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Classic Film Criticism


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*THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945)*

 

From Agee on August 25, 1945:

 

It may be unforgivably decadent of me, but I cannot get much excited about incest, nor do I feel that any great victory has been won because a story about incest, UNCLE HARRY, has escaped from the Hays office in still fairly recognizable condition.

 

I am, however, definitely excited by watching characters in conflict with themselves and with others; by the beauty, intelligence and ability of Geraldine Fitzgerald; and by seeing her after years of criminal neglect in a role which, though not by a long way good enough for her, does give her room to move around in and things to do, and ought to guarantee her roles as good or better, from now on.

 

Though he bats his yes too often, a sign that he is a simple soul, George Sanders is generally good as Miss Fitzgerald's infantile brother. Ella Raines is very handsome and effective as the woman who tries to make him grow up. I also like Angela Lansbury's mother, Moyna Maggill, as the gentler sister.

 

The small New England town and its inhabitants are well-detailed, too, especially a set of witnesses at the murder trial, and the perfect dressing of Miss Raines' semi-permanent room in the hotel. I imagine the two people most to be thanked for so intelligently casting, specifying and bringing to life this generally superior movie are the producer, Joan Harrison, and the director, Robert Siodmak.

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*THAT'S THE SPIRIT (1945)*

 

From Agee on August 11, 1945:

 

A fantasy in which Jack Oakie, a ghost, leaves heaven to watch over his daughter, Peggy Ryan, is clumsy but mildly enjoyable.

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*SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948)*

 

From Agee on July 31, 1948:

 

A sinister artists tempts an innocent widow into passion and crime. It is still another of those lacy, over-elaborated psychosexual period melodramas by Joseph Shearing. Handsomely produced in England by an American company. Good enough work by Ray Milland; a nice minor job by one of the most attractive and neglected women in movies, Geraldine Fitzgerald; a professional and very likable performance by Ann Todd.

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*THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)*

 

From Agee on December 22, 1945:

 

While I watched the movie which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett have made out of Charles Jackson's story about alcoholism, I was pretty consistently gratified and excited. When I began to try to review it, I could not forget what Eisenstein said, years ago, when he was asked what he thought of Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. He said he thought it was a good Ph.D. thesis. I am afraid that applies to THE LOST WEEKEND, too.

 

I don't mean that it is stuffy; it is unusually hard, tense, cruel, intelligent, and straightforward. But I see nothing in it that is new, sharply individual, or strongly creative. It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound basic commonplaces.

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*MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943)*

 

From Agee on May 22, 1943:

 

As cinema and as warfare, MISSION TO MOSCOW is an important piece. Not entirely without skill, it inaugurates for a great general audience a kind of pamphleteering and of at least nominal nonfiction whose responsibilities, whose powers for good or evil, enlightenment or deceit, are appalling; and of which we are likely to get a great deal from now on.

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*THE LAST CHANCE (1945)*

 

From Agee on November 24, 1945:

 

THE LAST CHANCE was made by Lazar Wechsler in Switzerland during the war. It is the story of the attempt of some derelict English and American soldiers to shepherd a polyglot group of refugees across the mountains from Italy to Switzerland. Most of the players are amateurs; some of them virtually reenact their living roles as refugees. With minor exceptions the performances, or the ways in which nonperformances are put to good use, are excellent.

 

Some of the character conceptions, symbolizations, and melodramatic passages are over-obvious, high-flavored and stagy, but none of the weaknesses of the film more than superficially vitiate its desperate courage. Nor does it strike me as dated: the world it tries to epitomize has changed, since the film was made, more for the worse than for the better.

 

I am more interested in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's attempt to give it regular feature-film circulation; I only wish I could believe that it will please, and arouse, any sufficient part of the general American audience.

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*HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME (1945)*

 

From Agee on February 24, 1945:

 

HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME is a harmless comic detective story. It is physically easier to read such things in bed; it is less boring to watch them on the screen. I can't see that anything is to be gained either way. The real point, I presume, is to find your own special hermetic nirvana of boredom.

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*DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946)*

 

From Agee on April 27, 1946:

 

A melodrama about an ingenuous sailor's effort to clear himself of murder; Harold Clurman's direction of a script by Clifford Odets. Some of Clurman's direction is pure stage, some of which comes through very well; some of Odets' writing is pure ham. At its worst the picture is guilty of pseudo-realism and pseudo-poetry about the lost little people of a big city. But on the whole I think it is a likable movie.

 

Odets apparently cannot either separate his weakness and strength or greatly change their proportions, but even in this rather pretentiously unpretentious little job the strength is there; he is obviously one of the very few genuine dramatic poets alive. And his good bits, to say nothing of his bad, are handled competently by Susan Hayward, disarmingly by Bill Williams, and beautifully by Paul Lukas.

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*PILLOW TO POST (1945)*

 

From Agee on June 11, 1945:

 

PILLOW TO POST puts several normally serious-minded Warner properties, notably ida Lupino, Sydney Greenstreet and Director Vincent Sherman, over the hurdles and through the hoops of a fast, old-fashioned farce. The confusions develop when a young lady (Miss Lupino), in order to make sure of a night's rest in a tourist camp, persuades an Army lieutenant (William Prince) to pose as her husband. The picture plants every grain of corn, from a Negro manservant named Lucille to a small boy who puts a bullfrog in the heroine's valise, which might serve to make it indistinguishable from the old Samuel French masterpieces so dear to pre-Coolidge provincial dramatic societies.

 

Fortunately, however, corn is edible, and the serious thinkers (Miss Lupino, for that matter, started in comedy) turn out to have a nice knack for foolishness. Typical dialogue: Lieut. Prince (lugubriously eyeing Miss Lupino's knee-length nightgown): "I suppose it gives you freedom." Miss Lupino: "Well, that's what we're fighting for isn't it?"

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*DAYS AND NIGHTS (1946)*

 

From Agee on May 11, 1946:

 

This is about as close as Russian movies get to Hollywood; which is too close for anybody's comfort. There are, however, some excellent and well-arranged shots of the siege of Stalingrad; the girl is very sweet; most of the men are admirable. I did not read the novel, but to judge by the movie it was apotheosized by the Book-of-the-Month Club for more than merely courteous reasons.

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*THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)*

 

From Agee on January 5, 1946:

 

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S is distinguished for leisure and spaciousness, for delight in character and atmosphere, for its use of scenes which are inserted not to advance the story but for their own intrinsic charm. It is also fascinating as an attempt to repeat the unrepeatable.

 

Bing Crosby's priest, who was so excellent in the earlier picture, at times looks just bored, cold, and sly, as if he knew that this sort of thing had gone on too long for the good of anybody's soul. Ingrid Bergman replaces Barry Fitzgerald and for my money, cannot compete with him in sex appeal, though she has and uses a lot too much to play a Mother Superior, and comes painfully close to twittering her eyes in scenes with Crosby.

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>I never thought of Fitzgerald as a sex symbol. I'm going to have to go back and take a look at his films again.

 

I think it probably was sarcasm at Miss Bergman's expense. He tends to regard her as over-rated.

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*HOTEL BERLIN (1945)*

 

From Agee on March 17, 1945:

 

HOTEL BERLIN, the most heavily routine of Warner Brothers' political melodramas, is stuffed with sympathetic veterans like Peter Lorre and Henry Daniell and George Coulouris and Raymond Massey, and with sympathetic and understandably more eager young people like Andrea King and Faye Emerson and Kurt Kreuger, but the only thing that had even a chance for any pure quality was a bit by Helene Thimig.

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*FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1944)*

 

From Agee on December 16, 1944:

 

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, as Raymond Chandler wrote it, combines about equal parts of poetic talent, arrested adolescent prurience, and the sort of self-pity which, rejoicing in all that is hardest-boiled, turns the two former faculties toward melodramatic, pretentiously unpretentious examination of big cities and their inhabitants.

 

The picture preserves most of the faults and virtues of the book. I suppose a lot that I like about it is not really good except by comparison with the deadly norm.

 

Note: RKO changed the title after its premiere to MURDER, MY SWEET. When Agee viewed it, it had its original title.

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*POSSESSED (1947)*

 

From Agee on June 16, 1947:

 

POSSESSED gets off to an exciting start with some suspenseful shots of a dazed derelict (Joan Crawford) wandering the streets of a great city at dawn, in search of a man named David. When she collapses, Miss Crawford is taken to a psychopathic ward. By the time the psychiatrist's drugs loosen her locked tongue enough to tell her story, Joan's desperate beauty and her fine, florid movie personality have aroused an intensity of interest which only a top grade picture could satisfy.

 

POSSESSED is not quite top grade. But most of it is filmed with unusual imaginativeness and force.

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*KISS AND TELL (1945)*

 

From Agee on October 27, 1945:

 

Early in KISS AND TELL Shirley Temple's screen mother is horrified to find the child stepping up her sales of guest towels to soldiers, at some kind of patriotic ice-cream supper, by throwing in kisses. This is so played that one half expects the injured innocent to squawk suddenly, "but jeepers, Mommy, it was only for money," and to be snatched to-bosom and cooed over forgivingly. I like Shirley Temple, and I rather like this movie, but I can't accept a foot of it, I'm afraid, in quite the spirit it is offered in.

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*AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945)*

 

From Agee on October 27, 1945:

 

Rene Clair-Dudley Nichols version of the Agatha Christie round-robin. Might better have been played for fear as much as for taste and laughs. Skillful cast, stretches of pretty Clair adroitness, almost devoid of feeling; a smooth, cold, amusing show.

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*THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)*

 

From Agee on January 5, 1946:

 

For what seems at least half of the dogged, devoted length of THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted.

 

The rest of the time the picture is showing nothing much newer, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea. But again, the whole thing is so beautifully directed and photographed, in such an abundance of vigorous open air and good raw sunlight, that I thoroughly enjoyed and admired it. Visually, and in detail, and in nearly everything he does with people, I think it is John Ford's finest movie.

 

Another man who evidently learned a tremendous amount through the war is Robert Montgomery. His sober, light, sure performance is, so far as I can remember, the one perfection to turn up in movies during the year.

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*DESERT VICTORY (1943)*

 

From Agee on May 1, 1943:

 

DESERT VICTORY is the first completely admirable combat film, and if only film makers and their bosses can learn the simple lessons it so vigorously teaches, its service to the immediate future, and to history will be incalculably great.

 

The most heartening thing about it is that its lessons are learnable. It takes something approaching great talent to learn from great talent, but the men who made this film are not men of great talent. They are simply men of intelligence, courage and aesthetic honor who have been given a chance to use their abilities in the recording of a worthy theme. That they were given the apparently unhindered chance is as important as the fact that they knew how to use it; on both counts, the makes of American films have virtually everything to learn.

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*TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT (1944)*

 

From Agee on August 21, 1944:

 

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT is easy to take as light summer's entertainment. Seaman Eddie Collins (Edward Ryan) returns to Brooklyn and his lovely and expectant wife Kate (Marjorie Massow). For her confinement she wants the services of eminent Dr. Preston, whose fee is $1,000 and who has no time for the case anyway. Determined to bypass the difficulties, the expectant couple go to a broadcast of Phil Baker's Take It or Leave It program. Eddie succeeds in answering not one but six $64 questions in the breathless interval before Kate leaves the radio audience for the delivery room.

 

The six questions and one extra try answered by Eddie deal exclusively with the movies, giving 20th Century Fox a thrifty opportunity to trot out Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple, Jack Oakie, Sonja Henie, George Montgomery and other high spots clipped from the studio's films.

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*HERE COME THE WAVES (1944)*

 

From Agee on January 6, 1945:

 

HERE COME THE WAVES is an almost totally negligible musical which does, however, involve Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton (in a double role) and Sonny Tufts. I would enjoy Crosby even if he did not amusingly kid Sinatra, and probably even if he did nothing but walk across a shot. I may begin to tire of Betty Hutton's violence some day, but I haven't yet. Though Sonny Tuft's work is almost wholly composed of 'natural' mannerisms, I think most of them natural and entertaining.

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*HIS BUTLER'S SISTER (1943)*

 

From Agee on November 29, 1943:

 

HIS BUTLER'S SISTER first appears with her back to the camera, walking through a train. As she passes, the faces of male passengers light up as if she were at worst an improvement on Botticelli's Venus. Then she turns around. She is Deanna Durbin, ready to burst into song at the tap of a baton.

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