Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Opening Statement

 

A spy, a hooker & a pickpocket walk into a police station…

 

Review

 

Skip McCoy is a cannon, a pickpocket who works the crowds in busy New York city. While pursuing his usual line of criminal work, he steals some items from a woman’s purse. Little does he know that the woman is a courier for a communist spy ring and he just stole a piece of microfilm that they will do almost anything to get back. Also interested are the G-Men looking to arrest said spies. Both parties suspect he’s involved and Skip will have to think fast to get out of this mess. Complicating things are his growing feelings for the girl who was the unwitting courier for the gang.

 

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Skip at work. Moving in.
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He has no idea what kind of dynamite is in that purse.

Pickup on South Street is a 1953 film noir directed by the famously independent Sam Fuller, who was also a crime beat reporter in New York and a combat infantryman in WW2.

 

Fuller’s own experiences give the film a gritty, street level realism that stands out even in the famously gritty film noir genre. All of the characters in this film have agendas, scams and their own motivations that never completely mesh with anyone else’s.

 

Skip, the pickpocket, played by Richard Widmark is just looking to survive in a tough city. he’s already a 2 time felon, one more conviction or even a misdemeanor will send him up state for 20 years. So he’s very uninterested in helping to investigate a group of spies. He starts as an anti-hero at best, at one point snarling “Don’t wave your flag at me” to an FBI agent trying to appeal to his patriotism.

 

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Skip being a smart-ass, as usual.

Candy, the woman he robbed, played by Jean Peters in one of her best roles, thought she was just doing a favor for an ex-boyfriend by dropping off a package. She suspected it was probably something illegal, but she had no idea that she was a courier for an international spy ring. Her attempts to work her charm on Skip to get the film back and his acidic replies, are some of the better parts of the film.The chemistry between the two leads is electric and provides a needed mid-film jolt.

 

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Candy, not happy after being slugged, again, by Skip. If looks could kill.

Another great performance is Thelma Ritter’s character Moe, who earns a living as a professional information broker, ie a stool pigeon. She also serves as a sort of surrogate mother to Skip and provides part of the catalyst that turns him from indifferent crook to spy hunter by the climax of the film.

 

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Moe Knows.

The backstory on the production of Pickup on South Street is almost as interesting as the film itself. Before Jean Peters was cast as Candy, Shelley Winters, Betty Grable and Marylin Monroe were all considered and rejected for various reasons. Betty Grable apparently wanted the role badly, but also wanted a dance number that Sam Fuller thought (correctly IMHO) would destroy the flow and authenticity of the film. Fuller liked Monroe’s acting, but felt her beauty and sex appeal would distract from the rest of the story and wouldn’t be believable. Jean Peters provided the right combination of toughness, street smarts, and sex appeal for the character.

 

Sam Fuller also had multiple battles with the Code censors over the level of violence and overt sexuality in the film. You can tell from the final product that Fuller was able to preserve much of the film’s character. The main changes seem to be an overly optimistic happy ending and some deliberate vagueness in the story about what Candy’s actual profession is (hint: Not a Sunday school teacher). Fortunately these concessions don’t affect the quality of the finished product.

 

The film is one of the most violent I’ve seen from the era, with several brutal murders, beatings and a final fight scene that is spectacularly choreographed and filmed. Fuller’s street experience shows in the portrayal of how tough life on the streets can be for the poor and criminal. You can feel the desperation and sense of vulnerability of many of the characters as they struggle to make it another day.

 

Verdict 4 gavels out of 5 Classic in the film noir genre, with a bit of espionage and romance mixed in to keep things interesting.

The new Magnificent 7 film

I just saw the new Magnificent 7 film. Overall it wasn’t too bad, typical summer blockbuster fare. Like most remakes/reboots, whatever the studios want to call them nowadays, it’s bigger and louder than the original. The cast is likeable and once the 7 are assembled, the film picks up pace a bit, albeit somewhat unevenly. The story’s villain changes from a bandit criminal gang in the 1960 Magnificent 7, to an amoral gunfighter/robber baron backed up by the local sheriff.

My main issue with the film is why someone thought it was necessary in the first place. Westerns are practically an endangered species in theaters now. Why remake a 56 year legendary film?

Especially since every aspect of the new film will be compared to it’s fore-bearers, the original Magnificent 7 and the equally legendary Kurosawa film Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) the 1960 Magnificent 7 is based on. This where the film runs into problems, it’s good, but not great enough to erase comparisons to it’s predecessors.

The modern edits to the story include a new revenge sub-plot involving Denzel Washington’s character that does little more than confuse the plot. The primary villain is a walking  collection of TV Tropes, shoot the messengerrobber baron and card carrying villain to name a few.

Another issue is the army of villains, who seem to have more in common with a World War 2 Banzai charge than a mercenary band. In the film’s climax, they are shown rushing repeatedly into murderous crossfire, dynamite mines and deadly booby traps with nary a flinch or sign of retreat.

The film gives no motive for this behavior. Fear, greed, misplaced loyalty? The plot gives no sign of anything to justify their continuing to attack as most of their comrades are mowed down in ill advised frontal assaults on the town.

The film also suffers from the typical modern summer blockbuster ailments of overly loud (to the point of clipping out the theater’s speakers) soundtrack and bloated editing. Many scenes go on at least a few beats too long, which quickly adds up and makes the film feel longer than the 1960 Magnificent 7, despite being roughly the same run time. Overall it feels like less is done with the available time.

On the plus side the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful panning shots of prairies, forests and mountains.

Overall I’d say it’s probably worth seeing in theaters, especially if you’re a fan of the genre or of one of the actors. The beautiful cinematography and likeable cast rescue it from a muddled plot and sometimes plodding pace. Just don’t expect anything special. Otherwise, wait for the budget showing or for the inevitable video release.

Robert Odierna 2016

Links

Hi everyone,

Here is a link to a website devoted to an often forgotten aspect of the very visual film medium: Sound. Virtually everything you hear in a modern film from dialog to background speech (walla) to foley (mostly footsteps) is either artificially added or post processed in a hundred specialized ways. It’s a testament to the skill of these artists that films sound as good as they do.

It wasn’t always that way, one of the reasons people find early sound films a challenge is the primitive nature of the sound. Often the only sound system was an open omnidirectional mic. This was also a few years before high quality condensor mic systems escaped from the Navy sonar department and into studios.

filmsound.org is a great resource into this niche but fascinating field of film. From basic how to articles to extensive and detailed interviews, this site is a treasure for any film fan who wants to see how their favorite art form is made.

Sully (2016)

Sully (2016)

Just went to see the new Tom Hanks film in theaters, Sully. Since it’s a bit off topic for my site I’ll just do a quick review.

Sully tells the story of the short flight of US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15th 2009. Also called miracle on the Hudson, the Airbus A320 struck a flight of birds and lost both engines shortly after takeoff.

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Bird Strike!

Due to an almost perfect combination of circumstances, the pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was able to make an extremely dangerous emergency water landing and save all 155 passengers and crew. Anyone with an interest in aviation will tell you the odds of pulling off that kind of move with a crippled jet liner are almost improbably small.

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The miracle on the Hudson

My main concern with the film is how they were going to stretch an event lasting less than 5 minutes into a feature length film? Fortunately director Clint Eastwood centers the film in the aftermath of the crash and the NTSB investigation. An NTSB investigation is very similar to a criminal investigation, about the only thing they don’t do is arrest and mugshot the people involved. The primary difference is that the investigators are not just determined to find out why and how a crash happened, but how to prevent it from happening again.

Most of the dramatic tension involves the flight crew being grilled by the NTSB investigators. The story frequently flashes back to the crucial moments of the miracle on the Hudson, as well as other critical moments in Sully’s life. The film also shows the stresses that fame bring and the stress of being separated from his family during the investigation.

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The investigation
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“It was not a crash, it was a forced water landing.”

The film also shows the unsung heroes of the story, the flight attendants who helped keep things together before and after the crash. The ferry boat crews and first responders who helped in the rescue and the air traffic control crew.

The flying sequences are spectacular with minimal CGI and excellent editing. Some of the angles show just how close that plane came to nailing a building in it’s flight path to the river.

While Sully is a fairly low key film, it does a good job of building up dramatic tension and whole thing wraps up in a tight by modern standards 90 minutes. The editing is very tight with very little waste. Refreshing in an era of 2.5 hour epics.

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart both do well as Captain Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles. The easygoing camaraderie and banter feel realistic. My only issue is that Tom Hanks is so distinctive as an actor and personality, that it’s difficult at times to forget it’s him playing Sully.

Verdict 4.0 Gavels out of 5 A surprisingly good story of a real life group of heroes. A great drama without a lot of fluff. The flight sequences alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

 

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Opening Statement

Whisper her name!

 

Review

 

The film opens with young Martha trying to run away from home to join the circus. With her is her kitten and her best friend Sam. The two are noticed by railway workers and police before they can get far. Sam escapes being arrested but Martha is dragged home to her wealthy aunt. The aunt, played by Judith Anderson, is a stern and harsh woman. By today’s standards violently abusive.  During a power outage she attempts to beat Martha’s poor kitten to death when it gets in her way, in a shocking scene that will make pet owners cringe. Martha comes to the aid of her pet and shoves the older woman down the stairs, where she is found dead with a broken neck. Witnessing this is neighbor boy Walter who helps Martha avoid arrest by supporting her story.

 

The film then advances 18 years, Walter and Martha are married, with Walter being the District Attorney for the area and Martha leveraging her inheritance into a powerful industrial empire. While Walter is in love with Martha to the point of obsession, Martha is definitely not in love with him.

 

The reappearance of Sam causes the delicate house of cards to collapse. Both Walter and Martha suspect he may have seen the death of her aunt and that he intends to blackmail them. Walter sees him purely as a threat and uses the power of his office to entrap and threaten Sam. Martha is more conflicted and still holds a torch for her childhood best friend. The complicated web of loves, hatreds and conflicting interests begin to boil over. Further complicating things is that Sam literally walks into all this with no idea anything untoward is going on. Newly discharged from the Army, he arrives in town courtesy of an auto accident and stumbles into the mess. If anything he’s more interested in Antonia, a young woman played by Lizabeth Scott, who quickly becomes a pawn of the paranoid DA.

 

This one isn’t a love triangle as much as a love parallelogram. Walter loves Martha, who loves Sam, who loves Antonia but also might still love Martha. Confused yet? I can’t really get too far into the story because so much of it depends on reveal, anything beyond this point would spoil the film.

 

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Walter loves Martha.

 

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Martha loves Sam.

 

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But Sam loves Toni. Confused yet?

With a dynamite cast including the great Barbara Stanwyck as the title character, Van Heflin as Sam, Lizabeth Scott as Antonia and Kirk Douglas as DA Walter O’Neil; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a strange beast, an amalgam of film noir story with A-List cast. Like many Stanwyck vehicles, this one is as much drama as it is noir.

 

While not as recognized as other Stanwyck greats such as Double Indemnity or The Lady Eve. This one is a good example of her acting ability. Her character Martha is a volatile combination of anger, resentment, paranoia and wistful longing for what might have been.

 

Kirk Douglas puts in a powerful performance as the paranoid, obsessive Walter in his first major role in film. While the performance is distinctly different from his typical later roles, it shows his already considerable talent.

 

Lizabeth Scott is her usual self, giving a good performance loaded sensuality, anger and intensity.

 

Van Heflin is competent as street kid turned war hero, Sam. He gets the job done but the script really doesn’t give him much and many of his scenes are shared with some very talented Ham-asaurus Rex actors who dominate their scenes.

 

Verdict 3.5 Gavels out of 5 Good potboiler drama with some serious film noir influences. Not as good as other Stanwyck films but still worth seeing if you’re a fan of her films or film noir in general.

Sinners in Paradise

Sinners in Paradise

Opening Statement

A group of castaways marooned on a remote island!

Review

The film opens with a group of people booking passage to China. We quickly see the major characters and their personalities. The nurse fleeing a bad marriage, a pair of munitions salesmen form rival firms, a pompous senator, a spoiled heiress and a pair of underworld characters.

The seaplane they are traveling in soon crash lands during a storm, killing the pilot and most of the crew. The survivors find themselves washed ashore on a tropical island.

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Never a good thing to see in the air.

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Senator Foghorn. With that much hot air he’s unsinkable!

To their surprise they find that there is someone already living there. The mysterious Mr. Taylor and his servant Ping.

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Mr. Taylor. he’s VERY mysterious, and tragic too.

Taylor is mysteriously reluctant to help them escape the island. Insisting that their troubles aren’t his problem and refusing them the use of his boat. He also forces them to forage for their own food and take care of themselves. Some take to it better than others, naturally, the senator and heiress being the loudest complainers.

The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out what makes Taylor tick and what criminal or misdemeanor past he is fleeing from. All kinds of dark theories of murder and police pursuit are run through in the film. The actual conclusion is unfortunately underwhelming.

This film is unusual in that it manages to be odd and stereotypical at the same time. The characters are cardboard cut-outs straight from central casting. Loud mouthed politician and spoiled heiress being two popular models in that era of film. How they are used is interesting. Instead of the gangster and gun moll being the villains of the film, the two salesman are. In fact they are portrayed in about the most negative light possible while the two criminals are anti-heroes at worst, very unusual for a code era film.

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Weaponized salesmen. Seriously, these guys make used car salesman seem easy going.

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They’re not really bad, just misunderstood.

The problem with the film is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s an adventure, a mystery or a comedy. Any dramatic tension or sense of danger is completely destroyed by mistimed attempts at humor.

The camera work and lighting are competent, but not spectacular. There are some fairly obvious miniatures in the plane crash sequence and most of the “island” is obviously set based. The sound is typically inconsistent for a mid to late 30’s B picture.

The acting is poor to average with a few people underperforming while others such as the senator hamming it up to 11. Especially offensive is the portrayal of Ping, the servant, which manages to hit every racist stereotype possible.

Verdict 1.5 Gavels out of 5 Odd little B picture that tries to do too many things in its 1 hour runtime. The mix of adventure, mystery and drama feels forced and the clichéd and sometimes racist characters don’t help things.

Gene Wilder 1933-2016

Gene Wilder 1933-2016

The world just lost one of it’s greatest comedians. While not really connected with the kind of films I review here, Gene Wilder has always been a favorite actor of mine.

Whether playing the nearly narcoleptic gunfighter, The Waco Kid in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

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Or the hilariously demented Dr. Frankenstein (Pronounced Fronk-En-Steen please) in young Dr. Frankenstein, which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder had a distinctive and unique presence.

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The wild, curly blond hair, intense blue eyes and a voice that could shift from a quiet almost hypnotic whisper into a manic, shouting fit in seconds, made him a unique and distinctive actor. He was also a talented singer and dancer, who could lampoon a Broadway number and make it look better than the original.

The film that most defines Wilder to many in my generation is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The film really shows his range, from song and dance numbers, pratfalls, manic energy and moments of quiet intensity. Willy Wonka shows the full range of his considerable talents.

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Goodbye Gene Wilder, you’ll be truly missed.