(On Cable TV, June 2018) I haven’t watched that many movies starring Marlene Dietrich yet, but Witness for the Prosecution is the first when I really get what Dietrich was about—it certainly helps that it flashes back to a cabaret sequence. Looking spectacular in her mid-fifties, she feels actively dangerous as the titular witness willing to do what it takes to achieve what she wants. Not that she’s the sole highlight of the film—Charles Laughton is incredibly likable as a barrister taking on a difficult case and never quite certain of everyone’s motives. The script, adapted from an Agatha Christie short story, is nicely paced to introduce the characters before getting down to the business of thrills and unexpected plot twists. Witness for the Prosecution does amount to a satisfying film, perhaps too brightly lit as a court drama to be pure film noir but certainly willing to get its inspiration from the depths of human cruelty. If director Billy Wilder has made a bad movie, I haven’t yet seen it.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) For a mid-thirties production, Mutiny on the Bounty still manages to impress thanks to expansive filmmaking, a solid story and good character work. While historically dubious (read the Wikipedia entry for the latest thinking regarding the real-life incident, markedly more sympathetic to captain Blight, not to mention the sad aftermath of the mutiny), the story itself does have a certain narrative drive, and the way the film portrays the events manages to be impressive—the shot in which hundreds of Tahitians converge to the water to greet the English visitors is still remarkable today. The heart of the film remains between Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Blight—both actors hold their own. While creaky by modern standards, much of Mutiny on the Bounty can be watched effortlessly today … and that’s no small achievement for a film pushing eighty.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) When watching older movies, it’s natural to assume certain parameters. Aside from the occasional noir movie, themselves neutered by the restrictions of the Hays Code, most films from the fifties are presumed to be fairly soft—neutered in themes, gentle in approach, straightforward in presentation. The Night of the Hunter has endured because it is most definitely not those things. Anchored by a strong menacing performance from Robert Mitchum (in a role that clearly anticipates his turn in Cape Fear), the film soon disposes of its central female character, then turns its attention to mortal child endangerment. What’s more, director Charles Laughton applies nightmarish expressionist style to its hard-core thriller plot for a surreal experience that has as much to do with sheer style as substance. A popular and critical dud upon release, The Night of the Hunter has grown in stature since then for obvious reasons: it’s a film ahead of its time, precise in its impact and still quite impressive to take in.