Rancho Notorious (1952)- Fritz Lang

 ★★★★

 

Fritz Lang films are so serious- even his westerns. His colorful, energetic tale, “Rancho Notorious,” (1952) illustrates just that, as what you might expect to be a light-hearted western with a couple of musical numbers, is actually more of a gritty, heartless tale of murder and revenge… with a couple of musical numbers.

The story opens in a small Wisconsin town where cattleman Vern (Arthur Kennedy) is saying goodbye to his fiance (Gloria Henry), before heading out to drive a herd of cattle. Rancho Notorious (1952)Moments after he leaves, Kinch (Lloyd Gough) robs her store. While she is emptying the safe, however, Kinch becomes more interested in the girl’s body and he proceeds to have his way with her, and then kills her when she screams for help. Upon his frantic return, Vern watches his fiance die, and he vows revenge, heading off with the impossible task of figuring out the identity of the killer.

Through a series of fortunate circumstances, Vern follows a trail that leads him to an outlaw named Frenchy (Mel Ferrer), who proceeds to take Vern to “Chuck-a-Luck”- a hideout for outlaws that is run by Altar (Marlene Dietrich). He discovers that the man who has murdered his girl is there (or at least has been there) recently, having gifted Alter a brooch that was stolen from his girl’s body. Vern decides to warm up to Alter, to try to find out who gaveRancho Notorious (1952) her the brooch, even at the risk of aggravating Frenchy, who has always been Altar’s man.

Lang, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a good western director. His other films always have a darker side, and by incorporating that into a colorful early 1950’s western mold, he is able to create a film that is more than entertaining- it’s real. This isn’t a good versus evil story; it’s a human examination into how far someone will go in the obsession of revenge. In this story Vern doesn’t just want to bring his mystery man to justice- he wants someone to understand the pain and anguish that he has suffered. He’s not afraid of anything or anybody. He would do absolutely anything to achieve his final goal of finding, not redemption, but soul-blackening vengeance for what has transpired.

Arthur Kennedy is the very definition of an underrated actor. He is a five time Academy Award nominee, yet many people have overlooked his career almost completely, but not because he’s not talented. Rancho Notorious (!952)It’s because he so often excelled in supporting roles, without ever making a name for himself as a leading man. In “Rancho Notorious” he is perfectly cast, and he holds nothing back in a performance that showcases his ability to be dark and determined, while still keeping the audience in his corner.

Marlene Dietrich was also in an interesting place in her career when she undertook this film. Her leading lady days (whether she knew it or not) were done. After a few less than great performances, “Rancho Notorious” gives Marlene the chance to transition into a supporting capacity that would continue in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958), and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). These may not be her best films or performances, but they do showcase her range as an actress when her famous sex appeal was behind her. She (as the misguided matriarch) even gets the best lines in this film like, Rancho Notorious (!952)“I wish you’d go away, and come back ten years ago”. She makes everything feel and sound so genuine, and you can’t help but love her for taking a role that was completely different for her.

“Rancho Notorious” has some flaws, mostly coming from the sound stage landscapes, but push all of that aside and see the film for the character driven piece that is under the surface. It feels real, unfiltered, and even gives off a sense of dread and despair, instead of glorifying the west. Just in case that sounds like too much for an evening, don’t worry. There are a couple of light-hearted Dietrich songs, an opening credits “Chuck-a-Luck” number, as well as a barroom race scene, that all are quite funny, just to show that Lang has a softer, humorous side as well.

Rendezvous (1935)- William K. Howard

 ★★★

 

“Rendezvous” (1935) is an adventure film, that begins as more of a comedy. Set in 1917, former newspaperman and writer William Gordon (William Powell) has enlisted in the U.S. Army and is about to head overseas. He meets Joel Carter (Rosalind Russell), a somewhat feeble-minded socialite, and the two quickly fall in love.Rendezvous (1935) Just hours before leaving, he admits to her that he is in fact the writer of a book on creating and deciphering codes. In truth, the Army has been looking for him (as he wrote the book under an alias) because they feel he could be an asset to the War Department.

In order to keep him in Washington, Joel (who conveniently is the niece of the Assisstant Secratry of War) reveals her new love’s true identity, and he is forced to remain in Washington against his desire to go fight. Gordon quickly becomes an asset to his new cause, as his skills far outweigh those of his colleagues. He immediately becomes involved with a ring of spies that have deciphered the American codes, and are now posing a serious threat. Gordon only has limited time to find out who stole the code before an American transport is attacked.

“Rendezvous” has an entertaining screenplay, and William Powell is in great form (as he so often is in these types of films), but the mixture of comedy and drama doesn’t percolate into anything substantial. In the opening scenes the film is clearly a comedy, but as it goes on the plot becomes more and more serious.Rendezvous (1935) Rosalind Russell’s character, however, still seems to thinks she’s in a comedy. She actually appears out of place in these later scenes, providing ample comic relief, even when none is necessary. Wars films, or ones that take place during wartime, are very hard to make funny. This picture would have been better served if the comedy would have dissipated as the intensity rises.

Luckily, Powell keeps everything moving as he is the real powerhouse anyway. He is intelligent, suave, funny, and above all, believable. There are other actors who could take on a role such as this, but none would have pulled it off so well. He appears mature and dignified, always in control, and on the top of his game, even with danger lurking around every turn. I mean look at him, in the Army for two days and he’s practically running things! That’s William Powell for you.

 

It Started with Eve (1941)- Henry Koster

 ★★★★

 

“It Started with Eve” (1941) is the last of six films that had the dynamic creative collaboration of director Henry Koster, producer Joe Pasternak, and acting/singing sensation Deanna Durbin. It also (quite possibly) is their funniest. Of course instead of giving them all the credit, I must point out that what makes this film wonderful has more to do with a delightfully witty screenplay written by Norman Krasna and Leo Townsend,  and a commanding and hilarious performance from the somewhat surprisingly comical Charles Laughton.

You see, Jonathan Reynolds (Laughton), the towering, powerful man, who grabs headlines every time he leaves his home, is in fact, dying.It Started with Eve (1941) His loving son, Johnny (Robert Cummings), rushes to his father’s enormous mansion and kneels next to the bed in time to hear the dying man’s request to set his eyes on his only child’s fiance before death comes. Johnny, being an obliging son, frantically drives across town to the hotel where his fiance, Gloria (Margaret Tallichet), is staying with her mother (Catherine Doucet). Unfortunately, they aren’t in, and Johnny feels that all is lost.

But wait! Johnny’s luck is about to change as a hat check girl, Anne (Deanna Durbin), agrees to pose as Johnny’s fiance, just to help out. (Isn’t that sweet of her?) Anne meets Mr. Reynolds, who is impressed with her girl-next-door appearance and down-to-earth mentality. So much so in fact, that he makes a remarkable recovery and is back on his feet in no time. Good news for him- bad news for Johnny and Anne as they have to figure out some way to break the news of their lie to the old man, without him relapsing.

Although “It Started with Eve” is a highly predictable story, the entire production still benefits from a great script and a cast who clearly know how to get the job done. Robert Cummings spends the majority of the film running in circles with an I’m so confused and overwhelmed look on his face, but he steps things up when the scene needs him too. Deanna Durbin does what Deanna Durbin always does best- she looks cute and likeable, and she sings.It Started with Eve (1941) She also gets to mix things up with both Cummings and Charles Laughton, which gives her a chance to do some more physical comedy with Cummings and a more dialogue driven humor with Laughton.

It is the great Charles Laughton who deserves the most praise, in a role that is a far cry from his successful performances from the 1930’s. Don’t get me wrong, he can always be funny in a smaller, quieter way, as is evident in a film like “The Private Lives of Henry VIII” (1933). In “It Started with Eve,” however, his humor and comedic style is much more evident and substantially more appreciated. He also has the advantage of playing a character that is supposed to be substantially older than he was. In fact, Laughton was only 42 years old at the time of this film’s release, making Robert Cummings (playing his son) only 11 years his junior. Laughton sulks around many of his early scenes, reminding the audience of his deteriorating body and fragile bones, but it’s all just a set-up to show how youthful he now feels by having Anne in his and his son’s life. Truthfully speaking, I wish Laughton had made more films such as this one, as he has a refreshing and highly enjoyable style that truly does leave the audience wanting more.

Out of the Fog (1941)- Anatole Litvak

 ★★

 

A few words come to mind when watching Anatole Litvak’s film noir, “Out of the Fog” (1941), or more appropriately, a few words come to mind once it’s over. The most common one is awkward. Perhaps this film seems to misfire because, due to the Hays Code, it wasn’t allowed to be honest and true to the original source material (Irwin Shaw’s play, “Gentle People”). Then again, maybe it’s just the fact that under the surface there simply isn’t much there.

The story revolves around Goff (John Garfield), a low-level gangster who extorts money from old men who like to fish after a long day of working. His new victims are Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen), who, against their better judgment, begin paying Goff to stay out of harm’s way. Out of the Fog (1941)While down by the pier, Goff also meets Stella (Ida Lupino), a young woman who just wants out of her monotonous and mundane life. The two begin dating, where Goff spends extravagant amounts of money on her and takes her to nightclubs that her longtime boyfriend (Eddie Albert) could never afford. The catch here is that Stella happens to be Jonah’s daughter, and even though she knows that Goff is chiseling her father’s hard-earned money, she proceeds to see him, and in fact, becomes more infatuated with his outlook on life.

The film starts off as many other crime noirish films from the early 1940’s. It’s a little mysterious, very intriguing, and is loaded with characters portrayed by actors that are easy to watch. Garfield plays the weasely Goff extremely well, and right from the onset he manages to have the audience rooting against him. Lupino is marvelous (as always) because even though she’s a little obsessed with getting out of her trapped life, she is still relatable, and her desperation and hopelessness feels very real.

The real problem here is the story, that despite arousing our interest in the opening, quickly begins to tread water, waiting for something to happen. Out of the Fog (1941)The movie runs only 85 minutes, but 20 of those could have disappeared- easily. Even then, in the final reel, which should be the most energetic and suspenseful, everything completely falls apart. It’s fake, uninspiring, and to a degree, even aggravating to watch.

“Out of the Fog” certainly isn’t one of the worst films around, but considering how many quality film noirs were popping up around the same time, this one can be skipped. There is a great deal of quality cinematography from James Wong Howe that deserves praise for its style and charm, and Litvak’s direction is acceptable- if not good. Still, they aren’t enough to salvage this wreck. Rarely is there a film that has good acting, cinematography, and direction, but still can’t pull it all together to make a decent and entertaining picture. If only “Out of the Fog” was as awesome as its poster!

Master of the House (1925)-Carl Theodor Dreyer

★★★★

 

“Master of the House” (1925), also known as “Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife” or “Du skal aere din husru,” is a silent, satirical family comedy written and directed by the great Carl Theodor Dreyer. Master of the House (1925)It is a unique film partially because it is unlike the films for which Dreyer is famous for creating, but also because the story is so ahead of its time as it illustrates the difficulties of running a household and raising a family, significantly before the roles of women in the home were an issue, especially in films.

The plot follows the Frandsen family, mostly centered around the selfish, ruthless, disagreeable father, Viktor (Johannes Meyer). He is never satisfied with the way his house is run and the way his children behave. His hard-working wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), does everything she can (and in some cases more than she should) to try to keep Viktor happy… to no avail. He berates and chastises her at every turn, and he treats his three children as if they are more like servants then members of his family.Master of the House (1925) Everyone tip-toes around him, except of course, for his childhood nursemaid, Nana (Mathilde Nielsen). She is disappointed with the way he has turned out and isn’t afraid to put him in his place.

After a confrontation between Viktor and Ida, Nana suggests to Ida that she go stay with her mother and seek some medical attention for her deteriorated condition. Nana stays and begins running the household, but not in the way Ida had, and certainly not in the way Viktor would prefer. What is at first a shock to Viktor, quickly becomes a life-lesson that he is not soon to forget.

If you have ever been fortunate enough to see a Carl Theodor Dreyer picture, the plot of “Master of the House” might seem a bit uncharacteristic, and truthfully, it is. The Master of the House (1925)Typically his movies dealt with heavy, difficult, and intense subject matter such as in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), “Vampyr” (1932), and “Mikael” (1924). Although different, it is not a disappointment, as Dreyer’s ability to tell a serious story with a comedic twist drives the picture forward with a relatable humanity. It also happens to be rather touching, too.

Over the course of time, many “important” directors tend to be remembered for a certain type of film, and Dreyer is no exception. The greatest thing about “Master of the House” is that it shows a different side to a man who is a bit of a mystery himself. His other movies have been so strong, sad or frightening, but here he has shown a softer, more tender, and funnier side that is not only appreciated, but  oddly comforting to those who find themselves overwhelmed by the rest of his films.

The Big Clock (1948)- John Farrow

★★★★★

 

Based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing, “The Big Clock” (1948) is a suspense thriller revolving around a magazine editor and investigator named George (Ray Milland), who has been hired by his less than compassionate boss, Janoth (Charles Laughton), to investigate a man, whom Janoth believes is having an affair with his girlfriend (Rita Johnson). The Big Clock (1948)Problems quickly arise as George realizes that he is the man that he has been hired to find, even though he is innocent of any wrong-doing (other than making a few stupid decisions). George is forced to continue the search (for himself), while juggling his aggravating boss, his suspecting wife (Maureen O’Sullivan), and while trying to find the real criminal on his own.

Somewhat surprisingly, “The Big Clock” is a pretty decent suspense thriller. The story has a couple of holes and “convenient coincidences”, but once those are put aside, everything falls into place nicely. The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer keeps things moving at a pace that is easy to follow, without ever dragging. It builds slowly until the final twenty minutes when the suspense completely takes over, catching the audience almost by surprise.

Director John Farrow directs without any pomp and circumstance, allowing the script and story to control the film. He also lets his group of actors do their own thing, and when you have a group like this, that works best anyway.The Big Clock (1948) Ray Milland is perfectly cast, reminiscent of his performance in the Fritz Lang thriller, “Ministry of Fear” (1944). Here, Milland recaptures that suspense-filled magic, and he plays the “wrong man” character extremely well. He’s easy to root for, and his sense of humor gives him the feel of an old friend that you’re always excited to see.

Charles Laughton is also very good, although the part isn’t huge. He makes a superb villain, and he and Milland seem like a couple of guys who could go head to head anytime. Rita Johnson and Maureen O’Sullivan perform well in their limited roles, O’Sullivan coming out of retirement to work with her husband, director John Farrow.  Once again, neither of these ladies have much screen time, but they get their jobs done despite it being Milland’s film. If you want to talk about a scene stealer, however, we have one of those too in the amazingly talented Elsa Lanchester. The Big Clock (1948)She plays a painter who can identify George, but for whatever reason, chooses to help him instead. She is hilarious, and one major downside to this film is that Lanchester doesn’t have a larger part.

The real highlight of “The Big Clock” is in the preconceived notions that you might have going into the film. Even the title suggests a “B” movie feel, but it deserves more credit than that. It’s pieced together nicely with a noir appearance without being quite so dark and dreary. It actually feels like the type of film that Alfred Hitchcock could have made, which would have made it a more remembered film today. John Farrow, however, rises to the challenge and delivers a masterfully conceived picture that delivers on every level.

Berlin Express (1948)- Jacques Tourneur

 ★★★

 

After the end of WWII, a train is traveling from Paris to Berlin with an assortment of people deemed “important”, to the reconstruction of Germany. Berlin Express (1948)Included on this journey are an American, Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), a Frenchman (Charles Korvin), an Englishman (Robert Coote), a Russian Lieutenant (Roman Toporow), a German woman, Lucienne (Merle Oberon), and another (slightly mysterious) German (Paul Lukas). On the way, yet another German, who is on his way to speak at a meeting about the importance of peace, is murdered by a bomb explosion in his compartment.

Upon their arrival at the next stop, while being questioned about the murder, the group of strangers learn that everything is not what it seems to be, and even though they find that they are constantly in disagreement with each other about military and political ideas, they are forced to work as a team to retrieve the German (Paul Lukas) who has now been kidnapped. Lucienne explains to the group that this man’s retrieval is vitally important to the rehabilitation of Berlin Express (1948)Germany, and despite their initial reluctance, everyone begins a city-wide search through the ruins of Frankfurt for any clues to his whereabouts.

To call the plot a bit confusing is a gross understatement. There are several characters, all that get a brief introduction before the film dives right into the heat of things. There are too many people involved, and not near enough time to understand who they really are. In an attempt to help the audience, there is a narration designed to fill in several of the gaps. Unfortunately, the voice-over is required so frequently that after the first thirty minutes “Berlin Express” almost feels like a documentary designed to educate rather than entertain. Then the voice-over disappears completely, leaving us stranded, trying helplessly to keep up with theBerlin Express (1948) assortment of characters that are only vaguely familiar.

All of the acting here is good, without any of it being great. The roles are not extensive, but everyone seems to do the best that they can with what they have been given, including a very nicely written story and screenplay written by Curt Siodmak and Harold Medford. The real star of the film isn’t the acting anyway, but the location. Filmed throughout both Germany and France, “Berlin Express” benefits from the dilapidated shambles of a country, the likes of which American audiences hadn’t seen. Even today, films that bring this devastation to the foreground of a film are few and far between. Billy Wilder did it in “Foreign Affair” (1948), Fred Zinnemann did it in “The Search” (1948), and here Jacques Tourneur has done it as well. When you combine this location shooting with fantastic cinematographyBerlin Express (1948) by the great Lucien Ballard (Merle Oberon’s husband at the time), it is then that “Berlin Express” actually starts to improve. Unfortunately the film’s short running time and anti-climactic climax, with predictable twists and turns, only brings the entire revival to a crashing halt.

It’s really too bad. With Robert Ryan, Merle Oberon, Paul Lukas (whom I like quite a bit), Jacques Tourneur, and Lucien Ballard all collaborating together, “Berlin Express” could have been something quite special. Instead, it’s just another easily forgotten post-war movie that does little more than hold its audiences attention for the 87 minute running time.