I’ve been on a British mystery kick. After watching way too many episodes of “Midsomer Murders” I decided to go with a classic. Agatha Christie, the best-selling mystery writer of all time, meets Billy Wilder, writer-director extraordinaire in the script of “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957).
The film is a riveting court drama the tops any seen today. Christie’s tale leads you to question your own suspicions and plays wonderfully with Wilder’s quirky sense of humor seamlessly inserted into the dialogue. Additionally, Wilder’s decision to minimize music puts greater emphasis on the inflection on words spoken and stretches of silence.
Marlene Dietrich is accused murderer Tyrone Power’s wife whom he brought to England after WWII. The complications of their relationship are nearly the opposite of those she played in “The Blue Angel,” but carry as much intrigue. Charles Laughton as Banister Wilfrid is both a comic curmudgeon and brilliant analytical mind. His performance was the reason I had a repeat watch immediately.
While there is a sequence where you find yourself doing a face-palm with Dietrich, it’s not too hard to forgive and carry on. The end of the film requests that I “not divulge the end,” so all I can say is that as I sat watching this film, exclaimed to my hamster, “CharlesLaughton is Amazing!”
If you’re a Billy Wilder fan, check out my reviews of “The Seven Year Itch” and “Double Indemnity.”
I find Marlene Dietrich to be a fascinating personality. Her American films usually find her cast as a sexual creature verging on vamp, playing men to get what she can off them. Dietrich’s roles in later films have her as more of a sympathetic villianness, where the audience sees her in greater shades of grey. I though it might be interesting to go back and watch the film that really introduced her to US audiences, “The Blue Angel.”
“The Blue Angel” (1930) exists in two versions: the original German language release and an English language version featuring the same cast. The English version was thought to be lost for many years until a print was found mislabeled in a German archive. I’m reviewing the German version because of its availability and i find the performances to be a little better.
Josef von Sternberg‘s film has Dietrich as a restaurant cabaret singer who’s tough personality and sleepy eyes softens the heart of prudish professor Emil Jannings, leading to his self destruction. Sternberg frames shots to include objects, actions, or shadows that offer their own story or character foreshadowing. You can tell where he learned his craft, as hints of silent German Expressionism add to the drama. Jannings was one of the biggest stars of German silent cinema, known around the world for his dramatic leading characters. In “The Blue Angel” you can literally see his character’s hard icy manner melt as he falls in love with Dietrich.
There is so much history surrounding this film that it fills entire books. I’ll just say that the relations between characters and social commentary that can be drawn from it make and endlessly interesting and entertaining movie.
I’ve really gotten into BBC’s “Sherlock.” The way they’re adapted the Arthur Conan Doyle character of Sherlock Holmes for the modern age is completely engaging and entertaining. So I thought I might go back and see other inspirations from the past. But instead of critiquing the iconic Basil Rathbone encarnation, I took the way-back machine a little further.
Buster Keaton‘s 1924 film “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) is a wonderful example of how the character has influenced popular culture for a century. Keaton stars as our young hero who is trying to woo his love interest by day and works in a cinema at night. Fascinated by Sherlock Holmes, he dreams himself into a mystery. This movie completely tickles my film nerd bones, for as the character dreams, he imagines himself not only as Holmes, but as apart of the cinema world that, as a theater projectionist, he views everyday. Of course, reality always spills into a dream, and he finds his lady deep in a mysterious robbery and kidnapping, that only he can solve. The rest is less mystery and more silent comedy hijinks and fantastic stunts. In this Keaton is an absolute master, keeping you constantly engaged and oblivious to the skill involved in the flawless execution and timing.
I love this film. Its brisk 45 minutes goes by far too quickly and leaves me wanting to start it all over again.
The translation of a novel to film is a very tenuous thing. When that story is well-loved, it’s even more so. The public have an indisputable ruler by which to measure the movie, and will do so mercilessly. For those books that have reached the age and popularity level of “classic” many different adaptations may exist. When it comes to Herman Melville’s novel, 1956’s “Moby Dick” may not be the most critically acclaimed, but for me it stands as the benchmark.
John Huston’s Technicolor masterpiece captures the language and heart of the novel (adapted for the screen by Ray Bradbury) and injects it with the tension that only careful editing can convey. Images documenting a whaling hunt cut with motion shots from the waves add realism.
What really brings life to the story is the performances of the actors. The entire cast brings believable emotion and struggle, but Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab stands above the rest. His performance is larger than life, and he fills the screen with his passion and obsession.
For me, one of the best things about the artistry of the film is the pastel color palate. Technicolor is typically characterized by its bright, saturated hues, resulting from not only the production design but also from the dye-transfer process. For “Moby Dick” this technical process was physically altered, with the color layers being added in a different order to achieve the muted, unsaturated look.
Although it’s not the most literary accurate version of the novel, I feel its handling makes it one of the most enjoyable.
While I was working on my undergraduate degree, one of the classes I took was a study of the director Billy Wilder and addressed the question what makes his films so identifiable. My professor called this identification “Wilderesque,” and while his work spans seven decades and multiple genres they all have a common feel unique to this director. Part of this stems from the fact that as he also wrote his own films he had the ability to impart his vision to the story more completely.
For “Double Indemnity” (1944), Wilder crafted a film that is undeniably Noir but differs from the common hard-boiled-detective plot line. Fred MacMurray is an insurance salesman who becomes embroiled in murder after he falls for dangerous beauty Barbara Stanwyck. The entire story is told through flashbacks with plenty of fast-paced dialogue. The use of shadow to create mood and effect only help to illustrate that it’s what you don’t see in the film that’s the most important. MacMurray is at his all-time best and his performance is complemented by Eddie G. Robinson’s portrayal as both friend and foe.
Like Wilder’s classic comedy “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), “Double Indemnity” has direct, witty dialogue that is complimented by well thought out imagery. If the film feels dated at all, its only due to 1940s gender roles and slang. This film is one of the staples on my shelf and should be viewed by anyone who appreciates a well-told tale.
Alfred Hitchcock was the unequivocal master of suspense. Of his 55 feature films “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) is one of his better known, though not as iconic as “The Birds” (1963) or “Psycho” (1960). The film has undergone a recent restoration and is looking better than I’ve ever seen it with its vibrant Technicolor and clean process shots.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as a couple on vacation in Marrakech whose son is kidnapped after they become entangled in a plot to assassinate a foreign dignitary. Stewart and Day don’t have an extraordinary amount of chemistry, but their portrayals of a married couple under tension are so complimentary one forgets how different they really are. The pacing is steady, and the story throws just enough curve balls to keep you on the edge, wondering how they’re going to get to the Hollywood ending you expect from a mid-50s film. Of course, with Doris Day appearing in a roll, its required for her to sing at least one song. To its credit the film utilizes this as a tool and it feels more integrated than in other Day films.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” was actually a remake of a film Hitchcock had made through British Gaumont in 1934. Also titled “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” it featured Leslie Banks and Edna Best as a couple whose daughter is kidnapped by villain Peter Lorre. The title was the only one of his films that Hitchcock ever remade and both received box office success. If you care to compare the two versions, both are available on DVD.
One of the all time iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe is of her in a white dress, holding down the skirt as a breeze blows it up. The image is from a scene in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955). The shot lasts less than 30 seconds, but was used by the studio for publicity and today is more well known than the film it came from. I think this should change.
“The Seven Year Itch” stars Tom Ewell as a married man with an overactive imagination. One hot summer in New York City with his wife and son away in the country, he befriends neighbor Marilyn Monroe and battles the images his ego and conscience cook up for him. While its gender stereotypes are indicative of the 50s, its still an enjoyable experience.
Written and directed by the great Billy Wilder, witty banter reigns king. The dialogue has a fast pace and is peppered with 50s pop culture allusions that can’t help but make you smile. As a writer/director, Wilder crafts his imagery to compliment the words so that one cannot exist fully without the other. Every little detail in the scene has importance and bearing, even down to the books on a table or a character’s twitchy thumb.
“The Seven Year Itch” really deserves a second look.