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: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Release Date: December 17th, 1951
Directed by: Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Ed Begley

RKO Radio Pictures, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?” – Jim Wilson

What an opening score! The theme by Bernard Hermann over the opening credits really gets the energy in this film flowing from the get-go. And to be honest, this is one of my favorite scores he’s done alongside Psycho and Citizen Kane. The rest of the film lives up to the great score but the music has a lot to do with the energetic pulse that this classic film-noir has. In fact, part of this score was used as the opening theme to the hit television show Have Gun Will Travel in 1957.

This was directed by Nicholas Ray whose work I really loved in the pictures In A Lonely Place and They Live by Night. Like those films, this noir has a lot of spirit and a talented cast that gives it real gravitas.

It is also been said that Ida Lupino directed some of this picture, which is probably true as she went on the be very good behind the camera when she wasn’t stealing men’s hearts on the silver screen.

Along with Ida Lupino, the film stars Robert Ryan and Ward Bond. Ed Begley Sr. even has a brief role, as a police chief.

Ryan plays a mean New York City cop, Jim Wilson. After hurting a man he was questioning and having a history of losing his cool on the job, his chief sends him upstate to catch a murderer in a small town. He is sent to cool off, literally, as the place is covered in snow and even referred to condescendingly as “Siberia”.

While there, Wilson teams up with Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the victim who was murdered. The two quickly find the killer but he runs off towards a house. When the two men get there, they meet the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). It is revealed that she is the sister of the murderer and we also learn that her brother, the killer, is a young boy that is mentally challenged. Wilson feels for the boy and he develops romantic feelings for Mary. He is pitted against Brent, who is bloodthirsty and on the hunt for justice.

The dark and brooding New York City and the snowy countryside have a very strong contrast to one another and it is in that bright countryside where Wilson finds himself and becomes a changed man.

The outdoor scenes are majestic and well shot. Visually, this falls into the noir style while also giving a fresh spin on it with the snowy environment. It looks familiar but it also looks fresh.

One thing that makes this picture stand above most film-noir is just how emotionally touching it is. Ray also accomplished this in his other noirs, most specifically In A Lonely Place. Initially, you don’t like Jim Wilson but as the film rolls on, you connect with him and alongside him, fall for the sweet and soft Mary. You begin rooting for Jim and you want to see Mary find real piece of mind and to feel safe.

On Dangerous Ground was a nice surprise. I didn’t expect anything exceptional but I should’ve known better with Ray behind the camera, as I haven’t seen a film of his that has disappointed me yet.

Rating: 8/10