Category Archives: ★★½

Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Despite producing the film himself, top-billed James Mason doesn’t have the best part in Bigger Than Life. Instead, Barbara Rush–as his suffering wife–gets it. Mason’s a man with a life threatening chronic illness who has to take special medication. Slowly–though not too slowly–that medication starts making him psychotic. Rush is the faithful wife who ignores advice and sticks by Mason’s side, even before she finds out it’s an increasingly known side effect of the medication. After she does make that discovery, it’s basically a rush to the finish with the danger being how far is Mason going to go.

And, actually, he doesn’t go anywhere near as far as one might assume. There’s a bit of restraint, because the movie never wants to make Mason too much the villain. He can be psychologically abusive to son Christopher Olsen, but it takes Olsen a really long time to break down and tell mom Rush how he hates Msaon now. And even after family friend Walter Matthau counsels Rush to call Mason’s doctor–little does she know Mason’s actively deceiving doctor (Robert F. Simon) and has been since his first night home from the hospital. The screenplay–credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, but with some uncredited help–gives Rush a range of fantastic scenes as she copes with Mason’s awful behavior, without ever really giving her a great role. She’s just dutiful wife. Of course she’s going to stand by her man, why wouldn’t she?

Though I suppose Mason’s lack of actual dangerous outbursts, just psychological torture of his family, do play a part. Though it’s not like Rush gets to react to them after the fact. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development. No one does. Not even Matthau, who’s third-billed but an overblown cameo by the second half. In the first act, he’s Mason’s best pal–Mason’s a school teacher, Matthau’s the gym teacher–and essential support to the family. Once Mason’s out of the hospital, the film forgets about him until they need an exposition dump. He’s the one who tells Rush about the drug’s side effects, as well as informs on Mason after Mason loses it at a school open house.

The scene where Mason faces repercussions for the behavior at the open house is entirely missing, as principal Rusty Lane–another pal of Mason’s early on–fades away. The more the story focuses in on just Mason, Rush, and Olsen the more unreasonable the plotting becomes. Director Ray is able to get some real tension in the third act, but it’s almost out of nowhere. The family goes to church, which sets Mason off in unexpected ways. Not at church, however, once they’re home, which makes Mason’s earlier public out burst a little nonsensical. His behavior’s predictable to some degree–he’s abusive at home–but only because home is the only place where the action takes place. Presumably he’s still going to work, but there are no further scenes there after a point, which makes the film more and more Rush’s, which is fine. She’s great. But the narrative’s lacking.

Bigger Than Life does only run ninety-five minutes, however, so there’s only so much it can do. Kipp Hamilton, as one of Mason and Matthau’s coworkers (who Rush suspects is having an affair with Mason at one point), completely disappears after Mason’s first day out of the hospital. She’s there long enough to stir up some masculine pride in his wife’s figure (Hamilton is a snazzier dresser than Rush) so Mason decides to bankrupt the family to get Rush a fancy dress. See, the erratic behavior starts right away, when theoretically Mason is taking his prescribed dose… his abuse gets worse as the film goes along, increasing as his mental problems increase, but there’s no direct narrative connection between the two threads. They’re parallel, understood to be causal, but unexplored.

Instead Mason just gets on this kick where he’s going to save the world from the stupid kids of modernity through a return to classical teaching. It’s not explored much more than that description. The script avoids a lot.

But until the third act, the movie basically holds it all together. It’s not until Rush has a last minute monologue explaining herself, which doesn’t actually explain any of her behavior on screen–the dialogue doesn’t jibe with her performance to this point–it seems like no one really knows how to end the movie. Then the movie sets a goal for how it can succeed and… doesn’t. What should be a great acting opportunity for Mason turns into some schmaltz. Not even enthusiastic schmaltz, much lses sincere.

There’s great photography from Joseph MacDonald, good direction from Ray–who has that wide Cinemascope frame but still manages to confine his actors in it, particularly in the tense home scenes, which are the film’s main type of scene–and some fine production values. Ray doesn’t have quite the handle on the school scenes, particularly not as far as tension goes, but they’re pretty sparse once things get going. One of the best sequences, Mason and Olsen playing football and Mason getting progressively more abusive, seems like it’s out of another film entirely, Ray’s style is so different and MacDonald shooting exteriors is such a visual shift.

The film acknowledges quite a bit about toxic masculinity, though nowhere near all the toxic masculinity it ends up visualizing–and Rush’s eventual capitulation to it–which makes things interesting. It’s another of the film’s little disappointments. The hasty finish keeps everyone aware from any self-examination.

Besides the great performances from Rush and Mason, Olsen’s good as the kid, Matthau’s likable in his part, Simon’s good as the doctor. If Ray gave the entire film as much subtlety as the doctors standing around silently regarding Mason, well, it’d be a much different picture. Though, given the way the script works, maybe not a better one. It’s just a bunch of different style choices in a relatively short amount of time. Even the finale is a style choice. Ray’s great at implementing those styles, just not at making them matter.

Bigger Than Life is pretty good, but cast and crew deserve more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article by Burton Roueche; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by David Raksin; produced by James Mason; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert F. Simon (Dr. Norton), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), and Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JAMES MASON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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The Lodger (1944, John Brahm)

The Lodger begins four murders into the Jack the Ripper killings (the film actually goes over the historical number but also makes some rather liberal changes to the history). Just after a murder occurs, which seems a rather unfortunate event since the victim passes a number of police officers and even a vigilante gang, a gentleman inquires about some lodgings nearby. Said gentleman is Laird Cregar, a pathologist; the lodgings are in Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke’s house. Her sister has passed. Not only is there a sitting room and bedroom for Cregar, there’s also an attic with a kitchen. He’s very interested in the attic. Allgood and Hardwicke have fallen on somewhat hard times–he made a mistake and lost his position, they need lodging income. Cregar overpays. Perfect arrangement.

Hardwicke’s not particularly happy to have a tenant, but Cregar promises he’ll be a model tenant. Though he does go into conniptions about there being portraits of stage actresses on his sitting room wall. And he doesn’t seem thrilled at the prospect of sharing a roof with one–Allgood’s niece, Merle Oberon, is a music hall singer and dancer of growing renown. But all seems well.

Other than Cregar being exceptionally suspicious. Down to giving what seems like has to be a fake name.

As the murders continue, Allgood becomes more and more suspicious of Cregar’s odd behaviors. Hardwicke’s usually the one to dissuade her. And after his initial apprehension, Cregar is able to at least appear kindly towards Oberon, maybe just a little nervous. Cregar’s a big guy, but appears meek most of the time he’s opposite Oberon or the rest of the family.

While Oberon’s new show is opening, a former actress (Helena Pickard) is murdered. She’d just been visiting with Oberon, which leads Scotland Yard to the theater to ask some questions. George Sanders is the inspector. Oberon is what keeps Sanders coming back asking questions. All the victims, he reveals, have been former actresses. Seems Lodger’s Ripper has a definite type.

Soon Allgood’s suspicions finally lead to Oberon and Hardwicke getting more interested, but their initial investigations into Cregar don’t reveal anything suspicious. He’s just a giant, socially awkward, meek pathologist. Even if he did burn his bag at the mention of the Ripper having a bag. And will soon be burning a bloody coat with a flimsy excuse. Oberon’s busy with Sanders’s charming courtship, which starts at Scotland Yard’s murder museum.

When the film gets into the third act and Allgood and Hardwicke finally confide in Sanders–but not Oberon, who’s obviously in great danger but preparing for a bigger opening–everything starts coming together, despite a last minute (and unresolved) foil in the evidence against Cregar. The Lodger doesn’t even run ninety minutes, has two musical numbers, two murder sequences, and it’s still got some occasional padding. What’s unfortunate is how, despite Allgood and Hardwicke being present throughout, it feels like they disappear a bit too much in the second act when Cregar gets comfortable enough to talk to Oberon. And Sanders vanishes altogether for a bit; his subsequent courtship of Oberon, despite showing so much promise, is offscreen and unmentioned. Cregar’s the star, to be sure. Sanders’s second billing is inflated. Arguably so’s Oberon’s top billing but, well, she’s got the two musical numbers and is the unwitting object of Cregar’s obsession.

All the acting is great, particularly Cregar and Hardwicke. Allgood would be better if she had more to do as the film progresses. She’s still great, but the part shrinks. Oberon and Sanders are both good. But they don’t have anything near the “wow” moments Cregar gets. At the start of the film, Lucien Ballard casts a light on Cregar’s eyes to make him appear creepier than he already appears. It doesn’t last for long, just focuses the audience’s attention on Cregar’s odd behavior. Once the light stops, Cregar just gets better. It’s like director Brahm figures out how to showcase his disturbed behavior better, without literal lighted emphasis on him, instead on how to frame Cregar in shots. And Ballard’s there to make sure the shots are phenomenal.

Nice supporting turns from Pickard and Queenie Leonard (as the maid).

Outstanding score from Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer, the sets, Ballard’s photography, Brahm’s direction, and Cregar’s intensity make The Lodger something special. Ballard’s lighting success isn’t just on Cregar or in Brahm’s expressive shots, it’s in the functionality of the gaslight era. He’s constantly changing light in shots as a character will turn off the gas, light a candle, and so on. Or move throughout the house in the same shot. The house itself is never creepy, just dark (which might explain why no one is ever too weirded out by Cregar while they’re at home). There’s also all the exterior stuff–the foggy London streets and alleyways; they’re all beautifully done, but in detail and Brahm’s direction of the action on them.

Barré Lyndon’s script is a tad slight on the investigation stuff, slighter still on the romance between Oberon and Sanders (Sanders being a distinct character is superfluous by the third act, as he doesn’t interact with Oberon with any specificity), and then the postscript. After a fantastic chase finale, The Lodger’s got no resolution.

Still, it’s a rather effective thriller. Exquisitely produced and acted, especially by Cregar, who manages to not so much to humanize a monster but reveal human monstrosity.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Brahm; screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Robert Bassler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Laird Cregar (Slade), Merle Oberon (Kitty Langley), Sara Allgood (Ellen Bonting), Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), George Sanders (Inspector John Warwick), Queenie Leonard (Daisy), Doris Lloyd (Jennie), David Clyde (Bates), and Helena Pickard (Annie Rowley).


THIS POST IS PART OF BLOGATHON JACK THE RIPPER HOSTED BY ALESSANDRO OF REDJACK.


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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)

While Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t deliver much in the way of plot twists, it instead delivers a lot of easy smiles and a handful of good laughs. The easy smiles aren’t just for the action sequences, which often focus on characters’ reactions to them–sometimes relief, sometimes awe at Tom Cruise’s derring-do–but also for the chemistry. There’s not much in the way of character development in Rogue Nation (what does Ving Rhames do in his six months of retirement?), but the actors have a great time onscreen churning out the (relatively light) exposition and going through the espionage motions.

Rogue Nation opens with its biggest set piece–Cruise jumping on a cargo plane, which then takes off. Director (and writer) McQuarrie plays it for a nice combination of laughs and spectacle. Cruise’s sidekicks are all commenting on it, albeit sometimes from thousands of miles away. For the film’s first hour, McQuarrie relies on Simon Pegg for humor. Pegg doesn’t disappoint. After the first scene, it takes a while for Rhames to reappear, while Jeremy Renner (as the team’s permissive straight man) is a constant. First as the chiding presence, then as Cruise and company’s defender once CIA suit Alec Baldwin dismantles the IMF, making Cruise a fugitive.

Cruise is too busy hunting down an unknown villain–Sean Harris–who kidnapped him. Woman of mystery and ostensible Harris lackey Rebecca Ferguson helps free Cruise, just before he has to go on the run from Baldwin. Ferguson and Cruise’s scene, complete with complementary butt-kicking of Harris’s thugs, oozes with chemistry. It takes a while for Ferguson to return to the action; McQuarrie smartly doesn’t focus too much on Cruise–rather Pegg’s angle–because Cruise is… well… a little on snooze when Ferguson’s not present.

Eventually Cruise gets the band back together and travels from Vienna to Morocco to London while pursuing Harris and Ferguson. Baldwin’s after them (sort of) and Ferguson’s disavowed British agent subplot figures in as well. There’s a big car chase in Morocco, a shootout in the Vienna opera house, an underwater heist, and some attempts at plot twists in the U.K. McQuarrie’s set pieces for the third act are all a lot smaller than the ones before. He’s trying to wrap up the film with narrative not action, which is fine, but far from exciting. Particularly because, like I mentioned before… his plot twists aren’t particularly surprising. If they aren’t predictable, they’re entirely inconsequential. Rogue Nation constantly amuses, but never surprises.

It also leaves a couple big questions unanswered, just because they don’t matter once the plot points they’re supporting are resolved. McQuarrie can’t be bothered with anything even hinting at character development. Sometimes he just avoids it by cutting away from a scene and changing the narrative distance–Cruise will take over after a Ferguson solo scene, so her resolution in her own scene becomes a plot point in his new one. Or McQuarrie just forgets about something. It’s more frustrating when he forgets about it, because then it’s clear it never mattered in the first place.

Technically, the film’s excellent. Fine editing from Eddie Hamilton, good photography from Robert Elswit (except in the finale, where it just seems a little too artificial), decent music from Joe Kraemer. A lot of Rogue Nation‘s technical competences are just competences; they’re perfunctory. The film’s strengths are in the performances and the actors’ chemistries. Not just Ferguson and Cruise, but Cruise and Pegg, Cruise and Rhames, Cruise and Renner. Even Rhames and Renner, who do this odd couple schtick for about three minutes spread over a half hour or so. There’s not a lot to their interplay, but it’s damned amusing when they’re onscreen together.

And Harris is good as the odious villain. Rogue Nation sets him up as this terrorist mastermind, but doesn’t show any of the terror (good thing Cruise is really affecting when he’s passionate enough to yell). But when Harris is scheming or terrorizing Ferguson? He’s good. Understated. Maybe the only understated thing in the entire film.

Of the supporting good guys, Pegg’s best. He’s got the most to do. He’s even got the start of a character arc. Renner and Rhames are both fine. No heavy lifting, just easy smiles.

Cruise and Ferguson get the most screen time, with Ferguson getting more of the heavy lifting acting. Cruise has a little, but nothing compared to her. Just more than everyone else. Except–maybe–Pegg. And Cruise gets to do some straight humor scenes, which is nice. Unfortunately, McQuarrie hurries through them.

Baldwin’s in a glorified cameo. It ought to be stunt casting, but it’s hard to identify why it’s much of a stunt.

Rogue Nation is constantly entertaining and never challenging, never ambitious. McQuarrie’s direction is even, he toggles more than adequately between the various elements–humor, action, thriller, exposition–he just doesn’t shine at any of them. Except maybe the humor, which he eschews in the second half for the most part. He’s able to get away with some sincerity, however, thanks to Cruise and company. The actors are able to sell it.

The film’s a fine diversion. But it’s clear from the end of the first act it’s never going to particularly excel overall.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Joe Kraemer; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Dana Goldberg, David Ellison, and Don Granger; released by Paramount Pictures

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Sean Harris (Lane), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Jens Hultén (Vinter), Simon McBurney (Atlee), and Alec Baldwin (Hunley).


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Middle of the Night (1959, Delbert Mann)

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own play for Middle of the Night and there are some clear alterations with original intent. Fifty-six year-old widower Fredric March is in garment manufacturing. His first scene has him hanging out with the other old guys in the factory, kvetching about how there’s nothing to do but visit their children. March’s character isn’t Jewish… but he was in the play. And apparently it was a big deal in the play. In the film, he’s probably Polish–though when he wows Kim Novak with Old World wisdom, it’s called a “European saying.” If it weren’t for Chayefsky’s dialogue for March and the boys–which comes up time and again–it wouldn’t be such a disconnect. Though occasionally March will do a light accent (with the exception of one scene where he goes all in) and it doesn’t come off. March is doing just fine. The film really doesn’t need the failed attempt at subtext leftover from the source play.

Novak is playing March’s twenty-four year-old receptionist. She’s recently divorced from musician Lee Philips (who, shockingly, originated the part on Broadway and isn’t in the film because the studio wanted some bland leading man type) and miserable. Confronted with Novak’s sadness, March shows some kindness. And becomes utterly infatuated with her. His business partner, Albert Dekker (in a devastating performance) is always out with younger women, but paying them for their time–well, putting it on customers’ expense accounts but March has no interest in that kind of thing. He feels sympathy and adoration for Novak. And finally works up the nerve to ask her on a date.

Now, until this moment in the film–the occasional awkward play adaptation aside–Chayefsky’s script hasn’t put any corners. Novak’s big opening scene where she breaks down to March is so thorough it looks like there’s added footage to her monologue (Carl Lerner’s editing occasionally has such problematic cuts it must have been something with the footage director Mann shot). Then the movie skips to their third date, when Novak has a hard talk with March. Now, she swears up and down she didn’t just keep going out with him because he was the boss and, based on the following ninety minutes of film, it’s more than believable. But then what was so successful about those first three dates? Sure, she’s lonely, but not actually alone (her best friend, Lee Grant, gets introduced in the last forty-five minutes but she should’ve been around at the time–not to mention kid sister Jan Norris who goes unmentioned until she appears at the same time as Grant). It seems like Chayefsky’s cutting some corners. And it sticks out. And it sticks out again when Grant and Norris show up, because why hasn’t Novak’s life been important until so much later… The movie wants a pass on it.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where, after promising Novak he’ll leave her alone, March forces himself on her. At the factory, at night (presumably the Middle of the Night), and basically breaks her down into agreeing to their romance. But he’s good to her, even if it’s a little paternal. Or so she keeps saying. Their scenes together tend to be their problem scenes. March is incredibly likable so it’s all reasonable, he’s just always in a mood when he’s with Novak, which is all of her scenes in the movie until after the halfway point. Novak making their relationship seem real is a heck of a lot more impressive than what March has to put into it. He’s just got to puff out his chest because she’s this gorgeous twenty-four year-old who wants him. Or does a reasonable facsimile of wanting him.

Middle of the Night’s biggest defect is the utter avoidance of honesty between Novak and March. There’s a bit of a showdown scene in the third act, before a deus ex, but it’s too little, too late. They’re more than willing to be honest away from each other–the scene where Novak lays it out to best friend Grant is fantastic, ditto the one where March finally talks to Dekker about being a dirty old man (just a nice one)–and it’d have done wonders for the character development for them to be honest together. Especially if it had been in the first half of the picture or so, because Middle of the Night is kind of long at two hours.

It’s always well-acted, it’s beautifully directed and photographed (Joseph C. Brun’s black and white is breathtaking), and Chayefsky’s dialogue is always on point–when there’s not too much dialect flourish–so it’s not a bad two hours at all. The third act has some great pay-off, it just comes a little too late. All that time Chayefsky’s script skips over is apparently not just for the onscreen action, it’s like the character development paused for it too. Other than March’s puffed chest. Novak’s on pause for most of the movie.

With the exception of Philips, all the acting is good. March is great. Novak’s like one moment of onscreen realization away from being twice as good (the movie’s way too condescending towards Novak’s character). Edith Meiser’s good as March’s sister, who lives with him and doesn’t like the idea of Novak. Shocker. Joan Copeland plays one of two daughters–the other one doesn’t figure in at all. She’s really good at the beginning, when her writing is better; in the second half of the film, both she and Mesier are basically competing for bigger harpy. Martin Balsam’s fun as Copeland’s husband. It’s not a great part, but he does well with it.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, Grant’s the best. She’s got one hell of a monologue about the misery of married life, which echoes Dekker’s–just separated by gender… and thirty plus years–she’s also the only one who’s able to make believe she’s got any concern for Novak. Sister Norris and mom Glenda Farrell at one point seem like they’re going to help Philips assault Novak, they’re so passively cruel and actively dismissive of her agency. The movie wants to say something about Norris being a young tart but doesn’t. And Farrell wins the harpy contest.

Every time Middle of the Night gets problematic, you just have to wait it out and eventually Mann will do something great or Brun will have an amazing shot and March and Novak will have gotten through whatever contrived problem they have and it sails on until the next problem. Then it just grinds until it passes again. And so on. March and Novak mesmerize, against the glorious black and white New York–fantastic score from George Bassman too. There are a lot of successful parts (the lead performances, the technical aspects–save those bad Lerner cuts, which don’t seem to be his fault), it’s just not a success overall. Someone needed to make some hard choices and neither Chayefsky nor Mann did.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play; director of photography, Joseph C. Brun; edited by Carl Lerner; music by George Bassman; produced by George Justin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian Englander), Martin Balsam (Jack Englander), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Jan Norris (Alice Mueller), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), and Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE LOVELY LEE GRANT BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS and CHRIS OF ANGELMAN’S PLACE.


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