Saturday, January 31, 2015


A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959; Frank Capra)
This is a pretty charming film I must say and one I had heard of but never seen before this Blu-ray. Sinatra as an actor is something I enjoy in general. He is really quite good, especially when you look at films like SOME CAME RUNNING or SUDDENLY. He can play the more serious roles as well as the lighter stuff like comedies (4 FOR TEXAS comes to mind) and musicals (if you haven't seen him in ON THE TOWN, you really should). I don't think he worked a lot with Capra though and that's too bad as they seem well suited for each other. This movie in particular has more melancholy underpinnings than a lot of Capra's other work. There's still a lot of humor and charm to it, not surprisingly. I mean it's Frank Sinatra and a cute little red-headed kid, so it's gonna be cute. They even sing "High Hopes" together at one point in the movie which is kind of adorable. But more than just an affable piece of fluff, this film has some very emotional moments and some good very solid scenes which are just two people talking. One of my favorites is just a scene with Sinatra and Eleanor Parker talking in her very cozy kitchen. Sinatra is obviously a charismatic fella and that certainly comes through here, but in roles like this and SONE CAME RUNNING he pulls out this certain pathos and sadness that really speaks to a guy trying to examine his life and see that he's less than perfect. 
The gist of the story is that Sinatra's character runs a hotel in Miami and it's a bit of a fleatrap. Not only that, but he's about to be evicted for being months behind on his payments. Enter his brother (played in a somewhat DOUBLE INDEMNITY kinda way by Edward G. Robinson). The brother has made a more successful entrepreneur of himself and When he refuses to loan Sinatra the money he be needs, he's then guilted into coming out to help by his wife (played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter). From their, Sinatra's character ends up doing a good deal of soul searching about the fact that he might be a bum and a poor example for his kid. It's touching stuff and I liked it.
And personally, I'd stay at any hotel that had Dub Taylor working the front desk. 

MOS footage of director Capra and his assistant prepping for A HOLE IN THE HEAD in Miami, 1958:

A western written by Steve Fisher, directed by Allan Dwan and starting AUDREY Totter?! How had I not seen this already? I'm kicking myself now for not running down more Allan Dwan films after hearing Scorsese praise him years ago in his PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN CINEMA
Audrey Totter is as evil here as she ever was and in the best possible way. She has a scene in this movie where she sings a song to a crowded saloon of low life's and it's one of the cruelest things I've seen. Throughout the movie she's catty and sexy and hot tempered as all hell. I can't believe that I wasn't really aware of Totter until last year (when I saw her in the dynamite noir TENSION for the first time). The big lady "discovery" for me in this movie though is Joan Leslie. She's a gal I realize they I've come across in other movies prior to this one (HIGH SIERRA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY), but she never stood out to me as much as she does here. Lovely and determined, she carries the movie pretty well. She reminds me slightly of Colleen Camp in her prime, but a better actress (no offense to miss Camp). Between she and Totter this movie has quite a pair of powerful women to draw to. There's almost a Joan Crawford/Mercedes McCambridge JOHNNY GUITAR vibe to the film in parts. Brian Donlevy brings his standard grumpy charm to his part as one of the heavies and it's a quite sharply written little flick overall. I was totally caught by surprise in terms of how much I enjoyed it. Chalk this up as a movie that will be among my favorite discoveries of 2015. Highly recommended.

THE WEAPON (1956; Val Guest)
Before I even watched this film after just reading the description, I began to think of another movie I love called LITTLE FUGITIVE. It came out in 1953, and was obviously made on a much lower budget than THE WEAPON, but there are some similarities. Both movies involve a young boy sort of running away and being off on his own. One difference that I noticed is that LITTLE FUGITIVE chooses to show most of the story from the little boy's perspective, whilst THE WEAPON is more of a procedural with lots of other characters on the lookout for the boy. It's of course understandable that THE WEAPON would approach its storytelling that based on the film's inciting incident (a young boy accidentally shoots another kid with an old military handgun they've found in a bombed out building). Since there's a murder involved, the police and the military end up becoming entangled. This has to do with the gun having been used in another shooting ten years prior. So there's more suspense at play here as well as more emotion due to the boy's mother (played by Lizabeth Scott) being frantically on the hunt for him too.
There's also a bit of a twist to this one so it functions as more of a straight ahead thriller. Much less observational than LITTLE FUGITIVE and with a lot more conventional suspense. That's not a bad thing mind you, as this movie ramps up pretty good by the last 10-15 minutes or so. Well handled by director Val Guest and quite underseen.

PORK CHOP HILL (1959; Lewis Milestone)
Though obviously not nearly as graphic,this film must have been on me that Steven Spielberg looked at when thinking about the Normandy sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The attack on Pork Chop Hill in this movie would seem a very possible point of inspiration. I was reminded a tiny bit of THE THIN RED LINE as well. It's a pretty gritty, unglamorous depiction of war, especially for a movie released in 1959. There's a sense of the chaos of battle that comes through in almost every scene. More than anything though, the thing that stands out about this film is the cast. It is truly ridiculous how it's littered with character actor after character actor, most of them very young. You'll find yourself watching a scene and saying, "Is that Harry Dean Stanton? Is that Robert Blake? Where'd Martin Landau come from?" It's a terrific parade of talent to behold. It's also another of those "futility of war" kind of war movies, but the presence of Gregory Peck gives it something slightly different. His stoic but sympathetic nature makes him a great soldier and a solid commanding officer-type. He's got this subtle way of playing emotion abd making it come through in a gesture or a facial expression or a movement. I used to think that he and Gary Cooper were just stiff actors, but I've seen the error of my ways. Both are legendary with good reason.
Other members of this all-star game of an ensemble include Rip Torn, Harry Guardino, George Peppard, Woody Strode, Bert Remsen and Gavin MacLeod. It's truly uncanny how many great folks are in this flick.

MEN IN WAR (1957; Anthony Mann)
A rare(r) war film directed by the great Anthony Mann, a director obviously more well known for his westerns (and some Noirs). This movie makes a nice double bill with PORK CHOP HILL, but I can't decide which one should be viewed first. I've heard it said that Tarantino is a big fan of Aldo Ray who is one of the headliners in this flick. Ray is and was an underrated talent and he plays a great antagonizing force for Robert Ryan here. Ryan is playing the lieutenant role here, much like Gregory Peck does in POEK CHOP HILL. Robert Ryan and Gregory Peck are two very different dudes so it's neat to see the juxtaposition of two movies that offer parallel perspectives of them in some ways. While this film also gives a take on that futilities of war business, it also has some other elements. Because it doesn't dive into a big battle scene right away, the movie allows us to get a sense of the loneliness and isolation of war as well as the pure fatigue and exhaustion of it all. These men have been up for days and are at the outer edge of their effectiveness as soldiers. Bob Ryan plays that kind of pure fatigue pretty well. The first time we see him in the movie he's got a cigarette dangling from his mouth and is lost in something of a haze. He looks momentarily like a zombified man. "Battle worn" would be a good way to describe him. What's neat is that Ryan could bring that feeling of being battle worn just inside of everyday life. He can be driven though too and his character does a noble job of leading his company on a deadly trek to hill 465. MEN IN WAR has this sense of dread that creeps in at the edges in the form of paranoia about where the enemy might be and how they might ambush this group. Elmer Bernstein's score evokes that dread and paranoia in just the perfect way. He's no where near "The STRIPES March" here. This is some gloomy, moody stuff and he brings a lot to the picture with his music. It's almost as though Anthony Mann wanted to coat the film with a healthy dose of noir fatalism. Having Bob Ryan always helps make your movie feel more noirish too. Like PORK CHOP HILL, this film also has a stellar cast. I mentioned Also Ray, but beyond him we also have Vic Morrow, L.Q. Jones, and even James Edwards (who is also featured in PORK CHOP HILL by the way). James Edwards is a particularly interesting actor in that I believe he was one of only a few African American actors to show up in roles like this in bigger movies pre-Sidney Poitier. I'll always remember him as the parking lot attendant that makes the mistake of getting too chatty with Timothy Carey in Kubrick's film THE KILLING. He's a neat actor with a strong voice and a specific manner. He rounds out this rag tag group of soldiers quite nicely.

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