bogart’s acting is the stuff of legend. A confident and cocky Queeg gradually lets himself go and of course, he brings out the clacking metal balls. When you use a term like “geometric logic” to describe how you intended to prove the theft of strawberries then you know you’ve dug your own grave. The culmination of this breakdown is filmed in a single, uncut, close up shot and is one of the most riveting pieces of acting I’ve ever witnessed.

We are never actually told what Queeg’s verdict is but the crew of the ship to celebrate the outcome at a party. Greenwald joins the procession only to give a monologue on how the crew where at least some degree complicit in the situation, pointing to the time when Queeg came to them for help and they “turned him down”. Needless to say, Greenwald is successful in changing their feelings over the situation and killing the mood of the party. This monologue is successful in being immensely thought-provoking and raising many of questions of any similar situation. Who is the victim? Who is the guilty one? Who disrespected who first? The one issue I would take with this monologue though is that it absolves Queeg of any personal responsibility.

Many people will say that movies are a mean of escaping reality; The Caine Mutiny shows how movies can be a means of understanding reality. Grab your ice cream and strawberries and enjoy!

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Moby Dick (1930)

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Here’s To You Ahab!

I have never read the novel Moby Dick although I am informed this adaptation has very little to do with its source material. The film does open with a shot of the novel itself, however, the screen dissolves into the first paragraph of a Chapter 1 which does not exist in the book nor contains the famous line, “Call me Ishmael” (a character who also does not appear in this adaptation). Yet even to judge Moby Dick from 1930 on its own merits this is a flawed film but has enough good in it to make it enjoyable; although it is a shame as all the ingredients are there for the making of a classic. Oh whale, what can you do?

John Barrymore’s performance is unlike my perception of Captain Ahab and also differs from Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque performance from 1956. This Ahab during the first half of the film is a womanizing, carefree rapscallion who even exudes sexuality at times. What’s striking about Ahab’s introduction are his acrobatics atop of a ship’s mast. While some shots are clearly performed by a stunt actor, those involving Barrymore really gave me the Gene Kelly vibes, specifically of his performance in The Pirate (1948). Even his voice is reminiscent of Kelly when he shouts “Look out below!”. In the latter half of the film, we see the Ahab more identified in pop culture as a bitter, vengeful man once Moby Dick robs him of a leg. Nothing beats Barrymore hamming things up and in one scene we even see him wearing a cape and strutting like he did in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Ahab’s relationship with his brother’s finance Faith (Joan Bennett) is an endearing bit of adultery as established in a cutesy scene taking place in a church in which they bond thanks a trusty Saint Bernard. The other real striking presence in the film is Noble Johnson as Queequeg, of whom Ahab humorously refers to as a heathen throughout the film.

The structure and pacing of Moby Dick is rather flimsy. The landlocked portions of the film, for example, leave me wanting to get some sea action. Likewise, the sequence of Ahab’s ship navigating through a storm is visually impressive but didn’t have to be as long as it did, plus it’s hard to make out much of the dialogue amongst the sound of the storm.

One of the film’s big positive’s are the production values from the rich details of the port, the seedy taverns and even full-scale ship recreations – all contributing to the film’s downtrodden atmosphere ( we are even given a sequence amongst an exotic Asian port in Singapore). The special effects, on the other hand, are mostly good for the time, all except for one extremely poor close up of Moby Dick during the first encounter in which the little mouth of the beast is seen moving. It only appears on screen for a mere second but looks poor enough that it sticks in your mind. Historical adventure pictures were not common during the pre-code era. After being abundant during the silent era they wouldn’t make a comeback in Hollywood until the mid 30’s so it is interesting to see a picture of this nature made in 1930.

Details on this film’s background are not abundant. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Curtiz directed any scenes (he did direct the lost, German language version) due to two scenes featuring the unmistakable use of Curtizian shadows. – But for now, I can only speculate. This brings me to my next point; the changes in image quality in the Warner Archive print of the film. Much of the clarity of the image quality is above what you would expect for a film from 1930, yet other scenes are of a much-degraded nature. Even more bizarrely in some scenes, the brightness levels between shots are very inconsistent. Is this the fault of the filmmakers, the print or where portions of this film lost at one point? Whale we ever know?

Night Flight (1933)

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Par Avion

Night Flight is possibly the most forgotten all-star ensemble film ever made, thanks in no small part to the movie being withdrawn from public circulation for 69 years due to a copyright dispute. Although an all-star picture, Night Flight belongs to John Barrymore. The sight of him strutting and giving monologues in front of a giant map of South America is a magnificent sight to behold. He has the Warren William type role as a flight director for a Trans-Andean European airmail company in which he goes to extreme lengths to get the job complete while trying not to let empathy get mixed in. As a viewer I’m left to question are his actions justified or is he taking things too far? Considering the perils of early aviation should he even be sending men out at night and in such terrible conditions to deliver mail? However, he claims if they don’t send planes out to fly at night then the train service will overtake them and make the outfit an unviable business. He will even go to unethical measures such as lying to a pilot that there was nothing wrong with his engine after he reported otherwise to remove any fear he had. As seen in the film Command Decision starring Clark Gable, running an outfit like this you will have to make decisions which will make you unpopular. – “Ask the impossible, demand it!”

Viewers may be disappointed to find out Clark Gable has a mere four lines of dialogue in the entire film. Although this makes sense as the role doesn’t lend itself to many speaking opportunities as he is confined to the cockpit of a two-person plane in which communication is best carried out by passing written notes to each other – As a result, Gable’s scenes play out like a silent film. That said it wouldn’t be fair to say Gable is put to waste as the movie does a good job at increasing the tension of these scenes throughout the course of the film as the plane runs out of gasoline and encounters terrible weather conditions.

Robert Montgomery has the film’s most interesting character arc. It’s clearly evident that the guy is into prostitutes and during a particularly impressive sequence in which he comes close to death flying through a canyon in the Andes, he has to come to terms with this experience after landing. Thus he ends up favouring a friendly night with a very itchy Lionel Barrymore over booze and hookers. After he refuses to be called for duty on another flight his character disappears and we never find out what happens to him. Night Flight would also be one of Myrna Loy’s earliest ventures into the role of the perfect wife, going from the exotic to another form of typecasting, but there is no denying nobody could do it better than her.

Night Flight is full of picturesque luminosity in this rare non-Cedric Gibbons design at MGM. The film also stands out for its prevalent use of Star Wars style transitions and even one particular sequence which looks very much like the intro to the TV soap Dallas in this favourable and idealised representation of a much westernised South America in which there is little showcase of poverty.

The structure in Night Flight is held together by a subplot in which a serum package that has to be delivered across the continent in order to save a child’s life (the movie pulls no punches in the opening by showing a child’s funeral). No one involved in the flying, however, is aware of this package yet it turns out this was by accident rather than design as the inclusion of the serum package subplot was an afterthought. Producer David O’Selznick thought the film didn’t have enough tension and had these additional scenes inserted after the film was shot. However, I found this does succeed in holding the film together more. Likewise original cut of Night Flight ran at over two hours with the release version being 85 minutes – who knows what was left out?

The Wrong Man (1956)

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Manny Balestrero Dindu Nuffin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who was arrested in 1953 after being mistaken for an armed robber. Like in the other Henry Fonda film 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man is also an examination of the flaws in human cognition – in this case, the issue of faulty eyewitness testimony. However, this isn’t actually Fonda’s first film on the subject matter. Previously he starred in 1939’s Let Us Live, another film about a man who is falsely arrested due to poor eyewitness testimony. Both films differ greatly in their plot structure and characters but surprisingly the one thing they share in common other than the subject matter and the lead actor is interestingly enough, an emphasis on Catholicism. It remains to be seen however if Alfred Hitchcock looked at Let Us Live as a source of inspiration for The Wrong Man.

The Wrong Man is absent of any Alfred Hitchcock or Hollywood artifice but rather the movie has that European, neo-realism feel. A film which really captures the urban landscape in all its glory which is only enhanced more by the sounds of the city and the jazz music score; a hallmark which really characterises noir in this period with films such as The Sweet Smell of Success. Likewise, the film has several shots really worth examining from Fonda walking through the doorway of his house and closing a door we the viewer never see to the zoom through the open slit in the prison door onto Fonda and then back out again.

The Wrong Man has no witty dialogue or Roger O’Thornhill style adventures to capture the real culprits. Rather Hitchcock creates something which is oppressively real. A story which really gets under your skin, questions your faith in the criminal justice system, arises your inner skeptic and makes you ask: what if this happened to me? The Wrong Man does as effective a job as possible in both showing and making us feel the degradation Manny Balesterero goes through. In my mind there existed the doubt that Manny really did commit the crime but such a crazy plot twist never comes to fruition.

During the scene early in the film in which Manny visits the Insurance Company Office and the woman at the booth goes over to her work colleagues and asks them to look at the man standing over there in which they all agree he is the man who robbed them months earlier is an example of what we would now refer to as confirmation bias. It this scene an unintentional representation of this or did Hitchcock have knowledge of this phenomenon (the term itself wasn’t coined until 1960).

Some of the elements of the criminal procedure shown in The Wrong Man would not be permissible today; subjects being arrested without being given the Miranda Rights or informed of the crime they are suspected off, interviews being conducted without a written or taped recording being kept, two witnesses allowed to be present together during an identification parade. Manny is even denied the formality of letting his wife know where he’s going despite literally being in the house he is right outside off: would that even have been allowed at the time? Likewise, notice how the friendly cops keep referring to Manny as Chris. The name on his license if Christopher Emmanual Balestrero thus they assume he is called Chris. – The Wrong Man is full of little details like this.

On a lighter note though, what is up with the Balestrero’s two kids?  “We ought to get two music lessons today because we didn’t get any yesterday” – You’re father was just in prison yesterday child, cut him some slack. Likewise in another scene on the kids answers the phone and just puts it down and when his mother asks who it was he just says “it was some man, he didn’t say” – stupid kids.

When Manny is at the police station being questioned by two cops he is made to write down on a piece of paper the words from a note the robber had written himself. The results show that Manny’s handwriting is similar to that found on the note (although the cops don’t hold this against him as they state people tend to write in a similar manner when using upper case) but also that Manny misspells the word “drawer” as “draw” in the same manner that the criminal did on the original note. Surely this is a flawed piece of evidence? Firstly a real criminal could take advantage of the situation and alter his handwriting. Secondly, the officer reading out the note to Manny has a heavy accent and made his pronunciation sound like “draw” not to mention the actual note he is reading from says “draw” and not “drawer” which could have affected his pronunciation a very subtle, subconscious way. Not to mention there is something very suspicious about the way the two cops handle the notes as they hand them bank and forth between each other.

The courtroom scene in The Wrong Man is itself chilling. People are chatting, walking in and out, bored, dozing off, the jury is disinterested and Manny’s lawyer appears to just ask the witnesses stupid questions which lead nowhere. Manny’s entire future is on the line yet nobody seems to care. Regardless the real criminal gets caught and Balestrero is acquitted. However, the Fonda “lookalike” does not resemble Fonda and looks far more thuggish other than having the same face shape and cheekbones (in the real life case Balestrero and the actual criminal looked far more alike). The last appearance of those two smarmy women who first identified Manny at the police station, making no apology to Manny when they see him after his exoneration for all that has happened to him and his family. I always had a bad feeling about them since their very first appearance.

Laughing Sinners (1931)

I’d Rather Laugh With The Sinners Than Die With The Saints

Laughing Sinners is surely some good publicity for The Salvation Army. The plot of Ivy/Bunny (Joan Crawford) leaving her previous life behind and finding happiness in the helping of others is moralising but never came off to me as overly preachy. I like Laughing Sinners despite the film’s inconsistency with sections of the movie having little to no impact on the overall story. The first twenty minutes of set up, for example, could easily have been done in half the time. Yet despite this, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent at the heart of Laughing Sinners with a number of highly moving scenes making up for the less than stellar portions of the film.

At least some of these weaker moments are made passable from the presence of a comical, stereotypical Italian chef to a bizarre dance number in which Joan Crawford is dressed as a scarecrow; go figure. Likewise, another real highlight in Laughing Sinners is a scene in the park depicting a charity picnic which has such naturalism in both its documentary-like appearance as well as the acting; a piece of neorealism which doesn’t feel like a movie set.

As soon as Clark Gable enters the picture at 22 minutes the film truly takes off. Any scene with Crawford and Gable is pure magic with the sincerity in their interactions which at no point feels like acting. I don’t think there’s any other actress of the time who can as effectively as Crawford make you pour out your heart for the poor woman and rarely has she ever looked as angelic as she does here in her Salvation Army uniform. Likewise, many people will laugh at the idea of Clark Gable playing a Salvation Army officer but Laughing Sinners provides a side of Gable I wish more people could see. Like his role of Dr Ferguson in Men In White (1934), the part of Carl Loomis is saintly without delving into the sickly with his ability to project a real sense of warmth especially with his interaction with children.

This is one of the few films in Gable’s career in which he isn’t a romantic lead as he only remains in the friend-zone with Joan. Never again would we see Gable as more of a boy scout and less the alpha male; as he cooks, wears sweaters and aprons and lives with his aunt.

 

Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

Female (1933)

Man, I Feel Like a Woman!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Majority of reviews I have read for Female express disappoint for the film’s apparent cop-out conservative ending. A female CEO of an automobile company hands the business over to her soon to be husband and proclaims she wants to have nine children. I won’t lie though; I would have had the same reaction if I had seen Female at a younger age. I’m actually very happy that I first watched this movie when I did during a time when I became familiar with the works from the likes of Jordan Peterson and was around the time of James Damore’s Google Memo. News Flash; there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and as a result, the two make different life choices and exceed in different fields while finder others more difficult. Women are less career orientated than men and don’t push as hard for positions of power and therefore are less likely to become CEOs. The automobile industry itself had its first female CEO in 2014 but you can only attribute this to discrimination for so many years after women’s liberation. Regardless of the writer’s intention in Female, it was refreshing to see a film which portrays such an honest depiction of the differences between men and women, not to mention one made before the science on the subject became definitive. Like in Queen Christina from the same year, Female shows how positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues.

Allison Drake (played by the radiant and sadly forgotten Ruth Chatterton) is an iron lady who lost her girlish illusions when forced to take on her father’s business. She is a playgirl who seduces employees from her factory when bringing them to her house for so called “business”. It’s odd hearing about how films of the pre-code era outraged groups such as Christians when films such as in the example of Female don’t paint a sexually promiscuous lifestyle as one that leads to much happiness. Allison’s gigolos (on top of not being very interesting) are mere yes-men who bow to her every whim; cucks as modern internet slang would refer to them as. Alison desires to be liked for bring herself and not as the president of a motor company. As she says early in the film, “Oh I see lots of men, but I’ve never found a real one”. In Queen Christina fashion she goes downtown under the guise of a commoner and meets the no-nonsense Jim Throne (George Brent).

Following their time together Allison comes across Jim again when he just so happens to coincidently start working for her company. After learning of Allison’s true identity he is invited back to her place for “business” but doesn’t fall for any of her seduction techniques; Throne is a man who is above that and has no desire to become a gigolo. With Allison’s new found desire for a domineering man she asks her father figure of sorts Pettigrew what kind of women men like Jim Throne desire; why women who are “gentle and feminine”. He’s not wrong, is he? What follows is a picnic scene in which Allison humorously tries too hard to be gentle and feminine. At the end of the day, Allison Drake is a woman making her own choice of what she wants to do in pursuit of her own happiness, what could be more liberating? In what would be a fantasy for 1933, no systemic force is keeping her down nor is she browbeaten by anyone to leave her position as CEO. It’s entirely her own choice, one of the virtues afforded to anyone living in a free society. This makes Female a fascinating watch, not only through the context of when it was made but even more so through a modern context.

Female is yet another example of those 60 minute long pre-code films which go by very fast and pack a lot into them. It is a movie of three directors but doesn’t feel like an odd stitch-up of a film; what shots evoke William Wellman and which evoke Michael Curtiz?  The film is full of unforgettable art deco sets and eye-watering cinematography not to mention the Ennis House which is used for Allison’s mansion. As Joe Gillis puts it: “I was a great, big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20’s”.

The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium for example has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise keep an eye out for the on screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. At the end he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Take My Breath Away

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ve seen some films in which I’ve had to patiently wait for the main star to show up; The Boston Stranger may be the record holder in this category. It takes 57 minutes of a 116 minute film for Tony Curtis to appear.

The extensive use of split screen present in The Boston Strangler intrigues me, appreciating the planning and the huge sets of extra reels which must have gone into creating the effect. It’s not an afterthought and helps derive suspense with sequences in which each individual frame features a minimal number of cuts such as sequences which highlight the successful techniques that Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) uses in order to get into victims homes and escape without detection (watching Curtis get into an apartment with ease by claiming to be a plumber sent by a super really gets under your skin). This voyeuristic style of filmmaking allows the viewer to see different perspectives on the same space, such as in a more creative instance in which we see the perspective of a TV camera which appears in the frame right next to it. On the other hand many of the transitions and framing do come off as something a film student would do, although the attempt is early and more than admirable so I’ll give it a pass (for a flawless attempt use of split screen watch Twilight’s Last Gleaming).

The Boston Strangler is a dirty, grimy looking film full of explicit, sexual language set in an underworld of creeps and perverts while the police view homosexuality as a perversion, interviewing suspects on the basis that they are gay (“This kind of mutilation goes with the queer”). The film even plays out like a documentary at times as we see the effects the murders have on the public. The Boston Strangler was Henry Fonda’s second cop film of 1968 alongside with Madigan and along with the latter we see a world in which men still wear suits and fedoras on their daily jobs, something which isn’t present just a few years later in the likes of Dirty Harry or Serpico.

The Boston Strangler is a slow-moving film but one which is rewarding for the patient. The final third becomes very arty without coming off as pretentious and the ending in which Fonda calls out “Albert!” amongst the silence is chilling. I do have a soft spot for old mental illness dramas even if the science presented in them is out of date or disputed; if anything that’s part of their charm.

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.