Film Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Also known as: The Greatest Gift (working title), Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (complete title)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Based on: The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Smith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Gloria Grahame

Liberty Films, 130 Minutes, 118 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence

Maybe I’m a jerk for never having seen this motion picture in its entirety until now. I had seen all of the iconic scenes over the years and thought that I knew the film well enough but I was wrong. This wasn’t some lame, old-timey, feel good, cookie cutter Christmas movie. This is, in fact, a f’n masterpiece and I have to consider it one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Christmas movie of all-time.

I think that I had just heard the hype for decades and I imagined that it would be impossible to live up to it. I had also seen the important bits and heard so many people talk about it my entire life that I almost felt like I didn’t need to experience it. But this year, I thought that giving it a shot was long overdue and since I love both James Stewart and Donna Reed, I hit “play” on my HBO Max app.

This was a long, great story that covers the entirety of a man’s life. In that regard, it reminded me of another masterpiece, Citizen Kane. However, this has a very different tone and it showcases a great man, feeling down and out, nearly committing suicide, as he witnesses what life would have been like for others, had he not existed and touched them over the years.

It’s a film with a real lesson in it and I think it truly applies to everyone regardless of their situation. We’ve all had really bad strings of luck and most have probably thought really bad thoughts about their own mortality at one point or another. This film kind of centers you and makes you realize that there is much more at stake than our own singular lives.

This works so damn well too because James Stewart is one of the greatest actors that ever walked the Earth. I also have to give a lot of credit to Donna Reed, as well as Lionel Barrymore. But ultimately, I think that the real creative and driving force behind this film was its great director, Frank Capra. And after seeing this, this is possibly my favorite Capra picture. I’ll need to revisit more to be sure, however.

The lesson I learned in watching this, which I’ve learned before but I have a thick skull, is that you should never assume you know something unless you’ve fully experienced it. Maybe I thought the world had spoiled the movie for me but honestly, even knowing the end result didn’t diminish the impact that this film had on me after finally seeing it in its entirety without interruption.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other classic family Christmas movies from way back in the day.

Film Review: Sudden Fear (1952)

Release Date: August 7th, 1952 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: David Miller
Written by: Lenore J. Coffee, Robert Smith
Based on: Sudden Fear by Edna Sherry
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Mike Connors

Joseph Kaufman Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.” – Myra Hudson

It wasn’t until recently that I knew there was a film where Joan Crawford starred opposite of Jack Palance. That thought alone is kind of chilling, just thinking of how intense a film might be with both of them sharing the screen. Add in the always stupendous Gloria Grahame and I knew that I had to check this out.

What we ended up getting is a really well acted and fairly compelling classic film-noir. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was a bit underwhelmed by it.

What’s strange, is that it is hard to peg exactly why this didn’t resonate with me more. But I think that comes down to two things.

One, the film is slow. I feel as if they could’ve lobbed off twenty minutes and fine tuned the script quite a bit more but Crawford really liked to draw out her scenes when she was turning the drama up to 11. And she does that quite a bit in this movie but who am I to say it’s too much, as she got another Academy Award nomination for this.

Side note: Jack Palance was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The second thing that effected this picture was the story. It’s a pretty basic noir plot. Woman marries man, woman is rich, man wants money, man plans to kill woman all while his other woman is assisting him in his heinous plot. And like a proper film-noir, the film has twists. In this one, Crawford finds out about the plot and decides to turn the tables. Ultimately, every main character is a shitty person.

Now this did have serious strengths.

Crawford, Palance and Grahame were all solid, even if I thought Crawford could’ve spent more time getting to the point, as opposed to clocking in more screen time for a visual reaction.

Also, this is meticulously shot with an interesting visual flair to it. One shot that really stood out was a simple one where the camera was inside a closet looking out at the characters. The shot was framed by the clothes and interior walls of the closet, making the characters feel confined and trapped. I’m assuming that was intentional but either way, it added serious weight to that scene.

Overall, this isn’t on par with something as great as Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce but it still showcases her skills and allowed audiences to experience her and Palance as an item on the silver screen, which is cool no matter how you want to slice it up.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir, especially those featuring Joan Crawford.

Film Review: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Release Date: October 14th, 1959 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding
Based on: Odds Against Tomorrow by William P. McGivern
Music by: John Lewis
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr., Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Robert Earl Jones (uncredited)

HarBel Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you and everything you own!” – Bocco

Wow. I’m probably going to have to adjust my Top 100 Film-Noir list after seeing this picture for the first time in a really long time. It’s pretty damn incredible and much better than the majority of what you’ll find in this great genre or style or whatever you want to classify noir as.

I guess the thing that I love most about this movie is its tone. Unlike most film-noir pictures, it doesn’t have the pristine look of the style. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on manufactured sets with studio lighting. This film gets outside and has a real urban grittiness to it. Even some of the shots of streets look different and almost have this sort of haze, as opposed to the typical crispness you see in a noir picture. However, they did use infrared film in some scenes, which was a deliberate attempt at making this have its own unique visual pizzazz.

The cast in this film is also pretty stacked. You have Harry Belafonte, noir legend Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr. and two superstar female leads in Gloria Grahame and Shelley Winters.

This film is a heist picture but it’s the story leading up to the heist that is the most compelling. Especially in regards to Belafonte’s character. He also has to deal with a lot of racial hatred in the movie and it served as a good historical look into the social climate in America at the time, as this was just a few years away from the large Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

This is well written, well acted, looks great and doesn’t have any real down time or dull moments. I was engaged by this picture from the start all the way to the big, sudden finish. And sure, the finish takes its cue from a better known film-noir picture but man, it was a perfect exclamation point to cap off this intense and emotional ride.

I also want to point out that the musical bits in the film were awesome. That brief moment where Belafonte fears for the life of his wife and children and loses it to the music in the club was emotional and narrative perfection.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Touch of EvilThe Third ManWhite HeatHe Walked by NightThe Killing, Naked City and Night and the City.

Film Review: Crossfire (1947)

Release Date: July 22nd, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton
Based on: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Sam Levene, Jacqueline White

RKO Radio Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties.” – Police Captain Finlay

Crossfire is a pretty unique film-noir, as it is a very socially progressive movie for its time. The main crime in the film surrounds the murder of a Jewish man and it is discovered that the murder was inspired by bigotry and hatred. This was pretty heavy stuff for 1947 but kudos to RKO Pictures, Edward Dmytryk and John Paxton for putting this picture together. No, not the John Paxton that helped lead the Chicago Bulls to many NBA championships in the 1990s, he spelled his name “Paxson”. This John Paxton was a screenwriter that breathed life into film-noirs like Cornered and Murder, My Sweet.

This film also stars the three Roberts of film-noir: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Okay, Young wasn’t in a lot of noir but Mitchum and Ryan lived in the genre. Plus, you also have Gloria Grahame, one of the queens of noir. Sam Levene also pops up in this but I feel like he is in almost every noir picture of the 1940s and 1950s. Then again, Elisha Cook Jr. probably has him beat.

Crossfire, despite its star power and its interesting premise, isn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. It’s not a bad movie but it just sort of exists and plays out without a lot of real suspense or tension.

The Academy thought it was pretty damn good though, as it was nominated for five Oscars. Plus, it won the award for Best Social Film at Cannes that year. But awards are typically political statements, even in the 1940s, and the people who hand out awards have always had a bias towards socially conscious cinema. From an accolades perspective, Crossfire greatly benefited from its subject matter.

I don’t mean to sound like I am in any way bashing the picture. It just wasn’t Oscar worthy, in my opinion. Especially in a year where we had Kiss of DeathThe Lady From ShanghaiNightmare AlleyBrute Force and Out of the Past. And those are just some of the film-noirs that I would rank higher not to mention all the other great films from other genres.

The three Roberts all put in solid performances though, as did Grahame. Edward Dmytryk is also a very good director. This is a very good film but when one has to compare it to what else was coming out at the time, it just isn’t on the same level as the films I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

If you love film-noir and any of the actors in this movie, it is still worth your time. I liked the picture and I would certainly watch it again but probably as part of a double feature or marathon.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: The Big Heat (1953)

Release Date: October 14th, 1953
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Based on: Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern
Music by: Henry Vars
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin

Columbia Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.” – Mike Lagana

Fritz Lang has made several great movies that can be considered masterpieces or pretty close. The Big Heat is not his best but it is definitely one of his best. It also helped solidify Lang, in my mind, as one of the greatest directors that ever lived. Between this film, MMetropolisThe Woman In the WindowScarlet Street and those Dr. Mabuse movies, Fritz Lang has one of the greatest oeuvres of any director that ever lived. Plus there are roughly two dozen other pictures I didn’t mention.

The Big Heat has some pretty brutal moments, even for film-noir. For instance, at one point, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone throws a pot of boiling coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh, which scars her horribly. Grahame plays her last few scenes with half her face disfigured like a hot blonde female version of the Batman villain Two-Face. It’s a frightening sight, especially for a woman that exudes beauty in a time when movies were all pretty much PG.

The film’s plot is almost like a proto-Punisher story. The main character, Glenn Ford’s Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, is trying to stop the mob stronghold on his city and its infiltration into his police force but his wife is murdered with a car bomb meant for him. Bannion sends his daughter off to the in-laws house, throws his badge away and becomes a one man revenge spree against the mob that stole his life from him. Needless to say, this movie is intense and man, is it damn good.

Lee Marvin is incredible as Vince Stone, a mob boss that is truly evil to his core. I’ve loved Marvin forever, but this has to be my favorite role of his now. The man is sadistic and Marvin plays the part to perfection with an air of darkness and a confidence that makes you wonder what dark places the actor has been to. Villains and heavies didn’t usually win acting awards back in the old days but Marvin put in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Jocelyn Brando played Bannion’s wife and her scenes with Ford were really good. You felt a sense of chemistry that only magnified the impact of her horrible death. I think she was a more capable actress than the small and scant roles she usually got, mostly on television.

The Big Heat wasn’t high up on my radar when I started delving deep into noir to celebrate Noirvember. When I saw that it was directed by Lang, had an 8.0 on IMDb and was well regarded by critics, I had to squeeze it in before the month ran out. I’m glad I did, as this is one of the most memorable film-noirs that I have watched out of the hundred or so I’ve seen over the past month.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: In A Lonely Place (1950)

Release Date: May 17th, 1950
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Edward H. North, Andrew Solt
Based on: In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
Music by: George Antheil
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame

Columbia Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” – Dixon Steele

The thing I love about In A Lonely Place, is that it features Humphrey Bogart in his best sort of role. He has always been great but his best performances don’t come from being a straight laced macho man of yesteryear. No, Bogart shows the exceptional actor that he is in roles where he has a lot of inner conflict and is able to convey weakness and genuine character flaws. It’s roles like this one that make me feel closer to who the man was than him being the smooth talking tough guy that dominated motion pictures in his day.

Also, Gloria Grahame, an actress I haven’t gotten to know as well as Bogart over the years, was the perfect compliment to Bogart’s Dixon Steele. Her character, Laurel Gray, plays his neighbor and finds herself a bit infatuated with the handsome Hollywood writer. When he is suspected of murder, she is even further drawn to him, believing that there’s no way he did it and that he’s just a really interesting man with a lot worth exploring. As she discovers his deeper emotional issues, she feels as if she can help him just by being in his life.

Of course, things go sideways because this is a film-noir and it is directed by the super intelligent cinema craftsman Nicholas Ray. There are a lot of layers to this picture and some nice twists and reveals but ultimately, the murder doesn’t become the central point of the plot and sort of takes a backseat, as these two lovers become further infatuated with one another. Unfortunately, this is a story about romantic tragedy and has an incredibly sad ending due to the circumstances of everything that develops over the course of the film.

The sad result doesn’t make this a film not worth watching. In fact, quite the opposite. In A Lonely Place sort of exists as a lesson to the weight and power of true love and how you can cave from it, if you aren’t careful and don’t allow yourself to have trust and respect. While this isn’t one of the top Bogart pictures that usually comes off of the lips of old school film aficionados, it is indeed one of his top performances. It is the best I have ever seen Grahame but I also haven’t seen her in a whole lot – something I am trying to rectify.

I don’t know what it is about Nicholas Ray and the magic touch that he has but he takes great actors and gets even greater performances out of them. Mix that in with his stellar directing, his eye, his conscientious shots and his use of tremendous cinematography and you’ve got yourself a true auteur of the highest caliber. While his oeuvre may seem simplistic when compared to the works of Kubrick, Lynch and Scorsese, Nicholas Ray existed on a level that most directors didn’t in his day. Besides, there was a real complexity to how he created his simplicity. His films were well orchestrated understatements. It might not be immediately noticeable or go over the head of the casual film viewer but a meticulous and genuine craftsmanship is apparent in everything Ray shoots.

In A Lonely Place is pretty close to perfection and one of the best motion pictures for any of the people involved with it. While it isn’t as remembered as it probably should be, I like when a great film takes a backseat in the car ride through history, only to be discovered later, as a nice surprise for those who delve deeper and are always looking for something they might not have found without a little effort on their part.

Rating: 9.5/10