The director, Martin Scorsese, gives you a lift. He loves the Brooklyn organized crime milieu, because it's where distortion, hyperbole, and exuberance all commingle. His mobsters are high on having a wad of cash in their pockets. The movie is about being cock of the walk, with banners flying and crowds cheering. Based on Nicholas Pileggi's non-fiction book WiseGuy, it's a triumphant piece of filmmaking-journalism and sociology presented with the brio of drama. But the three major hoods, played by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, don't have a strong enough presence, and the movie lacks the juice and richness that come with major performances. (It's like the Howard Hawks SCARFACE without Scarface.) What you respond to is Scorsese's bravura: the filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. Watching it is like getting strung out on pure sensation. Paul Sorvino as Paulie and Lorraine Bracco as Karen both come through, and Tony Darrow as a restaurant owner, Welker White as a drug courier who needs her lucky hat to make a coke delivery, and other performers in minor roles give the movie a frenzied, funny texture. Christopher Serrone plays the boy who turns into Liotta. The screenplay is by Pileggi and Scorsese; the cinematography is by Michael Ballhaus; the editing is by Thelma Schoonmaker. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Movie Love.
A group of kids in a seaport town in Oregon search in the caves along the coast, looking for the buried treasure left by One-Eyed Willie, a 17th-century pirate, and find his ship floating in an underground lagoon. With its echoes of Peter Pan and Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer and Becky caught in the caves, this adventure comedy should be wonderful fun. Produced by Steven Spielberg, who also wrote the story, it's full of slapstick cliff-hangers, like a junior edition of 1941 and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and some of the sets designed by J. Michael Riva have a magical aura. But it was directed by Richard Donner, who doesn't invite the audience in or shape the scenes-there's all this stuff going on and none of it stands out. And with the kids' constant jabbering, the clutter, the hyperexcited rushing about, and the many scenes shot in the claustrophobic darkness of the caves, the movie can really give you a case of the heebie-jeebies. With Ke Huy Quan as Data, who devises contraptions, Sean Astin as Mikey, Josh Brolin as Brand, Jeff Cohen as Chunk, Corey Feldman as Mouth, Martha Plimpton as Stef, Kerri Green as Andy, and Anne Ramsey as Mama Fratelli, Robert Davi as her son Jake, Joe Pantoliano as her son Francis, and John Matuszak as the amiable monster Sloth. The script is by Chris Columbus; the cinematography is by Nick McLean. Warners.
The title is deceptive. The film is about Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) and his Presidential problems. Specifically, it deals with his dissolving his Cabinet because the wives of the members had cut a certain Mrs. Eaton (Joan Crawford). Something like this actually happened, though the picture will never convince anyone of it. Beulah Bondi smokes a corncob with the assurance befitting a First Lady, Melvyn Douglas plays dreary, gentlemanly John Randolph, and Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone are the handsome young men. Clarence Brown directed. MGM.
Sigourney Weaver as the anthropologist Dian Fossey, in what seems meant to be a triumphant epic about an activist heroine who made a difference. (A title at the close tells us that Fossey saved the mountain gorillas from extinction.) Weaver's physical strength alone is inspiring here, and there's a new freedom in her acting. She's so vivid that you immediately feel Fossey's will and drive. But Michael Apted, who directed, has an indeterminate approach to some of the key incidents; he doesn't locate a dramatic core in Anna Hamilton Phelan's script. The movie is reasonably faithful to Fossey's ruthless, half-crazed side and it's quite watchable, but it's disappointing. It belongs to the past of movies rather than to the modern era. The Maurice Jarre music is a definite negative factor; another is the use of the head tracker as the symbolic dignity and conscience of Africa. Despite the subject, the movie can't be taken seriously. It's a feminist version of KING KONG-now it's the gorillas who do the screaming. With Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, John Omirah Miluwi as the tracker, and Iain Cuthbertson, who's casual and rather humorous as Dr. Louis Leakey. Released by Warners and Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Movie Love.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's interpretation features the rocky settings of Southern Italy, an eclectic score, and a rigid Jesus who demands obedience. Some find the slow rhythm fascinating, others think it punishing. (There's a funny description of the film in the opening pages of Iris Owens' novel After Claude.) In Italian.
S.S. Van Dine, the author of the Philo Vance detective novels, wrote Gracie into one of them, and Paramount very sensibly decided to film it. (George Burns figured in the story, but he was dropped in the film version and Gracie thus made her first solo movie appearance.) It's a casual, entertaining absurdity; Gracie's peculiarly uncorseted mind is a wonderful corrective to Warren William's usual stuffiness as Philo Vance; he hardly gets a word in edgewise. Alfred E. Green directed a good cast, including Donald MacBride, Kent Taylor, Ellen Drew, H.B. Warner, Horace McMahon, and William Demarest.
One of the most talked about hits of the 60s, it was a formative influence on the counterculture, and it was the movie that made Dustin Hoffman a star. He plays Benjamin Braddock, who returns to his swank LA home after graduating from college, and feels alienated from his insensitive, self-indulgent parents and their whole set of lewd, money-making friends. As Mrs. Robinson (whose name was used for the title of one of the Simon and Garfunkel songs on the sound track), Anne Bancroft is tremendous fun, at first. She's the amusingly voracious middle-aged woman who seduces the naïve Benjamin, and when he's in bed with her and wants to talk about art, the comic moments click along with the rhythm of a hit Broadway show. But then the movie deliberately undercuts its own hip expertise and begins to pander to youth. Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's fresh, wide-eyed daughter (Katharine Ross), and the mother is turned into a vindictive witch. (And the comedy turns into melodrama.) Commercially, this worked: the rejection of upper-middle-class values had a special appeal for upper-middle-class college students. The inarticulate Benjamin became a romantic hero for the audience to project onto. The movie functioned as a psychodrama: the graduate stood for truth; the older people stood for sham and for corrupt sexuality. And this "generation-gap" view of youth and age entered the national bloodstream; many moviegoers went to see the picture over and over again. Mike Nichols directed, from a script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, based on the novel by Charles Webb. With William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson as Benjamin's parents, and Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson. Buck Henry is the hotel clerk. The cinematography is by Robert Surtees; the production design is by Richard Sylbert. Academy Award for Best Director. Embassy.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.
From her first line, "I have never been so tired in my life," Greta Garbo sets the movie in vibration with her extraordinary sensual presence. ("Mademoiselle Hamlet," Alice B.Toklas called her.) Garbo plays a première danseuse whose career is fading-a weary, disillusioned woman briefly reconciled to life by a passion for a shady nobleman: John Barrymore. Garbo was only 26 when she played this role (Barrymore was 50), but the fatigue, the despair, seem genuine. There is every reason to reject GRAND HOTEL as an elaborate chunk of artifice; there are no redeeming qualities in Vicki Baum's excruciating concepts of character and fate, and anyone who goes to see this movie expecting an intelligent script, or even "good acting," should have his head examined. Most of the players give impossibly bad performances-they chew up the camera. But if you want to see what screen glamour used to be, and what, originally, "stars" were, this is perhaps the best example of all time. GRAND HOTEL is still entertaining because of the same factor that made it a huge hit in its day (it even won the Academy Award as Best Picture): the force of the personalities involved in the omnibus story. As a secretary working in the hotel, there is a startlingly sexy minx named Joan Crawford, who bears only a slight resemblance to the later zombie of that name; at about 26 also, she still connected with other actors, and her scenes with Lionel Barrymore (in one of his rare likable performances: he's a dying man spending his life savings on a last fling) show a real rapport. The fifth star is Wallace Beery, as a brutal, crooked tycoon; he overacts mightily and charmlessly. Also in the cast are Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, Rafaela Ottiano, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Frank Conroy, Tully Marshall, Purnell Pratt, Morgan Wallace, Robert McWade, and Edwin Maxwell. Striding through it all is a living legend of the screen: Garbo, in her chinchilla polo coat, with her drawn face and wrinkled forehead and her anguished "I want to be alone." (Her clothes seem to get in her way, and there's a ridiculous little bobby pin that keeps her hair firmly in place during her big love scenes with Barrymore.) Directed by Edmund Goulding, from William A. Drake's adaptation of Vicki Baum's Menschen im Hotel; cinematography by William Daniels; art direction by Cedric Gibbons; gowns by Adrian. (A 1945 remake was called WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF.) MGM.
In form, GRAND ILLUSION is an escape story; yet who would think of it in this way? It's like saying that Oedipus Rex is a detective story. Among other things, this film is a study of human needs and the subtle barriers of class among a group of prisoners and their captors during the First World War. The two aristocrats-the German prison commander von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his prisoner the French officer de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay)-share a common world of memories and sentiments. Though their class is doomed by the changes that produced the war, they must act out the rituals of noblesse oblige and serve a nationalism they don't believe in. The Frenchman sacrifices his life for men he doesn't really approve of-the plebeian Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Jean Renoir directed this elegy for the death of the old European aristocracy, and it is one of the true masterpieces of the screen. Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are in a great romantic tradition; Cyrano has his plume, they draw on their white gloves. Maréchal, the mechanic who has become an officer, is uneasy in the presence of urbanity and polish, but he has natural gallantry, and he's the one with survival power. The performances of von Stroheim, Fresnay, and Gabin are in three different styles of acting, and they illuminate one another. With Gabin, you're not aware of any performance; with von Stroheim and Fresnay, you are-and you should be: they represent a way of life that is dedicated to superbly controlled outer appearances. With Dita Parlo, Gaston Modot, Julien Carette, Jean Dasté, Georges Péclet, and Jacques Becker (who was the assistant director). Written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; the music is by Kosma; the camerawork is by Christian Matras and Claude Renoir. In French, with the German and English characters speaking in their own languages.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.
As the director René Clair described it, what begins as a comedy of seduction ends as a tragedy of love. Just before the outbreak of war in 1914, a bored young cavalry officer (Gérard Philipe), stationed in a provincial town, bets his fellow officers that within a month he can seduce any woman in the town. They draw a name out of a hat and it turns out to be a milliner from Paris (Michèle Morgan). She resists and resists, but she falls in love with him and he with her. Her resistance is almost at an end when she learns of the bet. The soldiers are leaving to go on maneuvers: if she forgives him she will open her window. But he leaves and the window remains closed. Whether Clair failed to resolve his conception, or whether his conception is simply too cold for the audience to accept, the film (which was much praised in the press) has tended to alienate people. To Clair it's an illustration of "the disadvantages of the human condition," and certainly it's an elegant expression of the triumph of pride over love, but the film's tone-dry, forlorn, disenchanted-isn't very pleasing. In French.
In the years right after the worst of the Depression, the John Steinbeck book was compared with Uncle Tom's Cabin and Les Misérables and widely, if not very astutely, regarded as the greatest novel ever written by an American. It deals with the Joads, a family of sharecroppers who leave their eroded, dust-bowl farm in Oklahoma and come to the promised land of California, where they become the lowest of the low-migratory farm laborers. The movie version is full of the "They can't keep us down, we're the people" sort of thing, and a viewer's outrage at the terrible social injustices the film deals with is blurred by its gross sentimentality. This famous film, high on most lists of the great films of all time, seems all wrong-phony when it should ring true. Yet, because of the material, it is often moving in spite of the acting, the directing, and the pseudo-Biblical pore-people talk. In some externals, the production is as authentic as a documentary; the cast includes Henry Fonda as Tom, John Carradine as Casey, Charley Grapewin as Grampa, John Qualen as Muley, Eddie Quillan as Connie, Dorris Bowdon as Rosasharn, Russell Simpson as Pa, Zeffie Tilbury as Granma, Darryl Hickman as Winfield, and Ward Bond, Grant Mitchell, Joe Sawyer, Frank Faylen. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson; cinematography by Gregg Toland. Academy Awards: Best Director-John Ford; Best Supporting Actress-Jane Darwell as Ma Joad. She's impossibly fraudulent, though there's a memorable scene with Ma burning her old postcards. 20th Century-Fox.
One of the handful of great nature films, Arne Sucksdorff's feature-length documentary is a sensuous mixture of beauty and cruelty. Refusing, as he says, "to rape reality," Sucksdorff waits until he gets the shot he wants-lynx and otter, fox and wood grouse, framed in dazzling compositions. In Swedish.
A haphazard mixture of two genres-the big heist and the Western spoof. It isn't as funny as the people engaged in it try to convince you it is: you keep remembering earlier movies that did these jokes better. Hy Averback directed, from William Peter Blatty's script, based on a novel by Frank O'Rourke. With Zero Mostel, Kim Novak, Clint Walker (who's not bad), Akim Tamiroff, Ruth Warrick, Sam Jaffe, Claude Akins, Larry Storch, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Warners.
David Lean directed this handsome British production from J. Arthur Rank; it takes us back to that period in English letters when heroes had nice manners, a story had sweep and flourish, and all the stray subplots were gathered up and "rhymed." The rather creamy look (like an expensive gift edition of a classic) is not particularly appropriate to Dickens, but the film has a strong style that is very different from Lean's earlier work. He seems finally to have let go-to have pulled out all the stops. The film is emotional, exciting, full of action; sequences are planned in terms of heightened dramatic contrasts and sudden, scary tensions. This hyperbolic style rushes us past the awkward bits of staging and the slight dissatisfaction we may feel about the boy Pip (Anthony Wager) turning into John Mills, who plays his role very tentatively-almost as if he were trying out for it. Jean Simmons is the young girl, Estella, and then Valerie Hobson takes over the part, though it's inconceivable that one could grow into the other, and despite Hobson's dignity and beauty something seems to be lost. The rest of the cast, though, is close to miraculous: Alec Guinness is Herbert Pocket; Finlay Currie is Magwitch; Martita Hunt is Miss Havisham; Bernard Miles is Joe Gargery; Freda Jackson is Mrs. Gargery; Ivor Barnard is Wemmick; Torin Thatcher is Bentley Drummle; Eileen Erskine is Biddy; O.B. Clarence is The Aged Parent; and Francis L. Sullivan (who had played the same role in the 1934 Hollywood version) is that most alarming upholder of the law Jaggers. The producer, Ronald Neame, collaborated with Lean on the adaptation. Guy Green took the Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Cinematography; John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton also won for Black-and-White Art Direction and Set Decoration.
After the picture he was directing-QUEEN KELLY-was cancelled, Erich von Stroheim turned to acting and had a popular success as a megalomaniac ventriloquist who expresses his sensitive feelings only through his grotesque little dummy, Otto. Directed by James Cruze, from a Ben Hecht story, the film is effective only in a few bits. When the ventriloquist gets into the Follies, his story gets lost between mediocre musical-comedy numbers (which were originally in color). With the talented Betty Compson.
"The great man," a popular and influential radio-television personality, has died; it is the task of a commentator (José Ferrer) to prepare a memorial broadcast. If it is successful, he may become the great man's replacement. Though the outcome of the research is predictable, the further step in the plot is so efficiently cynical that the venality we have explored appears to be merely a childish prelude to a new venality. These inside-story ironies are too neat, though-the film has no resonance. But Ferrer, who directed, holds to a good, even pace and a suspenseful tone, and the picture is almost over before one realizes how bare and shallow it is. Structurally, it's mostly a series of two-person sequences, as the commentator (CITIZEN KANE-STYLE) interviews the people closest to the dead man; this series might have been very mechanical if the director-star hadn't been so generous and tactful in the way he presents each of the other actors. The most memorable of them is Ed Wynn, playing a kind, thoughtful man who knows that he appears to be ridiculous; Wynn brought off his six-minute scene, which is virtually a monologue, in a single take, and it was reported that when he finished, the technicians applauded and the director wept. Momentarily, Ed Wynn gives the picture something close to a soul. And his son Keenan Wynn, playing a despicably soulless character, momentarily provides some uncouth ruthlessness and energy; he stirs things up. With Julie London as a boozing, second-rate singer, and Dean Jagger, Joanne Gilbert, Russ Morgan, Jim Backus, Henny Backus, and Lyle Talbot. From the novel by Al Morgan, who wrote the script, with Ferrer. (The picture failed commercially; Ferrer tried again, in 1958, with THE HIGH COST OF LOVING, which also failed.) Universal.
After writing a series of successful pictures, Preston Sturges offered Paramount this script (which was to win an Academy Award) for peanuts, on condition that he be allowed to direct it. Given a three-week shooting schedule and a budget of less than $350,000, he made his début as a director (thus preparing the way for other writer-directors, such as John Huston and Billy Wilder). In this satire of American political corruption, the lowlife hero (Brian Donlevy) gets in solid with the local boss (Akim Tamiroff) by voting 37 times in one day. He rises to be alderman, then mayor, and, finally, governor, but having fallen in love, he tries to go straight, and his career is wrecked. Not up to the classic Sturges comedies that followed, partly because of Donlevy's lack of personality (the viewer can't see what would attract the competent, worldly woman-played by Muriel Angelus-who marries him), and partly because of the uneven pacing. There are wonderful patches, though, with the slapstick reversals on Horatio Alger success themes that became the Sturges specialty, and Akim Tamiroff peps up every scene he's in. With Allyn Joslyn, William Demarest, Libby Taylor, Thurston Hall, Arthur Hoyt, Steffi Duna, Esther Howard, Jimmy Conlin, Harry Rosenthal, Robert Warwick, Frank C. Moran, and Dewey Robinson; many of them were to become members of the Sturges "stock company."
In his later years, the boozing John Barrymore kept his career going by buffoonery and self-caricature. A lot of people found this film's exploitation of his fallen reputation offensive, but his antics and his wordplay are very funny. This cynical burlesque (in which he performs with a troupe of acrobats) has some low, wild moments. He enjoys horsing around. Directed by Walter Lang, from a script by Milton Sperling and Hilary Lynn. With Mary Beth Hughes, Anne Baxter, Gregory Ratoff, John Payne, Lionel Atwill, Willie Fung, and Edward Brophy. 20th Century-Fox.
This slice-of-family-life melodrama features Robert Duvall as the military-psychopath father and Michael O'Keefe as the sensitive, thoughtful teenage son. There's a sequence that is a strong metaphor for the ugly competitiveness inside a father's determination to toughen up a son: a one-on-one basketball game between them. Refusing to accept his defeat, the father follows the boy inside the house and demands another game; walking up the stairs right behind the boy, he tries to goad him by bouncing the ball, hard, off the boy's head and calling him "my sweetest little girl." This is the only sequence that hits home, though. Adapted from Pat Conroy's autobiographical novel The Great Santini, the movie is set in 1962 in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Conroy grew up, but (as written for the screen and directed by Lewis John Carlino) it takes place in the TV land of predictability-that plain of dowdy realism where a boy finds his manhood by developing the courage to stick to his principles and stand up to his father. Almost inevitably, since this is the South, the principles involve friendship with a saintly black (Stan Shaw), who is crippled and has a stammer, or at least a hesitation, and is martyred by redneck stupidity and cruelty. With Blythe Danner, who comes close to creating a believable woman out of an idealized mother figure, and brings in shadings that help to suggest a real family, though she doesn't have a single scene that is really hers. Also with Lisa Jane Persky as the family comic, Theresa Merritt as the housekeeper, David Keith as the redneck so mean he shoots the black's dawg, and Paul Mantee. Music by Elmer Bernstein. A Bing Crosby Production; released by Orion Pictures.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
Handsome re-creations of mid-Victorian England. The year is 1855, and Sean Connery plays a thief who masquerades as a wealthy businessman in order to plan the theft of gold bullion that is being shipped by train to pay the British troops in the Crimea; the film is a fictionalized version of what, according to Michael Crichton, who directed, and adapted from his own novel, was the first train robbery. There's a total absence of personal obsession-even moviemaking obsession-in the way Crichton works; he never excites us emotionally or imaginatively, but the film has a satisfying, tame luxuriousness, like a super episode of "Masterpiece Theatre." With Lesley-Anne Down, Donald Sutherland, Alan Webb, Gabrielle Lloyd as his daughter, Malcolm Terris as a bank manager, Robert Lang as a Scotland Yard inspector, Pamela Salem, and Wayne Sleep. Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.
100% pure-plastic adolescent male fantasy. It's set in the 20s, with Robert Redford as a First World War aviator who spends time barnstorming in the Midwest and then goes to Hollywood, where he lives out his dream of fighting the No. 1 Imperial German ace. Scene after scene ends with a snapper. William Goldman's cold-hearted, clever script and the cool, fresh-painted storytelling of the director, George Roy Hill, almost amount to a style: total inauthenticity. With Susan Sarandon, Bo Svenson, Bo Brundin, Geoffrey Lewis, Margot Kidder, Edward Herrmann, Philip Bruns, and Roderick Cook. Cinematography by Robert Surtees. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.
The passion of Johann Strauss according to MGM. Fernand Gravet-talented enough in French films-seems horror-stricken and depressed as Strauss, and Luise Rainer, as his sniffling, suffering wife, and the soprano Miliza Korjus, as the other woman, are not exactly cures for melancholia. A big, overdressed bore, directed by Julien Duvivier, with musical arrangements by Dmitri Tiomkin. There's a great howler of a sequence in which Strauss, riding in a carriage with Korjus, hears the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, hunters' horns, and the chirping of the birds, and he composes "Tales from the Vienna Woods," which she proceeds to sing. The cast includes Lionel Atwill, Herman Bing, Hugh Herbert, Minna Gombell, Henry Hull, and Curt Bois. The script is by Walter Reisch and Samuel Hoffenstein, from Gottfried Reinhardt's story.
Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone, the foremost primitive at work in the musical form. (This is not a compliment.) An atrocity, with Horst Buchholz as Johann Strauss. Also with Mary Costa, Rossano Brazzi, Yvonne Mitchell, and Nigel Patrick. The choreography is by Onna White. MGM.