Must-see Christmas Movies

There are so many Christmas movies out there that people settle on the ones that happen to be shown on television, not realizing that there are so many gems out there to enjoy.

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is well-known to people thanks to many showings on television. The two and a half hour story ends at Christmastime which made it into a most beloved film of realizing one’s blessings. You may be interested to know that it was due to an unrenewed copyright that the film became available for multiple television showings and that it did not enjoy such a rabid following when it was released in January of 1947.

Thomas Mitchell, Carol Combs, Donna Reed, James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes celebrate

The favorite in my house is A Christmas Carol. As you know there are many, many versions of this beloved tale and I’ll briefly touch on ones I watch each year. A Christmas Carol, 1984, with George C. Scott as Scrooge, is probably the best Scrooge in existence in my opinion. This was originally a television special but is available on DVD. One can imagine Scott in 21st century clothes working in a modern office ridiculing a member of his staff for complaining about the cold and admonishing him to wear a sweater for God’s sake.

This story has a focus on Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, and the Christmas party he has invited his uncle too but was rebuffed. The scene gives us a beautiful view of a Christmas shared by the British before America adopted its custom of festivity.

Scott’s performance as the stubborn Scrooge outshines all others with his absolute terror at his own gravesite and the terrible eternal damnation he faces if he does not change his ways. His turnaround in thinking of things to provide the Cratchit family warms the heart and allows the viewer to apply Scrooge’s thinking to their own situation.

The next best Christmas Carol is ‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ (1962) ostensibly because of the music provided by a Broadway composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill. Some of the most beautiful melodies emanate from this animated and colorful story. More than a cartoon, Mr. Magoo, the near-sighted character of the 1960’s who blunders his way through life, is a fantastic Scrooge as he greedily counts his gold coins in the office while his clerk Bob Cratchit can barely complete his ciphers due to the cold stiffening his fingers.

The best line in this production is when Magoo’s Scrooge gazes at his door-knocker, which seems to take on Jacob Marley’s visage, and says ‘Could I need spectacles?’ Indeed.

This production is readily available on DVD.

The next two movies are comparable in scope of character and production: 1951’s A Christmas Carol with British actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge. A nasty one he is too, with an ugly visage which turns positively cherubic after his transformation.

1935’s A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen is equally powerful as the story transports the greedy Scrooge to realizing the error of his ways and the wonderful world open to him if he would only open his heart.

Both of these movies are shown on television but are also available on DVD.

Reginald Owen as Scrooge and Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim

There are other movies that celebrate Christmas than A Christmas Carol, of course and some of these might strike you as strange choices. The first movie I pick is Stalag 17, a World War II movie about a German prisoner of war camp of American airmen, starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Peter Graves and Otto Preminger. It takes place the weeks before and after Christmas.

As the movie opens, two prisoners are planning their escape from the harsh conditions of the prison camp, but on the night of the escape, the sound of machine guns drowns the remaining prisoners’ hopes for liberty.

William Holden’s character, Sergeant J. J. Sefton, is one holdout from supporting the prisoners’ escape plans saying that the German security and guards are too smart to allow an escape. Immediately he is suspected of tipping off those same guards in order to obtain good food and other privileges.

Animal (Robert Strauss), Sefton (William Holden) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck)

Comic relief is provided by two prisoners named Animal and Shapiro, whose antics include painting a stripe down the prison road in order to enter the compound where Russian women prisoners are taking showers.

Otto Preminger plays the German commandant, whose demeanor is that of a sly fox seeking to make friends of the men, while crushing their dreams if any rebellion is detected.

A movie worth seeing, as William Holden won his only Oscar for his performance.

Another surprise movie is Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd playing men on opposite sides of the social scale forced to “trade places” on a bet from Aykroyd’s snooty employers, played magnificently by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy.

Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy and Denholm Elliott

It is Christmas time, and the story includes an elaborate holiday party where Aykroyd dresses in a Santa disguise trying to get back at Murphy. Hilarity ensues as the two young men join forces with Jamie Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliott and take revenge on the employers during a New Year’s Eve train ride full of holiday revelers, including Jim Belushi and Al Franken.

If you have favorite Christmas movies that have changed your life I’d love to hear from you.

Why I Finally Watched The Wild Bunch

So I finally watched The Wild Bunch (1969) from beginning to end. I did this because of all the references I’ve read that make this out to be the “perfect Western” in an era of Western’s demise in the movies. In addition, the movie is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The stars are many in The Wild Bunch: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien to name a few.

The Wild Bunch emerged at the end of a major decade of change in the direction and experimentation in filmmaking, and in society and mores in America. It subjects us to blunt reality – the blood-spurting, noise and dirt of the wild West, where people got in the way of gunfire and gunman didn’t care who they killed just so they got their man.

One might say it mirrors the news of its day, straight from the war zones of Vietnam and the horrific images of death and destruction.

The story begins with a fight during the opening credits – a scorpion slowly being eaten alive by hundreds of ants, its struggle bringing giggles of delight from village children watching the carnage. At the end of its struggle, the scorpion is then covered with pine needles and set aflame by the children – a final horror before its death. How can young children enjoy such a spectacle? A question for the rest of the story.

The symbolism of this is fairly obvious. There’s the mighty scorpion – feared by all who have felt its sting; the outlaw, who roars into town looting and robbing and raping its women – a dead shot, hardly ever outgunned. This time the feared one is outnumbered and defeated by silly little ants.

The first scene has the Wild Bunch come riding into town on Army horses, stolen, of course. Each member is memorialized as a drawing as the names William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Jamie Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Bo Hopkins appear in the credits. Already you know they are riders to be remembered. Heroes from another time.

The Wild Bunch is famous for robberies of payrolls from trains and banks. We first witness them riding in calm as you please, sidling into the institution and calmly ransacking its stores. The leader is Pike Bishop, played by William Holden.

Unbeknownst to them a gang of bounty hunters, hired by railroad baron Harrigan, is waiting for them in ambush. They seem not to care who they kill, just as long as they get the wild bunch they’re hunting. This gang is headed by Pike Bishop’s former partner, Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan.

Pike spots the ambush from inside the bank and uses a parade by a village temperance organization to shield their escape. Soon bodies are everywhere, both wild bunch and villagers alike. Afterwards only 5 remain of Pike’s gang. When the wild bunch regroups out of town, they discover that the “silver” they escaped with turned out to be useless lead washers, the final insult.

Deke Thornton (center) played by Robert Ryan, and the gang hired by railroad magnate Harrigan to bring down the Wild Bunch

What makes this movie unique is the film editing. Director Sam Peckinpah and the film editor created the movie after shooting – showing the audience images chosen to get the story and the atmosphere across.

In many cases, scenes are presented from upward and downward angles, not straight on – the gunfights are played in slow-motion so you almost feel the bullets hit. Bodies splay out in a sickening slo-mo dance in so you can almost hear them hit the ground.

The sounds of the gunfire are unique for each weapon instead of all the same sound. The squibs they used for blood gave out huge spurts of red at each wound – nothing camouflaged here. Horses went down in the gunfights as well – each neighing its death knell and hitting the ground hard.

Following the failed robbery, Pike Bishop offers his gang to work for a corrupt general in the Mexican army named Mapache. Pike agrees to steal a weapons shipment from a US Army train in exchange for a cache of gold coins.

This job is supposed to be the last job for the Wild Bunch; it’s getting too hard to execute robberies with law enforcement and bounty hunters ready to hunt them down. They’re going to take the gold and disappear into Mexico.

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine walk to the final fight.

The train robbery is executed magnificently. Remember, there are only 5 men against a train filled with Army recruits and Deke Thornton’s men. They use a water stop to silently gain control of the engine and the car carrying the armaments and unhook the rest of the train. No shots are fired so no one is aware of what’s happening. Later, after offloading the weapons, Pike slams the engine into reverse and rams the train left helpless on the tracks miles behind.

After delivering the arms, a celebration takes place with a lot of eating, drinking and whoring going on on all sides.

One of the Bunch, Angel, played by Jaime Sanchez, was taken prisoner by Mapache because Mapache found out Angel took a crate of weapons for himself. After torturing Angel, Mapache agrees to turn him over to Pike, but at the last minute slits Angel’s throat instead. Pike kills Mapache, and there’s an eerie shocked silence over the village.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) in a last attempt at escape

Then all hell breaks loose. Bullets flying everywhere with the army against the Bunch – all shooting each other and getting each other killed in the crossfire. It was the ants against the scorpion once again, everyone seemed to have a gun. We see who actually shoots Pike dead – it’s a child with a rifle who shoots him in the back.

Deke Thornton and his bounty hunting gang finally catch up with Pike but it’s too late – they’re all dead. Dead as the Western was before this movie came on the scene.

Since The Wild Bunch we’ve been regaled with copious westerns thanks to Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Blazing Saddles (a fantastic spoof on western genre), The Shootist – John Wayne’s last movie, Breakheart Pass, and Big Jake.

Westerns will always be with us as we explore what it was like in the early days of the United States, where the law of the gun ruled the day.

Pitfall: Captivating Film Noir

          

Film Noir entered its heyday in the 1940s and 50s with pieces like Murder My Sweet, White Heat, The Big Sleep and Scarlet Street. Pitfall (1948) is a neatly packaged film that doesn’t need rainy nights and gang members to make your skin crawl with anticipation as the main character (Dick Powell) gets himself deeper and deeper into a world he wishes he’d never seen.

Powell plays an insurance man Johnny Forbes who is bored with his job, who goes around with sarcastic remarks when responding to his wife, his young son and his secretary. He complains about how he’s not made of money and he’s just working a treadmill with nothing to look forward to and that life is just a big bore. He epitomizes the American Dream becoming riddled with holes.

Forbes is assigned to recover funds from an embezzler that his company had bonded. Apparently the embezzler, named Smiley, had given extravagant gifts to a girlfriend with the purloined funds insured by Forbes’s company. Forbes visits the young lady in order to recover the items. There he discovers not only furs, jewelry and a motorboat, but a woman of such beauty and sensuality that stopped him cold.

Lisabeth Scott

The girlfriend is Mona Stevens, played by Lisabeth Scott, a lithesome blonde with a sultry and silky voice with an irresistable lisp. She charms poor bored Forbes immediately with her bright manner and regard for Smiley, her benefactor who had gotten himself arrested because he stole for her. She invites Forbes to come see the boat he’d bought for her. Forbes takes a ride with her – more than symbolic – and allows her to keep the boat. He doesn’t get home until very late.

The problem is that Forbes’s partner, a private dick named MacDonald, played superbly by Raymond Burr, was the one who located Mona after considerable investigation. He’d fallen in love with her immediately and had told Forbes this before Forbes met her. But our hero Forbes was also mesmerized by Mona, and it seems she prefers Forbes over MacDonald. Big trouble.

MacDonald beats up Forbes for taking his girl away. Forbes had to stay home due to his injuries, and that’s when Mona learns he’s married. She breaks it off with him. MacDonald continues to stalk Mona and threatens to tell Forbes’s wife of their affair if she doesn’t go out with him.

Mona and Johnny face MacDonald (Raymond Burr)

The lack of fear on Mona’s part leads one to believe she’s been in similar situations before because she doesn’t scare easily. When she meets him sitting on the stairs to her apartment, she calmly asks him for a cigarette then tells him to beat it. MacDonald’s massive size and boring eyes put the fear of God into me as I watched him stalk this young woman.

Finally, it comes down to MacDonald going to the embezzler Smiley in jail and telling him all about the tryst his girlfriend had with Forbes. Smiley is driven crazy with jealousy and is scheduled to get out of jail in a few days, he subsequently grills Mona about her relationship with Forbes.

MacDonald makes things even more interesting by supplying the now furious embezzler with a gun and giving him Forbes’s home address.

Mona calls Forbes and warns him that Smiley is coming with a gun.

Here’s where the Hayes Code came into play. Because the embezzler had done wrong, he gets what he deserves by coming to Powell’s house; on the other hand, Powell is in serious doo-doo with his wife, played admirably by Jane Wyatt, who finally wrenched out of him the whole sordid story of the affair.

Legend has it that the Hays Code board would not let the movie be released unless the adulterer received a more serious punishment. However, the director met with the top two Hayes Code members and told them that he knew they were both married with mistresses. The movie was released with no more argument.

As for Mona, she gets her own comeuppance by taking matters into her own hands. Now she’s wanted for either murder or manslaughter – we’re left hanging on that one. Mona files past Forbes without seeing him in the Hall of Justice – he’s heading home having just explained the mess to the District Attorney, she’s headed to the women’s prison.

That where film noir is so great. It leaves one relieved you’re not in the entanglement that the characters find themselves. You can live their excitement and/or terror, and that’s close enough.

Remakes — Which is D.O.A.?

In my opinion, most film remakes do not measure up to the original, except perhaps in the field of special effects. When dealing with storytelling, most times a modernized story attached to a remake complicates the story to the point of being ridiculous.

Let’s consider the film noir D.O.A. While the original movie from 1949 —starring Edmond O’Brien and Paula Britton — has a very simple storyline, whereas the version from 1988, starring Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Daniel Stern, twisted and turned and had enough plot to sink a ship. I think it sank an otherwise good movie.

The opening scenes of the two versions are similar, both filmed in black and white and, in the case of the Quaid vehicle, more compelling, with the viewer seeing the world as the dying Dennis Quaid is seeing it, blurred, fuzzy and jerky images as he staggers his way into a police station to report his own murder. In the O’Brien vehicle we see him stagger into the station from behind, obviously sick or inebriated.

Both characters had been poisoned by a radioactive substance that had been dropped into their drink and have only a day or two to live.

And that was the end of the similarities between the two films. The 1988 vehicle tells the rest of the story in color; the 1949 film remained black and white, with an ominous atmosphere, with significant shadows haunting Edmond O’Brien as he tries to piece together the moment when he ingested the poisonous “luminous substance,” called radium chloride in the latter film.

Edmond O’Brien was already a mysterious character. He works as an accountant with a girlfriend/secretary, who we suspect he’s stringing along. He books a vacation without her. We don’t know why. Along the way he meets a woman at a convention in the hotel and they seem to hit it off.

The 1988 film was obviously a vehicle for stars Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, married at the time. It’s in color and takes place on a college campus where Quaid teaches English. He’s in the middle of a divorce, which he does not want to go through with. It’s obvious he still loves his wife, but she has moved on with her life. Quaid is living a boring existence, one that has made him jaded and unmotivated to do anything.

Insert here a student, Nick, who is trying to get Quaid to read his manuscript and Quaid brushing him off. Back in his office Quaid just prints a red “A” on the document without reading it. Then he learns the kid has committed suicide. Quaid discusses his guilt about not encouraging the kid with a fellow teacher who’s celebrating his just having made professor. After sharing congratulatory drink, Quaid throws the manuscript in the wastebasket. Later Quaid ends up at a local bar and shares drinks with a another student, Sydney, (Meg Ryan) who has a crush on him.

Both O’Brien and Quaid wake up after drinking and partying not feeling well and see a doctor. There they learn that they have been poisoned and have only a day or two to live, they panic and leave the doctor’s office to find out who poisoned them.

Here’s where Quaid’s storyline goes haywire. His soon-to-be-ex-wife is murdered; Quaid is also suspected of pushing the suicidal student off the roof. It’s gets truly bizarre, all while Quaid is fighting the incredulity of dying from poison.

In the end, both men discover who poisoned them. And while we see O’Brien succumb to the poison, Quaid simply walks into the night and back into the first scene where he staggers into the rainy night.

I believe the O’Brien version is a superior vehicle due to a tighter story line, the suspense and tension never letting up, and unlike Quaid, O’Brien doesn’t let any of his friends know what’s happening to him; he’s stopped trusting anyone. He’s all alone with his terrible secret.

Which one of the two do you appreciate more? Feel free to comment below.

Battleground: Real War

I saw an oldie but goody l recently on TCM. Battleground, a 70-year-old film about the siege of Bastogne during WW II. Featured were Van Johnson, Don Taylor, Marshall Thompson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, George Murphy, Richard Jaeckel and a young Ricardo Montalban. In the end, only a handful of them are still alive.

The story begins with the waiting that comes with war; the waiting for battle, waiting for an assignment, trying to pass the time without one’s teeth chattering in fear and cold. You could feel the cold wet ground of wintry Belgium through their boots. Later you learn that the men couldn’t report to the aid station with frozen feet until they began to turn black. Nice. Well, that was war; it wasn’t an easy life for those men wintering in mud, snow and ice.

Their thoughts are all over the place; going over the rumors they had heard, barking at each other over the wild rumors; the one soldier who refused to change the time on his watch from Springfield, Illinois where his wife and kids were. The one who spent hours cleaning his dentures that didn’t fit so well in his mouth and crackled when he slept.

Then of course there was the rookie, the new guy, played by Marshall Thompson, who didn’t know his can from his elbow, who had no idea where to go or where to lay his bedroll, thrown in with experienced guys on the line, trying to fit in and be accepted. He learns that his buddy in another company was killed in his foxhole before his commander ever learned his name. Thereafter, he made sure everyone in his company knew his name, Jim Layton.

Of course there was the Hollywood-type story of the squad billeting in the home of a young attractive French woman who cheerfully made them coffee and danced with them. Van Johnson went and stole eggs from her rookery and carried them with him to the next campsite, only to have to put off cooking them because they kept breaking camp.

The film was shot in stark black and white cinematography and won an Oscar for its efforts, contrasting the black tree trunks and the white snow of the bitterly cold woods. There was no color where these guys were, except the color of blood when things got rough.

Battleground won two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography (Black and White) by Paul C. Vogel, and for Best Writing Story and Screenplay by Robert Pirosh. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, (William Wellman) and Best Film Editing (John Dunning) and Best Supporting Actor, (James Whitmore).

The reason this movie is so good is that the men are real; you recognize the actors, but they are servicemen out in the cold, freezing, hungry, pining for a hot meal, desperate for comfort, which was provided somewhat by a traveling chaplain (Leon Ames) on Christmas Day. (This was the first movie where I saw Leon Ames play a decent human being.)

The production began with training of the actors by 20 veterans of the actual 101st Airborne Division servicemen, including technical advisor Lt. Col. Henry Kinnard, who was deputy commander of the division stationed in Bastogne.

Only once do the fighting men have the advantage, when, after an ambush, the German troops, dressed in white parkas, advance, not knowing that the remaining squads had circled behind them. As they are cut down by American fire, the bodies disappear as their white parkas hit the snowy ground.

You find that the men don’t even know what country they’re fighting in; but they do learn that the German troops are masquerading as American servicemen complete with uniforms and dogtags. They have to ask every squad they meet all kinds of questions about baseball, movie stars and other Americanisms to make sure they were addressing Americans.

The men are horrified to learn that an American air barrage was to be made where they had left their wounded buddy hiding under an overturned vehicle, hidden by walls of snow; they find him frozen to death the next day.

They are there when the Germans delivered their ultimatum of surrender to the American commander, only to be told “Nuts,” by acting divisional commander Brigadier General McAuliffe, the most famous quote of the whole war.

After the siege is over, when the company is slowly and painfully making their way back to the main army camp, they see replacements marching in the opposite direction. Immediately they straighten their backs, quicken their pace and sound off one of the cadence songs to show the replacements they were still viable fighting men, not fatigued and beaten troops ready for hot meal and a clean bed.

Premieres of this movie were made prior to public release for President Harry S Truman and attended by Brig General McAuliffe, and others who were there.

On Dangerous Ground – Saving Robert Ryan

I’ve never known what to make of Robert Ryan. His performances never look like acting. He IS the character on the screen. One thing’s for certain, you can never take your eyes off that rugged face displaying the myriad emotions experienced by the character he’s playing. And, if he’s not on the screen, you want to know where he is and where he’ll show up next.

Ryan has been quoted that he’s played types that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for – bigotry, intolerance, corruption, greed and brutality. He was the man who had to make the hard decisions as a general in Battle of the Bulge; the man with screaming paranoia when a stranger comes to town asking questions in Bad Day in Black Rock; the western gunslinger with nothing left to lose in The Naked Spur, the bigoted Army sergeant who terrorizes a Jewish man in Crossfire.

I’m going to go into depth on the film On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray and an uncredited Ida Lupino. In it, Ryan plays Detective Jim Wilson whose relentless days of encountering predators, sleazy backroom bosses, gamblers and murderers takes its toll on an otherwise good detective. He resorts to “getting the job done” by beating up his suspects until they confessed, resulting in charges brought against the department for police brutality. He explains his actions saying that no one likes cops, not the good guys or bad guys. You can see he’s begun to hate himself.

His partners on the squad see the writing on the wall and try to get Wilson to calm down, relax, take up activities outside the force so as not to bring the work home with him. The final blow comes when his superior officer, played by Ed Begley Sr., sends him on assignment upstate to help a local sheriff solve the murder of a young girl. Wilson calls it Siberia, a place of exile. And it is.

The Search

This is when you realize we’re not looking at Robert Ryan anymore. It’s Jim Wilson the detective driving out of the city – out of the familiar environment that’s been poisoning him. It’s a long way to his destination. As Wilson’s car travels the long, narrow dark ribbon of road, there’s no sound, no partners, no radio, no sirens or flashing lights. Wilson comes upon some road construction and, as he waits, we see his piercing dark eyes reflecting the lonely and empty life he’s been living. It’s as if Wilson is traveling back in time, out of the city to a rural isolated environment.

A young girl has been stabbed to death and the killer still at large. As Wilson begins to question the victim’s family members, the angry father, played by Ward Bond, adamantly objects. He wants action, not questions; he wants revenge, not justice. Wilson is not welcomed as a savior, but finds himself confronted by the same anger, distrust and hate that he had for the criminals he’d arrested, only now it’s directed at him. He’s treated as an interloper, someone letting the killer get away.

The suspect steals a car and Wilson has no choice but to follow him with the girl’s father. The camera is focused on the road, which is black and wet, then gray and slushy, then pure white with snow, making driving hazardous. The father is beside himself, shouting at Wilson to go faster, waving his loaded shotgun that will “get the job done.” But Wilson is out of his element and crashes the car after skidding on the icy road as the father pounds the dashboard yelling about the killer getting away. The killer had already crashed his stolen car, and they start following the killer’s footprints through the snowy forests and rocky hills.

Mary and Jim Wilson

The tracks lead them to an isolated farmhouse where they find Mary Malden, a blind woman (Ida Lupino) alone in the house. Wilson and the father find men’s clothes upstairs which Mary says belong to her brother who is away for a few days. The father goes back outside to search the outbuildings. Alone with Wilson, Mary says you can tell a lot about a person from his name. Wilson asks her whether she’s lonely and she senses his loneliness, saying one can be lonely in a room full of people.

Wilson becomes protective of Mary, making sure the furniture is where it should be and the fire rebuilt. This emotion is new for him. Mary thanks him, then, in confidence, she tells Wilson that her younger brother has mental issues and is in hiding nearby. She realizes that he’s done something terrible and asks Wilson to promise to protect him from harm and get him the help he needs.

Wilson struggles with this and has a hard time promising such a thing It’s an unfamiliar position for him:  “protecting” the suspect – but because of his feelings for Mary, he willingly changes his modus operandi in order to do the right thing.

Nicholas Ray uses the stark landscape to play another character in this film. Filmed in black and white, the contrasts are even more stark – white snow, black road and black rocky hills. Wilson’s trek through the snow after the suspect contrasts with fast driving through New York in a police car. Speed is not possible here, and Wilson has time to think about what he’ll do when he catches the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Mary’s home, with its comfortable fire and lantern light is a welcome respite from the harsh outdoors.

Wilson finds that the world is not black and white as he’s looked at it in the past. You see this realization on his face. People are not all bad or all good. Even murder victim’s father’s furious anger melts away when he sees the suspect is “just a kid.” And Mary, who was concealing the suspect, cannot be blamed for protecting him.

The contrast is quite obvious when Wilson heads back to New York and the road turns from a snowy ribbon to a rainy highway filled with cars and buildings, people and crime. No wonder he wants to turn the car around.

This gem of a movie is also enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music score. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of North By Northwest, scored by Herrmann eight years later.

Curt Lowens: A Character Actor With True Character

(reprinted from my business blog…)

One of my favorite things to do is discover inspirational stories – about people you’d least expect, beautiful scenes of nature, or the toil of an insect.

If you are a MASH fan and watch the reruns on television, there is an episode about the 4077’s surgeons treating a wounded soldier from a small army unit from Luxembourg. The Luxembourg commander comes to the 4077th to visit his comrade-in-arms, and to thank the doctors for their diligent treatment of his wounds.

curt lowens, inspiration, MASH, character actor

This commander is played by a character actor named Curt Lowens. Very handsome, he has an elegant manner of speaking and the polite demeanor of the upper class European. So I looked him up on some of my favorite websites.

It turns out that Curt Lowens had just died this past May (2017) at the age of 91. The astonishing part was he was also a Holocaust survivor and war hero during WWII! My curiosity piqued, I researched further. Turns out that Curt Lowens, formerly Loewenstein, had become very well known among holocaust survivors, having saved over 100 Jews from certain death during the German occupation in Holland.

Curt was born in Poland in 1925. His father was a successful lawyer who had very high connections with the German and Jewish communities. The Loewensteins moved to Berlin in the 1930s when things became more dangerous for Jews in Poland. They thought they would be more protected by the large Jewish community in the German capital.

holocaust, concentration camp

After Kristallnacht destroyed their synagogue in 1938, the day before Curt’s bar mitzvah, the Loewensteins fled Berlin and entered Holland, trying to make their way to London. Before they could leave Holland, however, they were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Miraculously, due to his father’s high connections, Curt and his family were released and allowed to reside in Holland.

The 13-year-old Curt soon joined the Dutch Resistance and over the next 2 years helped place over 100 Jewish children and adults with families who would hide them.

One afternoon, Curt was working outside on a farm when he saw two parachutes in the sky. Two American airmen had bailed out of their burning plane and landed in a nearby field. Curt was able to get them to trust him and he hid them in haystacks to avoid the Germans searching for them.

Afterwards Curt helped get the airmen back to England through the resistance underground, earning a commendation from General Eisenhower. He said the most vivid memory he had of the incident was getting his first taste of American chewing gum, which he mistakenly swallowed!

Curt, continued working with the British Eighth Corps as an interpreter, using a fake identity as a teacher until war’s end.

Curt emigrated to the U.S. in 1947 and studied to become an actor. He shortened his name to Lowens. Most of the roles he played were, of all things, Nazi officers, SS men, and even the Angel of Death Josef Mengele!  He appeared in movies such as Torn Curtain, Tobruk, Counterpoint, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, The Mephisto Waltz, The Hindenberg, The Other Side of Midnight, and Angels and Demons.

But his most active career path was as a guest star in nearly every TV series in the 60s, 70s and 80s that needed a German or Russian character. From General Hospital in 1962, to The FBI, Hogan’s Heroes, 12 O’clock High, Mission Impossible, MacGyver, Murder She Wrote, and MASH, ending with Legit, in 2013.

curt lowens, inspiration, MASH, character actor

In his later years, Lowens lent his life story to the Visual History Archive at the USC Shoah Foundation documenting the history of the Holocaust, and wrote his memoir called Destination: Questionmark. Lowens also worked with students at the Chapman School, providing his story and helping them create films and documentaries of te world’s history some in the world do not acknowledge.

There is no question what kind of man Curt Lowens was. Never one to bring attention to himself, he would say only that during his time with the Dutch Resistance, he did what anyone would do. As I watch his performances in television reruns, I only wish more people knew the story behind this selfless and caring man.

Obsession (1949) A Study in Psychological Torture

 

Obsession – Starring Robert Newton, Phil Brown, Naughton Wayne, Sally Gray

I stumbled on this black and white gem on TCM. The plot is a simple one: Clive Riordan, a psychiatrist, discovers his wife is having an affair with American Bill Kronin. He kidnaps Kronin and chains him up in an abandoned ruin of a building, surrounded by an almost impenetrable warren of bomb shelters and tunnels. Dr. Riordan taunts his prisoner by sharing how he eventually will murder him and dispose of his body.

Not only is this movie dark and noirish – the black and white surroundings are the post-war ruins of England, where broken down brick walls, rubble, wooden doors on rusty hinges open to abandoned warehouses, but it symbolizes the breakdown of Dr. Riordan’s marriage. It’s a psychological thriller, where the doctor’s adulterous wife suffers from not knowing what happened to her lover, and the anguish of the prisoner Kronin wondering when the end will come.

Dr. Riordan is played by Robert Newton, a mild looking actor who looks harmless enough, but when he is engaged in his nefarious scheme, his eyes betray the intensity of jealousy, rage and revenge. He carries out a careful plan, attaching a strong chain to Kronin that allows Kronin the freedom to walk to the bathroom and to a shelf of books. Dr. Riordan draws a chalk line on the floor to indicate how far away he needs to be to remain out of reach. He is careful to place food and drink just outside this circle.

Riordan tortures the prisoner by bringing rubber water bottles filled with acid and emptying them into a bathtub in the next room, telling Kronin that his body would be destroyed without a trace after his murder. Riordan would never reveal how he planned to kill the prisoner and the prisoner would typically try to guess every time he saw the doctor.

Dr. Riordan and his prisoner

This routine continues for some five months, when we are introduced to Superintendent Finsbury, expertly played by Naughton Wayne. Finsbury conducts his investigation step-by-step, calmly and completely, and soon lays his suspicions on Dr. Riordan, who has the interesting habit of disappearing many nights, ostensibly to “work in his laboratory” (minus an assistant named Igor).

There’s no blood in this movie, only the mental bloodletting of Kronin hearing the myriad methods by which he may die. It’s a delightful Hitchcockian paradox that not only does Dr. Riordan bring nourishment, he brings dread and death to his prisoner. 

Originally called “The Hidden Room,” Obsession is a more apt name due to the main character’s relentless torture of his prisoner. No need for car chases or explosions to  enhance the intensity of this obsession.

What psychological thrillers would you recommend? Please comment below; I’d love to hear from you!

Father Goose – A Dedication

 

Today I’m dedicating Father Goose to my parents, Louise and Gino Valenti of Bethesda, MD. They were big fans of Father Goose, especially the comedic talents of Cary Grant. I was eight when they took me to see this movie; that’s when I, too, fell in love with Cary Grant.

My mom especially loved the way he played against type as Walter Eckland. Gone were the usual tuxedo, military uniform or Savile Row suit. Instead, he drinks whiskey like a fish; he’s scruffy, unshaven and totally irresponsible.  

As for my father and me, we just loved the repartee between Walter, and the other characters, thanks to the tight script by Peter Stone. Then there was my dad’s embarrassment when trying to explain to an eight-year-old why Walter quit teaching Leslie Caron how to fish.

Of course, I’d seen Cary Grant in other movies on TV, and I always thought he was just as good-looking as my dad. They had the same hairline, and both were funny and handsome – both loved to play with their tomboy daughter.

Although my dad is gone now, I’d like to think that he and Cary Grant are somewhere swapping stories and discussing classic movies. My mom has Alzheimer’s disease, still laughs when I quote the best line in the movie,  “Goody Two-shoes and the Filthy Beast!”

Trust me.

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for loving this movie!

Opposites Attract in The Petrified Forest

For a film with two settings and almost no action, The Petrified Forest is teeming with the opposites of the hopeful, the inspired, the disenchanted and the fatalistic, and holds your attention throughout.  This 1936 film, stars Leslie Howard, a young Bette Davis, and a thirty-six-year-old newcomer named Humphrey Bogart.

The film opens in a dusty, wind-blown Arizona desert where a lonely gas station/restaurant sits totally isolated along an empty road. You can feel the dryness,  heat, and the relentless sun baking everything to one gray color. The black and white film helps, too. (little joke).

Nowadays we would expect Bogart to appear in the beginning of the film, proud, arrogant, assured, but this is one of his early movies and he was unknown. Warner Brothers originally wanted Edward G. Robinson to play Bogart’s role as Duke Mantee, but it was Leslie Howard who insisted that Bogart be given the role he’d created on Broadway.

So Bogie doesn’t show up until halfway through, and instead, we are titillated by a young teenage Gabrielle (Bette Davis), a beautiful spark of life among the dreary surroundings, musing about poetry and art and yearning to see what the outside world holds.

She has many dreams, which she freely shares, but they’ve always fallen on deaf ears until Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) trudges out of the swirling dust. Alan is a burned out, homeless and penniless hitchhiker, yet he’s the first one to  listen intently to Gabrielle, and encourages her despite his own self-criticism and cynicism.

Gabrielle is immediately infatuated by Alan’s calm European manner and his worldly experience beyond the Arizona desert where she has yet to venture. Alan answers her many questions about Paris with soliloquys on romance, intellectualism and his own failed writing career.

Alan was more than delighted to answer her questions but he’s reminded of his own dreams and failures. He tries to warn Gabrielle not to expect too much from life, as he had done.

Alan reminisces with Gabrielle

Alan was headed for the Petrified Forest, a mile away, fascinated by the forest turned to stone just as his aspirations had done. At one point he says he’d like to be buried there.

Gabrielle’s obvious infatuation with Alan drives him to leave quickly and get on his way. He hitches a ride with a wealthy couple who’d stopped for gas, only to run smack into Duke Mantee (Bogart),  whose getaway car had broken down. Duke and his henchmen were killers on the run from the law.

That’s when the film is reborn.

As the new chapter begins; all the characters are returned to the café, and this time Duke Mantee is holding all the cards. Duke and his men had already blazed into the café and now held Gabrielle, her grandfather and an ex-football player hostage as well as the wealthy couple and Alan while they wait for their accomplices including Duke Mantee’s girlfriend.

During this waiting game, conversations between the characters take on an other-worldly atmosphere as each character reveals whether their lives had turned out as they wanted.

Gabrielle and Alan face Duke Mantee

Alan even asks the criminal Duke about his aspirations and motivations. When asked what his life had been like up to now, Duke Mantee says it was “great” – he’d spent most of it in jail. He knows his life is hanging in the balance: either he’ll be killed shooting it out with lawmen or hanged for his crimes. His future is already petrified – turned to stone – a tombstone.

The title of the film captures all elements of the story: petrification indicating extreme age- end of life, life turned to stone and becoming inflexible, a non-living forest, like the landscape around Gabrielle’s home. And there’s the emotion of being petrified, which pretty much describes the hostages in the café dependent on the whim of a criminal.

And, although they are opposites, Gabrielle and Alan become one in her dream of Paris and art and beauty, and they revel in her zest for life beyond the Petrified Forest. Alan’s (and Duke’s) redemption at the end I’ll not divulge, only to say that Alan ensures, through a most unselfish act, that Gabrielle will realize her dream.