Warfare is treated dispassionately in this epic film in color by Kurosawa, which is set during the wars of the clans in 16th-century Japan (the period just before the country was unified). Kurosawa seems to be saying that wisdom dictates caution, security, stasis, but that to be alive is to be subject to impulse, to chaos. The film's style is ceremonial rather than dramatic; it's not battle that Kurosawa is interested in here but formations in battle regalia. He appears to see war as part of the turmoil of life, and he asks us simply to observe what he shows us. Perhaps he thinks that this way the horror will reach us at a deeper level. But he's also in love with the aesthetics of warfare-he's a schoolboy setting up armies of perfect little soldiers and smiling at the patterns he has devised. These two sets of feelings may have neutralized KAGEMUSHA-put it at a remove and made it somewhat abstract. The film seems fixated on mountains, triangles, and threes. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the warlord known as The Mountain, and he also plays the thieving peasant who has been condemned to death but whose life is spared so that he can serve as the lord's double. Written by Kurosawa and Masato Ide. In Japanese.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
Based on an actual incident in which German miners crossed the border to go to the assistance of French miners trapped by an explosion, G.W. Pabst's study of disaster and rescue is a powerful and imaginative re-creation of a high moment in human comradeship. The socialist-pacifist implications which Pabst sees in the episode had tremendous international impact in the days when people were more idealistic. In the early 30s it was still possible for large audiences to believe in the symbolic revolutionary meaning of smashing through artificial frontiers for the sake of natural brotherhood. This movie belongs to a genre that has disappeared. Technically a brilliant achievement, KAMERADSCHAFT is famous among film craftsmen for the experimental use of sound, and for magnificent creative editing. The subterranean scenes have a nightmarish authenticity. The cast of French and German players includes Alexander Granach and Elizabeth Wendt. In German.
Satyajit Ray made this ambitious film in color on location in Darjeeling in 1961 (though it didn't open in the U.S. until 1966). Under the primitive working circumstances, the story about love and ambition and the collision of cultures was perhaps too complex, but the setting and the beautiful women help to compensate for the awkwardness and naïveté. With Chhabi Biswas. In Bengali.
Partly financed by Italian television, this film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is composed of adaptations of four folkloric Pirandello stories set in Sicily, plus a prologue and an epilogue. It was intended to be shown on TV, in four installments, as well as in theatres, and when foreign distributors bought the rights to present it theatrically the Tavianis (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) suggested that they should cut one story or another-the one least likely to appeal to their country's tastes. The American distributor decided to run the film in totò. That might be called exemplary, but the result is a mixed blessing. At 3 hours and 8 minutes it's too much movie, and too much harsh beauty. The panoramic grandeur wears you down. You feel emotionally filled by the first and second stories, which are about fate and have superb moments. During the third and fourth, which are about trickery, you feel surfeited. They're hardly worth sitting through, but they take you to the revivifying epilogue, which is a full-fledged epiphany and sends you out dazed and happy. There's greatness in this movie, but it's wise to be prepared for the passages that are clumsy and tedious; don't get angry and leave, or you'll lose the rapturous beauty of the epilogue. With the magnificent Margarita Lozano as the madwoman of the first story, and, in the final moments, Omero Antonutti as Pirandello. Tonino Guerra collaborated with the Tavianis (Paolo and Vittorio) on the script; the marvellous score is by Nicola Piovani; the cinematography is by Giuseppe Lanci. In Italian. Released by MGM/United Artists Classics.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.
Tracy and Hepburn, but not a comedy, and not good, either. She plays the widow of a "great American;" Tracy is a journalist admirer of the dead man who wants to write the definitive biography. The widow won't cooperate with him and puts obstacles in his path because she's trying to conceal the fact that her husband was the secret head of a traitorous Fascist organization. The screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, had become very political during the war years, and he seems to have felt it incumbent on him to stuff the script (based on I.A.R. Wylie's novel) with anti-Fascism. Tracy is monotonous, and Hepburn looks beautiful but suffers all over the place and speaks mournfully, like a spiritualist's medium. It's a gothic wet blanket of a movie, directed by George Cukor, with an impressive, wasted cast-Richard Whorf, Frank Craven, Margaret Wycherly, Horace McNally, Donald Meek, Howard Da Silva, Percy Kilbride, and Audrey Christie. MGM.
One of the pleasanter films in the series starring the suave comedian William Powell as S.S. Van Dine's detective Philo Vance. The plot involves some lively Scotties and a handsome Doberman, as well as that sinister figure, the connoisseur of Oriental objects of art. (In the 30s, Ming and murder always seemed to go together.) Mary Astor, at an in-between stage in her career, has a conventional role that doesn't much suit her; however, most of the other players are cast so inevitably to type that the film is like a demonstration of the principles of running a stock company. The group includes snake-hipped Helen Vinson, wicked Jack La Rue, tedious Ralph Morgan, and Paul Cavanagh, Etienne Girardot, Robert Barrat, Eugene Pallette, Frank Conroy, Arthur Hohl, Henry O'Neill, and Robert McWade. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warners.
One of the better-made Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, and also one of the most popular. George Stevens directed, and Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby did the story and provided the song "One Little Kiss." Wheeler and Woolsey adopt a child (Spanky McFarland), go down to the South to claim his inheritance, and get caught in a feud between families headed by Noah Beery and Lucille LaVerne. With Mary Carlisle, Willie Best, and Margaret Dumont. RKO.
The soporific Maxwell Anderson play is an unlikely subject for John Huston but he steers a shrewd course, bailing Anderson out in order to stay afloat. What the play was supposed to be about-which was dim enough in the original-is even more obscure in the script that he and Richard Brooks (then a screenwriter) prepared, but the movie is so confidently and entertainingly directed that nobody is likely to complain. Huston fills the rancid atmosphere of the setting-a hotel in the Florida Keys-with suspense, ambiguous motives, and some hilariously hammy bits, and the cast all go at it as if the nonsense about gangsters and human dignity were high drama. Humphrey Bogart plays a Second World War veteran-a major who goes to the hotel, which is run by the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of his men. The major has become disillusioned about the value of fighting, but when gangsters (who are symbols of reaction, corruption, Hitlerism) take over the hotel and start killing people, he is forced into action. Bogart wins Bacall, who looks wonderful but gives a stiff, amateurish performance. The most memorable image is that of Edward G. Robinson, as the head racketeer, chomping on a cigar while soaking in a bathtub; he has, as Huston said, "the look of a crustacean with its shell off." For diversion, this home-grown Hitler humiliates his aging, drunken mistress, played by Claire Trevor, who packed such a load of pathos into her role that she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Thomas Gomez, as one of the hoods, and Barrymore do their usual overacting. With Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, Monte Blue, Jay Silverheels, Harry Lewis, John Rodney, and Rodric Redwing. The handsome, airy cinematography is by Karl Freund; the music is by Max Steiner. Produced by Jerry Wald for Warners.
Hollywood at its most virtuous. This account of the adventurous life of a 19th-century Scottish priest-a missionary in China-is like an ad for piety. The humble hero keeps telling people what an uninteresting sort of man he is, and with Gregory Peck in the role we believe it. His saintliness comes across as lack of imagination-utter sterility. How did Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson get trapped into writing the script, which is based on A.J. Cronin's novel? (You couldn't find two writers less suited, by temperament, to inspirational moviemaking.) The director, John M. Stahl, sets a slow, sanctimonious pace and holds to it, with Peck's beautiful, uncharismatic face lighted "from within." (He glows, hollowly.) This is perhaps the most dignified and sexless performance ever given by a rising young male star. With Cedric Hardwicke, Edmund Gwenn, Thomas Mitchell, Peggy Ann Garner, Roddy McDowall, Rose Stradner, Anne Revere, Ruth Nelson, Benson Fong, James Gleason, Sara Allgood, Edith Barrett, Abner Biberman, Vincent Price, Ruth Ford, Richard Loo, and Arthur Shields. Music by Alfred Newman. Mankiewicz produced, for 20th Century-Fox.
The most enchantingly Victorian of Chaplin's features, and perhaps because of the way his sentimentality (which was often awkward, and even mawkish, later) fits the subject, this film seems remarkably innocent and pure. Edna Purviance is the destitute young mother who abandons her infant; Chaplin, the tramp, takes the child to his garret, and five years later the child (Jackie Coogan) smashes windows, which Chaplin, now a glazier and wearing glass on his back like angel wings, repairs. The story is about the love between these two street waifs and about Chaplin's fight to keep the child out of the hands of the authorities. A little girl named Lita Grey (known as Lolita), later to be Chaplin's wife, appears in a dream sequence set in Heaven. Silent.
Wolf Mankowitz takes the language of the East End of London and uses it as a poetic idiom. And he transforms his characters into creatures of fantasy and fable. Directed by Carol Reed, this film has some of the same verbal magic that Mankowitz gave to THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT and EXPRESSO BONGO, and many of the characters could step in and out of any of these films. In this one, a boy looks for the unicorn that can work miracles and finds a sick goat with one horn. Reed achieves enough small miracles to lift the film to an unfamiliar realm, but he can't quite solve the problem of how to tell the story. The success of this type of fantasy depends on the contrast between the child's world and the adult's: in THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, for example, the director stays outside the child's world and we view what goes on inside with terror and apprehension; in WHITE MANE (1952)/CRIN BLANC, Albert Lamorisse helps us to enter the child's domain. Here we are caught in a fairy tale set somewhere in between. The East End is made so fascinating that reality and fantasy are inseparable, and though a child may well apprehend them this way, the fabulous reality confuses the point for us. With Jonathan Ashmore, David Kossoff, Celia Johnson, Brenda de Banzie, Sidney James, Alfie Bass, Vera Day, Diana Dors, Joe Robinson, and Primo Carnera as the ogre.
Sam Goldwyn put a million dollars into this Eddie Cantor musical, and a fair number of them must have gone into the Busby Berkeley dance numbers. Berkeley stages a Spanish-café routine with the Goldwyn Girls forming a human tortilla, and an aquatic sequence with the Girls showing a lot of buxom wet flesh. (Some of the most attractive smiles belong to Lucille Ball, Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, and Virginia Bruce.) Cantor and Robert Young play college boys who are innocently involved in a robbery; they escape to Mexico, where Cantor is mistaken for a matador and is forced to fight in the ring. The film has everything that money could buy-which does not include comic inspiration, though the final bullfight is fairly inventive. It's Cantor himself who doesn't wear well-maybe because he always retained his stage timing and delivery, which are too slow and broad for the camera. Leo McCarey directed, and Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote reasonably pleasant songs and also worked on the script. The cast includes Lyda Roberti, grinning with perverse vivacity, and Ruth Hall, Noah Beery, John Miljan, J. Carrol Naish, Stanley Fields, and the matador Sidney Franklin. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. A Samuel Goldwyn Production.
By 1937, Bette Davis had earned something better than the role of Fluff, girlfriend to a fight manager (Edward G. Robinson), but the movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, and though it has few dimensions it has pace and "entertainment value." Wayne Morris is the bellhop turned fighter, whom Fluff christens Kid Galahad; Humphrey Bogart is the bad guy; and Jane Bryan plays Robinson's sister. With Harry Carey, the ineffable Veda Ann Borg as the Redhead, and, for the finale, a Warners' operatic shootout in which Robinson and Bogart kill each other. (Remade in 1941, as WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT, and in 1962, starring Elvis Presley.)
Jack Pulman has drawn a trim, craftsmanlike screenplay from Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and its sequel, David Balfour. The director, Delbert Mann, keeps everything comprehensible, though he doesn't seem to know how to make the narrative stirring. Fortunately, Michael Caine acts Alan Breck with a mixture of swagger and intelligence that keeps the movie alive. Caine is assisted by Trevor Howard as the Lord Advocate, Lawrence Douglas as David, and Donald Pleasence as old Ebenezer, a Scrooge if ever there was one. Not as exciting as the best swashbuckling adventure movies, but the feeling behind the whole production is so decent and affectionate that viewers may forgive the deficiencies. The exteriors were shot in Scotland.
Sam Peckinpah's poetic, corkscrew vision of the modern world, claustrophobically exciting. The somewhat incoherent story is about a professional killer (James Caan) who turns against his employers-a company with C.I.A. connections-but the energy and the humor appear to derive from Peckinpah's own desire for revenge against his movie-business employers. With Gig Young, Robert Duvall, Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, and Arthur Hill. From a script by Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant. United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.
Stanley Kubrick's second feature (after FEAR AND DESIRE, in 1953) is a poorly written New York-set thriller that culminates in a fight in a mannequin factory. It has vivid feeling for the tawdry milieu but not much else; it's conceived in flashy sequences rather than as a believable story, and the guiding sensibility still seems light years away from Kubrick's third feature, THE KILLING, in 1956. With Frank Silvera. Kubrick also shot the picture and did the writing and editing. United Artists.
Ernest Hemingway's short story about the man who doesn't try to escape his killers is acted out tensely and accurately, and, for once, the gangster-thriller material added to it is not just padding but is shrewdly conceived (by Anthony Veiller and the uncredited John Huston) to show why the man didn't care enough about life to run away. Under the expert direction of Robert Siodmak, Burt Lancaster gives his first screen performance (and is startlingly effective), and Siodmak also does wonders with Ava Gardner. With Charles McGraw and William Conrad in the opening sequence, and Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Donald MacBride, Vince Barnett, and Jeff Corey. (A 1964 version starring Lee Marvin and directed by Don Siegel was intended to be a TV movie but was considered too brutal and was released in theatres instead; the cast includes Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan, at the end of his movie career, as a tough crook.) Universal.
Stanley Kubrick had made two pictures before this one, but they were juvenilia; this shrewdly worked out suspense film, which he made at the age of 27, is the real beginning of his career. Centering on a racetrack robbery, it has fast, incisive cutting; a nervous, edgy style; and furtive little touches of characterization. The cast includes many familiar second-string actors, but they go through enough unfamiliar movements to keep one in an agreeable state of anxious expectation. Sterling Hayden is impressive as the ex-convict who plans the crime (there's a slight melancholy about him). With Elisha Cook, Jr., and fierce, tight Marie Windsor as his mismate; the generally underrated fine actress Coleen Gray; Jay C. Flippen; Timothy Carey as the sharpshooter; Ted de Corsia; Joe Sawyer; Vince Edwards; and Kola Kwarian as the chess-playing wrestler. Adapted by the director, from Lionel White's novel Clean Break; cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Independently produced by Harris-Kubrick; released through United Artists.
Based on Sydney Schanberg's 1980 New York Times Magazine article "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," the British film shows us the Khmer Rouge transforming Cambodia into a nationwide gulag, and the scenes of this genocidal revolution have the breadth and terror of something deeply imagined. Like the article, the film tells the story of how Schanberg (Sam Waterston), who was the Times correspondent in Cambodia from 1972 to 1975, was separated from his interpreter and assistant, Pran (Haing S. Ngor), and of his remorse and general anguish until the wily, resourceful Pran, after four years of slave labor and hiding, made his way into Thailand, late in 1979, and got word to him. It's an ambitious movie made with an inept, sometimes sly, and very often equivocal script (by Bruce Robinson); it's written like a TV docudrama and it bogs down in the crosscutting between Pran's experiences of the atrocities in Cambodia and Schanberg's guilt and misery in various settings in the U.S. At times, it's almost as if Cambodia only existed to make Waterston's Schanberg suffer and soliloquize, endlessly asking, "Did I do what was right?" But it's by no means a negligible movie. Roland Joffé, making his début as a movie director, and the cinematographer, Chris Menges, give us imagery that suggests the work of a macabre lyric poet, and there are accomplished performances-most notably by John Malkovich, Bill Paterson, and Athol Fugard. The score, by Mike Oldfield, mars some of the finest scenes; it insists on hyping death. The cast includes Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, and Julian Sands. Produced by David Puttnam; released by Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.