As I mentioned a week or so ago, Turner Classic Movies spent the entire month of February (and a couple of days of March) running nonstop Oscar nominees, 24 hours a day. I cleared out my DVR and grabbed everything that looked interesting, and I’ve been watching them as fast as I can (which works out to about one every three days. I don’t have a lot of time). I won’t bore you with gigantic reviews of each one, but here are some general thoughts:
The French Connection: Everyone knows this for the chase scene, though in my experience very few people have actually seen the chase scene, and even fewer have seen it in context. My advice: go out and watch this movie right now. One of the reasons that chase scene works as well as it does (and it works astonishingly well) is that it’s the only burst of action in a very tense movie about watching–the good guys watch the bad guys, sitting in parked cars or listening on wire taps or standing in the cold and trying to look suspicious. One of the best scenes (possibly rivaling the chase) is an extended sequence where Gene Hackman tails a French drug dealer through the streets and down to the subway, trying to stay on his tail while the Frenchman suspiciously tries to figure out who is tailing him, and how to escape. There’s so little dialogue in this movie you could watch it with the sound off, and yet you’d always know what’s going on because it’s just so GOOD. If you’ve watched the chase on youtube and wondered what the big deal was, do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing. It’s awesome.
Alfie: I tried to like this, and just couldn’t get into it. The movie that made Michael Caine a star, for crying out loud. I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me.
Stage Door: A comedy from 1937 starring Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and a very young Lucille Ball, along with a slug of other women (and one man) you’ll probably recognize if you watch a lot of old movies (Gail Patrick, Eve Arden, Ann Miller; I could go on and on). I loved this movie, absolutely loved it, though the overarching story was a little wonky and the ending faltered for a bit (just a bit) into awkward melodrama. The dialogue, on the other hand, absolutely crackled, with joke on top of joke on top of insult on top of sly innuendo, in such a rapid-fire onslaught that I couldn’t help but smile. The premise is simple: a bunch of aspiring actresses/dancers/etc. live in a boarding house in New York, and they all try to get jobs and have lives and stay afloat; it’s mostly comedy, with an odd turn toward drama that ultimately works pretty well (though the turn itself is a little jarring). I kept waiting for the writers to run out of steam with the dialogue, but they just kept going and going, and half of the scenes play like verbal fencing matches. Some of the conversations between Rogers and Patrick (and, of course, between Rogers and Hepburn) were absolute marvels of character and wordplay. If we had more than a handful of really gifted comediennes in modern Hollywood, you could remake this today with very few linguistic updates–though I really want to go through and clean up the narrative a little, because the ending is too good to be almost spoiled by a couple of bad missteps.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre: Humphrey Bogart in one of his rare non-heroic roles, as a homeless bum in Mexico who scrounges up enough cash to go prospecting for gold. He and his two companions find some, far more than they’d expected, and the generally honorable slowly degrades under the force of such powerful greed that he almost starts to hallucinate, seeing robbers and treachery behind every shadow. It’s kind of slow, and has an ending almost certainly dictated by a clueless Hollywood producer, but the greed for gold and the madness it creates are fascinating to watch. Also of note: this movie is the origin of a very famous quote, but I didn’t know that going in, and it was an awesome surprise to see it come flying out of nowhere. I won’t spoil it–watch and see for yourself.
Mrs. Brown: A movie by and for historians, not because it had any special academic merit, but because it lacked any semblance of a story that might have made it appeal to non-historians. It turns out that when Queen Victoria was widowed, she went into mourning for years, threatening not only the peace in her family but the viability of the monarchy itself. During this time she was befriended, sort of, by a Scottish highlander named John Brown, who sort of helped her come out of her shell and get back to real life. Sounds like a pretty cool story, huh? Well, this is not that story, though it does contain a lot of scenes that make you think it might be. It’s basically just a bunch of stuff that happens, and in the beginning the queen is sad and at the end she’s still sad but in a different way, and John Brown kind of helps but also kind of doesn’t, and I honestly don’t know what to tell you. After 90 minutes or so I told my wife I had no idea what the movie was actually about–what it was trying to say, or where the narrative arc was going–and then about twenty minutes later it was over, and I still had no idea. We had about fifteen solid minutes at the beginning, where it looked like we’d get to watch Brown (Billy Connolly) pull Victoria (Judi Dench) out of her funk, but then that part ended, and then it just kind of meandered around until it stopped. It’s worth watch for some very good performances (including a young Gerard Butler showing off the full power of his native Scottish burr), but if you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated with movies that don’t go anywhere, steer clear of this one.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: A classic John Ford Western, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and the guy who did the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood (turns out that wasn’t a voice–that’s just how he talked). The title comes right out and tells you what happens at the end–someone shoots evil gunman Liberty Valance–but the point is that you don’t know which of the two heroes does it until the end, and what it means, and how it changes everything. What you’re really watching is a parable about the rule of might versus the rule of law, which could become heavy-handed with the wrong artists at the helm, but that uncertainty makes it work. Includes some rousing speeches and some classic Wild West moralism (Westerns have always been one of the film genres most urgently concerned with morality), and just thought-provoking enough to be satisfying.
The Road to Morocco: Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made a series of goofy, slapstick, self-referential comedies that were, at the time, the biggest movies ever; this was arguably the very best of them, and I was shocked at how well it held up over time. There are a couple of jokes that have deflated over the years (a jab or two at the previous films, which modern audiences probably haven’t seen, and a scene making fun of speech impediments), but for the most part this movie is just as funny today as it was in 1942. The reason it works is the interplay between Hope and Crosby, who are always on the run, always ready to sell each other out to save their own skin, and yet always determined to march into hell to rescue their best friend. I laughed out loud at this one many times, proving that over-the-top screwball humor never goes out of style.
I still have plenty of movies left in the queue, so watch for more mini-reviews in the future. For now, go out and watch a few of these and let me know what you think.
Also: if I were forced to pick a favorite from this list, just one that I recommend more than any other…ouch. The French Connection might win, because it really is as good as people say, but on the other hand Stage Door has Ginger Rogers, on whom I have a humongous crush. See The French Connection for ingenious plotting, and Stage Door for ingenious writing (and for Ginger Rogers doing the best drunk scene I’ve ever had the pleasure to see).