Dead of Night – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Dead of Night” is a 1945 British film that consists of a group of characters thrown together in a home and each tells a supernatural story.  Then these characters turn out to be the subject of another character’s dream.  And finally, the whole story turns out to be part of an endless recursive dream nightmare, a dream within a dream, within a dream like the images produced by two mirrors facing each other.  The only actor I recognized was Mervyn Johns who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 movie Scrooge.

The stories include a young girl meeting the ghost of a boy who was murdered a century ago in the old house where the girl is visiting.  Another story involves a race car driver who while recovering from a crash has a vision of a hearse driver inviting him into the coffin.  Later he sees the same man as a bus conductor inviting him to board the bus.  He backs away and as he watches the bus drive off and crashes killing everyone aboard.  A third story involves a bedroom mirror possessed by a murderous spirit.  The fourth story is a comical golf ghost story.  And the final story is about an evil living ventriloquist dummy.

Back in the underlying scene the character who recognizes the other characters from his dream commits a murder and then somehow finds himself inside the five stories we have just witnessed in a mish-mash of the stories until finally he awakes in his own bedroom.  His wife consoles him for having another nightmare.  He then receives a phone call that sends him to the house where the earlier story takes place.  And the whole thing circles round to the introductory scene.

Despite the theatricality of some of the scenes the movie works.  Of course, it’s all ridiculous but the atmosphere of the movie is claustrophobic enough to produce the requisite discomfort in the audience that makes a ghost story work.  Admittedly the golf story is a bit of a distraction from this mood but there are enough creepy moments and characters to make this movie a success.  I’ll have to say that the fact that the cast look like ordinary people and lack the movie star good looks of an American production actually goes a long way to aiding the illusion we are inside the story with them.

Like many British films from the middle of the 20th century the story had to depend on a good script and competent actors instead of expensive sets and special effects to immerse the viewers in the story.  And because of that this movie still works as well today as it did back then.  And it stands up after repeated viewing.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The British love a good ghost story and this one has several.  Dead of Night probably won’t work for those who depend on comic book special effects to tell a supernatural story.  But if you have an imagination you may like this one.

King Kong – An OCF Classic Movie Review

King Kong follows in the tradition of books and movies that have explorers wandering into uncharted territories and finding wonders never before seen.  One of the sources for these movies was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, “The Lost World.”  In this story adventurers travel to a plateau in the Amazon jungle and discover a land that time forgot, inhabited by living dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.  A silent film version of The Lost World was made in 1925 and the stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien in that film was the precursor to what O’Brien would do in King Kong.

The plot of King Kong follows the adventures of intrepid adventurer and film maker Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong.  Denham has made his name by travelling to primitive locales and filming the wild animals of these areas.  Lions and rhinos and other exotic creatures have been his subjects but his financial backers say he must add a pretty girl to his movies or the public just won’t care and won’t pay to see his movies.

So, for his next film he recruits a pretty young woman named Ann Darrow played by Fay Wray.  He finds her broke and hungry on the streets of Manhattan and convinces her to go along on his sea voyage to make his film.  Once he convinces her he’s on the level she agrees and the action moves to the ship “Venture” and we meet Captain Englehorn and his colorful crew including first mate Jack Driscoll who will be the romantic interest for Ann Darrow.

Once on-board Denham reveals the details of the expedition.  He has obtained a map locating an uncharted island inhabited by natives that live on one side of a cyclopean wall that protects them from some nameless terror.  Denham intends to go to the island and discover the reality behind the story.  During the voyage Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow fall in love and he repeatedly expresses his unhappiness with her being involved in the dangerous business of the expedition.

When they reach the island, the natives are in the middle of a ceremony to offer up one of their women as a “bride for Kong.”  The natives see Ann and offer to buy her as a substitute for their bride.  Denham and the crew return to the Venture and say they will return the next day to negotiate with the tribe to film the secrets of the island.

But during the night the natives row over to the Venture in their outriggers and secretly kidnap Ann.  Eventually the crime is discovered and Denham, Englehorn and especially Driscoll mount a rescue mission taking most of the crew along and their guns, ammunition and the gas bombs that Denham stocked to handle large animals.

Meanwhile we find out what being the “bride of Kong” entails.  The natives bind Ann’s arms to two pillars located outside of the wall that protects the village.  They then sound a huge gong and out of the jungle stalks a sixty-foot-tall gorilla.  This is Kong and instead of killing and eating his “bride” he is fascinated by her.  And despite her continuous blood curdling screams he gently frees her from the pillars and carries her away into the jungle in his hand as if she were a toy.

Denham and his men show up just as Kong leaves with Ann.  They split up with Denham and Driscoll taking half the men and following after Kong.  Captain Englehorn remains in the village with his men to guard the gate against the natives interfering with their escape.

Once in the jungle the rescue party discover that Kong is just one of many monsters to contend with.  They run into a Stegosaurus that requires a gas bomb and a hail of bullets to kill.  Next, they are attacked by a Sauropod as they cross a lake on a raft that they’ve built.  Several of their party are killed by the giant beast.

Meanwhile Kong is having troubles of his own.  He meets up with a Tyrannosaurus and battles the reptile to the death.  At one point the tree that Kong has left Ann in is knocked over by the titanic brawl between the two giants.  But afterwards Kong moves on with the girl in hand.

Finally, the rescuers catch up with Kong as he crosses a ravine on a massive fallen tree trunk.  But when they try to follow Kong lifts the tree and shakes all but two of the men off the trunk where they fall to their deaths.  Jack Driscoll has managed to reach the far side where Kong is while Denham is trapped on the far side of the ravine.  Once Kong has moved on Driscoll and Denham have a talk from opposite sides of the ravine.  It is agreed that Driscoll will follow Kong and attempt to free Ann while Denham will return to the village and organize another rescue party.

As Kong climbs up to his mountain lair, he battles two other prehistoric creatures.  First a reptile with an elongated neck and tail that makes it almost snakelike, almost strangles Kong but is finally dispatched by the giant primate.  And then once on top of the mountain a Pteranodon tries to fly off with Ann but is killed by Kong.  But while Kong is distracted fighting with the giant flying reptile, Driscoll, who has been tailing Kong, sees his chance and carries Ann on his back down a vine off the top of the mountain.  Kong starts pulling the vine up but when the couple are almost level with Kong they let go of the vine and land in the water below the mountain cliff.

Jack and Ann swim away and then run through the jungle and end up back at the village just in front of Kong.  The crew and natives bolt the gate in the wall but Kong by sheer brute force cracks the huge wooden bolt and forces his way into the village.  There he fights the villagers who use spears to try to kill the giant.  He crushes them with his feet and kills some of them with his teeth.  He runs amok smashing their thatched huts but when he reaches the crew of the Venture, he has a more difficult foe.  Denham throws one of his gas bombs at Kong and the gas renders the huge ape unconscious.

Now Denham conceives of a new idea.  He convinces the crew to help him bind Kong and float him back to New York on a raft behind the Venture.  He tells them that exhibiting Kong in New York will make them all fabulously wealthy.  And that’s what they do.

In the next scene we are at a theater on Broadway and it’s opening night on Denham’s exhibition of Kong.  It begins well with Denham introducing the story then opening the curtain to reveal the giant ape manacled and in leg irons attached to a massive scaffold.  Then he introduces Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow and plays up the angle that Kong’s capture was the result of a Beauty and the Beast story.  Kong was captured because he could not resist coming back to the village for Ann, his beauty.

But when Denham has the photographers come up to the stage to take photos of Kong and his captors the beast becomes enraged by the flashbulbs thinking that Ann was in danger.  He broke his chains and smashed through a brick wall and rampaged through Midtown Manhattan.  Climbing up the wall of a nearby hotel he improbably finds Ann Darrow in one of the rooms and heads uptown to the Empire State Building with Ann in hand.

On the way he kills several passersby and crushes a car or two but most notably he attacks an elevated subway train.  He rips up the track and when the train falls through the whole in the tracks he pummels it with his fist as it lays there like a dying beast while the passengers scream in fear and agony.

Meanwhile Driscoll and Denham know that Kong has Ann.  They alert the authorities and convince them to have fighter aircraft stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in South Brooklyn attack Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  The four pilots wait until Kong puts Ann down and then commence to strafe him with their machine guns.  One of the pilots ventures too close and his plane is grabbed by Kong and sent to its destruction against the side of the building.  Finally, after many strafing runs Kong succumbs to the bullets.  But before falling to his death he picks up Ann and then puts her down as if saying goodbye.  A final burst of bullets hits him and he tumbles off the side of the tower and to his death on the pavement below.

On the pavement Denham looks on the shattered body of Kong where a policeman declares that, “the planes finally got him.”  But Denham retorts that it was, “Beauty killed the Beast.”

In my opinion King Kong is a fantastic movie.  Even with the primitive special effects and improbable plot and eighty-nine years later it is still an exciting and enjoyable adventure.  And in addition to the adventure, the liveliness of the characters is noticeably superior to the typically depressed and inert nature of modern characters.  Even in the depths of the Great Depression there is a positivity that pervades the actions of the characters that reaches the audience.  In every crisis of the story Denham and Driscoll use brains and bravery to win the day.  This was the American spirit that saw that generation weather the Great Depression, fight World War II and build the greatest country on the face of the earth.  This movie is highly recommended.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 12 – The Merchant of Venice – Olivier’s 1973 Version

The Merchant of Venice is an odd play.  The romance plot line with Portia and Bassanio is decidedly comic but the Shylock story is a revenge story that verges on the bizarre.  Olivier is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice.  The story revolves around Antonio, a prosperous merchant whose friend Bassanio is in love with the rich heiress Portia.  Bassanio begs a loan of 3,000 ducats to woo Portia as a nobleman.  Shylock gives Bassanio the money but because of his hatred of Antonio he demands that if the money is not repaid on time Shylock will remove a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast closest to his heart.  Antonio treats this lightly because he has many merchant ships in route for home that should enrich him many times the 3,000 ducats in cargo value.  But when all his ships are reported lost then the default clause is no longer a joke but a promise of torture and death.

Another subplot has Shylock’s daughter run away from her father and elope with one of Bassanio’s friends, Lorenzo and also convert to Christianity.  It is this insult from his daughter that unhinges Shylock and turns him into a merciless fiend dead set on exacting his pound of flesh.  Luckily for Antonio, Bassanio’s courtship of Portia is successful and when she hears of Antonio’s peril, she tells her new husband that all the funds needed will be available to pay off Antonio’s debt.  But Shylock refuses even thrice the delinquent 3,000 ducats, standing on his contract to extract the pound of flesh he is owed.  Finally, a trial before the Duke of Venice is scheduled.  Portia comes disguised as a learned doctor of the law from Padua with a recommendation to the Duke from Bellario, her lawyer cousin in Padua.  Acting as the judge Portia concedes that the letter of the law allows Shylock to demand his pound of flesh but in a stirring speech she expounds on the “quality of mercy.”  But none of this phases Shylock in the least.  Over and over he refuses the 9,000 ducats and demands his barbaric payment.  Then Portia plays her trump card.  She declares that Shylock can have his pound of flesh.  But not a hair’s weight more or less and without spilling a drop of Antonio’s blood lest Shylock be put to death for it.  Knowing that he is beaten Shylock then asks for the 9,000 ducats but Portia tells him he has already refused that.  Then he asks for his principal back and is equally denied that.  And finally, he is informed that his attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his own life and all his fortune.  By an act of mercy, the Duke spares his life and half his fortune with the proviso that Shylock must convert to Christianity and leave his remaining fortune to his daughter and her husband upon Shylock’s death.

After this happy ending there is the usual sexual politics with the disguised Portia demanding as payment from Bassanio for her legal help a ring that she had given him earlier as herself and which he had sworn never to remove.  And when back in her normal appearance she demands to see Bassanio’s ring.  He sadly admits to having given it away.  She produces it and teases him with having spent the night with the doctor of law.  And then there’s a tiff about it that is quickly straightened out when she reveals that she was the doctor of law.  And hilarity ensues.

This is a good production.  It is a good cast and the production values are equally good.  The scenery and costumes are of a Victorian England.  I don’t think this was a particularly good idea but it certainly didn’t harm the story much.  Joan Plowright looked a little too old to be Portia but her acting was everything you’d want for the part.  Jeremy Brett was a good Bassanio and the rest of the supporting cast was very able.  Olivier was very good.  But I was a little let down.  Shylock just isn’t that great a character.  He’s certainly not Hamlet or even Henry V.  He’s doesn’t even have the great villainous lines like Richard III.  A lot of his dialog is odd and melodramatic.  So, for once Olivier is not the main reason for watching this recording.

Plowright has the shining moment.  She gets to recite the quality of mercy speech.  And that alone is worth watching this play.  It is one of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote.  It’s uplifting even for an old deplorable like me.  It almost makes me want to show mercy to my political enemies.  Almost, but not quite.  My conclusion, this is a good version of The Merchant of Venice.

I’ll end with the text of that wonderful speech.

 

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 11 – King Lear – Olivier’s 1983 Version

King Lear is a very strange play to watch.  All of the virtuous characters are banished, disowned or fugitives from justice while all the rest of the characters that aren’t out and out villains are seriously flawed and unable to distinguish good from evil.  There is a continuous downward spiral as the evil characters consolidate their positions and everyone else including the hapless Lear ricochet from one disaster to the next.

I first saw this play back in the 1970s as a Shakespeare in the Park presentation in Central Park with James Earl Jones as Lear.  Some extremely timely thunderstorm activity by Mother Nature made for an exciting performance and I have enjoyed the play since.  But I will admit that the Storm scene is extremely odd to sit through.  Even the actors seem to be slightly at a loss as to how they are supposed to relate to each other during this weird act.

The 1983 version of King Lear starring Laurence Olivier is a British Television production and it is done on a television sound stage and it has the look of a sound stage made to look like a theater stage.  That is not to say that it is badly filmed but rather that it does not have the production values that the budget of a major Hollywood movie can allow.

The cast in addition to Olivier includes some well-known faces.  Lear’s Fool is played by John Hurt.  Leo McKern, who American audiences might know from the British import television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” plays Gloucester.  And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s spy series “The Avengers” then you would remember Diana Rigg who here plays one of Lear’s evil daughters (Regan).  The rest of the cast is unknown to me but overall, the acting is reasonably good.

In my opinion, you watch this version for Olivier and to a lesser degree John Hurt.  They provide the stand out performances that elevate this above an average television version.  It is sad to see how frail Olivier is here.  He was 75 years old at the time and in extremely poor health.  This was his last attempt at Shakespeare.  But he gives the lines their due.  He allows Lear to make sense to an audience struggling with this bizarre set of characters and circumstances.  He was still a great actor even here at the end of his life.  That is not to say that the performance was perfect, although I believe it had more to do with technical problems of a television production.  During the Storm scene Lear’s voice is difficult to understand over the wind and rain noises.  If the video has captioning then this will not be as big a problem.  Also, some of the staging is a little odd to me.  The torches that were used during some of the scenes look very odd and I assume this was a limitation of the television cameras used to capture the action.

Overall, this is not a masterpiece like Olivier’s Hamlet or even a slick commercial production like Henry V that had a robust budget and a great supporting cast.  This is a modest production with a mixture of greater and lesser talent.  But it is your only chance to see Laurence Olivier as King Lear.  If that interests you then you should see it if it is available to you from whatever source you obtain your movies.

Alien: Covenant – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Review

I saw Alien in the theater in 1979.  It was one of the earlier movies produced with Dolby Sound and the theater in Times Square was extremely proud of their superb sound system.  And that was all that the movie can be said to have excelled in.  It was without a doubt the loudest movie I have ever been exposed to before or since.  Watching the movie back then I determined that rather than make a scary monster movie they made a painfully loud monster movie.  So, whenever the monster was about to jump out of the dark, they would turn the volume to eleven and the audience would jump out of their seats holding their ears in pain.  I guess they figured we might mistake burst eardrums for fear.  The movie is basically shot in the dark and you can never really see the monster when it’s killing someone so it’s really not scary, just annoying.

In the mid-eighties James Cameron was paid to make a sequel to this film with a troop of “space marines” added to bump up the body count and allow Sigourney Weaver to become a female Arnold Schwarzenegger and hopefully add some more sequels to the franchise.  Admittedly Alien 2 was better than the original but that’s not really saying much.  Then they made a third one which really sucked and finally a fourth that most normal people just ignored completely and so it was hoped that the series had died its natural death.

But sometime in the 2000s someone had the bright idea of having the creature in the Predator series meet up with the Alien creature and this spawned a new series of bad sci-fi movies.  But at least these weren’t “serious” science fiction films, whatever that means, and so the “integrity” of the Alien franchise was maintained.

In 2012 they dragged the director of the original Alien, Ridley Scott back to make a prequel called Prometheus.  It included a bunch of crap about how humanity was the product of genetic engineering by an advanced race called the Engineers.  And this gets all mixed up with the Alien monster showing up on a planet where one of the Engineer’s ships is holed up for some reason and the Earth crew’s android turning evil.

Well anyway in 2017 they made a sequel to Prometheus called Alien: Covenant.  Here a human colony ship headed for a new world intercepts a message and finds one of the characters from Prometheus and starts falling victim to the alien monsters again.

So, what’s the best way to say this?  Oh, I know!  It’s the same stupid story from 1979 all over again.  It’s exactly the same plot and even the same character stereotypes.  There’s the plucky young woman with a knack for killing monsters on space ships.  There’s the android who is fascinated by the creature and will allow the humans to die in order to learn more about the creature.  And then there is the rest of the crew who are just fodder for the creature on a killing spree.

That’s all there is, over and over and over.  Save yourself the trouble.  It’s not fun and it’s not interesting.  The characters aren’t great, the special effects are no better than any other CGI sci-fi movie and you already know the plot from the beginning.  Hollywood, try to come up with something different for once, please.

A Night at the Opera – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The Marx Brothers have the reputation for producing some of the funniest movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  This is in some ways deserved but it is by no means justified for all of their films.  In addition, no one would claim that the entirety of any of the movies is consistently funny.  After all, the number of people who would laugh through a three-minute harp solo is extremely small, probably zero.

But I consider A Night at the Opera their best effort.  For that reason, I’ll start with a review of it and if I decide to tackle any of the others it will involve comparing them to the qualities of A Night at the Opera.

The story starts out in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) trying to convince the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera in order to cement her place in high society.  With the money, the opera company’s director Herman Gottlieb, can sign a famous Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri for the upcoming season production of Il Trovatore.  There is a love triangle between the soprano Rosa Castaldi, an unknown but brilliant tenor, Ricardo Baroni and the villainous Lassparri.

Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) work to get Ricardo Baroni signed by Driftwood to the New York Opera instead of Lassparri but fail and the two of them are forced to stow away along with Baroni on the steam ship heading for New York.  Driftwood hides them in his closet sized stateroom and this gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the movie when a troop of cleaning, maintenance and wait staff along with other miscellaneous persons end up crowding into the stateroom with the Marx Brothers and eventually explode out into the ship corridor when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.  This scene contains one of Groucho’s trademark wisecracks.  With about ten people already in the room a knock comes on the door and Groucho opens it to discover a young woman.

Groucho – Yes?

Girl – Is my Aunt Minnie in here?

Groucho – You can come in and prowl around if you want to.  If she isn’t in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.

Girl – Could I use your phone?

Groucho – Use the phone?  I’ll lay you even money you can’t get in the room.

The whole plot including the love story is a thin pretext for the Marx Brothers to sow chaos everywhere they go.  The climax of the movie is the opera opening night and the three brothers doing everything imaginable to sabotage Lassparri’s performance and provide Baroni with an opportunity to sing as the lead tenor in his place.  Harpo (or more likely his stunt double) ends up performing swashbuckling acrobatics in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and eventually kidnaps Lassparri right off the stage to allow the climactic aria duet to be sung by Baroni and Castaldi.

And just as it looks like the brothers will be carted off to jail by the NYPD, Baroni blackmails Gottlieb into hiring himself, Castaldi, Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso and calling off the police in exchange for Baroni and Castaldi agreeing to perform an encore that is being thunderously demanded by the overjoyed audience.

This absurd story line is actually one of the tighter Marx Brother movie plots.  Their movies were sort of like a variety show out of vaudeville.  In between dramatic scenes you would get Chico playing the piano or Harpo playing the harp.  And most of the movies had several comic songs sung by Groucho.  In this movie there is also a number of songs and arias sung by the Baroni and Castaldi characters.  So, depending how you feel about songs in a movie will decide whether you can tolerate any Marx Brothers movie at all.

As indicated initially I like this movie.  That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to cut out the harp solo.  And that is not saying all the comedy routines are equally successful for me.  But taking the whole movie together I would call A Night at the Opera a funny movie.  And I would say, compared to many of the Marx Brothers movies, the personalities of the brothers are much less obnoxious than they typically are.  And it is notable that the production values for this movie produced by MGM are much higher than their previous movies for Paramount.  If you are already a fan of the Marx Brothers and have never seen “A Night at the Opera” then I can unreservedly recommend this movie for you.  For everyone else, especially those born in the 21st century your mileage may vary.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 3

Any of you who have followed the guest contributors here may know that The Fatman is a more learned student of the cinema than I am.  When he saw my Ransom reviews, he alerted me to a ransom-type movie by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “High and Low”.  Now, Kurosawa is best known to American audiences from his homage to the American Western called “The Seven Samurai.  And the American Western’s homage to him is the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”

So anyway, I decided to give it a spin.  “High and Low” is not a direct retelling of the Ransom story in fact it is based on an American crime novel called “King’s Ransom” written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain.  But I think it still fits under the umbrella of the Ransom comparison.

Kingo Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune) is the CEO of a large shoe manufacturing company with the very original name of National Shoes.  He is extremely wealthy but came up through the ranks from humble beginnings.  He lives in a beautiful home on a prominent hill overlooking the city.  He has a wife, Reiko and young son, Jun and they share the home with his chauffer Yutaka Sada and his son, Shinichi, who is Jun’s friend.

Gondo is being pressured by the Board of Directors to back their play to oust the founder of the company and start making stylish but poorly-made shoes at a high profit.  Gondo disagrees saying the answer is to upgrade the style of the current well-built shoes and thereby maintain the brand and expand the market.  The Board threatens to oust him instead.  In discussions between Gondo and his assistant we learn that Gondo has anticipated this hostile takeover and has collected enough loan money to take over the company himself.  He has a check for fifty million yen that his assistant will deliver by train that night to lock down the stock he needs for the takeover.  The loans will basically mortgage everything he owns but he knows he’ll be able to pay them off once he has control of the company.

During these discussions we see Jun and Shinichi dressed as cowboys chasing each other around with cap guns.  And now that Jun has won the game as sheriff, he trades costumes with Shinichi and assumes the role of outlaw.  Gondo gives the check to the assistant and tells him which train to take.  But before the assistant leaves a call comes in from someone claiming to have kidnapped Jun.  The kidnapper says the ransom will be thirty million yen.  Gondo tells the kidnapper he will pay the ransom.  Now Gondo tells his assistant to cancel his train ride because Gondo will need that money for the ransom.  Almost immediately Jun walks back in the room and Gondo assumes the call was a hoax.  But when Jun asks everyone where Shinichi has gone the adults realize that the kidnapper mistook the boy wearing Jun’s costume for Jun and kidnapped Shinichi by accident.  Sada is now understandably worried about his son but Gondo tells him that the kidnapper will release Shinichi when he realizes the boy is not from a rich family.  But the kidnapper calls back and says he will demand the ransom for Shinichi instead and he will kill the boy if the money is not surrendered.  Gondo refuses and hangs up.  Now the police are called in.

The police show up and go through the same phone tapping routine we’ve seen in the other two movies and analyze the kidnapper’s demands and mindset.  They try to convince Gondo that this particular kidnapper is extremely angry and seems to have a grudge against Gondo or at least against the rich.  They ask him if he will consider paying the ransom but he explains that he must go forward with the takeover or he will be out of a job and ruined financially.  At this point Sada and Reiko separately beg Gondo to relent and pay the ransom.  Gondo refuses.  The police ask that at least he tell the kidnapper that he will pay the money in hopes that they can catch the kidnapper during the ransom exchange.  Gondo agrees to this.  He gets the instructions from the kidnapper and after seeing Sada break down in despair Gondo relents and agrees to pay the ransom.

There is an intricate arrangement with bags of cash that will fit through a narrow bathroom window on the train once Gondo sees Shinichi standing with his captor adjacent to the tracks.  The money is payed and Shinichi is freed.  Gondo loses his house and all his possessions to his creditors.

The rest of the movie is a police procedural about trying to find the kidnappers and get Gondo’s money back.  Small clues gathered from the kidnapper’s phone conversations and the somewhat vague information provided by Shinichi combine to allow the police to hunt down the gang.  The final part of the movie involves some heroin addicts who were part of the gang and we get some scenes of the seedy world that these people inhabit.  Finally, the kidnapper is caught and because of the murder of his accomplices he is given a death sentence.

We see Gondo get his money back but it is too late to restore his old life.  He takes a job with a smaller shoe company and he actually enjoys the work more because of his greater creative control there.

In the last scene the murderer asks Gondo to come to the prison to talk.  He explains why he picked Gondo.  From his tenement below the hill he dwelt on Gondo’s affluence and the anger this engendered drove him to his crimes.  He claims not to be afraid of his death but by the end of the conversation he breaks out in hysterics and is dragged away and the movie ends.

This movie is sort of a hybrid.  The story really is a police procedural.  The crime allows for the police to solve the puzzle of finding the criminal and getting justice for Gondo.  But the predicament of Gondo is a very Japanese story.  The honor and the prestige of the “great man” is a theme that interests Kurosawa and specifically he is examining how the modern capitalist model has removed the human element from the equation.  Gondo was a poor man who became rich and Sada is a poor man who is entirely at Gondo’s mercy for his son’s life.  Basically, we are watching a struggle for Gondo’s soul.

Japanese cinema is in some ways hard for Americans to enter.  In addition to the language barrier and the need to read the subtitles, facial expressions and even mannerisms are decidedly different.  I like the movie and thought it was well done.  Whether anyone who hasn’t seen Japanese films would enjoy it is an open question.  I recommend it.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

In 1996 Ron Howard directed a remake of Ransom.  He cast Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in the leads as Tom and Kate Mullen the parents of a young son Sean.  Tom is the owner of his own airline and a leading member of New York high society.  During an educational event in Central Park at which Kate is a judge Sean is kidnapped while Tom was distracted.

Now we meet the kidnappers.  Maris is a caterer who works for the Mullens.  Brothers Clark and Cubby Barnes and Miles Roberts are small time criminals.  But the mastermind of the gang is Police Detective Jimmy Shaker, played by the great Gary Sinise, who set up the whole crime and uses his knowledge of police procedures to engineer a convoluted ransom transfer.  He has Tom carry the two million dollars to a civic center and jump in a swimming pool to destroy any electronic devices.  Then Tom switches cars and drives to New Jersey while Shaker gives Tom directions over a mobile phone.  During this phone call Shaker answers Tom’s question of why Tom’s family was picked.  Shaker tells him that Tom is a man who buys his way out of trouble.  Tom paid off men to frame a labor leader that was making trouble for Tom’s airline.  From Shaker’s point of view, he sees Tom as a sure thing to pay his son’s ransom.  Then Shaker tells Tom the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H. G. Wells’ story “The Time Machine.”  To Shaker the Mullens and the other elites are the Eloi living in the daylight world of wealth and privilege while Shaker and the rest of the Morlocks slave away in the underworld of the poor.  He states that it’s just the nature of things that the cannibalistic Morlocks have to surface from time to time to eat an Eloi.

Tom demands to know how the exchange will lead him to his son to which Shaker replies that when Tom hands the money over to the courier, he’ll be given the address where his son can be found.  But when he arrives at a quarry where the courier takes the money, he is given no address and Tom notices the look of confusion on the courier’s face when the question is asked.  The courier is Cubby Barnes played by Donnie Wahlberg who was the only one of the kidnappers who treated Sean Mullen decently during his captivity.  FBI helicopters chase after Cubby on his ATV and when the agents start rappelling to the ground Cubby fires at them with an automatic weapon.  In answer he is killed by gunfire from the law enforcement agents.

The kidnappers are in disarray after this because Cubby’s identity will make his brother’s identity easy to figure out.  But undaunted, Shaker immediately contacts Tom and begins a second transfer operation.  But Tom has figured out that the kidnappers have no intention of releasing his son.  So instead of proceeding to the drop he tells Shaker to watch Channel 5 on the television for further information.  Tom calls his corporate friends and arranges to be put on the air.  He lays the two million dollars on a table and into the camera he tells the kidnappers and the world that he has no intention of paying the ransom and instead want the two million to be a reward for capturing his son’s abductors.  He gives the kidnappers a way out saying if Sean is returned unharmed, he will withdraw the reward.

Everyone turns against Tom, the FBI agents who have been advising him, his wife Kate and every man on the street who is questioned by the media.  Now Shaker calls him up and threatens to kill Sean if Tom doesn’t pay the ransom.  Tom says he doesn’t believe he’ll return Sean at all.  Now the kidnappers send a note through the housekeeper to Kate to show up late at night in a deserted church to arrange for an exchange.  Kate is attacked by Shaker in disguise who punches her and chokes her before leaving her with Sean’s shirt soaked in blood.

Kate begs Tom to relent but instead Tom goes down to the street and tells the reporters that he is doubling the reward to four million dollars.  Shaker calls up enraged and shouts at Tom that he will kill Sean if Tom doesn’t agree to the ransom immediately.  Tom shouts abuse at Shaker and then he hears a gunshot ring out over the phone.  Kate attacks Tom and slaps him repeatedly and collapses to the floor.  Tom stumbles out onto the penthouse roof and at first seems to be planning to jump but then collapses onto the roof sobbing.  Kate finds her way to the roof and consoles him.

But Shaker fired into the wall.  Sean is alive.  Now Clark Barnes and Miles Roberts are packing their van to leave the scene and Maris is panicked and doesn’t know whether to run or kill herself with a gun she has.  She is romantically involved with Shaker but their bond has been broken by the sordid nature of the crime they are committing.  The only one who isn’t panicking is Shaker.  He’s come up with Plan B.  He calls up the precinct on his radio and tells them that there is a kidnapping at the address they are holding Sean at.  He shoots Clark and Miles as they try to drive off but Maris shoots him in the shoulder.  Shaker returns fire and kills her.  Now Shaker pretends that he discovered the kidnapping and puts himself in line for the four-million-dollar reward.

Sean is returned to his parents traumatized but only slightly injured and the Mullens begin to bring their lives back to normal.  One day Shaker shows up at the Mullens’ home to collect his reward but as Tom is writing out the check, he sees Sean quaking with fear at Shaker’s voice.  Tom realizes what it means but almost immediately afterward Shaker knows that Tom knows.  At this point Shaker’s anger leads him to say he will execute Tom.  But Tom convinces him that they can go to Tom’s bank and have the reward transferred to Shaker’s offshore bank.  Then Tom agrees to fly Shaker to Mexico in his private jet.  While driving to the bank Tom ostensibly calls the airport to set up his flight but actually calls the FBI and tips them off to where he is headed.

Tom and Shaker make the wire transfer at the bank but as they’re leaving some NYPD who have been alerted by the FBI attempt to arrest Shaker.  He shoots two of them and takes off running.  Tom catches him and beats him brutally but Shaker manages to push Tom into traffic where he is shaken up by a passing car.  Now there is a foot race and finally Tom grabs Shaker and throws him through a plate glass window.  Tom retrieves Shaker’s gun and covers him with it.  The NYPD and FBI show up and tell Tom to drop the gun and Shaker to lay on the ground.  Shaker is bleeding profusely from a neck wound from the broken window but he secretly reaches for an ankle holster.  When Tom drops his gun arm to his side Shaker pulls his gun to shoot Tom but is beaten to the draw by Tom and several law-enforcement officers.  Shaker is shot dead and Kate shows up to hug Tom and signal the end of the nightmare.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff, to stuff into one movie.  And I’ve left out a lot of details.  The FBI Special Agent Lonnie Hawkins played by Delroy Lindo has a role in convincing Kate to stop Tom from offering the reward.  He also is privy to Tom’s perjury in the conviction of the labor leader.  The relationships between the various kidnappers is complicated and volatile.  There are a lot of moving pieces.

It’s a well-crafted movie.  At certain points the various characters border on hysterics but considering the roles and stakes involved the action is reasonable.  None of the characters is blameless but even some of the criminals may make some claims to the viewers sympathy.  I think it’s a good crime drama with a lot of human interest.  I can recommend it as worth seeing.

In the last part of this review I’ll look at the 1956 and the 1996 versions of Ransom to see how they compare and what that comparison might say about the years in which they were made.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

I am as old as hell itself so I remember seeing Ransom in the theater in 1996.  It was a very popular movie and Mel Gibson was a big star back then.  I was dimly aware that the movie was a remake of a film of the same name.  Actually, the original was Ransom!  That exclamation point must have been big news back in 1956.  I’ve since had a chance to see the 1956 version and I intend to review it and then review the 1996 remake and compare them.

Glenn Ford and Donna Reed star as David and Edith Stannard a married couple with a young son named Andy.  They are very wealthy because David and his brother Al own a very successful company.  We see the child and parents in a comical argument caused by Andy “stealing” the boards from under his parents’ bed to build his backyard fort.  We witness the way David dotes on the boy and promises to break away from his busy work to join the boy in his construction project.  The mother and father send the boy off to his school bus and then David heads off to work.  We also meet the major domo of the household servants Jesse Chapman.  He is a Southern Black Christian man, much given to reciting scripture who very seriously attends to the welfare of his employer’s family.

At work we find David contending with his brother Al over whether the company should continue to advance into new product models or wait until more return is collected on the earlier models.  Although the brothers quarrel, they show affection for each other.  Later we see David return home having “stolen” some lumber from a willing construction site foreman and asks his wife where their son is.  She says he is still at school but David informs her that it is past his time.  Immediately the phone rings and Edith hear from a school administrator that a “nurse” from Dr. Gorman’s office took Andy from school to be seen by the doctor.  Now, both frightened by this news, David calls Dr. Gorman and hears his worst fears, that the doctor did not send for the boy.  David calls the police and Chief Backett arrives and sets in motion the police actions.  An electrician sets up a separate phone line and a tape recorder.  And the police set up a trace on the line waiting for a ransom demand over the phone.  At this point a newspaper reporter named Charlie Telfer (played by a very young Leslie Nielsen) enters the house uninvited.  The Chief counsels the Stannards to allow Telfer to stay during the investigation and so keep him from printing wild speculations by the promise of an exclusive story.  Charlie proves himself to be a cynical young man who attempts to bribe Chapman to get some photos of Andy’s room.  Chapman spurns the offer as an insult.

The parents become rattled from the waiting and now the school administrator shows up and complains that she is the wronged party by the kidnapping.  Edith grabs for the fireplace poker and is only stopped by the police chief from braining her.  After she is escorted out the phone rings and the kidnapper tells David what he wants, $500,000 in small bills and to show that the money is ready the television show which David’s company sponsors will be the signal.  The host will wear a white suit jacket.

Now Al arranges for the money.  It is being counted and serial numbers recorded.  Now David talks to the Chief and Charlie about the exchange.  But when David expresses the hope that Andy will be home by end of day the men crush his hopes by telling him that regardless of whether he pays the ransom or not the chance of return is the same, two out of three.  And hearing this, David’s logical mind jumps to a conclusion.  Now he goes to the television station and tells the host that the plan has changed and he, David will speak to the audience.  He spreads the ransom money on a table and then tells the camera that he will not ransom his son.  Instead he will use the $500,000 as a reward to anyone who will turn in the kidnappers.  And to the kidnapper he adds that if Andy is returned unharmed then the reward will be rescinded and if the kidnapper happens to be captured David will act as a character witness on the kidnapper’s behalf because of the mercy shown his son.  And then he finishes by swearing on a Bible that all he said would be observed.

But when David returns home, he is told by all, by the chief, by Al, by Charlie and most of all by Edith that he has done a terrible thing. She begs him to undo it and go back to the kidnappers and reverse himself.  David tells them it is too late.  For good or ill the die is cast.  Edith breaks down and is taken to Al’s house down the street to mourn.  A crowd that has assembled outside the home reacts to the news with rage and stones are thrown through the windows.  Charlie goes outside and tells the reporters to go home and leave the family to its agony.  Then the police disperse the angry crowd.  Finally, Andy’s shirt is found in an abandoned car and delivered to his father.  But there is a quantity of blood on the shirt.  Now David despairs and breaks down in tears.  The only one who has not deserted him in his lowest hour is Chapman who tries to comfort him and reminds him of King David’s grief at the death of his son Absalom.  After he calms himself David goes into the yard and looks at the fort that Andy was building the other day.  And as he stands there, he thinks he hears Andy calling him.  And looking up he sees his son.  Unable to believe his eyes he clasps Andy in his arms in joy but notices that Andy’s wearing a strange shirt.  Andy explains that they gave it to him after he bit the nurse and her blood got on his shirt.  Now the house is alerted.  Chapman calls Al’s house to let Edith know the good news and the movie ends in front of the house with Edith running up and being embraced by her son and her husband embracing them both.

This is some serious melodrama.  Every heartstring there is gets tugged.  But the story works and the acting is good.  Any parent watching this will feel every fear and experience the anxiety of such a daring plan by David to save his son.  This is a good movie of its kind, a personal drama.  I can recommend it.  In the next part of this review, we’ll look at what forty years changes in the story as we look at the remake.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

A Letter to Three Wives – An OCF Classic Movie Review

IMDb lists this 1949 film as a romance drama.  Today we’d call such a film a “chick flick.”  The director,Joseph Mankiewicz  was also responsible for “All About Eve,” which was another movie that centered around women.  Mankiewicz received Oscars for both of them so it seems this type of movie was his specialty.

The plot revolves around three married couples, the Bishops, the Phipps and the Hollingsways.  They live in a suburb of New York City and the three wives Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae, respectively, all have an uneasy relationship with a fourth woman, Addie Ross who has always been admired by their husbands for her beauty, intelligence and taste.  As the story opens it’s the morning of the first big country club dance in town and the wives are in various stages of annoyance with their husbands.

Deborah is angry at Brad because he’s going on a business trip and doesn’t even know if he’ll return in time for the dance.  In addition, he has selected an evening gown for his wife for the dance that she has discovered is identical to a dress Addie Ross recently wore.  Rita is angry with George because he is dismissive of her job as a radio script writer whereas she resents that he works as a low paying teacher at the high school.  She is also surprised to see him leaving that morning in a suit, something he never does.  And Lora Mae is dismissive of her husband Porter strictly on general grounds.  Their relationship is a continuous stream of digs and jibes by both of them.

The wives are engaged that day as chaperones for the grammar school annual outing at the lake.  But right before the boat leaves the dock a letter arrives for the three women addressed from Addie Ross.  In it she ironically says goodbye to them as her three dearest friends.  She’s leaving town forever but as a memento of her life with them she says that she’s running away with one of their husbands.

The bulk of the movie is the reminiscences of the three women on their history together as wives, friends and rivals for Addie Ross.  Brad and Deborah Bishop are played by Jeffrey Lynn and Jeanne Crain.  Brad is the rich, handsome aristocrat of the story.  Deborah is a farm girl that Brad met in the Navy in WW II.  She has always been intimidated by the more sophisticated background of his friends and their shared experiences as longtime residents of the town.  Honestly, I find these two characters the least interesting of the six.  Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern are George and Rita Phipps.  They are the intelligent couple.  He’s a school teacher and a wit.  She’s a hard-working career mother trying to push George into a more ambitious and better paying career.  Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell are Porter and Lora Mae Hollingsway.  Based on their way of speaking and information you learn from the story they are both from “the wrong side of the tracks.”  In fact, in a comical scene from her past we see that Lora Mae’s mother’s apartment was practically on top of the elevated train tracks adjoining it.  Porter is a very wealthy retailer with a chain of appliance stores and a mansion.  And when Porter and Lora Mae meet, she is his employee and he is a cynical divorced man on the make.  She is a painfully beautiful young woman to his gruff 35-year-old cynic and she skillfully uses her charms to negotiate a marriage.  And after he can no longer resist her, he grudgingly agrees to marry her but in terms so unflattering and unromantic that their married life is guaranteed to be a vicious cycle of hurt feelings.  Porter and Lora Mae are the most interesting part of the movie.  Paul Douglas’s characterization of Porter as the gruff regular guy and Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae as the wise-cracking shrew are very amusing.  And Linda Darnell is a remarkably beautiful young woman in this film.  A small supporting part in this movie is played by Thelma Ritter as a friend of Lora Mae’s mother and housekeeper to the Phipps.  Ritter is always the most interesting character on screen in any scene she is in and this movie is no exception.

The movie has a surprise ending at the country club dance when we find out that love can be found in unexpected places.

One of the things I find interesting about this movie is the “types” that the various characters represent.  Brad Bishop and apparently Addie Ross are the “to the manor born” aristocrats of the town.  They both have money and refined taste.  George and Rita Phipps are the educated middle class.  They are the product of the egalitarian World War II generation who believe in the virtues of enlightened modernism.  Porter and Lora Mae are from the working class and for both of them buying into refinement of the upper class is one of their highest motivations.  Porter is constantly talking about Addie’s “class” and disparaging Lora Mae for her lack of class.  And when she goes to Porter’s house for the first time Lora Mae tells Porter that she wants to be a lady so she can have a big house with a piano with a photo of her in the silver frame just like Porter has of Addie Ross.  Deborah Bishop is the farm girl who is completely intimidated by Brad and Addie’s sophistication.  Instead of aspiring to become like them she just fatalistically assumes that someday brad will cast her aside for her social superior, Addie.

Although Brad is obviously friendly with the Phipps and not noticeably a snob his character is very sparsely sketched in.  And likewise, Deborah’s inferiority complex makes her a very one-dimensional character.  The Phipps are a more fully drawn pair of characters and their husband/wife dynamic is also more believable and therefore enjoyable.  I especially like how Kirk Douglas describes his low status and not very well-paying job as making him a comic figure and almost unmanly.  George is the modern man, comfortable with his wife as a bread winner.  When she complains that he bought cheaper whiskey because he can’t afford scotch, she hints that she can afford to buy it instead.  To this George replies, “I forget sometimes that I’m merely the titular head of the household.”  But even Rita is insecure of George’s relationship with Addie.  When Rita forgets George’s birthday Addie sends him a present of a rare symphony recording that has a romantic inscription that inspires Rita’s jealousy.

But the most fully drawn characters are Porter and Lora Mae.  He is the self-made man who worked his up to success.  He is proud of his success and desires to be measured by his material possessions and by the “class” that he tries to surround himself with.  Addie Ross is his ideal of an aristocrat who wouldn’t covet his wealth and would add the class that he was born without.  He was formerly married to a gold digger and he assumes because Lora Mae forced him to marry her that she is looking for the same kind of “pay day” where she can divorce him for all she can get.

Lora Mae is a woman born poor but blessed with the gift of great beauty.  She likes Porter but she refuses to enter into an intimate relationship with him without the promise of marriage.  She knows this will torture him but she tells him openly that is her price.  When he finally grudgingly agrees, he tells her that she is making a “good deal” without any illusions of love.  The bitterness this statement elicits from her is the poison that haunts their every married day with each of them sniping at the other about their shortcomings.  Here is an almost Shakespearian scenario where misunderstanding blinds love on both sides.

The movie is quite enjoyable and is an excellent date movie for married couples since the war between men and women is on full display and is resolved very agreeably.  I highly recommend this film.