The Dead – A Movie Review

The Dead is the film adaptation of a James Joyce short story of the same name that is part of the “Dubliners” collection.  It was the last picture directed by John Huston and was made shortly before he died.  It starred his daughter Angelica Huston and a cast of Irish actors who are mostly unknown to American audiences.  It’s the story of a New Year’s Party in Ireland in 1904.  The protagonists are a husband and wife, Gabriel and Greta, visiting his aunts for the party.  There are a number of characters who interact and exhibit the various foibles and characteristics found in a gathering of middle-class city dwellers.  There is the drunkard and the old maids and the young women and men full of excitement about the cultural and political happenings.  Music is a big part of the story with opera arias and piano concertos along the course of the party.  But at last the story is a meditation on the transitory nature of life.  Because it is an Irish story and specifically because it is James Joyce story it is very melancholy.  But there is humor and the portrayal of the party is an amusing period piece of turn of the twentieth century Ireland.  There is a number of mentions of the Irish Republican Army meetings plotting the coming uprising and the story is full of allusions to the Roman Catholic religion and the changing mores of the times.

But in the end, as the summation of the story, we see an intellectual coming to terms with the visceral nature of life.  He feels that he’s never touched his wife’s heart the way the death of a childhood sweetheart did many years ago.

John Huston was a very sick old man when he made this film and the concept of mortality was of prime importance to him.  And the James Joyce story is a good one.  But I wonder how big the audience is for this movie.  It’s a period piece and all the humor is mild and subdued.  It’s highly sentimental and slow paced.  I enjoy it a great deal and like it as a good end of year picture.  But I would recommend prospective viewers consider in advance if they care for such tame and sad entertainment.  I recommend this movie for the philosophic spirits out there.

The Maltese Falcon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Back in late October of 2016 I reviewed Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel “The Maltese Falcon.”  To describe the review as highly enthusiastic would be an understatement.  I raved about the book.  Well, I’ll almost repeat the performance for John Huston’s film.  There are differences, of course.  And if you had read the book before seeing the movie you’d feel that both Bogart and Astor were physically miscast.  But the movie on its own merits is superb.

John Huston based the movie quite faithfully on Hammett’s book.  Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, one half of the San Francisco based private detective firm of Spade and Archer. He’s also his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva’s former lover (now that’s a complicated sentence!).

The story opens up with Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, announcing a new client, Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor).  Wonderly starts telling a tale to Spade and also Archer as he walks in during the story.  The story is a fabrication about a make-believe teen-age sister who has been spirited away cross country by a real gangster named Floyd Thursby.  Spade and Archer agree to tail Thursby in return for some also very real hundred dollar bills that Wonderly pays them.

Archer is shot and killed during his surveillance and this begins a sequence of events that involves Spade in a confusing search for the truth about a globe-trotting quest to obtain the legendary Maltese Falcon.  We meet corpulent Caspar Gutman played by Sidney Greenstreet, who is the ringleader behind the search.  Then there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, a mincing effeminate who sometimes works for Gutman and sometimes doesn’t.  There is Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s young triggerman who would rather shoot his opponents than negotiate terms.  And finally, we have the good cop/ bad cop duo of Detective Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.  They show up at strategic moments to inform Spade that he is everyone’s favorite suspect in several murders.

The exact details of the plot are too much fun to spoil so I won’t go into much detail but suffice it to say there really aren’t any innocent parties involved unless you include Effie Perine.  Wonderly, which isn’t the last fake name she’ll go by in the film is up to her neck in the crimes but she becomes Spade’s femme fatale in the story.  Spade is a ruthless but strangely honorable character who lives by his own logic.  The criminals (almost everyone) spend the entire movie double-crossing each other in various iterations.  They all prove, with some prodding from Spade, that there is indeed no honor among thieves.  But the plot moves along smartly and by the end all the loose ends are neatly tied up and Sam Spade is sort of the last man standing.  Bogart even gets to apply an ironic tagline to describe the futility of the whole mad enterprise.

When I said that Bogart and Astor were physically miscast it’s because in the book Spade is described as a tall muscular blond-haired man.  Bogart is none of those things.  And in the book Mary Astor’s character is a woman in her twenties which at the point when this movie was made could hardly describe Astor.  Regardless, they make the characters their own.  And especially Bogart’s Spade is iconic and basically defines the Sam Spade character for most of the people who have heard of the Maltese Falcon.  The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Greenstreet and Lorre are so interesting and memorable that at certain points in the movie they push even Bogart out of the spotlight.

If you’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon then shame on you.  In fact, if I had my way people would read the book first and then watch the movie.  But this is a fallen world we live in.  So, I guess I’m already asking too much to recommend a black and white movie.  Highly recommended.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – An OCF Classic Movie Review

There is a school of thought that says Bogart became a big star because of the Maltese Falcon.  It was his first role that extended his acting range beyond the gangster parts he had been doing up to that point.  And the story was a popular book and John Huston’s script was a pip.

So, I’m sure Bogart was more than anxious when he had a second chance to work with Huston.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was once again based on a popular book.  And once again Huston’s script is a pip.  Bogart is an American named Dobbs in Tampico, Mexico who is broke and looking for an opportunity to make some money.  After some difficulty collecting back-wages he teams up with two other Americans.  Walter Huston, John Huston’s actual father, plays an old gold prospector Howard and Tim Holt is Curtin who hopes to make a stake before returning to the United States.  The three men discuss what it would take to make a prospecting expedition to the Sierra Madre.  By an amazing coincidence Bogart wins the amount they need off of a lottery ticket and donates it to the expedition.  On the train ride at the outset of the journey to the Sierra Madre, the partners encounter bandits.  This is followed by a long trek through jungles and desert and mountains.  And just as Dobbs and Curtin have become discouraged and want to give up the search Howard mocks them with the news that they’ve been surrounded by gold for the last day but they were too ignorant to see it.  The partners get to work and start a mining operation that rewards their hard work with generous amounts of gold.  And at this point we begin to see the destructive effect of greed and mistrust.  Pretty quickly Dobbs becomes dangerously suspicious of his partners and all remnants of amicable relations evaporate and all that is left is the business of harvesting the gold.  During this time there are episodes involving a claim jumper and later the bandits return.  A very well-known exchange occurs between the head bandit and the partners.  The bandit is pretending to be a policeman and when asked to show his badge he sputters, “Badges?  Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!”  The return journey also contains some interesting episodes that eventually split up the partners and leads to open warfare between Dobbs and Curtin.  For the better part of the movie we’ve been watching as Fred C. Dobbs slowly descends into gold madness.  Now he reaches the point of attempting murder.  The end of the movie follows the last scenes where we learn the fate of the partners, the bandits and the gold.

For me this movie is an almost perfect gem of a tale.  It has an interesting blend of humor, adventure and a study of human nature.  Toward the end, Bogart is almost over the top in his manic portrayal of Dobbs but he is an interesting character.  Tim Holt plays the most sympathetic character as Curtin but without a doubt, Walter Huston steals the show from everyone else as the old prospector Howard.  His character is colorful, glib, humorous and just plain engaging.

I highly recommend this movie for everyone.  It’s a classic and timelessly entertaining.