Black Sunday (1977)

Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Black Sunday is another addition to the “They couldn’t make that nowadays club”. Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company – now I can’t look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it’s highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre – this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.

Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday’s timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston – a poor man’s version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.

Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn’t get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia’s relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife’s martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander – a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.

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Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.

Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov – an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI’s rules (“In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond ”). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn’t he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question (“The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question”). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed – Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.

The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I’ve ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase “Edge of your seat” doesn’t do it justice. The film’s advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.

So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer’s previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp’s side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film’s poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words “Super Bowl” imprinted on its side.

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The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews.  Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie’s timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it’s only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.

The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there’s no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.

Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved – in the end, we get a bit of both. It’s clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can’t help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you’re dying to just tell someone about it – Black Sunday is one such film.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don’t portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director’s commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.

From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy – a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film’s end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 – being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.

Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate.com sums it up:

There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who’s mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao’s China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.

It’s Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn’t state if the Iselin’s are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.

Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it’s clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, “not loveable” as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower – an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.

Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.

The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase “play a little solitaire” – a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film’s climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.

The Conversation (1974)

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I Always Feel Like, Somebody’s Watching Me 

The Conversation revolves around just that, a conversation between a man and a woman which is secretly recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his team as a paid job for a private interest. Watching The Conversation decades after the fact, it’s surprising to see that such long-range microphones which can record conversations from afar and even in crowded places existed, let alone were commercially available in 1974, while it’s also of great interest to watch the process depicted in the film of editing together the audio from different sources without the aid of a computer screen. It goes without saying that in a post 9/11, post Edward Snowden world, The Conversation is more scarily relevant than ever.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the personification of a paranoid man in one of the most effective portrays of a crisis of conscience in film. If you’re in the business of spying on people, it’s difficult to believe people are not spying on you, even to the point that the man can’t even bear one of his neighbours delivering him a present on his birthday. Unlike an Edward Snowden, Harry Caul does not work for the government but the movie hints that he has been hired by them before. Harry’s assistant Stan (John Cazale) even speculates the tapes Harry is editing could be for the Justice Department or the Internal Revenue. However, the most “out there” moment in the film comes when Harry’s associate Bernie (Allen Garfield) states:  “Twelve years ago, I recorded every phone call made by the presidential nominee of a major political party…I’m not saying I elected the President of the United States, but you can draw your own conclusions.” Francis Ford Coppola had been writing The Conversation since the late 1960’s however it’s not determined whether the Watergate scandal had any influence on the film’s development, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps the most unsettling section in The Conversation is the surveillance convention – a convention where the subterranean world of wiretappers come together to showcase their Orwellian recording technology with the pomp and flair of any business expo. As Martin Stett (a certain young Harrison Ford) sinisterly sums it up, “It’s a convention of wiretappers, ah excuse me, surveillance and security technicians”.

Ah yes, let’s talk about the young Harrison Ford in the supporting role of Martin Stett. Perhaps I may be biased being a huge Harrison Ford fan but he leaves a huge impression in this small but significant part in which he does have a surprising amount of screen time for this early stage in his career. According to Coppola on the director’s commentary track, the character was Ford’s own creation. Originally no more than a cameo, the character’s role was expanded as much as possible when Ford fleshed it out, turning the character into an implied homosexual with his campy checkered tie and sweater, in an implied relationship with the company director played by Robert Duvall. Martin Stett is like a predecessor to the 1980’s yuppie and is one scary looking dude when he lingers in the background – even his voice over the phone is unsettling. I’m unable to discover whether or not more footage of Ford ended up on the cutting room floor. However included on the Blu-ray release of The Conversation is an early screen test from 1972 in which a young and dashing Ford plays the role of Mark, which a part which would eventually be portrayed by Frederic Forrest.

Being a film about sound itself, The Conversation couldn’t be a more ideal match for the editing and sound design talents of the great Walter Murch. Like his work in Apocalypse Now, the sound effects are as memorable as the music, particularly that audio distortion noise that repeats during the film’s titular conversation. Likewise, the eerie, ragtime-esque music score courtesy of David Shire shows what you can do with just a piano – the ideal accompaniment to the gritty 70’s look amongst the film’s oppressive yet striking architecture and a slightly drab-looking winter San Francisco (The Conversation is one of those film’s set during Christmas which has no bearing on the holiday). Even the camera acts as an eavesdropper with the film’s use of voyeuristic shots.

“We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.”

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise, the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top-secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman, it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly, however, Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at times. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat-up face to boot. As one of the characters in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfill his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co-star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that, there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are a lot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one-liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkably well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However, we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film, there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have a purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Olympus Has Fallen

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so-called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer, they are at least.

Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart-pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has a genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personnel with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.

The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension is drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.

John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass-style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.

Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal is never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear-cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).

The Prize (1963)

A Different Kind of Stockholm Syndrome

The Prize is my second favourite Hitchcock film he didn’t direct (my favourite being 1941’s All Through the Night). It’s not instantly engaging from the start as there is a lot of setting up to do but becomes more and more tense as the film progresses. In classic Hitchcock fashion, once the mystery kicks in your left scratching your head wondering if the protagonist just paranoid or is something fishy really going on.

I consider The Prize one of Paul Newman’s best films, giving him the opportunity to show off his not often exposed comedic chops. Newman is one of few select actors in which I can ask the question, “honestly, who doesn’t like Paul Newman?”; does there exist a more likable screen presence?  Likewise, Edward G. Robinson’s role is reminiscent of his part in The Whole Town’s Talking, playing a dual role of characters identical in appearance but with polar opposite personalities; while the hotel setting rings a bell of MGM’s own Grand Hotel some 31 years prior. plus when you set your movie in Sweden it seems inevitable that someone will mention Greta Garbo along the way. Hitchcock himself also never fully took advantage of the cold war. Torn Curtain, although I do think is underrated, is imperfect while Topaz is one of his dullest outings. It’s satisfying to see a superb Hitchcockian thriller with a plot about West vs. East.

North By Northwest has the auction scene in which Cary Grant makes a fool of himself to get caught by the police in order to get away from the bad guys; The Prize has the same scene but ups the ante with having it taking place during a nudist meeting and of course naturally of all the countries in the world to a nudist meeting, where else but Sweden. The Prize is not quite Hitchcock’s greatest hits but it’s the closet a film comes to being so. There are other allusions to other Hitchcock films including The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and Torn Curtain. Hang on, that one didn’t come until three years after this movie. Huh, was Hitchcock inspired by this Hitchcock clone/rip-off/ homage/whatever you want to call it. As far as imitations of someone else’s work goes it doesn’t get pulled off any better than this.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date, White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into a fan. Typically for me, I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing an unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming off a rollercoaster, expect to get it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way, to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.

Rope (1948)

Is Murder an Art?

Rope is one of those rare movies which is totally engrossing within less than five minutes, no doubt in my top 5 films by the master himself. Hitchcock successfully recreates the theatrical experience for the big screen. The set of Rope looks a bit fake and washed out and even the colour cinematography has a washed out feel to it, this all being part of the charm of course. The actors strand in unnatural positions when talking, avoiding having their back facing the audience when speaking; unnatural for real life that is, normal for the warped reality of a stage play. Above all, the entire movie takes place in real time through a series of ten minute takes and all this happens while there is a dead body in the room.

The characters played by Farley Granger and John Doll, as well as their teacher (James Stewart), hold a Nazi-like ideology that murder is “an art a few superior beings should be allowed to practice”, rather than those such as say, people who are Harvard undergraduates. The character’s discussion on the justification for murder is chilling as they make it sound scarily convincing. Rope is based a true story from the 1920’s and adapted into a play in 1929 although it’s clear the movie is set during the period it was made due to the fashions and the mentioning of movie stars from the era. It does seem unlikely in the aftermath of the atrocities during the Second World War that people would be so openly discussing such fascist ideas which were more common in the United States during the 20’s and 30’s.

The movie is about homosexuality although I didn’t catch onto this. I’m not the best person when it comes to identifying gay characters unless they’re really gay (hey sisters!). I’ve heard criticism of Stewart being miscast in the role as he apparently doesn’t make a convincing gay character thus the homosexual love triangle from the play is not present in the film. Judging the film on its own merits however Rope is a major step in his evolution as an actor, away from his gawky roles he was known for up until this point. His breakdown at the end is one of the acting highlights of his career and gives me the chills watching it.