This is part two in my ten part series on 101 Films to Watch Over and Over Again. Here you will find more Billy Wilder along with John Huston, Cary Grant, Jane Fonda, John Garfield and more. At the bottom of this post you will find a link to part one in the series if you missed it or are so inclined to revisit.
A funny, cynical tale by the master of cynicism, Billy Wilder. There is not one likeable character in the film. Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is the original lonely guy. He’s a smuck willing to freely lend out his apartment for the sexual shenanigans of his superiors at work in hopes of climbing up the corporate ladder of success…and getting the key to the officers restroom. Fran Kublick (Shirley MacLaine) is an elevator operator at the office building of the Insurance company C.C. works for. He has a crush on her because she looks so sweet. But little does he know, she’s shacking up with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake, an evil Fred MacMurray. Fran is being strung along by Sheldrake who keeps telling her he is going to divorce his wife when the time is right. Sure he is.
This is the 1950’s/1960’s. A pre-feminist, women’s lib world. Office politics and the corporate culture had no place for women. Well they did, but it’s at the bottom of the food chain. Men are in all the important positions. Women are there to type, take dictation, flirt and party with. They are then sent home as the men head back to their wives. The film is like looking thru a time capsule. For example, in the office party scene, booze flows freely, drunken behavior is acceptable. Women are pinched on the backside as they walk by, and their are couples making out in the hall. Welcome to Corporate America. Madmen gone Wilder.
And while the characters are unlikeable, they are played to perfection be a great cast, and not just the leads. Supporting players like Ray Walston, Hope Holiday, Edie Adams, Jack Kruschen, Joyce Jameson and Joan Shawlee all have their moments.
Arsenic and Old Lace
Abby (Josephine Hill) and Martha Brewster (Jean Adair) are two sweet little old ladies. Everyone in the Brooklyn neighborhood loves them. Living with them is Teddy, their nephew who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt. What no one knows is that the two sisters have a nasty little habit of killing off lonely men with some elderberry wine that happens to be spiked with a touch of arsenic. So far, there are a dozen bodies buried in the basement. Coming for a visit is nephew Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) who just married his love, Elaine (Pricilla Lane). They are on their way to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, the trip is going to be a bit delayed when Mortimer finds out about his aunties hobby, and the return of a third brother, the murderous and ugly Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey) along with his creepy assistant, Dr. Einstein playing by Peter Lorre. It’s a delightful combination of farce and black comedy rare for its time.
Asphalt Jungle, The
Unlike more recent heist films, like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, you get the feeling John Huston’s superb crime film is the real thing. It has that gritty street feel to it. The thugs are low-life thugs and not glamour boys. It’s one of the first, if not the first, to depict the point of view of the criminals. Superbly conceived, brilliantly shot using camera angles, light and shadows to further enhance the film’s themes.
The Awful Truth
A gem in the sub-genre of screwball comedy with a cast that is as close to perfect as its possible to get. The film manages to combine the loose improvisational style director Leo McCarey employed in earlier days, when he worked with Laurel and Hardy, with the sophisticated dialogue you associate with the best of romantic comedy. This was the first pairing of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Happily, they would make two more films together, one of which is another gem (My Favorite Wife).
One of the most salacious films ever made. As Lily, Barbara Stanwyck, is pimped out by her own father! One line in the original version mentions that dear old dad started selling his daughter’s goods at the young age of 14. Stanwyck already possessed her ice cold, wisecracking persona. Look for character actor Nat Pendleton as one of her father’s slimy speakeasy customers and a still unknown John Wayne as one of Lily’s conquest. Pre-code heaven.
Barefoot in the Park
Okay, I admit it. Back in the 1960’s, I had a crush of Jane Fonda. It started with this film. I must have seen Barefoot about five times when it was first released. The first time was at Radio City Music Hall. Today, I find the film reminiscent of a TV sitcom. It’s pleasant with fun performances by Fonda, Robert Redford, Herb Edelman and Mildred Natwick. Watching Barefoot in the Park today is like wearing an old favorite sweater that does not quite fit anymore, yet you don’t want to get rid because there is some kind nostalgic fond memories attached.
The Big Combo
Director Joseph H. Lewis spent most of his career on Poverty Row. Yet within these confines, he produced innovative films that have risen to highest rankings in the film noir standings. In the superb Gun Crazy, Lewis filmed one long continuous take, the bank robbery scene, while sitting in the back seat of the car with camera in hand. The shot continues as the two criminals get out of the car and enter the bank. In The Big Combo, another noir, Lewis once again shows his innovation. In one example, Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown orders the death of his hearing impaired second in command, portrayed by Brain Donlevy. With his hearing aid pulled out of his ear, the bullets fly at Donlevy. The soundtrack, at this point, is as silent as Donlevy’s hearing. Lewis also managed to get sexual innuendos like homosexuality and oral sex, slyly passed the censors.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English speaking film was explosive when it came out back in 1966. With the Production Code in still in effect, MGM did not get a seal of approval due to nudity, some quick full frontal shots of groupies Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills frolicking with David Hemmings photographer. They subsequently released the film via a subsidiary and still managed to play it in many theaters across the country. I was not yet into still photography, but David Hemmings character struck a sleeping nerve within. His life looked hip and glamorous. I also found the darkroom scenes fascinating. I wanted to know how to develop film, print in the darkroom…create. While I wouldn’t get a 35mm still camera for a few years yet, Blow-up stayed with me. It seemed like a great way to make a living, despite the fact, Hemmings photographer was not a very likeable character. It came to dawn on me, that still photography was just an extension of my love for cinema which, by this time, I admittedly was already a certified film freak. With still photography, you didn’t need expensive film stock, large expensive cameras, a crew or actors. It was just you and the camera. To this day, films with photographers as a character in them are particularly enticing to me.
Body and Soul
The seedy, underbelly of the boxing world is on full display in this excellent noir directed by Robert Rossen, from a superb screenplay by Abraham Polonsky. It’s arguably the best boxing film there was until Scorsese came along with Raging Bull. John Garfield gives a gritty, tight performance as a corrupt boxer in a nasty sport. The film, like the sport, is filled with dirty money and dirty women. I never get tired of watching Garfield act and this film along with Force of Evil is one of his best.
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde is one of those films from the pivotal year of 1967 that changed Hollywood filmmaking. It was startling at the time. Many people didn’t know what to make of it, even the critics. Long time New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowthers, would soon lose his job after attacking the film in first review and continuing to do so in columns afterward. He didn’t get it. The times were a-changin’ and he was being left behind. The film is a stylistic, offbeat combination of a true crime tale and dysfunctional love story. The over the top violence (for the times) was uncomfortably offset by unexpected bouts of humor. Pitch perfect performances from Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and the rest of the cast. The film was innovative in style, sex, violence and dark humor. In a world drowning in racial unrest and the never ending violence of the Vietnam war, Bonnie and Clyde’s paranoid style reflected the times, a pivotal film in the history of American film.
Links to previous entries in this series.