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TopBilled’s Essentials

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Essential: GASLIGHT (1940)

 

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This month I am looking at psychological thrillers and starting with the original film version of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Gas Light.’ Gaslighting is where a victim’s mind is manipulated into believing things that are not true. Specifically in Hamilton’s play, the heroine’s sanity is related to the levels of light in her home– which can be looked at literally and figuratively. Hamilton's story resonated with audiences, and he had a hit on the London stage in the late 1930s. It was even more popular on Broadway in the 1940s with several long-running productions.

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In the summer of 1940, British National Films released the first screen adaptation, starring Austrian actor Anton Walbrook and English actress Diana Wynyard. Both performers already had strong reputations, and they give memorable performances. MGM remade it several years later, with French actor Charles Boyer and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman taking over the main roles. But I think the earlier production with Walbrook and Wynyard is superior for reasons I will cover below.

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What makes the 1940 version of GASLIGHT so extraordinary is the intensity with which Walbrook approaches his character. There's an unrelenting hardness his portrayal of a bigamist-murderer; and at the risk of comparing him to Boyer, he brings a much fiercer interpretation to the screen. His passion is a form of brutality that can only be unleashed violently. He doesn’t seem to despise his bride like Boyer does in the remake; instead, she is an object-- a strange fetish in his desire to gain power and get off on that power.

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But Walbrook’s work is only half of it. Wynyard perfectly balances his brutal behavior with her own soft, exquisite suffering. Anyone who watches both versions will see that Ingrid Bergman is mimicking Diana Wynyard’s best scenes. However, Bergman lacks the softness and delicate quality that Wynyard displays. She is oddly valiant, because she believes her suffering is noble and believes it will ultimately bring dignity to her husband. If she fails to elevate him through her own pain, then she fails herself. It isn’t until she finally realizes all the destructively heinous things he’s done that she reluctantly agrees to aid in his arrest.

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The cruelty she experiences at his hands is almost nothing compared to the heartbreak that comes when she must face the failure of the relationship as a whole. This is something Bergman really doesn’t seem to tap into at all. The second film is about her liberation. But the first film is about her failure, and I think it is more thought provoking.

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GASLIGHT was directed by Thorold Dickinson and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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The Halliwell Film Guide and other movie guides always rate this one better than MGM's.

 

Yes...it's the superior version. I don't think anyone can match the Walbrook-Wynyard combination. They balance each other perfectly.

 

Walbrook portrays the husband as entitled, that his evil is what men should do. And Wynyard doesn't play the wife as being helpless but instead turns her victimization into something strangely noble, which makes it even more compelling. The ending where she finally decides to turn him over to the police is spectacular. 

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Essential: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

 

In the early 1940s, Universal decided to remake Gaston Leroux’s classic horror story, which had been filmed earlier with Lon Chaney Sr. in 1925. Originally Henry Koster was assigned to direct, but his ideas about the relationship between the phantom and Christine, the story’s delicate heroine, were rejected by studio bosses.

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Koster had wanted to up the stakes between the main characters by making Christine the daughter of the phantom. Perhaps an unusual way to look at it, though it might better explain why he’s obsessed and so determined to make her music career successful. Of course, there would be no “romance” that way.

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Universal did not wish to incur the wrath of the production code office, or alienate audiences, with any hints of an incestuous relationship. So the main story was kept intact, where the phantom is merely someone from the girl’s village who always admired her. The studio sought Boris Karloff to play the phantom, but he was unavailable so Claude Rains was borrowed from Warner Brothers. Rains had made other horror films at Universal– notably THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE WOLF MAN.

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For the role of Christine, young soprano Susanna Foster was cast. She became very popular with moviegoers as a result of her appearance in this picture, and she was immediately put in several follow-ups. One of those was THE CLIMAX, conceived as a sequel to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which wound up starring Karloff. For the part of love struck baritone Anatole Garron, Universal hired Nelson Eddy. He had just finished a long-term contract at MGM. Given Eddy’s popularity in films with Jeanette MacDonald his presence helped ensure the success of this remake.

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The studio pulled out all the stops. In addition to top-notch stars and skilled character actors, the film benefits from exquisite set design, stunning Technicolor; and of course, a splendid soundtrack that is its greatest attribute. Not surprisingly PHANTOM OF THE OPERA became a smash hit for Universal when released in August 1943, and it went on to earn two Oscars. It also gave cinema a phantom as only Claude Rains could play him.

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PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was directed by Arthur Lubin and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

 
 
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Essential: WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945)

 

 

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Originally I was going to do a month of films about witches, but instead I decided to focus on psychological thrillers. This week’s selection fits both categories. It’s a 1945 gem that was made independently but distributed through Republic pictures. Nancy Kelly stars as the title character, a woman who comes back to a sleepy New England town and finds things quite unsettling.

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First, I should provide a bit of background on the character she plays as well as the inhabitants of Eben Rock. She left the area when she was much younger and is heading back on a bus. Sitting next to her is an elderly woman who was also from the same town. They talk about the superstitious nature of the people in Eben Rock. The old hag seems to share those beliefs and might even be a supernatural manifestation of the evil that happened there in the past.

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Their conversation is interrupted when the bus careens off the road during a storm and plunges into an icy river. The members of the local community rush to the site of the crash, and it is quickly learned there were no survivors, except Kelly. She has a sketchy memory of the crash and cannot provide any substantial details. She tells them about the old woman, but there was no such person listed as having been on the bus.

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As the story continues, strange things occur in the young woman’s presence. Local townsfolk soon accuse her of being a witch, and she begins to wonder if it’s all connected to the woman she met on the bus. The writers are careful not to make it too hokey, but there are suggestions that either the hag has cast a spell on her, or that she is the old woman reincarnated and that she had seen a part of herself on the bus. It’s all rather thought-provoking and Nancy Kelly does a great job conveying the terror that increases inside her, when she starts to believe as others do that she’s really a witch.

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Of course, there’s a love story too, when one of the men in town has fallen for her. He doesn’t believe she’s a danger to anyone, only to herself if she keeps behaving this way. The love interest is played by John Loder, and he turns in a subtle performance, wisely letting his costar drive the film’s narrative forward.

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By the time it all ends, answers have been provided that explain the disappearance of the old woman. And our young heroine seems to regain her sanity. But this is no dream, and it’s not explained away as anyone’s fanciful imagination. She really does seem to have been possessed. But the new love she’s found with Loder gives us an idea of what was missing when she began to doubt her own basic goodness. It’s too bad there wasn’t a sequel with her giving birth to a daughter who dealt with the same issues. But at least it ends happily and she doesn’t self-destruct. Because how can you come back from that? I mean, it would be a real scream.

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WOMAN WHO CAME BACK was directed by Walter Colmes and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Essential: THE AMAZING MR. X (1948)

 

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First known as THE SPIRITUALIST, this film was renamed THE AMAZING MR. X when the producers reissued it. The story seems like it would be fairly routine– a grieving widow (Lynn Bari) thinks she hears the voice of her late husband along the beach one night. Fearing she might be losing her mind, she tells her sister. The sister believes it is because she’s conflicted about an upcoming marriage to another man. But the voice continues to call out to Bari, and this causes her to seek the guidance of a spiritualist.

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The title character considers himself a psychic counselor, and many wealthy widows go to him. He is played with flair by Austrian actor Turhan Bey. Just a few years earlier, Bey had been named one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers. Universal used him a series of escapist films with Maria Montez, but by this point of his career he was taking on roles with Eagle-Lion in the hopes of demonstrating his versatility as a performer. And what we have here is a carefully modulated performance that stops short of scenery chewing, where he essays a phony medium with certain vulnerabilities.

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When Bari visits him to contact the spirit of her dead husband, she is not only at risk of being used by Bey, but since he is being manipulated by a blackmailer who has evidence of his tricks to defraud people– they’re both in considerable danger. While the convoluted aspects of the story play out, we are drawn into how these representations of good and evil are depicted with carefully composed visuals. For it is quite clear that Cinematographer John Alton has his own tricks when it comes to photographing scenes that convey the eerie qualities of a corrupted spirit world. The use of lighting to indicate the trance-like state of Bari’s existence makes it seem as if the whole thing is taking place inside a dream. Or perhaps more accurately, inside a nightmare.

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Lynn Bari was not the producers’ first choice for the role of Christine. Originally, they had signed Carole Landis to play the part of the long-suffering heroine. But unfortunately, Landis committed suicide, so freelancer Bari stepped in. Landis might have been better in this film, given a chance to exorcise her own personal demons; though Bari brings it a type of sophistication and post-war fatigue that seems most appropriate.

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As for Turhan Bey, his Hollywood career would come to a standstill five years later when a scandal abruptly forced him to leave the country. He went back to Europe, but returned to American screens a few decades later for several final acting roles. When we look at this particular film, we see skilled acting; outstanding visuals; and a story that has a point to make about a phony trying to go legit. We don’t need a crystal ball to tell us we’re going to be mesmerized the minute we start watching.

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THE AMAZING MR. X was directed by Bernard Vorhaus and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Essential: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

 

MAN IN THE ATTIC was released by 20th Century Fox. It’s a standard mystery thriller based on Jack the Ripper. I’m sure there are better films about the famed Victoria era serial killer. I haven’t seen them all, but this version has always been a particular favorite of mine. Something about it seems brutally honest to me.

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Maybe it seems honest because of Jack Palance’s performance. Other actors might chew the scenery, and in fact Palance does chew the scenery in some of his films. But not here. He brings us into the world of a demented man in a very sympathetic sort of way. We see the intense struggle he is having within himself.

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At one point when he convulses after a killing and is comforted by dance hall girl Lily (Constance Smith), he appears quite broken and pitiable. He’s a man who knows what he is doing but cannot stop himself. In fact, Palance is so effective in these scenes, we want to believe he could change if someone just reached into his soul and saved him.

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Palance also shows us the coldness of the character. There are suggestions he is a religious man, reading a bible left in his room– but how in his mind, there is no forgiveness when it comes to punishing women who shamelessly flaunt themselves at men. Or when Palance goes from being a caring companion to the family’s dog, and then suddenly the animal is afraid of him– implying that off-screen he had abused it in a fit of rage. It’s a fascinating and honest performance of a man with demons.

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Another reason the film works is the casting of the landlords. Frances Bavier and Rhys Williams play the couple who let a room to Palance. We see them change as the story progresses. Initially, she is a doting landlady trying to make her new boarder feel at home; and the husband is put-off about bringing a stranger into their home. But half an hour into the film, they’ve reversed themselves. She is suspicious that the guy is Jack the Ripper; while the husband explains the coincidences and gives the man staying in the attic the benefit of the doubt. It’s interesting how these characters change their perspective on someone they think they know, when they do not know much about him at all. Instead of flat representations, we get fully dimensional characters whose own fears and beliefs add to the complex layers of the story.

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Since it’s a modestly budgeted programmer, the producers do not drag things out. The story runs around 73 minutes, and the scenes are concise with forward momentum. Occasionally, the plot slows down for a brief musical interlude at the dance hall, or when we see Palance’s softer side playing the piano. But mostly, the action builds and the film doesn’t waste time going about its business. The director wisely shoots the back lot from different angles to make it seem like there are more streets and outdoor sets than there probably are. And the period detail inside the main set, the couple’s house, is attended with care but not great opulence. Ironically, it’s a very cozy looking picture, despite its very unsettling theme. And the ending doesn’t show the capture of the killer; it’s left open as to whether he has drowned in a canal; or if he is swimming underneath to some darker place within his soul.

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MAN IN THE ATTIC was directed by Hugo Fregonese and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Theme for November 2016: Gregory Peck in the 50s

 

Saturday November 5, 2016

THE GUNFIGHTER (1950), starring Gregory Peck & Helen Westcott. Studio/production company: Fox. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday November 12, 2016

THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952), starring Gregory Peck & Susan Hayward. Studio/production company: Fox. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday November 19, 2016

ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953), starring Gregory Peck & Audrey Hepburn. Studio/production company: Paramount. Source: Paramount home video.

 

Saturday November 26, 2016

THE PURPLE PLAIN (1954), starring Gregory Peck & Win Min Than. Studio/production company: Two Cities Films/UA. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

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I will be posting my seventeenth essential tomorrow.

 

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Gregory Peck is so great as THE GUNFIGHTER.

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Essential: THE GUNFIGHTER (1950)

 

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The opening images of THE GUNFIGHTER tell us the character played by Gregory Peck is the fastest gunman who ever lived. He's faster than all the others– Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and even Wyatt Earp. So fast that when he rides into a new town, his reputation precedes him. And during the film’s first few minutes, a squirt named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) makes the fatal mistake of challenging him to a duel. Immediately, we learn just how fast Jimmy Ringo is when he’s forced to defend himself.

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Eddie’s three brothers are soon out to settle the score, but Jimmy is too smart for them and of course, too fast. He gets them off their horses out in the desert and lets the animals run off. But this only just the beginning; after Jimmy rides into another town, we can be sure the brothers will catch up to him and try once more to even things out. In the meantime, Jimmy has other matters to take care of, and these include finding his girl (Helen Westcott) and her boy.

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He soon learns Peggy has changed her name and is trying to live a new life, free of Jimmy and the violence that comes with him. The marshal (Millard Mitchell) happens to be an old pal, and he goes to speak to Peggy. She is now working as a schoolteacher and they discuss what to do. We learn she is Jimmy’s wife and her boy is Jimmy’s son. But the reason for Jimmy’s return is not yet clear. Has he changed?

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The casting of this film is exemplary, and Peck’s a perfect fit. His previous western was YELLOW SKY, and in that one, he was a gunman headed for redemption; but this time around, redemption may not be in the cards. The leading lady, Helen Westcott (not usually the lead in top-drawer productions) gets a chance to shine. And in a supporting role is Jean Parker as Molly, an over-the-hill barroom singer. Minor characters are played with flourish by esteemed character actors Karl Malden; Alan Hale Jr.; Ellen Corby; and Verna Felton.

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There are some excellent scenes where Molly tries to aid a reconciliation between Jimmy and Peg. Some good stuff where Jimmy Jr. wants to see his father involved in a shootout, not realizing he’s the son of the famed gunfighter. And a very humorous scene where the society women try to force Jimmy’s removal from town. At every twist and turn, the story is loaded with irony as a man, once wild, tries to reconnect with those he loves. But there’s an old coot across the street who wants to kill Jimmy for supposedly shooting his son. Plus another young squirt (Skip Homeier) desperate for glory; and the three brothers of the kid he gunned down in the beginning, who are still after him. They will make it nearly impossible for Jimmy to have a normal family reunion.

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THE GUNFIGHTER was directed by Henry King and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Essential: THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952)

 

During Darryl Zanuck’s years at 20th Century Fox, he made a handful of films based on Ernest Hemingway’s stories. This is probably because Zanuck identified with the author’s wanderlust and sense of adventure. If Zanuck had not been a movie mogul, he might have been another Hemingway.

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The first adaptation Zanuck did of a Hemingway work was UNDER MY SKIN. It was produced in 1950 and filmed in black and white. But two years later, when it came time to adapt the writer’s celebrated short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (which Hemingway himself considered to be one of his finest stories), a much larger budget was allocated.

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The budget allowed for stunning Technicolor; on-location filming along the French Riviera and in various parts of Africa; plus a star-studded cast. Gregory Peck was chosen to play the main character, who is essentially a stand-in for Hemingway. And a trio of leading ladies were hired that included Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward and Hildegarde Neff. The film was exquisitely made and wowed critics as well as audiences. It became one of the year’s most stylish films to see, and deservedly earned two Oscar nominations.

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Significantly, Casey Robinson’s script expands on the possibilities suggested by the source material. Gardner’s character was not in the original story, and she was invented as a nod to one of Hemingway’s great loves. When the hero goes into the jungles of Africa, he gets infected and is near death. A woman in his party (Hayward) tends to him. In an increasingly delirious state he reflects on the beginning and end of his marriage with Gardner, as well as a rebound relationship with Neff.

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The scenes where Gardner has left Peck, and he finds her again driving an ambulance during the war, is probably pieced together from another work, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ And some of the safari scenes are reminiscent of ‘The Macomber Affair.’ So what we have is a collection of Hemingway’s greatest hits representing his passions and his sorrows. And that’s not a terrible thing, because it makes for a compelling motion picture.

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THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO was directed by Henry King and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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I remember in the early years of 1980s VHS, this was among a select number of big budget studio classics that had fallen into Public Domain, so there were multiple versions out in different levels of visual preservation quality.

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I remember in the early years of 1980s VHS, this was among a select number of big budget studio classics that had fallen into Public Domain, so there were multiple versions out in different levels of visual preservation quality.

 

Amazon is using a restored print of THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO from Fox. Good news for admirers of the film's marvelous cinematography.

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Essential: ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)

 

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Some films are pure in their message, and yet so entertaining. It’s not surprising they do well with contemporary audiences, and also with audiences decades later watching for the first time. That’s what makes something a classic, if you ask me. And there can be no better example of classic film making than William Wyler’s ROMAN HOLIDAY.

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A large part of the pureness of this film is due to its two remarkable stars, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. There isn’t anything less than sincerity in their performances. Even when Peck is trying to mislead Hepburn in order to get the story of the year, his character is still strangely genuine. It doesn’t matter that this is a romance between a reporter and a royal princess; it’s a romance between real human beings. The story might have been mishandled by other actors, but these two can do no wrong with it. Maybe they were really playing a part of themselves on screen, and that’s why it’s so magical.

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Hepburn would win an Oscar for her work and she shot to super stardom because of this film. But Peck brings great skill and a quiet strength to his role. He almost seems to be underplaying and letting her lead the emotions of the situation. In fact Peck seems very conscious of what his character represents, and in the final scenes, where they have a bittersweet parting, it still manages to be a happy ending because Peck’s earnestness assures us it has to be.

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William Wyler would direct Peck five years later in the western THE BIG COUNTRY; and he would direct Hepburn twice in the 60s, in the remake of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION. Arguably, those later productions do not contain the kind of pureness we find in ROMAN HOLIDAY.

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Sometimes filmmakers put whatever they can into a motion picture, just to make it work. The labor involved is evident. Other times, it is easier and just flows on to the screen beautifully. And what we get out of it is a most pleasant surprise.

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ROMAN HOLIDAY is available on Paramount home video.

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I must confess that I used to like this one until I saw it way too many times. It is among TCM's most frequent Paramount airings, after all. Even in their advertising, you always see a shot of Audrey culled from here. In contrast, we rarely see others featuring the mountain of stars that were made post-ROMAN HOLIDAY and SABRINA in the fifties and sixties unless it is one of the MCA/Universal owned Hitchcocks. Have they aired ROMEO & JULIET on TCM yet? The Zeffirelli version is among the most discussed movies on these message boards that is NOT shown on TCM.

 

Although his performance isn't that great, Eddie Albert definitely deserves attention in setting some fashion trends. His character is employed as a photographer but is essentially Hollywood's first take on beatniks, which would be literally everywhere in movies, TV and animated cartoons before the end of the decade. Yet his scruffy look was not-of-the-norm in 1952 when this was shot. Later Audrey would go all beatnik in FUNNY FACE.

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I must confess that I used to like this one until I saw it way too many times. It is among TCM's most frequent Paramount airings, after all. Even in their advertising, you always see a shot of Audrey culled from here. In contrast, we rarely see others featuring the mountain of stars that were made post-ROMAN HOLIDAY and SABRINA in the fifties and sixties unless it is one of the MCA/Universal owned Hitchcocks. Have they aired ROMEO & JULIET on TCM yet? The Zeffirelli version is among the most discussed movies on these message boards that is NOT shown on TCM.

 

Although his performance isn't that great, Eddie Albert definitely deserves attention in setting some fashion trends. His character is employed as a photographer but is essentially Hollywood's first take on beatniks, which would be literally everywhere in movies, TV and animated cartoons before the end of the decade. Yet his scruffy look was not-of-the-norm in 1952 when this was shot. Later Audrey would go all beatnik in FUNNY FACE.

 

Great post. Thanks for commenting. 

 

ROMAN HOLIDAY is an iconic film with iconic images. The plot itself is rather inconsequential-- what is it really, other than people from different worlds who have a fling/adventure..? And yes, Eddie Albert's character plays a unique part in it.

 

As for the 1968 version of ROMEO AND JULIET-- I will be reviewing it around Valentine's day, since during the month of February, I will be looking at love stories.

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Essential: THE PURPLE PLAIN (1954)

 

Gregory Peck worked with an American director and a British crew when he made THE PURPLE PLAIN. The film’s subject matter meant something personally to the actor. At the time many Hollywood stars only did British pictures when their American careers were in decline. You might say they were shopworn– a kind euphemism for washed up or has-been. But Peck was never washed up or a has-been. He occasionally made British films in between his bigger assignments in the U.S., because he wanted to attach himself to stories he considered to be of merit.

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In this film he is paired with yet another newcomer to the screen. Her name is Win Min Than, and she was discovered at a party by a friend of the director. At the time Win was married to a high-ranking politician in Burma, and this was the only motion picture she would ever make. Because she’s so new to the medium, she has to rely on Peck’s guidance, like Audrey Hepburn did in ROMAN HOLIDAY, as well as her own natural instincts. The result is that we’re not getting a highly artificial, extremely mannered actress in this role. She is very realistic and vulnerable.

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The plot is fairly straightforward. A flyer in the war is haunted by personal demons, which includes the loss of a wife who was killed in London. Upon his arrival in Burma, he meets Win and tells her he doesn’t really want to live. But this begins to change as he spends the next few days with her. He starts reaching out to her in order to strengthen his own sense of self.

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In the next part, he goes out to fly a mission with two other men. Soon their plane experiences engine trouble and goes down. One of the men has been critically injured, and it’s up to Peck to get them safely back to civilization.

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In Burma Win learns about the plane’s disappearance. She receives moral support from a missionary woman (Brenda De Banzie) who has faith the couple will be reunited. De Banzie plays a type of Christian we’ve seen in other movies that take place in remote settings. In some scenes, she is slightly over-the-top and appears with very thick pasted-on make-up; almost a caricature– a melodramatic woman with religious fervor. But it works when contrasted against Win’s much less pretentious, more earthy characterization.

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Back near the crash site, one of the men has committed suicide. The tragedy causes Peck to develop an even stronger will to live, and he soldiers on. Finally, he makes it to a river where he is saved. With help, he goes back to get the other flyer who’s still alive in the jungle.

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Earlier in the film there’s a line where Peck says he really doesn’t long for home, and we believe him. For him, home is a state of mind wherever he may be. And in the same way, a Gregory Peck movie is a state of mind, too. Especially THE PURPLE PLAIN, where a human life has been reinstated and brought back to paradise.

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THE PURPLE PLAIN was directed by Robert Parrish and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Theme for December 2016: Significant Journeys

 

Saturday December 3, 2016

EMMA SMITH, MY STORY (2008), starring Patricia Place & Katherine Nelson. Studio/production company: Morning Dew/Candlelight Media Group. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday December 10, 2016

DARWIN, THE VOYAGE THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (2009), narrated by Matthew O’Sullivan. Studio/production company: Fathom Media. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday December 17, 2016

THE JEWISH CARDINAL (2013), starring Laurent Lucas & Aurelien Recoing. Studio/production company: A Plus Image 4/Arte France. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday December 24, 2016

WAR CHILD (2008), featuring Emmanuel Jal. Studio/production company: 18th Street Films/Independent Producers Alliance. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

Saturday December 31, 2016

THE FRANCIS EFFECT (2014), with Sebastian Gomes. Studio/production company: Salt and Light Catholic Media. Source: Amazon Prime.

 

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