The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her ilk of rich, bored socialites use Manhattan as their playground similarly to the wealthy socialites in My Man Godfrey, using the city for bizarre escapades such as sleuthing in the middle of the night and all while still dressing to impress at the same time in The Mad Miss Manton. Stanwyck’s enthusiasm alone is infectious and the quick-fire interactions of the girls are one of the film’s highlights (“I was never much of an individualist, if the upstairs has to be searched we search it together – why that’s communism!”). They even partake in a number of Scooby-Doo like moments, in particular actions reminiscent of the character Shaggy, i.e. making a sandwich in the kitchen when sleuthing in a trespassed apartment. The other memorable addition to the cast is the sarcastic, wisecracking Hattie McDaniel who takes no nonsense from anyone and has a comeback to everything despite her socio-economic status (“Comes a revolution and we’ll start being exploited by our help”).

Francis Mercer is real dead ringer for Gail Patrick

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda – one true pair if there ever was one. Their chemistry makes it more believable that Peter Ames (Fonda) with his dorky bow tie would fall head over heels for this spoiled Park Avenue princess who is trying to sue him for a million dollars over an editorial. He is even driven to the point in which he casually imposes marriage on her. Henry Fonda isn’t given enough credit for his comic abilities, in particular, the scene in which he fakes his own deathbed in order to extract information from Miss Manton. In one scene Fonda is even seen holding a knife, in the same manner he would years later in 12 Angry Men.

The Mad Miss Manton was one of many films throughout the 1930’s which attempted to get a piece of that Thin Man pie. The formula of the 1934 comedy-mystery romp was an effective one and could easily be recreated with low budgets. It doesn’t matter that the mystery in The Mad Miss Manton is incomprehensible. The comedy and the atmosphere are what makes the movie, of which the picture succeeds in creating with the high contrast, film noir-like lighting during the sleuthing sequences (especially with the sequence in the subway) even though the film is visibly a low budget production. 

Madigan (1968)

Bad Cops, Bad Cops

Madigan is my kind of cop movie. Everything about it feels so quintessentially classic. All the tropes are there from the officer who doesn’t play by the book, police corruption, guys in suits who show off their identification, one-liners galore and all this aided by the aura of cool which film-noir icon Richard Widmark brings to the screen – plus is there a more cop name than Madigan?

Many of the men in Madigan wear suits and fedoras with this being the late 60’s and the final days in which it was common for working men to do so; although there is a sense of New Hollywood creeping in with the film’s villain appearing in that 1970’s mould along with various snippets of once-taboo subject matter. Madigan is also one of the best uses of location in film; I haven’t seen another film in which the grit and grime of the New York streets have been captured so vividly in this neo-realistic record of NYC in the late 1960’s.

Madigan

11 Days Already! Hooray!

The opening credits of Madigan are a fantastic montage of New York in the early hours of the morning. This should come as no surprise as director Don Siegel had been a montage editor before becoming a director. I could happily have this movie playing in the background just to listen to the music as the score by Don Costa itself is one of the most underrated film scores I’ve heard; it’s so motivating and makes you want to go and kick some ass.

Much of my appreciation of Madigan is due to the film’s aesthetics. The film’s main plot and many subplots are good if not entirely exception, primarily the tension between Henry Fonda as the commissioner who “likes the book” and spends his day at superficial social events to promote the image of the force and works from behind a desk versus the unethical Madigan trying the catch crooks on the street. Siegel would go on to do better in Dirty Harry three years later but dam does Madigan have some fine aesthetics.

The Best Man (1964)

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

The Best Man can be boiled down to one simple reality; politics is a phoney sham in which image matters over actual policy – I mean who knew right? The Best Man is a look at what goes on behind closed doors away from the pomp and flair of the convention arena. This stands in ironic comparison to the dignified slideshow of all then 36 US presidents over the opening credits.

The Best Man is a film which doesn’t hold much appeal beyond the politics geeks like myself, although does offer a lot of insight to sink your political teeth into. Writer Gore Vidal clearly knew his political insight and this really comes through in the writing. Every other line of dialogue brings up thought-provoking talking points of political insight (“No girls in the white house” – did Vidal know something about JFK?) as two presidential candidates fight for the endorsement of a former president (Lee Tracy) in this dirty game of chess.

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No party is mentioned in the film although it is more than likely the party featured are the Democrats due Vidal’s ties to the party and with the play in which the film was based on being widely recognised as a parallel to the 1960 Democratic convention. Another hint this is the Democratic Party is the southern influence present at the convention (Democrats still dominated the south in the 1960s) from the brief shot of a woman in the convention waving a confederate flag to the former President positively referencing the confederacy.

Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a more conservative democrat running on an anti-communist platform from the days when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans existed. The man wants to lower taxes, increase military spending and is for state’s rights. Reportedly the ethically dubious and ruthless character was based on Richard Nixon – he even goes as far blackmailing the former president for the endorsement.

The liberal counterpoint to the conservative and strong-minded Cantwell is the liberal William Russell (Henry Fonda); a candidate tainted by extramarital affairs, a nervous breakdown and a demonstrated inability to take decisive action. It is even hinted that Russell may be an atheist based upon his comment regarding human’s animal descent only for one of his advisors to state, “No mention of Darwin, before The Garden of Eden was the world”. The Best Man does offer some comic relief however in the form of Ann Southern as Mrs Gamage, a loud-mouthed, feminist type, pestering Russell that he doesn’t appeal to the female vote.

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“Russell’s Got Muscle”

Eventually, Russell, against his will blackmails Cantwell with info outing him as a homosexual. The word homosexual is not used as first but it’s more than apparent that’s the accusation levelled against Cantwell (“What we called when I was a boy, a degenerate”). The film does, however, drop the word homosexual later on, surely one of the earliest films to do so. The Best Man was itself released on an election year and one of several political movies to be essential viewing for anyone running who is for office.

The Fondathon Has Arrived!

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The Fondathon has arrived! A big thank you to everyone who took part. We look forward to reading your entries. Please check back over the next three days as I will be updating the blogathon as participants post their entries.

Please be sure to leave comments on the participant’s blogs. I’m sure they will enjoy the feedback!

I will be hosting another blogathon in the not too distant future, so stay tuned for details!

 

The Entries (In Alphabetical Order):

It Came From the Man Cave!: 9 to 5 (1980)

The Wonderful World of Cinema: 12 Angry Men (1957)

The Flapper Dame: The Big Street (1942)

The Midnite Drive-In: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) & Race with the Devil (1975)

Realweegiemidget Reviews: Easy Rider (1969)

Sat In Your Lap: The Electric Horseman (1979)

The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society: Jezebel (1938)

Musings of a Classic Film Addict: Let Us Live (1939)

In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood: The Lady Eve (1941) & Barefoot In the Park (1967)

Dubism: Mister Roberts (1955)

Silver Screenings: My Darling Clementine (1946)

Thoughts All Sorts: Once Upon a Time In the West (1968)

Overture Books and Film: Rings On Her Fingers (1942)

Pop Culture Reverie: Shag (1989)

The Story Enthusiast: Sunday In New York (1963)

Movierob: The Tin Star (1957), Klute (1971) & Ulee’s Gold (1997)

portraitsbyjenni: Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

Announcing The Fondathon!

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Update: All entries can be read here!

The Fondas are an acting dynasty headed by patriarch Henry Fonda (1905-1982) who’s children Jane and Peter Fonda, granddaughter Bridget Fonda and grandson Troy Garity all became actors.

-For this blogathon please write about any film or TV show starring any of the Fondas or any topic relating to them.

-No more than two duplicates on any film or TV show will be allowed.

-To participate please comment along with the URL and name of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover of course. Or if you desire you can email the same details to me via mmallon4@gmail.com. Once your topic is approved please take one of the banners below and add it to your blog.

Date: February 1st – 3rd, 2019. Please submit your entries on these dates. I look forward to you joining in February!

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The Roster:

Sat In Your Lap: The Electric Horseman (1979)

The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society: Jezebel (1938)

Silver Screenings: My Darling Clementine (1946)

In The Good Old Days Of Classic HollywoodThe Lady Eve (1941) & Barefoot In the Park (1967)

portraitsbyjenni: Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

The Story Enthusiast: Sunday In New York (1963)

Realweegiemidget Reviews: Easy Rider (1969)

Dubism: Mister Roberts (1955)

Thoughts All Sorts: Once Upon a Time In the West (1968)

The Wonderful World of Cinema: 12 Angry Men (1957)

It Came From the Man Cave!: 9 to 5 (1980)

Movierob: The Tin Star (1957), Klute (1971) & Ulee’s Gold (1997)

The Midnite Drive-In: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) & Race with the Devil (1975)

Musings of a Classic Film Addict: Let Us Live (1939)

The Flapper Dame: The Big Street (1942)

Overture Books and Film: Rings On Her Fingers (1942)

Pop Culture Reverie: Shag (1989)

The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

The Wrong Man (1956)

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Manny Balestrero Dindu Nuffin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who was arrested in 1953 after being mistaken for an armed robber. Like in the other Henry Fonda film 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man is also an examination of the flaws in human cognition – in this case, the issue of faulty eyewitness testimony. However, this isn’t actually Fonda’s first film on the subject matter. Previously he starred in 1939’s Let Us Live, another film about a man who is falsely arrested due to poor eyewitness testimony. Both films differ greatly in their plot structure and characters but surprisingly the one thing they share in common other than the subject matter and the lead actor is interestingly enough, an emphasis on Catholicism. It remains to be seen however if Alfred Hitchcock looked at Let Us Live as a source of inspiration for The Wrong Man.

The Wrong Man is absent of any Alfred Hitchcock or Hollywood artifice but rather the movie has that European, neo-realism feel. A film which really captures the urban landscape in all its glory which is only enhanced more by the sounds of the city and the jazz music score; a hallmark which really characterises noir in this period with films such as The Sweet Smell of Success. Likewise, the film has several shots really worth examining from Fonda walking through the doorway of his house and closing a door we the viewer never see to the zoom through the open slit in the prison door onto Fonda and then back out again.

The Wrong Man has no witty dialogue or Roger O’Thornhill style adventures to capture the real culprits. Rather Hitchcock creates something which is oppressively real. A story which really gets under your skin, questions your faith in the criminal justice system, arises your inner skeptic and makes you ask: what if this happened to me? The Wrong Man does as effective a job as possible in both showing and making us feel the degradation Manny Balesterero goes through. In my mind there existed the doubt that Manny really did commit the crime but such a crazy plot twist never comes to fruition.

During the scene early in the film in which Manny visits the Insurance Company Office and the woman at the booth goes over to her work colleagues and asks them to look at the man standing over there in which they all agree he is the man who robbed them months earlier is an example of what we would now refer to as confirmation bias. It this scene an unintentional representation of this or did Hitchcock have knowledge of this phenomenon (the term itself wasn’t coined until 1960).

Some of the elements of the criminal procedure shown in The Wrong Man would not be permissible today; subjects being arrested without being given the Miranda Rights or informed of the crime they are suspected off, interviews being conducted without a written or taped recording being kept, two witnesses allowed to be present together during an identification parade. Manny is even denied the formality of letting his wife know where he’s going despite literally being in the house he is right outside off: would that even have been allowed at the time? Likewise, notice how the friendly cops keep referring to Manny as Chris. The name on his license if Christopher Emmanual Balestrero thus they assume he is called Chris. – The Wrong Man is full of little details like this.

On a lighter note though, what is up with the Balestrero’s two kids?  “We ought to get two music lessons today because we didn’t get any yesterday” – You’re father was just in prison yesterday child, cut him some slack. Likewise in another scene on the kids answers the phone and just puts it down and when his mother asks who it was he just says “it was some man, he didn’t say” – stupid kids.

When Manny is at the police station being questioned by two cops he is made to write down on a piece of paper the words from a note the robber had written himself. The results show that Manny’s handwriting is similar to that found on the note (although the cops don’t hold this against him as they state people tend to write in a similar manner when using upper case) but also that Manny misspells the word “drawer” as “draw” in the same manner that the criminal did on the original note. Surely this is a flawed piece of evidence? Firstly a real criminal could take advantage of the situation and alter his handwriting. Secondly, the officer reading out the note to Manny has a heavy accent and made his pronunciation sound like “draw” not to mention the actual note he is reading from says “draw” and not “drawer” which could have affected his pronunciation a very subtle, subconscious way. Not to mention there is something very suspicious about the way the two cops handle the notes as they hand them back and forth between each other.

The courtroom scene in The Wrong Man is itself chilling. People are chatting, walking in and out, bored, dozing off, the jury is disinterested and Manny’s lawyer appears to just ask the witnesses stupid questions which lead nowhere. Manny’s entire future is on the line yet nobody seems to care. Regardless the real criminal gets caught and Balestrero is acquitted. However, the Fonda “lookalike” does not resemble Fonda and looks far more thuggish other than having the same face shape and cheekbones (in the real-life case Balestrero and the actual criminal looked far more alike). The last appearance of those two smarmy women who first identified Manny at the police station, making no apology to Manny when they see him after his exoneration for all that has happened to him and his family. I always had a bad feeling about them since their very first appearance.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Take My Breath Away

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ve seen some films in which I’ve had to patiently wait for the main star to show up; The Boston Stranger may be the record holder in this category. It takes 57 minutes of a 116-minute film for Tony Curtis to appear.

The extensive use of split screen present in The Boston Strangler intrigues me, appreciating the planning and the huge sets of extra reels which must have gone into creating the effect. It’s not an afterthought and helps derive suspense with sequences in which each individual frame features a minimal number of cuts such as sequences which highlight the successful techniques that Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) uses in order to get into victims homes and escape without detection (watching Curtis get into an apartment with ease by claiming to be a plumber sent by a super really gets under your skin). This voyeuristic style of filmmaking allows the viewer to see different perspectives on the same space, such as in a more creative instance in which we see the perspective of a TV camera which appears in the frame right next to it. On the other hand, many of the transitions and framing do come off as something a film student would do, although the attempt is early and more than admirable so I’ll give it a pass (for a flawless attempt use of split screen watch Twilight’s Last Gleaming).

The Boston Strangler is a dirty, grimy looking film full of explicit, sexual language set in an underworld of creeps and perverts while the police view homosexuality as a perversion, interviewing suspects on the basis that they are gay (“This kind of mutilation goes with the queer”). The film even plays out like a documentary at times as we see the effects the murders have on the public. The Boston Strangler was Henry Fonda’s second cop film of 1968 alongside with Madigan and along with the latter we see a world in which men still wear suits and fedoras on their daily jobs, something which isn’t present just a few years later in the likes of Dirty Harry or Serpico.

The Boston Strangler is a slow-moving film but one which is rewarding for the patient. The final third becomes very arty without coming off as pretentious and the ending in which Fonda calls out “Albert!” amongst the silence is chilling. I do have a soft spot for old mental illness dramas even if the science presented in them is out of date or disputed; if anything that’s part of their charm.

Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

Every Sperm Is Sacred

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Frank Beardsley’s (Henry Fonda) opening narration tells of how his children feel he neglected his wife and their mother; an interesting parallel to real life in which Fonda told his wife Frances Ford Seymour in 1949 he wanted a divorce so he could remarry after an unhappy 13 year marriage; a confession which drove her to suicide. Not to mention Fonda was a man who was “emotionally distant” to his children starring in a movie like Yours, Mine and Ours, but being the great actor he is, never is he out of place.

Yours, Mine and Ours doesn’t have a massive amount of substance but has just enough to keep it afloat. It’s not the most advanced comic material for the likes of Lucille Ball but she makes the most of it. Apparently, Fonda became deeply in love with Ball during filming and the two became very close; always a benefit to the on-screen chemistry. Likewise, sex references still manage to slip into a family film (“He’ll bring me home in plenty of time for dessert”). The cinematography is also surprisingly advanced for a movie of this kind such as seen in the very opening shot of the film in which the camera pans back from a close up of Fonda to a battleship in its entirety. Likewise, there are plenty of effective shots of San Francisco.

The old-fashioned family ideals in Yours, Mine and Ours were not in tune with a changing America of the time. The film was originally to be made in the early 60’s but was delayed due to various setbacks but the fashions present here are clearly of the late 60’s. With the film’s inclusion of battleships and planes, the movie clearly has US Navy endorsement and I can see this pro-military aspect of the film not going down well during the days of the Vietnam War. Likewise, at the end of the film the eldest son Michael Beardsley joining the armed forces; so I guess that’s off to Nam! This is the aspect of Yours, Mine and Ours which I find the most interesting; it’s a film which the product of before it’s time, clinging onto bygone values. For example, the movie has Van Johnson in a supporting role whom I’ve always pictured as being an archetypal 50’s actor. But more importantly Frank Beardsley can’t be a stay at home father, he’s clearly a man’s man as evident from his high ranking position in the navy.

There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If more westerns were like The Was a Crooked Man I could consider myself a bigger fan of the genre. The opening scene in which a black maid who fakes the mammy act sets the stage for a film which defies convention. To date I’ve never seen another western like it; it’s not like a John Ford western or a Howard Hawks western, this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz western; the first and only Mankiewicz western. I also love that theme song and am happy to hear it again and again in instrumental form throughout the film.

Mankiewicz was a master of handling dialogue and thus there is such a snappy pace to the whole film. “Nothing like fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy” may be my favourite line Kirk Douglas has ever uttered in a film. The film is full of characters whom each get their own unique stories. The two homosexual lovers and comic buffoons played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph have the most interesting character arc with an outcome which is the only time in the film someone isn’t totally out for themselves. The large-scale prison set on the other hand captures the mundanity of prison life with the film gradually building up to the impending escape, ranking There Was a Crooked Man among the great prison escape movies.

There Was a Crooked Man is a movie which combines old Hollywood mixed with new Hollywood with its traditional western setting and it’s dosing of cynicism. The cast features stars both veteran actors and younger stars and a script by David Newman and Robert Benton of Bonnie & Clyde fame. Even the one moral character in the film ends up turning bad. Henry Fonda plays the moral role he was known for throughout his career right up until the very end of the picture, leaving me with a big smile on my face. The movie is very cynical but it’s that kind of wonderful cynicism that makes you feel happy, and not feeling down. Although I would call There Was a Crooked Man a funny movie, it is not the kind of film in which I find myself laughing but rather laughing inside to myself.