The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.

Queen Christina (1933)

Starring Greta Garbo, Queen Christina shows a woman who became the leader of Sweden as a child when her father died, lead like a man. Garbo captivates. I don’t think I’d seen her in a movie, just in photos. My, was she compelling. Her magnetism keeps all eyes on her. This strong, passionate queen had no qualms about leadership. Her problem is the nagging requests for her to marry the King of Spain.

In the beginning of the film she had no desire to marry. When she gets fed up with the wheedling to coax her into the King of Spain’s arms, she bolts from the court. Dressed as a man, followed by her mentor, she encounters the Spanish envoy whose carriage falls into a rut. She teases and mocks him and his retinue. When she overhears the envoy’s plan to take a room at a nearby inn, she beats him to it and takes the last room for miles. Incognito, the queen teases the envoy when he arrives at the inn. Yet he gets the last laugh when the innkeeper, who’s swayed by the envoy’s higher offer, convinces the disguised queen to share the room with the envoy.

It isn’t long before the queen’s gender is revealed to the envoy and before you know it, they’re madly in love. Of course that presents problems because 1) the envoy’s mission is to convey his King’s proposal to Queen Christina and 2) he’s bound to discover his love’s true identity.

Garbo gives a strong performance and the story offers a surprise ending. The costuming was elegant and arresting. I’ve got to see more of Garbo’s films. You should too.

Note: There was a Queen Christina, who ruled Sweden in the 17th century, but I can’t find any evidence that this film isn’t more than conjecture.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wim Wenders fascinated me with his Wings of Desire. This story of and angel, who wants to become human to experience human life is light on plot and on desire. Middle aged angel, Damiel slowly moves through Berlin, observing humans with compassion. At times he and his angel friend Cassiel do console or guard a frail human, but it’s with a light touch. Sometimes they succeed, but not always.

The film’s plot line is lax and the tone mellow. There’s no Hollywood hero with a high-level desire who speeds through the story facing obstacles till he wins in the end. Here a pensive angel wonders about humanity. A female trapeze artist catches his eye. He’d like to meet her, to woo her, but he lives in a different realm and faces few personal obstacles. Aristotle would have tightened things up, for sure.

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The film, which was produced without a script, captures all manner of emotions and small experiences. It delights with beautiful images and no over-the-top special effects. The effects are made as they would be in the 1920s with the camera used to its utmost. We’re won over with simplicity and that was a joy.

The angels could change at will and it wasn’t hard to do so. Peter Falk plays an actor whom Dameil meets now and then. It turns out Falk’s character is a former angel so he mentors Damiel a bit. Again everything’s done with a light touch and Wings of Desire is as much an homage to old Berlin as it is a story of an angel.

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I watched while listening to Wim Wenders’ commentary which included some discussion with Peter Falk. Wenders talks at length about how he can’t film with a script and how he prefers the uncertainty of taking an idea and creating the story day by day. I can’t imagine a studio today to allow such a thing. Also Wenders commented on sights featured in the film and how they’ve disappeared or changed. His love for Berlin was deep and lasting.

I could see people who expect the usual obstacles and the usual ending to a romance to be disappointed, but I was willing to take in the gorgeous images and see where the film would go. So few films meander as much that I felt I could indulge Wenders.

The Upturned Glass (1947)

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Part of a DVD set with three great British thrillers, The Upturned Glass stars James Mason as an ultra serious neurosurgeon who tells a college class about a case of a sane man murdering in cold blood. We soon figure out that Mason’s Dr. Michael Young is the “sane” murderer he believes exists. Dr. Michael Young meets Emma Wright whose daughter has a condition that will lead to blindness unless this talented surgeon can operate right away. As the case progresses and the girl improves, Michael and Emma grow close. Both have spouses far away and they continue seeing each other after the girl’s treatment ends. Of course, they fall in love.

So why the need for murder?

Emma is found dead and Michael attends the inquest. He can’t believe it’s an accident. He notices some strange glances between Emma’s daughter and her jealous, greedy sister-in-law, who learns that Emma has cheated on her brother. The two were never close and this was the sister-in-law’s reason to get even.

This superstar surgeon is soon taking matters into his own hands.

The film had lots of unpredictable turns and kept my attention from the first scene. Hitchcock drew upon it for some of his later films. It’s sure to entertain.

Alfie

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I’ve seen the 1966 Alfie before, but that was long ago and the film was well worth re-watching. Michael Caine plays a confirmed philanderer Alfie Elston, who shares his rather silly views on women and life directly with the audience throughout the film. The humor comes from Alfie’s preposterous ideas about women. Because he’s so daft, I felt sorry for him even though he left a train of pain in his wake.

It’s hard to keep track of all of Alfie’s liaisons, but his first main girlfriend was a cute, but mousy girl who decides to have his baby and raise it on her own. In spite of his cavalier philosophy, Alfie forms a bond with little boy. When the girlfriend decides to marry her dull, but reliable suitor to better her lot, Alfie’s soon forgotten. He’s surprised how much that hurts.

Yet he continues on with his womanizing. Women let him. He’d run from any commitment. He takes up with a sexy older woman played by Shelley Winters.

Though he’s so selfish and immature, there are times when Alfie’s rather kind — in his way. When he gets a spot on his lung and is confined to a sanitarium, he befriends his roommate and generously shares his useless advice. As only Alfie could do, he manages to seduce his roommate’s wife and still have the audience like him.

Yet there are consequences and Alfie meets his comeuppance, which gives the film its moral message.

I liked Alfie’s asides to the audience, which were both witty and foolish. I thought the film entertained while showing the real consequences of poor decisions. The film was remade on 2004, but I doubt I’d find it as charming as this version.

 

 

 

The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

Rusty Knife

57760-the-rusty-knife-0-230-0-345-cropPart of a collection of Japanese noir films, Rusty Knife (1958) packs a punch. A relentless D.A. won’t give up on getting justice for a murder that was wrongly categorized as a suicide. He hunts down two reformed gangsters, who witnessed the murder as other yakuza (Japanese mobsters) killed a city official. One of the witnesses now owns a bar and has turned over a new leaf. However, the guilty and anger towards these gangsters who brutally raped and murdered his true love. As the D.A. urges him, the reformed gangster pursues the yakuza and seeks revenge.

The emotions run high and the plot has some great fight scenes. The plot offers plenty of surprises. I recommend this film and would certainly watch more of director Toshio Masuda’s films.

The Smiling Lieutenant

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I only knew Maurice Chevalier from “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from Gigi. However, I discovered his much earlier film The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931 a grand farce. If you like silly old time films with romance, you’ll like this. Chevalier plays a young lieutenant who’s quite a flirt. At the start of the film, his superior comes to him bemoaning how he loves a sweet young thing in spite of loving his wife. Chevalier’s Niki advises him to stick with his wife, and shortly thereafter Niki is wooing the sweet young Franzi, played by Claudette Colbert. Franzi is a modern woman who’s fine with “free love.” I hadn’t seen a 1930s woman with such a character.

Niki and Franzi fall madly in love, but trouble ensues when Niki accidentally waves at a sheltered princess from a small province. Her father a prince feels disrespected and immediately interrogates Niki. Before you know it, Niki saves his skin by talking his way into a shotgun wedding to the princess. What to do?

On the wedding night and during the honeymoon phase, Niki breaks the princess’ heart by keeping his distance from her and slipping off for rendezvous with Franzi.

It’s not the usual romance. I kept wondering how the story would end happily. While the film was a little sillier than I like, it was fun and different. There are several light-hearted songs which enhanced the film. I did think it was odd that Chevalier is supposed to be a native of Vienna though he speaks with his usual distinct French accent.

All in all, it was a fun film, though not a masterpiece.

The Bank Dick

With one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen, W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick was a nice change after watching Russian drama. Fields plays Egbert Sousé, the head of the house full of women who constantly complain. He’s no angel, but you sympathize with him because his family treats him awfully. As the name without the accent grave suggests, Sousé drinks a lot and is a layabout. By accident, he thwarts a bank robbery and is hailed as a hero. As a reward, the bank president makes Sousé is given a job as the bank detective. Soon he gets his daughter’s boyfriend into financial trouble through a hare-brained scheme to buy bonds. As he’s basically a decent fellow, he tries then to save his future son-in-law, but everything goes wrong.

The film was at times clever and at times corny in a way that delights. Not only did I smile, but I learned a host of new words like adscititious and several others (below). The characters are stock and the humor often just plain silly, but The Bank Dick is fun and entertaining. I hadn’t seen a W.C. Fields’ film in years and will look for more.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.