Films: Drama/Romance


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


DOWN IN THE VALLEY. Element Films, 2005. Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern, John Diehl, Geoffrey Lewis, Elizabeth Peña, Kat Dennings. Screenplay and Director: David Jacobson.

   To call Down In The Valley a contemporary Western doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a daring movie, one that both conforms to, and subverts the Western genre, all the while pretending to be a love story between a drifter and a bored, rebellious suburban teenage girl. In that sense, it mocks the audience, playing with the expectation that this is going to be just another misbegotten romance.

   Sometimes the effort works extraordinarily well; others times it falls flat. Pancake flat, leaving the viewer wondering whether it was worth the time. And I grant you this: the movie doesn’t always make perfect sense. It certainly won’t appeal to all tastes.

   But with beautiful cinematography, terrific acting by Ed Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and a poignant reminder that those who stay true to the mores of the Old West simply can’t function in the contemporary West, Down In The Valley remains an overall thoughtful, if imperfect, story about the perils of taking escapism and national mythology a step too far.

   Ed Norton portrays Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a drifter working at a San Fernando Valley gas station. He says he’s got a background in ranching, is from South Dakota, and speaks with a drawl. And he says he doesn’t drive a car.

   It doesn’t take much for the restless Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) to fall for the mysterious stranger, who also takes a shine to her younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). The siblings’ stepfather (David Morse) however, doesn’t much care for Harlan. White trash loser, or something like that, is what he calls him.

   Harlan’s a complicated character and we never really learn exactly who he is, or who he is supposed to be. But one thing is clear: he’s from modern suburban Los Angeles. He is definitely not a gunslinger from the Old West. Tragically, however, that is what he imagines himself to be. I say tragically, because Harlan’s flight out of reality, and into a celluloid daydream, ushers in a wave of violence and tragedy for the people with whom he comes into contact.

   Norton is exceptional in his role, portrays the dangerously unstable Harlan so convincingly that one cannot imagine another actor playing this bizarre character, a man so fundamentally broken by the modern world that he chooses to live out his life as if he belonged in a dusty 1880s street, rather than in a 1970s gas station. He’s an outlaw gunslinger in a realm of jam-packed freeways, strip malls, and dingy motels.

   Let me repeat: Down In the Valley doesn’t always work. For example, it sometimes makes far too much use of symbolism and metaphor when subtlety would have done the trick. Sometimes too much pop psychology isn’t good for a movie and grates on the nerves.

   The movie definitely has a message, although it’s not exactly clear what it is. That the Old West was, at root, a violent society and that we shouldn’t miss its passing? That suburbanization results in alienation from nature? That society will always have drifters who pose a menace to the community?

   Thankfully, the movie eschews a happy, tidy ending where everything is set aright. It leaves the viewer with a somewhat disconcerting vision of the ability of one man, one psychologically bruised, lonesome gun toting drifter, to wreak so much havoc on an already dysfunctional family. At times clichéd, others poignant, Down In The Valley is a romance, neo-noir, and Western wrapped in a character study. It’s certainly worth a look. Just don’t go into it expecting a totally coherent, flawless narrative.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. Filmstudio Berlin, Germany, 1930. Originally released as Menschen am Sonntag. Erwin Splettstößer (taxi driver), Brigitte Borchert (record seller), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (wine seller), Christl Ehlers, (an extra in films), Annie Schreyer (model). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak (source material), Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder. Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann. Producers: Seymour Nebenzal & Edgar G. Ulmer. Directors: Kurt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Rochus Gliese (uncredited).

   Jon and I saw this a couple of nights ago as a restored print at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced by Arianne Ulmer, Edgar Ulmer’s daughter, with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

   It’s a long list of credits for a film with virtually no plot, and I’m not sure if anybody knows now who did what in putting the film together. It was a collaborative effort, or so I’m inclined to assume, with no studio backing, making this possibly the first “indy” film. The actors, as per the credits, played themselves as a group of friends and acquaintances who on a Sunday afternoon go to a park with a lake and bathing area in or near Berlin to spend the day together.

   Two men, two young ladies, and one wife or girl friend of one of the men who stays home in bed all day. They pair off, laugh, play, flirt, and go off in the woods together, but in this last instance, the pair in question are not necessarily the two who met at a train station the day before to set up the date for this particular Sunday.

   The next day it is back to work, but in the meantime we have a small time capsule of what life may have been for the working class in Germany before the small man with the mustache rose to power, lending a certain poignancy to the film that probably was not intended, although who knows, since I wasn’t there, it may have been.

   Watching this film feels at times as though someone is showing you a home movie, made with a small camera without sound, as many of my father’s family movies were made. And yet, despite a story line that is so flimsy as so nearly not exist, some of the filming techniques, the cutting of one scene to another, the angles of the shots and so on, foreshadow what was to come in the careers of those who created this film.

   Unhappily the men, who flirt with two other women in a boat on the lake right before the eyes of their dates for the day, are not very likeable, while the girls are pretty but not beautiful by any means. Brigitte Borchert, who is the blonde girl in the photos you see, died in 2011 at the age of 100, and this is the only film she made.

   As amateurs, the players play themselves very naturally, and perhaps this explains why their performances do not display the “overacting” that is so often associated with silent films.

   This is considered a classic movie by many sources, but in my opinion, only because of its historical significance in film making, not because it represents a giant leap in storytelling.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


HOT SATURDAY. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll, Randolph Scott, Edward Woods, Lilian Bond, William Collier Sr., Jane Darwell. Director: William A. Seiter.

   Hot Saturday isn’t the best or the most salacious of the pre-Code films, but it’s nevertheless a punchy little melodrama. Directed by William A. Seiter, Hot Saturday stars Cary Grant, in his first leading role, as Romer Sheffield, a perpetual bachelor, playboy, and host of elaborate parties who falls for Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a bank clerk put off by her hometown’s catty and gossipy ways.

   She is the victim of a small town mentality that wants to know what everyone else is up to and who is sleeping with whom. After staying for a few extra hours at Sheffield’s (Grant’s) house after a dating misadventure with another man, she becomes the topic of salacious discussion, with the town’s women suggesting that she spent the night with Sheffield.

   The poor girl is shunned by her peers and is even fired from her job at the bank. Fortunately for her, childhood friend Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott), now a prominent geologist, arrives back in town and confesses he’s always loved her. It’s not an easy thing for him to express in words, for Fadden’s very awkward with the ladies. Marriage, it would seem, is in the cards. It’s to be Ruth’s escape from the small town that has, through idle and false gossip, turned against her.

   But it is not to be.

   At a party, Fadden discovers that Ruth has withheld information about her past and about the non-existent scandal. He’s angry and hurt. He yells at her and thinks the worst of her, disbelieving her attempts to explain away the gossip as the malicious workings of a bored small town’s collective imagination. If anything, this scene exemplifies Scott’s ability to portray a man consumed with rage, a type of character quite distinct from his roles in the Zane Grey westerns.

   Ruth is then faced with a choice. Does she go after Fadden and beg him to take her back? No. She runs to Sheffield and spends the night with him, making what was only a false rumor a veritable truth. And she’s not ashamed of her behavior one bit. In fact, it’s a liberating moment for her, freeing her from what she perceives to be the shackles of small town Americana mores.

   In Hot Saturday, the girl eschews the good guy for the playboy and drives off into the wider world with him. And she’s happy. Elated, in fact. It’s not the most creative, or shocking, ending to a film, but it’s the type of movie ending that wouldn’t be so easily replicated once the Production Code went into full effect in 1934. Grant’s quite good in this one too, although he’s not nearly the screen presence he would become in the decades ahead.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JUKE GIRL. Warner Brothers, 1942. Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Richard Whorf, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale, Betty Brewer, Howard Da Silva, Faye Emerson, Willie Best. Screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides, based on a story by Theodore Pratt. Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

   Although it may not have the most compelling plot or the best action sequences, the Warner Brothers melodrama Juke Girl benefits strongly from Ann Sheridan in a starring role. She portrays a tough, streets smart juke joint dance girl in a bustling Florida farming and packing plant town. Her commitment to the smoke filled music hall life is tested when she encounters Steve Talbot (Ronald Reagan), a charming itinerant farmhand with a strong commitment to the plight of the common man.

   The plot, which occasionally seems to deviate sharply from where one expects it to be heading, follows the story of two friends, Steve Talbot (Reagan) and Danny Frazier (Richard Whorf) as they arrive in Cat Tail, Florida looking for work. They soon come to learn that the small town is all but run by packing magnate Henry Madden (Gene Lockhart) and his strong man, Cully (Henry Da Silva).

   Soon after arriving in town, Steve falls for Lola Mears (Ann Sheridan’s character) who is working at the town’s smoke filled juke joint. But he doesn’t fall as hard for the tyrannical Madden. In fact, he decides he’d rather work for small time tomato farmer Nick Garcos the Greek (George Tobias) than the packing plant owner.

   This strains his relationship with Danny (Whorf) who wants to work for Madden. Along for the ride and trying to keep the peace is character actor Alan Hale, who portrays Yippee, one of the locals with a strong conscience.

   For a time, things go okay for Steve and Lola. They help Nick ship tomatoes to market in Atlanta, and there’s even talk of their settling down together. But Lola abruptly skips out on Steve. She still doesn’t think of herself as the settling down type. Things then get even worse for poor Steve when there’s a warehouse murder, which the townsfolk blame on him.

   The movie abruptly veers from a melodrama to something of a crime film. But even so the crime aspect remains a mere sideshow to the story about the relationship between Steve and Lola, two rural working class lovebirds trying to make their way in a rough and tumble world.

   That said, aside from championing honest work, the film really isn’t very political. There’s no heavy-handed message here. Reagan’s character isn’t as much a labor leader as he is a guy originally from the wheat fields of Kansas who wants hardworking farmers to get a fair deal.

   Juke Girl isn’t the type of film that will likely stick with you for days and weeks after you’ve watched it. But it is nevertheless an enjoyable film, far less gritty than the films noir of the late 1940s, but one that hints strongly at a world where the greedy and the unscrupulous would gladly prey on the weak.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE SMALL BACK ROOM. The Archers / British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1949. Released in the US as Hour of Glory (1952). David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusak, Leslie Banks, Sidney James, Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, Anthony Bushell, Renee Asherson. Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin. Cinematography: Christopher Challis. Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger

   The small back room of the title is in a once tony Park Lane building where myriad agencies including Professor Mair’s Research Section are situated. It’s just one of dozens of similar wartime sections belonging to no one in particular and answering to no one save a handful of civil service bureaucrats, politicians, and ministry officials, all maneuvering for influence, power, and glory. It’s 1943, and amidst the war petty politics and back stabbing still go on.

   Boffin Sammy Rice (David Farrar, Black Narcissus, 300 Spartans, Meet Sexton Blake), is above all this. All he wants is to do his job, contribute, romance his girl Suzy (Kathleen Byron), and find some way to dull the pain and the shame caused by his tin leg.

   He’s content to run his section and use Suzy as a vent for the anger his constant pain causes, which only makes him feel guilty and more useless. An expensive bottle of Scotch he keeps in his apartment in plain view is the one escape, not to kill the pain — neither it nor the dope the doctors give him will do that — but to make him forget. He has sworn not to touch it, though he does get drunk in a local pub owned by ex-boxer Knucksie (Sidney James). That bottle is a symbol of more than his pain, it also symbolizes the life he has bottled up in its smoky depths as well.

   As the film opens Lt. Stewart (a young Michael Gough) of the bomb disposal unit arrives at Professor Mair’s section with a top secret problem soon assigned to Sammy; a booby trapped device being dropped by the Germans that has so far killed three boys and one man. It may be aimed at children to demoralize the British populace, but so far they haven’t found a live one to study, and when they do they need a man like Sammy to tell them how to handle it.

   Meanwhile everything is complicated by Sammy’s problems, political back-fighting led by R. B. Waring (Jack Hawkins), the glad handing minister whose purview the section falls under, Mair’s incompetence, a soldier tech with a problematic wife (Cyril Cusak), and Suzy’s growing anger that Sammy will not stand up and fight for what he knows is right but hides behind his pain and that unopened bottle of Scotch.

   The Archers of course were directors, producers, and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (The 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, to name a few classics) who adapted this version of the novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner and the screenplay for The Man Who Never Was), a British novelist whose works in the manner of Nevil Shute were both suspense novels as well as serious mainstream novels. This is one of his best remembered novels and a fine example of his abilities.

   There’s an exceptional cast for this one, even in bit roles: Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, even Patrick Macnee gets a closeup if no dialogue, and Farrar, Byron, Gough, Hawkins, Cussak as a stuttering technician, Anthony Bushell as a bomb disposal officer, and Renee Asherson as a corporal assigned as stenographer to a bomb disposal unit are all outstanding. Asherson has a fine scene where she reads the last instructions dictated from the site where an officer was killed trying to defuse the bomb to Farrar who will be the next man to attempt it. It’s a thousand times more effective than filming the scene itself could have been.

   Christopher Challis’s cinematography must be mentioned as well; the location shots capture much of the wildness of some of the remote regions the booby-trapped devices carry Sammy and Stewart to, as well as the claustrophobia of crowded pubs and nightclubs with blacked out lights, tiny labs in the small back rooms of the title, and without the usual scenes in bomb shelters or footage of burning London, sketching in the aura of wartime England subtly. As it likely was for most ordinary people in London and the rest of the country, the war is always a presence even when it isn’t at the forefront.

   One outstanding sequence in the film is a surrealistic waking nightmare as Sammy waits for Suzy, the only person who can distract him from his pain, and must battle not only his pain, but the attraction of the bottle. As the clock ticks maddeningly, his pills fail him, and the bottle looms larger and larger until he even sees its outline in the pattern of the wallpaper, he breaks down.

   It’s a nerve-wracking scene, and wrenching to watch the otherwise taciturn and stoic Farrar deteriorate before your eyes. It’s as uncomfortable as anything in The Lost Weekend and as surreal as the famous Salvador Dali sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the shadows and light interplaying on that craggy face make some memorable impressions. There is a moment when in his pain he stamps down on the tin leg to crush the pills and the agony on his face is palpable.

   It won’t take much imagination or provide much of a challenge to know Sammy will end up defusing one of the booby trapped devices, the twin of one that has already killed, and with a hell of a hangover, in a climactic scene of tension, or that doing so will decide his future and the fate of his relationship with Suzy, but that is dramatic structure and there is no way around it in book or film, even if anyone was silly enough to want one. It’s a tense scene and all involved wring every sweaty drop of fear out of it.

   Neither the film nor the book is as well known here as it was in England, but if you can find the trade paperback edition I recommend both it and Balchin’s Mine Own Executioner (also an excellent film with Burgess Meredith and Kieron Moore) highly. And if you know the work of the Archers, especially of director Michael Powell, then that alone is enough to recommend the film.

   And for what it’s worth Farrar was a cousin of mine, and we share the family nose, no small connection, so forgive me if I think it is one hell of a performance for an actor who a few years before was playing Sexton Blake in B films.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


WATERLOO BRIDGE. MGM, 1940. Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Lucile Watson, Virginia Field, Maria Ouspenskaya, C. Aubrey Smith. Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

   Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Waterloo Bridge has elements that all combine to form an excellent movie: two exceptionally talented and strong leads, a hauntingly tragic romance, and Academy Award-nominated cinematography. There’s also a memorable, Academy Award-nominated score by Herbert Shothart, who won an Oscar for his score to The Wizard of Oz the previous year.

   Waterloo Bridge stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor as hopelessly doomed lovers, their romance both kindled, and interrupted, by the violence of the Great War. As the film’s narrative begins, a camera pans a London crowd. It’s early September 1939 and Britons are in the street listening to a newscast announcing that Great Britain is now at war with Germany.

   Soon, we see a grayed and somewhat tired looking Colonel Roy Cronin (Taylor) entering a car en route to London’s Waterloo Station. He asks the driver to go by way of Waterloo Bridge and to drop him off at the bridge. He’ll walk across, he says. Cronin exits the vehicle and stands on the bridge amidst the steel girders, his forlorn eyes looking out in the distance.

   We witness him removing a small, white figurine from his jacket pocket. As he remains lost in thought, we hear a voice. It is unmistakably that of actress Vivien Leigh. Through this scene we learn that his story will be told by way of Cronin’s mental flashback, a glimpse backward to an earlier time, a more innocent time. The image on the screen morphs back in time, but not in place.

   Cronin is now standing on Waterloo Bridge, but the steel girders are gone. And there’s an unruly combination of automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, and pedestrians. We’re now seeing a younger, more vibrant Cronin. It’s the Great War and London’s under German bombardment.

   The air raid causes a panic, especially among a group of ballerinas bustling their way across the bridge. Among them, a beautiful woman, Myra Lester (Leigh), who drops a white figurine – her good luck charm – in the street in front of Roy. The two meet for the first time and soon make their way to shelter in the Underground. Their physical proximity in the subterranean transportation network leads to emotional closeness. An unlikely whirlwind romance begins.

   But if war is anything, it is cruel. And the First World War will be mercilessly cruel to these two would-be spouses. Myra is a ballerina, working under the direction of the authoritarian Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) who forbids her to have contact with Roy. But no bitter old woman will let the vibrant Myra from seeing her love. Their love blossoms, and there is talk of marriage. But alas, it is not to be. For Roy, at the very last minute, is called to the front.

   Things get worse. Myra, along with her friend, is promptly dismissed from the ballet company and lives a meager existence, hoping to see Roy again one day. Things then become even worse. She reads in the paper that Roy died in the wartime. It is soul-crushing, causing her to spiral downward into a life of prostitution. Her entrée into the world’s oldest profession is, symbolically, on Waterloo Bridge.

   It is at Waterloo Station, however, that Myra’s tragic fate will be forever sealed. In one of the most vividly portrayed tragic scenes I’ve seen in a 1940s film, Myra makes her way through a crowd in Waterloo Station. Men are returning from the front and she is on the prowl for a client. She tries to look pretty. A smile is forced. She looks awkwardly confused, her face betraying a remarkable sadness. Then we see her eyes and a close up of Myra’s face.

   Her horror is unmistakable. Whom does she see? Roy, of course, a smiling, gallant Roy emerging returning from France. The man who she thought dead, the soldier’s whose non-death caused her to chose to sell her body as a wartime commodity. Roy pursues her and there’s talk of marriage once again. But this is a tragedy, after all. Unless you are a complete cynic, it’s difficult not to be moved by Myra’s fall from an almost marriage into the depth of psychological despair.

   Waterloo Bridge is also a metaphor for innocence lost on a much grander scale. The carnage of the Great War tore British society asunder, ushering in a wave of poetry and literature that reflected the tragic break from the Victorian Era. The peaceful pre-war world would never return. So it is with Roy Cronin, a man scarred by sadness, standing on Waterloo Bridge in 1940, remembering his lost Myra as the world plunges into another maelstrom.

   It’s a wonderfully sad film, with some great moments. Leigh, who apparently wanted real life husband Laurence Olivier to portray Roy Cronin, is simply magnificent. Taylor is very good here too, if a bit – how shall I put this – just too American to convincingly portray a British officer. But that doesn’t stop the on-screen chemistry between the world-weary Myra and the ebullient, if unconvincingly naïve, handsome Roy.

   All told, Waterloo Bridge is a very good film, although one must suspend disbelief to image these two characters falling in love so fast. But war has a strange way of doing things to people. The prostitution angle, which is exceedingly important to the plot, is more hinted at than anything else, probably due to the Production Code. We never even see Myra with a client. But we all know what path she chose for herself. And by the time the film is over, we know how the Great War ended for Myra and Roy. A well made tragedy that is worth seeing.

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