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Essential: TOMORROW AT TEN (1963)

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TopBilled:

Not long ago I found an interesting British ‘B’ film on YouTube. Film historians consider it one of the top 15 B films to have ever been made . To be honest, I didn’t expect much from it. But within minutes I was thoroughly engrossed in the story, and I can see why it has found favor with critics as well as audiences.

One reason I wanted to see the film is because it features an early performance by Robert Shaw. He is third-billed. After lead star John Gregson, he actually has the second most important role.  Shaw plays a criminal mind named Marlow. Marlow poses as a chauffeur and kidnaps a wealthy man’s son on the way to school one morning.

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I guess it all reminds me of MGM’S RANSOM!, made a few years earlier with Glenn Ford and Donna Reed. But this telling is more about social class distinctions and what criminals feel they must do in order to live the good life. After Shaw’s character abducts the boy, they end up at a rented room in a country house where there are few other people around. Initially the little boy does not realize he’s been kidnapped. After all, this has been presented as a day of having fun. And any day you don’t have to attend school, that’s fun!

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Marlow's devious plan becomes even more sinister when he leaves a golliwog doll with the boy, before he locks the boy in the room and takes off. The doll has a bomb inside, and it is going to blow up at 10:00 a.m. the following morning. Hence the title. Of course the boy does not realize the golliwog contains a bomb. I sort of wondered if this might have worked better if the child was a girl, since girls are more apt to play with dolls. I would think a boy would quickly grow tired of such a toy and set it aside.

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Marlow returns to the wealthy family’s estate and tells the boy’s father (Alec Clunes) that he took the child. The child will die tomorrow if the ransom demands are not met. At this point, Inspector Parnell (John Gregson) takes center stage, because he is sent to the house to try and reason with Marlow. But Marlow refuses to divulge the boy’s whereabouts.

Of course we know the child probably won’t be killed. But the negotiation scenes are still tense, especially when the boy’s father– in a fit of rage– shoves Marlow against the fireplace, causing him to sustain a severe head injury.

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Some of the action shifts to the hospital, as doctors attempt to keep Marlow from dying. Marlow slips into a coma and does die, which makes Parnell and his team that much more frantic to locate the boy. They are now running out of time and cannot pull any more clues out of the kidnapper.

I won’t tell you how the boy’s life is saved. This is for you to watch and find out. All of the performances are uniformly excellent. I especially liked a subplot involving Parnell's superior, an ineffective chief who seemed more interested in hobnobbing with city politicians instead of adequately assisting the men under his command.

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Jlewis:

Robert Shaw minus his trademark whiskers is the one star I recognized right away, although Alan Wheatley and John Gregson popped up in earlier Brit pics we have profiled here, like SLEEPING CAT TO TRIESTE and ABOVE US THE WAVES. Gregson, in particular, enjoyed a lucrative career in many classic Ealing comedies most of us have seen before, although he was often in the background as Alec Guinness and others were front and center.

Other notables adding an “A” look to this otherwise “B” budget thriller include Alec Clunes (another familiar from a few prominent features such as RICHARD III, the Lawrence Olivier version), Kenneth Cope playing the frequently shown, if not prominently billed, Sgt. Gray, Ernest Clark as a doctor and William Hartnell of DR. WHO fame in another key role.

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Opening shots feature Shaw as Marlow planting a bomb device in a black stereotype doll, a golliwog as the Brits called them. Interesting that he does not use another more representative Caucasian doll. Or a teddy bear. Later Marlow kidnaps little Johnathan Chester (Piers Bishop) from a wealthy business man, the father Anthony (Clunes), who employs him temporarily as a chauffeur.

Gregson’s Inspector Parnell (later revealed to have a son the same age as Johnny) gets involved in this case as Marlow is put into custody…curiously in the very residence of Anthony instead of police headquarters.

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Yet his stubborn persistence to get Marlow to talk without paying any ransom, plus an accidental injury inflicted upon Marlow by an impatient Anthony prevents them all from finding out the boy’s whereabouts sooner than later. Had they listened to Assistant Commissioner Bewley, who wished them to compromise with him better, the danger would not have been so great.

This brings us to the title of the film: tomorrow at ten will be the moment the bomb blows up in the very room the boy resides.

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Now…maybe the boy could figure out that something is peculiar about the doll and open the window to throw it outside. Yet we can’t have a plot get resolved THAT easily! Then again, he does something rather interesting with it in that final climax I will not reveal here.

There are a few actresses in bit roles like Helen Cherry, Betty McDowell and the colorful Renée Houston, but this is essentially a men-only detective thriller.

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Kinda wish there were more women involved. At least a few crying and sobbing, since everybody is so gosh darn straight faced on screen. Except for the one scene with Anthony getting desperate as Marlow lays in a coma.

A few questions don’t seem fully resolved here since we don’t get to know these characters well enough in the film’s rather short running time. Why does Marlow decide to kidnap the boy in the first place? Why Brazil as his destination?

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There is a moment when Parnell attempts to psycho-analyze him and the way his mother brought him up, but still not much is revealed. To be honest, I felt rather aloof with these characters, apart from innocent Johnny in jeopardy, because there did not seem much interest by the screenwriters James Kelley and Peter Miller and director Lance Comfort to make them particularly three dimensional.

Then again, there may be plenty here that can be read between the lines. Stuff to speculate on since we don’t have adequate answers.

The cinematography and suspense built up with the sound effects, namely the bomb ticking, nonetheless makes this an enjoyable cinematic version of all of those great CBS radio Suspense plots. The classic March 10, 1949 episode “Three O’Clock” was one that invites comparison although it involved a grown man stuck in a room with a time bomb that was of his own making.

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Essential: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955)

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TopBilled:

The two main characters draw me in to the story. It’s all so effortless. The relationship between Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) and Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) starts innocently enough over a cup of coffee.

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Ron’s taken over his late father’s yard maintenance business and he’s at the Scott home one fall afternoon pruning branches. When Cary’s girlfriend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) is unable to stay for lunch, Cary invites the handsome gardener to join her, so the food won’t go to waste. They strike up a conversation about the trees in her yard, and an instant bond forms. Their subsequent romance will become a scandal in Cary’s community.

The film is intended for other Carys in the audience. Sirk’s direction is so smooth that you get caught up in the story. What people tell Cary in the movie, and what she even tells herself, seems like something a viewer can appreciate. The more philosophical speeches do not come across as preachy or unrealistic in any way. Even Sirk’s use of Thoreau is expertly weaved into the proceedings, telling us there’s a natural order in life. Especially in ways of the heart.

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Cary is struggling to let go of the past, and she is also struggling to simplify her life. For years, she’s tried to please others and has been restricted by what everyone expects. Her friend Sara witnesses the awakening of her spirit. And while Sara will remain firmly entrenched in suburbia, bound by its inhibiting code of conduct, she supports Cary’s need to break away from it. Other members of the community are not as supportive, which we see at a cocktail party in Sara’s home. Cary has decided to introduce Ron to everyone, but many of the guests are unfriendly. One old gal is downright cruel.

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Sirk likes to use reflecting surfaces in his melodramas. And we see many of them in this film, often in the form of mirrors and windows. His careful use of mise-en-scene (staging and scene composition) allows us to glimpse the internal states of characters, as their facial expresses bounce off these reflecting surfaces. In some instances, there is an added use of shadow. Or pieces of furniture and doors are used to conceal things or separate Cary from the people who are opposed to her.

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Cary’s two college-aged children think she needs a television. It will keep her from being lonely, they reason. It will help distract her when she decides to break up with Ron. While Cary was getting to know Ron, she had no desire to sit at home and watch television. But after she ends things with him, the kids give her a fancy new set at Christmas, and she is forced to contend with this symbol of her loneliness. Again Sirk uses a reflecting surface, this time the TV screen, to display her emotions.

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Of course, the film would not have a happy ending if Cary gave in and resigned herself to being a lonely widow. When she realizes her children are moving on with lives of their own that no longer directly involve her, Cary knows she deserves more. She has to battle her way out of a depression that has enveloped her. It’s time to look towards the future and embrace it.

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A subplot in the film involves the refurbishing of an old mill that Ron is turning into a home. It’s a place he intends to share with Cary, if she will let him. The living room in the renovated mill features a large window that looks out on to the pond and an area where deer roam during the cold winter months. It’s Walden personified, it’s a world with natural order, and it’s somewhere that Cary and Ron can both find happiness.

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Jlewis:

It had been quite a while since I saw this one. Did not wow me much decades ago, but I enjoyed it much more this time around.

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Ross Hunter is the producer and Douglas Sirk the director, all shot on the Universal-International backlot. (Remember BACK TO THE FUTURE’s eerily similar town center?) It is much more subdued than others from this production team, such as IMITATION OF LIFE.

Supposedly the location here is rural New England (maybe Vermont?) but, as we referenced in BAMBI earlier, we get California Mule Deer instead of White-tails as the local fauna. Oops! Yet the setting is otherwise a pretty good match to the New England of PEYTON PLACE.

This brings me to the Technicolor photography by Russell Metty and the fascinating retro art decor. Lots of golden hues are offset by dark blues to heighten the emotional drama.

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When a character is upset, we often see him or her in shadow, almost like a noir thriller. Also the color of automobiles (like the white Ford and Lincoln coupes over the snow) and the outfits are interesting, particularly when we see a mother and daughter each wear bright red dresses just before embarking on a courageous relationship.

I think the opening autumn footage, showcasing the happy first meeting of our star characters before all of the dark drama that follows, was blatantly copied by Edward Lachman in Todd Hayes’ later FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) even though, again, PEYTON PLACE was duplicating it well enough just a few years later.

Speaking of the later released film, so many future directors in the 1970s and beyond were very much inspired by Hunter-Sirk’s weepy melodramas and the social issues they often tackled. Perhaps the title that this one reminds me the most of is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL a.k.a. ANGST ESSEN SEELE AUF, which featured an older German woman dating not only a younger man, but one of a different race. (Hunter-Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE also covers the race angle, but differently.)

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At least Jane Wyman’s widow Cary Scott is only dealing with a neighborhood aghast about the age difference between her and Rock Hudson’s gardener Ron Kirby (no relation to the vacuum cleaner company even though he does a great job cleaning up an old mill on his family estate).

In both the Fassbinder and Sirk movies, we see both male stars succumb to an injury/illness and, more importantly, the woman’s children get involved and are hardly supportive. In this case, Cary’s son and daughter are named Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott), the daughter having a slightly easier time adjusting due to her more “progressive” attitudes.

Curious tidbit I picked up: Cary is stubborn about getting a television set in this movie (and has no interest in the eligible repairman)…and, in ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, a television set gets attacked by one of the children who is all upset at Mother. It appears as if Jane Wyman’s Cary could psychically predict what will happen with Brigitte Mira’s Emmi Kurowski decades later and decided to brace herself.

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Although the years 1954-55 saw the desegregation of public schools due to Brown vs. the Board of Education and an increasing exodus of many Caucasian Americans from the cities to the suburbs to avoid all of that, you know, mixin’ goin’ on, most Hollywood films of this period were still reluctant to address racial specifics (apart from this same team’s IMITATION OF LIFE which was still a couple years into the future).

There was still a fear of losing box-office dollars, but also a need to address American small town conformity and tribalism. The taboo of an older woman romancing a younger man (despite few eyebrows raised when the genders were in reverse) was easier for average moviegoers to digest at the time while the filmmakers could still make their sociological statement here.

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I absolutely adore fussy Agnes Moorehead as Cary’s good friend Sara Warren. She genuinely fears that the gossip in town may hurt these two when they decide to marry each other. ”I must say Cary, you’ve got stubbornness. And courage.” You do need friends like her as your support system and Sara does not shy away from Cary despite the environment in question.

There are other familiars in the cast like Conrad Nagel and Virginia Grey, but I must say that my cuppeth runneth over when I saw Eleanor Audley (a.k.a. Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney’s CINDERELLA and Malificent in SLEEPING BEAUTY) a second time, shortly after viewing THREE SECRETS earlier in the month. I love, love, love Eleanor just as much as I do Agnes even if she did not appear in any Bewitched episodes. She also gets the best theme-quote of the movie as she observes Cary and Ron at the cocktail party: ”It is always the quiet ones, isn’t it? But she’s certainly the last person you would suspect.”

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Of course, Cary winds up as her own worst enemy, allowing children and neighbors to dictate what makes her happy. She and Ron call off the marriage but ultimately reunite after he suffers a wintertime tragedy. Despite the potent social commentary here, I still felt the overall plot to be, well, rather simplistic.

Yet it is still a gosh darn beautiful movie to look at.

Plus we get Bambi peering at the couple through the window in the end, despite Rock Hudson earlier trying to shoot a pheasant like the one in the 1942 cartoon we previously reviewed.

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Essential: THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)

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TopBilled:

I’ve gotten into the habit of looking up Roger Ebert’s old reviews, then seeing what Pauline Kael has written. I do this before I sit down to watch something and attempt to review it myself. Maybe because I see these two critics as guides, and because I am curious if I will arrive at the same conclusions they did.

Ebert’s review on the 1975 original has an interesting section where he says Bryan Forbes directs the story in too gloomy a fashion.

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He feels that it would have had more bite as social satire in the hands of someone like Woody Allen. Perhaps. But does that mean Diane Keaton would have played Katharine Ross’ part?

I think Ebert was impressed with the original concept, developed by writer Ira Levin. But Ebert was not enamored with Forbes’ interpretation. The dust jacket for the book, which was published in 1972, does play up the story’s menace and horror; and it predicts the term Stepford Wife “may well become part of our vocabulary.” That seems like an ominous warning.

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Despite its intriguing main ideas, Ebert doesn’t think Forbes’ film really gels or works as a piece of thoughtful entertainment. Maybe he’s right. On the other hand, his review of Frank Oz’s 2004 remake indicates he’s much happier with that version, since the remake downplays some of the macabre elements and presents a dark comedic angle. I guess Ebert feels this material works best as camp. Not as a dramatic, somber meditation on the role of women in suburbia.

Meanwhile Kael has a unique view of the 1975 original. She labels it “women’s lib gothic.” She views the horror in the story as a basic catalyst for women if it helps to reflect the grotesque reality of their lives. But for some reason, Kael can’t fully embrace the film. Is it a bit too self-conscious a tale for an educated woman to watch? 

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Ultimately Kael seems as disappointed as Ebert in Forbes’ version, though not for the same reasons. She feels Stepford and its wives are too tasteful, too tame. I’m not sure…did she want them to be wilder, more radical? A bit less dolled up?

Kael notes that the main characters are presented as ‘deadheads’ in a zombified suburbia. She goes on to say these strange goddesses are waxed and antiseptic. Wonder what she thought about Mary Hartman dealing with waxy yellow build-up on Norman Lear’s classic sitcom which premiered a year later…

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Finally, Kael believes Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman have presented a thesis that is too literal. And my guess is she’d probably agree with Ebert that Woody Allen might have given it a cheeky treatment and that would have been better.

Speaking of cheeky tales…writer/creator Marc Cherry was once asked how he came up with the title for his long-running TV hit Desperate Housewives.

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He said it came from a statement his mother had made. She mentioned a less-informed, less-empowered time as a wife and mother. She suggested that she and the other wives in their neighborhood didn’t always survive. They were desperate for a chance to live freely, desperate to be defined by something other than what their husbands told them to do or be, and desperate not to be trapped in a world of mass consumerism or class-conscious rubbish.

The first episode of Desperate Housewives depicts the suicide of one such suburban woman (played by Brenda Strong) who goes on to narrate the rest of the series as a dead woman. In death she has an omniscient view of the robotic life her female counterparts endure in their affluent community. She is able to find the twisted humor in what is otherwise a most untenable situation.

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Jlewis:

Part 1

Even if you haven’t seen the original film featuring Katharine Ross, its trio of made for TV sequels and/or its lackluster reboot with Nicole Kidman, you are probably familiar with the title. Over the decades, it has become a semi-derogatory term to describe any happy housewife committed to kid-raising, proper cooking and spotless home maintenance. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as long as you are happy doing it and mainstream society can be accepting of both genders playing that role.

Unfortunately so many women alive between World War II and the Nixon years were stuck with that unsatisfying, unpaid job over so many others. It got so bad at one point that many even found it challenging merely to apply for a credit card at a bank without a husband being present. Naturally, once enough feminist marches took the public by storm in that all-important year of 1970, an entire generation was ready to have HER voice heard.

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The original movie came out when this movement was in full swing with a particular push for an Equal Rights Amendment that, unfortunately, still hasn’t been completely achieved law-wise. The February 26, 1975 issue of the New York Times reported that executives at Columbia (distributor of the movie with Palomar International) held a special screening for over a hundred prominent feminists of the period, including Betty Friedan. Most of them didn’t find this dark comedy thriller entertaining.

I am curious what the great anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly thought of it. After all, it was rather insulting to her own personal fantasy of perfect womanhood. Not that she ever practiced what she preached, touring the nation with huge Trump-sized rallies and her husband tagging along as a far less talkative accessory.

Ira Levin (a man, of course) wrote both the 1972 novel and ROSEMARY’S BABY five years earlier, which was made into an even bigger hit movie. Both share a theme of ”Don’t trust your husband while you sleep.” He may make you have sex with Satan, while under the influence of drugged chocolate mousse and with the nosy neighbors helping. Or create a robot duplicate of you, also with the neighborhood helping.

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Roman Polanski found his perfect Rosemary in Mia Farrow to embody the all-clueless, all-accepting housewife in the earlier film, while Bryan Forbes found his own muse in this one with Katharine Ross. You only have to watch her in her two most famous early roles of the sixties in THE GRADUATE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID to understand why.

Key quotes: ”Benjamin, are you having an affair?” (I’ll say!) ”Of anything you ask of me, I will do…except one thing. I won’t watch you die.” In other words, Ross is great at playing women who will not question the motives of men…at first. Then her characters get wise to the situation and we, the viewers, root for her to fight back.

Getting to the overall plot here, there is a fun early scene in the big city…”Daddy. I just saw a man carrying a naked lady.’ Actually this is either a mannequin for a store front or a cast for a future robot. Daddy repliesm ”That is why we are moving to Stepford.”

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This scene involving actor Peter Masterson, as husband Walter Eberhart to Ross’ Joanna, is interesting on two levels. Viewers watching this for the first time who are unspoiled would either agree or disagree on political and sociological grounds: many move to the suburbs to avoid all of the big city ”sins” so that they can raise their children with more wholesome, Christian ”family values.’ It also serves as a spoiler: Walter has a definite reason to be moving to Stepford Village, Connecticut and even states so in front of his unknowing wife.

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Side note: Mary Stuart Masterson plays one of the two daughters, being the real life daughter of Peter off screen. She turned eight during the summer this was filmed and, after graduating from high school, enjoyed a successful career on camera like daddy in such hits like FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. In that one, she famously played a tomboy, Idgie, who has no interest in men but loves her friend Ruth intensely, something that would not be accepted in Stepford!

Walter conning Joanna to like the new surroundings: ”You don’t even have to lock your doors in Stepford.”

Check back tomorrow for the rest of Jlewis' review...

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Part 2

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In central Florida, there is a place called The Villages which became the topic of a popular documentary this past year. This is where many aging baby boomers retire in an environment reminding them of Leave It to Beaver. Yet even that area is nothing like Stepford. 

Underneath the silly nature of the story, some hard questions are being asked about social conformity. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, both the original and the remake that followed this movie a few years later, resemble it in many ways. Although aliens are the culprits for making humans less human, the original filmed in 1955 had much to say about McCarthyism and its impact on Cold War America.

With the citizens all conforming to a strict standard, there is not only a loss of individuality but also an overall lack of emotional display. Nobody sheds tears when somebody gets injured, as in a car accident at the supermarket. The situation merely gets…taken care of.

The Nazi government in power tried to make German citizens conform and carefully removed those who didn’t belong. The United States is no different than Germany in what could potentially happen. Note how everybody is of the same race in Stepford, all are heterosexual with children and all drive brand new station wagons. (This reminds me that I flunked my first drivers test at age 17 by trying to parallel park in a ’75 Plymouth station wagon that strongly resembled many of these Fords.) Also note how relaxed the citizens are made to feel so that they can adjust to those keeping them under their power.

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This brings me to Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), head of the Men’s Association. He resembles the character of Roman Castevet in ROSEMARY’S BABY in getting our heroine to simply accept the changes taking place and not to fight it so much. Fighting for your sense of individuality only adds unnecessary stress when you know it won’t hurt in the end.

There is also a blink and you miss it scene with Dale wearing priest-like clothes (suggesting that organized religion can be used to tranquilize people as well as biochemical drugs?) and soothing an upset Ed Wimperis (Franklin Cover) who is less adapting at first to the changes than the other men. The destruction of his wife Charmaine’s (Tina Louise) tennis court and the building of a swimming pool becomes his therapy of sorts.

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Yes, it is fitting that this film was shot in 1974 and released in ’75 just before the third decade anniversary of the Third Reich’s collapse. There is even a scene referencing history among the neighborhood ladies that is interesting. Charmaine, who has yet to be conformed/replaced, comments on a ”German Virgo” whom she initially hires as a housekeeper before her own husband decides that he no longer needs one. So ”that is how we won the war,” Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) jokes.

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Bobbie and Charmaine are initially Joanna’s outlets to the outside world and they too have ”dabbled” in women’s lib despite their husbands’ disapproval.

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Other ladies in various stages of conforming/replacement to I’ll-just-die-if-I-don’t-get-this-recipe Ajax Country include Nanette Newman as the very ominous Carol Van Sant, Toni Reid, Carole Mallory, Barbara Rucker and Judith Baldwin (ties with Tina Louise in her later role as Ginger in Gilligan’s Island TV reboots).

At one point, they and Joanna’s trio have a ladies group that suddenly switches from marriage complaints to commercial endorsements for various cleaning supplies. This is where the film gets quite fun to watch with the actresses spoofing the empty consumerism of the era.

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Sometimes art, a symbol of individualistic expression, can be a contributing factor to a conformist fascist environment. Joanna is a photographer who expresses herself in pictures even if the galleries are curiously united in not accepting her work (i.e. she wants to be remembered after she has passed on). At her first meeting with the Men’s Association, she is the subject of an attending artist capturing her likeness on paper. Yet this is not just something to hang on her wall.

We also have an aging ladies journalist (I think it is unbilled Martha Greenhouse) interviewing Joanna in a key early scene who represents the media that keeps the local public informed. That is, what those in power want the local public to be informed about. In a later comical scene also involving Bobbie, she insists that their community used to be “liberal” on account of having the first Chinese restaurant in that portion of the state.

Much of the novelty of this movie has faded but it is still an interesting artifact. Lots of visual appeal abound, even if much of it is no different than other thrillers. The drowned mouse in the park pond, shown just before Joanna meets a shrink (Carol Eve Rossen), stood out to me. Could it be foreshadowing of Joanna’s doom or a comment on the local water?

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Then we get the usual Victorian style house full of mystery that crops up frequently in such sagas and the rain that makes Joanna look like a drowned mouse during her final climax (a reversal of Dustin Hoffman being the drenched one in an earlier climax of a Katharine Ross film).

While the film gets sluggish in parts, it doesn’t address some interesting side stories that may have been profiled in more detail on the printed page. For example, Joanna had a past with a man (Robert Fields) whom she loved more than her husband. She and Bobbie use him to test the local water at a chemical lab and he writes her a note acknowledging that both of them are not happy with their current marriages.

Fred the dog is kidnapped but we do see him reappear later, so that curio at least gets resolved. However I still question why the daughters Amy and Kim don’t come off as being just as curious as Mother about all of the strange occurrences. On the plus side, it is easy to understand why Walter is important to the community: he’s a lawyer working on death cases…and, of course, the community needs to deal with those who are getting replaced by the latest technology.

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What succeeds here is Katharine Ross’ performance. As mentioned above, she is the right actress for the part. Nicole Kidman in the later version was far too world weary and all knowing to play such a role as successfully.

There is no happy ending here except that…everybody at least looks happy and very, very sedate at the end of this.

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The Stepford ladies in the final scene shop for groceries as if they are in the ballroom of the Lawrence Welk show. Hey… don’t knock that show. I watched a lot of episodes as a kid with my grandparents since it had a calming influence on them much like Dale Coba of Coba Biochemicals.

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Coming Up in May:

shakespearean adaptations

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May 1

ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

May 8

HENRY V (1989)

May 15

TITUS (1999)

60s war epics

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May 22

THE VICTORS (1963)

May 29

IS PARIS BURNING? (1966)

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Essential: ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

TopBilled:

I first reviewed this title in 2017 and didn’t write too favorably about it at the time. I figure we might as well revisit it. Jlewis and I will be looking at two other Shakespearean adaptations in the coming weeks, so this is as good a time as any to look at ROMEO AND JULIET again.

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When Franco Zefferelli made this version of the well-known romantic story, he wanted to bring Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. As I wrote in 2017, it wasn’t the first cinematic version about the great star-crossed lovers, nor would it be the last. It was followed by Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 offering which also attempted to update the tale for contemporary audiences.

Zefferelli’s production is known for its realistic casting, which Luhrmann continued. Earlier productions used older actors to portray the teenaged leads and were largely confined to studio sound stages. But Zefferelli and Luhrmann both went on-location– Zefferelli filmed in and around Rome, while Luhrmann took his cast and crew to Mexico.

Roger Ebert enjoyed Zefferelli’s approach to the material. He deemed it an exciting adaptation. The opening sequence contains a great deal of excitement and nicely establishes the mood. We see youth from two rival Veronese families– the Capulets and Montagues– engaged in a street brawl that escalates from an insult to a sword fight.

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The fracas ends, and heroic Romeo (Leonard Whiting) makes his entrance. Then we glimpse sweet young Juliet (Olivia Hussey) in her home. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the proceedings can figure out they will fall in love.

One problem I had with the story when I reviewed it in 2017 is how the young twosome had never noticed one other before the party scene. After all, I reasoned, Verona is not a sprawling metropolis; and since they come from two prominent families that have long been engaged in a feud, certainly they might have had prior interaction or at least heard about each other. Reflecting on this particular “plot hole,” it occurs to me that other adaptations fail to address the same issue.

ROSEANNA MCCOY (1949), a romance drama based on the feud between the Hatfelds and McCoys, also draws inspiration from Romeo and Juliet. In that motion picture, the lovestruck leads (Farley Granger and Joan Evans) have lived in the same backwoods locale all their lives, and they don’t set eyes on each other until a community picnic occurs. Perhaps we are meant to see newness and hope in their initial meeting, after the supporting characters have set up the basic premise.

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Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is of course the main antagonist. (There is a Tybalt type character in ROSEANNA MCCOY played by Richard Basehart.) As spectators, we’re expected to root for the couple. But it’s a situation filled with trouble and uncertainty.

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In 2017 I commented on the fact that Romeo and Juliet are literary figures who have become so much a part of our common culture that it’s easy to overlook just how depressing their story is. Granted, it’s not as depressing or nearly half as violent as TITUS, which we will go over in two weeks. Still, to paraphrase the Bard, there never was a tale of more woe than Juliet and her Romeo…and it all becomes quite solemn after Tybalt is murdered.

During the funeral procession, we are not told how Romeo has been forgiven for his crime. He took the law into his own hands when he killed Tybalt, which would keep him from being honorable in the eyes of the prince, even if the Capulets were able to understand why he killed Tybalt. We’re never told much about why the Capulets and the Montagues have been feuding in the first place. Is this all just an old-fashioned turf war, or were there other killings in the past that needed to be avenged (like the Hatfields and McCoys)?

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The crypt scene, where Romeo thinks Juliet has died, has always been one of my favorite parts of the story. When it’s over, we are left with the main idea that love is forever. I commented in 2017 that I wasn’t sure if this was Shakespeare’s original theme or if it is how Zefferelli interpreted things. I’m still not sure. But one thing I am sure about– this film and Luhrmann’s film both deserve to be re-watched.

As we review HENRY V (1989) and TITUS (1999) this month, we will be focusing on the theme of war. But the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet reminds us that there is also a good deal of love in these plays. Per Shakespeare: ‘Their only love sprung from their only hate.’ Even if it struck like a dagger through the heart.

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Jlewis:

According to my 1991 copy of Patrick Robertson’s The Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats, this is the second most filmed Shakespeare work, following HAMLET. Because the book was published before the Leonardo DiCaprio version was released in 1996, the tally is only 49 and may not include all of the short subject versions.

For those who are expecting the best version, this one directed by Franco Zeffirelli at Rome’s Cinecittà and a few other locales (Tuscania and Gubbio mostly) may not be for you since it was justly criticized at the time for taking a few liberties with the 1597 original in order to accommodate inexperienced stars.

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Yet it is an interesting species all its own, probably far more entertaining for the non-Shakesperean crowd than most other Shakespeare flix. It also has, as icing on the cake, a hypnotic introduction and an ending by the one and only Lawrence Olivier.

The basic plot, for those select readers still unfamiliar with this warhorse story, involves two war-waging families in ol’ Verona, the Montagues (Romeo’s family) and the Capulets (Juliet’s), battling it out like the Jets and Sharks in WEST SIDE STORY and the two lovebirds deciding to marry each other despite what their families think.

Juliet decides to fake her own death with a monk’s potion (Milo O’Shea’s Friar Lawrence is a most memorable character) but Romeo misunderstands what is happening since the donkey-delivered service mail is so slow and Balthasar, played by Keith Skinner in this version, is no help. Thinking Juliet really is dead, he kills himself. Then seeing him dead, Juliet does as well. Tragedy of tragedies.

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It’s over the top for most of us living in the 21st century who have seen it all in TV soap dramas. OK. I will not beat around the bush. Regardless of its enduring popularity, this is probably NOT one of the Bard’s greatest plays and I don’t think any cinematic version, whether it features Leonard Whiting or Leonardo DiCaprio or Laurence Harvey or Leslie Howard or any other Romeo starting with an L-name, is going be as good as WEST SIDE STORY, which did take out a few of the kinks in its modernized adaptation.

Yet I do think Zeffirelli’s version is the best looking of the bunch, not just in Pasquale De Santis’ cinematography (if too infatuated with the then trendy zoom shot), but also Danilo Donati’s Oscar winning costumes that at least look like they come from the Renaissance era of ol’ Verona.

Speaking of clothes…

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When it premiered as a Royal Film Performance at London’s Odeon on March 4, 1968, Queen Elizabeth, hubbie Philip and 19-year old Charles were there shaking hands with everybody and the whole affair was one great swinging London post-Mod fashion show.

Celebrity attendee Joan Collins was showcased by the media “relaxing” that day in her knee-high stockings and star Olivia Hussey sported Go-Go boots, but both ended up overdressed in long gowns for actual movie night. A pre-THORN BIRDS Richard Chamberlain was there and apparently could not make up his mind whether to wear a Nehru jacket or the dandy neck frills, so his tailor compromised.

Any discussion of R&J ’68 must begin with the two stars.

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Often compared to a younger Zac Efron, this version’s Romeo, Leonard Whiting, celebrated his 17th birthday shortly after filming began in June 1967 and does give a surprisingly mature performance, even if he struggles to hold still during his “death” scene. Then again, the director was far more interested in his looks than his performance, posing him in all of the best lighting and framing worthy of Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich.

Although there were expectations of a fruitful on-screen career, Leonard’s did not pan out quite as successfully as his Juliet, Olivia Hussey, who remained in the public eye for decades with successes as JESUS OF NAZARETH (also Zeffirelli), DEATH ON THE NILE and many trendy horror flicks. Both stars did their share of animated cartoon voice-work on TV, however, and even reunited for SOCIAL SUICIDE (2015).

Leonard did embark on an interesting, if offbeat, recording career that included some Alan Parsons projects and a curious echo embedded rendition of “You Don’t Know Me”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmuNnd1I6As That song sums him up in a nutshell. We may never quite know him, but he is a very lovable guy and a key reason many still watch this film after five decades.

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He also flaunts his bare behind on screen, but so did Alan Bates, Robert Forster, Charlton Heston and Christopher Jones around this same time period…and Joe Dellesandro exposed far more in FLESH, as did Robert and Alan again not long after.

This brings me to the infamous, but brief, nude scenes. It was reported by Olivia in later interviews that she was sometimes considered too young to watch her own performance. The MPAA ratings only went into effect a month after the film premiered in the U.S. in October of ’68 and there was some hesitation as to whether to rate it “R” or “M,” the fore-runner to “PG.” Since teenagers were already flocking to it in droves, the lower rating was ultimately used. Two decades later, ABC’s TV series THE WONDER YEARS featured a nostalgic scene with the characters of Kevin and Winnie attending with no fuss.

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Of course, sex always sells. Especially with teenagers. Leonard and Olivia were in their altogether gracing the cover of the soundtrack album that year, although I doubt anybody raised an eyebrow with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s TWO VIRGINS competing in records stores at the same time. It featured redone dialogue by the cast that wasn’t exactly like the original movie track, along with Rota Nino’s repetitive, but most memorable, score. Nino’s subsequent score for THE GODFATHER was equally popular, but the R&J theme does have the slight edge since it was re-recorded by Henry Mancini in a version that knocked The Beatles’ “Get Back” off of the #1 spot on Billboard in June 1969.

Director Zeffirelli may have been closeted, but he was unashamed in emphasizing the subdued “gay” elements of the play and film, as has been discussed among scholars over the years. Namely this involves Mercutio’s obsession over Romeo that results in passionate jealousy.

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John McEnery’s performance may not come off as particularly “gay,” but one senses something curious going on with how he reacts whenever Romeo is not in his viewing range and also how Bruce Robinson’s Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, tags along almost as if he is competing for Mercutio’s affections. It is all still tame enough for a then teenage “M” rating and I doubt most viewers even noticed, but Zeffirelli himself was quite bold in discussing all of this in interviews of the time.

This contrasts sharply with the biopic fantasy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, a make-believe recreation of how R&J was first written and performed with mostly bogus historical characters like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola keeping Joseph Fiennes’ William Shakespeare on the “straight and narrow.”

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There has always been debate regarding Shakespeare’s private life. Was he bisexual as many theorize? Regardless, he certainly did not try to keep all of his characters strictly heterosexual as those in more restricted times since tried to make them all out to be.

I think the Hollywood mainstream was far more timid in 1998 than in 1968 about the bottom line with big budget productions, more worried about how such a film would succeed in a conservative U.S. small town. Earlier, the movie industry was pushing all buttons and audiences were eager to see what next production would be more provocative than the last.

Both film and play display more focus on Juliet’s family more than Romeo’s. Granted, the former clan is the far more colorful bunch, with Paul Hardwick and Natasha Parry as her parents and Michael York as cousin Tybalt (in his second Zeffirelli Shakespeare film, following TAMING OF THE SHREW) all chewing up the scenery until there are no more sets left standing.

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One suspects that Romeo’s parents (who are hardly seen on screen in the same frame as their son, being played by the far more subdued Antonio Pierfederici and Esmeralda Ruspoli) may have been perfectly fine with the love-match. It was just Mercutio who had all of the issues.

There are other characters of interest, most notably Juliet’s nurse played by Pat Heywood. She may be too cockney accented for her part but I feel she deserved her British Academy Award nomination in the supporting category.

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The rest of the cast are…OK, if irrelevant: the prince-in-charge trying to keep Verona from destroying itself is poker-faced Robert Stephens who is entitled to make a moral sermon at the end; Roberto Bisacco as Paris (the fellow whom Juliet doesn’t want to marry but her parents do); Richard Warwick (more famous in Lindsay Anderson’s IF…); Dyson Lovell (who later handled Zeffirelli’s HAMLET); and Roberto Antonelli.

This is one of those movies I had mixed reactions to as a teenager seeing it on VHS, but it gets better and better over time with repeated viewings. I am OK with the ’96 re-do set in more modern times, but it does display so many nineties cinema flaws of too much self-awareness and smugness. The earlier two versions I saw ages ago show their age due to older casts.

This one works more successfully than the others because the whole tragedy of the piece is built on teenage passion that doesn’t tolerate waiting and waiting, but needs it all now! Now! Now! Note the scene of the donkey carrying “snail mail” to Romeo and Balthasar galloping past him, kicking up the dust. Had he and the over-reactive Romeo not jumped right away and waited patiently to see what happened next, two deaths would have been avoided. Teens love this film because it reflects themselves in all of their haste, but it also understands their passion.

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As the Rota Nino and Walter Eugene lyrics read “What is a youth? Impetuous fire.”

Paramount made a fortune with it and I suspect that this was a reason why the equally over the top LOVE STORY was green-lit… and also became a blockbuster.

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Regarding the "plot holes". Funny thing... I was never bothered about the star crossed lovers not meeting each other beforehand since there can be all kinds of reasons, but more about the whole love at first sight business and the ridiculous faking of Juliet's death. Granted, I am sure such outlandish stunts were done in historical times. Since medieval societies pretty much kept the teenage girls hostage until they were married off, it is easy to guess why Juliet did not get out much before her 16th birthday. I think R&J '68 did a good job showing just how smothered she was by her family, especially in the opening scenes where you get the impression that she is always chaperoned by her nurse and hardly leaves the house at all.

With WEST SIDE STORY, a lot more explaining was needed since the Big Apple of the 1950s (setting of the stage version at least) was far less rigid in social norms than medieval Italy. Excuses made there was that Maria was being sheltered a lot by both her big brother and parents so that she meets Tony at her "first big dance after coming to America". Even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States. Go figure. Yes, WEST SIDE STORY has a few loopholes as well, but it still makes better sense than R&J '96 and its 20th century filmed-in-Mexico setting. The leads in that version are much too “with it” and hip with the party scene compared to leads in the other versions that I don't buy it at all.

I was also bothered by the casting of Paul Rudd as Count Paris in that later version. I mean... how could Claire Daines make up her mind between him and Leonardo diCaprio? Both are young and attractive looking fellows. They should have cast somebody like snooty Billy Zane in the role as in TITANIC. At least Roberto Bisacco's Paris in R&J '68 looks the part, being a good 12 plus years older than Olivia Hussey and his character flaunts his income with his stylish clothing. Obviously her parents wanted this VERY arranged marriage to keep the wealth flowing, as in the TITANIC situation, regardless of how unhappy Juliet would be.

Trivia homework research note: Claire Danes was originally cast for TITANIC's Rose part but she turned down the role because it was way too similar to R&J, especially with  Leonardo again.

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Some of these YouTube videos I stumble upon are only indirectly connected to these reviews, but they do provide fascinating topics for commentary such as... what makes a convincing love story on screen and which performers do it best, regardless of whether or not there's any chemistry once the cameras stop rolling. This particular one makes no mention of ROMEO & JULIET '68 (and I wish it had, since it does include two other sixties titles in the mix), but it does cover R&J '96 as well as WEST SIDE STORY and TITANIC. These are all observations of an acting coach.

A couple comments of interest...

She really, really likes the two Leonardo DiCaprio's performances, largely due to his ability to stay intensely focused on the girl on screen. Claire Daines comes off weaker but she praises R&J '96 for pulling the effect off with great image composition.

Regarding the big fish bowl used in R&J '96, I am always thinking of that much more famous fishy scene in THE GRADUATE (1967) when Mrs. Robinson opens Benjamin's bedroom door thinking it is the bathroom. At least one critic had compared her appearance among the goldfish to a shark lurking in the distance. Plus we also get the plastic scuba diver in his tank, the all famous mention of "plastics" early on and Benji forced to dress up as one to please his parents, but... BUT... that is fodder better saved for a potential future Graduate Essential.

I did mention that Zac Efron resembles Leonard Whiting of R&J '68 but... wow!... that scene in HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL! Did Leonard and Olivia Hussey have a reunion of sorts that the public didn't notice in the winter of 1987 and...?

This acting coach clearly views Natalie Wood in the same way she does Leonardo, but she is not a fan of Richard Beymer. Maybe he and Russ Tamblyn should have switched roles? I am thinking that Robert Wise told Richard to “just look cute and we will take care of the rest.” Hey... it worked. WEST SIDE STORY was a smash.

Speaking of Robert Wise musicals, there is also that excellent scene that is not covered here in THE SOUND OF MUSIC when Christopher Plummer's Captain Von Tapp responds to the first whistle-blow by Fraulein Maria (Julie Andrews) and he looks at her twice, pretending to still act stern but you can tell that he's already intensely fascinated in her.

Among the totally unrelated titles...

She loves both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE but throws a subtle dig at director Nora Ephron for prolonging the particular scene more than necessary. I kinda liked that movie when I saw it in 1993 and did... kinda... enjoy it maybe the second time, but then something really turned me off of it soon after and it took a while to decide what it is. Not only are certain scenes prolonged a bit too much, there is also too much of everything else: schmaltzy radio shows, talk-talk-talk among characters, too many references to AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, too much cute kid appeal, etc.

I kinda liked THE BRONX TALE that was also released to theaters in 1993. The scene featured was set in 1968 when interracial relationships were only starting to be experimented with once it was finally legal. As the acting coach notes, “it was so forbidden”. Well, not entirely. Just taboo.

She should just admit the obvious: Al Pacino is one lousy lover on screen. To be fair, he had his share of romantic roles to do too since everybody was forced to do them, especially later in the 1980s-90s (his FRANKIE & JOHNNY period). Clint Eastwood was better at going through the motions.

Always loved BONNIE & CLYDE and agree with what everybody says about it, including the fact that it has little resemblance to the true story a.k.a. Bonnie was a brunette. It is just a great movie with one very hot couple all over each other. I guess Warren Beatty had that effect on all of his actresses regardless.

 

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On 5/1/2021 at 6:48 PM, Jlewis said:

Regarding the "plot holes". Funny thing... I was never bothered about the star crossed lovers not meeting each other beforehand since there can be all kinds of reasons, but more about the whole love at first sight business and the ridiculous faking of Juliet's death. Granted, I am sure such outlandish stunts were done in historical times. Since medieval societies pretty much kept the teenage girls hostage until they were married off, it is easy to guess why Juliet did not get out much before her 16th birthday. I think R&J '68 did a good job showing just how smothered she was by her family, especially in the opening scenes where you get the impression that she is always chaperoned by her nurse and hardly leaves the house at all.

With WEST SIDE STORY, a lot more explaining was needed since the Big Apple of the 1950s (setting of the stage version at least) was far less rigid in social norms than medieval Italy. Excuses made there was that Maria was being sheltered a lot by both her big brother and parents so that she meets Tony at her "first big dance after coming to America". Even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States. Go figure. Yes, WEST SIDE STORY has a few loopholes as well, but it still makes better sense than R&J '96 and its 20th century filmed-in-Mexico setting. The leads in that version are much too “with it” and hip with the party scene compared to leads in the other versions that I don't buy it at all.

I was also bothered by the casting of Paul Rudd as Count Paris in that later version. I mean... how could Claire Daines make up her mind between him and Leonardo diCaprio? Both are young and attractive looking fellows. They should have cast somebody like snooty Billy Zane in the role as in TITANIC. At least Roberto Bisacco's Paris in R&J '68 looks the part, being a good 12 plus years older than Olivia Hussey and his character flaunts his income with his stylish clothing. Obviously her parents wanted this VERY arranged marriage to keep the wealth flowing, as in the TITANIC situation, regardless of how unhappy Juliet would be.

Trivia homework research note: Claire Danes was originally cast for TITANIC's Rose part but she turned down the role because it was way too similar to R&J, especially with  Leonardo again.

I meant to comment on this. I agree that we could read it as Juliet being 'smothered' or maybe over-protected by her family.

Though I think it would have made sense if she was kept at home more because she had a slight disability or a long-term injury that she was overcoming when the ball took place...and at that point, she was now ready to participate more in public life.

As for Paris, I think Roberto Bisacco is a fine choice. Though it would have been interesting if he was presented more as an older Romeo, thus making it harder for her to choose or to defend her choice for the less-established one closer to her own age.

Just a few thoughts...

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Essential: HENRY V (1989)

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Kenneth Branagh had a few supporting parts on screen before he directed and starred in his version of HENRY V. He had already been quite successful on the stage, appearing in a variety of roles that were not just limited to Shakespeare’s plays. However, he tends to be remembered for his Shakespearean efforts. Obviously he enjoyed playing the playboy leader King Henry V and that connection with the role translates well in his performance.

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Again I read several reviews before re-watching the film. One review from Roger Ebert, and one review from critic Hal Hinson who examined the film in the Washington Post when it was first released, seem to be in agreement. They both consider it a triumph. The two reviewers concur that Branagh infuses the story with a great deal of emotion and sentimentality. More than Laurence Olivier probably did in 1944. Olivier presented some of the scenes a bit sardonically, especially the opening sequence involving the political intrigue prior to the British war against the French.

In terms of British history, this was a hugely significant win for the Brits. The king and his men had been outnumbered five to one by the French knights, yet managed to attain victory.

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In terms of theatre history, Shakespeare wrote the play around 1599, nearly two hundred years after the Battle of Agincourt.

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Laurence Olivier was a more mature 37 years of age when his film was made, while Branagh was a boyish 29. Branagh’s age was closer to the actual age of King Henry V, when the battle was waged, which was 27. Olivier was once quoted as saying a younger actor doesn’t have the advantage of life experience to appreciate the themes in Shakespeare’s play, but many (including Ebert) think Branagh did just fine. Perhaps Olivier was trying to justify being slightly "miscast."

The 1944 version is quite restrained overall, and it is certainly a more dignified affair, while the 1989 version is somewhat edgier and contains a lot more violence.

One thing Ebert said– while there was no world war taking place during Branagh’s time, films made in the 1980s were much gorier and bloodier than films produced in the mid-40s. Ebert adds a comment that I think alludes to gang warfare, suggesting the 80s were a deadlier era than the 40s. Some may not agree with that, but the old expression that “men must fight” seems to be one that has significance in any decade. There are all types of full-scale wars.

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Some reviewers feel the need to discuss Branagh the director versus Branagh the actor. I would say he’s a bit flamboyant in both regards, whether he is in front of the camera or behind the camera, which adds to his appeal as an entertainer. He likes to make the material meaningful for the audience, even if his skills as a director might be substantially less than his skills as a thespian. Of course he did several other Shakespearean adaptations after HENRY V, including versions of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET.

Several of Branagh’s early films included his then-wife Emma Thompson in the lead female role. (Branagh and Thompson divorced after Branagh had an affair with Thompson’s costar from HOWARDS END, Helena Bonham Carter.) Despite their off-camera breakup, I would hope that Branagh and Thompson realize what a marvelous screen team they made in these special films. We believe it when Henry courts Katherine and finally proposes to her at the end, after he has cleverly defeated the French.

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We also believe that these are two very real people having a very real relationship despite circumstances that might otherwise keep them apart.

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Jlewis:

To be honest, I have seen my fair share of cinematic Shakespeare and, while I do respect them and appreciate all of the hard work that goes into them, I only watch them when I am required to and not because they are my go-to choice for entertainment. They are like those action adventures and super hero blockbusters that are loaded with endless explosions and poker faced heroes whom I struggle to relate to. I think a major issue for me is that there is often too much effort trying to ”do it right” that I often feel that those involved aren’t exactly enjoying themselves doing it.

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On the other hand, I do feel that Kenneth Branagh had a lot of fun working on HENRY V and this fortunately shows on screen. Is he entirely successful in pulling it all off? Maybe not. Yet there is an energy here that is infectious. In addition, his enthusiasm sparked enthusiasm among others in Hollywood and the British film industries to make many more Shakespearian films, prompting an explosion in the nineties. Suddenly The Classics all became ”cool” again, with many alternative concepts tried, namely play adaptations updated to modern times rather than Renaissance times for a change of pace.

Before diving into the Branagh directed and performed version of HENRY V, successfully completed in three months flat in the autumn of 1988 at the famed Shepperton studios in Surrey, I should first reference Lawrence Olivier’s earlier version that involved a great deal more effort and exhaustion…and a full 13 months of production during wartime 1943 and ’44 at Alexander Korda’s Denham studios, involving the bulkiest of Technicolor cameras.

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Although the later version may be more entertaining overall, I do favor the visual concept of the former more. We open with a set-in-1600 recreation of the Globe theatre with the performers working with bare sets and the women characters played by teenage boys, then gradually the sets become more realistic and actual women play women as we, the viewers along with the patrons attending the theatre, imagine the story come to life. Art deco sets with stylized backgrounds later morph into a you-are-there pasture where the 1415 Battle of Angincourt is waged.

It is important to note Olivier’s unique approach since Branagh both pays homage to it while also going off in his own direction. Instead of starting in a theatre, we begin with our narrator, one very animated and feisty Derek Jacobi, in the backdrop of a 1980s movie studio. Later Derek interrupts our story on occasion in various modern day settings in rural England. This brings back fond memories I have of those great 1970s Encyclopedia Britannica films shown on 16mm projectors in school that often featured a modern day host literally stepping into The Play so that we the viewers can get more acquainted with the characters.

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Rather than get stylized in some of the sets, Branagh goes for gritty realism with battles full of mud and blood. Because the former film was filmed during wartime, the battle scenes were a little more impressionistic. 1989 was not a war year and audiences weren’t seeking ”escapist” entertainment, so nothing is held back in depicting the carnage. I read the following quote in a 2001 Halliwell Guide edited by John Walker but I am not sure of the original source periodical: according to Branagh, ”The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that here was a play to be reclaimed from jingoism and its World War Two associations.”

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A key plot point is the romance between King Henry and Catherine (or Katharine) of France, played by Branagh’s then wife Emma Thompson in this version. In the older version, Olivier was saluting British-French comradeship, despite the Hundred Years War setting, by showing how two nations could find common ground in the end.

Fittingly, his version wrapped production during the same summer of D-Day and the liberation of Paris, when it was important for the Allies to resurrect France from the ashes of Nazism. In Branagh’s case, there is no hidden message of solidarity among countries here. Instead England and France must keep wars going for the sake of…keeping wars going.

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A very exhausted Henry seems to have even forgotten what causes he is fighting for as the battles get bloodier and bloodier. I guess Branagh is simply saying here that war is pointless regardless of what countries are involved, but romance can override any storm.

Getting more to the overall plot, Henry is one whose arrogance often gets the best of him. He claims he is the rightful heir to the French throne, but the French Dauphin (Michael Maloney), son of Charles VI (played by Paul Scofield, still going strong two decades after A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS), sends him golf balls as a critical attack gift.

This spurs our feisty ruler into action. Henry has plenty of luck on his side, including his survival of an assassination attempt (the famous Southhampton Plot). Patrons to the play in 1600 would have previously seen earlier Shakespearian hits involving Richard II and the 2-part Henry IV, so the ongoing saga of Henry V would have continued much like a prime-time soap Dallas or Dynasty with familiar recurring characters who need no re-introduction.

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One plus that the later version has over the former is that the dialogue is slower and easier to follow. Characters talk here much like they do in GLADIATOR or LORD OF THE RINGS. Personally I feel the ’44 version has everybody, including Olivier and my beloved Robert Newton, speaking way too fast that you can not understand half of what they are saying. Obviously 1980s video-game button-pushing audiences had far less patience for this sort of thing and the newer version adapts accordingly.

Nonetheless the Chicago Film Critics Association awarded it ”best foreign language film.” Huh?!!

There are a lot of familiar faces in this version, besides Scofield and Thompson. Judi Dench and Christian Bale in his pre-BATMAN phase are featured in lesser roles, but will be recognized instantly in a before-they-were-famous way.

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Dench already had a successful career prior to this film, including a previous HENRY V for TV almost three decades previously, but she still wasn’t a household name just yet in 1989. Ian Holm will be familiar to those who saw ALIEN and CHARIOTS OF FIRE. The older Alec McCowen, who plays the Bishop of Ely, also had a pretty fruitful career leading up to this, being a star in many fifties classics such as THE CRUEL SEA and A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.

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I could run down through the full cast list (Robbie Coltrane and Brian Blessed, in particular, got plenty of praise at the time for their performances), but the main focus here is our lead star Branagh, who is…pretty good…as King Henry. It is fair to say that Branagh is a brilliant director and better at it than he is as an actor. It is his control over the other performances that makes this a good film, rather than his performance specifically.

Oh…he is still good. I certainly could not pull it off like he does! Yet there are some moments that prompt unintentional chuckles from my end, like the way he grits his teeth during his Crispin’s speech which reminds me humorously of Leonard Whiting going all out in ROMEO & JULIET with his ”I defy you stars” bit.

During the early parts of the movie, Branagh does come off a bit like Anthony Michael Hall in a John Hughes movie with a hair style to match (this film literally screams 1980s here despite its antiquated costumes), but he evolves as the war scenes get increasingly intense.

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I love his later ”for I am Welsh, you know” speech with a face full of scars and dirt, almost like a Welsh miner who has just narrowly survived death on the job. Yes, I can understand why he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (if losing to Daniel Day-Lewis in MY LEFT FOOT).

We do have some great chemistry between the lovebirds. I am sure Olivier would have rather wooed Vivien Leigh as Catherine/Katharine than Renée Asherson in his version, but Branagh was blessed with Emma Thompson here. I love Emma in just about anything she appears in, but she is a trifle bland here, despite flawless French.

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Granted, her role just might have been shorter on screen than Asherson’s and even Judi Dench’s previously, although I would have to count the minutes to be certain. In typical Emma fashion, she at least does a great job playing hard to get, forcing Branagh’s Henry to work harder than usual in wooing her.

Kenneth MacMillan’ cinematography is far moodier and darker than the glossy colorful Shakespearean pics of yesteryear, including Olivier’s, but there are a few bright spots here and there. As was trendy at the time, a third of the film is shot with candle torches inside. The one shot repeated in all of the trailers shows Henry on his horse silhouetted against a fire red backdrop, a wonderful dramatic shot. Henry wears red while others often wear gray, brown and black in contrast, no doubt a decision of award winning costume designer Phyllis Dalton.

I must say that I’ve enjoyed both versions of HENRY V equally even if their concepts are radically different.

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about the stepford wives, I've always found the story too far-fetched. okay, some unhappy husbands decide to replace their uppity wives with robots....

but just how are they killed? do these guys actually strangle or shoot the mothers of their children?

I just have never been able to buy the premise.

ira levin shoulda stuck with ploughboy inductees.

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It is hinted that the robot itself kills Katharine Ross' character, but I do think that the concept of the story is better than the execution. It is a parody after all, not to be taken as seriously as the way it was ultimately presented in mystery-thriller form. The leader of the men's group owns a chemical medical company, which suggests a more believable  plot i.e. drugs causing robotic behavior and the husbands spiking their wives' food. We also have the lady psychiatrist offering pills to calm our heroine down as if she may be in on the set-up.  You think initially that this is the direction the movie is going, due to her friend's constant suspicion that there is something wrong with the water and the two getting it tested.

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I guess if you see it as a horror film then you take it literally, what happens to them.

But if you look at it as a cheeky satire, then you probably see it more as an allegory.

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Essential: TITUS (1999)

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TopBilled:

I will state upfront — this is a tricky film to write about. If you like it, they will think you’re demented; if you dismiss it, you have no serious credentials. TITUS has a high score on the IMDb…so there must be plenty of decent, demented folks out there!

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s first tragedy is almost beyond comprehension. It is bloodthirsty, vengeful and brutal. It’s a story about people who have been at war. They kill– they revel in carnage. They are sick in the head, especially Saturninus, the chief villain (Alan Cumming).

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TITUS is Shakespeare’s most violent story, and Anthony Hopkins gives one of his finest performances. This ranks up there for him, with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, NIXON and the more recent THE FATHER. Hopkins is skilled at playing unlikable but sympathetic characters in impossible situations. His Titus Andronicus is fooled by Saturninus into chopping off his hand in exchange for the return of his sons. Only his sons’ heads are returned, which is something old Titus did not anticipate.

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In addition to this horror, Titus’s beloved daughter is maimed and raped. Yes, this is not a tale for the faint of heart. Taymor presents something that is macabre but glamorous. The production is dripping in excess from every conceivable vantage point. And by this, I mean dramatically (with overripe acting) and visually (with over staged set-ups that are accentuated by strange costuming and bold music).

Roger Ebert enjoyed the film, and so do I. No-no-no, we are not demented. I think Ebert says it best when he suggests he likes it because he has grown tired of good taste and restraint. Give us a movie that dares to go all the way, that’s what he says. TITUS has not one bit of good taste, and there is no evidence of restraint in anything Taymor puts on screen.

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Case in point: a scene where the young brothers Demetrius and Chiron (Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) vamp it up. Taymor has them over-egg the pudding, throwing in homoerotic elements that may or may not have been suggested by Shakespeare. I appreciate how she lets the actors carry on in this kind of artistic freedom. But of course they have to refrain from being too bonkers, that’s part of the ‘fun’…they draw the line without making the characters too insane.

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This applies to Hopkins’ portrayal as well. Despite the cartoonish aspects of the plot, he still has to depict Titus as the last real vestige of decency, if he can reach far enough and find it within himself.

Meanwhile, Tamora, queen of the goths is the epitome of dysfunction. She makes Queen Gertrude in Hamlet look like Mother Teresa. Tamora lacks decency and humanity. She’s a monster.

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Tamora is played by Jessica Lange, who seems to find pleasure in being handed such a plumb role. The 1990s was a decade where actresses like Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver found it difficult to hold on to their status as leading ladies. Stories about women over 40 were no longer being made by the major Hollywood studios.

TITUS is a film that is decadent, totally outrageous in its presentation of the main themes, and a lot of ‘fun’ to watch if you suspend disbelief (which is what audiences did in Shakespeare’s day).

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It’s a shocking revenge story. Witness the revolting moment where Titus decides Tamora’s sons should be beheaded and served to her in a meat pie.

Strip away its “grandeur,” and you’ll discover an allegory about how society works. Often people are ready for the next big battle, justifying violence and loss of life. For war mongers, this approach is the only way to function and survive. And since we still have war mongers in high up positions of government, we can say without a doubt that Shakespeare’s story remains relevant.

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Jlewis:

As mentioned previously, Shakespeare was the In-Thing in the 1990s, getting a new fresh upgrade with adaptations that were not necessarily set in the time frames of the original stories. We open TITUS with a kid in a modern day kitchen setting with all of his electronic super hero toys keeping him company. Squirting ketchup in his milk and smashing plates. Our story is set in Ancient Rome and, yes, we see the Colosseum here, but the atmosphere is a mix of 1999 with first century B.C. here, motorcycles included.

TITUS ANDRONICUS was one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays, a key reason why it failed to be popular during later centuries like the 19th and 20th, compared to others. Most fans view it as his one big flop and, consequently, it has received far fewer cinematic adaptations than the others.

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I guess you could say that this film marked the very apex of the ”anything goes make-Shakespeare-YOUR-own-way” period. Props appear to be left overs from all kinds of movie productions: a Ford Thunderbird is driven alongside a 1930s coupe, plastic helmets abound alongside some rather authentic Ancient Roman ones, curious radio microphones must have been used in some Indiana Jones movie set in the 1930s and outfits are culled from all centuries.

Musically we get a big band jazz swing, compete with trumpets, along with a Studio 54 glitter dance hall. The cast is all multiracial, in conforming with our modern times, and many sport glittery gold eyeliners. This would have looked great as a Star Wars episode. Or a nice tour guide documentary through Cinecittà, the studio where it was shot.

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It is a total visual mess, but an engaging mess to watch.

Old pornographic murals copied from the Pompeii ruins adorn some settings, making the atmosphere seem all the more depraved. A lot of, um, back door enjoyment is depicted on the wallpaper. Apparently this film was only rated R? Also no parental warnings on YouTube?

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Anthony Hopkins is quite understated here as the lead commander of the Roman Empire seeing his downfall ahead of time. It is among his most memorable performances. Especially when he chops off his hand. Mind you, he is less crazy than the rest of the cast.

Jessica Lange’s Tamora, defeated Queen of the Goths, screams in crazy-cray defiance over her son’s killing (a very muscular Raz Degan, who at least displays the beefcake as he gets knived). You know she will get her revenge on Titus eventually. Also goes topless in one scene… good ol’ Jessica!

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Swarmy Alan Cumming is the newly crowned emperor Saturnius who takes a fancy to her and elevates her to empress. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Mathew Rhys play two of Tamora’s other sons, the latter is quite frisky in his affections for other boys. Harry Lennix is both servant and lover to her as well, plus narrator for us viewers on occasion. Since he is darker toned, a baby she has with him is carefully hidden.

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Also the nurse bringing the baby to him gets murdered. She, by the way, is played by Geraldine McEwan who appeared earlier with Emma Thompson in HENRY V. This ties our two movie essentials together.

Lots of murders. Lots of torture. HENRY V ’89 was pretty gory too, but this film can’t get enough of it and goes at it again and again and again. Laura Fraser is quite good in her performance as Lavinia, the frantic daughter of Titus tortured by Tamora and her sons, getting her hands replaced with tree limbs and her tongue cut out.

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Lovely! Earlier she was in cahoots with James Frain’s Bassianus, brother of Saturnius who is, of course, doomed like so many others.

Titus has many sons too, played by Angus Macfadyen (as Luccius, the one with the most story material here), Kenny Doughty, Colin Wells and Blake Ritson. Colim Feore plays his brother and a stoic Roman senator, appropriately dressed in suits while everybody else dresses like it is Mardi Gras.

Liked the fantasy scenes involving angels and a sacrificial lamb at altar. Also Lavinia’s dream sequence as she tells her father who her aggressors were. Also enjoy the goofy music score supervised by Elliot Goldenthal that sometimes plays the horrors on screen like it is Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Besides all of that, well…

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I really, really tried my best to like this movie. Honestly. Must admit that I started drifting off into La La Land midway through. There was way too much going on and so much torture (knives being used constantly) that I often struggled to maintain my focus. Everybody was too off the wall for me to feel much sympathy for them.

More than any other film we have profiled here as an essential, I found myself reading more summaries on Wikipedia just to keep up. Not that it was supposed to be terribly complicated and hard to follow necessarily. Just your usual revenge on others tale.

Sometimes a movie just doesn’t hit you the right way. I am sure TITUS deserves critical praise for its innovation and uniqueness. Maybe it just was a bit too avant garde for my tastes? Is it acceptable for me to say that I favored both ROMEO & JULIET and HENRY V over this one, even though they were far more conservative in their approach?

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Essential: THE VICTORS (1963)

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TopBilled:

I have been wanting to discuss THE VICTORS for awhile. It’s one that TCM never airs. As I looked up reviews, I found that most professional critics in 1963 panned it; however, in recent years it seems to have gained a cult following and amateur reviewers online seem to like the film very much.

Director Carl Foreman was a blacklisted writer and producer, probably most-known for writing HIGH NOON (1952). But his dream was to direct a big budget motion picture. He finally received a chance to do so, in the early 60s. As part of a deal with Columbia Pictures, Foreman was allowed to direct his script for THE VICTORS, which was based on a novel called The Human Kind by Alexander Baron.

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One reason Columbia backed Foreman on this project is because as a producer on THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), he had scored a huge hit. The studio expected another blockbuster with THE VICTORS. However, because the film was panned by critics and had its U.S. release delayed due to the Kennedy assassination, it did not do well with audiences and was a disappointment for the studio. Foreman never got the chance to direct again, though he continued to produce and was still an influential writer.

THE VICTORS is Foreman’s rebuttal to the glossy heroics of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. In this picture, Foreman is interested in presenting the darker, grittier elements of World War II. The finished product closely resembles BATTLEGROUND (1949) in terms of how it presents such somber subject matter. There are barroom escapades and romantic dalliances, but the focus is on the psychological drama experienced by a squadron sent to Europe.

What an extraordinary cast. Critics seem to agree that Eli Wallach is most effective as a tough sergeant who crosses paths with a French widow (Jeanne Moreau). Though the real star is Columbia’s leading man Vince Edwards.

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Edwards portrays a married soldier who must deal with temptation in the form of an Italian woman (Rosanna Schiaffino). Joining Wallach and Edwards, we have George Peppard and George Hamilton who previously played brothers in MGM’s HOME FROM THE HILL (1960). Hamilton is a likable sort who gets involved with a Belgian girl (Romy Schneider). He soon realizes he is in over his head.

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It is discovered that she is not only a prostitute but a schizophrenic as well! Meanwhile, Peppard is assigned lighter material– a carefree relationship with a business woman (Melina Mercouri) who just so happens to sell goods on the black market.

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The film is worth watching for all these fascinating characterizations. But it also has some stark realism that I find to be unmatched in most war movies from the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, there is a scene where a dog becomes target practice for a group of soldiers. The puppy had been found and adopted by a sensitive recruit, played by young Peter Fonda.

There is also a shocking scene where the men are propositioned by a nice French boy, who offers to do sexual favors for them in exchange for money. And, of course, I have to mention the film’s most famous sequence, in which an American soldier is placed in front of a firing squad and shot to death by his compadres.

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The sequence is based on the real-life execution of Private Eddie Slovik. Slovik was a Michigan native who had gone to France with his unit, but decided he was not cut out for battle. After requesting to be reassigned and having his request refused, he deserted. He was later executed for desertion. Slovik was 24 years old, and his case is one of the rare examples of someone put to death by the U.S. army for this kind of military crime.

Foreman’s film examines cowardice, as well as the brutality of life in battle. None of the men are presented too sentimentally, and though parts of the film’s episodic nature may contain tropes familiar to viewers of Hollywood war films, this effort stands out for its more unflinching depiction of war-as-hell.

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Jlewis:

Very much a product of its time with black and white cinematography echoing both the French New-Wave’s biggest hits and the recent 20th Century Fox blockbuster THE LONGEST DAY, this was Carl Foreman’s follow-up to his own previous blockbuster THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Intriguingly that one, also bankrolled by Columbia, was less artsy and shot in traditional color wide-screen, which makes me wonder if Foreman’s decision with THE VICTORS being shot differently had something to do with THE LONGEST DAY’s success (since filming began in the summer of 1962 shortly after that film made its debut).

Emphasizing a certain Art House look, all of the ladies featured are international in importance: Greek star Melina Mercouri, Jeanne Moreau of JULES ET JIM fame, German goddess Romy Schneider, Italian bombshell Rosanna Schiaffino and equally sexy Elke Sommer, the most successful German import to the British film industry of that time.

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Being a British-U.S. co-production, we get male stars from both sides of the big pond: George Hamilton, Vincent Edwards, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Michael Callan, Albert Finney (appearing in the final three minutes as a Russian soldier!) and Maurice Ronet (adding a nice French-but-influenced-by-the-Nazis lieutenant role). Obviously I can not cover the full cast here since so many names are included in the opening credits, but should note a young break-out star named Peter Fonda playing a new recruit with the doomed-to-die dog.

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As with THE LONGEST DAY, everybody seems to be competing for screen time. I have THE GUNS OF NAVARONE on DVD, but have only sat through it once since it was rather long and tedious in spots. Ditto here. Yet don’t get me wrong. It is still a good and generally entertaining effort, if a bit disjointed. Also very depressing, like many anti-war films intended to jolt the viewers.

First note of interest: I love the newsreels presented in the beginning before the main titles, providing a nice montage without any intrusive commentary. Just scenes of the Great War ending with Germany surrendering in 1918, followed by the rise of Hitler and…well, here we go again! Still more newsreels appear after we are introduced to the two young heart throbs of the era in uniform: our two Georges.

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One of the newsreels feature the Rockettes in training (and I am clueless why this was included), followed by a mock one featuring our main cast as soldiers who start off in England and then end up either in Italy of 1943, post-Normandy France the year after and, finally, that brutal winter of ’44-45. Newsreels are used throughout to show the passage of time. JULES ET JIM was a bit like this, but only with its World War I scenes and I am sure Foreman was purposely making a few nods to Truffaut while also utilizing his top actress.

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The music is quite interesting, if scattered in style. We have Christmas songs, including Frank Sinatra’s ”Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” contrasting with a brutal winter scene of a traitor soldier being killed by a firing squad. I like the curious jazz choices, even if they sound more sixties-ish than forties-ish, that pop up when Italian children are thieving about and, later, in the liberated French dance hall where Romy Schneider’s Regine catches the eye of George Hamilton’s Trower.

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This brings me to the ladies featured, all serving as ”love interests” to our completely heterosexual cast (although a gay scene was allegedly cut before release). Jeanne Moreau’s French maiden gives some nice speeches to Eli Wallach’s Craig in between bedroom scenes together, although I don’t feel she fits the narrative quite as well as Romy and Rosanna Schiaffino’s Maria, the she-may-or-may-not-be-a-widow having an affair with also married Baker (Vince Edwards).

The constantly smiling Michael Callan (whom I recognized instantly from one of my favorite Harryhausen special effects extravaganzas, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) seems to woo everybody wearing a dress, but the one character getting the most screen time, George Peppard’s Chase, is the last to get his match in a Polish blonde bombshell (Greek accented Melina Mercouri in the best of the female performances).

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Wind up toys are an interesting plot item: a music box with dancers is shown early on and later Baker plays with a moving teddy bear toy. Does this suggest that the soldiers feel like wind-up toys themselves in brutal warfare? Then there is some not so subtle religious symbolism: for example, a shot of a dead soldier with the sound of flies on the soundtrack precedes a shot of a crucifix with Jesus.

At the 41 minute mark, we get into some racial commentary (coinciding with and commenting on the civil rights movement of the early sixties) with one group of racist soldiers searching in a favored diner-place for ”c***s” and ”n*****s”. These offensive words were (and still are) apparently allowed in movie soundtracks as long as some sort of progressive message is involved. However, I was expecting to see how the black soldiers were coping in their still segregated troops, but such a scene must have been fleeting and I missed it.

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Even if the film is all over the map with mis-matching clothes, much praise is due to the very authentic settings recreated here. The blending of newsreel footage with you-are-there location filming is most impressive. Certainly the firing squad sequence is the most memorable, despite being the simplest with a stark snow covered setting full of soldier witnesses…

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War is hell. Simple point made here. Peppard’s Chase survives but is in crutches…and in much better condition than his sergeant Craig. This was certainly not the first of its kind but its timing is rather significant. It was released to British theaters the week before President Kennedy’s assassination and unleashed in the U.S. afterward, signaling an era when World War II epics would increasingly be presented in far darker, less glamorized presentations (echoing the future Vietnam conflict with all of its gritty presentation on TV).

There is also a final climax with both an American and Russian soldier shown dead in the streets in a stark post-war setting that adds commentary on a Cold War era where nobody wins in the end. (The Cuban missile crisis occurred during filming as well, so one can add that to the overall psychology here.)

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Essential: IS PARIS BURNING? (1966)

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TopBilled:

Last week we reviewed THE VICTORS, a big budget war epic with American and European stars. This week’s film — IS PARIS BURNING? — also has an international cast that features big Hollywood names as well as important names from European cinema. A lot of care has been put into the production, so it seems quite “epic.”

The reviews of film critic Bosley Crowther can be found on the New York Times website. I am including Crowther’s picture, because until now, I didn’t know what he looked like (and am guessing most of our readers may not either). I read Crowther’s unflattering review of IS PARIS BURNING?, and I feel the need to address a few points.

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In his essay, Crowther seems to get hung up on the question in the title. For him, it is obvious that parts of Paris have been burned during the Nazi occupation…but he also thinks viewers will get ‘burned up’ watching the movie. To be fair, we all have had experiences like this where something we watch on screen fails to live up to our expectations.

Crowther takes particular umbrage with the disjointed nature of the film, which may be a problem he has with the editing. He seems to want the individual characters and their individual subplots to connect more smoothly. Personally, I don’t think that is needed. Most epics work best when they are episodic in nature. IS PARIS BURNING? shows how disjointed and chaotic war can be.

One single event, a large-scale battle, ripples across a nation (or nations) and has lasting impact on a cross-section of people and cultures. Often, it’s effective to intercut between seemingly unrelated scenes, to get a greater sense of the widespread ramifications of the atrocities.

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As such, I do not think it is necessary to understand each character or to even know them by name specifically. A film like this is sort of a tapestry of bloodshed and heroism, with many different facets of the wartime experience reflected on the faces and in the hearts of those involved.

We should also understand that someone watching this motion picture in 1966 had probably served in World War II, or was related to someone that had. The characters, especially the nameless ones, would be stand-ins for the real-life men and women that had served in battle. A story like this is always about casualties and survivors, and how life after war is supposed to be a chance for humankind to rebuild.

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Crowther does not like the fact that some of the main stars disappear after their sequences play out on screen, with very little follow-up. Perhaps this is because the filmmakers are trying to include as many different subplots as possible, taken from the original source material. Or perhaps they only had some of these actors for a short period of time and all they ever intended to do was a few short scenes, to add to the tapestry. At any rate, I think Crowther is finding too much fault with it.

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What I like most about IS PARIS BURNING?, and the reason I wanted to foster a discussion of it this month, is how alive some of the sequences are. Notably, the parts where Paris is liberated from the Nazis. It feels, to me, like a ‘you are there’ moment. Remarkable considering the story was produced two decades after the war ended.

It still seems fresh in the minds of the participants, and as such, it comes across vividly for the viewer. I don’t know about you, but I appreciate it when a movie transports me to a time and a place that occurred before I was born. It helps me learn history better, even with the usual cinematic distortions. But I think this film is actually free of most distortion.

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Jlewis:

This is the story of a beautiful city – not as we know it today – but as it was in its most perilous and also its most glorious hours. Paris in 1944. after four years of bitter occupation, was seething on the verge of revolt against its Nazi oppressors. With the allies almost at the doorstep, the French resistance in the city, composed of many divergent groups, struggled bitterly among themselves to find the way to liberation.

While there is no questioning of the bravery of the French resistance, Marcel Ophuls suggested in his polarizing documentary full of interviews shot in 1969, LE CHAGRIN ET LA PITIÉ (THE SORROW AND THE PITY), that not all of the French citizens were…quite as…committed to fighting off their occupiers with equal gusto, at least not as much as many would claim they were years later in hindsight.

In a way, they were/are no different than all of the aging white Americans who insist that they always believed that ”black lives matter” even, if we take a time machine back to see how they really behaved decades ago, and find they weren’t quite as progressively minded back then as they may be now. (Side note: we get a fleeting shot of a black soldier among the American troops but don’t blink too fast or you will miss him.) It is common human nature to avoid personal and family danger by conforming with the masses as much as possible rather than take all of the risks.

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Yet this 1965-66 production is essentially a Valentine to how most French moviegoers wanted to view themselves– and not try to rock the boat as Ophuls would do. It is backed with a marching score by Maurice Jarre to keep everybody watching feeling patriotic. Also we get plenty of vintage newsreel footage of Paris citizens doing their bit as they prepare for their liberation by the Allies. No wonder it was the fourth biggest box-office draw in France that year.

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With all of that said, René Clément tries to be as historically accurate in all departments as possible and, at least in the opening scenes, even takes a few brief pot-shots at his country with vintage clips showing some French citizens doing their usual August sunbathing and other recreational pursuits despite a war still going on. Again, like THE VICTORS, the black and white cinematography (mostly credited to Marcel Grignon, but a whole crew was obviously involved) blends successfully with these vintage newsreel excerpts interspersed.

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The gosh-darn-gorgeous Leslie Caron and Alain Delon play our center romantic pair here even though they aren’t together all that much: Françoise Labe and the Gaullist general and future Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, who was certainly not bad looking in real life but must have been quite flattered to have Delon play him. Oh…how we must always root for the pretty people on our screens! Yet I should point out that Leslie gives one of the best performances of her career here, especially in her emotional reactions to fellow citizens getting shot suddenly in those final weeks.

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The stars glitter this production like stars in the night time sky. Orson Welles plays Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, Charles Boyer is a doctor involved, Claude Rich has two roles but mostly plays General Philippe Leclerc, E.G. Marshall, Simone Signoret, Anthony Perkins (as a GI who dies after tasting his first Paris wine) and even George Chakris of WEST SIDE STORY fame.

In addition, we get all of the familiar who’s who of French celebrities in various historical roles: Pierre Vaneck (who gets the most screen time, it appears, as Maj. Roger Cocteau-Gallois), Jean-Paul Belmondo, Yves Montand, Bruno Cremer (who plays Col. Henri Rol-Tanguy, a leader of a communist faction Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français working seperately from the Gaullists), Marcel Bizien, Michel Piccoli and Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant. From the German cinema: Hannes Messemer and Ernst Fritz Fürbringer, among others.

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Towering over the cast is the wonderfully poker faced Gert Fröbe (a.k.a. Mister Goldfinger in battle with 007 two years earlier) as Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris who must decide whether or not to destroy the city as Germany retreats. The real man, who died within a month after this movie was released, was a very complicated character who disobeyed the orders of the Third Reich.

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I feel that Fröbe plays him well with equal complexity, first showing little concern about a proposed destruction but gradually becoming more sympathetic and compassionate as time progresses. Fittingly, one of his first primary scenes shows him witness a rather depraved Hitler played by Billy Frick (this being after an assassination attempt on his life…and, later, we see a major character shooting bullets through his picture on display). He knows which side is losing right from the start and allows his conscience to just give in to the greater cause.

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Of course, the biggest box-office draws all get to play the Allied generals involved: Glenn Ford as Omar Bradley, Robert Stack as Edwin Sibert and Kirk Douglas as George Patton. It is understandable why Douglas did not win an Oscar nomination for his role like George C Scott. This trio is all pretty wooden in their portrayals.

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As if there isn’t enough novelty with the cast, we also have Gore Videl and Francis Ford Coppola involved with the screenplay. Unfortunately different languages of the international cast did prompt a great deal of obvious dubbing on the soundtrack. Since much of this was done intentionally, this film would have been far better, in my opinion, sticking to subtitles for two thirds of its running time.

1966 was a key year for the proliferation of graphic violence on American and European cinema screens and this production does not flinch away from all of the Nazi executions. In fact, despite being a far more optimistic and uplifting production than THE VICTORS, it is also far more explicit in depicting the carnage involved. Yet we must acknowledge that every death on screen is a heroic stance for future generations to live without tyranny in control.

I tend to see this one as a nice warm up success for the following year’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, perhaps the most financially successful of the guts-and-glory actioners of the decade. It is really all about action and more action, explosions and more explosions. While THE VICTORS stressed that war is hell, IS PARIS BURNING? reminds us also that war can also be the greatest adventure in the lives for those who survive it.

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Coming Up in June:

partners in crime

June 5

THE MECHANIC (1972)

June 12

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

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June 19

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

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June 26

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (1991)

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