Friday, July 26, 2019

Classic Movie: Stalag 17

Photos and summary via IMDb

When two escaping American World War II prisoners are killed, the German P.O.W. camp barracks black marketeer, J.J. Sefton, is suspected of being an informer.

Stalag 17
Paramount Pictures
directed by Billy Wilder
2 hours

After seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai, I really wanted to rewatch William Holden's performance in another WWII POW movie, Stalag 17. And the next day, I did. I've seen it many times now, but it's been over a year, and with each viewing, I find something new to enjoy in the film. My friend who watched with me this time had never seen it, and was struck at first by the stereotypical portrayals of the Germans in the movie. However, I think the characters are more nuanced than mere stereotypes, and enjoy the specificity of the characters, even though on the surface, they all--including the prisoners--have stereotypical elements. The film tells the story of a group of Americans in a German POW camp during World War II, with "Hoffy" (Richard Erdman) narrating the tale. It's both comedy, mystery, and a slice of life drama, directed with his usual verve by Billy Wilder (who also worked with William Holden on 1950's Sunset Blvd. and 1954's Sabrina). 

Stalag 17 is, I think, my favorite performance by William Holden (for which he won the 1954 Oscar for best actor). He's brash, contained, charming, cunning, devil-may-care, and, in his own odd way, heroic. He inhabits the part of Sgt. JJ Sefton, and it's a joy to watch, despite the subject matter. The comic relief of Animal and Shapiro never gets old for me, and every time I also appreciate more and more the ensemble cast, especially the performances of Don Taylor as Lt. Dunbar and Otto Preminger (who directed one of my favorite noir classics, Laura) as CO of the camp, von Scherbach. The pacing of the film, and the cast's timing and rapport make this a pleasure to watch again and again.

Overall ★★★★★ (5/5)
Comfort 🍵 (1/5)
Romance (0/5)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Classic Movie: The Bridge on the River Kwai

After settling his differences with a Japanese P.O.W. camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors, while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

Photos and summary via IMDb

The Bridge on the River Kwai
directed by David Lean
161 minutes

The same day my sister and I watched Picnic, we followed it with The Bridge on the River Kwai. It's an odd William Holden double feature, but we wanted to watch both movies, so we did. The Bridge on the River Kwai is really Alec Guinness's movie, rather than William Holden's. Both give superb performances, though, as does Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito, the commanding officer of the Japanese POW camp. Both Saito and Guinness's Colonel Nicholson are principled, thorough men bordering on obsessive, in contrast to Holden's Shears, a somewhat brash American, similar to his character in Stalag 17 (which I'll talk about next week). Shears is a character without a consistent through-line, though, and it dims the impact of his story line, especially in contrast to the crackling scenes between Guinness and Hayakawa.

The film as a whole is sweeping yet contains detailed, nuanced character studies. I hadn't realized that David Lean also directed one of my favorite films, Brief Encounter--his range as a director is striking. The subtle commentaries in The Bridge on the River Kwai about war and colonialism are sharp. I found the ending slightly ambiguous, and sometimes, during the film, had a hard time separating irony from a sense of glorification; that may just be my own cluelessness, however, not a commentary on Lean's film making.

This is a film worth watching, but one I wouldn't return to with any frequency, as I prefer somewhat lighter fare a majority of the time. Being a William Holden fan, it left me wanting to watch another of his films, which I did. More on that next week. 
Have you seen The Bridge on the River Kwai? What did you think?

Overall ★★★★ (4/5)
Comfort (0/5)
Romance (0/5)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Film Friday: Picnic

Photos and plot summary via IMDb

"Emotions are ignited amongst the complacent townsfolk when a handsome drifter arrives in a small Kansas community on the morning of the Labor Day picnic."

directed by Joshua Logan
113 minutes

My sister and I got together for more William Holden movies recently (and more pie!) and watched one of our favorites, Picnic. Based on the play by William Inge, Picnic follows a group of people whose lives are shaken up by the arrival of drifter Hal, played with charismatic appeal by William Holden. Though he's really too old for the part, we couldn't fault his performance, which stretches him taut between vulnerability and bravado, maturity and boyhood. This time around, we noticed the theme of envy, and how each character wants something another has, and will go to great lengths to get it, or keep what they think is theirs. The movie packs humor, heart-wrenching moments, bittersweet love, and small town quirks into what seems only a few days in the story world.

Verna Felton, Susan Stasberg, and Betty Field

Aside from Holden, the entire cast is wonderful, especially Kim Novak as "pretty one" Madge; Betty Field as her and Millie's mother, Flo; Verna Felton as neighbor Mrs. Potts (who, like that character name, makes appearances in several Disney movies, most notably for me as the voice of the fairy godmother in Cinderella); Cliff Robertson as Alan (Hal's college friend, and Madge's boyfriend); Arthur O'Connell as Howard (I love him in Bus Stop--also directed by Logan--as well); and Susan Strasberg as "smart one" Millie. (And Rosalind Russell as boarder and school teacher Rosemary, though she has the most painful-to-watch scenes). Millie is the standout character for me, this time around, who is feisty, sad, and ultimately, wise. I love the scene in the dressing house after they go swimming, mostly for Millie's giving the men a talking to.

Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, William Holden, and Cliff Robertson

The production is also great, with costumes by Jean Louis and cinematography by James Wong Howe, two accomplished artists and craftspeople. It's a fun movie to watch as summer comes to an end and ponder on life, love, and what might happen to the characters after the movie ends. Do you ever make up stories for characters of movies you've seen?

Overall ★★★★ (4/5)
Comfort 🍵🍵 (2/5)
Romance ❤❤❤ (3/5)

Friday, July 5, 2019

Film Friday: To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief (link to IMDb/photos via IMDb)

A retired jewel thief sets out to prove his innocence after being suspected of returning to his former occupation.

Paramount Pictures
1955/106 minutes/color
Starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly/directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I'll start with a piece of advice for anyone who writes or has creative ideas (which is probably all of us!)--write down (or record) your thoughts and ideas when you have them. I watched To Catch a Thief  just before graduation week (my older son is moving on to high school!) and a vacation, and made the mistake of not jotting down what I felt about the film. But I'll see what I can recall. :) The overall gist is, this is an entertaining, visually beautiful (how could it not be, with Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and the south of France!) bit of Hitchcock escapism.

One of Kelly's memorable costumes from the film, designed by Edith Head

Grant's John Robie is a retired jewel thief who soon finds himself on the run, trying to prove his innocence in a string of copycat thefts. He teams up with insurance man Mr. Hughson, played charmingly by British actor John Williams (loved him in Sabrina as well), and American debutante Frances Stevens, inhabited by a gorgeous and sublime Grace Kelly. Jessie Royce Landis plays her mother in the film, and later, the actress, who has good screen chemistry with Grant, played Grant's mother in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (though she was only eight years older than Grant! Oh, Hollywood.).

Williams as Hughson striking a pose worthy of the tight-laced, urbane character

All the actors play beautifully off each other, though I can't say it's Grant's best performance. Still, he's as charming as ever, and it's a solid movie that is part thriller, part suspense, part crime caper, and part romantic comedy. With the stunning setting, gorgeous costumes, beautiful and capable acting and directing, To Catch a Thief is fun to watch and lose yourself in for a couple of hours. Though the plot is a bit predictable, and there are a couple of problematic elements, overall I'm glad I finally saw this classic Hitchcock film.

Grant and Kelly and the scenery will steal your attention

If you want to escape to the French Rivera this summer from the comfort of your home, check out this movie gem!

What a sight!