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Classic Film Criticism


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*THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (1943)*

 

From Agee on December 4, 1943:

 

THE CROSS OF LORRAINE is a melodrama about French soldiers in a German military prison. Tay Garnett, who made BATAAN, directed it and did an even better job. Half a football team worked on the story, yet except for a foolish coda it is one of the most edge, well-characterized and naturally cinematic scripts of the year.

 

There are no performances below pretty good in the whole of a large cast; I especially like Hume Cronyn as a born appeaser, Gene Kelly as his opposite, and Jean Pierre Aumont as a man in the middle, Cedric Hardwicke as a priest, Joseph Calleia as a leftist, and Tonio Selwart as a Nazi.

 

There is some second-rate theatrical, literary, and nearly political mannerism, but a surprising amount of it comes to life. There is also a good deal of shock and brutality, for which Mr. Garnett seems to have a special talent. Some of the camera work is very good.

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*THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (1946)*

 

From Agee on May 25, 1946:

 

I wish I had seen Danny Kaye as a nightclub entertainer. Most of the best things I have seen him do, all in movies, belong there, and are evidently blunted on the screen. I think he may still become a fine screen comedian; quite possibly more than that.

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*BACKGROUND TO DANGER (1943)*

 

From Agee on July 3, 1943:

 

BACKGROUND TO DANGER has plenty of danger, in live motion at that, without a background keenly drawn enough to make it really dangerous. Short of the really creative men, Raoul Walsh is one of my favorite directors. Besides thoroughly enjoying it, you could use this film to measure the unconquerable difference between a good job by Hitchcock and a good job of the Hitchcock type.

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*BRING ON THE GIRLS (1945)*

 

From Agee on March 3, 1945:

 

BRING ON THE GIRLS is a hard-polished color musical about a susceptible millionaire (Eddie Bracken), his bodyguard (Sonny Tufts), and a predatory woman (Veronica Lake). It isn't much, I supposed, but I enjoyed it. Eddie Bracken is so likable, and knows his work so well, that he can't even walk out on a diving board without getting sympathy and a laugh. Sonny Tufts sings well. I have an idea he could become almost as good as Crosby, on almost as broad a range.

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*THE IMPOSTOR (1944)*

 

From Agee on March 18, 1944:

 

THE IMPOSTOR is a piece of anxious manufacture about Jean Gabin as a fugitive killer, masquerading as a Free French hero in Africa. Gabin himself, artificiality and all, is good. The rest of the show sadly proves just how nearly impossible it is to make a French film in Hollywood, or anywhere else except France.

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*THE BIG STREET (1942)*

 

From Agee on September 7, 1942:

 

THE BIG STREET is a pleasant bit of paranoia that cannot possibly displease anyone. It is the first of Damon Runyon's homely tales about Times Square to be produced by him.

 

When Her Highness (Lucille Ball), a nightclub queen gets slapped downstairs and winds up at the bottom hopelessly crippled, it looks as if she were crazy. A doctor explains that Her Highness is a paranoiac, which means, he says, that she wants to be what she can't be, and if she can't be, she will die. So Pinks (Henry Fonda), lovelogged busboy, takes care of her.

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*PAISAN (1948)*

 

From Agee on April 24, 1948:

 

Italian-American wartime relationships in six episodes. The director, Roberto Rosselini, is being overrated by most people, underrated by some. I see no signs of originality in his work. At his best he has an extremely vigorous talent for improvisation. The best of this movie is the best that has come out of Italy. The worst of it is vulgar which can be forgivable only in a man of D.W. Griffith's size.

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1: DILLINGER

2: SAHARA

3: LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

4: FARREBIQUE

5: THE PURPLE HEART

6: THE DARK CORNER

7: THE SMUGGLERS

8: THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET

9: DEVOTION

10: LOST ANGEL

11: PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES

12: PRACTICALLY YOURS

13: HENRY V

14: DEAD OF NIGHT

15: GOD IS MY CO-PILOT

16: THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS

17: THE SEARCHING WIND

18: THE GREEN YEARS

19: THEY MET IN MOSCOW

20: HELLZAPOPPIN

21: NEW ORLEANS

22: THE FABULOUS DORSEYS

23: SO PROUDLY WE HAIL!

24: HANGOVER SQUARE

25: COVER GIRL

26: MEMPHIS BELLE

27: THE FALLEN SPARROW

28: BETRAYAL FROM THE EAST

29: SEVEN DAYS ASHORE

30: BLACK ANGEL

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*DILLINGER (1945)*

 

From Agee on May 7, 1945:

 

DILLINGER is the story of a Public Enemy No. 1 whose misbehavior seems so innocuous, beside the work of later international candidates, that you can almost smell the sachet along with the tear gas and gunpowder.

 

The picture recalls how this born delinquent knocked over a string of banks, a mail train, a harmless elderly couple and two of his associates; and how at last his girl betrayed him to G-men who shot him down as he walked out of a nickelodeon. Fortunately, this old-fashioned story is told in an old-fashioned way. The result: a tough, tight, tense, tricky little melodrama.

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*SAHARA (1943)*

 

From Agee on October 8, 1943:

 

Humphrey Bogart and several less high-salaried but no less talented soldiers, stranded at an oasis, hold off and then capture a full Nazi battalion. Anyone who can make that believable, even for so long as you watch it, knows how to make a good war melodrama. SAHARA is the best one since BATAAN. Cinematically it is better. It borrows, chiefly from the English, a sort of light-alloy modification of realism which makes the traditional Hollywood idiom seem as obsolete as a minuet.

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*LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)*

 

From Agee on January 7, 1946:

 

An obviously costly production of the best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams. The story's central idea might be plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture or in a radio show with plenty of organ background. But in the rich glare of Technicolor, all its rental-library characteristics are doubly glaring.

 

LEAVE HER's heroine is jealous Ellen (Gene Tierney), whose somewhat too-intense love for her husband (Cornel Wilde) leads her to drown his brother, throw herself downstairs and eventually poison her own coffee. The unhappy story moves through breathtakingly stylish country interiors which make no particular point except to show that the characters have plenty of upholstered leisure for getting into mischief.

 

It is a story of in-law troubled carried to awful extremes. But it is hard to work up any sustained sympathy for the upright characters. Audiences will probably side with the murderess, who spends all of the early reels trying to manage give minutes alone with her husband.

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*FARREBIQUE (1948)*

 

From Agee on March 13, 1948:

 

FARREBIQUE was made on a farm in southern France by Georges Roquier. Roquier's idea is simply to make a record of the work and living of a single farm family, and of the farm itself, and of the surrounding countryside, through one year. I cannot imagine a better subject.

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*THE PURPLE HEART (1944)*

 

From Agee on March 11, 1944:

 

This is Darryl Zanuck beating his Hollywood rivals to the draw with a Japanese atrocity picture. It is a fictional account, much more controlled than it might have been, of the trial and torture of eight American fliers who were captured after the Doolittle raid. Under Lewis Milestone's direction, his best in years, it is unusually edged, well-organized and solidly acted.

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*THE DARK CORNER (1946)*

 

From September 14, 1946:

 

There is no point in recommending THE DARK CORNER at all highly; but a great deal of intelligence and a fair amount of talent not only went into it, as they do into most movies, but manage as they do in a few, to remain visible. This, I thought, kept the show alive and fairly interesting.

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*THE SMUGGLERS/THE MAN WITHIN (1947)*

 

From Agee on April 24, 1948:

 

A costume story about a coward, by Graham Greene out of maybe Stevenson. With more style this might have been rather good. Outside of life more private than I am normally party to I can't remember hearing so many men so often say, to other men, 'I hate him!' 'I hate you!'

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*THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945)*

 

From Agee on October 13, 1945:

 

Semi-fictional telescoping of several FBI espionage jobs. Unconvincing brouhaha to the effect that this could not be released prior to Hiroshima. Convincing inadvertent suggestion that the FBI functions efficiently less through intelligence than through doggedness plus scientific equipment. Extensive and gratifying use of actual-spot shooting and reenactment. Effective pseudo-naturalistic performances by Lydia St. Claire, Gene Lockhart, William Eythe and others, none of whom, however, manage to suggest how spies, counterspies, and traitors who look and act like that are not identifiable to those interested at five hundred paces. Unpersuasive, often skilled, generally enjoyable.

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*DEVOTION (1946)*

 

From Agee on April 27, 1946:

 

DEVOTION is a story about the Bronte sisters about whom I know little. By what little I know, I gather that they might have served as basis for a very good movie. Whether it would be more or less faithful to fact than this one, I care only this much: that here faithfulness to essential truth might have exceeded even the best dramatic imagination. So far as I know, this film is reasonably faithful to nonessential truth. It is also about as vapid, considering the subject matter, as you could possibly imagine.

 

The drunken brother Branwell carries some hint of the force the truth might have had. Charlotte, almost purely fictional in characterization, is the only roundly realized human being in the show. I know nothing about the authenticity of Odette Myrtil, in her small role as the wife of the Brussels schoolmaster, but in relation to the rest of this film she is like a court dagger dismembering a tomato surprise.

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*LOST ANGEL (1943)*

 

From Agee on January 15, 1944:

 

Undertakes one of the few dramatic subjects worth a second thought: the bringing up of a child. The child, who is, with occasional skids, very poignantly played by Margaret O'Brien, is a foundling whom a set of psychologists adopt, name Alpha, and do their worst with. By the time she is six, she is an air-conditioned genius.

 

Then a newspaper reporter flicks a wild card into her deck. For the first time she hears of, and experiences, the possibilities of the irrational, the irregular, the inexplicable, the magical. For the first time she becomes aware of love and suffers it. Moral: Never trust your own, or anybody else's, intelligence about a child; love is all that really matters.

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*PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944)*

 

From Agee on March 11, 1944:

 

Humphrey Bogart on a ship representing France slaughters the surviving helpless crew of a wrecked plane which represents conquered Germany. Victor Francen is shocked, to be sure, but Bogart is the star, from whom the majority will accordingly accept advice about what to do with Germany. A fair to dull melodramatic entertainment, needled with political consciousness.

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*PRACTICALLY YOURS (1944)*

 

From Agee on April 7, 1945:

 

An interesting nasty Colbert-MacMurray comedy about a war hero on leave, a girl who gets the mistaken impression that he loves her, and some of their misadventures with her boss. Taken as a whole, the picture doesn't amount to much; the same cynicism which is responsible for most of its good points has helped take care that it won't. But lurking in a great many odd corners of the show there is a really remarkable amount and variety of coldly perceptive hatred.

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*HENRY V (1944)*

 

From Agee on July 20, 1946:

 

HENRY V is by no means the best movie ever made; it is a recreation of an old dramatic poem, not the creation of a new one. Nor is it the best of Shakespeare's plays; it is merely a very good and vigorous and at times very moving and beautiful one, which, among all his plays, is one of the most obviously amenable to movie treatment and which was for obvious reasons particularly germane at the time it was planned and made.

 

The movie treatment, in turn, is by no means as adventurous as it might have been. No attempt is made to develop a movie style which might in poetic energy and originality work as a cinematic counterpart to the verse. The idea is, rather, to make everything on the screen and soundtrack serve the verse, as clearly and well and unobtrusively as possible. Within the relatively modest and, I think, very wise and admirable intention, moreover, the success is not complete.

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*DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)*

 

From Agee on August 17, 1946:

 

DEAD OF NIGHT, which was made in England, got raves here. I think I do see why. The film is made up of three amusing, rather old-fashioned, cryptic little episodes which might be supernatural or elaborately psychological. If you wholly reject the non-rational, the picture is no fun.

 

DEAD OF NIGHT is in every way made with exceptional skill and wit. As intelligent light entertainment, it could not be better. Its famous last shot is one of the most successful blends of laughter, terror and outrage that I can remember. Even so I think it would still be better if 'The End' were not superimposed on it, and if it ended with the first full close-up of its character.

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