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Classic Film Criticism

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*RED RIVER (1948)*

 

From Agee on October 11, 1948:

 

When people discuss the real artists in picture-making, they seldom get around to mentioning Howard Hawks. Yet Hawks is one of the most individual and independent directors in the business. Even when he has a vapid chore to do, he gives it character. And when a picture really interests him, he gives it enough character to blast you out of your seat. RED RIVER, which Hawks produced and directed, clearly interested him a lot. It is a rattling good outdoor adventure movie.

 

It is a yarn about the first cattle drive over the Chisholm trail, from deep Texas into Abiline, Kansas, soon after the Civil War. It is also the story of the fierce character duel which develops along the way between the tyrannical boss cattleman (John Wayne) and his foster son (Montgomery Clift). Mr. Clift takes time out for a little romance with a dancing girl (Joanne Dru), but essentially this is a movie about men, and for men.

 

Hawks obviously likes and understands men, grand enterprise, hardship, courage and magnificent landscape. The greatest satisfaction of this picture is continuous and unobtrusive. It is the constancy with which all outdoors, and all human endurance of it and effort to conquer it, keeps bulging the screen full of honest and beautiful vitality, like a steady wind against a well-trimmed sail.

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*GIRL NUMBER 217 (1945)*

 

From Agee on October 13, 1945:

 

This is a Russian story of a German family and its wartime slave. It insists, infuriatingly, that these are average Germans, implying and finally even stating, that all Germans are equally **** and guilty. They are not average anything, but they are intelligent, powerful caricatures of the worst that can be expected of the petty bourgeoisie anywhere, even in Russia. However, the film is passionately acted and in general well conceived and well done. It is a little like Flaubert rewritten with hammer and sickle.

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*THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943)*

 

From Agee on December 18, 1943:

 

THE GANG'S ALL HERE highlights Alice Faye singing 'No Love, No Nothing.' It is as torturing a piece of torching as the war has evolved. But it is mainly made up of Busby Berkeley's production numbers which amuse me a good deal. There is one routine with giant papier-mache bananas, cutting to thighs, then feet, then rows of toes. It deserves to survive in every case book of blatant film surreptition for the next century. But then, for anthropological reasons, so does 'No Love, No Nothing.'

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*THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)*

 

From Agee on June 19, 1948:

 

The Wilkie Collins novel, given the studious stolid treatment ordinarily reserved for the ritual assassination of a Great Classic. This is not intended as a recommendation.

 

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*FURIA (1947)*

 

From Agee on February 14, 1948:

 

An Italian farmer's wife (Isa Pola) plays around with a Cornel Wilde-ish groom (Rossano Brazzi). This is filmed with a carnal and psychological frankness I am happy to see, and the censors should be thanked for saving a good deal of it. The picture is essentially sincere rather than pornographic. It is also rather childish in conception and inept as art. Good work by the two most prominent actors in the cast.

 

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*AN IDEAL HUSBAND (1947)*

 

From Agee on February 14, 1948:

 

Vincent Korda's sets are good. Cecil Beaton's costumes are mouth-watering. And most of the players are visually right. The composing and cutting of this fine raw material is seldom above medium grade. Wilde's lines are unevenly and in general too patiently delivered, and the whole production is too slow and realistic.

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*IVY (1947)*

 

From Agee on August 16, 1947:

 

IVY is an unusually ornate melodrama about an Edwardian murderess. It stars Joan Fontaine who pops her eyes, coarsens her jaw, and wears her elegant clothes very effectively. The real star is whoever was chiefly responsible for the dressing, setting, lighting and shooting. That, I infer from past performance, is the producer, William Cameron Menzies.

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*THE JOLSON STORY (1946)*

 

From Agee on November 9, 1946:

 

I have always liked Jolson and his style and most of his songs. I still like hearing them on the soundtrack. I suppose Larry Parks does about as well as the visual Jolson, as anyone except the original would be likely to.

 

Evelyn Keyes has always seemed to me one of the more attractive and capable girls in Hollywood, and one of the most neglected, and it is good to see her again, even in a role which can use so little of what she has, and which misuses most of that.

 

I have nothing in the world against this picture except that at least half of it seemed to me enormously tiresome. The other half is pleasant enough, but no more. The trouble is, it is here nearly as hard to separate the pleasant from the boring as to get the cream out of homogenized milk.

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*THE LONG NIGHT (1947)*

 

From Agee on August 30, 1947:

 

A loud, long, ambitious film. It is Anatole Litvak's first since the war. It is about a simple man (Henry Fonda) who is driven to murder by the calculated confusions of a very corrupt man (Vincent Price). It would be interesting to see it on a double bill with its original version, the French film DAYBREAK. Both films obviously rate themselves as tragedies; both are merely intelligent trash.

 

The old one is much more discreet with its self pity and is much more sharply edged. The new one depends too heavily on crowd-commotion; noise (there are gruesome distortions of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony); huge close-ups of Fonda looking adenoidal; and class-angling. It is, however, much better than the run of contemporary movies.

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*48 HOURS/WENT THE DAY WELL? (1944)*

 

From Agee on July 15, 1944:

 

48 HOURS is a story by Graham Greene. It has some very good professional and unprofessional actors. The film is not a fanged masterpiece like Hitchcock might have made, but it falls on a very solid ground.

 

The village types are remarkably lifelike. They are charming dolls which not only Greene but Coward and Waugh so often create instead of characters: a dear-old-boy rector; his passionate but constricted daughter; the merry old woman who handles the switchboard and the mail; the robinlike lady of the manor; etc. Beautifully played, these characters are not to be scorned, namely because there is poetic force in this puppetry though it lacks complexity and depth.

 

I think the best part of 48 HOURS is neither in its people nor in their exciting, melodramatically plausible actions. It is instead how it relates its people and their actions to their homes, their town and their tender lucid countryside. When invaders prowl through the placid gardens of the barricaded manor in the neat morning light, the film has a sinister freezing quality.

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*WHEN STRANGERS MARRY (1945)*

 

From Agee on April 7, 1945:

 

I want to add my own respect for the Monogram melodrama WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. The story has locomotor ataxia at several of its joints and the intensity of the telling slackens off toward the end, but I have seldom seen one hour so energetically and sensibly used in a film. Bits of it gave me a heart-lifted sense of delight. Thanks to that, I can no longer feel so hopeless as I have, lately, that it is possible to make pictures in Hollywood that are worth making.

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*THE VALLEY OF DECISION (1945)*

 

From Agee on May 12, 1945:

 

Greer Garson has kinds of vitality and resource which might do very good kinds of work. But ordinarily they are turned into wax.

 

She is waxen in stretches of THE VALLEY OF DECISION. She is embarrassingly actressy in some others. But here, as an Irish servant in a rich Scottish household, she is alive, vivid and charming and suggests how really good she might be under better circumstances.

 

She seems suffocated and immobilized by MGM's image of her. I could imagine her as a very good Lady Macbeth. I could still more easily imagine her as a wonderful Elisabeth Ney who left the court of Ludwig of Bavaria for a rotting estate in Texas. But I suppose the best she will ever be allowed is this sort of short trot in pre-conditioned open air.

 

Tay Garnett's direction is good, too good to be wasted on big, solemn, expensive trash collections like this.

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*THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944)*

 

From Agee on May 13, 1944:

 

This film gets long and soggy. But it has frequent good intentions and occasional near-successes. It is at its best when it forgets to be a biography and stretches its points for the fun of it. The jumping frog contest is really funny.

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*THE CAPTIVE HEART (1947)*

 

From Agee on May 10, 1947:

 

A British movie about prisoners of war, this has been greeted as a masterpiece by some. And now we know what a masterpiece is: something that isn't either really bad or by any generosity really good.

 

THE CAPTIVE HEART is another of those group-as-hero stories. It is a dangerous clich? in which each member of the group is just one more clich?. Michael Redgrave is a Czech who for self-protection is forced to take on a dead Englishman's identity and to write the widow love letters.

 

This decent, mediocre film is sincerely but often cornily written and is in general honestly acted.

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*CARNEGIE HALL (1947)*

 

From Agee on May 10, 1947:

 

About the thickest and sourest mess of musical mulligatawny I have yet had to sit down to. It is a sort of aural compromise between the Johnstown flood and the Black Hole of Calcutta.

 

I have an idea that some of the music was well done, but I was so exhausted by suffering and rage that I can't possibly be sure of what. However, as a gnarled mirror of American musical taste at its worst, and as a record of what various prominent musicians look like under strange professional circumstances, it is a permanently fascinating and valuable show.

 

I am sorry to be writing this way about CARNEGIE HALL, for I can't avoid feeling that some rather good intentions were involved in it. But then I can't doubt that Hitler had good intentions. He and I just didn't see eye to eye.

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Thank you, TopBilled, these are wonderful reads. Have you been able to discern what qualities or genre Agee would be more content in viewing? Did he like a musical at sometime? Sorry I haven't been able to read them all.

 

I love how he can do it with such brevity. In some reviews, he captures the essence of the storytelling and argues that, while using the actors as his supporting argument in his criticism.

 

Hum, I wonder if he was the first to invoke Hitler.

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

>

> Hum, I wonder if he was the first to invoke Hitler.

I know you didn't ask me, Charlotte, but my guess would be that he probably wasn't. BUT, isn't that a great line?! "Didn't see eye-to-eye!" :^0

 

(...yep, Agee was "great wit expressed with brevity" personified, alright!)

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Well, I meant to express, Hitler in a movie review in terms of taste..

 

It is so droll, so soon after the war.

 

Edited by: casablancalover on Feb 24, 2012 10:59 AM because commas are important, ha

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Yeah, I knew that was your inquiry there, but that's a good point about him expressing something so subtlely and so soon after the war.

 

(...which in a way I suppose took a little guts, 'cause heck, there's STILL people around ya know who get their noses out o' joint when somebody attempts to crack a "Natalie Wood/wood doesn't float" joke, LET ALONE a freakin' "Other than THAT, how'd ya like the play Mrs. Lincoln" one-liner!!!)

 

:^0

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Agee doesn't seem to favor a particular genre. But he does favor certain directors and performers, both in Hollywood and abroad. I think he looks for a certain level of quality, and if someone is consistent in this regard (in Agee's opinion) then he pours on the praise. Though he will also take some of his favorite film artists to task if he believes they fall short of their potential.

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So TB, with an attitude such as that about a director's continuity in style, are ya sayin' that maybe Agee might've been somehow instrumental in early on promoting this whole idea of the "Auteur Theory" and years before it became fashionable?

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Interesting question, Dargo.

 

First, I don't think the auteur theorists were coming up with anything new. Since the 1910s, there had been very well known directors and influential movie stars, at least in Hollywood (and probably elsewhere internationally).

 

What Agee and other film critics of his day were doing is that they were identifying quality craftsmanship that seemed to be repeated in films made by certain studios, directors and actors. The later theorists went a step further and sought out-right classification, focused on the director and usually politicized in some way.

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*A LOVER'S RETURN (1948)*

 

From Agee on February 14, 1948:

 

Louis Jouvet, in charge of a ballet troupe, gets back to Lyon after twenty years. He torments the bourgeoisie types who did him dirt. The story is essentially trash, but it is acutely understood, easily filmed and nicely played. Pleasant ballet stuff, backstage and on.

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*GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING (1948)*

 

From Agee on June 19, 1948:

 

A white stallion and a black mare which are as magnificent as anything on the contemporary screen; and several considerably less magnificent human beings, who are around too much.

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