Final tally:
Perkins > Bacall > Gielgud > Connery > Cassel > Balsam > Roberts > Bisset >
(good/bad frontier)
Widmark > Hiller > Quilley > York > Bergman > Finney

Richard Widmark wakes up dead on a train, after asking detective Poirot to protect him the day before. Widmark was the mastermind of a heinous kidnapping in prologue, also a huge asshole, and it turns out all of the suspects had motives, each of them affected by his crime, and conspired to kill him together.

Languorously paced, and centered around Finney’s Mike Myers-like appearance and accent, it’s a near-disaster of a movie kept sporadically afloat by a few good scenes and performances, and a touching ending. Anthony Perkins was Widmark’s assistant – nervous, of course… Bergman is a timid religious fanatic who says “little brown babies” pretty often… Vanessa Redgrave is cute and smiley, having an affair with Sean Connery… Wendy Hiller in weird makeup and weird accent plays a princess.

Lumet made a lotta movies, more than forty and this was about the midpoint. The only other of his movies I’ve written about are his very first and his very last. Obviously a weird year for the oscars – Finney was nominated, Bergman won, and the whole list looks like New Hollywood and Old Hollywood in an ugly clash, trading awards between The Godfather II and The Towering Inferno.

“I thought you were my dead husband, but you’re just a little boy in my bathtub.”

The director is a different person from Jon Glaser, the stand-up comic I’ve seen a few times performing with Jon Benjamin. IMDB says Glazer directed Sexy Beast, which I rather liked even if I don’t understand its cult reputation, and Glaser cowrote Human Giant and performed in Baby Mama, The Toe Tactic and Pootie Tang. I’m gonna say Glaser is my favorite Jon(athan) Gla(s/z)er at the moment, but Glazer could definitely catch up.

Impossible to watch without thinking of Ruiz’s Comedy of Innocence, also dealing with a kid renouncing his parents and deciding he is someone else, inexplicably and with full conviction, leaving the adults wondering how to react. Very different styles and stories, though. This time the kid (Sean) thinks he is Nicole Kidman’s husband reincarnated, leading to serious problems since they both wish for this to be true but she can’t have a love affair with a ten-year-old.

Also unlike the Ruiz, this kid has an explanation. Anne Heche (electrifying in this – high-strung, cruel and beautiful) and Peter Stormare (kind of a lump) are old friends (I think Stormare might be the dead husband’s brother, and Heche his wife, but don’t hold me to that) coming to a party at which Heche is gonna give Kidman a box of love letters Kidman had sent her late husband, but Heche panics, runs outside and buries the box, which is found by the kid. The rest doesn’t exactly follow logically – movie still has an air of mystery, of spiritual possession – but it’s a partial explanation.

Hot-tempered rich guy Joseph (Danny “son of John” Huston) is to marry Kidman soon, so he doesn’t take well to the kid’s claims. He and gentle, logical Bob (must be someone’s brother, played by Arliss Howard: Cowboy in Full Metal Jacket) and Kidman’s pregnant sister Laura (Alison Elliott of Wings of the Dove) help her work with the kid (whose parents, completely at a loss, allow him to stay over unsupervised), trying to find holes in his story or understand his motives. I liked the movie very much, but the main problem I had was with its attempt to have it’s realism with its mysticism, sending first Nicole then Bob into a room to disprove the kid for two hours then show them bowled over by a couple correct anwers and elide whatever happens for the next hour and fifty-eight minutes, or making his parents total pushovers who stay away from Kidman’s house – always conveniently cutting to prolong the confusion, which contradicts the reality of all these suspicious adults who are supposed to be searching for the truth. If the movie isn’t going to take the approach of an airtight psychological mystery with a twist ending a la Shutter Island, I’d have preferred it head more towards the inexplicable Comedy of Innocence than straddle the line between them. But no matter, it’s an utterly enjoyable movie with awesome acting and unique enough filmmaking (shimmering, closeup-happy cinematography by Harris Savides: Zodiac, Elephant) to get me all excited.

The whole happy family – that’s Lauren Bacall in front of the cake:

I admit I was looking for the twist ending. Even though we know Heche buried something while the kid watched, I’m wondering which adult would have convinced the kid to concoct this lie. Not his parents, who seem very upset. Nicole’s mom Lauren Bacall doesn’t seem diabolical. Jimmy the doorman (played by cowriter Milo Addica) is friendly with the kid but would seem to lack enough information to plot this out convincingly. I stopped guessing when the kid strips and slides into the bath with Kidman – no adult could brainwash a 10-year-old into being so unlike a 10-year-old. Finally, in the weirdest scene of any movie I’ve seen this year, Sean is tested by a creepy Anne Heche, who it turns out had a long, intense affair with the dead man, unbeknownst to Sean since it wasn’t mentioned in the letters. She then confronts him, hissing, shattering his illusions of true love reborn. Mercifully, Kidman never learns of the affair and goes on to marry Joseph. In an otherwise unreal movie, Kidman spectacularly creates a very real sense of loss, and Glazer and his cowriters (Addica who wrote Monster’s Ball and Jean-Claude Carrière, a lead collaborator of Luis Buñuel, which makes perfect sense) must have realized it’d be too cruel to push her any further at the end.

Anne Heche:

Peter Stormare:

Birth was shat upon critically and commercially, which is how it landed at number eight on The Guardian’s list of the ten most underrated films of the decade (between Inland Empire and Songs from the Second Floor). Coincidentally at number eight of their outright best-of-decade list is Dogville, another Kidman/Bacall movie by a filmmaker who gleefully pushes everything over the edge, who would have had Heche gleefully destroy Kidman, the bastard.

Bob comforts Sean after Joseph goes on a rampage:

J. Anderson:

A brilliant score by Alexandre Desplat underlines Birth and completes it, causing it to slide slightly off-kilter with a tinkly music-box jingle and an ominous, nervous thumping heartbeat backdrop. This musical duality meshes perfectly with the fabric of Birth, in which Anna must choose between an impossible true love and a possible false one. It’s a brilliant film, but not a happy one. The filmmakers seem to have begun at the point in which love lives “happily ever after,” discovering only bitter disappointment and misled hope instead.

Still not so sure I understand the auteur-stamp of Howard Hawks (some characteristics of which were discussed after watching His Girl Friday). But gosh does he make entertaining movies. Both of these built up tension and excitement, then came up with improbably happy endings for our heroes.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

A few years after His Girl Friday, same year as Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Novel by Hemingway, adapted by Faulkner – that’s some writing credentials. Bogart, so soon after Casablanca, is again trying to stay coolly neutral in a tense city occupied by wartime Vichy France (Martinique this time), falling for a girl who’s trying to skip town. This time the girl is smoky, deep-voiced Lauren Bacall (her first movie) and Bogie’s drunk friend and partner in his fishing boat business is triple oscar-winner Walter Brennan of Lang’s Fury & Hangmen Also Die. Clearly a great character actor, Brennan spiced up both movies considerably.

Bogie has been taking an obnoxious customer out fishing all week, catches Lauren picking the guy’s pocket before Bogie has been paid, but all is forgiven when guy catches a stray bullet during a police raid at their favorite hangout bar (a secret meeting place for the anti-Vichy free French underground). Now broke with no customer, Bogie takes a job ferrying a French couple in his boat, then helping the guy when he gets his stupid self shot. Suspecting Bogie’s involvement, the nazi collaborators hold Eddie (that’s Walter Brennan) hostage and refuse him alcohol until Bogie gives up the hostages. This is the point when I decided the movie is not trying to be grimly realistic. I hadn’t felt any sense of danger or suspense so far, not even when the boat was shot at, and now this kidnapping has hardly begun when Bogie shoots a guy through his desk, turns the tables on the baddies and escapes with the girl. He’s sort of an untouchable superhero version of his Casablanca character, and he’s got a sexier, younger and more independent woman.


Bacall sings with Hoagy Carmichael in the “Sam” role. Hoagy wrote “Georgia On My Mind” (for real, not in this movie).

Frenchy – the clockwork-loving party host of Rules of the Game – works the hotel bar and helps protect and organize the resistance.

Johnson, Bogie’s customer, is rear-projection fishing. Looks like fun – and it’s six decades before the Nintendo Wii was invented.

Walter Brennan manages to be a funny drunk without being a typical W.C. Fields-ish classic Hollywood drunk. In fact, he’s the most believable guy in the movie.

Rio Bravo (1959)

I guess I’m spoiled, since the only westerns I’ve watched in five years are this one, The Searchers, and those Budd B. pics from last week – none of the standard-quality workman stuff which everyone watching this in ’59 would’ve seen, nor the 50’s hits this was supposedly reacting against (3:10 to Yuma and High Noon). The Searchers had a darker edge to it, while this one has a giddy, explosive shootout ending in which the heroes are hardly in any danger, just a buncha bonkers western fun. Wasn’t expecting that.

One of the last films by Hawks, less prolific in his old age. Six years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, same year as The Crimson Kimono, North By Northwest and Ride Lonesome. Apparently his beef with High Noon was that the sheriff runs around town asking everybody for help. Hawks and Wayne thought that wasn’t right, and wrote themselves a less wussy lawman, someone who’ll take on a hundred men if he has to, and won’t even accept help from most people, let alone ask for it.

I liked this movie even better than the other. Wayne, wearing a series of colorful shirts, arrests the brother of a real badass for killing a guy in a drunken brawl, with the help of disgraced, drunken former deputy Dean Martin (best acting I’ve ever seen from him). A few years after Artists & Models, Dean had blown off Jerry Lewis and gone serious – but Ocean’s Eleven was just a year away, probably put a small dent in his perceived seriousness. Ol’ Walter Brennan from the other movie is a wacky deputy who minds the jail. Walter’s the life of the party, as usual.

Dean checks out Walter’s John Wayne impression:

Now Joe’s in jail and every bad dude in town is angry about it. The stage rolls into town carrying Wayne’s old buddy Ward Bond (a John Ford regular), hot chick Angie Dickinson (China Gate, Point Blank, elevator victim in Dressed To Kill) and quickdraw Ricky Nelson (teen idol and TV star). Ward offers to help, Wayne turns him down but a few hours later Ward is shot anyway.

The late Ward, and Wayne who has a colorful shirt for every occasion:

Ricky and Angie:

Eventully badass Burdette (John Russell of The Sun Shines Bright) shows up to help his brother (Claude Akins of The Killers, Merrill’s Marauders). Plans to raid the jail are derailed when they hear Walter will happily blow away the brother if anyone tries anything.

L-R: Walter, a jailed brother, a badass

Action! Dean is kidnapped, Helpful hotel owner Carlos and his wife are kidnapped, shootouts on the street and in the hotel, Walter Brennan gets to use that shotgun, Ricky and Dean each sing us a song, movie ends with a suspenseless comic scene, our heroes all tossing dynamite at the building where Burdette has holed up, shooting and laughing – not the kind of grim, fateful finale you usually get in a violent western. So right, I don’t know what kind of Hawksian analysis the critics apply to scientifically prove this film’s greatness, but I sure thought it was a tootin’ good time.

Holy awesome, an incredible movie. The actors are OUT there, Rock Hudson all repressed, Dorothy Malone all seething sexuality, Robert Stack extreme in everything he does, and poor Lauren Bacall ping-ponging all over the place. The sweeping style announces itself right at the start with the best windstorm since David Copperfield, a speeding car and gunshots (movie starts at the end, just like all movies do today). Tons of over-the-top comic moments that had our appreciative audience chuckling (or howling, as in the ending when Malone suggestively strokes a phallic oil-well model while thinking about Rock).

Apparently based on the death of RJ Reynolds’ son. Robert Stack, fresh off Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (and doesn’t this movie display some Fuller-esque drama) plays the son and ROCK is his hard-working best-bud wingman. Rock (in the middle of a streak of Sirk films) is tied to Stack’s family but would like to get out and do something for himself. Dorothy (Artists and Models, Colorado Territory) is Stack’s spoiled, slutty sister who has always been in love with Rock. And Lauren (The Big Sleep, etc) is a hot thing first noticed by Rock but violently wooed away and married by Stack. The less-than-proud father of the big oil family is Robert Keith (Lt. Brannigan in Guys and Dolls).

When Lauren can’t conceive, Stack’s penis is blamed and in shame he turns to wild drinking and loutish behavior. Rock’s and Dorothy’s pent-up love issues can’t be contained and the thing explodes into a violent, windy passion when Stack beats his wife causing her to lose their baby (which he believes is Rock’s), and Dorothy accidentally shoots her brother in a fight. Closing court scene gives a somewhat believable happy ending (Dorothy has a chance to lock up Rock, but she proves herself an alright gal by setting him free).

Movie is gorgeous and wonderful. Sirk called it “a film about failure”. Laura Mulvey says the film “responds to these failures and frustrations by crowding the screen with answering images from the overtly Freudian to flamboyantly cinematic lighting, color and decor.” At oscar time, Dorothy Malone won best supporting actress, Robert Stack was beaten by Anthony Quinn, and Rock was nominated for Giant instead.

Mulvey again, on the greatest part of the movie:

In one of the film’s key moments, she performs a wild solo dance of rebellion in her bedroom. As her loud, jazzy music fills the house, her father slowly climbs the sweeping staircase, only to collapse and fall to his death. With Sirk’s instinct for melodrama (in the literal sense of music plus drama), the intercutting between the spaces occupied by father and daughter quickens to create an innovative, cinematic rhythm for a montage sequence that was rare in studio-system Hollywood.

Feb 2017: Watched it again with Katy, who was impressed and disturbed by all the psychology on display and isn’t sure what to think about this Sirk fella anymore.