A Night at the Opera

US (1935): Comedy
92 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The Marx Brothers sometimes said that this was their best film; it isn't, but it was their greatest hit. Two beautifully stuffed American targets-grand opera and high society-are left dismantled, flapping like scarecrows. (If you ever could listen to Il Trovatore with a straight face, you can never do so again.) Many writers have tried to analyze Marx Brothers wit, coming up with little monographs on "dissociated thinking," "disguised social protest," or "commedia dell'arte." Think about it too much and sanity, like a lettuce leaf, begins to wilt and curl at the edges. Marx Brothers keep turning corners you didn't know were there, and while you're trying to break down the content of lines like Groucho's "You big bully, why are you hitting that little bully?," you miss the series of non sequiturs that are piling up on top of it. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind did the script, from a story by James Kevin McGuinness, and with additional material by Al Boasberg; Sam Wood directed. The cast includes Groucho's perennial grand-dame inamorata, Margaret Dumont, the most stately of stooges (her smirking dowager is rather like a comic derivative of Edna Purviance in Chaplin's movies). There are also the vocalizing lovers, Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, whom Irving Thalberg, the producer and a master diagnostician of popular taste, put in for people (what people?) to "identify with," and the cruel villain, Walter Woolf King. (Incredible as it may seem, the banal romantic melodrama which intermittently wrecks the movie proved sound at the box office.) This comedy has its classic sequence: the stateroom scene, which is widely regarded as the funniest five minutes in screen history. It will sustain you through the dreadful duets. With Sig Rumann. MGM.

A Night Full of Rain

Italy (1978): Drama
104 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette
Also known as THE END OF THE WORLD IN OUR USUAL BED IN A NIGHT FULL OF RAIN.

Except for flashbacks this Lina Wertmüller film made in English takes place during one very wet night. A Communist Italian journalist (Giancarlo Giannini) and a rich American feminist photojournalist (Candice Bergen) have been married 10 years, and in all that time they've been having sexual intercourse only in the missionary position. On this night, she suggests that she'd like to try something else, and there's much dishevelment, hysteria, shrieking, and running out into the rain--and the marriage collapses. The entire film has a tutti-frutti romanticism, and parts of it rank with such kitschfests as YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE and THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. The couple live in a lavish apartment that is gorged with objets d'art, family mementos going back hundreds of years, a photograph of Coppola and Fidel Castro, a basset hound, a de Chirico; it represents Europe, or maybe history, or civilization. There's a Greek chorus that talks directly to the camera, often in leering closeups, and it materializes whenever the two need ideological prompting in their male-female warfare. Cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno. A Liberty Film Production, for Warners release.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Night Games

Sweden (1966): Drama
90 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as NATTLEK.

It's set in a castle in Sweden and it features the kind of depraved upper-class partying at which the question "Don't you wish you were dead?" is answered by "I'm dead already." A jazz ensemble plays as Ingrid Thulin gives birth (to a dead child, of course), and at a wedding-night party the groom (Keve Hjelm), who can't make it, gets up from bed, lets the birds out of their fancy cage and puts the cage on himself. And he vomits great gushing torrents--i.e., his whole past life. At a final party, he dynamites the castle which, because it is where his childhood took place, is presumably the block to his potency. He literally blasts through. It all seems like a huge joke but Mai Zetterling directs in a stark, grand manner, and, despite the posturing (out of Fellini and Bergman), she's gifted. The movie is ludicrous, but it isn't dead. There's a startling sequence of the groom as a child caught masturbating. The mother and the wife are look-alikes, but the wicked bitch mother is excitingly played by Thulin as a fierce despot, the wife (Lena Brundin) is a Reformation madonna with sad eyes and heavy breasts. And while the wanly virtuous young couple are having their anguished wedding-night roll, the "degenerates" run a porny home movie they've made, and it's quite lively. With Naima Wifstrand. The screenplay, by Zetterling and David Hughes, is based on her novel. (The picture caused scandals at a couple of film festivals.) In Swedish.

A Night in Casablanca

US (1946): Comedy
85 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Standing on the sidewalk, Harpo pushes against a wall. A policeman accosts him: "What do you think you're doing--holding up the building?" Harpo nods, and the angry policeman pushes him away. The building collapses. In this comedy the Marx Brothers dismantle the international-intrigue thriller; the Warner Brothers, producers of the movie CASABLANCA, were indignant and tried to stop the production. Though not as famous as the Marx Brothers' films of the 30s, this picture is funnier than all but a handful of their earlier ones. Groucho manages the hotel in Casablanca where all the spies hang out, and Chico runs a fleet of camel taxis. With Sig Rumann, Dan Seymour, Charles Drake, Lisette Verea, and Lois Collier. Directed by Archie Mayo, from a script by Joseph Fields, Roland Kibbee, and Frank Tashlin. Produced by David L. Loew; released by United Artists.

Night Must Fall

US (1937): Thriller
117 min, No rating, Black & White

Robert Montgomery, the foremost romantic light comedian of the early talkies, startled movie audiences when he took this role of a baby-faced killer--a Cockney psychopath carrying a sinister hat-box. Adapted (just barely) by John van Druten from the Emlyn Williams play, this shocker, set in an isolated cottage, is stage-bound but very scary. Intelligent, repressed Rosalind Russell is drawn to the smiling, thick-lipped Montgomery but becomes frightened when she sees him wheedling his way into the affections of a silly, spoiled old lady (Dame May Whitty). The direction, by Richard Thorpe, is somewhat ponderous (in the we-want-to-be-sure- you-are-catching-every-single-detail MGM manner), but the penny-dreadful theatrics are gruesomely effective. This is one of the rare movies in which the viewer loathes the potential victim (Dame May Whitty) and still doesn't want to see her get it. With Alan Marshal, Merle Tottenham, Kathleen Harrison, and E.E. Clive. (A 1964 English version, directed by Karel Reisz and starring Albert Finney, was insistently cinematic, and a mess.)

Night Nurse

US (1931): Thriller
72 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

There's a memorable moment in this hardboiled early talkie melodrama when a drunken rich woman has passed out on the floor of her home, and Barbara Stanwyck, the nurse who is tending the woman's sick children, stands over her and says disgustedly, "You mother!" William Wellman directed this picture in his fast, unvarnished style; it has a grungy likability. Clark Gable is the sexy villain, a thieving gigolo-chauffeur in a black uniform; his specialty is socking women. Stanwyck gets it right on the jaw. But Wellman knew how to use Stanwyck for her unsentimental strength, and she does some no-nonsense slugging of her own that startled audiences at the time--and helped make her a public favorite. With Joan Blondell, who is funny and vivacious as the heroine's pal, and Ben Lyon, Charles Winninger, Ralf Harolde, Edward Nugent, and Marcia Mae Jones. From a novel by Dora Macy; adapted by Oliver H.P. Garrett, with additional dialogue by Charles Kenyon. Warners.

The Night of the Following Day

US (1969): Crime
93 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

Fancy kidnapping-for-ransom movie, with the production designed in gold and brown and blue and black, and the characters silhouetted against white walls and talking in pseudo-casual gangster jargon. Playing cardboard-cutout thugs, Marlon Brando (gold-haired to match the visual scheme) and Richard Boone have an edge of irony that makes the bad movie seem a joke we're all partly in on. Rita Moreno (also gold-haired), who plays a ticky little drug addict, gives an expert, stylized performance. With Pamela Franklin and Jess Hahn. Directed by Hubert Cornfield, who wrote the script with Robert Phippeny, based on Lionel White's novel The Snatchers. Cinematography by Willy Kurant. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

The Night of the Hunter

US (1955): Thriller
93 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Despite its peculiar overtones of humor, this is one of the most frightening movies ever made (and truly frightening movies become classics of a kind). Robert Mitchum is the murderous, sex-obsessed, hymn-singing soul-saver with hypnotic powers, and his terrified new wife (Shelley Winters), who has a boy and a little girl from an earlier marriage, becomes his fervent disciple. He is something of a Pied Piper in reverse: adults trust him, children try to escape. The two kids' flight from the madman is a mysterious, dreamlike episode--a deliberately "artistic" suspense fantasy, broken by the appearance of a Christian variety of fairy godmother (Lillian Gish). The adaptation of Davis Grubb's novel was James Agee's last film work, and this shadowy horror fable was the first and only movie directed by Charles Laughton; it was a total financial disaster, and he never got a chance to direct again. With Evelyn Varden, James Gleason, Don Beddoe, and Peter Graves. Cinematography by Stanley Cortez; produced by Paul Gregory. United Artists.

The Night of the Iguana

US (1964): Drama
118 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Richard Burton is the defrocked clergyman working as a tour guide; Ava Gardner is the strumpety widow who operates the rundown Mexican hotel where the action centers; Deborah Kerr is the saintly, middle-aged spinster from Nantucket, travelling with her 97-year-old poet-grandfather (Cyril Delevanti); Sue Lyon is the teenager out to seduce the minister; and Grayson Hall is the head of the schoolteachers' tour group. The director, John Huston, brings some coarse melodramatic vitality to the Tennessee Williams play, but whatever poetry it had seems to have leaked out. And without that the movie is terribly obvious, sentimental, and plain dumb. It's also indifferently made. MGM.

Night of the Living Dead

US (1968): Horror
96 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It would be fun to be able to dismiss this as undoubtedly the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh, but it also happens to be one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made--and when you leave the theatre you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience. It's about a night when the dead rise and eat the living; seven people (the most resourceful one is played by Duane Jones) take refuge in a farm house, and we watch as the relentlessly marching, hungry corpses come in and tear at them--and we see, in closeup, the devouring of hearts, lungs, entrails. Made by George A. Romero, who photographed and directed on a budget of $114,000. The film's grainy, banal seriousness works for it--gives it a crude realism; even the flatness of the amateurish acting and the unfunny attempts at campy comedy add, somehow, to the horror--there's no art to transmute the ghoulishness. (The dead also rise and come toward us at the climax of Abel Gance's pacifist film J'ACCUSE, but the effect there goes far beyond the grisly-scary; the horror has grandeur.) At first this film received almost no attention, but in two or three years it became a hit at midnight showings after the regularly scheduled feature--and not just in the U.S. but in Tokyo, Paris, and other centers.

The Night of the Shooting Stars

Italy (1982): War/Drama
106 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette
Also known as LA NOTTE DI SAN LORENZO.

In its feeling and completeness, this film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani may rank close to Jean Renoir's bafflingly beautiful GRAND ILLUSION, and maybe because it's about the Second World War and Renoir's film was about the First, at times it's like a more deracinated GRAND ILLUSION. The story is a woman's memories of her adventures as a 6-year-old in a Tuscan village and its environs during the summer of 1944, when the American troops were rumored only days away, and the Germans who had held the area under occupation were preparing to clear out--preparations that included mining the houses so they could blow them up. Yet this setting is magical, like a Shakespearean forest, and the woman's account has the quality of folklore and legend, and even its most tragic moments can be dizzyingly comic. The full fresco treatment that the directors give to the events of that summer is based on their own wartime experiences as adolescents, and on the accounts of others; it's this teeming, fecund mixture, fermenting in their heads for almost 40 years, that produces the film's giddy, hallucinated realism. With Omero Antonutti (who was the father in PADRE PADRONE) as the leader of the group of two or three dozen villagers who sneak away in the night to find the Americans. The script is by the Tavianis and the producer, Giuliani G. De Negri, with the collaboration of Tonino Guerra; the score is by Nicola Piovani; the cinematography is by Franco di Giacomo. In Italian.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Night People

US (1954): Drama
93 min, No rating, Color

It's set in Berlin: a U.S. soldier is kidnapped; he is rescued by a U.S. Intelligence Officer (Gregory Peck), who knows how to deal with the Russians. They are "a methodical bunch of lice" and "head-hunting cannibals." That's the level of the film's anti-Communism; it's simply a reworking of the anti-Nazism of the previous era. Nunnally Johnson, who wrote the screenplay and produced and directed this melodrama, referred to it as "Dick Tracy in Berlin." Efficiently put together, on a large scale, the film is basically part of America's public relations romance with itself. With Broderick Crawford, Anita Björk, Buddy Ebsen, Rita Gam, Walter Abel, Jill Esmond, and Peter Van Eyck. 20th Century-Fox. CinemaScope.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.

The Night Porter

Italy (1974): War/Drama
115 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A porno gothic, set in Vienna in 1957 and veneered with redeeming social values. As Max, a former Storm Trooper, Dirk Bogarde presides over an s & m Grand Hotel; Charlotte Rampling, who got her sexual education from him when she was a 14-year-old in a concentration camp, arrives and wants more of Max's brand of love. The film's claim that it's saying something important is offensive, but the picture is too crudely trumped up to be a serious insult. Directed by a woman, Liliana Cavani--which proves no more than that women can make junk just as well as men. With Philippe Leroy and Gabriele Ferzetti; produced by Robert Gordon Edwards.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Night Shift

US (1982): Comedy
105 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This isn't much of a movie but it manages to be funny a good part of the time anyway. The comedian Michael Keaton is a human whirligig with saucer eyes and quizzical eyebrows--the face of a puzzled adolescent satyr. As attendants at the morgue, he and Henry Winkler play off each other very gently. Keaton is part hipster, part innocent lost soul; he's the idea man, and he seems to have all the screwed-up big-city energy in his jive talk and his jiggling movements, but when he has to carry through on any of his schemes he falls apart. That's where the shy, steady nerd Winkler comes in. Though this comedy is based on a newspaper item about two young men who were caught operating a prostitution ring, using a city morgue as their headquarters, it seems wildly improbable and about two-thirds of the way through, the situations begin to have the TV blahs. Still, Keaton, in his movie début, is an original, the director, Ron Howard, is one of the few young directors who know how to set up a scene so that gags can blossom, and there are a lot of attractive performers, especially the talented Shelley Long as a satiric version of the girl next door. Also with Gina Hecht, Bobby Di Cicco, and Richard Belzer. From a script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Produced by Brian Grazer; a Ladd Company Release through Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

The Night They Raided Minsky's

US (1968): Comedy
99 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

An affectionate parody tribute to burlesque, with a minimum of plot and a maximum of evocative stage routines. It's lightweight and disorganized; it's a shambles, yet a lot of it is charming, and it has a wonderful seedy chorus line--a row of pudgy girls with faces like slipped discs. Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom play a comedy team, Joseph Wiseman (memorably, elegantly funny) is the senior Minsky, Elliott Gould is the junior Minsky, and as the country girl who does interpretive dancing, Britt Ekland has her warm, big smile that is a happy substitute for acting. Directed by William Friedkin; choreographed by Danny Daniels; score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; cinematography by Andrew Laszlo. The script by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michaels, and Norman Lear is based on an entertaining book (of the same title) by Rowland Barber. Also with Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Forrest Tucker, Jack Burns, and Bert Lahr, whose role was reduced to little more than a glimpse because he died during the shooting. Produced by Lear; United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

A Night to Remember

UK (1958): Disaster
123 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Tear-stained melodrama has an undeniable power; the 1953 American film TITANIC, which centers on the marital miseries of Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, attracted large audiences and still attracts TV watchers. This version of the disaster, made by the English, has been generally ignored here. It's a straightforward account of how, in 1912, the scientifically constructed, "unsinkable" liner set out for New York on its first voyage with 2207 people on board, struck an iceberg, and sank in 2 hours and 40 minutes (just 37 minutes longer than it takes to see the movie). Eric Ambler's screenplay, derived from the book by Walter Lord, is well-written in a solid, unsurprising way. You come out with a clear perception of what, according to fairly reliable evidence, actually happened. This, it turns out, is far more exciting than the usual screenwriter's contrivances. Roy Baker directed this shrewd, slick job of historical reconstruction, using 200 actors with Kenneth More as the linking figure among them. There are no big-star roles, but the movie is full of small dramas. The cast includes the skinny-faced young David McCallum, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell, Frank Lawton, George Rose, Ralph Michael, Laurence Naismith, and Alec McCowen. The cinematography is by Geoffrey Unsworth.

The Nightcomers

UK (1972): Drama
96 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Ingenious but literal-minded prelude to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, showing how Peter Quint (Marlon Brando) and Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) corrupted the children. Quite well done--Brando is shockingly sadistic as the working-class lout and Beacham is very fine--yet pointless, since it is effective neither as a horror story nor as a psychological study. It leaves the viewer cold--perhaps even repelled. How could anyone think this movie would be entertaining? Michael Winner directed the English production, from a script by Michael Hastings. With Thora Hird and Harry Andrews.

Nightmare Alley

US (1947): Crime
111 min, No rating, Black & White

A tough-minded treatment of telepathy. It opens in the carnival world, where the ultimate in how low a man can sink is represented by the Geek, who bites the heads off live chickens; shuddering dipsomaniacs take the job, for a bottle a day. We know that this is what is in store for the smart, smiling young climber Stan (Tyrone Power); this shrewd, absorbing movie is about how he gets to that point. Stan eagerly and ruthlessly learns everything he can from the plump mind reader Zeena (Joan Blondell, in a rich, intensely likable performance), after getting rid of her burnt-out partner (Ian Keith, who brings unexpected depth to his small role). Using Zeena's tricks, Stan becomes a headliner in a Chicago nightclub and begins to sample the possibilities of spiritualist rackets. The film loses its imaginative energy once it moves out of the ripe, sleazy carny milieu, and from the start the technique of the director, Edmund Goulding, is conventional, even a little stodgy. Still, the material, adapted from William Gresham's novel by Jules Furthman, is unusual and the cast first-rate. Power, who persuaded 20th Century-Fox to let him play the double-crossing heel-charlatan, puts his black-Irish good looks to ambivalent effect. With Coleen Gray giving one of her freshly thought-out performances as Stan's girl; Helen Walker as Lilith, the blackmailing psychologist who outsmarts him; Taylor Holmes as the aged industrialist who is conned into believing that Stan can help him communicate with his dead sweetheart; and Mike Mazurki as the carny strong man. Cinematography by Lee Garmes.

Nights of Cabiria

Italy (1957): Drama
110 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette
Also known as LE NOTTI DI CABIRIA.

Possibly Federico Fellini's finest film, and a work in which Giulietta Masina earns the praise she received for LA STRADA. The structure is a series of episodes in the life of Cabiria (Masina), a shabby, aging, dreamy little Roman streetwalker--a girl whose hard, knowing air is no protection against her fundamental gullibility, which, we finally see, is her humanity and her saving grace. A famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) picks her up and takes her to his luxurious villa; she goes to a cheap vaudeville show, and when the magician hypnotizes her, the innocent dreams of her adolescence pour out; a young man in the audience (François Périer) meets her and proposes to her, etc. Though the film seems free and almost unplanned, each apparent irrelevance falls into place. (It was the basis for the Broadway musical--and the movie musical--SWEET CHARITY.) In Italian.

Nine Days a Queen

US (1936): Historical/Drama
80 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as TUDOR ROSE.

When Henry VIII died, his small son, Edward VI, succeeded him; when the boy died, the Warwicks and Seymours placed Lady Jane Grey on the throne, and for nine of the bloodiest, most chaotic days in England's history, she was queen. The English film version of these events is a restrained, unimaginative dramatization of the conspiratorial trap, with the young, hapless Jane (played by the gifted Nova Pilbeam) at its center. Robert Stevenson directed, and Miles Malleson wrote the dialogue. Desmond Tester is little Edward, and you'll find the familiar, welcome faces--almost like a royal family by now--Cedric Hardwicke, Sybil Thorndike, and inevitably, Felix Aylmer, and John Mills, as well.

Ninotchka

US (1939): Comedy
110 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

"Garbo Laughs," said the original ads, but there is by now a widespread story that when the time came for her laughing scene she pantomimed laughter beautifully, but no sound emerged; it was later provided by someone anonymous. The rest of her performance is her own--and she brings her incredible sensual abandon to the role of a glum, scientifically trained Bolshevik envoy who succumbs to Parisian freedom--i.e., champagne. The film includes a historic encounter, when the great instinctual artist of the screen meets the great stylist and technician of the stage--Ina Claire, as a Russian grand duchess. The fur flies exquisitely. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this light, satirical comedy has the nonchalance and the sophistication that were his trademark--but it also reveals that this time the trade marked him too high. There's an obviousness here; we can feel that we're being played down to. And there's a jeering cynicism built into the script: the Russians don't defect for freedom but for consumer goods. With Melvyn Douglas, Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi, Alexander Granach, George Tobias, and Edwin Maxwell. Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch, from a screen story by Melchior Lengyel. (The material is no more than a musical-comedy turn, which it became in the stage musical and film SILK STOCKINGS, 1957.) MGM.

No Minor Vices

US (1948): Comedy
96 min, No rating, Black & White

A glossy little oddball--part sophisticated farce, part nothing in particular. Louis Jourdan, bouncing around as a volatile young artist, has considerable charm. Dana Andrews plays a fatuous, psychologically oriented physician who disapproves of the artist's "decadent" painting and "immoral" way of life. The artist gets back at him by appealing to the sympathy of his wife (Lilli Palmer); the doctor is quickly twisted into knots. There's a wonderful sequence, involving an attempt to cook lobsters--a precursor of the episode in ANNIE HALL. Directed by Lewis Milestone, from a script by Arnold Manoff that doesn't have enough going on. (Milestone has nothing to cut away to.) With Jane Wyatt and Norman Lloyd. Cinematography by George Barnes. Released by MGM.

No Time for Comedy

US (1940): Comedy
98 min, No rating, Black & White

S.N. Behrman's romantic comedy about life in the theatre, adapted by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. The film is halfway between play and movie and it doesn't quite work as either; it lacks a spark, but it has amusing repartee and good New York "types," and it starts out well. A boyish Minnesota hick (James Stewart) writes a sophisticated drawing-room comedy about titled lords and ladies; it becomes a hit and he marries his star (Rosalind Russell) and writes a succession of hits. But he meets a rich, blond muse (Genevieve Tobin) who flutters her eyelids while telling him that he has deeper possibilities--that he's a "latent artist"--and his head gets puffed up. At this point the picture stalls and becomes more forced. The supporting players are very assured in the way they hit their laugh lines, especially Allyn Joslyn as a wise-guy Broadway director, Clarence Kolb as a producer, Charlie Ruggles as the muse's husband, and Louise Beavers as an actress who, between jobs, works as a maid. But Rosalind Russell's line readings are too rhythmic and mannered, and her no-nonsense, sceptical modern-woman role is tiresomely true-blue, and although James Stewart dominates the film with ease, there's not much excitement in what he does. The film recalls that period when people could stroll in Central Park at night while waiting for their reviews, and then flip to the theatre page in one newspaper after another. Lamely directed by William Keighley, for Warners. With J.M. Kerrigan, Lawrence Grossmith, and Frank Faylen as a cab-driver.

No Way Out

US (1987): Thriller/Crime
116 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This is a film noir without malevolence or mystery. It's a Yuppie thriller: it has no psychological layers. Mostly it involves chasing around the glass offices and corridors of the Pentagon (actually Stage 27 at the old MGM studios in Culver City). But many people respond to it with hot, jumpy enthusiasm--especially to the high-level friskiness and the display of thigh in a stretch limo. A reworking of the plot of the Kenneth Fearing novel The Big Clock (filmed in 1948, with Charles Laughton as a Henry Luce figure) the Robert Garland script features Gene Hackman as an arrogant Secretary of Defense who discovers that his mistress (Sean Young) has a lover--though not who it is--and, in a rage, accidentally kills her. His wormy yes-man aide (Will Patton) dreams up the idea that the lover is an as yet undiscovered--perhaps only hypothetical--Russian agent named Yuri, who can be blamed for the murder. Needing a front man for this coverup, they arrange to have a naval hero (Kevin Costner) put in charge of the search to find the lover and "neutralize" him. This naval hero is, of course, the lover, and the movie, told from his point of view, is about his peril. There's a surprise at the end--a twist that has a logic, if you take the whole movie as a wacko joke on Oliver North as the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). But it's a surprise you don't want--a fizzle. The director, Roger Donaldson, whips the action along, with camera angles changing so fast you hardly have time to ask what the chases are for or why the story points don't follow through. He can't do much about Young's archness though, or her peals of phony laughter; she may look like Kay Kendall, but she acts like a nutbird Ali MacGraw. With Howard Duff, George Dzundza, Iman, and Fred Dalton Thompson. Cinematography by John Alcott; editing by Neil Travis. Orion.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

None But the Lonely Heart

US (1944): Drama
113 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This was made at Cary Grant's instigation. He acquired the rights to the Richard Llewellyn novel, set in the East End of London, and he played Ernie Mott, a young Cockney drifter who grew up in oppressive poverty and lacked the will to leave the ghetto for good. Grant's friend Clifford Odets wrote the script and directed (for the first time). It was an extraordinary début film: Odets brought off some hard-earned effects with an élan that recalled Orson Welles' first movies. He also gave the material the rich melancholy of his best plays. Too much of it, however: the dirge-like, mournful, fogged up atmosphere seemed fake and stagey, and the film failed at box offices. It made a pervasive, long-lasting impression, though. And as Ernie's mother, who runs a secondhand furniture shop, Ethel Barrymore had perhaps her greatest screen role. In a few scenes, she and Grant touched off emotions in each other which neither of them ever showed on screen again. But he's not as vivid in the memory as she is. This precursor of the 50s rebel-hero was the only character Grant ever played that he is known to have consciously identified with, yet he seems somewhat miscast. With June Duprez, of the plaintive, puzzlingly perverse face and voice, as Ernie's girl; Barry Fitzgerald; George Coulouris; Roman Bohnen; Dan Duryea; Rosalind Ivan; Konstantin Shayne; and Jane Wyatt. The cinematography is by George Barnes; the musical score is by Hanns Eisler. RKO.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

North by Northwest

US (1959): Thriller/Spy
136 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The title (from Hamlet's "I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw") is the clue to the mad geography and improbable plot. The compass seems to be spinning as the action hops all over the U.S., people rush about in the wrong direction, and, for no particular reason, the hero-played by Cary Grant-heads north (by Northwest Airlines). Though not as cleverly original as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, or as cleverly sexy as NOTORIOUS, this is one of Hitchcock's most entertaining American thrillers. It goes on too long, and the script seems shaped to accommodate various set pieces (such as the chase on Mount Rushmore) that he wants to put in. But it has a classic sequence, in which a crop-dusting plane tries to dust Grant, and it has a genial, sophisticated, comic tone. Just about everybody in it is a spy or a government agent (except Grant, who is mistaken for one). His performance is very smooth and appealing, and he looks so fit that he gets by with having Jessie Royce Landis, who was born the same year he was, playing his mother. The heroine is Eva Marie Saint, who doesn't seem quite herself here; her flat voice and affectless style suggest a Midwestern Grace Kelly, and a perverse makeup artist has turned her face into an albino African mask. With James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau as the blue-eyed menace Leonard, and, in smaller roles, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Carleton Young, Adam Williams, and Ned Glass. The music is by Bernard Herrmann; the script, by Ernest Lehman, has a family resemblance to Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS (and bits of it turn up again, slightly transposed, in Lehman's script for Mark Robson's THE PRIZE). MGM.

The North Star

US (1943): War
105 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette
Also known as THE ARMORED ATTACK.

Samuel Goldwyn produced this Second World War monstrosity in his typical shiny prestige format. Anne Baxter, Farley Granger, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Ann Harding, Walter Brennan, and Jane Withers are Russians living in a village that fights back against its German invaders. Lillian Hellman wrote the script, Aaron Copland composed the music, James Wong Howe did the careful, studio-style cinematography, and Lewis Milestone, who had made his reputation with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT--WHICH was about the humanity of the young German soldiers who proudly went off to die in the First World War--disgraced himself by directing this slick piece of propaganda, which dehumanizes the Germans and, in the process, romanticizes the Russians so fondly that they're turned into Andy Hardy's neighbors. Among the stock characters are Erich von Stroheim, Dean Jagger, Martin Kosleck, Tonio Selwart, Esther Dale, Paul Guilfoyle, and Carl Benton Reid. The film was doctored to change its political slant and reissued in 1957 under the title ARMORED ATTACK. Released by RKO.

Northwest Passage (Book I-Rogers' Rangers)

US (1940): Adventure
125 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Plodding adventure story with a rather queasy point of view. Even those Boy Scouts who revel in the hardships of the stalwart martinet Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy) and his Rangers in this pre-Revolutionary story may become uncomfortable when these heroes attack and burn a village of sleeping Indians. Directed by King Vidor, from the novel by Kenneth Roberts. With Walter Brennan, Robert Young, Ruth Hussey, Nat Pendleton, and an endless Technicolor landscape of the Lake Champlain district. MGM.

Nosferatu

Germany (1922): Horror
84 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Directed by F.W. Murnau, the original, superbly loathsome German version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is a concentrated essay in horror fantasy, full of weird, macabre camera effects. Though ludicrous at times (every horror film seems to become absurd after the passage of years, and many before--yet the horror remains), this first important film of the vampire genre has more spectral atmosphere, more ingenuity, and more imaginative ghoulish ghastliness than any of its successors. The movie often seems more closely related to demonic painting than to the later, rather rigid vampire-movie genre. Because Murnau concentrated on scenes of suggestive and horrible beauty and didn't make the narrative line very clear, those who have had little contact with bloodsuckers may be helped by a bit of outline. Henrik Galeen's adaptation of the novel changes the setting from Victorian England to Bremen in 1838. A real-estate agent in Bremen sends his young, recently married clerk to the Carpathian woods to settle some property matters at the castle of Nosferatu (the Vampire). An emaciated skeleton of a man with a rodent face, Nosferatu spends his days in his coffin, his nights sucking blood. The clerk, though weakened by the nightly loss of blood, escapes and returns to his wife. But Nosferatu follows: he boards a sailing ship for Bremen and, incarnating and carrying pestilence, he infects the whole crew. The phantom ship reaches Bremen, and Nosferatu meets the wife, who, knowing that vampires cannot survive the dawn, surrenders herself to him. As the morning sun breaks into her bedroom, Nosferatu dissolves. The influence of this film can be seen in movies as disparate as Bergman's THE MAGICIAN (the opening sequences of the coach) and Godard's ALPHAVILLE (the use of negative film). With Max Schreck as Nosferatu. (In 1978, Werner Herzog made NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, in homage to Murnau's film.) Silent.

Nothing but the Best

UK (1964): Comedy
99 min, No rating, Color

Though enormously talented, the English writer Frederic Raphael (DARLING, TWO FOR THE ROAD, TV's The Glittering Prizes) falls back on facile, brittle irony. Pictures made from his scripts have a distinctive tone--a bitchy cleverness that tends to go sour--and there's a self-satisfied air about them. In this satirical comedy about the class system, Jimmy (Alan Bates), a young clerk in a real-estate company--a working-class climber--is eager to learn how to pass for a member of the upper class. Denholm Elliott plays an aristocratic scrounger, a cynically cheerful rotter who moves in with the go-getter and tutors him in bad manners and casual arrogance. As the agent--a quick study--rises in the world, the movie suggests a satiric ROOM AT THE TOP, but then it turns melodramatic (Jimmy's amorality includes murder) and it deflates, losing whatever impudent charm it had. All along, the material is shallow: everybody is class-conditioned, in the most obvious ways, and they're no more than their conditioning--it's poison-pen writing. Directed by Clive Donner, who seems to have an oral fixation--Jimmy's dream rich-girl (creamy-skinned, red-headed Millicent Martin) has a sexy toothy smirk, and his lecherous landlady (Pauline Delaney) has a big lewd mouth, which we see so often that it's like a seal of doom on the movie. Bates is skillful, though, and Elliott (who has the best role) is close to inspired. With Harry Andrews, James Villiers, Lucinda Curtis, and a glimpse of Bernard Levin. From a short story by Stanley Ellin; cinematography by Nicolas Roeg; the title song is sung by Millicent Martin.

Nothing in Common

US (1986): Drama/Comedy
118 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

As the boyish advertising man who says, "It's economically unsound to grow up," Tom Hanks is like an updated version of the cocky reporter heroes of 30s movies, but the script puts him in a mawkish situation. After 36 unhappy years, his unworldly housewife mother (Eva Marie Saint) leaves his garment-salesman father (Jackie Gleason), and the son is thrust into the grown-up role of being a mainstay to each of them. He discovers that he has a bond with his sour, self-centered father, once a wizard at selling, who loses his job and is losing his sight, too. The movie is Death of a Salesman as a sit-com, with the father's misery used as a lesson to the swinging Yuppie son. Through helping his father--even when it means risking some of his standing in the advertising world--he grows up and develops a sense of values. Directed by Garry Marshall, from a script by Rick Podell and Michael Preminger, this Chicago-set comedy-weepie (in the manner of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT) is best in its hard-edged parodies of advertising. Its moralizing is insufferable, and so is the way everything is flagged for you. This isn't a movie; it's television on a big screen. With Hector Elizondo, Barry Corbin, Bess Armstrong, Sela Ward, and Conrad Janis and the Unlisted Jazz Band. The cinematography, by John Alonzo, is an awful mixture of glossy and drab. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Nothing Sacred

US (1937): Comedy
75 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A screwball satire that was a huge success. What are generally sentimentalized as "the little people" are the targets of this famous 30s comedy. Ben Hecht, who wrote the script, has them dripping crocodile tears over a girl they think is dying of radium poisoning, and enjoying every minute of it. The audience may begin to wonder what makes the reporter-hero, Fredric March, and the girl, Carole Lombard--who was by that time "the Duse of daffy comedy"--any different. The answer can only be that they, like the author, hate phoniness. William Wellman's direction is more leisurely than usual; he has such good material here that he takes his time. There are classic sequences: March, the New York City sophisticate, arrives in a small town and learns how the natives feel about strangers when a small boy runs up and bites his leg; the swozzled Lombard passes out while showgirls impersonating the heroines of history parade in her honor. And a great slugging match between March and Lombard. With Walter Connolly as the dyspeptic big-city editor, Charles Winninger as the alcoholic small-town doctor, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom in his acting début, and Frank Fay, Margaret Hamilton, Monty Woolley, Hattie McDaniel, John Qualen, Hedda Hopper, and Sig Rumann. (The film spawned a Broadway musical, Hazel Flagg, as well as a movie with Jerry Lewis in the Lombard role.) A David O. Selznick Production.

Notorious

US (1946): Thriller/Spy
101 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Hitchcock's amatory thriller stars Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of a Nazi, a shady lady who trades secrets and all sorts of things with American agent Cary Grant. The suspense is terrific: Will suspicious, passive Grant succeed in making Bergman seduce him, or will he take over? The honor of the American male is saved by a hairbreadth, but Bergman is literally ravishing in what is probably her sexiest performance. Great trash, great fun. With Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Madame Konstantin, and Reinhold Schunzel. Script by Ben Hecht; cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff; music by Roy Webb. A David O. Selznick Production, for RKO.

Now, Voyager

US (1942): Drama
117 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A campy tearjerker variation on the Cinderella story: a psychiatrist (Claude Rains) enables the sexually repressed, neurotically dowdy Bostonian Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) to become an attractive, confident woman. The scenarist, Casey Robinson, adapted the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, the genius of kitsch who also wrote Stella Dallas; both novels are about the glories of female self-sacrifice. A couple of the most quoted bits in film history come from this movie: Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and tenderly handing one to Davis, and her parting line to him: "Oh, Jerry, don't ask for the moon--we have the stars." The best scene may actually be Charlotte's brisk dismissal of her priggish suitor, played by John Loder--"Let's not linger over it." The score, by Max Steiner, aims right for the jugular; the director, Irving Rapper, is just barely competent, and the action plods along, yet this picture is all of a piece, and if it were better it might not work at all. This way, it's a schlock classic. (Mary Gordon's novel Final Payments has the markings of an 80s equivalent.) With Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville, Lee Patrick, Ilka Chase, Charles Drake, Franklin Pangborn, James Rennie, Frank Puglia, and Janis Wilson as Tina. Warners.

The Nutcracker, The Motion Picture

US (1986): Dance
89 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette

There's a sensuousness about seeing ballet on a big screen, and Carroll Ballard, who directed, uses it so that we identify with the young heroine's dreams of romantic fulfillment, and identify, too, with the way she fights off the kinds of recognition that growing up involves. The movie is poised at that moment in childhood when this child longs to go to adults' parties and be treated as a lovely young lady but also wants to escape and run upstairs to play with her toys. It's a fairy-tale Christmas-party movie that avoids confectionary innocuousness--partly because the designs, by Maurice Sendak, have his low-down, bad-boy klunkiness. The movie has an enchantment that's distinct from that of the stage versions--even, no doubt, from that of the production it's based on, the one choreographed for the Pacific Northwest Ballet by its artistic director, Kent Stowell, and designed by Sendak, that had its première in Seattle late in 1983. Ballard's is an ideal sensibility for a movie that tells its story primarily in non-verbal terms. The landscape of this film is childhood before the hormones begin to rage. Yet your responses to things are already being affected. You have strange thoughts about dirty old men who compete with princes, and you accuse the old men of putting rodents in your dreams. But the accusation itself is part of a dream. The dancers of the Pacific Northwest Ballet are a fresh, well-trained group. From the E.T.A. Hoffmann story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Music by Tchaikovsky.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Nutty Professor

US (1963): Comedy
107 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Jerry Lewis in a Jekyll-and-Hyde story that provides him with one of the best gimmicks of his career: as Julius Kelp, he's a shy, clumsy chemistry professor, a simp with specs and rabbity teeth, but when he drinks his formula he turns into a brash, domineering hipster singer named Buddy Love-i.e., a cartoon of Dean Martin. Lewis has reconstituted his former team but now plays both halves, and working within this format he has some scenes that can hold their own with the classic silent comedies. The picture is very erratic, and it's too long and repetitive; Lewis, who also directed and wrote the script (with Bill Richmond), has always had trouble knowing when to drop something. But he had the good taste to cast Stella Stevens as the heroine; with her just faintly infantile sexiness, she's a remarkably curvy and pert straight woman. Lewis plays the hapless Julius for childlike pathos, and Buddy for hollow-man Las Vegas loathsomeness; yet in his TV appearances in the years that followed he moved even closer to Buddy Love-even down to singing loudly and off-key, and being aggressively maudlin as he milked the audience for approval. With Kathleen Freeman, Howard Morris, Henry Gibson, and Les Brown and his band. Paramount.

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