Still of the Night

US (1982): Thriller
91 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

The writer-director Robert Benton is unquestionably intelligent, but he seems to have misplaced his sense of humor, and this murder mystery set in Manhattan shows almost no evidence of the nasty streak that's part of the pleasure of a good thriller, or of the manipulative skills that might give us a few tremors. Meryl Streep plays the icy hot woman suspected of murder, and her performance is all about her hair. It's platinum-white, it hangs bone straight like a curtain, and part of her face is hidden behind it; from time to time she peers up and shakes it back a little. This femme fatale is meant to be guileful and slinky--a woman with neurotic wiles. But Streep's high-strung emotionality isn't fun in the way that Faye Dunaway's has often been. She seems pale and gaunt, and more zombified than anything else. And as the psychologist who is attracted to her yet is afraid that she's a killer, Roy Scheider is competent but colorless; he brings nothing to his role but his physical frame--some sinews, a profile. In the early part, we do get some prickly sensations from Josef Sommer as Scheider's patient and Streep's lover, who works in an art-and-antiques auction house that resembles Sotheby Parke Bernet. Sommer here is like a snide and slightly dirty Trevor Howard; he and Sara Botsford--she's one of the women who work at the auction place--are lovely (in a creepy-crawly way). Shot by Nestor Almendros, the film looks sterile and feels static. With Jessica Tandy, Joe Grifasi, and Irving Metzman; the story line was worked out by David Newman and Benton. Produced by Arlene Donovan. MGM/United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

The Sting

US (1973): Crime/Comedy
129 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

After their hit film BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Paul Newman and Robert Redford swapped mustaches and got together again with the director George Roy Hill. They were darling desperadoes in their previous match; now they're hearty hoods. The cardsharps-and-swindlers-of-the-30s mood isn't as coyly lyrical as before, but it's coy, all right; the script by David S. Ward is a collection of Damon Runyon hand-me-downs with the flavor gone. This is a visually claustrophobic, mechanically plotted movie that's meant to be a roguishly charming entertainment, and many people probably consider it just that. It was hugely successful, and the music--Scott Joplin's piano rags, as adapted by Marvin Hamlisch--was heard throughout the land, and heard and heard. Robert Shaw plays the sullen, stiff-necked menace with a brogue and some bullying force, but the whole movie is full of crooks as sweeties. With Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Dimitra Arliss, Ray Walston, John Heffernan, Harold Gould, Dana Elcar, Jack Kehoe, Robert Earl Jones, Avon Long, and Sally Kirkland. Produced by Tony Bill and Michael and Julia Phillips. A Zanuck-Brown film, for Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Stolen Kisses

France (1968): Romance/Comedy
90 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette
Also known as BAISERS VOLÉS.

This first romantic comedy by François Truffaut is charming and likable, but maybe too easily likable. (The tenderness is a little flabby.) It's a series of improvisations on the young manhood and love life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who was first presented at 12, suffering from the callousness of the adult world, in THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS, and later appeared as an adolescent in Truffaut's episode of LOVE AT TWENTY. Here, Truffaut seems to start with the assumption that we already love his little Antoine and will find his ineptness and incompetence adorable. The feat of a master of improvisation would be to achieve the looseness and texture of "life" and the "magic" of movie art simultaneously--to tell a story as if it had been found. This story seems to have been planted; we're conscious of the players trotting around the streets of Paris playacting for the camera. It's a pleasantly negligible movie, with free, idiosyncratic touches: a little documentary interpolation on the speedy mail service, a lovely moment when the heroine (Claude Jade) teaches Antoine a method of buttering toast, and, best of all, a marvellous character invention--Michel Lonsdale as the man who hires detectives to find out why nobody likes him. (He thinks there must be a conspiracy.) With Delphine Seyrig and Marie-France Pisier. The script is by Truffaut, Claude de Givray, and Bernard Revon; the music is by Antoine Duhamel. In French. Released by United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

Stop Making Sense

US (1984): Documentary/Musical
88 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Directed by Jonathan Demme, this concert film by the New York New Wave rock band Talking Heads is a continuous rock experience that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. In its own terms, the movie is close to perfection. The lead singer, David Byrne, is a stupefying performer who gives the group its modernism--the undertone of repressed hysteria, which he somehow blends with freshness and adventurousness and a driving beat. He designed the stage lighting and the elegantly plain performance-art environment (three screens used for backlit slide projections); there's no glitter, no sleaze. The sound seems better than live sound: it is better--it has been filtered and mixed and fussed over, so that it achieves ideal clarity. The movie was shot during three performances at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, in December, 1983; the cinematography is by Jordan Cronenweth. Released by Cinecom.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Storm Within/Les Parents Terribles

France (1948): Comedy
98 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as LES PARENTS TERRIBLES.

One of Jean Cocteau's two or three greatest films, and one of the finest examples of group acting ever photographed. He took his play about the disorderly, unpredictable parents (Marcel André and Yvonne de Bray) who cannot accept the fact that their son (Jean Marais) is growing up and re-created it for the screen with such skill that a true claustrophobic family atmosphere is achieved. In structure, this is a coincidence-ridden boulevard comedy, but Cocteau lifts it to the realm of tragicomic Oedipal fable. The mother screams for the police when she learns that her son has a girl; Yvonne de Bray's performance is so magically convincing that Marais's actual mother is said to have developed a jealous hatred of her. Gabrielle Dorziat plays the boy's aunt, and Josette Day his girl. Designed by Christian Bérard; cinematography by Michel Kelber; music by Georges Auric. In French.

Stormy Weather

US (1943): Musical/Dance
77 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Vague, wandering show-biz story-a fictionalized bio of Bill Robinson-but marvellous musical numbers. With Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fats Waller (doing "Ain't Misbehavin'"), Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Dooley Wilson, Katherine Dunham and her dancers, the great Nicholas Brothers, Zutty Singleton, Ada Brown, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Benny Carter, and many other black performers and musicians. There are so many famous people in this movie that sometimes there are three or four "greats" packed together in the drably staged scenes. Andrew Stone directed, and Clarence Robinson and Nick Castle staged the dances. The script by Frederick Jackson and Ted Koehler is about as bad as a script can be. 20th Century-Fox. (In HI, MOM!, De Palma parodies the use of sepia for black subjects.)

The Story of Adèle H

France (1975): Biography
97 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as L'HISTOIRE D'ADÈLE H.

A François Truffaut film to rank with SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, JULES AND JIM, and THE WILD CHILD--AND perhaps his most passionate work. The picture is damnably intelligent--almost frighteningly so, like some passages in Russian novels which strip the characters bare. And it's deeply, disharmoniously funny--which Truffaut has never been before. The story, about romantic love fulfilled by self-destruction, is based on the journals of Adèle, the daughter of Victor Hugo; she's played by the prodigious young actress Isabelle Adjani. The visual consistency attained by the cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, enables Truffaut to achieve a new concentration on character. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men

US (1952): Children's/Adventure
83 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Not as stirring a piece of mythology as the Errol Flynn version (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD), but a robust, handsome production; made in England, it's a Disney film that doesn't look or sound like one. (That is a compliment.) Richard Todd is a likable Robin, and his Marian (Joan Rice) is surprisingly spirited. The first-rate cast includes Peter Finch, Michael Hordern, Martita Hunt, James Hayter, and James Robertson Justice. Directed by Ken Annakin; cinematography by Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth.

The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle

US (1939): Musical/Dance/Biography
93 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This was the last (and ninth) of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers RKO pictures. The re-creations of the Castles' dances are painstakingly authentic, and most of them are fun to watch, but the movie is cursed with the dullness of big bios-especially those produced when some of the key figures are alive. And there's another problem-Astaire and Rogers lose their giddy personalities and their romantic breeziness when they're playing husband and wife, and in a period picture (the First World War) at that. With Edna May Oliver, Walter Brennan, Lew Fields, Victor Varconi, Etienne Girardot, Janet Beecher, Donald MacBride, Douglas Walton, Leonid Kinskey, Frances Mercer, and Marge Champion (in those days she was called Marjorie Bell). This may be the only musical in which Astaire ever looked unintentionally funny: when he does a brief Spanish dance he's a howl, because he hasn't the macho fire and anger that it requires. H.C. Potter directed, from a script by Richard Sherman, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Dorothy Yost, based on Irene Castle's memoirs.

Straight Time

US (1978): Crime
114 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

Dustin Hoffman gives what is possibly his finest (and most demanding) performance up to this time as Max Dembo, a paroled robber. Based on the novel No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker, a former convict (who plays the part of Mickey), the film provides a ruthlessly objective view of Max--a man with closer psycho-sexual relations to people from the prison world, such as his viciously zealous parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), than he could ever have with outsiders, such as the scrubbed-faced girl (Theresa Russell) who takes up with him. The script (a synthesis of the efforts of Alvin Sargent, Bunker, and Jeffrey Boam) has first-rate, hardheaded, precise, sometimes funny dialogue, but it errs in bringing this girl too much to the center. Dramatically, the film lacks snap; there isn't enough tension in the way Max destroys his freedom, and so the story drags--it seems to have nowhere to go but down. The director, Ulu Grosbard, falters in most aspects of film technique and he doesn't shape the material; he doesn't enable us to feel what we recognize intellectually--that the movie is really about life inside prison. But he excels in handling actors: scenes between Hoffman and Harry Dean Stanton (as an ex-convict) and between Hoffman and Gary Busey (as a junkie ex-convict) are performed superlatively. And Hoffman's acting suggests that he could have gone much further in LENNY--COULD have given it the dangerous, almost homicidal streak it needed--if he'd been encouraged to; as the mean and unyielding Max, he even uses his voice well--softening it for a held-in, distrustful-of-talk effect. With Sandy Baron, Kathy Bates, Rita Taggart, Corey Rand, and Jacob Busey. Produced by First Artists and Warners.

Straight, Place, and Show

US (1938): Comedy
66 min, No rating, Black & White

The Ritz Brothers. Not at their manic, surreal best (that was KENTUCKY MOONSHINE, the year before), and there's too much distraction from them in the horse-racing story that involves Phyllis Brooks, Richard Arlen, and Ethel Merman, but still it's the Ritz Brothers. Merman has a twinkle in her hard eyes as she belts out "Why Not String Along with Me" and "With You on My Mind;" her belting wasn't nearly as brassy in those days. She's a knockout. She also gets to proposition Richard Arlen in a passage of double-entendre dialogue that became more famous when it was lifted for Bacall and Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP--REMEMBER when they suddenly started talking about horses? Directed by David Butler. 20th Century-Fox.

Strange Cargo

US (1940): Drama
113 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Strange is putting it mildly. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable are the amorous stars of this hilariously steamy melodrama set in a French penal colony. Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas are the cutthroat villains. There's also a Mysterious Stranger. You might as well know the worst: right in the middle of a convict's escape, with his girlfriend bustling along, up turns the Messiah. The Presence, in human guise (Ian Hunter), leads to the most untoward spiritual spasms; even the most hardened mystics may blush. Frank Borzage directed Lawrence Hazard's adaptation of the Richard Sale novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep. Well, not too deep, anyway. With Albert Dekker, J. Edward Bromberg, Eduardo Ciannelli, Victor Varconi, and John Arledge. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, for MGM.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

US (1946): Crime
117 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Enjoyable glossy melodrama that reaches a boil. At the outset, the moody, adolescent Martha prevents her rich, sadistic aunt from killing her pet cat with a cane by using it to kill Auntie. Regrettably for Martha, a couple of her playmates, both boys, are around the house when the old lady is done in. Boy One (whom Martha loves) leaves town and becomes Van Heflin, a gambler. Boy Two, a sheepish sort in glasses, stays on, marries Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and becomes Kirk Douglas, the district attorney. Robert Rossen, who wrote the script from a story by John Patrick, knew how to grab the audience, and the director, Lewis Milestone, knew how to hold it. With Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, Darryl Hickman, and Roman Bohnen. A Hal B. Wallis Production, for Paramount.

The Strange One

US (1957): Drama
100 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as END AS A MAN.

Jack Garfein's version of Calder Willingham's novel End as a Man serves up Ben Gazzara as the most polymorphous-perverse young sadist of the year. (The competition was keen.) This psychopathology of morale in a Southern military academy is a grisly-often effective-fusion of Freud and Actors Studio. With George Peppard, Pat Hingle, Arthur Storch, Larry Gates, Mark Richman, James Olson, Geoffrey Horne, Clifton James, and Julie Wilson. Adapted by Willingham; cinematography by Burnett Guffey; music by Kenyon Hopkins. Produced by Sam Spiegel, for Columbia.

The Stranger

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

The only conventionally made narrative film that Orson Welles ever directed. He undertook it, apparently, in order to prove that he could stay on a schedule and make the same sort of movies that other directors did; he has said that there is nothing of himself in it, and that it's his "worst" picture. What he meant was, probably, that it's impersonal--that it has little of the specific Wellesian moviemaking excitement. It's a smooth, proficient, somewhat languorous thriller, handsomely shot (by Russell Metty), with some showy long takes. It's quite watchable, but the script (by Anthony Veiller and, though uncredited, John Huston, from a story by Victor Trivas and Decla Dunning) is clever in a shallow way: the people need more dimensions. Edward G. Robinson plays an F.B.I. war-crimes investigator on the trail of a Nazi arch-criminal (Welles) who has taken a false identity and is living in a small town in Connecticut, teaching in a prep school; his wife (Loretta Young) knows nothing of his past. The small-town details are entertaining, especially the scenes involving Billy House as the canny, fat drugstore proprietor, and Welles introduces some baroque touches and a garish finale, in which he's impaled on a sword at the top of a clock tower. His performance is so flagrantly, boyishly unconvincing--the Nazi seems preoccupied by his evil superman thoughts--that it's rather amusing. With Konstantin Shayne, Philip Merivale, Richard Long, and Brian Keith. Produced by S.P. Eagle (Sam Spiegel), for RKO.

The Stranger

France-Italy (1967): Drama
105 min, No rating, Color
Also known as LO STRANIERO.

Marcello Mastroianni plays Meursault, the Camus hero, very simply, with scrupulous intelligence and concentration. Directed by Luchino Visconti, the movie has great passages and is highly effective in suggesting the atmosphere of the novel--the Algerian heat, the sudden, unpremeditated violence. What's missing is the psychological originality that made the book important. The novel was a definitive new vision--a more honest view of human behavior. But by the time the movie was made, that vision had already entered into the modern sensibility, and the concept of alienation had become cut-rate and conventional in movies. And so, although the film is set in the correct period--the 30s--this doesn't help to relate it to what Camus's vision meant in the post-Second World War years, and the movie seems merely a factual account of Meursault's crime and trial. With Anna Karina, Bruno Cremer, and Bernard Blier; cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis. In French.

Stranger Than Paradise

US (1984): Comedy
90 min, Rated R, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The young writer-director Jim Jarmusch (who raised the $120,000 to make the movie) uses a minimalist aesthetic for low key comic effects. This punk picaresque is in black-and-white, and each scene is a single take followed by a blackout; the three anomic principal characters--deadpan deadbeats--live in dead space. Jarmusch keeps the picture formal and cool, and it has an odd, nonchalant charm; it's fun. But it's softhearted fun--shaggy-dog minimalism--and it doesn't have enough ideas (or laughs) for its 90-minute length. It's so hemmed in that it has the feel of a mousy Eastern European comedy. With John Lurie as Willie, Eszter Balint as Eva, and Richard Edson as Eddie. Cinematography by Tom DiCillo.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Strangers

Italy (1953): Romance
97 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette
Also known as VIAGGIO IN ITALIA.

Roberto Rossellini made this study of a marriage in trouble, starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders; in the film's finest scene, the couple visit Pompeii and see two petrified embracing bodies that have just been uncovered. An influential film (there are echoes of it in both Godard's CONTEMPT and Bergman's THE TOUCH), which is marred by banality and clumsiness. Screenplay by Rossellini and Vitaliano Brancati; cinematography by Enzo Serafin. In Italian.

Strangers in the House

France (1949): Mystery/Comedy
95 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON.

Raimu has a good tragicomic role as a dipsomaniac lawyer in this Henri Decoin film, from a script by Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on a Simenon murder mystery. The crime becomes the peg on which to hang bourgeois hypocrisy and various social evils. As this attack on French corruption was made during the Occupation, Clouzot was censured as an appeaser of the Nazis. Not released in the U.S. until 1949, the film has had surprisingly few showings. With Pierre Fresnay as the narrator, Jean Tissier, Mouloudji, Juliette Faber, and Noel Roquevert. In French.

Strangers on a Train

US (1951): Thriller
101 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Alfred Hitchcock's bizarre, malicious comedy, in which the late Robert Walker brought sportive originality to the role of the chilling wit, dear degenerate Bruno; it's intensely enjoyable--in some ways the best of Alfred Hitchcock's American films. The murder plot is so universally practical that any man may adapt it to his needs: Bruno perceives that though he cannot murder his father with impunity, someone else could; when he meets the unhappily married tennis player Guy (Farley Granger), he murders Guy's wife for him and expects Guy to return the favor. Technically, the climax of the film is the celebrated runaway merry-go-round, but the high point of excitement and amusement is Bruno trying to recover his cigarette lighter while Guy plays a fantastically nerve-racking tennis match. Even this high point isn't what we remember best--which is Robert Walker. It isn't often that people think about a performance in a Alfred Hitchcock movie; usually what we recall are bits of "business"--the stump finger in THE 39 STEPS, the windmill turning the wrong way in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, etc. But Walker's performance is what gives this movie much of its character and its peculiar charm. It is typical of Hollywood's brand of perversity that Raymond Chandler was never hired to adapt any of his own novels for the screen; he was, however, employed on DOUBLE INDEMNITY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (which is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith). Chandler (or someone--perhaps Czenzi Ormonde, who's also credited) provided Hitchcock with some of the best dialogue that ever graced a thriller. With Marion Lorne as Bruno's doting, dotty mother, and Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman, Patricia Hitchcock, Laura Elliott, and Howard St. John. Warners.

A Stravinsky Portrait

US (1966): Biography
No rating, Black & White

Richard Leacock's too-little-known documentary portrait shows Stravinsky at work and in conversation with Christopher Isherwood, Pierre Boulez, Nicolas Nabokov, Balanchine, and Suzanne Farrell. The film was shot in Los Angeles, Hamburg, and London, with Stravinsky speaking English, French, and German salted with Russian; more than a simple record of his activities, it is an attempt to illuminate his creativity.

Straw Dogs

US (1971): Crime
113 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Dustin Hoffman plays a weakling mathematician who finds his manhood when he learns to kill to protect his home, and Susan George is his snarling, pouty wife--a little beast who wants to be made submissive. Machismo, sold under the (then) fashionable guise of the territorial imperative, and directed by Sam Peckinpah in a way that apparently affects many men at a very deep, fantasy level. Probably one of the key films of the 70s. Its vision is narrow and puny; Peckinpah sacrifices the flow and spontaneity and the euphoria of spaciousness that have made him a legend--but not the savagery. The only beauty he allows himself is in eroticism and violence, which he links by an extraordinary aestheticizing technique. When the wife is raped, the rape has heat to it and what goes into that heat is the old male barroom attitude: she's asking for it. With David Warner. Screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, adapted from the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon M. Williams. Cinematography by John Coquillon; editing by Paul Davies, Roger Spottiswoode, and Tony Lawson. Filmed in England. Produced by Daniel Melnick; released by Cinerama.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

The Strawberry Statement

US (1970): Political
103 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

How a student (Bruce Davison) gets radicalized by falling in love (with Kim Darby), directed by Stuart Hagmann, in TV-commercial style, so it looks like a super-duper beach-party revolution. The big confrontation scene seems to have been done after a quick look at the work of Busby Berkeley and Eisenstein; pretty patterns shot from overhead plus a lot of gas and screaming and blood. Screenplay by Israel Horovitz, based on the novel by James Kunen; they both also play roles. Also with James Coco, Bob Balaban, Jeannie Berlin, and Edra Gale. MGM.

Street of Chance

US (1930): Mystery
76 min, No rating, Black & White

William Powell, very cool and very sure as a gentleman racketeer, in a well-written, deftly plotted melodrama about gambling. In order to cure his younger brother, Babe (Regis Toomey), of gambling fever, he sets up a game with the slickest cardplayers in New York. When Babe cleans them out and makes off with all the cash in the pot, the gamblers think big brother has put one over on them, and they go after him. Jean Arthur and Kay Francis are the women; directed by John Cromwell, who also plays Imbrie. Paramount.

Street Smart

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

Morgan Freeman may be the greatest American actor in movies. He gives the role of a Times Square pimp, Fast Black, a scary, sordid magnetism that gives the picture some bite. Magically, he sustains Fast Black's authenticity; it's like sustaining King Lear inside GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN. The ostensible star is Christopher Reeve; he appears as a Harvard-educated free-lance writer who fabricates a story about "24 hours in the life of a pimp," and then becomes enmeshed in Fast Black's efforts to get clear of a murder charge. The director, Jerry Schatzberg, can make viewers feel the beauty and excitement of everyday grit, and he makes the script (by David Freeman) look and play better than it deserves to, but he can't give it conviction, rootedness--he can't conceal the author's thin, brassy attitudes. Reeve is willing to play a suck-up who's trying to make his name, yet as an actor he's physically too inexpressive to play inexpressiveness; it isn't the character who's a lug--it's Reeve. And when we're told that this journalist has gained the cunning to out-street-smart Fast Black, it's a white boy's dream of glory. The screenwriter did, in fact, fabricate "The Lifestyle of a Pimp," in New York, May 5, 1969; there were no dire results. In the movie, he piles on fantasies of all the things that could or should have happened. Most of the performers do their damnedest. Kathy Baker brings a sexy intelligence to the role of the prostitute Punchy, and André Gregory is terrific as Reeve's smug, dryly self-amused editor. (He's his own yes-man.) Schatzberg and his cinematographer, Adam Holender, bring off the trick of using Montreal for most of the Manhattan locations. The funky jazz score (by Robert Irving III) features Miles Davis, and Kathy Baker seduces Reeve to Aretha Franklin singing "Natural Woman." Released by Cannon Films.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooke.

A Streetcar Named Desire

US (1951): Drama
122 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Vivien Leigh gives one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke pity and terror. As Blanche DuBois, she looks and acts like a destroyed Dresden shepherdess. No one since the early Lillian Gish and the almost unknown, plaintive Nadia Sibirskaya of MENILMONTANT (1926) has had this quality of hopeless, feminine frailty; Shakespeare must have had a woman like this in mind when he conceived Ophelia. Blanche's plea "I don't want realism … I want magic!" is central to STREETCAR. When Marlon Brando, as the realist Stanley Kowalski, cuts through her pretensions and responds to her flirting with a direct sexual assault, the system of illusions that holds her together breaks down, and he is revealed as a man without compassion--both infant and brute. Elia Kazan's direction is often stagey, the sets and the arrangement of actors are frequently too transparently "worked out," but who cares when you're looking at two of the greatest performances ever put on film and listening to some of the finest dialogue ever written by an American? When Vivien Leigh says "The Tarantula Arms!" or "It's Della Robbia blue," you know how good Tennessee Williams can be. He adapted his play himself, with additional adaptation work by Oscar Saul; the music is by Alex North; the cinematography is by Harry Stradling. Academy Awards: Best Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter), Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), Art Direction and Set Direction (Richard Day, G.J. Hopkins). But initially theatre managers complained that more customers left than came in. (It took a while for this movie to reach its audience.) Made by Charles K. Feldman Group Productions; released through Warners.

Strike Up the Band

US (1940): Musical/Comedy
120 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, that hard-to-forget teenage vamp June Preisser, and Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, in an MGM musical directed by Busby Berkeley that is so klunky and poorly paced, and so loaded with sanctimonious moral lessons, that even the George and Ira Gershwin score doesn't save it. (The Andy Hardy pictures were never this square.) The script, by John Monks, Jr., and Fred Finklehoffe, is like a noose around everybody's neck. Rooney is the drummer in the high-school band that turns itself into a swing orchestra, with Garland as the vocalist; the group is trying to raise money to compete in a national contest. Rooney's flamboyant energy makes some sequences fairly bright, but in a number of scenes he's photographed so that he's foreshortened, and he's given hopelessly awkward moments; his mother (big-bosomed Ann Shoemaker) urges him to become a doctor, and he says to Garland, "Now, do I look like a doctor?" Garland is rather dreary in a role which requires her to have romantic longings for Rooney though he thinks of her only as a pal; even her songs lack bounce--the arrangements are too sweet and too slow. The siren Preisser (who also does acrobatics) is much livelier than Garland; she's like a baby Mae West and her eyes rove with mischief. With the ebullient William Tracy, who is often funny; Larry Nunn in the sad-sack role of the boy who is hurt; and Virginia Brissac. In the "Drummer Boy" number, Rooney hits the drums with manic exhibitionistic joy, and he takes a crack at a xylophone, too. But in the other musical numbers (including a real Berkeley ghastly oddity--a marionette orchestra made out of pieces of fruit) Berkeley doesn't know when to end things; he keeps them going until he runs out of ideas. The score includes "Our Love Affair" by Arthur Freed and Roger Edens. Produced by Arthur Freed. (Lee Young dubbed Rooney's percussion work.)

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