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Classic Film Criticism

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From Agee on December 16, 1944:


JAMMING THE BLUES, a hot-jazz short by the Life photographer Gjon Mili, is exciting quite a few people around Hollywood, and has some right to, for it is one of the few musical shorts I have ever got even fair pleasure out of hearing, and the only one, barring the jam scene in PHANTOM LADY, which was not a killing bore to watch.


Yet I don't really care much for the picture. It is too full of the hot, moist, boozy breath of the unqualified jazz addict, of which I once had more than enough in my own mouth; and I thought the two effects which wholly compose it, chiaroscuro and virtual silhouette, too pretentious and borrowed and arty.


There are a few things in any art or art-industry more discouraging to think of than the middle-brow highbrows. Half a brow is worse than no head.

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From Agee on December 9, 1944:


AND NOW TOMORROW is about a deaf upper-class girl and ex-proletarian doctor who, after some machine-turned comedy of sex antagonism, restores her hearing and, presumably, dissolves her snobbery. It is rather cruel to quite a number of people in the audience to show a cure for the kind of deafness that results from meningitis without letting you know whether there is in fact any such cure.



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From Agee on May 27, 1944:


AND THE ANGELS SING is a Paramount comedy involving four small-town sisters played by Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn and Mimi Chandler. They pursue a dishonest jazz band leader played by Fred MacMurray.


A lot of the production is cruel, soggily professional, over elaborate and inclined toward snobbish whimsy. It makes me tired, and I am especially sorry to watch the exciting potentialities of Diana Lynn turning more and more into mere narcissistic chilly cuteness. But Betty Hutton is almost beyond good and evil, so far as I am concerned.

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From Agee on March 1, 1947:


The substitution of O-77 for OSS as a supposed security measure is child's play with what has been done to make THE BEGINNING OR THE END. You learn less about atomic fission from this film than I would assume is taught now in the more progressive nursery schools. You learn even less about the problems of atomic control.


There is to be sure a young scientist played with sincerity by Tom Drake who suffers from scruples. But his conscience is neatly canceled as the story progresses.


The bombing and the Alamagordo test are effectively staged. The rest of it seemed to me surprisingly bad even though I rather expected it to be bad.

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From Agee on May 3, 1948;


ANNA KARENINA is the latest movie version of Tolstoy's story (there have been four U.S. ones). It is by far the costliest but far from the best. Sir Alexander Korda and his British bankers provided the money; France?s famed director Julien Duvivier contributed his talents.


With so much dough, Duvivier carefully hedged his bet. His script tore down Tolstoy's complex scaffolding of historical religious theory, eliminated the subpots and preserved only the central study of a falling woman, with a few glimpses of the high society she fell from. This might have been sufficient if the film had also saved a suggestion of the dreadful glacier-creep of Tolstoy's characterization. Instead, the camera work is uniformly uninspired, and the psychological glacier dissolves into teary mush.


Vivien Leigh is lashed about by the tremendous role of Anna like a cat with a tigress by the tail. She is not assisted by a script which insists on sentimentality ennobling one of fiction's most vehemently average women. Irish-born Kieron Moore, Britain's newest cinematinee idol, is badly miscast as the debonair Vronsky. The principals suffer further by comparison with Sir Ralph Richardson, whose Karenin fairly lumps out the screen with its three-dimensional reality.

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From Agee on March 10, 1945:


A good movie might have been made from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Albert Lewin's version is respectful, earnest, and I am afraid, dead. I very much like Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane. Some people are liable to laugh at her and to think of her as insipid.


Mr. Lewin's modifications of the story and his outright inventions seem sensible. I feel, sympathetically, that he has tried very hard to transfer the tone of the novel to the screen. Yet the novel is distinguished, wise and frightening. But the movie is just a cultured horror picture, decorated with epigrams and an elaborate moral, and made with a sincere effort at good taste rather than with passion, immediacy and imagination.


As Lord Henry Wotton, George Sanders delivers the epigrams almost too expertly. They will doubtless panic the public they were intended to pulverize. Within these limits, I think Sanders very capable, but two better men for the role would have been Robert Morley and the late Laird Cregar. And I suspect Henry Daniell or Alan Mowbray might have done better, for that matter.


Nobody can be blamed very severely for the failure to cast Dorian Gray adequately. The only proper actor I can think of is John Barrymore in his early twenties. I realize that Hurd Hatfield represents a most unusually hard try at good casting. Once cast, he certainly tries hard as the wrong man can, but it is sad, like watching an understudy fall short with the chance of a lifetime.

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From Agee on February 14, 1948:


In its essence this tearjerker is much better than the determinedly tearproof allow themselves to realize. From there on out it is pretty awful. Rather well played; an overdone but promising performance by Janet Leigh.

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From Agee on June 22, 1946:


Although Orson Welles takes a reasonable amount of care not to insist on it, THE STRANGER is an art movie. It is a tidy engaging thriller about a Nazi arch-criminal (Mr. Welles) who hides out as a teacher in a New England boy's prep school.


So far as I can make out, Welles never was and never will be a genius, but he is just as gifted as he ever was. In this film he is not using the most adventurous of his gifts, but neither is he indulging any of his weaknesses.


There is nothing about the picture that even appears to be important or new, but there is nothing pretentious or arty either. In a quite modest way the picture is merely more graceful, intelligent and enjoyable than most other movies.

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*CITY LIGHTS (1931)*


The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work.


At the end of CITY LIGHTS the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least. It has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate.


She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face.


The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.



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*I WALK ALONE (1948)*


From Agee on February 14, 1948:


Good performances by Wendell Corey and Kirk Douglas. There is a sharp scene about an old-fashioned gangster's helplessness against modern business methods. Some better than ordinary nightclub atmosphere. Otherwise the picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry "Unclean, unclean."

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*IT'S IN THE BAG (1945)*


From Agee on April 21, 1945:


Fred Allen's picture is the story of a flea impresario named Floogle who inherits a fortune and in the process of getting hold of it runs into Jack Benny. It is often very amusing, sometimes not, knocking off enough sparks of satire in the process to destroy and fulfill a much worse civilization than this one if the molecular energy was organized into its ultimate bomblike meaning.

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*THE HEAT'S ON (1943)*


From Agee on December 18, 1943:


THE HEAT'S ON is a stale-ale musical in which a lot of good people apathetically support the almost equally apathetic Mae West. There is one wonderful shot, epitomizing a flop legshow trying to be dirty, which a lot of peeled girls writhe rather wearily on a flight of steps. Victor Moore is good except for his big seduction scene with Mae, at which both of them merely sniff as if it were a saucer of black-market dog food. Mae West is mainly as good as ever, which is still plenty good enough for me; but evidently she and her colleagues feel that too few people agree with me.

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From Agee on December 28, 1946:


TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY is a little like sitting down to a soda-fountain deluxe atomic special of maple walnut on vanilla on burnt almond on strawberry on butter pecan on coffee on raspberry sherbet on tutti frutti with hot fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow, filberts, pistachios, shredded pineapple, and rainbow sprills on top, go double on the whipped cream. Some of the nuts, it turns out, are a little stale.


Wandering throughout the confection is a long bleached-golden hair, probably all right in its place but, here just a little more than you can swallow. This hair, in the difficult technical language of the Screen Writers Guild would, I suppose, be called the story-line.

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From Agee on August 30, 1947:


Several nuns get upset by the strange atmosphere surrounding their new convent, which was formerly a Himalayan harem. (Quite an idea for a musical, that. Take it away, Rita.)


One falls for a local Englishman (David Farrar) and fails to renew her vows. The head nun (Deborah Kerr) just makes Sisterly sheeps' eyes at him as he lounges around the sanctuary in his shorts (he is not, one gathers, a Believer). There is also a local Holy Man, staring at a peak, and a great deal of talk about the wind and the strangeness of it all.


After a while the Sisters give it up as a bad job. It is all intended to be very psychological, atmospheric, rueful and worldly-wise.


There is some unusually good color photography, and as movie-making some of it is intelligent and powerful. But the pervasive attitude in and toward the picture makes it as a whole tedious and vulgar. I think celibacy is of itself faintly obscene; so I admire still less the dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste.

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*OPEN CITY (1946)*


From Agee on April 13, 1946:


OPEN CITY is a story of underground resistance during the late phases of the German occupation of Rome. The heroes are an underground leader; a co-worker and friend of his who hopes to marry a widow, pregnant by him; a priest who, generally at great risk to himself, is eager to help all of them.


The villains are a Gestapo officer; his lesbian assistant; and a rudderless young Italian girl, misled by dope, sex poverty and easy money into betraying the patriots.


The widow is shot down in the street. The leader dies under torture, without denouncing his comrades. The priest, who has to witness the torture, does so without pleading with the victim to give in and without ceasing to pray for his courage; then he is executed. The widow's lover survives; so does her eight year old son, who is active, with other children, in an effective underground of their own.

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From Agee on December 2, 1944:


It is in some respects the pleasantest of current surprises: a big studio, big scale film, free of artistic pretension, transformed by its not very imaginative but very dogged sincerity into something forceful, simple and thoroughly sympathetic in spite of all its big studio, big scale habits.


Its characters are hardest to take when they are most intimately in character, though even then they are played with a straightforwardness you don't normally expect of marquee names. The flying sequences are really well made, powerful and exciting.


The Chinese, nearly all of them amateur, are the best thing in the picture and the best Chinese in any American picture: I can only hope they make a great many people in Hollywood aware of the tremendous advantages of using non-actors in films.

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From Agee on September 29, 1945:


Life on a Wisconsin farm with Margaret O'Brien, Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorhead, who perform exceedingly well. Here too a lack both of rural redolence and of fresh air; in stretches almost as indigestible as its title. But some of the willful leisureliness comes properly to life, and several scenes and many details are as gracious and touching as the intention of the whole film.



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From Agee on July 31, 1948:


THE ILLEGALS, a film about the underground railroad through Europe to Palestine, was made on the spot, under heartbreaking difficulties, by Meyer Levin. Even the knowledge that I was watching actual participants in the actual exodus could seldom prevent me from feeling, sadly, that most of the picture is a bore.


On shipboard, however, a new cameraman took over, and the whole thing came powerfully to life. No doubt the intrinsic material here was at once visually more eloquent and more thickly within reach of the camera; but I suspect that the presence of a talented eye made the main difference.

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From Agee on July 6, 1946:


I did not read ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM; after seeing the movie I am, to my pleased surprise, tempted to. I am not among those who take to Irene Dunne. As a rule she makes my skin crawl; nor do I wholly enjoy Rex Harrison's highly skilled, generally restrained horsing as the naively intelligent monarch whose good intentions enthrone him in a pratfall between his ancient and our modern world.


There is indeed a good deal of high-polished and expensive cuteness about the whole production which stands, I suppose, as an apology for venturing to film a story that fits none of the formulas. But in spite of and through all this, the relationship between the rattled, irascible king and the English widow is often real, clear, and delightful, and occasionally very touching.

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*OVER 21 (1945)*


From Agee on August 25, 1945:


OVER 21 is Ruth Gordon's story of the liberal newspaper editor who joined the army and was joined by his wife and his former boss in a crowded and flimsy Miami cottage. Some of the congestion and despair is amusing, especially a claustrophobic cocktail party at which the ex-editor tries to entertain his Colonel and the Colonel's two ladies.


I don't feel that Irene Dunne has quite the right kind of humor to play the wife, but Alexander Knox is very proficient as the editor, even when he is required to be impossibly silly.


Toward the end of the film, resuming his impersonation of Wilson, he reads a most sincere editorial in which the creation of the postwar world is compared with the creation of an apple pie. In either undertaking, if disaster is to be averted, all the ingredients have got to be good. Since all the world is not an apple pie, but is composed of atoms which have just begun to learn that they are many, and that we are few, I found this editorial unbearably discouraging.

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Hey, thanks for posting all of these Agee criticisms. They appear to be generally negative. Is this because you are only posting negative ones or that he is generally negative?


I would be interested in reading his take on movies he really loved.


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I am posting all of his reviews. I have tried to coincide certain ones with airings on TCM. I don't think the majority have been negative. What I think he does is gives suggestions for improvement, but in all the reviews, he usually says at least one thing positive. He believes in the value of cinema and in making it better.

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From Agee on May 1, 1943:


THIS LAND IS MINE eschews physical terror in favor of mental, and tries to give an exposition of the obligations of free men under those circumstances. That is a courageous but foredoomed idea. I doubt, first, whether physical and mental terror and obligation can in this context be separated.


You cannot afford to dislocate or internationalize your occupied country; or to try to sell it to Americans by making your citizens as well-fed, well-dressed, and comfortably idiomatic as Americans; or to treat the show to the corrupted virtuosities of studio lighting and heavy-ballet composition. This film is filled with bitter, anachronistic, interesting talent under pressure, but it is a question where the pressure begins and the self-description ends.

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