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Reviews

People of Russia
(1942)

Shows How Far the Studios Would Go for the War Effort
To paraphrase Orwell, Oceania was allied with Eurasia, Oceania always had been allied with Eurasia.

So it was in 1942, when the United States found itself allied to the Soviet Union, which as recently as the previous year had been a virtual ally of Nazi Germany.

Time to present a positive image of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics. "People of Russia" demonstrates that Hollywood was more than up to the task.

Most of the film's footage is borrowed from a 1932 James Fitzpatrick Travel Talk. The conclusion is from a 1940 parade, probably May Day.

"A fully liberated people" Fitzpatrick informs us, march by the tomb of Vladimir Lenin "Who passed his miraculous power to another giant among men who shares, with the people of Russia, the respect and admiration of the civilized world - Joseph Stalin!"

Such a narration might well have been written in Moscow. Actually it was penned at MGM, the most conservative of the major studios.

All the film factories fell in line and churned out similar propaganda until 1945. Then, as it always does, the world turned and soon . . .

Oceania was at war with Eurasia. Oceania always had been at war with Eurasia.

The Fight for the Sky
(1945)

Two Versions
There are two versions of this film, one running around 20 minutes and another running slightly over 40. The longer film features footage of fighter pilots relaxing while off duty and more extensive coverage of the briefing before their mission. Both films are packed with gun camera footage of aerial combat and strafing runs.

Ronald Reagan narrates the shorter version, which probably played in theaters and later on television. The narrator of the longer film isn't identified, though his is a familiar and very professional voice.

Reagan's narration refers to the unit shown as the 62nd Fighter Group, which did not exist. The airfield footage most likely was of the 56th Group. In one scene in the longer film a truck is seen bearing that outfit's designation on its bumper.

Images of several fighter aces appear at the end of both films. All shown survived the war, though some as POWs.

Either version of "The Fight for the Sky" is a fine tribute to those who flew and fought so valiantly in the skies above Western Europe in World War 2.

The Black Dahlia
(2006)

A Tragedy Reduced to a Travesty
The main problem with filming any James Ellroy novel is what to cut. In "LA Confidential" Curtis Hanson did a great job of trimming the story to its essentials while still retaining much of Ellroy's style and tone. Unfortunately, in "The Black Dahlia" Brian De Palma has moved in the opposite direction, delivering a staggeringly bloated, over-produced, chaotic and convoluted work, turning what was the simplest and most straight-forward of Ellroy's LA Quartet books into a nearly incomprehensible film.

The Dahlia case has never been solved, which has led to a flood of true crime speculations, novels, and films, all which pose solutions to the mystery of who killed Elizabeth Short. These range from the credible to the ridiculous, but whatever their conclusions their success or failure depends upon how they build their case. There's something to be said for misdirection, especially if one is working in fiction, but De Palma's method of presenting the story is so oblique that by the time he arrives at a resolution you'll no longer care and most likely you'll laugh. And that seems terribly inappropriate, for the Dahlia case is not the stuff of black comedy.

From the very beginning one senses De Palma is off track when he stages a clumsy depiction of the Zoot Suit riot of 1943 (the Dahlia was murdered in 1947). This does nothing to advance the story other than to explain how LAPD detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckert) first met, something that could have been done just as well and far more economically via a voice-over, but De Palma wants to take you over the top, even if he has to stumble to do so. The sequence where Blanchard and Bleichert box, which steals shamelessly from Scorcese's "Raging Bull", is more of the same. Of course borrowings have always been integral to De Palma's style, which only points to the poverty of his own.

By the time Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) meets her gruesome fate, the aftermath of which initially serves only as a backdrop, the film is bogged down amidst the two detectives' strange relationship with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), the impending release of an obscure hood named Bobbie DeWitt, and a shoot-out that comes out of nowhere. The boys are swiftly transferred to the Dahlia case, but then drift in different directions. Blanchard seems to go obsessively crazy, while Bleichert is diverted by slumming, poor-rich-girl Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank), who eventually brings her catch home to meet the gallery of monsters known as her family.

There's plenty of period detail (not always accurate; e.g., STOP signs were yellow then, not red), fancy camera work, and stylish sets and costumes (much of which would seem to be out of the financial reach of the principals), but neither the characters nor the story lines are compelling. Bleichert finally gets to the bottom of the mess, though not many people will find either his path or the resolution remotely convincing.

James Ellroy's novel deserves a better treatment and Elizabeth Short's memory deserves more respect (she didn't make stag films), but directors like De Palma don't understand novelists' vision or the value of restraint. As a result we have films that feature elaborate trappings, shallow performances, and showy direction, rather than ones offering genuine depth and compassion.

There were nine people in the theater when I sat down to watch "The Black Dahlia" yesterday afternoon. An hour later only three remained. Those who left made the better decision.

Navy Blues
(1941)

Mediocre Musical With Some Interesting Details
The best musicals offer memorable songs imaginatively staged. "Navy Blues" offers neither. Both composer Arthur Schwartz ("Dancing in the Dark") and lyricist Johnnie Mercer ("Hurray for Hollywood") did much better work elsewhere, as did choreographer Seymour Felix ("The Great Ziegfeld").

The leads are only so-so. Oomph girl Ann Sheridan looks great and Martha Raye is suitably brassy, but Jacks Haley and Oakie are hardly Abbott and Costello, and Herbert Anderson is woeful as Sheridan's romantic interest.

Plots are always secondary in musicals, though sometimes they help pick up the pace. Here, a typically thin story line is a good 20 minutes too long.

For all these weaknesses "Navy Blues" has some interesting aspects.

The cast features the already rotund Jackie Gleason in his first film. He doesn't have very many lines but you can't miss him as a young sailor named Tubby. Had this been made a decade later he would have been a natural for Oakie's role.

More significantly, this is a last look at the United States Navy on the eve of World War Two. These are real ships and real sailors on the brink of history.

When Oakie and Haley's characters disembark at Honolulu (actually San Diego), the ship in the background is the USS Curtiss, a seaplane tender that a few months later was damaged at Pearl Harbor. Twenty-one of her crew were killed on December 7th.

Other scenes appear to have been shot on an Astoria class heavy cruiser, of which there were six. The following year three of these ships were sunk off Guadalcanal, with great loss of life.

Surely many of the sailors parading behind the cast members in the closing sequence would not survive the war. Few could foresee that in the spring of 1941, but for us that sad fact gives the film a poignancy its makers never intended.

Blackbeard, the Pirate
(1952)

The Most Entertaining Pirate Film
Between the opening credits and the first scene of "Blackbeard, the Pirate" viewers encounter the following verse:

The meeker the man, the more pirate he Snug in his armchair, far from the sea, And reason commends his position: He has all of the fun and none of the woes, Masters the ladies and scuttles his foes, And cheats both the noose and perdition!

It's called "The Armchair Pirate" and it serves as notice that what you're about to see isn't the true story of Blackbeard, but rather an everyman's fantasy of life on 18th Century seas.

Real pirate life must have been nasty, brutish, and short, but here it's spirited, colorful, and often uproarious. Most of the credit for this goes to Robert Newton who delivers a wonderfully unrestrained performance as Blackbeard. Critics routinely dismiss Newton's work as hamming, but it's the choicest, most savory ham acting you'll ever see.

Newton is ably supported by Keith Andes, Linda Darnell, William Bendix, and especially Skelton Knaggs as Blackbeard's henchman, Gilly. Well paced, cleverly plotted, and brimming with action, "Blackbeard" is the most entertaining pirate film of all. Just settle back in your armchair and enjoy the fun.

The Babe
(1992)

Another Strikeout
Babe Ruth is bigger than any movie. No actor is capable of bringing him back to life. It's simply impossible to convey either his extraordinary athleticism or his flamboyant personality on the screen. Unfortunately, Hollywood keeps trying.

"The Babe Ruth Story" offered a sanitized version of Ruth's colorful life, with William Bendix hopelessly miscast in the lead. As one of Ruth's biographers once pointed out, millions of men look like William Bendix, but no one looks like Babe Ruth.

"The Babe" does offer an actor who at times bears a superficial resemblance to Ruth (especially when he's wearing a hat), but John Goodman is about as unconvincing as a ballplayer as Tony Perkins was in "Fear Strikes Out." Although he does better in some of the scenes off the diamond (often still wearing a hat), he can't begin to project Ruth's spirit and magnetism.

"The Babe" serves up the usual cliches and inaccuracies that plague most sports films. Sometimes this is done to advance the plot, in other cases it's just sloppiness. Here it seems to be a bit of both.

In one scene Colonel Jake Ruppert (NOT Jack Rubert) offers the Babe an opportunity to manage the Newark Bears rather than the Yankees. Ruth turns it down (this much is true), but then his wife storms into the office and gives Colonel Jake hell and then some. Yes, it's a crowd pleaser, but it's sheer bunk

If you want to see an accurate portrayal of the Babe, watch "Pride of the Yankees", the story of Lou Gehrig. In that film the role of Babe Ruth is played by none other than Babe Ruth. He's great.

Dodge City
(1939)

OK Western With a Scene That May Have Inspired One in Rick's Place
I like Errol Flynn, but I don't think he's at his best in westerns. This one has a "clean up the town" storyline, plenty of action, but perhaps too much comedy, given the course of the plot. For the most part it's a typical product of Warner Brothers' golden era, with Flynn's usual supporting cast, including Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, and Guinn Williams.

The film does have one very interesting sequence, especially in light of future movie history. In a saloon scene about halfway through, a group of cowboys with northern roots, or at least Union sympathies, start singing "Marching Through Georgia." Not to be outdone, another group, led by Williams, begins to sing "Dixie." Before long, punches are thrown and a mammoth brawl breaks out.

Sound familiar? Except for the fight, the scene resembles the song duel in "Casablanca", made at Warners three years later. Although the screen writers aren't the same, I have to think this was the inspiration for the battle between "Wacht am Rhein" and "Les Marseilles."

Enigma
(2001)

Adequate Film on Neglected Topic
Code breaking is hard work. Though picks and shovels aren't required, the hours are long and the frustrations constant. The code breaking process is complex, relying heavily on logic, mathematics, and the assistance of computers. Code breakers themselves often are very weird people who make the common nerd seem comparatively normal. Given all this, it's understandable that hardly any films, aside from documentaries, have been made about the lives and loves of code breakers.

Until "Enigma", the one exception was "Breaking the Code", the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician perhaps most responsible for cracking the Enigma. But Turing's story, though psychologically fascinating, has its limitations for conventional film makers, the most obvious being the difficulty in creating dramatic tension and the absence of any female love interest.

Michael Apted's `Enigma' is the first real attempt to tell the story of the Bletchley Park code breakers within the framework of both a thriller and a heterosexual romance. As might be expected given the historical circumstances, the thriller aspects come off as rather subdued and the romance, such as it is, as rather restrained.

Set in the dreary England of 1943, where stiff upper lips were bearing the weight of four years of war, `Enigma' centers on mathematician Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott). His day and night job is code cracking, but Jericho spends much of the film attempting to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his former lover, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows). Jericho is assisted by the suitably frumpy Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), but harassed by an elegant MI-5 officer named Wigram (Jermey Northam), who suspects him of both murder and treason.

The disheveled Mr. Jericho and the dowdy Miss Wallace spend much of the film on a last-name basis as they poke through files and try to decode intercepts Claire had in her possession. This leads them off into what seems a blind alley but eventually turns out to be the key to much of the mystery. In the midst of all this, Tom manages to tear himself away long enough to return to work, make a breakthrough, and help his mates recover the keys to a code the Germans had altered, thus changing the course of a critical convoy battle in the North Atlantic.

Slow paced and sometimes dense, `Enigma' is enlivened by Northam's portrayal of Wigram, who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments and making matters difficult for Jericho. Northam has a lot of fun with this role and he looks great in his suits, providing a sharp sartorial contrast to the drab Jericho-Wallace line of wartime apparel.

Although some critics have compared `Enigma' favorably to works of Hitchcock, Hitch's touch was always lighter and his pacing livelier. And Dougray Scott is not Cary Grant any more than Kate Winslett is Grace Kelly, which is all well and good as this dark, serious film clearly benefits from the use of less glamorous performers.

Historically `Enigma' is reasonably accurate, though only so far as it goes. Alan Turing isn't even given a cameo and the original Polish contribution to the code breaking is barely acknowledged. Unfortunately, the film was not shot at Bletchley Park, some of which still survives, but at various other sites in England and Holland.

Recommended to those interested in code breaking and in World War Two. Others probably will find "Enigma" just that.

Not as a Stranger
(1955)

The Doctor is In But He Won't Come Out
Many have panned Robert Mitchum's performance in this film, but I think that his lack of expression and emotion, other than anger, suits the character very well.

Mitchum's Marsh is a completely self-absorbed individual. He's committed to medicine and can't understand human failings, especially his own. His character's cold demeanor perfectly reflects the fact that Marsh has no outer life. If he often appears robotic, it's largely because he's programmed himself to shut out everything human, ironically in service to humanity.

Of course he's a great doctor, but he's pure hell to work or live with. Bursting with pride, insensitive to the point of cruelty, Marsh is unreachable and, in more than one sense of the term, untouchable. Mitchum conveys all of this very naturally, perhaps because so much of his performance is rooted in the dark world of film noir, where the actor first made his mark. He's a physician from the neck up, but he has the heart of a contract killer. That he heals instead of kills is his patients' good fortune, though of little solace to his friends or his wife.

Although Mitchum's interpretation remains controversial, many of the other performances in `Not as a Stranger' are beyond criticism. Olivia deHavilland, as his suffering spouse, is superb as always. Charles Bickford, an actor who deserves a much greater reputation, is the epitome of a small town doctor. And surprisingly, Broderick Crawford is excellent as a gruff professor of pathology.

On the other hand, Frank Sinatra's pediatrician isn't as strong, though he has some good scenes when he tries to help Mitchum see the error of his ways. Gloria Grahame, unfortunately, is stuck with a seductress role that just as well could have been cut.

There are other weaknesses. George Antheil's score, by way of Wagner and Richard Strauss, is pretty hard to take. The script and direction are uneven. Many scenes are compelling, such as when Crawford literally throws the book at Sinatra or when deHavilland and Mitchum have one of their confrontations. Others fall flat and there is a tendency, typical in most of Stanley Kramer's work, to keep making points at the expense of the story. For example, the med school sequences with Whit Bissell's greedy and unethical Dr Dietrich (interesting choice of name there) cover a darker side of the profession very well. There's really no need for Jesse White, terribly miscast as a lawyer who cozies up to Grahame, to bring up ethical issues much later in the film.

Recommended as an above average melodrama and as an interesting time capsule of mid-50s medicine. (Though I found it hard to believe patients were allowed to smoke in the wards!)

The Mark of Zorro
(1940)

I Wouldn't Change a Thing
Most great films have their flaws but I can't think of any in "The Mark of Zorro." The casting, performances, direction, script, and score are all outstanding. I don't mind that it's in black and white as many scenes take place either at night or indoors. After all, Zorro himself is a creature of the night, clad in black, slipping in and out of the shadows. Technicolor would have done nothing for him.

Special praise for:

1) Power playing the fop. Most actors would have had trouble with this. I can't imagine Flynn prancing about in the role, but Power is completely convincing as Don Diego. No wonder his father can't believe he's Zorro!

2) Rathbone's villain. Evil personified, but he carries it off with such dash and style that you almost hate to see him killed.

3) Zorro and Esteban's duel. Unquestionably the greatest sword fight in film history.

4) The dialogue. More great lines and clever repartee than in a dozen swashbucklers.

5) Pallette as the sword-wielding priest and Bromberg as the corrupt alcalde. Two great character actors ideally cast.

Leftist critics have stressed that Zorro is ultimately a counter-revolutionary whose objective is to restore his father's rule, rather than to overthrow a repressive system. He may not be Emiliano Zapata, but clearly Zorro's motivations are reformist and well-intentioned. Liberating the peasantry is the stuff of another film. There's only so much a man can do in 94 minutes.

One of most entertaining movies ever made and perhaps the best swashbuckler of all time.

The Way It Was
(1974)

Dual Nostalgia
`The Way it Was' series appeared on PBS in the mid-1970s. The idea then was to showcase many famous sports events from the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. Today the show has turned up on ESPN Classic and is nostalgia in its own right.

Then and now the program's major appeal is the game footage, usually grainy black and white film. Although the quality varies, it's always fun to watch games played in what many regard as the golden age of American sport. Events covered include the 1950, 1953, and 1960 NFL championship games, the 1946 and 1947 World Series, the 1951 Giant-Dodgers playoff game, and the 1962 NBA finals.

Unfortunately, `The Way it Was' also features EIGHT talking heads in every 22 minute show. Host and Head No. 1 is the insufferable Curt Gowdy, then at the peak of his fame. Head No. 2 is always a man who actually broadcast the featured event. The other six heads are players, three from each of the opposing teams. Some of their recollections are interesting, but most don't rise above the usual cliches. One player from each team would have been enough.

Almost everyone looks ridiculous. Leisure suits, orange and red sport coats, Beatle-mania haircuts on guys who were born to sport buzz cuts - it's 1974 and you are there. Even worse is the show's theme, a sappy-rendition of `Happy Days Are Here Again,' a tune associated with the Depression, not the post-war era.

`The Way it Was' is primarily for old-time sports fans who recall the days before Monday Night Football. Younger fans probably will be disappointed by the quality of the footage and the inanity of the banter. Non-fans will be bored stiff and will move on before the end of the first inning.

The John Garfield Story
(2003)

A Daughter's View
Narrated by his daughter Julie, this film offers the standard take on John Garfield: great actor, social activist, victim of HUAC. Clips from many of his performances are shown, including some we don't see every day on TCM. Pretty much an adoring portrait, although there are a few references to Garfield's darker side.

Was he a great actor? He was always quite good, but he had his limitations. He was generally better in film noir than the great outdoors and often stronger in supporting roles than in leads. The film makes an argument that Warner's frequently misused him, but he was hardly unique in this regard. In any case, he did some of his best work there (e.g.,"Pride of the Marines") before free lancing in the late 40s.

Was he an activist? Yes, though not any more so than a number of people and probably less than some. His roots may have been in the Group Theater, but even there the real emphasis was on acting, not activism. The film doesn't spend too much time on this side of his life, which is just as well, though the leftist actors who are interviewed clearly warm to this theme and to the concept of his martyrdom.

For all the talk about HUAC and blacklisting (Joe Bernard states flatly "the Committee killed him"), Garfield's acting career was at most only half dead when he died at 39. He'd just been on Broadway in "Golden Boy" and surely could have made a good living on the stage, which was always his first love.

As for his film career, that was probably on the skids anyway by 1952. Noir and social realism were played out. Hollywood was entering a white bread era and Garfield's urban/ethnic grittiness didn't fit into a landscape dominated by Westerns, Biblical epics, Technicolor musicals, and romantic comedies. Had he lived he surely would have made a big comeback in the 60s and 70s. It's not hard to imagine him as Sol Nazerman or Hyman Roth, but it wasn't in the cards.

In his last film, titled ironically "He Ran All the Way", he was allowed very little running. Rheumatic fever in the early 30s had damaged his heart and there may have been congenital problems as well (his son died of a heart attack at 41). Very likely he had been dying for years.

Recommended primarily for Garfield's fans or for those completely unacquainted with his work. Others will find it little more than routine.

Escape in the Desert
(1945)

Not a Great Escape
Weak remake of "The Petrified Forest" with Dorn as a Dutch flyer in the Leslie Howard role and Dantine as an escaped Nazi POW replacing Bogart's Dick Mantee. Alan Hale supplies some minor comic relief as a stranded dentist. Robert Shayne, who later played Inspector Henderson on TV in "Superman," is heard as a radio newscaster.

This was apparently rushed into production to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the mass escape of some POWs from a camp near Phoenix in December 1944. Ironically, by the film's release date Hitler was dead and the Third Reich was in its final days, so the propaganda value was minimal.

It must have been a long war in Hollywood too as everyone looks as tired as the material.

Uncle Frank
(2002)

When I Was 84, It Was a Very Good Year . . . .
Some people manage to stay young no matter how old they are. Frank Pour falls into this category. Machinist, song writer, keyboard player, and now star of Matthew Ginsburg's "Uncle Frank," he's still going strong in his mid-80s.

Mr. Pour and his wife Tillie live modestly but happily in Rome, New York, a city which has not aged nearly as well as Uncle Frank. The air force base has closed, the mills are in ruins, and the children, including Frank's, mostly have left for greener pastures. What's left are empty streets and retirement homes, where Frank regularly plays for the residents.

To these people Frank literally is a hero. When he lugs the 35 pound keyboard into "God's waiting room" and plays the standards of 70 years ago, they sing along or even dance. Sadly some of the seniors are past enjoying Frank's music, but most look forward to his visits, the one joy in their restricted, declining lives.

The film follows Uncle Frank for two years (1999-2001) and gradually it becomes clear he's not exactly 84 any more. Tillie worries about him and her concerns eventually prove well founded. Not surprisingly, what suspense the film offers centers on the state of Frank's health.



Ginsburg, who is Frank's great-nephew, wisely doesn't overstate the contrast between Rome's decline and his uncle's vitality. This is a film about a lively old man, not his broken down town. Frank shows us the crumbling factory where he worked for 34 years and he scoffs at the damage done by urban renewal, but that's about it. Frank clearly doesn't focus on the past, which is one of his strengths and the film's.

"Uncle Frank" is real life. It's not a movie as we've come to understand the term. The entertainment here is in our getting to know the Pours and some of the retirees. They aren't movie stars, but they have more to say, and sometimes better lines.

Hoffa
(1992)

Great Performance, Mediocre Film
All too often Jack Nicholson just coasts and plays his stock character. Sometimes it's boring, occasionally it's insulting, but in "Hoffa" Nicholson puts aside the sneer and the leer and delivers a knockout performance. Although he doesn't really look that much like the Teamster boss, Nicholson captures the man's aura perfectly. It's more than just nailing the vocal rhythms and inflections or mastering Hoffa's body language, you feel Nicholson is conveying the inner man as well. This is truly a multi-dimensional interpretation and it's absolutely stunning.

Unfortunately, the film is an inadequate showcase for Nicholson's talents. The story begins in 1975 on what presumably was the last day of Hoffa's life as he and his pal Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito) wait for some people to show up for a meeting at a Michigan roadhouse. They wait a long time which allows Bobby to recall many incidents in Hoffa's extraordinary career as a union organizer.

There are two problems with this. First Bobby, who's supposed to be something of an enforcer, is never credible. Although he's nearly always in view, he never seems to belong. Perhaps that's because he's entirely a creation of screenwriter David Mamet. Barely adequate as a story-telling device, Bobby's unfortunate insertion gives rise to the inevitable, more serious question: how much of this story is true?

If you accept Mamet's interpretation, Hoffa was a victim of a trusted associate, the Government, and the Mob, but foremost a hero because he fought for the working man. Fair enough. But when you watch "Hoffa" you don't really get a clear sense of why all this was so. Motivations are largely absent. The flashbacks pass by but you feel these are merely sketches or outlines, often presented without clear context. Some are believable, others seem to be mere speculation, still others, such as the scenes with Robert Prosky or the enormous riot sequence, implausible. Was Prosky's character real? Did so many people actually die? Ask Bobby, because in many ways it's as much his story as Hoffa's; but as we know, Bobby is pure fiction.

Mamet has been quoted as saying audiences look more for drama than for information. Fine, and who'd want to see Ken Burns' take on the Teamsters. But "Hoffa", for all its huffing and puffing, lacks the drama of Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar" or the better Mob pictures.

Recommended solely for Nicholson's performance.

Patterns
(1956)

Hard Men, Hard Truths
"I didn't hire you to like me!" shouts Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane) at Fred Staples (Van Heflin) at the climax of Rod Serling's "Patterns." Those seven words pretty much sum up the whole film.

Ramsey knows no one likes him, but he couldn't care less. He'd rather play to win than play nice. He knows that it's time for nice old boy Bill Briggs (Ed Begley) to go and he's found just the man to take his place in Staples, who'd been managing his plant in Ohio. The only problem is that Staples genuinely likes Briggs and detests Ramsey.

You'll hate Walter Ramsey too, but you'll see that he built his company not merely through intimidation but by being an excellent judge of character. He recognizes that Staples, who seems clueless when it comes to office politics, is immensely talented and actually very ambitious. Ramsey sees that the fact Staples will never like him is really an asset. He doesn't want a groveling yes-man, he needs someone who will fight him.

Of course Briggs also fights with Ramsey, but his punches never land. His arguments are easily brushed aside and only serve to make Ramsey even angrier. Briggs refuses to accept that he's washed up, which reflects either his stubborn nature or his lack of professional vision. In any case, it's a fatal flaw and Ramsey mercilessly carves him up.

This is painful to watch and all your sympathy is with Briggs, but from a business perspective you have to accept that Ramsey is right. Gradually, Staples sees this as well and that Ramsey understands him better than he understands himself. At the end, Fred Staples hates Walter Ramsey more than ever but he can't resist his boss' challenge. And Ramsey knows that though the price was high, he finally has the man he wants as his vice president.

"Patterns" offers many solid performances, especially Sloane's and Heflin's. Ed Begley is hardly my image of a corporate executive (he was much more credible as the cop turned crook in "Odds Against Tomorrow"), but he certainly looks the part of a sick man. Watching Beatrice Straight I couldn't help but recall her role in "Network" and wonder if her Nancy Staples would suffer the same fate in the 1970s. Straight had a rare combination of intelligence and beauty, and it's a shame she made so few films.

"Patterns" is quick (about 85 minutes) because it has to be. Were it any longer Ramsey's bullying of Briggs would be unbearable and the film's real point would be lost.

Today we flatter ourselves when we think that characters like Ramsey went out with the Edsel. It's a different world, but it's still a cruel one. Working women are no longer called "girls" and some may have moved into executive suites, but the corporation imperatives are the same as they were in 1956: know your people, know your product, make money, cut your losses.

None of this was lost on Walter Ramsey. We may hate him, but as much as we hate to admit it, we still need him. That's not the way we like it but that's the way it is.

Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru
(1960)

Something's Rotten in the State of Japan
Akira Kurosawa's "The Bad Sleep Well" is too dense and frankly too slow a film to qualify as a thriller in the usual sense. Although the elements are there - intrigue, double crosses, revenge, and crimes both naked and invisible - the pacing is too deliberate and there is little real suspense.

Yes, it's "Hamlet," though in a subtle, understated, Japanese way. Some of the characters are left out, but you'll eventually spot the Prince, Horatio, Ophelia, and Claudius. However, unlike his "Macbeth" ("Throne of Blood"), this is only a partial transposition and Kurosawa wisely does not carry the parallels too far.

Although it takes patience, the picture has its rewards. The performances are good, especially Masayuki Mori as the reptilian manipulator Iwabuchi, Kamatari Fujiwara as the hapless accountant Wada, and, as always, Takashi Shimura as master bureaucrat Moriyama. The sharp black-and-white cinematography gives the film a photo-journal aura of authenticity. And Masaru Sato's wonderful opening theme, heavy with menace and unease, certainly sets an appropriate tone.

Toshiro Mifune as Nishi/Hamlet is unusually restrained here, his normal fire largely internalized. He's adequate, but this casting against type doesn't really suit him.

"The Bad Sleep Well" is Kurosawa's attack on Japan's post-war business corruption that apparently was endemic by 1960 and perhaps still is today. His critique is harsh and unsparing, though one can't help but get the feeling that he's shooting at fish in a barrel.

Beyond the corruption of the corporate scandal, which the film literally headlines, is a strong sense of inner decay. Nearly everyone, regardless of their position, is uncomfortable. Even Iwabuchi, for all his power, must answer awkwardly to greater, unseen forces. Only the jackal-journalists who cover the opening wedding banquet seem immune to the pervasive uneasiness.

Yet all, save Nishi, are prepared to accept this state of affairs in return for their security. Ironically, Nishi himself seems most comfortable in an old air raid shelter in the ruins of a munitions plant, his own "castle", as it were, where he fights for honor as he understands it.

Recommended for Kurosawa fans and anyone interested in Japanese psyche, culture, or style. Those expecting a slam-bang 1940s Warner Brothers treatment will be extremely disappointed and probably won't last an hour.

Once a Thief
(1965)

Some Nuggets Among the Stones
The plot is threadbare, the principals don't really look the part, the pace is much too slow, but this film still has some points of interest.

First, the location work. Plenty of San Francisco footage, though much of it at night (this is film noir, after all). The city looks different now, but many of the setups are in areas that haven't changed too much.

Then there's Anne-Margret, still in her sex-kitten stage but trying hard to break out of it. She's really not up to the mommy part, though she gives it a good try. Her character is about the only sympathetic one in the film, save . . .

Van Heflin's. I've always liked him. He's pretty good as the cop who hounds Delon, though he won't pass for Italian any day of the week, or will Delon, for that matter. It's interesting to contrast this detective with Steve McQueen's Frank Bullit or Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan. They're all SFPD and only a few years separate their stories, but Heflin's Mike Vido is from another world. Wait until you see who he lives with.

And then there's John David Chandler's homicidal homosexual-child molester, a really nasty characterization you won't encounter today and not often then. Oh yes, he's also a sadist.

Finally, there's Jack Palance's equal opportunity crew: two Italians (though I think their surname is Croatian), a Jew, a Greek, and a Chinese undertaker. Somehow they pull off the heist, though just barely.

Recommended if you enjoy hard-core noir, Anne-Margret, or Heflin, otherwise steer clear.

Die Degenhardts
(1944)

Heinrich George on the Home Front
Werner Klingler's "Die Degenhardts" is one of the few Nazi-era films that confronts the realities of World War Two, but even here the confrontation is deferred until the final reel. Although some bomb damage is shown, the footage is not very graphic and there are no shots of the victims, living or dead. For the most part, the film focuses on the daily life of a burgher in the Baltic seaport of Lubeck, while the war and its horrors remain mostly out of sight, if not entirely out of mind.

Heinrich George, who also produced the film, is superb as a stodgy old official who's pushed into retirement just when he thinks he's about to be promoted. But George's Herr Degenhardt is not a one dimensional Prussian who lives only for his work. He's also a devoted husband and father, a patriot and decorated war veteran, and a man of culture who plays both the cello and the french horn. In short, he is the epitome of the traditional German virtues that the Nazis were quick to endorse for the purposes of propaganda.

The pace is leisurely and we get to know the old boy, his family, and his boss and fellow civil servants. We also see a great deal of Lubeck itself, a city of narrow streets, Gothic churches, dutiful citizens, but apparently no cars. Herr Degenhardt takes us through the cathedral and later sits down to play the horn at a performance of one of Haydn's choral works.

Degenhardt occasionally says "Heil Hitler" instead of "guten tag" and he gives the official salute in formal situations, but it all seems rather perfunctory. And while frankly stuffy, he's not a coarse, over-confident Nazi of the Hollywood stereotype. The closest he comes to a cliche is when he briefly follows parading soldiers marching to the tune of "Pruessens Gloria" and beats time with his walking stick. Most likely he's recalling his own service in World War One and lapsing into nostalgia for the old Kameradschaft.

The current war is confined to news on the radio and seems very remote, but the tone of the film shifts abruptly in the final 20 minutes. One of Degenhardt's three sons is lost on a U-boat and Lubeck and its historic churches are badly bombed by the "sky gangsters" of the Royal Air Force. Undaunted, Herr Degenhardt returns to work, his unwelcome retirement ended by the necessities of the war effort. As the film ends, he's pictured with his infant grandson, the old lion embracing the generation to come.

Heinrich George is now remembered as a Nazi and a willing tool of Goebbels' propaganda machine, but he was also a great actor. His performance in "Die Degenhardts" is clearly heartfelt and often very moving. We do not sympathize with the cause he was serving, but his work here and in "Kolberg" (1945) gives us a fine example of how an actor can effectively convey patriotic emotions.

When "Die Degenhardts" was released on July 6, 1944, most German cities had come to share Lubeck's fate, so audiences could view the film both as a representation of their collective suffering and their united resolution in the face of mounting adversity. Within a year the war was over and Lubeck found itself under British occupation. As for Heinrich George, he was arrested by the Soviets and died in a concentration camp in September 1946.



Historical footnotes: The RAF raided Lubeck in March 1942, their first successful effort at saturation bombing. Estimates of the destruction range between 20 and 40 per cent of the city, with much of the damage in the historic Altstadt. Hitler was infuriated and in retaliation ordered the so-called Baedecker raids on historic British towns such as Bath and Canterbury

In Harm's Way
(1965)

Wayne in Command
John Wayne spent much of his later career foolishly playing much younger characters (e.g. "McQ" or "Brannigan") or indulging in clearly conscious self-parodies such as "True Grit." Most of his roles in the 60s and 70s were unworthy of his talents, but in 1964 he turned in one of his finest performances in Otto Preminger's "In Harms Way." His portrayal of Captain (later Rear Admiral) Rockwell Torrey saves an elaborate war film and shows that the Duke was a very capable actor.

Wayne will always be remembered as an action hero - riding, brawling, and shooting his way across the screen, stopping now and then for a drink or, less often, a kiss. But in this film, there are no horses, his one brawl is verbal, and he doesn't even carry a gun. Shorn of his usual props and plot devices, Wayne has no choice but to act and he delivers an extremely effective performance. He commands, he counsels, and in his own understated way, he loves. The picture's soap opera structure actually works to his advantage, giving him many opportunities to show different sides of his character's personality and to interact with almost every other performer in the film.

The rest of the huge cast is generally strong. Patricia Neal is fine as Wayne's romantic interest, playing a nurse who, as she says, is not a lady; Kirk Douglas is a bit overbearing at times as his exec, but then the role calls for it; Dana Andrews has one of his few good mature roles as the overly cautious Admiral Broderick. Everyone is up to the task but it's Wayne who carries the picture.

"In Harm's Way" is a heavily fictionalized account of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent campaign to take and hold Guadalcanal. Although the story owes more to the source novel than to real history, the tone of the film reasonably reflects the anxieties and uncertainties the Navy faced during the first year of the Pacific War.

Easy Living
(1949)

Not So Easy Living
Pete Wilson, also known as King Football, faces a dual crisis. Diagnosed with a serious heart ailment, he learns his career is over. Wilson also must break the news to his star-struck wife, who enjoys the spotlight even more than he does.

"Easy Living" is of course an ironic title. Wilson's life, as a quarterback and as a husband, is anything but easy. As the story evolves, he must come to terms with both the loss of his livelihood and the possible end of his marriage. Victor Mature, who played gladiators both ancient and modern, does his best but he isn't quite up to the emotional demands of the role. And Lizabeth Scott, ever the ice princess, never comes across as Wilson's wife. The supporting cast, featuring Lloyd Nolan as the head coach and Lucille Ball as his son's widow, is generally stronger. Jack Paar, in one of his rare film roles, pops up as the team's PR man.

The film's climax, in which Wilson slaps his wife in desperation, could never be made today but still was acceptable in 1949. Frankly though, you can't help share Wilson's frustration with this frivolous woman and you have to wonder what you would do in his place.

Highly recommended, both as a study of mid-century social attitudes and for an early Hollywood view of the NFL

Skyscraper Souls
(1932)

Solid Pre-Code Melodrama
"Skyscraper Souls" is something of a poor man's "Grand Hotel." Instead of the Barrymore brothers, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford, we get Warren William, Jean Hersholt, Hedda Hopper, and Maureen O'Sullivan, but as was often the case in the 30s, MGM's second team plays as well as their first.

For all its stars, "Grand Hotel" now seems pretty creaky and its characters generally not very engaging. The Weimar Berlin setting doesn't help matters; you can almost feel the sense of decay and resignation. "Skyscraper" is it's polar opposite. Although New York is in the grip of the Great Depression, you can't help but be swept up in the picture's vitality. The market may be crashing, but people haven't lost their spunk, especially William's ruthless tycoon, who's just thrown up a 100 story building - try finding one of those in Berlin.

"Skyscraper" moves at a fast pace and its multiple plot lines mesh together quite well. Although it was made 70 years ago, both the financial and romantic entanglements seem very modern. Dave Dwight certainly would be at home in today's board room and most of the women come across as surprisingly contemporary. They aren't exactly feminists, but these girls don't take things lying down.

Highly recommended to film buffs, students of the Depression era, and anyone who enjoys modern melodrama.

Serpico
(1973)

The Stoolie as Hero
Film makers almost always depict informers negatively. "On the Waterfront" may be the only other exception to this tradition. Like Brando's Terry Malloy, Al Pacino's Serpico isn't all that sympathetic a character (for very different reasons), but in both cases the actors' performances win you over.

"Serpico" presents two types of cops. The first is affable, reasonably competent, but corrupt. The other is a loner, dedicated to the point of obsession, and squeaky clean. The first type consists of every New York cop save one, namely the second type, Frank Serpico. Although effective dramatically, this is hardly the way it was, or is. The majority of cops are not grafters or worse, and there's more than one cop with Serpico's zeal and idealism.

For another view of the NYPD I recommend Brian McDonald's "My Father's Gun," the story of three generations of New York cops. You'll find there was another cop on the force who sang even louder than Serpico to the Knapp Commission, and the reason why his book wasn't made into a movie.

Where Eagles Dare
(1968)

Better Than "Navarone"
Critics generally compare "Where Eagles Dare" unfavorably to "The Guns of Navarone." As usual, the critics are wrong.

"Navarone" has many virtues, but too much talk and high-mindedness slow down the story. Anthonys Quayle and Quinn are wonderful, but Gregory Peck comes off as more of an Oxford don than a world-renowned mountaineer and David Niven, playing surely the oldest corporal in the British forces,.proves an insufferable bore. "Eagles", on the other hand, dispenses with the moralizing claptrap and serves up non-stop action. Although it's running time is approximately the same as "Navarone's", it never seems as long and you never feel the characters are trying to make a point, except with their machine pistols.

Of course "Eagles" greatest strong points are Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. By 1968 Burton had eschewed the serious parts for the big money and the critics crucified him for selling out. Well, in this case I'm glad he did since he's superb as team leader Major Smith. Burton projects an aura of invincible self-confidence. He's rather reserved much of the time, but you never doubt his engagement. This is a man who simply won't be defeated. Peck's stuffy, diffident performance in "Navarone" pales by comparison. And Eastwood, though hardly Burton's equal as an actor, is Dirty Harry in boot camp - his Schaffer will kill you sooner than look at you, and it doesn't hurt that he looks great too.

"Eagles" also has a better villain than anyone in "Navarone", superior scenery, and a far superior score. Ron Goodwin's theme has been etched in my mind for over 30 years, but I can't remember a note from "Navarone's."

Perhaps the greatest World War Two adventure film of all time. Less realistic than a James Bond movie, but outstanding escapist entertainment.

The Guns of Navarone
(1961)

One of the Better Ones
One of the better World War Two adventure films, often imitated but not often surpassed. Plenty of action, considerable suspense, excellent performances from Quayle and Quinn. However the film is too long at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, Peck seems more like a professor than a mountaineer, and Niven's character's constant moralizing quickly becomes annoying. More serious-minded than "Where Eagles Dare" and so not as much fun, but infinitely superior to the sequel "Force 10 From Navarone." Usually butchered on television (especially the sniping sequence), the film should be seen in a theater for the proper impact.

Note: Anthony Quayle actually participated in behind the lines operations in the Balkans during the war.

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