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Movie Crash Course: The 39 Steps

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This project of mine may be like dating in a weird way. The 39 Steps is one of those movies where I can empirically recognize the quality, and intellectually I can appreciate the skill, but yet somehow…there’s no “x” factor that makes me swoon. Possibly because this is a thriller; I’m not a huge fan of that genre as a general rule.

I can appreciate the cleverer parts of the script, however – particularly that the woman who’s being put forth as the lead’s love interest actually doesn’t fall head over heels for him as quickly as she would have done in other films.

….But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

The hero of our tale is Richard Hannay, a bloke in London on business who’s taking in the show at a music hall. During the performance, someone in the audience fires a gun, and in the ensuing panic, Hannay ends up thrown together with “Annabella Smith”, a beautiful and mysterious woman who takes one look at him when they’re safely outside and then informs him she’d like to come home with him.  A bemused Hannay agrees – but when they get up to his room, Smith quickly tells him she wasn’t looking for a pickup. Instead, she explains, she is a secret agent, trying to stop a network of spies from smuggling RAF secrets out of the country. The gunshots in the theater were meant for her, and she had to escape.

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Hannay is of course dubious – but then notices that there are a pair of men loitering on the sidewalk outside, staring up at his flat and trying to act a little too casual.  Smith decides the safest thing is to try to get a few hours’ sleep and hope the lurkers eventually leave; but just in case, she tells Hannay a few basics in case anything happens to her: she needs to meet with a man in Scotland for further instructions, she doesn’t know exactly what the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and the head of the spy ring she’s trying to bring down is missing the tip of one of his little fingers.  Okay, good to know.

…Especially when in the middle of the night, someone sneaks into Hannay’s flat and stabs Smith in the back.  She manages to stagger into the living room – Hannay has gallantly taken the couch to let her have privacy in the bedroom – and she gasps out the name of the town in Scotland where her contact lives, begging him to make contact for her. Then she collapses, leaving Hannay with a dead spy in his living room and two more outside his door.

Well then.

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After slipping past the spies, Hannay hits the road and has nearly reached Scotland when he learns that he is under suspicion for killing Smith. Sharp-eyed policemen spot him on the train, and he is barely able to evade them, fleeing desperately across moors and bribing farmers for help – and then realizes that the spy ring that killed Smith is now after him as well.

Despite her spending the night in Hannay’s flat, Smith actually isn’t the love interest the film is trying to throw at Hannay. Instead, the film tries to hook him up with “Pamela” – a stranger Hannay briefly meets on the train while trying to escape police. He sees her sitting alone in a compartment, barges in, and apologetically says he’s desperate – then locks lips with her, in an attempt to hide his face from oncoming police.  She understandably doesn’t take that well, pushes him away and tries to turn him over to the police.

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Pamela then disappears for most of the rest of the film; then, much later, when Hannay is trying to bluff his way through making a political speech (it makes sense in context, trust me), Pamela just so happens to walk in, see him there, and fetch the police again.  Except the men she fetches, unbeknownst to her, aren’t police, and insist that she should also come to the station too…

I’m afraid that Pamela’s chance presence at that political rally is one of the two plot wrinkles I had trouble with.  The other came earlier, with Smith’s initial stabbing; any spy would have assumed she’d told Hannay something, but they’d only killed her and not him.  Wasn’t there a chance that someone was still in the apartment? Why weren’t they?  I even pointed that out to Alex, who was watching this with me; he only said, enigmatically, that “those are very good questions to be asking.”  They weren’t answered, though, which bothered me – I was expecting some kind of a double-cross Mission-Impossible thing that never came.

Another thing I was expecting, however, was for Hannay to engage in some kind of sex scene – and was pleased to see that he didn’t.  He and Pamela are forced into being fugitives together and ended up sharing a room in a wee Scottish inn, and all they do is sleep. Most likely the reason was because of the Hays Code – but it was downright refreshing to see that the most physically intimate Pamela and Hannay get is for his hand to rest on her knee, and even then it’s only an inadvertent thing because they are handcuffed together and she’s trying to take off her stockings.  (Again – it makes sense in context.)

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Speaking of handcuffed – I’m feeling a bit shackled about the final twist I appreciated: the climactic scene where Hannay finally figures out what it is the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and more importantly, how. It’s a clever twist, but it would thoroughly be spoiled if I said anything. So I’ll say that if you see it…yeah, that’s a neat touch at the end, there, huh?

There are similar “neat touches” throughout the film – moments of gorgeous cinematography, clever bits of dialogue – all of which I can appreciate for their skill, even though they’re applied to a genre that I’m only lukewarm about.  As dates go, it was okay.


Administrative Announcement:

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My dear friends:

So. I have been working on the Movie Crash Course for a little over a year now; it was slow at first, but has been gaining a lot of momentum (and I’ve really been getting into it).  However, it is at present just an annex on this blog.

A few months back I promised myself “when I get to 100 reviews, maybe I’ll move the Movie Crash Course to a new blog dedicated just to that.”  I can have more than one blog on this platform, and I can keep WadsWords for my other musings.  But the Movie Crash Course would have its own identity.

….I am currently only six reviews away from reaching that 100-movie landmark.

I’m kind of scrambling to figure out how to do this, whether I will mirror the reviews here for those of you who started following me here, or whether to move everything over there.  (In fact, please weigh in if you have opinions on the matter!)  This probably won’t happen for another couple weeks, but…I wanted to let people know.


Movie Crash Course: La Chienne

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It may be a French film, but Jean Renoir’s La Chienne has a plot straight out of a telenovela.

Set in an unnamed French city, La Chienne is the story of a love triangle featuring Michel Legrand, a milquetoast accountant.  He has no kids, his work colleagues think he’s a fuddy-duddy, and his miserly wife Adele constantly compares him to her first husband – a soldier killed in the First World War – and finds him wanting.  His only pleasure is painting, which Adele says is a waste of money.

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Then one night, while trudging home, Legrand runs into Lulu, a prostitute, getting smacked around by her pimp Dédé.  The naive Legrand comes to Lulu’s rescue, rescuing the “innocent damsel” from the “thug” attacking her, and offering to walk her home so she gets in safely.  Lulu pegs him as an easy mark, and turns on the charm – and soon Legrand is having an affair with her, putting her up in a fancy love nest and pilfering money from his wife to pay for it.  He even brings over some of his paintings to decorate it for her.

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But Lulu only has eyes for Dédé, who is himself more interested in whatever money Lulu can bring in than he is in her affections.  Legrand’s paintings aren’t half bad, he thinks one day – so he concocts a scheme to pass them off as the work of a woman, enlisting Lulu to roleplay as “the artist” if he needs someone to stand in for her, and starts selling Legrand’s work off to a local gallery – at a hefty profit.

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Legrand finds out – but he doesn’t mind one bit; he even steps up production.  He’d do anything for the beautiful Lulu, and even starts embezzling from his own office to satisfy her repeated demands for more and more money.  But then comes the day when he stops by Lulu’s place and catches her there with Dédé…

It’s the performances that put this above melodrama. Michel Simon plays Legrand as a meek pushover, acquiesing to the abuse of his wife and the ribbing from his co-workers – coming alive only when he paints, or when he is with Lulu.  He is absolutely smitten by the girl.  And Lulu puts on the charm around him, but with Dédé she is all desperation.

It should be said, though, that the relationships in the film played out in real life. Michel Simon really did fall for his co-star Janie Marèse during filming, who in turn fell for the actor playing Dédé, Georges Flamant. And like Dédé, Flamant just rolled with it.  Director Jean Renoir saw it all happening – but egged things on, since Marèse and Flamant were screen newbies, and he thought it would only help the film.  The on-set romance came to a tragic end, however; shortly after they wrapped filming, Flamant and Marèse went on a joyride for one of their dates.  Flamant was just as new to driving as he was to film, however, and crashed their car – killing Marèse.  The shaken Simon blamed Renoir for the whole thing, threatening him with a gun and saying that Marèse’s death was all his fault.  “Kill me if you like,” Renoir supposedly said – “but I’ve made the film.”

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Marèse and Lulu’s fates have a lot in common; women who were exploited by men and ended up the worse for it.  The title “La Chienne” translates to “The Bitch” – hardly a fair name for the hapless Lulu, at the end of the day.  La Chienne was only Marèse’s second film, and unquestionably – if she hadn’t been killed – she would have gone on to a fine career.


Movie Crash Course: Sons Of The Desert

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The title Sons of the Desert gave me a very incorrect idea about what this Laurel And Hardy film was going to be.  I thought it was going to be a sort of French-foreign-legion spoof; instead, Stan and Oliver play a pair of henpecked husbands intent on heading to Chicago for the national convention for their fraternal organization.  Stan is unsure his wife will allow him to attend; but Ollie is appalled he’s even asking. “Why don’t you pattern your life after mine?” he lectures Stan. “I go places and do things and then tell my wife. Every man should be the king in his own castle!”

However, Ollie’s wife Lottie finds out about the convention – and reminds Ollie that she had already booked them a weeks’ stay in an exclusive mountain resort that same week. So no convention for him.  When he tries to put his foot down, she insists on the mountain trip – by throwing a dish at his head.

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So the pair concoct a plan – Ollie pretends to be sick, and Stan enlists a doctor to “prescribe” a cruise to Honolulu as a rest cure.  And hey, since Lottie hates cruises – how about she go ahead to the mountains with Stan’s wife Betty, and Stan can go with Ollie instead?  The wives agree, and as soon as they’re gone, the men hightail it to Chicago.

While the men are whooping it up at the convention, however, Betty and Lottie come back to learn that the cruise ship has foundered during a storm at sea, and their husbands’ lives may be in danger. Some of the survivors made it onto a rescue ship, but until the ship returns, they won’t know who made it and who drowned.  The wives go to a movie to keep themselves distracted while they wait – and just so happen to see a newsreel about the Sons of The Desert convention…

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I’m not that crazy about the whole “henpecked husband” trope as a rule, but there were enough wacky hijinks and little surprises in this that I was caught off guard.  There was a whole sequence founded on Stan and Ollie’s houses being next door to each other and sharing a back yard, and Stan thus getting confused which house he lives in, which is nearly impossible for me to explain – but which they found more and more unpredictable ways to play with, making for a whole delicious five minutes of schtick.  Another lengthy sequence has Stan trying to “steal” bites from a bowl of wax fruit Lottie has on display – it’s really just a single gag stretched out for a few minutes, but the looks on Stan Laurel’s face as he tries to chew a bite from a wax apple were funny enough that I didn’t care (and Lottie has a great punch line at the end).

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And then there is Betty.  Stan’s wife is ultimately a minor character, and we’re just meant to see her as a threat to Stan.  But the way they’ve decided to make her seem threatening is to make her a hunter and markswoman – which makes her all the more interesting.  When Stan and Ollie first come in to break the news of the convention, Betty isn’t home – she’s left a note that she’ll be home late, since she has gone duck hunting.  She shows up about ten minutes later with a whole brace of ducks, one of which she cheerfully gives to Lottie as a present before she leaves with Stan.  And later, when she and Lottie think they hear burglars in their attic, Betty just grabs her gun and storms up the ladder to flush out the invaders.  It was obvious that we were supposed to be afraid of her because of the gun, but I wanted to know way more about her.

This is the only Laurel and Hardy film on the 1001 Movies list, and I had the great fortune of seeing it in a theater, along with one of Laurel and Hardy’s newly-restored shorts.  New York’s Film Forum theater included it as part of its Sunday matinee series for kids; so there were a lot of little film fans in the audience, laughing at all of the slapstick throughout.  The short got the most laughs of all – a once-lost short called The Fight of the Century, which ends with a whole city block getting caught up in a pie fight.

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Cliff Notes For The Movie Crash Course

Real quick – I have just discovered a film enthusiast’s Youtube Channel, and signed up almost immediately.  He’s doing a series of supercuts that capture the “look” of films during a particular year.

He doesn’t catch everything – and I’m not as convinced that each period he’s chosen has a distinct “look” – but each is a fun retrospective, and I was chuffed to see that I recognized more than I thought.

Here’s the 1920 one, for a taste.

Movie Crash Course: Little Caesar

Welp, I’ve seen the ur-war film, now it’s the ur-gangster film.  At least the feature interviews on the DVD I got said so, with a handful of talking-head interviews with lots of film scholars. Even Martin Scorcese turns up to make that case. A friend who’d heard I was about to watch this pointed out that even Bugs Bunny cartoons patterned their “gangster characters” after Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this.

So it feels a bit unsporting to say that Edward G. Robinson didn’t seem to be quite so threatening a gangster.

The film is about the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello – who goes by “Rico” – in Chicago’s underworld. At the start of the film, he and his buddy Joe are small-town crooks robbing gas stations and drug stores, but after one of their heists they decide to go for broke in the big city. Rico is set on his life of crime, but Joe wants to go a different route – he wants to be a dancer. They head to Chicago to pursue their separate paths.

Rico stays in touch with Joe, though, and when Rico’s mob boss “Big Boy” proposes a hit on the night club where Joe works as a dancer, Rico bullies Joe into collaborating on the plot. During the furor, Rico ignores Big Boy’s order that they conduct a clean heist, and siezes the chance to shoot the police commissioner.  Big Boy dresses him down after the heist – but Rico argues back that his boss is just “getting soft” and declares that maybe he should take charge.

….I have to stop a moment – because this, here, is exactly where the film lost me.  Rico’s boss is one of Chicago’s main mob bosses, and here comes Rico, an upstart who’s disobeyed orders and declared that not only was he not wrong, but that he should take over.  Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone would have thrown the guy out of his office and then sent one of their other men to assassinate Rico a few days later, right?  Right.  But instead – Big Boy totally caves and puts Rico in charge, with only the faintest of protests. Which I didn’t buy in the slightest.  Unfortunately, Rico’s “meteoric rise to power” is told in exactly this flimsy a fashion, with a series of increasingly more powerful mob bosses simply rolling over in submission after Rico blusters a bit – making what was a major plot thread feel completely unbelieveable.

Ah well.

This isn’t to say that the film was a loss.  Instead, I was more fascinated by some things it was seeming to say about wealth and fame. In the first scene, the catalyst for Rico’s wanting to go to Chicago is a fluffy news piece about a big-name Chicago gangster enjoying a splashy party, and wearing a piece of diamond jewelry for the occasion.  In a later scene, when Rico is still one of Big Boy’s underlings, he’s tagged along in the entourage when Big Boy goes to a meeting with another mob boss; and the film makes a point of showing us when Rico covetously examines the other boss’s pocket watch, tie pin and other bling.  For Rico, the bling is the important thing; the bling is how he can be sure he is successful himself.  He wants his own name in the paper, for any price.  And – he does get that, for a time.

But every so often we get a glimpse of Joe’s path, which makes for a fascinating contrast. After the hit on the night club, Joe ghosts on Rico, devoting himself to his dancing job – and to his dancing partner Olga, who before long is shacking up with Joe. Rico stops by after a while – he’s afraid that Joe knows too much about him, and has come to convince Joe to work for him again. When Joe refuses, Rico considers killing him – but can’t.  This moment of Rico “going soft” is where his own luck takes a downturn, sending him into hiding at a flophouse while Joe and Olga continue on their own story.

At the very end of the film, we get one last glance at how these two friends’ paths diverged. As Rico gasps out his last breath after a shootout (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), the camera pans up – to reveal that he is lying under a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s new show at a local theater.

So, I admit that this contrasting-paths perspective is very likely what the filmmakers intended – that we were to consider how the pursuit of a fast life and flashy status signifiers lead Rico to a bad end, while dedication to a craft and a passion led to real success for Joe.  But it seems that most people were more titillated by Rico’s story instead.  Whereas I didn’t buy it because it wasn’t mean enough.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.

Movie Crash Course: Pandora’s Box

Where I went to college, the movie poster for Pandora’s Box was pretty common among the drama and film students I knew.  One of my roommates even had a copy – Louise Brooks, in the act of unveiling her heavy bangs and huge brown eyes, watched over me from a dorm wall through my senior year.  A second copy of the poster was on permanent display at the Angelika movie house on Houston Street, one of my regular movie spots; similar copies probably grace other movie houses to this day.

That poster, I’ve realized, doesn’t actually say anything about the plot of the film itself – it showcases Brooks, and Brooks alone.  Anything else about the film – the plot, the other cast, the director – is incidental.  We get it, the studio seemed to say – we know why you’re going to see this, and it’s for Louise.  Period.  They kind of have a point, too – Brooks is far and away the most striking thing about this film.

The plot is a pretty run-of-the-mill cautionary tale of a Girl Gone Wrong – Brooks plays Lulu, a flirty showgirl, who starts out living in a luxury apartment as the kept mistress of Herr Schon, a wealthy older publisher.  However, Lulu is prone to flirting with other guys as they catch her eye.  She also maintains slightly-warmer-than-normal friendships with other men, like Schigolch – who may be her pimp, or may be her father, or may be both – and Schon’s son, Alwa, a theatrical producer. There’s a countess who also seems to be pining for Lulu’s affection as well, and a chance to start a vaudeville act with a guy named Rodrigo.

The vaudeville act gives Schon the perfect out – he’s been getting uneasy with Lulu, and is preparing to marry a much more respectable society woman in an attempt to go straight.  When he arrives to cut things off with Lulu, he softens the blow by offering to ask Alwa to feature her act in his next stage show.  She accepts, Alwa also loves the idea, the Countess gets all caught up in designing the costumes, and everyone’s happy – until opening night, when Schon brings his fiancée backstage with him when he goes to wish Lulu luck, and she throws the mother of all temper tantrums and locks herself in a broom closet, vowing that she “will not dance for that woman!”  Schon goes into the closet to talk her down – and somehow ends up getting manipulated into ditching his current fiancée and marrying Lulu instead.

Lulu is her usual outre self at the wedding reception – dancing intimately with the Countess, then getting up to some titillating hijinks in the master bedroom with Schigolch and Rodrigo – and Schon has his own tantrum, kicking everyone out and then ordering Lulu to kill herself to spare him his honor. But somehow Schon himself is the one who gets killed.  Lulu’s tried for manslaughter, but her entourage – Alwa, the Countess, Rodrigo and Schigolch – stage a diversion and smuggle her away.  The last third of the film sees our band of fugitives poorly treated indeed – hiding out in boats, losing money at gambling tables, getting sold into Egyptian bordellos (with a last-minute rescue), and various members getting arrested or killed, until finally it’s just Alwa, Schigolch, and Lulu living near the London docks; Schigolch is drinking himself to death, Alwa considers running off to join the Salvation Army, and Lulu is turning tricks in their apartment to make ends meet, until the night when one of her johns has a more violent fantasy in mind.

Director G. W. Pabst wanted Brooks as Lulu from the first. She initially wasn’t available, though, and Pabst reluctantly looked elsewhere for his Lulu, to the point that he had drawn up a contract to give Marlene Dietrich the role.  But legend has it that as Dietrich was about to sign, Pabst got word that Brooks was available for the part after all; so Pabst tore up Dietrich’s contract, raced to meet Brooks with an armful of roses and begged her to be his Lulu after all.  It’s a wise choice – Dietrich’s Lulu would have been all “bad girl”, seductive heavy-lidded stares and manipulative looks.

Brooks, meanwhile, plays Lulu as a seductress with some innocence to her; she likes sex, and she’s going after what she wants, but she simply is driven by her own id, and doesn’t know any better.   Where Dietrich would have played the part with a sly smile, Brooks instead excels in wide-eyed trusting looks and childlike radiant smiles – this is how love is, in her experience, and that’s all she’s trying to do, is find love.  Brooks’ performance is what makes what could have been a cliché about a bad girl getting her comeuppance into a sympathetic tale of a young woman whose luck simply ran out.