I think this was my third or fourth viewing of The Searchers, and the first on the big screen. As usual, bigger is better. When John Wayne is up there and you suddenly notice the scale of him — that he’s towering over you at Big Tex proportions instead of on a two-foot-tall TV screen — you’re aware that you’re seeing him the way he was meant to be seen, the way people saw him when he was one of the world’s top stars and icons, and it’s a “wow” moment.
What struck me on this viewing is how funny The Searchers is. The humor doesn’t kick in in a big way until the final third, around the time that Martin Pawley and Charlie McCorry start their fisticuffs, but from then on there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and the audience at the Paramount obliged heartily.
The Searchers is brazenly politically incorrect from start to finish, but never without a reason, and never without undercutting itself with some sly, progressive flip-side. I don’t think The Searchers is a revisionist western; I think it’s a traditional western that is intentionally probing the boundaries of the genre and unknowingly foreshadowing the great revisionist works yet to come. The fact that it represents an in-between stage of evolution, enjoying the strengths but nodding toward the gaps of the great American film genre, and doing so with a light touch, is part of what makes it arguably the best western of all time.
Last week I posted about picking up a DVD copy of The Longest Day just in time for D-Day. I guess I’m still celebrating the anniversary, because today I watched a 1964 James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Taylor vehicle about the Normandy invasion that’s as exquisitely and unapologetically detailed as any I’ve seen, and it doesn’t have a single battle scene in it. Based on a book by Roald Dahl, who had been an RAF pilot, 36 Hours tells the story of an American war planner abducted by Germans for the purpose of determining the date and location of the impending invasion. The German doctor (a sympathetic Rod Taylor, who hates the gauche, meddling SS) goes to great lengths to convince the American, James Garner, that he has amnesia and has woken up in an American hospital 6 years after the invasion. The fake 1950 newspapers and radio broadcasts are amusing because of how reasonable they would have been in 1944 but how wrong they clearly were by 1964; “President Wallace gives speach in Iowa,” for example, and “Former President Roosevelt arrives at Warm Springs.” For someone who’s familiar with the Washington of the late 1940s and early 1950s, these are resonant “what ifs.” And for D-Day buffs, there’s trivia to spare: Garner rattles off the list of beach code names, and much is made of the need to withhold the date of the invasion, June 5, from his captors. When the wall calendar shows June 5, a fierce storm is blowing outside, and we WWII students know before Rod Taylor does what that portends. The storm, its accompanying change of date, and plenty of other historical nuances like a Volkssturm militia character and a discussion of post-WWI German inflation made 36 Hours one of my favorite new-to-me films of this half-finished year.
36 Hours works well as a human drama, too. There’s something about Garner’s love scenes, whether in this or in something breezier like Victor Victoria, that feels both old and new — in other words, timeless. He’s a man’s man, no doubt about it, but he’s got a way of cutting through pretenses and connecting with his female costars on a mental, person-to-person level. Eva Marie Saint’s character has a concentration camp background that comes with a specific, at times grueling recounting of horrors, and that’s a dimension that’s always missing from war movies made during the war.
George Cukor’s 1939 marriage and social drama The Women is interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which are its performances from half a dozen big-name actresses of the 1930s. I watched the film today, so I thought I’d do a little Flickchart-style ranking of the cast.
A couple of years ago I spent a few weeks reading through a dozen or so Shakespeare plays. I liked most of them, and understood the language much better than when I was in school, but one I didn’t care for was the fantastical comedy-of-errors A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So I was reluctant to watch the 1935 film version, but the cast was too good to turn down. There’s the figuratively and almost-literally immortal Olivia de Havilland, who brightens every movie with her beauty and fiercely expressive acting, and the young Mickey Rooney, who always manages to draw attention to himself despite his seemingly average aspect. There’s also. . . James Cagney? In a Shakespeare movie? Well, what kind of dirty rat would turn that down?
Thanks to the Austin Film Society, I got to see Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 war drama Rome, Open City on the big screen last night. It was made during a very brief and specific window late in the war when the Germans, who had occupied Rome after Mussolini was overthrown and Italy made a separate peace with the Allies, retreated from the advancing Americans. Rossellini made the picture on the fly in the newly-liberated city while the war was still underway. His actors used SS uniforms which reportedly caused some confusion and alarm among Italian passers-by: were the Germans back, had Allied gains been reversed? Fortunately no, but the memory of the German occupation was still very fresh, and Rossellini recaptures the tension of it for this movie.
I watched Victor Victoria (1982) the other day, the Blake Edwards musical dramedy about a woman pretending to be a man in prewar Paris. Despite a progressive (for the time) set of messages, the movie is quite classic in its expression and probably should have been released in the early-to-mid 1970s for maximum effect — sometime around the film version of Cabaret or Barbara Streisand’s Fanny Brice movies.
It’s Julie Andrews’ show, and she nails the songs and the emotions, but some of her mannerisms are too familiar from her earlier roles. It’s hard to forget you’re watching Andrews and have seen her make this expression or that gesture in other movies. Robert Preston has a lot of gravitas, humor, and kindness as Andrews’ gay friend; Preston wasn’t gay, so his casting might draw criticism if the movie were made today (so would several of the plot twists toward the end, when Andrews chooses a normative life over her genderbending career), but I think he conveys a lot of compassion. James Garner is likable as a man’s man and fairly enlightened Chicago gangster, but the show-stealer is Lesley Ann Warren as Garner’s floozy moll. I’d previously only seen her in Clue as Miss Scarlett, but she’s even more farcical and exaggerated in Victor Victoria than in that screwball comedy. Maybe her persona wouldn’t work for everyone, it’s barely tethered to the rest of the film, but I thought her scenes were priceless. Her musical number “Chicago, Illinois” is as racy as the film gets, and probably as good as anything in the Oscar-winning musical Chicago from two decades later.
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:
I’m a Stanley Kubrick fan and a Peter Sellers fan, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy Sellers’ supporting role as the predatory “Quilty” in 1962’s Lolita. His “tall girl” speech in particular conveys the character’s pathology, an enthusiastic commitment to deception but a pathetic inability to disguise his narcissistic, misanthropic perversion. To merge metaphors, Quilty is not so much a wolf in sheep’s clothing — that’s Humbert Humbert (James Mason) — but the emperor of wolves, and he has no clothes. Quilty is subhuman, the terminal form of Humbert’s rapid devolution, able to relate to the world only though ridiculous parody. Sellers’ arch intensity, his air of private bemusement, and his chameleonic propensity make him ideally suited to the role.
Today I saw a Laurel and Hardy movie for the first time. I knew their shticks from cartoons and general cultural DNA, in which they are somehow still detectable, but I’d never really seen them firsthand and feature-length. I don’t think this movie, Bonnie Scotland, can be one of their best — the throughline story really doesn’t resolve, as if it were forgotten or the budget ran out before the last act were shot — but it was a welcome and overdue introduction to the bowler-hatted duo.
I don’t like to use this space to write full reviews. I’ve done it once on purpose and once on accident, but what I really intend to do on this blog right now is the only thing I currently have the time to do alongside my Flickchart blogging and my other work: write quick little movie-related notes. However, I do like to give star ratings when I make a post about a particular movie, and that can make a post look like a review. So for this post, which is about a single movie and a single thought about that movie, I’m rolling out a new pretitle: “Not a Review.” (I’ll retroactively apply it to similar posts.)