Category Archives: Classics

Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)

Stalag 17 opens with narration explaining the film isn’t going to be like those other WWII pictures, where the soldiers are superhuman and the film bleeds patriotism. No, Stalag 17 is going to be something different—first off, it takes place not on the battlefield, but a German prison camp. Through coincidence, the camp is entirely full of sergeants, which causes a lot of personalities butting heads (but also personalities jibing). This story—the one narrator Gil Stratton is going to tell-takes place right before Christmas 1944. The explanation of the setup is the only time the film feels like a stage adaptation; director Wilder always has filmic uses for Stratton’s narration. Even when the plot’s moving along and the structure is very play-like, it never feels like one. The setting—a barracks in the camp (Stalag 17)—is naturally confined, but never naturally stagey.

The film opens in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt. Two guys try to get out, get caught. Right after they leave, scrounger and black market entrepreneur William Holden bets against the men escaping. His barrack-mates are incensed at his bet, but think little of it until there are subsequent hints there might be a mole in the barracks. Now, the audience already knows there’s a spy because Stratton’s talking about the time they had this spy in the barracks, but it takes the characters a while to catch up. It’s a wonderful play on expectation. The film runs a couple hours and 17’s well into that second hour before there’s much about the spy hunt. Until then, the film’s mostly humor. Because even though it opens establishing the barracks “brass”—barracks boss Richard Erdman, barracks security Peter Graves, barracks tough guy Neville Brand—in conflict with Holden—all with Stratton narration—pretty soon barracks goof-balls Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss take… well… center stage. In the non-stagey movie. It’s around Lembeck and Strauss, at least initially, the action plays out. There’s the introduction to the barracks German guard (Sig Ruman), there’s the growing suspicions of the prisoners, there’s Otto Preminger’s camp commander, who manages to be an opportunistic, mean-spirited jackass before he’s anything else. None of the prisoners have anything like Stockholm with the Germans, but it’s clear these German soldiers aren’t the crème de la crème… starting from Preminger down. So the Preminger stuff is funny and funny in how it’s dangerous, without ever being too dangerous.

The film’s very careful about how it portrays the comedy. Lembeck and Strauss are practically a slapstick duo, but Wilder never lets it get out of hand.

Once it’s clear there’s a spy, everyone—starting with the increasingly violent Brand—suspects Holden. Top-billed Holden is simultaneously perplexed and offended, but the film doesn’t increase his time onscreen. It’s still an ensemble, Holden’s still a standout, but he doesn’t get that spotlight just yet.

Not when there are still two more characters to bring in. Don Taylor (who’s second-billed but barely in the film and crucial to the plot) and Jay Lawrence (who’s like third-to-last billed, has nothing to do with the plot, but basically has a whole character arc about being integrated into the barracks culture).

Even after everyone starts suspecting Holden, it takes a long, long time before they act. When they do, no one seems to think through the repercussions, which the script mostly avoids and otherwise just barely addresses, while the performances imply the changes. When it all does end up falling on Holden, it’s not just the plot, it’s how the film’s going to acknowledge its character arcs. They all play through Holden’s perspective, which the film has ever so gently been assuming through the second act.

Of course, then Wilder switches it up again in the third act because, even though Holden’s giving this big, great movie star performance, it’s an ensemble piece.

Wilder completely relies on Holden but is subdued when it comes to needing to rely on him. It’s really cool, how Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum do all the character arcs. Because the actors are all usually onscreen, or at least they’re all in the same location; sometimes they’re background, sometimes they’re in the main action. And their arcs keeping going throughout; doesn’t slow down for anything, not even when opportunist Preminger thinks he’s finally going to get a promotion and he starts getting more story time.

The best performances—wildly different ones—are from Holden and Strauss. Strauss goes crazy, Holden never breaks a sweat. Wilder and Strauss figure out a way for him to devour scenes whereas Holden’s almost entirely passive. And both actors have to sell those character behaviors without explored motivation. No one, not even Taylor or Lawrence, get much introduction; Stalag 17 picks up in the middle of everyone’s story. Wilder doesn’t even slow down to set up narrator Stratton, which turns out to be fine. Initially odd, but eventually obviously good.

Brand is good as Holden’s de facto nemesis. Erdman and Graves are both fine. Taylor’s good. Great small turn from William Pierson; Wilder understands how to leverage straight comedy and doesn’t shy away from it. The guys playing it straight (like Brand, Erdman, and Graves) are kind of at a disadvantage. They’re not as memorable, which works out because it’s Stratton narrating it from—presumably—the present day, so almost ten years later.

Lawrence is really funny and great at the impressions. Again, Wilder knows how to execute straight comedy and does so.

Great editing from George Tomasini, especially great photography from Ernest Laszlo.

Stalag 17 is an outstanding success and a peculiar one. Not for how it succeeds—cast, crew, script—but for how succeeding plays out on screen. It’s like Wilder had to find a way to tell the story accessibly so he makes all these wide swings and always connects. Or if it’s not him connecting it’s Holden, who takes very short, measured swings, but always connects. It’s a great picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by George Tomasini; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Neville Brand (Duke), Richard Erdman (Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Jay Lawrence (Sgt. Bagradian), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), and Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA, MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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Moonfleet (1955, Fritz Lang)

Moonfleet is a very strange film. The protagonist is ten year-old Jon Whiteley; the film starts with him arriving in the coastal village, Moonfleet. It’s the mid-eighteenth century. Moonfleet is a dangerous, scary place. Sort of. Whiteley is in town on his own because his mother has died (Dad is a mystery, but nowhere near enough of one) and she’s sent him to look for an old friend. The old friend is Stewart Granger. He’s an old flame. Mom and Granger hooked up, then her rich family ran him out of town. The family fell on hard times, moving away from Moonfleet, so Granger moved back. Not because he’s nostalgic for Whiteley’s mom, but because it’s a good place to run a smuggling ring. He seems to have known the mom at least moved.

And Granger’s got zero interest in having a ward. He spends most of his time drinking and carousing. He lives in Whiteley’s family manor, but it’s closed down and janky. He has his friends over to get blasted and hook up with the various women who throw themselves at Granger. Granger does have a live-in girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors, whose credited role suggests he seduced her away from a husband but it’s not in the story proper. Granger’s introduction actually has him with a different woman, Liliane Montevecchi. She’s Romani. She’s not credited as Romani. Anywhere, she might not even have a line. She’s there to do a seductive dance with lots of leg and cleavage. Lindfors gets very jealous because she’s only showing cleavage and not leg.

Okay, remember when earlier I said the protagonist is a ten year-old? Yeah, the movie makes this quick shift for much of the first act to being ladies getting hot for Granger. It’s almost like it’s a kids’—well, boys’, there’s nothing for a ten year-old girl except learning hot dudes like Granger get to treat them terribly and they should go back begging for more—but it’s like Moonfleet is a kids’ movie with stud Granger in it for Mom and all his ladies for Dad. It’s weird. Especially since the sexual nature of Granger’s various relationships isn’t implied. It’s explicit. Granger’s best pal is George Sanders, a lord who slums it at Granger’s pad to get wasted, gamble, and hook up with loose poor women. It’s okay because his wife, Joan Greenwood, knows all about that behavior. She’s fine with it, because she and Granger are schtupping. Sanders suspects he’s being cuckolded but isn’t sure and isn’t really too worked out about it. Granger’s subplot—or the closest thing he gets to a subplot in the ninety minute picture—involves Greenwood wanting him to run off with her and Sanders. Sanders is keen to it because Granger is ostensibly a lower class scoundrel who climbed the social ladder. Greenwood just wants to keep schtupping Granger, just not in England.

Back to ten year-old Whiteley. Much of the first half of the film has Granger trying to get rid of him. Or Granger’s smuggler gang threatening to kill Whiteley. Granger’s got a tenuous hold on the leadership role. At least until he shows off his sword-fighting skills to convince to rabble to stay in line. So it’s one of those kids’ adventure movies where the kid is in constant threat of vicious murder and there’s wanton (1950s acceptable) sex. Moonfleet is weird.

Whiteley’s adventure has him trying to find his grandfather or great-grandfather’s hidden treasure. Everyone in the town has been trying to find it for years but they’re all really dumb because once Whiteley gets one clue, Granger is able to figure it out.

The other major reason Moonfleet is weird is it manages to work. Lang’s direction is never particularly good. He doesn’t do action well. Not just the sword-fighting, which has bad editing (from Albert Akst), but like stage direction. It’s sluggish, like Lang is making the actors move too slowly across the Cinemascope frame. Robert H. Planck’s photography is also… unimpressive. The day-for-night stuff is always wonky, but the various interiors are always a little off too. The film’s got some really nice sets. Planck just doesn’t seem to know how to light them effectively. It’s fine. Lang doesn’t know how to shoot them effectively either. Moonfleet would probably work a lot better, visually, in black and white and Academy Ratio. Lang and Planck utterly wasted the Cinemascope.

And the script is slight. Supporting characters aren’t memorably written or performed. None of the supporting performances are bad—though all the men’s makeup is bad and there’s a lot of it; it’s bad on all dudes but Granger—they just aren’t memorable. Even though the smuggler gang is a bunch of recognizable faces, none of them distinguish themselves.

But Granger and Whiteley are both really good. Whiteley gets through lots of bad dialogue and sells the earnestness right. He brings some depth to the part; like, we don’t know what this kid’s life has been like, even if he does sound like a proper little English boy. His accent is a little out of place occasionally, however. And then Granger sort of seems to know he ought to be in this kids’ adventure picture about maybe this scoundrel being the dad and maybe not being the dad but it doesn’t matter because deep down everyone knows he really wants to be the dad. Only Moonfleet isn’t that movie. But Granger pretends.

He’s never more comfortable in the film than with Whiteley and the smugglers and never less comfortable then when with Sanders and Greenwood.

Sanders is okay. It’s a small part with nothing to it and no reason for George Sanders. Other than putting him in a wig and making him as unrecognizable as George Sanders as possible.

Greenwood’s… better than Lindfors? Lindfors seems miserable being in the film. She and Granger have negative chemistry.

So… Moonfleet. It’s a weird fail. The worst part is the end, which—for most of the film—is all the picture’s got going for it, the possibility of a solid ending. And then there’s a misstep and then a stumble and then a face-plant.

Moonfleet doesn’t deserve Whiteley or Granger.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Albert Akst; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox), Joan Greenwood (Lady Ashwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Melville Cooper (Felix Ratsey), Sean McClory (Elzevir Block), Alan Napier (Parson Glennie), John Hoyt (Magistrate Maskew), Donna Corcoran (Grace), and George Sanders (Lord Ashwood).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE STEWART GRANGER BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Lured (1947, Douglas Sirk)

If Lured had gone just a little bit differently, it could’ve kicked off a franchise for Lucille Ball and George Sanders. He’s the high society snob, she’s the New York girl in London, they solve mysteries. But Lured isn’t their detective story; it’s Charles Coburn’s detective story, they’re just the guest stars. Coburn’s a Scotland Yard inspector who has all the latest science—there’s a time-killing typewritten letter analysis sequence at beginning—but isn’t any closer to finding a probable serial killer. Even though the police haven’t found any bodies, they’ve gotten corresponding missing persons from right when they get these creepy poems sent into them.

Ball comes into the story because she’s friends with the latest victim. She and the friend were taxi dancers (Ball had come to London in a show, it closed almost immediately), but the friend was going off with some guy she met in the personals. Coburn—in an adorable and out-of-place (Lured’s got a certain light tone to the danger, but it’s not established by then) scene—recruits Ball to the police force to work undercover as bait. Because if you’re going to buy into Georgian Charles Coburn as a Scotland Yard inspector, you’re going to buy him recruiting Ball to be bait. And of course Ball is going to go for it because she’s scrappy.

So the movie’s gone from Coburn to Ball. Top-billed George Sanders has been introduced separately, as a nightclub owner and professional cad who’s taken a liking to scrappy Ball. Sight unseen. The scrappiness. Sanders has some truly adorable moments in the film, which unfortunately don’t last, but when he moons over Ball’s voice to business partner and best pal Cedric Hardwicke, it’s fantastic. Especially since when Ball and Sanders finally do get together, they’re great. They run out of moments way too quickly, as the film then shifts—middle of the second act—back to Coburn and the police investigation. Both Sanders and Ball almost entirely disappear from the action—even if it makes sense for Sanders, it makes zero sense for Ball (especially since the shift comes right after she’s ostensibly in grave danger)—and instead its cat and mouse between Coburn and his prime suspect. Lured has a protracted scene confirming the audience’s suspicions with Coburn’s. Even though Coburn’s always likable, he’s not really able to carry full scenes on his own. Having Ball come into the movie and give him someone to play off, then the scenes work, because there’s enough energy. But when he’s having wordy showdowns? Eh. It’s like Lured’s already forgotten its had Boris Karloff in a wonderfully goofy (but still dangerous) sequence. Like director Sirk and screenwriter Leo Rosten didn’t know how to pace out their action set pieces. They have all the energetic ones early, with the finales being a little too perfunctory.

It still works out pretty well because Ball’s great, Sanders is great, Coburn’s always likable, and Sirk and his crew do some fine work. The Michel Michelet score often tries to do a little too much, but it’s a fine score. It wouldn’t be doing too much if Sirk hadn’t left too much room. The storytelling is sporadic and needs a cohesive narrative tone to compensate, something to give the de facto vignettes… some, I don’t know, rhythm. Sirk doesn’t have any tonal rhythm. So the music fills in and sometimes a little too loudly.

Great photography from William H. Daniels.

Many of the performances are outstanding. Ball, Sanders, Karloff; George Zucco as Ball’s guardian angel and a recurring narrative element Sirk also doesn’t do quite right. Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray; they’re both good with potential for more (but not in it enough). Coburn’s good. Hardwicke’s all right but the part’s not great. With Coburn and Hardwicke, for different reasons, maybe the problem is the script. Or, just with Coburn, maybe the problem is he’s kind of stunt casting only without there being any followthrough. For Lured to excel, it either needed great performances in Coburn and Hardwicke’s parts or it needed to emphasize Ball and Sanders’s chemistry. It does neither.

Instead, it’s a near success, with some great acting and some excellent filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Leo Rosten, based on a story by Jacques Companéez, Ernst Neubach, and Simon Gantillon; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by John M. Foley; production designer, Nicolai Remisoff; music by Michel Michelet; produced by James Nasser; released by United Artists.

Starring Lucille Ball (Sandra Carpenter), Charles Coburn (Inspector Harley Temple), George Sanders (Robert Fleming), Cedric Hardwicke (Julian Wilde), George Zucco (Officer H.R. Barrett), Alan Mowbray (Lyle Maxwell), Joseph Calleia (Dr. Nicholas Moryani), Tanis Chandler (Lucy Barnard), and Boris Karloff (Charles van Druten).


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The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille)

While Yul Brynner easily gives the best performance in Ten Commandments, until the second half of the movie Anne Baxter gives the most amusing one. She's an Egyptian princess and she's going to marry the next pharaoh. The next pharaoh is either Brynner or Charlton Heston. Cedric Hardwicke is the current pharaoh and Brynner’s dad. Heston is Hardwicke’s nephew, though no one knows Heston is actually an adoptive nephew because mom Nina Foch pulled him out of the river. His real mom had to get rid of him because Hardwicke’s dad, pharaoh at the time, was going to kill all the newborn Hebrew male babies because a falling star told them a newborn male Hebrew baby would lead the enslaved Israelites out of bondage.

So, you know, it's hard to really get into the zone with Commandments when the historical inaccuracies, regardless of whether the filmmakers knew they were inaccurate at the time, slap you in the face. There's already a big artificially enforced narrative distance because director DeMille comes out at the beginning to tell you to be scared of Frankenstein—wait, wrong movie—but director DeMille does introduce the film and tell of its historical accuracy. Sure.

There's also the enforced distance from DeMille’s bible-y but not actual Bible narration. Sadly he never says anything about like, “And lo, Anne Baxter was hot for Charlton Heston’s shiny bod.” It’s a scenery chewing part for Baxter and many of her scenes end with her almost staring into the camera, punctuating her actions in the scene (it occasionally feels like DeMille is doing some kind of Mae West gag). Baxter’s miscast, but has good chemistry with her costars, even if that chemistry never really amounts to any actual sincere moments. Maybe other than Baxter not being able to stand Brynner, which gets less funny in the second half after she has to marry him.

The first half of Ten Commandments—well, more than half; up until intermission—the first half is Heston getting stuck finishing a project Brynner screwed up on because he couldn’t get the Hebrew slaves to build a monument city for Hardwicke fast enough. Heston becomes quickly sympathetic to the slaves’ plight after the Egyptian foremen want to run a trapped old woman (Martha Scott) down with these giant statue pieces. Water bearer Debra Paget tries to save her, can’t, kind of gets stuck, which causes her beau, John Derek (who’s actually greased up more than Heston throughout), to try to save them. He punches out an Egyptian to do it, causing the foreman to stop construction so they can kill him first. Paget goes to get Heston who saves the day because Charlton Heston.

It doesn’t take long for Brynner to conspire against Heston, who’s getting the slaves to work by being nice to them; Brynner screwing with things for Heston eventually leads to Heston finding out he’s adopted and he’s Hebrew. As such, Heston decides he’s got to go become a slave incognito, even though Baxter keeps trying to talk him out of it. Heston gets cast out of Egypt once he gets busted, so Baxter is stuck marrying Brynner. Heston is ostensibly going to pine away for Baxter but once he runs into Yvonne De Carlo and her six horny sisters, his heart starts to mend. It helps De Carlo is willing to share the hole in Heston’s heart with God, who happens to frequently visit a nearby mountain and Heston wants to give him a piece of his mind.

Before intermission, Ten Commandments is always moving. There’s always something going on, always some subplot percolating and then boiling over. Least effective (initially) is star-crossed lovers Paget and Derek. See, Paget’s a really hot slave so all the guys want her, like master builder Vincent Price and scumbag narc slave Edward G. Robinson. And then there’s this fake subplot about Hardwicke’s big party, which occurs but isn’t really a big party. It’s foreshadowing of the second half’s scale issues.

Ten Commandments takes a hit in the second half. There are the plagues, there’s Heston the Silver Fox, there’s the Red Sea, there are the dead firstborn sons, there’s all sorts of stuff and it’s never impressive. The Ten Commandments’s special effects aren’t spectacular. They’re not even particularly inventive. They seem like they were difficult to pull off, but they aren’t the better for that effort. A lot of the problem is the lousy matte shots. Loyal Griggs does an okay job with the photography throughout—there’s not much he can do when they’re shooting exterior scenes on a sound stage, Commandments has a crappy sky backdrop—but he does well with the epic exterior shots and so on. Well, the orgy scene is a little goofy photography-wise but it’s just a little goofy overall.

But until the actual exodus occurs, the second half is mostly Heston threatening Brynner with a plague if he doesn’t free the slaves. Brynner tells Heston to stick it, plague happens, Brynner tells his advisors to stick it, then Heston to stick it, then another plague. By the end of the movie, Brynner’s kind of trapped in this pitch black comedy about being way too vain and way too stupid. Only he wasn’t stupid in the first half. But whatever.

Baxter’s less fun in the second half too because the chemistry with Heston is gone. It’s not like she hits on godly Silver Fox Heston and there’s some spark. There couldn’t be; a spark would light his robes on fire. It’s also indicative of the biggest second half issue—Heston. He ceases to be the protagonist and instead is some kind of bit player who comes on to scare, confuse, or inspire the other cast members. The movie never figures out how to handle Heston now getting divine guidance or how much he knows about what’s going to happen. There’s a disconnect between script and performance on it too, at which point Commandments is just out of luck because DeMille’s already established he doesn’t give a crap about directing the performances.

If he did, he would have gotten enough coverage of dialogue scenes between Heston and Baxter editor Anne Bauchens isn’t stuck doing a harsh cut every single time they go from medium to long shot. Every single time. Actors are on different marks and stuff. Looking in other directions. It’s very lackadaisical, which the movie might be able to get away with if DeMille actually had some great special effects sequences in store. He’s got some enormous scale sequences in store, but what DeMille delivers after all that obviously outstanding coordination between his set decorators and the production managers and whoever yelled at extras? It’s decidedly lacking.

Maybe if there were some booming Heston performance to hold things together but nope. And Brynner and Baxter’s second half arc fills time but is far from successful. It gets time, but that time never pays off. It comes closer than the Robinson stuff, which also never pays off but also gets a lot less engaging as time goes on. It’s too bad; Robinson gives one of the film’s better performances.

Everyone’s basically okay. Except Paget. And Derek’s really one-note. And Price. And Judith Anderson’s mean nanny. And, kind of Hardwicke. Like, you want to cut Hardwicke slack because he’s miscast, but he’s also thin. Like. The part’s thin, he’s miscast, but the performance is still slack. Baxter’s good with him though, probably better than with anyone else. Poor De Carlo comes in before intermission, gets back burnered for her six sisters to make their play for Heston, comes back in, gets more to do, then disappears once intermission’s over. She gets one more significant scene, where Baxter gets to chew up the scene around her. So bummer for De Carlo.

Foch is good as Heston’s adoptive mom.

Pretty good Elmer Bernstein score.

It’s a lot of movie. Some of its good, some of it isn’t, some of it is impressive, more of it isn’t. Brynner’s performance is about the only unqualified plus.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Fredric M. Frank, based on material from books by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, J.H. Ingraham, and A.E. Southon; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), John Derek (Joshua), Debra Paget (Lilia), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), John Carradine (Aaron), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), and Vincent Price (Baka); narrated by Cecil B. DeMille.


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