Category Archives: ★★½

A Shock to the System (1990, Jan Egleson)

A Shock to the System is almost a success. It’s real close. It has all the right pieces, it just doesn’t have enough time at the end to put them away in their new arrangement. Everything’s in disarray because the film changes into a thriller—with a different protagonist—for a while in the third act. After spending the entire movie with Michael Caine, who even narrates, the film temporarily changes perspective to his love interest, Elizabeth McGovern. It’s only for a few minutes—System runs just under ninety so everything’s just for a few minutes—but it jostles the film enough it can’t pull off a perfunctory finish. And it needs a perfunctory finish because budget. System’s got shoot in New York City with good actors but not blow up expensive things budget.

Caine is a Wall Street yuppie who commutes from Connecticut. The movie starts with him about to get a big promotion; boss John McMartin is expecting to lose his job in an imminent merger. Caine’s excited because he feels like he’s unappreciated, even though everyone who works for him thinks he’s a swell guy (including McGovern, who’s got a crush on him). Caine’s wife Swoosie Kurtz is excited because now they’ll finally have enough money for all the things she wants to buy. An implied but completely unexplored subplot is Caine marrying Kurtz for money. Even though there are hints at Caine wishing they were more affection, they never have any chemistry to suggest he married her for her money and she married him because he was going places.

So, of course Caine doesn’t get the job. Worse, one of his kiss-ass underlings (Peter Riegert) gets promoted over him. Caine leaves work early to simmer and gets into an altercation with a homeless guy on the subway platform. The homeless guy dies. And nothing bad happens to Caine.

Although the film opens with Caine getting a literal Shock, that household incident isn’t the inciting incident for anything. It’s a framing detail; the film itself is about Caine realizing he’s a sociopath and figuring out how to use it to his advantage.

The film makes a lot of hash, in the first act, out of Caine being too nice of a boss. He’s not enough of a yuppie scumbag. He doesn’t fire people. He also doesn’t… have any great ideas about his job. It’s just his turn. The only reason he gets any sympathy for not getting the promotion is because Kurtz is mean and Riegert is a weiner. One of the weirder reasons Riegert is a weiner is because he’s dating a model (Haviland Morris) who he likes dating. After the promotion, Caine and Kurtz have to go out to Riegert’s lake house and, ew, they seem to like one another. It’s a strange shortcut for the film to take.

But it’s fine because Caine’s able to carry it. See, he’s empowered now and he’s not going to put up with Riegert’s shit. There’s only so much Caine is going to take from Riegert, Kurtz, or anyone else. McGovern is one of the only bright lights in Caine’s life, even if he’s too busy being miserable with Kurtz to notice McGovern giving him the look.

Once gets around to acting on his newly found murderous instinct, he finds himself almost immediately on cop Will Patton’s radar. Caine’s not good at pretending he cares. It makes sense to the audience because Caine’s narration has made him to… the film’s version of sympathetic. More sympathetic than anyone else. Because Caine’s real good at playing to sympathies, the audience’s and McGovern’s. When he finally does show his truer nature to both, it starts the film moving towards McGovern’s stint as protagonist.

Caine’s outstanding. He’s the movie. McGovern’s got some good moments and some nice implications of deeper thoughts, but her character is pretty thin. McGovern tries to deepen it but there’s only so much she can do. Director Egleson tries to compensate for McGovern’s lack of material with some meaningful shots, but the movie’s less than ninety minutes; they’re all meaningful shots. Especially the way Egleson shoots the film. He, cinematographer Paul Goldsmith, and editors William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank do some great work in the film. The way Egleson and Goldsmith shoot McGovern and Caine’s courtship, the way the editors cut it—it’s all superb. And probably why, once the film shifts gears, it’s never able to get back up to speed. They lose too much momentum.

Riegert’s pretty good. He resists chewing on scenery a little much, but it works to imply more depth. Probably.

Kurtz is fine. It’s not a great part and it’s not a great performance, but it’s not a bad one. It’d be nice if there were some nuance to she and Caine’s relationship, but it’s not Kurtz’s fault. Egleson and screenwriter Andrew Klavan just can’t be bothered.

Patton’s okay too. Similar situation to Kurtz.

Jenny Wright gets a nice small part as McGovern’s roommate who starts working for Caine at the start of the film as an example of him being nice, hiring McGovern’s friend. Actually, it’d make the most sense if the film were from her point of view. But anyway.

A Shock to the System has a strong performance from Caine, a good one from McGovern, some spectacular direction from Egleson, some great filmmaking, and some very questionable eighties-to-nineties music from Gary Chang. The music’s a problem. Unless Caine’s preference for smooth jazz is supposed to be a sign of his sociopathy.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jan Egleson; screenplay by Andrew Klavan, based on the novel by Simon Brett; director of photography, Paul Goldsmith; edited by William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Patrick McCormick; released by Corsair Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Graham Marshall), Elizabeth McGovern (Stella Anderson), Peter Riegert (Robert Benham), Swoosie Kurtz (Leslie Marshall), Will Patton (Lt. Laker), John McMartin (George Brewster), Jenny Wright (Melanie O’Conner), Haviland Morris (Tara Liston), Philip Moon (Henry Park), and Barbara Baxley (Lillian).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND MARVELLOUS MICHAEL CAINE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS.


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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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Red Dust (1932, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how much would be different about Red Dust if the film weren’t so hideously racist, particularly when it comes to poor Willie Fung (as the houseboy), but at least it wouldn’t go out on such a nasty note. Especially since the finale, despite being contrived, at least plays to the film’s strengths, which it had forgotten for a while.

Red Dust’s strengths are Jean Harlow and, at least when they’re bantering, Clark Gable. It’s not about the performances being better than any of the others—all the performances are good, with the exception of Fung, but… that one isn’t his fault—it’s just Harlow’s the most likable person in the picture. Sometimes it seems like she’s the only likable person, just because the other likable folks are offscreen somewhere, sent away so Gable can seduce married woman Mary Astor.

The film starts with Harlow ending up at Gable’s Vietnam rubber plantation. Well, actually, it starts with Gable and occasional sidekick (and likable folk) Tully Marshall overseeing the plantation. Lots of quick expository action, lots of casual racism involving the workers (it’s okay, though, because Gable works hard like a white alpha male should—though it turns out he inherited the plantation from his dad and seemingly grew up there so, wow, what a dick), then in comes Harlow. After some good banter, they end up canoodling. Harlow’s hiding out from some problems in Saigon, where she’s probably a working girl. Red Dust is Pre-Code but it’s still 1932 and all.

So once she and Gable hook up, the movie jumps ahead three weeks or so. They’ve been shacked up, but it’s time for her to go. She’s sweet on Gable, even though he’s an abject asshole; he doesn’t even seem to notice. Red Dust is great for passive displays of not just white man’s “burden” but also toxic masculinity and privilege. John Lee Mahin’s script is rather unaware of itself. Not blissfully, it’s not an intentional move on Mahin’s part, it’s just baked in no one would ever think about those things, which almost plays to its favor. Once Gable’s doing nothing but romancing Astor, well… if the script were avoiding anything, it’d be hard to tolerate Gable.

Anyway. After the jump ahead, Astor and husband Gene Raymond. Raymond’s Gable’s new engineer, Astor is the wife he wasn’t supposed to bring. Raymond arrives ill, so Gable and Astor have to nurse him back to health. Only then Harlow shows back up because of plot contrivance—albeit a logical enough one—and Gable doesn’t want her contaminating blue blood Astor. Gable’s got to figure out how to seduce Astor while keeping it not just from Raymond, but somewhat from Harlow as well. At least, he doesn’t want Harlow messing it up for him.

The way it plays is celibate hard-ass Gable discovers he likes having a woman around with Harlow, then wants to “trade up” for Astor.

Meanwhile, once Astor arrives, Red Dust is hers for a while. All through her perspective, including the tour of the rubber plantation and how rubber is made. The tour comes relatively late in the picture, given rubber-making is most of what Gable and Marshall talk about it. It’s a rather nice narrative move from Mahin and director Fleming in a film where there really aren’t many nice narrative moves. The script’s not clumsy, just leaden. Gable’s charm plays a lot differently as he manipulates and seduces Astor (and abuses and neglects Harlow).

There’s an obvious finish to all of it, which doesn’t require anything but to completely flush the idea of Astor having a character. Then, after the first flush, when she’s reset, the script flushes her again, taking what starts as a role with quite a bit of potential and reducing it to plot fodder.

Acting-wise, Harlow’s the best, just because she doesn’t go through any character development contortions. When Gable’s not being a complete bastard, he’s good. He’s always fine with the physical aspects of the role, but when he’s in asshole mode he’s just muscling through the material not acting it. Fleming’s no help with directing his actors and they need it with Mahin’s script.

Astor’s better at the start than the finish. In theory she’s got the best character arc, but it all happens off-screen. The film skips over some crucial scenes for her character development (Red Dust runs a somewhat long eighty-two minutes as the scenes with Astor and Gable eventually get tedious). Raymond’s okay as the beta male husband. Not sure if we’re supposed to consciously notice Astor’s taller than him or not.

Marshall’s great as the sidekick (when he’s in the picture) and Donald Crisp is surprisingly good as Gable’s other overseer. Surprisingly because he’s usually passed out drunk in the picture and doesn’t get but two scenes with any activity. But he’s real good in them.

Fleming’s direction is okay. Red Dust is a stage adaptation and occasionally feels like it, but once the monsoon season starts, there’s always something inventive going on visually. Harold Rosson’s photography is excellent. Blanche Sewell’s editing is not, though it appears Fleming didn’t give her enough coverage. And it’s not bad editing, it’s just not excellent editing. It’s fine. Technically, Red Dust is a success.

Dramatically, it’s incredibly problematic (even without the contrivances and frequent, casual racism). The film wastes Gable’s potential and limits Harlow’s.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Dennis Carson), Jean Harlow (Vantine), Mary Astor (Barbara Willis), Tully Marshall (McQuarg), Gene Raymond (Gary Willis), Willie Fung (Hoy), and Donald Crisp (Guidon).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ARTHUR KENNEDY'S CONQUEST OF THE SCREEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT AND VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Trouble with Harry is very cute. It’s fine, the film’s intentionally cute, but it’s also somewhat frustrating. With the exception of the glorious Technicolor exteriors of Vermont leaves, director Hitchcock and photographer Robert Burks don’t do anything particularly interesting. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay is so confined it often feels like Harry is a stage adaptation. It’s not; Hayes’s script is just stagy.

The film takes place over a particularly long day in a small New England town. Lovable old sea captain Edmund Gwenn is out rabbit hunting and finds a dead body. Thinking he’s killed the stranger, Gwenn goes to cover it up, eventually involving local painter and singing stud muffin John Forsythe (Forsythe’s voice sounds nothing like his singing voice). Forsythe happens upon Gwenn after going in to town to charm some groceries out of shopkeep Mildred Dunnock. He also meets local spinster Mildred Natwick, who we’ve already met because she caught Gwenn with the body. And made a date with him. Because New Englanders are naughty.

Gwenn and Natwick at the body is cute, Natwick in the shop is cute, Natwick and Gwenn are going to be cute throughout the movie. Meanwhile Forsythe has his eyes set on new-to-town local single mom Shirley MacLaine, even though Forsythe appears to be friends with MacLaine’s kid, Jerry Mathers. Mathers finds the body in the beginning, even before Gwenn. This jumbling instead of sequential plot recounting is intentional. See, Trouble with Harry is full of twists and reveals in the first half. The second half is all dead body comedy, but the first half is moving its four main cast members into situations together. Gwenn and Natwick, Forsythe and MacLaine. With Mathers popping in as needed. And it turns out he’s occasionally really needed because Hayes and Hitchcock run out of energy so it all hinges on Mathers having been cute enough early in the film.

It works, but it’s a lazy finish. Harry can get away with some lazy because part of the joke is how little people care about the dead body, whether Harry is a stranger or even an acquaintance. Hayes doesn’t have any difficult jokes in Harry. Even when he’s trying to shock, it’s never with a difficult joke. They’re always easy. And cute. Shockingly cute at times, so it helps MacLaine is so cute. And so on.

Hitchcock does really well with the cast, even when they’ve got way too much dialogue (or way too little). At the beginning, when Gwenn finds the body, it seems like he’s going to be Harry’s stage manager and narrate it. Though in talking to himself, not the audience. But then Forsythe shows up and Gwenn never gets to be the lead again. Forsythe’s too charming. And talented a artist. And swell guy.

Though he’s a dick to Natwick in their lengthy first scene together. Eventually the script reins in that character “feature” and Forsythe gets a lot more likable. Though he’s not like anyone else. He’s never cute. Even Royal Dano as dopey local sheriff’s deputy who the Scooby Gang has to hide from occasionally–and who they bully in a shocking display of classist privilege at one point–even Dano gets to be cute. And really sympathetic. Right before the troubled finish.

Though maybe the truncation of the ending saves the film from more derision of Dano, which becomes the focus for the final act. It’s really weird. Either Hayes or the source novel writer totally bungled the finish of the story or Hayes and Hitchcock screwed it up. It’s disappointing.

Gwenn is great. Natwick is great. And they’re adorable. MacLaine is good. And cute. Mathers is never around enough to get annoying.

Dunnock is good too. She seems like she’s going to have more to do than she gets.

Hitchcock’s direction is fine. It’s occasionally precious, which doesn’t clash with the humor but it also doesn’t generate any energy. Great photography from Burks. Awful editing from Alma Macrorie. Some of it is lack of coverage footage, but it’s still awful. There are also these fades to black at the end of jokes or when it’s time to jump ahead in time because Hayes’s plotting is so thin and they never bring anything to the film. Some are fine, but they’re never helpful.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is an unqualified, adjective-free perfect.

The Trouble with Harry is a diverting and often adorable 100 minutes. It’s a fine production. It’s also rather mundane.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Edmund Gwenn (Capt. Albert Wiles), John Forsythe (Sam Marlowe), Mildred Natwick (Miss Ivy Gravely), Shirley MacLaine (Jennifer Rogers), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs), Royal Dano (Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs), and Jerry Mathers (Arnie Rogers).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE THIRD ANNUAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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