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It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

Even though almost every moment of The Maltese Falcon is spent with Humphrey Bogart’s protagonist, director Huston keeps the audience at arms’ length. Most of the film’s more exciting sounding set pieces occur off-screen, but so does Bogart’s thinking. The audience gets to see him manipulating, often without context.

His most honest scenes are with the women in his life–secretary Lee Patrick, damsel in distress Mary Astor, ill-chosen love interest Gladys George. Of course, Huston’s script doesn’t even make it clear (right off) Bogart’s going to be honest in those scenes. Huston reveals it a few minutes later, which is important as Falcon is an intentionally convoluted mystery but only on the surface. It’s more an epical character study of Bogart, something Huston doesn’t feel the need to reveal until the last seven or eight minutes.

Huston’s approach leads to a briskly moving film with a bunch of fantastic scenes. Bogart (and the viewer) see the result of the villains’ machinations, but Bogart saves all the conclusions. He doesn’t share, not with Patrick, not with Astor, not with the viewer. Huston’s exceptionally controlled with the narrative structure. It’s brilliant; he’s able to set up a fantastic conclusion for the mystery, but also for the character study, all because of that structure.

And the acting. Bogart’s phenomenal, so’s Astor, so are Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet almost gets as good of material as Bogart.

Wonderfully playful score from Adolph Deutsch.

It’s a magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Thomas Richards; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Samuel Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Barton MacLane (Lt. of Detectives Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook), Gladys George (Iva Archer) and Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON 2015 HOSTED BY KRISTINA OF SPEAKEASY, KAREN OF SHADOWS & SATIN, and RUTH OF SILVER SCREENINGS.


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The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

John Ford is never trying to be discreet with The Searchers, he’s just not willing to talk down to the audience. In the first ten minutes of the film, he and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent quickly establish John Wayne’s character and his relationship with his family. Ford, Nugent, Wayne and the rest of the cast make it clear–one has to wonder what kind of direction Ford gave the actors (Ward Bond in particular)–but there’s no such thing as expository dialogue in The Searchers.

There are a handful of moments where Wayne is talking to someone and he eschews the idea of going into exposition. The one time he does it–right at the end–is with co-star Jeffrey Hunter, whose character has needed some expository explanation the whole time. More than anything else, the film hinges on their relationship. The film positions Hunter and Wayne against one another while they search together for the same thing–kidnapped Natalie Wood. Their differing reasons, never fully explained, and how they collide with each other throughout the search drive the film.

Almost every relationship in the film is complex–Ford gets magnificent performances out of the cast–just because Wayne’s character is so intentionally out of place amongst the settlers. Meanwhile, Hunter goes through a big, quiet character arc. He has some great courtship scenes with Vera Miles, who’s sort of the unspoken third lead.

Beautiful direction, photography from Winton C. Hoch, editing from Jack Murray.

The Searchers is remarkable.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May; director of photography, Winton C. Hoch; edited by Jack Murray; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry), Harry Carey Jr. (Brad Jorgensen), Antonio Moreno (Emilio Gabriel Fernandez y Figueroa), Hank Worden (Mose Harper), Beulah Archuletta (Look), Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards), Pippa Scott (Lucy Edwards) and Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards).


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Without Orders (1936, Lew Landers)

Without Orders has enough story for a couple movies or at least one twice as long–it runs just over an hour. Instead, everything gets abbreviated. There's flight attendant Sally Eilers who has a sturdy fellow in pilot Robert Armstrong, but he's too concerned about helping her with her career and not enough with sweeping her off her feet. Her sister, Frances Sage, is a nightclub singer who gets wrapped up with Vinton Hayworth's sleaze ball stunt pilot, whose father (Charley Grapewin) owns Armstrong and Eilers' airline.

Needless to say, things get complicated.

For almost the first half of the film, there are these quick little scenes–Orders makes time for the melodrama, but not for anything around it. Ward Bond has a couple moments with personality and they're almost it for the film. It still works out nicely, thanks to the actors.

Hayworth is great as the vain flier; he's simultaneously charming and odious and the script keeps any judgements at bay for a while. Similarly, the script does make Armstrong's sturdiness seem a little boring. Eilers does a lot better with the professional scenes than the romantic ones–Orders is a little bit too chaste, which probably cuts back on the possibilities for her role.

Grapewin and Sage both provide good support.

Where Orders really takes off (pardon the pun), is with the airplane in trouble sequences. Landers does a great job with the actors, sure, but Desmond Marquette's editing keeps everything taut.

It's a little thin overall, but surprisingly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by J. Robert Bren and Edmund L. Hartmann, based on a story by Peter B. Kyne; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Desmond Marquette; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Sally Eilers (Kay Armstrong), Robert Armstrong (Wad. Madison), Vinton Hayworth (Len Kendrick), Ward Bond (Tim Casey), Frances Sage (Penny Armstrong) and Charley Grapewin (J.P. Kendrick).


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