Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday

The whole movie internet knows about this and is posting about it, but I really feel I have to follow suit. She’s one of my favorite classic-era actresses, and it’s cool that she’s lived so long. The other day I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on the big screen at the Paramount. It was the first movie I noticed her in, but since then I’ve sought out several of the films she and Errol Flynn made for Warner Brothers and have seen about half a dozen. I haven’t seen much from the later period of her career, but I look forward to it.

Spanish Civil War movies

The Spanish Civil War is a good war for movies. Its ideological split between fascists on the one hand and liberals and communists on the other was a warm-up for World War II. It was a global conflict and a trial run for the Cold War, too, in the sense that republicans and leftists from around the world — notably from the United States and the Soviet Union, but from many other parts of the world as well — converged on a country to try and tilt its fortunes their way. Setting a movie in the Spanish Civil War allows storytellers to engage with the fundamental issues of those conflicts without having to address their specific baggage. Also, Spanish architecture and landscapes (perhaps I should say Mediterranean, since many Spanish Civil War movies were filmed in Italy or other similar locales) offer a distinct backdrop from the grayer, grimmer palettes usually seen in WWII and Cold War flicks.

I’ve watched a lot of Spanish Civil War movies, and I thought I’d briefly run through the ones I can remember:

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Review: THE KEY (1958)

This post is part of a William Holden blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. See the full list of participating blogs at https://thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/announcement-the-golden-boy-blogathon/

The Key — ★★★☆

It’s tempting to describe the typical William Holden character as a cad with a conscience. From Sunset Blvd to Sabrina to Bridge on the River Kwai to Network, his characters’ propensities toward leeching, philandering, prevaricating, and self-serving generally give way to belated righteousness, heroics, or grimly-accepted responsibility by the end of the third act. “Conscience,” though, may not be the most precise way to describe those shifts; when Holden’s characters change tacks, it is more often due to weakness or a lack of alternatives than to awakening convictions. Holden’s believability as a cad, and a weak cad at that, is what drives a little-known wartime tragedy called The Key.

The Key is based on a novel called Stella, adapted by Carl Foreman (who also penned the war pictures Kwai and The Guns of Navarone) and directed by Carol Reed of The Third Man fame. Neither Reed nor Foreman are known for cheery movies, but The Key is bleak even by their standards. Off the coast of England, Allied supply ships are easy targets for German U-boats. The ones that don’t sink upon being torpedoed have to be towed back to port, but the slow, aging, defenseless tugboats make even easier targets. Casualty rates among tugboat crews are staggering, and some captains have ended their own life rather than wait for the Germans to do it.

An American captain named David Ross (Holden) is the newest arrival. His old friend and fellow captain Chris Ford, played by salty character actor Trevor Howard, has been around long enough to know that his own number is almost up, so between benders he shows Ross the ropes. The most important information Ford conveys to Ross before his death is not about tugboats or how to zig-zag through enemy-infested waters, but about the key he carries with him. The key goes to a particular flat in town, and inside the flat lives a woman named Stella (Sophia Loren). Ford lives with Stella, but before that another tugboat captain lived there, and he gave Ford the key before he met his fate. That captain had, in turn, gotten the key from the original owner of the flat, the deceased tugboat captain who had been engaged to marry Stella. Now, sensing his imminent demise, Ford gives the key to Ross.

Trevor Howard and William Holden in THE KEY
Trevor Howard and William Holden in THE KEY

Ross is initially horrified by the arrangement. He sees and is moved by Stella’s stoic sadness, which is occasionally ameliorated by the idea that one of these captains might live long enough to marry her, as they often promise to do. Such hopes, though, only compound the tragedy of their inevitable deaths. Ross resists joining the queue, but it isn’t long after Ford dies that he uses the key and begins living in Stella’s flat.

If it is weakness that drives Ross to take up residence with Stella, it at least seems to work to her benefit. She seems happy with Ross, happier than she had been with Ford, and is happier still when he agrees to marry her. But unhappy, in the end, is the woman who puts her faith in a character played by Bill Holden; in another characteristic moment of weakness, Ross gives Stella’s key to a new captain when he sets out on what he thinks is a suicide mission.

Sophia Loren and Holden
Sophia Loren and Holden

Holden’s face at that moment of misdecision is a distillation of his acting career: fearful and doubtful, aware of his caddishness but unable to face it, wheels spinning behind hangdog eyes as if searching for a convincing reason to be a heel. He survives the suicide mission, but the new owner of the key has already gone to Stella’s flat. Angry at the betrayal, Stella won’t take either of them in. Seizing the key (the connection between agency and possession of the key is, I think, too reductive, though Loren sells it well enough), she takes control of her own destiny and leaves on a train for London.

As Holden’s characters often do, Ross meets a bad end. He races to the train station to apologize, but Stella is already gone. Ross is heartbroken, and vows to search for her as long as it takes, but the tone Reed captures as the train steam dissipates in the final shot is one of ironic futility. Ross survived his tugboat missions against all odds, but destroyed the aspect of his life over which he had more control. Holden isn’t the only classic actor who could have sold that narrative — Humphrey Bogart, who died the year before The Key was released, would have been a natural in this role — but it suits his on-screen persona. Holden comes across not as a born loser, but a self-made one, and that’s all the more tragic.

Holden, Howard, Loren, Foreman, and Reed aren’t the only reasons to watch this obscure classic. Fans of the early James Bond movies will recognize their “M,” Bernard Lee, as a dedicated, deskbound officer with the thankless job of sending other men on deadly assignments. It’s amusing to observe that this is just the sort of job M must have done during the war, too.

Bernard Lee fills pretty much the same function in THE KEY as in his James Bond movies
Bernard Lee fills pretty much the same function in THE KEY as in his James Bond movies

Voted in a Fred Astaire vs. Gene Kelly poll from @TCM

TCM has a great Twitter account (even though they’ve never retweeted me; I’m not bitter). @TCM put out a poll tonight asking voters to choose between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I’ve been a Fred fan longer, ever since high school when I ran downstairs to get away from my SAT study book and turned on the TV and happened to see Follow the Fleet on TCM. Something about it — the dancing, the smiles, the carefreeness of it — was conveyed and captured me in a matter of seconds, and I watched it the rest of the way through with an irrepressible smile on my face, forgetting all about the hated math formulas I had been trying to memorize.

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Meg Ryan is a genius


I’ve seen several Meg Ryan movies, and I don’t think I’ve disliked any of them. Most recently I watched Sleepless in Seattle, and you don’t need me to tell you that’s a certified modern classic. French Kiss is another title I often recommend to people. I appreciate the camp of Top Gun, but the fact is that Meg Ryan is head and shoulders above everyone else in that film, acting-wise. Her one or two scenes are my strongest memories of it. In each of her roles, every muscle in her body appears to be acting at all times; they’re not overacting, mind you, but doing exactly what the muscles of her character would be doing, with every glance and shimmy and shrug. That can’t all come from the Rob Reiners and Nora Ephrons and Oliver Stones who directed Ryan. Most of it is her incredible acting intelligence and physical command of the art. It’s a crime she wasn’t nominated for Best Actress for Sleepless in Seattle or anything else. The Academy’s genre bias robbed her of that recognition.

Oh well. Discerning viewers know that Meg Ryan is a reason to watch any movie, and that hers is a filmography worth exploring in detail.

My John le Carré rewatch project is getting out of hand!

So I finished the Smiley vs Karla trilogy of novels by John le Carré, and I rewatched the Gary Oldman Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie, AND I rewatched the Alec Guinness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries. I had originally figured on doing those things and then writing up some quick thoughts.

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Not a Review: THE WIND AND THE LION (1975)

The Wind and the Lion — ★★☆☆

I’m a big enough James Bond fan that I feel I should someday complete Sean Connery’s filmography. I’ve seen The Name of the RoseMurder on the Orient ExpressHighlanderThe Untouchables, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and some other scattered Connery flicks, so I’m well on my way. The most recent box I checked was an obscurity called The Wind and the Lion.

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Not a Review: TOM JONES

Tom Jones — ★★★☆

Before I got busy in the last few days, and my blog briefly became inaccessible for reasons unknown to me, causing me to miss a day of posting, I watched a new-to-me Best Picture winner: the English sex comedy/costume farce Tom Jones (1963), starring Albert Finney.

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National cinema preferences

This topic deserves a longer post or series of posts someday, but I’ve noticed some tendencies in my reactions to different nations’ film outputs.

I’m almost always likely to enjoy Japanese films, for the obvious reason (in addition to early exposure and possible innate aesthetic preferences) that I lived in Japan for three of the last ten years. But I also have fairly consistent reactions to movies from countries I’ve never visited, and with no clear correlation.

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