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Classic Film Criticism

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From Agee on July 24, 1948:


Brackett and Wilder again, this time in American Berlin. The story involves a visiting Congresswoman (Jean Arthur), an ex-girlfriend of a ranking Nazi (Marlene Dietrich), and an American soldier (John Lund).


There's some sharp, nasty, funny stuff at the expense of investigatory Americans. Then, the picture indorses everything it has been kidding, and worse. A good bit of it is in rotten taste, and the perfection of that is in Dietrich's song 'Black Market.'




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*ALL MY SONS (1948)*


From Agee on April 24, 1948:


The Arthur Miller prize-winner. A feast for the self-righteous; Ibsen for beginners; for the morally curious a sad bore. By the standards of the Screen Writers Guild this sort of thing is the white hope of Hollywood. Entirely well-intended and sincerely acted; but not an interesting play, and certainly not a movie.

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From Agee on April 24, 1948:


Jealousy, crime and consequences among small-time Parisian entertainers, well acted by Jouvet, Bernand Blier, and the succulent Suzy Delair. The director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, has an uncanny flair for occupational detail; a Germanic eye; French pace. Of its kind- intelligent trash- nearly perfect.

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From Agee on November 25, 1944:


Most of its rather pretty new and old tunes are sung in an up-to-date chromium-and-glucose style which bitterly imposes on one's ability to believe that the year is 1903. And most of its sets and costumes and colors and characters are too perfectly waxen to belong to that or any other year.


I liked the general intention of the movie: to let its tunes and other musical-comedy aspects come as they may, and to concentrate rather on making the well-heeled middle-class life of some adolescent and little girls in St. Louis seem so beautiful that you can share their anguish when they are doomed to move to New York.


If the rest of the picture's autumn section, which is by far its best, had lived up to the best things about that shot, and if the rest of the show, for all its prettiness, had been scrapped, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS would have been, of all things on earth it can never have intended to be, a great moving picture.

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From Agee on October 8, 1943:


SWEET ROSIE O'GRADY has some fairly pretty color and sets (1880), a few glimpses of Betty Grable's fa?ade, and the power to remind you that the right director and author could make wonderful use of her.

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From Agee on March 31, 1945:


In the English-made COLONEL BLIMP, every Tory has been relieved of all selfish motives for his actions and of nearly all dangerousness in those actions. This is annoying, and worse; but at the same time the movie's characterization of an innocent, brave, honorable and stupid man is, within its own limits, so persuasive and so endearing, and so rare to movies, that I am at least as grateful as I am annoyed.


There is nothing brilliant about the picture, but it is perceptive, witty, and sweet-tempered, and it shows a continuous feeling for the charm and illuminating power of mannerism, speech, and gesture used semi-ritually, rather than purely realistically, which owes a good deal to Lubitsch.


I very much liked the performances of Roger Livesey as the Colonel, Deborah Kerr as his imago in three installments, and Anton Walbrook as his German friend.

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From Agee on April 26, 1947:


In IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Part I, Eisenstein has deprived himself of the speed, flow and shape which helped give ALEXANDER NEVSKY grace, and most of his peculiar energy has become cold, muscle-bound, and somber. Yet IVAN is a bolder, more adventurous, more interesting film. For a while I felt even more admiration for it than grief over it.


Eisenstein's theme is more deeply involved in an individual. Ivan, as Eisenstein presents him, is a fair parallel to Stalin. But he is still more suggestively a symbol of the whole history of Russian communism.




Eisenstein has, for Ivan, a magnficent looking actor, Cherkassov, who can handle the utmost grandiloquence of manner. Eisenstein is very acute with his research, very excitable over architecture and decoration, costume and ritual, and very astute and forceful in his use of them. He gives each movement legendary grandeur, as in the marvelous shots, at once comic and sinister and full of glory, which the kneeling Ivan's rising hands accept the orb and scepter.




The picture is splendid to look at; yet there is little that is superior to, or much different from, Russian operatic and theatrical mannerisms. And considering the illusion Eisenstein manages to create of expressing many complex ideas, densely and continuously, it is remarkable how little actually gets expressed, and how commonplace most of it is.


There is a kind of frozen, catatonic deadness about the particular intensity and rigidity of style developed for this film, as if the intelligence, great as it is, could liberate only a very little of itself in the actual images of the film.

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You have presented a very nice thread about the film criticism of James Agee. My question to you is this:


Why not create a thread with your own thoughts and criticism of film instead of relying on Agee's own thoughts and words? I mean, lets face it, he passed away in 1955, so even up to that point how many films had he seen to be able to put thoughts down on paper?


Would not this be much more interesting to read than what we can find out on our own in books and other media?

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> {quote:title=fxreyman wrote:}{quote}

> Would not this be much more interesting to read than what we can find out on our own in books and other media?


I, for one, have found these quotes of Agee's criticism to be very interesting. I do like his style, and usually agree with what I have read of him here.

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Agee wrote about this film on at least two different occasions.


From Agee on May 13, 1944:


FOLLOW THE BOYS shows you the sort of entertainment American soldiers and sailors are subjected to at home and abroad. And it shows you also how very proud Hollywood is of its role in the war. Purple Hearts should be handed out after every projection.


But, prior to that, on April 24, 1944:


FOLLOW THE BOYS (Universal) is a glorification of the service which cinemice and men are rendering the Armed Forces. It is well described by an old subtitle from a comedy of the silent movies. The subtitle introduced the heavy as muscle-bound from patting himself on the back.


Once in a great while a biceps unflexes, and the result is a good act.




W.C. Fields, looking worn-and-torn but as noble as Stone Mountain, macerates a boozy song around his cigar butt and puts on his achingly funny pool exhibition with warped cues.


Donald O'Connor continues to prove himself a Mickey Rooney with some unspoiled, big-Adam's-apple charm to boot.




Orson Welles, as a nice paraody of a magician, saws Marlene Dietrich in two and watches her better half walk off with the act.


Sophie Tucker shouts a 1 1/2 ?entendre salute to the boys through a meat-grinder larynx.


Dinah Shore, singing I'll Get By over the short waves, soothes the entire planet in generously buttered mush.


Ted Lewis talks through his top hat, and everybody who has ever liked Lewis, or John Barrymore, is happy.


There are at least a dozen other acts, some of them all right. But they seem like three dozen, and the air gets so thick with self-congratulation that it is hard to see the patriotism.




Wriggling through all this dense tedium-laudamus, like a Pekingese lost in a shopping rush, is a story. George Raft, a hoofer, marries Vera Zorina, a dancer. But George can think of nothing but camp shows and Vera can think of nothing except their impending baby (about which she is too miffed to tell him), so they part. Before they can make it up Raft dies, a hero, in the Pacific. His widow becomes the pride of the USO.

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From Agee on November 8, 1947:


RIDE THE PINK HORSE is practically revolutionary. It obviously intends to show that Mexicans and Indians are capable of great courage and loyalty, even to a white American, and can help him out of a hole if they like him.


In a particularly gratifying scene the star-director Robert Montgomery, escorts a young Indian girl, Wanda Hendrix, into the dining-room of the best hotel in a small New Mexico town, and the reactions of the diners and hired help are recorded with simplicity, accuracy, and courage. But she is shown also to be no serious threat in any traditional movie sense, a mere child with a crush on the white hero, not a possible sweetheart, and something of a little savage at that.


As for the central quarrel of the story, it is so carefully vague you can hardly follow it. Montgomery, for so many motives so dimly stated and so contradictory that you can believe in none of them, is trying to blackmail a war profiteer (well played by Fred Clark) whose exact crime, even whose business, we never learn.


Few American films ever manage really to specify a character or a situation so that either can achieve personal life or general applicability. People merely dance their way, more or less ingratiatingly, through a sequence of windy generalizations. They are not by any fat chance intended to be confused with any persons living or dead or who might ever possibly have lived.



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From Agee on July 8, 1944:


Eighteen Soviet cameramen contribute their records of guerrilla life and warfare, and Norman Corwin contributes his commentary and his voice. Mr. Corwin, in spite of being a radio man, lets gratifyingly long stretches of film run by without saying a word. When he does speak, the words are generally continent.


The voice itself has, it seems to me, a slightly officious resonance, and I don't think he should be forgiven the remark 'One down when a German sentry falls dead,' or the remark 'Reluctant superman as partisans drag a frantically abject German soldier from his hiding place in a haystack.'


Just before this shot ends, there is a sudden clenching of people round the prostrate soldier, ambiguous but horribly suggestive, which makes the crack still more off color. It tempts me to wonder how global the anthology of post-war atrocity films might be, if every nation has the historical conscience to preserve its stock.

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From Agee on June 19, 1948:


ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST. Lillian Hellman's saber-toothed play about the new-born New South, ardently acted, and directed with sense and tension by Michael Gordon. Smart casting of instruments, musicians and music for a deep-provincial musical evening. Some alert intercutting of reactions around a smoldering dinner table. Is unusually good hybridization of stage and screen drama.

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From Agee on November 4, 1944:


A medium-silly Western, done, however, as if those who made it knew that, and were getting and giving what mild pleasure they could out of the knowledge.

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*OUT OF THE PAST (1947)*


Agee wrote about this film on at least two separate occasions.


From Agee on December 15, 1947:


OUT OF THE PAST (RKO Radio) is a medium-grade thriller about a not-very-smart young man (Robert Mitchum) who is hired to hound down the runaway mistress (Jane Greer) of a hard guy (Kirk Douglas). Mitchum finds the girl, sets up housekeeping with her, and lets himself in for no end of melodramatic consequences. Fairly well played, and very well photographed (by Nicholas Musaraca), the action develops a routine kind of pseudo-tension.


When he performs with other men (most memorably in THE STORY OF G.I. JOE), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But it seems to be a mistake to let him tangle, as a hero, anyhow, with the ladies. In love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing. Jane Greer, on the other hand, can best be described, in an ancient idiom, as a hot number.


From Agee on April 24, 1948:


Conventional private-eye melodrama. More good work by Musaraca, largely wasted. Kirk Douglas, wasted as usual. Bob Mitchum is so very sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.



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From Agee on December 28, 1946:


An English melodrama starring Eric Portman as a middle-class mother's boy who can't keep his hands off the throats of working girls. He strangles several before Scotland Yard catches up with him.


To have held out so long, he is remarkably careless at his work, dropping a marked handkerchief near one corpse, a shard of cigar near another, and the balance of the cigar in the inspector's ashtray. He even knocks the head off his late, mad uncle, The Happy Hangman, who is on exhibit and under whose influence the hero does his killing.


Neck-deep as he stands in a blizzard of such manna, Roland Culver manages to make the inspector seem capable and subtle as well as likable. Mr Portman, who suggests a cross between Paul Henried and Louis Calhern, gives the maniac a dangerous, melancholic grace.


This is a pleasant, unpretentious thriller of the second or third grade, with oddly contradictory streaks of good and crude directing. There are some beautifully exciting shots of Hyde Park as a police cordon clears away the rattled crowds and closes in, through the twilight, for the kill.

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From Agee on June 24, 1944:


In ATTACK! there are morning shots, getting men and material ashore in the not quite misty, sober light, which overwhelmed me with their doubleness of beauty and sublimity. This was restrainedly enhanced by the rather quiet sounds of metal and motors.


Meanwhile, the housetops of the French shore standing insanely near and distinct above the end of the barge are abruptly disclosed full-length as by the rise (or fall) of a theater curtain. The barge opens and the men begin their hip-deep wade ashore.


But fully as moving and as worthy of watching, over and over, were the shots of men receiving medical pellets and their last Communion before battle.

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*AIR FORCE (1943)*


From Agee on February 20, 1943:


I cannot be sure how I feel about AIR FORCE. It is loud, loose, sincere, violently masculine, and at times quite exciting. Its disasters are well arranged and, in the Coral Sea sequence, nicely cut. There is some gladdening effort to get away from movie faces and to give the men diverse and authentic speech. Bits of the music are imaginative. The sound, if plain realism is enough, is unusually good.


I think it unfortunate, since the crew of this bomber is supposed to be going night after night without sleep, that the cast was not required to. The camera work varies between competence in the air, and the gummiest sort of Rembrandt sentimentalities on the ground. A few all but annihilating cut-ins of actual combat adequately measure the best of the fiction, and my own uneasiness about it.



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*BODY AND SOUL (1947)*


From Agee on November 8, 1947:


BODY AND SOUL gets very bitter and discreetly leftish about commercialism in prize fighting. It is really nothing much, I suppose, when you get right down to it. But it was almost continuously interesting and exhilarating while I watched it, mainly because everyone had clearly decided to do every scene to a finish and because, barring a few letdowns, scene after scene came off that way.


It was never as nervy as the best of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, but of its own kind it is more solidly made. I like both pictures because in both there is quick satirical observation, a sense of meanness to match the meanness of the worlds they are showing.



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From Agee on August 30, 1947:


Best movie job on Hemingway, to date. I persist in believing that Zoltan Korda is one of the best directors in Hollywood.


Earlier, from Agee on April 7. 1947:


THE MACOMBER AFFAIR (United Artists) is a screen version of Ernest Hemingway's excruciating study of the relationships between an ill-married American couple and their hired English hunter-guide, and of the relations of all three to what Hemingway once called grace under pressure.


Since the three are hunting big game in Africa, the pressures are primitive, and considerable. Macomber (Robert Preston) is a good shot but he lacks courage in a crisis and the sportsman's sense of honor towards his quarry. Besides, he talks too much about himself.


The hunter (Gregory Peck), on the other hand, is everything a Hemingway hero should be. Mrs. Macomber (Joan Bennett) is not slow to choose between them nor delicate in showing her preference in several almost unbearably ugly scenes of cruelty and humiliation.


Under the pressures, Macomber finds his courage for the first time in his life. Finding it, his life really begins and his abjectness towards his wife is at an end. Mrs. Macomber promptly shoots him through the head.


According to Hemingway, she shoots him deliberately. According to Mrs. Macomber in the movie, it was just a tragic accident, and the audience is left to make up its own mind.


Up to this point, MACOMBER is a brilliantly good job, the best yet, of bringing Hemingway to the screen. None of the three principal players could possibly be improved on. The African landscapes and hunting scenes (which were made in Africa and Mexico) are as believable as a neighbor's backyard.


Director Zoltan Korda has already made two films in Africa, which is a help in this particular picture. Still more important, he knows people, and style, and atmosphere, and how to make them vivid on a screen. There is hardly a point that Hemingway made in this savage, complex communiqu? about the war between the sexes that Korda and his actors fail to make in movie terms.


In fact, a good 95% of MACOMBER is a remarkably exciting picture for mature audiences. The worst of Hollywood's improvements on the original story is the did-she-or-didn't-she ending which pulls the fuse out of Hemingway's whole payoff.

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