Films: Drama/Romance


THE V.I.P.S MGM, 1963. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Elsa Martinelli, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Linda Christian. Director: Anthony Asquith.

   When he’s at his best, Richard Burton is the type of actor that I can just watch and wonder in amazement: how does he do it? How does he convey such raw energy and emotion merely by the cadence of his voice, by his posture, and by the fire in his eyes?

   There are some quiet moments in MGM’s The V.I.P.s in which Burton gets to showcase his talent, scenes in which for all practical purposes he overshadows his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Louis Jourdan. But unfortunately, the overall script of this drama/romantic comedy hybrid never allows for Burton’s character to develop naturally. Indeed, the film’s halfheartedly optimistic ending – one I won’t give away in this review – ends up wasting Burton’s investment in developing a character who never gets to complete his story arc in a compellingly realistic manner.

   Burton portrays British millionaire Paul Andros, a man who believes that he can obtain whatever he wishes with his checkbook. And for a while at least, it seems that he has gotten what he wanted, including a beautiful actress as a wife. But Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) has her own agenda. After over a decade of marriage, she is ready to leave him for the wastrel playboy Marc Champ drops Frances off at Heathrow, unaware that she is about to travel to New York to elope with Champselle.

   The film follows the conflict between the couple, as well as between Andros and Champselle, while they wait at the airport as a fog delays all flights out. Also stuck on the ground: an Australian-British businessman (Rod Taylor) and his love struck secretary (Maggie Smith); a tax dodging film producer (an oddly cast Orson Welles) and his newest star (Elsa Martinelli); and the The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford), the latter a character introduced solely for the purpose of comic relief.

   There are some very good moments in the film. Most of them are in dialogue or in snippets of conversation when the uber schmaltzy Miklós Rózsa ceases to overwhelm what’s on screen.

   Burton and Taylor would later appear in numerous films together, but The V.I.P.s was their first. The movie apparently did quite well at the box office, largely helped by the hype generated for the forthcoming Cleopatra (1963). From the vantage point of 2017, however, The V.I.P.s has an Old World charm, a sense of cinematic innocence that would be shattered later in the decade with the arrival of the New Hollywood auteurs.

   The best moments in the film are those played with pathos and raw emotion (watch for the brief, but incredibly well constructed dialogue between Burton and Maggie Smith), but my sense is that the audiences who flocked to this one may have been more enthralled by the spectacle and the unforgivably maudlin ending than by the anger and fury projected by Burton’s character in the far better first hour of the movie.


GEORGIA. Miramax, 1995. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John Doe, John C. Reilly, Jimmy Witherspoon. Director: Ulu Grosbard.

   There are few onscreen performances that I can think of where an actor so intensely takes on the role of the character so as to completely disappear into it. Heath Ledger’s uncannily vicious Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is one example. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia is another.

   In one of the best performances of an actress in 1990s indie cinema, Leigh portrays Sadie Flood, a tortured lost soul who wants nothing more than to be a singer like her talented and successful sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham). She portrays Sadie with such grit, pathos, and tortured anguish that it’s at times almost painful to watch. But I suppose that was the whole point of Grosbard’s direction and his approach to the project. What is more sad – pathetic, even — than an artist who has no real talent, but has all the demons often associated with the tortured musical genius. Alcoholism, heroin, unstable romantic relationships, Sadie’s got them all and more.

   Not Georgia though. Georgia is emotionally distant, cold even. She’s married to the laid back Jake (Ted Levine), lives in her childhood home, and has two young kids. The contrast between these two is evident from the get go.

   But sibling rivalry isn’t the real them of Georgia. The film’s real theme is talent. Who has it and who doesn’t? Can talent be gained or learned or are some people just born with it? Who is more authentic? A singer with pure raw emotion and no talent or a completely talented professional with a cold heart and no real passion?

   Grosbard, who worked extensively with Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, and Robert DeNiro, knows a thing or two about spotting and directing talent. But in Georgia, he leaves the question open-ended, culminating in a final sequence in which the two sisters, at completely different musical venues, perform their own renditions of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”


VOICE IN THE WIND United Artists, 1944. Francis Lederer, Sigrid Gurie, J. Edward Bromberg, J. Carol Naish, Alexander Granach, David Cota, Howard Johnson, Herman Schumm, Louis Alberni and Martin Garralaga. Written and directed by Arthur Ripley.

   I was all set to watch something else after The Chase [reviewed here], but somehow the story of that film’s director, Arthur Ripley, stuck in my mind and I ended up watching this instead.

   It’s a film of deranged genius, as freaked-out as anything by Ulmer, Fuller, or Joseph H. Lewis. It’s also artsy, pretentious and incredibly cheap, but I got over that.

   There are some unsettling parallels here. It’s about refugees from war-torn Europe who want to get into the U.S. but have to settle for the Island of Guadalupe. They are victimized by the crews of “murder boats” who promise to smuggle them to the U.S. then rob them and dump them at sea.

   As if all this didn’t sound familiar enough, there’s a flashback to a lavish military parade in occupied Czechoslovakia, and a Nazi spin doctor explaining how a concert selection of Czech music was actually a tribute to their German liberators — before arresting the pianist.

   The star of this thing is suave, sophisticated Francis Lederer, and he spends most of it as a crazy mute, staring wildly into space. Quite a change from his usual air of slightly sleazy worldliness. As the film opens, he rushes soaking wet into a tatty waterfront bar, struggles to speak, then just sits at an old piano and begins playing classical music.

   Flashbacks eventually reveal that he was once a renowned classical pianist in Prague, until the Nazis marched in and began their program of cultural unity. When he plays Smetana’s “Moldau” (Google this and have a listen if you don’t know it off-hand), he’s arrested by the Gestapo and tortured until his mind snaps. In a rather unlikely moment he escapes on his way to a concentration camp, and a few scenes later he’s working on the crew of a murder boat.

    Which brings us up to the present (I think) where it seems he torched the murder boat and now his erstwhile co-workers are trying to decide whether to kill him or not. These marauders are a colorful lot, including Alexander Granach, who thinks it’s bad luck to murder a madman, J. Carrol Naish, who thirsts for revenge, and spaced-out David Cota, who wouldn’t mind murdering anyone at all, but likes Lederer’s piano-playing.

   I think this is what makes Voice work: Ripley’s loving attention to his characters, from Lederer’s tormented soul to Louis Alberni’s comically cheerful bartender, and even the Nazi torturer. They all take moments to be real characters, and it lifts the film from allegory to genuine drama.

   With its non-linear plot and non-existent continuity, Voice in the Wind is certainly not for all tastes, but I found it more like an experience than a movie — and one I won’t forget.


PORT OF SHADOWS. Les Films Osso, France, 1938. Original title: Le quai des brumes. Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan and Michel Simon. Screenplay by Jacques Prevert, from a novel by Pierre Dumarchais. Directed by Marcel Carné.

   A dark, poetic film that looks forward to film noir and the later novels of David Goodis.

   Jean Gabin, the French Bogart-before-there-was Bogart, plays an army deserter heading for Le Havre, looking to find a ship to flee the country. What he finds are a stray dog that adopts him on the highway into town, and a lot of have-nots willing to share their meager fortunes with him, and discourse Goodis-style on life, love and dreams.

   Also hanging around town are a few local hoods in some kind of scrape with a shady store-keeper and his daughter (Michele Morgan, looking more radiant and lovelier here than in any of her American films) and it’s not long before Gabin and his mutt find themselves in the proverbial thick of things as he tries to understand the tangled relationships and get out of town.

   I’ll say up front that this thing is awfully contrived; characters turn up in unlikely places with no more reason for being there than to move the plot along. But I’ll also say that Director Carné handles it so gracefully one doesn’t want to notice.

   The small-time gangsters are evoked with just the right measure of terse absurdity, their put-on hard-boiled act melting away at Gabin’s genuine toughness, and the winos and poets fill in the background vividly, talking with that awesome redundancy one finds in dark artists like Woolrich, Goodis and Jim Thompson.

   The outcome is as pleasingly phony as the rest of it, but I have to say Carné rings in a moving surprise at the very end. The final image of the little dog walking down a highway to nowhere in particular is one that will stay in my mind long after whole other movies are forgotten.


VERBOTEN! RKO Radio Pictures, 1958/Columbia Pictures, 1959. James Best, Susan Cummings, Tom Pittman, Paul Dubov. Screenwriter-director: Samuel Fuller.

   Highly uneven and overly didactic, Samuel Fuller’s Verboten! is a quirky, stagey film about an American GI in Occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War. After he loses two of his colleagues and he himself gets injured in combat, Sergeant David Brent (James Best) finds himself the houseguest of an anti-Nazi German girl (Susan Cummings) who nurses him back to health. To no one’s surprise — certainly not to this viewer — Brent falls in love with his German companion. But since marriage and fraternization between the two is forbidden — verboten! — Brent decides to leave the Army and to serve in the civilian occupation of Germany.

   Little does he know that his wife’s friend Bruno Eckhart (Tom Pittman) and her younger brother are both secretly working with the Werwolf, the underground pro-Nazi “resistance.” Much of the movie is filled with heavy-handed dialogue about the difference between ordinary Germans and Nazis and the ways in which Hitler manipulated the German people into following him.

   Some of this is effective; a lot of it is over the top and actually serves to take away from the potency of the subject manner. There is, however, a stunningly effective sequence in which Eckhart attempts to rally a coterie of young, angry men to the Nazi cause in the rubble of occupied Germany. Pittman, who was a compelling screen presence, tragically died in a car crash in late 1958 at the young age of 26 several months before Verboten! was released in theaters.

   Fuller, always a maverick, utilizes Beethoven when showing the Americans in combat and Wagner for the Germans. That aesthetic choice, along with the choice to insert highly graphic newsreel footage from the concentration camps in the film, has the unusual effect of giving the entire movie a semi-documentary feel in which fiction and fact are intertwined in a decidedly ambitious, but ultimately mediocre war film. Verboten! is a movie wants to say a lot, to shout it from the rooftops, but does so in such a frenetic manner that the message gets drowned out by its own unfortunate shrillness.


A SPECIAL DAY. Gold Film, Italy, 1977, as Una giornata particolare. Cinema 5, US, 1977 (subtitled). Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Françoise Berd, Patrizia Basso, Tiziano De Persio. Director: Ettore Scola.

   A Special Day is a very quiet film. It’s a film stripped down to its bare essentials. Two lead actors, one primary location, and a story that unfolds through dialogue. There’s not a lot of music and no special effects. And for the most part, this Golden Globe winner works in accomplishing what it sets out to do: to tell the story of two ordinary people trying to live authentically under the oppressive force of Italian fascism.

   Filmed in a quasi-sepia tone, where the only notable colors are those of the Nazi and fascist flags, A Special Day isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a captivating one due in large part to its cinematography, direction, and its two legendary stars: Sophia Loren and Marco Mastroianni. The entire movie takes place on May 8, 1938, the day when Adolf Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome to solidify the alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was a day of military parades and fascist spectacle.

   Loren portrays Antonietta, a bored, listless Roman housewife with a husband (John Vernon) who doesn’t respect her and cheats on her with prostitutes. When she is left alone in the family apartment after everyone else goes to the parade for Hitler and Mussolini, a chance encounter leads her into the life of her quirky neighbor Gabriele (Mastroianni). He has decided not to attend the parade either.

   As the story progresses, it turns out that both of them are suffering from extreme loneliness and that both have been living a lie. Antonietta is suffocating in her unhappy marriage and is not quite as enthusiastic for the fascist movement as she has publicly portrayed herself to be. And Gabriele has been removed from his position as a radio broadcaster for his homosexuality.

   SPOILER ALERT! What the viewer doesn’t learn until the very end is that this is a “special” day for Gabriele in that he knows that evening he will be arrested and deported to an internment camp for his anti-fascist views and his homosexuality.

   The story works best when it’s focused on the individual characters and their quirks and how their chance encounter changes the both of them. Little things such as Antonietta’s shame that she isn’t formally educated or Gabriele’s desire to learn the rumba give depth to their identities. There are some quite funny moments as well.

   What doesn’t work as well is the film’s desire to deliver a message to the audience. Sometimes subtlety works better than hammering home a message that could have been delivered without some of the less believable moments, such as when Gabriele all but assaults Antonietta after she slaps him once he spurns her romantic advances.

   And although the viewer sees Loren and Mastroianni, the film is supposed to be the story of a chance encounter between a conservative Italian housewife and an urbane, intellectual. Would these distinct personalities really bond in the emotional manner that they ultimately do in the film? Or is it pure theater and spectacle, a cinematic counterpart to the fascist narrative?

   A Special Day works wonderfully in capturing the mood of how oppressive fascist Italy was for nonconformists, but does it in a manner that occasionally feels too forced and too reliant on its two leads to propel the movie forward when the script runs out of steam, which occurs after about an hour. But what two leads!


DESTINY. Universal, 1944. Gloria Jean, Alan Curtis, Frank Craven, Frank Fenton, and Minna Gomebell, who doesn’t have a big part — I just like writing “Minna Gombell.” Written by Ernest Pascal and Roy Chanslor. Directed by Julien Duvivier and Reginald Le Borg.

   A true oddity of a B-movie with an oft-told back story which I will try to summarize briefly:

   In 1943, Julien Duvivier made Flesh and Fantasy, an all-star three-story portmanteau for Universal Studios, with Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer, Edward. G. Robinson, Bob Cummings and Betty Field. There was originally supposed to be a fourth part with John Garfield and Gloria Jean, but Garfield balked at being loaned out to Universal and was replaced by contract player Alan Curtis. Then, when the movie was judged to be too long, this part was cut out altogether.

   With the wisdom and penury of their breed, the studio heads at Universal decided to salvage the footage and build a new movie around it. Roy William Neill was assigned to produce, with Reginald Le Borg (of The Mummy’s Ghost and Sins of JezebeL infamy) directing, and Roy Chanslor (Johnny Guitar) tasked with creating a story to fit the stuff already filmed.

   Well they did it, and it ain’t awful. In fact, considering the strictures of the project, it turned out surprisingly well. Some might even give it that overworked accolade “noir.” But before I get to that, there’s another thread to the story:

   “Destiny” was an all-purpose title the execs at Universal slapped on any work in progress while they searched for a more marketable moniker. At various times, The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, and Ma & Pa Kettle in the Ozarks were all temporarily titled Destiny, and I suspect in this case they just didn’t bother to change it.

   Okay, moving on to the story itself, it starts with our hero (Alan Curtis)on the run from the Law, then flashes back to how he got drawn into a robbery, duped by a night club chantoosie and slammed into prison for three years …. only to get innocently involved in another robbery after his release. Which would all be very noir indeed, if done by anybody but Le Borg, who films it in his usual fast and anonymous style.

   Anyway, Curtis eventually wanders into a rural community called Paradise Valley, where the Duvivier footage comes in as he meets one of those blind girls unique to the movies (Gloria Jean) who lives with her aging father (Frank Craven) and has a strange affinity with nature: wild animals flock to her side and even the flowers seem to nod as she passes.

   All this should be way too cutesy, but Duvivier manages not to wallow in it by focusing on Curtis, whose character has changed markedly from the Le Borg footage. We’re supposed to think he’s been embittered by his experiences, but actually he seems something of a rotter, hoping to force his company on poor Gloria, even if it means killing her dad.

   Which leads us into the high point of the film, and one of the best few minutes of a great director: a tour de force sequence of Curtis chasing Gloria Jean through a storm-lashed forest. As they run, branches, vines and underbrush magically part to let her through, then snap back to pummel and ensnare the pursuer … and it’s convincing! A real nightmare scenario, with fluid camera, striking compositions and everything else that makes movies memorable.

   There’s more to Destiny after this, but why go into it? I’d only have to use words like facile, clichéd, contrived and crap and I hate to apply terms like that to a film that like I say, ain’t all that bad. And if you can take it for what it is, you can enjoy this Destiny.


JULES AND JIM. Cinédis, France, 1962; originally released as Jules et Jim. Janus Films, US, 1962; subtitled. Jeanne Moreau, Oscar Werner (Jules), Henri Serre (Jim), Vanna Urbino, Serge Rezvani, Anny Nelsen. Screenplay: François Truffaut, based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. Director: François Truffaut.

   A film seen recently for the first time in many Years: Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut’s achingly elegiac look at Love and Friendship, and a film which vividly recalls for me some very dear and painful memories, which explains why a jaded, alopecic, former Cop should find himself blinking back tears once again to watch an old movie.

   Looking at the film objectively, I could note that some of the stylings that were daring and innovative when Truffaut did them in ’61 have become standard and even cliché by now, but I’d have to say they’ve never been better or more appropriately used since he first strutted them out. In particular, his monotone narrator is positively heart-rending at times. Of course the casting is a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble (whatever happened to Henri Serre?) and every bit player and future star gets shown off to marvelous advantage.

   Yet even I must admit there are one or two moments that don’t really work and –alas! — they are crucial moments indeed. They come, fortunately, too late to actually ruin the movie, but they vitiate its effectiveness more than a bit. So I’d have to put this one in a class with fine films like The Tall T or Johnny Guitar, a film of truly remarkable depth and feeling, if not of unalloyed brilliance.


HOT ROD RUMBLE. Allied Artists, 1957. Leigh Snowden, Richard Hartunian, Wright King, Joey Forman, Brett Halsey. Director: Leslie H. Martinson.

   This one’s a surprisingly entertaining oddity, a juvenile delinquent exploitation film featuring a lead actor who never made another film before or since: Richard Hartunian, an effective method actor with more than a passing similarity to Marlon Brando. He portrays Big Artie, a hot-tempered mechanic affiliated with the Road Devils, a local racing outfit. He’s got his mind dead set on local beauty Terri (Leigh Snowden, who portrayed a character named Cheesecake in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly) and is more than willing to throw a punch or two to get his girl back after she tells him it’s over.

   So it’s no surprise that when Terri and another guy get run off the road, all the attention turns to Arnie. Even his parents seem to think he’s capable of such reckless and deadly behavior. With nowhere to turn, Arnie seeks the assistance of fellow Road Devil, Ray Johnson (Wright King). Arnie does not realize that it was Ray who was responsible for running Terri and her friend Hank off the road. Terri survives the incident, but Hank does not. This makes Arnie the primary target of his fellow Road Devils. They are ready to get their revenge.

   At times the film feels more like a teenage melodrama than a crime film. But there’s enough grittiness and small town teenage angst as well as the obligatory final car race to make Hot Rod Rumble a worthwhile movie to seek out. Add to that the exceptional jazz score by Alexander “Sandy” Courage (you can listen to the main theme here), and you’ve got yourself a movie that is as much a time capsule as a work of commercial popular entertainment. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but better than you might expect, and a movie that deserves a proper commercial DVD release.


THE GUILT OF JANET AMES. Columbia Pictures, 1947. Rosalind Russell, Melvyn Douglas, Sid Caesar, Betsy Blair, Nina Foch, Hugh Beaumont, Denver Pyle (debut uncredited). Screenplay by Louella MacFarlane, Allen Rivkin & Devery Freeman, based on the novel by Lenore Coffee. Directed by Henry Levin.

    The Guilt of Janet Ames is an uneven film. An oddity in its time of films about the trauma of returning soldiers, it is about the trauma of a war widow (Rosalind Russell in the title role) instead, and more about self-inflicted wounds than grief.

   In an era when the psychological film came into its own, it both embraces and dares to poke subtle fun at the genre (a monologue by Sid Caesar that is both very funny and a self-critique appears in the middle of the film), a woman’s picture with a noirish edge, a sometimes too heavy-handed psychological melodrama, a handsomely designed and experimental attempt to show the mental state of its heroine on screen (with Frank Tuttle listed among the design credits), and for a brief section a rather bright romantic comedy of the type its stars were best known for. Einstein and the theory of Relativity even play a role.

   It is also schmaltzy, powerful, borderline sadistic, and a fine showcase for Russell and Douglas.

   On her way to meet a man, Janet Ames is hit by a car and taken to a local Los Angeles hospital. In her pocket is a Congressional Medal of Honor and a list of five men’s names.

   One of those names is Smithfield Cobb (Melvyn Douglas), a once famous reporter who has poured himself into a bottle and has just about hit bottom. He has a last chance if he takes a plane to Seattle at midnight (or does he?), assuming he can get past Danny’s, the dive he hangs out in.

   An important metaphor is introduced here, Smitty’s penchant for discussing the George DuMaurier play and novel Peter Ibbetson with the bartender, a story about a man who escapes his prison cell by flights of fancy. It’s never clearly established if that plane ticket is a real chance, or just another escape mechanism.

   Smitty used to work the hospital desk before he lost that job too, and the police recognize his name on the list and summon him to identify the woman, and he recognizes her all too well. He carries her picture in his wallet though he never met her.

   Janet Ames is only shaken by her accident but is hysterically paralyzed, refusing to leave the hospital or her wheelchair. She turns out to be bitter and angry because her husband David threw himself on a grenade during the war to save five other men. Why did he have to die, and what value did they have in return?

   This could easily have played out as a heartwarming story about sacrifice, but to its credit, even when it seems to be going there, something more is at play, because The Guilt of Janet Ames is a mystery, with Douglas cast as detective, defense attorney, and prosecutor, and Russell, as the embittered and unreasonable title character victim, defendant, and plaintiff.

   And note the title, it isn’t called The Innocence of Janet Ames.

   I won’t give them away, but there are as many twists to this plot as any Agatha Christie novel, and at any given moment, you don’t quite know what you think you do. Ultimately it is about forgiveness, mostly of ourselves, and about the kind of hidden trauma left by the war, any war, among those who fought and who waited.

   It worked for me. If the romance is a bit contrived, if the mood is at times uneven, if fate’s Woolrichian hand seems all too obvious in places, the leads pull it off, and it is certainly an interesting film to look at. I would be surprised if any two viewers see this film the same way.

   Like the truth in this film, your experience will almost certainly vary.

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