November 2017 movie capsules

22 movies seen in November. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,254.
– 6 revisits, including two (Some Like It Hot and The Scarlet Empress) already reviewed here. Thrilled to tell you that, after telling everyone for months to watch the latter, I don’t feel I overhyped it at all.
– 3 new full reviews, two of them (Ninotchka and Sabotage) partial rewrites of pre-SOC pieces, one (Young and Innocent) all-new.
– 17 new capsules, on the roll call below the housekeeping.
– You’ll be pleased to know I don’t have any long-ass editorial for you this month. I’m not quite finished with the 1930s canon; got four movies to go (if you’re curious they are: Mad Love, Blonde Venus, Morocco and Stage Door, and I’m looking forward to all of them). Just ran out of time, plus I had to get two of them mailed in. (Consumer advisory: a used, factory-pressed copy of Universal’s Marlene Dietrich box costs less than getting Blonde Venus on its own as a DVDR. Makes no sense, but there you go.) The delay shouldn’t have any real effect on anything, as December was always going to be dedicated to catching up on contemporary stuff and a quick mini-project I’ll explain in a couple of weeks. I don’t think the summary post for the 1930s project will be quite as involved as the one from the silent era, though I won’t know for sure till I start actually writing it!
– The roll through all the Best Picture nominees will resume in January along with the 1940s canon, for which I’m operating from a much shorter list so it should only take through July or so, but you know me.
– Our two Hitchcock essays this month complete the year-long sub-project of writing up the Gaumont Six, or Thriller Sextent. It also takes us further into a nice large collection of long reviews of the films of my favorite director, and the source of this blog’s title. Hitchcock movies you can read about here, in chronological order: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger (1926), Downhill (1927), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1932), Waltzes from Vienna (1933), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960).
– Coming very soon: Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56), The Wrong Man, The Birds, Marnie. Others later. The only ones I don’t expect I’ll be able to write up at length are The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game and Number Seventeen, though I could change my mind on you.

***

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 16 films (12 new). Taking on these specific lists was such a great idea. Fell in love with The Most Dangerous Game, Pepe Le Moko, Doctor X (huge surprise, Maltin gave this two stars!), One Hour with You, Holiday (yes, I dug a Cukor film!), The Blood of a Poet and Tabu. Renewed affections for Sabotage and Young and Innocent. Found it in my heart to appreciate Twentieth Century. Felt validated on Ninotchka, which is highly overrated and not worthy of Lubitsch’s best work, despite the brilliant Garbo performance at its center. Was somewhat disappointed with She Done Him Wrong, Queen Christina and Le Jour Se Leve but still enjoyed them; enjoyed Shanghai Express a good deal less but did admire it somewhat. Highly disappointed with Ruggles of Red Gap, having wanted to see it for years and years, but it’s still all right and also has a great performance in it, Laughton’s. The only relative dud was The Women, and even it isn’t outright bad, though if I hadn’t seen Holiday immediately afterward I’d tell you I think Cukor had no clue how to film comedy. (He was, in fact, fired from One Hour with You for this reason.) I tried to rush through this, since I meant to dedicate November to completing it, but I was having too much damn fun. Remaining: 4 films (4 new).
– Through the four-disc DVD set Treasures from American Film Archives, which contains a wonderful cross section of shorts and features preserved by the skin of their teeth and which I recommend unreservedly, I watched Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, one of three shorts on the ’30s canon project. Sorry to say that while I appreciate the ironic cut-and-paste style, which is very modern and amusingly obsessive in a manner almost suggestive of Youtube, I find the film repetitive and tedious, which is a problem I often run into with avant garde films unfortunately. I of course don’t deny its importance as a piece of independent, surrealist art.
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (4 new). On hold this month, but still managed to watch four titles that overlapped with the above: Shanghai Express, She Done Him Wrong, One Hour with You, Ruggles of Red Gap and the previously seen Ninotchka. Remaining: 162 films (130 new).
2010s catchup: I watched In a World…, which I didn’t care for, because Netflix sent it in the mail before I quarantined myself from all non-1930s content.
New movies: Went to see Murder on the Orient Express with some friends; I liked it about as much as I expected, but the point was really sociailizing for that one.
Other: Finished my Treasures from American Film Archives box, the last disc of which contained the 1916 version of Snow White, the one Walt Disney saw that legendarily inspired him to later make his own take on the story. It’s less creaky than you might expect, and quite enchanting in parts.

Capsules follow!

In a World… (2013, Lake Bell)
Charming but excessively familiar romantic comedy with writer-director-star Bell as a voiceover artist whose accidental venture into trailer work leads to a sea change and a rift with her father, legendary for his trailer narrations. What might be a clever glimpse into a typically unheralded branch of the film industry is instead a clone of a million other movies, with all the meet-cutes and labored “snappy” dialogue thereby implied. The cast is willing and able, and Bell deserves credit for not staging her very conventional script at all conventionally, but it’s a pity that the film ignores the opportunity to explore its premise in a more cinematic manner.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel) [hr]
At breakneck speed, this demented adaptation of Richard Connell’s classic short story — about an isolated maniac who hunts humans for sport — constructs and revels in an absolute nightmare with impressive focus and completeness in just 63 minutes. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray make an irresistible team, the ever-versatile Leslie Banks perfect as their adversary Count Zaroff, so expert at making his psychotic, bloodthirsty machinations sound like gentlemen’s sport. For all its melodramatic flair, this is a film that really does communicate an actual sense of danger and fear, and its wild directorial decisions make it the most engagingly bonkers ’30s horror this side of Rouben Mamoulian.

Snow White (1916, J. Searle Dawley) [r]
Not quite restored due to a few climactic scenes missing, this is the version of the Grimm tale that Walt Disney is said to have seen as a teenager and that he remembered when he began work on his first feature; you can draw a line from many of the dramatic beats and tropes of his masterpiece back to this film and presumably the 1912 play that inspired it. Despite the usual static camera, the early Paramount production boasts solid production values and rather good performances, especially by lovely Marguerite Clark in the title role, and some wonderful animal action. This story has been filmed so many times that it can be hard for any less iconic interpretation to stand out, but for historical significance alone this is worth seeing, and its bare, homespun nature is quite engaging.

Pépé le Moko (1937, Julien Duvivier) [hr]
Pépé le Moko is a bastard, a nihilistic flipside of Rick from Casablanca hiding out from constant police attention in the labyrinthine Casbah of French-occupied Algiers; Jean Gabin opens the film fully in ownership of the role, robbing and dealing and womanizing, but he quickly begins to lose control and it becomes clear that despite not yet being arrested, he is already caged. The sophisticated, tormentingly believable world swallowing him, adolescent and fearless in its maxed-out alertness and emotional energy suggest Renoir at his best, but with such a strong suggestion of New Wave and film noir you feel as if you can draw a map from every subsequent film you love about a lost soul with a criminal heart right back to it.

Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) Stagier than Hawks’ other work, and certainly more than screwball comedies should be, but John Barrymore and Carole Lombard illustrate — as counterparts All About Eve and Bullets Over Broadway later would — the idea of theater people being thoroughly invaded and redefined by their occupation. The physicality of all of the actors here is something to behold, but Lombard’s control is sublime even when the character or the material is beneath her, and it usually is. The over-the-top goofiness of Barrymore is a lot to take, but admirable in its extremity; the major drawback is that the film’s sheer loudness — and its theatrical tendency to rely on transformations and character beats unseen to us — overwhelms what’s often an extremely clever and witty script.

Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Fitfully engaging romantic melodrama aboard a train in which the sparks never quite fly, perhaps because Marlene Dietrich’s chemistry with her costar Clive Brook is mostly nonexistent, or at least it’s a very one-sided relationship in which she does all of the work. They are former lovers, she now an infamous courtesan, he a decorated military hero, and their renewed affections are tested when the train they’re on careens into the middle of a hostage situation during the Chinese Civil War. There’s intrigue, there’s a bit of action, there’s a dynamic, unforgettable and all too brief performance by Anna May Wong, but it all seems familiar and rote despite its very 1930s air of scrappy urgency.

Doctor X (1932, Michael Curtiz) [hr]
One of the most unfettered and delightful of the 1930s horror pictures. Theoretically a museum piece thanks to its use of typically hideous two-strip Technicolor, it actually harnesses every criticism you might throw at it — leading man Lee Tracy’s incongruous affability, Fay Wray’s constant screaming and sexy outfits, and of course the unabashed, illogical silliness of the bizarre, sick plot (a scientist takes his coworkers on a retreat to find out which of them is a notorious serial killer) — and fuses it all with genuinely brilliant direction and photography, makeup and set designs. It’s all weird, engaging, and frequently hilarious — true pre-Code bliss.

She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) [r]
Mae West’s dynamic, unforgettable breakthrough performance — in a film based on her own 1928 play Diamond Lil — is accompanied by the star-making turn of one Cary Grant, but West dominates everything else that’s laid in front of us, hackneyed story included, during this brief crime-ridden comedy about the downfall of a corrupt barroom in 1890s New York and the many liaisons and conquests of West’s Lady Lou, from the dance hall to the prison cells. All of the best moments here hinge completely on the suggestive jokes West delivers; Grant, for all his handsomeness, makes no comparable impression here. The plot is rote and obvious, but Paramount recognizes why you’re here; even in comparison to other pre-Code Hollywood material, this is surprisingly amoral and sexy.

The Women (1939, George Cukor)
With its all-star all-female cast, its silly air of MGM prestige, and its priggish, conservative messaging about love and marriage, this is a feminist victory only on a superficial level, since — as the tagline puts it — “it’s all about men.” The movie unabashedly reveres money and glamour and while there’s a certain camp appeal to all that, it wholly drowns out the humane and appealing story at the center (about Norma Shearer’s marital woes), and Cukor has no idea how to deal with the comic aspects of the script.

One Hour with You (1932, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
The final Paramount Lubitsch-Chevalier musical is as delectable as the rest, a remake of Lubitsch’s silent comedy The Marriage Circle that improves upon it immeasurably, mostly by making both the lead characters less innocent, and being less pathological about the destruction of their relationship. The film’s liberated attitude toward infidelity is charming because it feels hard-won and (somewhat) realistic, with Lubitsch’s usual ebullience, charm, great jokes and general naughtiness.

Holiday (1938, George Cukor) [hr]
Erudite but warm comedy about an outsider (Cary Grant) infringing upon the day-to-day decadence of a house full of dysfunctional rich folks led by black sheep Katharine Hepburn, whose sister he’s about to marry. The relationship between the three siblings has a lived-in honesty, likely inherited from Philip Barry’s play, that rings out and grabs you along with the scattered moments of atypically unguarded emotion that peek through, especially in Hepburn’s performance. The characters’ affluence is finally irrelevant because the film as a whole is such a strong and surprisingly brutal attack on bourgeois ideals of work ethic and social standing, and it’s also on the very short list of Hollywood movies that seem to actually “get” real-world romantic love, even as it only portrays it on the sidelines.

The Blood of a Poet (1932, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
Not dissimilar in intimacy and impact to L’Age d’Or, released by the same producer in the same year, but Cocteau — whose first feature this was — is a bit too much of a wordsmith, and too gregarious, to really fall down a rabbit hole of completely uncompromised, or confrontational, surrealism. Instead, this witty and unnerving work covers an artist’s ambivalent relationship with his own creation — ranging from lust to apprehension to disgust — and jumps off from there to a series of bizarre setpieces interrogating inspiration, art, poetry, youth, and cinema. It also has a relatively coherent message to impart, which is something many surrealists would probably rebuke, but it helps make the film feel human and clever while maintaining its darkened, disorienting edge.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Kenneth Branagh)
Slightly less compelling than the Sidney Lumet film, which was also an outlier among mainstream Hollywood hits of the time, though Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is marginally superior to Albert Finney’s. The romantic back story given to Poirot is incredibly dumb, as is the inflated climax. The rest is what you’d expect, and your warmth toward it will probably go back to your feelings about Agatha Christie — which isn’t a terrible thing, and was also true of the 1974 version.

Tabu (1931, F.W. Murnau) [hr]
Made in semi-collaboration with Robert Flaherty, Murnau’s triumphant last film — possibly his most poetic and elegant apart from Sunrise — is an “ethnofiction” setting a sort of dreamlike variant on Romeo and Juliet among the occupants of the South Pacific island of Bora Bora. The intensity of their love is put to the test when the young girl Reri is marked as a chosen one who must be untouched to appease the gods. Their escape, romantic and impassioned and urgent, and its many complications become our harrowing, finally bleak story about a cruel world determined to crush the abhorrent youth and lust of its central couple. By the conclusion, Murnau has fully secured his title as cinema’s greatest lyricist of images.

Queen Christina (1933, Rouben Mamoulian) [r]
Pre-code costume drama and showcase for Greta Garbo’s formidable androgynous image is more artistically pedestrian than Mamoulian’s other works of the period, despite the resources at his disposal under MGM. It is hugely entertaining hokum, at least if you can look past the total mess it makes of a fascinating individual, the Queen of Sweden who reigned from 1632 (at age six) to 1654. Her ambiguous sexuality is very fitting for Garbo as an actress, but the script spins this into Hollywood goo that has the inaccessible monarch turning to putty at the hands of an envoy and makes her sophistication and eccentricity into a big joke. There isn’t much separating this from other MGM fantasies of wealth, and it looks trite compared to the likes of The Scarlet Empress and The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Le Jour se Lève (1939, Marcel Carné) [r]
Marcel Carné’s landmark of France’s poetic-realism cinema announces itself at the outset as the story of a murderer (Jean Gabin, who else?) sitting in a room and contemplating the chain of events that led to his crime. The context we receive is almost disappointing in its straightforwardness, though there is occasion for a bizarre, flamboyant performance by Jules Berry (the two men are juggling the same two women, and neither shows human regard for their lovers even though it’s clear we’re meant to see Gabin as the less flawed, more kindhearted character) who breaks through the convention a bit.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Leo McCarey) [r]
The classic 1930s rags-to-riches comedy formula gets one of its most refined workouts here, one that’s more wry than funny (its more cathartic moments suggest a class-reversal of Boudu Saved from Drowning), in a film about a British manservant gambled away to a couple of ragtag new-money Americans during a drunken game of cards. As the disputed Ruggles, Laughton’s facial expressions and restraint throughout the first act are marvelous, but the screenplay by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson forces his transition too quickly and, while it has some fun with the weird contrast of a butler having more regard for social mores and classes than his down-to-earth boss, its situations never attain the kind of levity you hope for in a film like this.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes on: Ninotchka / Sabotage / Young and Innocent

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