(On Cable TV, September 2019) You could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are the same movie—after all, aren’t they both Hemingway novel adaptations featuring Cary Grant as a man who fall in love with a woman during wartime? Well, yes, but there are more than a few differences. For Whom the Bell Tolls, having been made ten years later, features colour cinematography, numerous exteriors, Ingrid Bergman (with short hair), more grandiose wartime sequences, fewer classical-Hollywood touches, and more assurance in how it presents its story. As a long (…very long…) look at the life of rebels during the Spanish Civil War, it spends quite a bit of time detailing life in the bush, tensions between combatants and the love story between our two leads. Cary Grant is his usual solid yet unusually bland self, playing opposite Ingrid Bergman but with both of them being outshined by Katina Paxinou’s harsh-talking hard-living character. (Paxinou won an Oscar for the role, and you can immediately see why.) Given that our protagonist is a dynamiter, there are a few explosions to make things far more interesting. Alas, the film will try anyone’s patience at nearly three hours complete with introduction and intermission. In trying to adapt a novel as faithfully as possible, the script forgets that movies work differently and the entire thing feels far too long. Still, it’s well executed, occasionally moving, explosively exciting at times. But For Whom the Bell Tolls could have been shorter. And it does end on a note very similar to that of Farewell to Arms, triumphant Hollywood cues outshining tragedy and all.
(On TV, July 2019) Hollywood has been obsessed with sequels for a long time, and following up Going My Way’s success with The Bells of St. Mary is as good an example as any that 1940s cinema wasn’t immune to the impulse. Reprising Bing Crosby’s Oscar-winning turn as a likable priest sent to fix a troubled Manhattan religious institution (he jokes, he sings, he tolerates mild amounts of teenage hooliganism), this sequel pairs him with none other than Ingrid Bergman as a nun who also has a lot on her plate in teaching her students. (If you needed any proof that Bergman was a top-tier beauty, consider that she remains captivating here through her face and hands alone, never taking off her nun’s outfit.) Much of the plot has to do with the school being threatened by a businessman building a factory next door and coveting the school’s ground for a parking lot. Other subplots revolve around the school’s students. But there is no nice way to say it: The Bells of St. Mary’s is an inferior sequel to the original Going My Way. Crosby is an immensely likable presence, Bergman is great, the film makes sure to go for a heartwarming ending and the religious content is toned down to the point of being nearly irrelevant, but the film remains considerably duller than its predecessor. The drama has become superficial melodrama, with fewer captivating moments and if the result never quite overstays its welcome, it still feels longer than optimal. It doesn’t help that the subplots are assembled mechanically, with cheap resolutions that seem to ignore basic human impulses. (That subplot about a wayward father reuniting with troubled daughter and fallen-on-hard-times mother … yeah, no.) The Bells of St. Mary’s does have a special place in history as 1944’s highest-grossing film, but it’s also a cautionary tale of how even massive box-office successes can fall in obscurity if they’re merely based on copying better material.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) There are, even today, many reasons to see Saratoga Trunk. The best is probably seeing Ingrid Bergman at her most radiant, and playing opposite Gary Cooper. Otherwise, it can be fun to follow the plot of the story (adapted from a then-best-selling novel) as it moves from New Orleans revenge to Saratoga Springs husband hunting to transcontinental railroad brawling and such. There’s a lot of material crammed in the film’s 135 minutes running time. The production values of the film are high, with plenty of overwrought costume drama. (Flora Robson is a highlight.) It’s clearly from another era—never mind the blackface for one of the performers, how about the radically different social expectations for women? This being said, you can like melodramatic 1940s Hollywood productions without necessarily being entirely convinced by them: there’s a sumptuous nature to some of Saratoga Trunk’s sequences that’s pure Golden Age, and there are few better exemplars than Bergman and Cooper at it.
(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) Lost among the moniker “master of suspense” is the stone-cold fact that Alfred Hitchcock could be downright weird when it suited his purpose. In his quest for unpredictable thrills, Hitchcock’s career is crammed with ludicrous plot devices, unbelievable psychological quirks, formal experimentation and frequent return to basics. Some of his best and worst films are far away from reality, meaning that there’s little relationship between their eccentricity and their success. Sandwiched between the far more prosaic Lifeboat (1944) and Notorious (1946), Spellbound shows Hitchcock diving deep into psychoanalytical plot devices (something that would come up again later in his career) and coming up with surreal results. Literal surrealism, in fact, since there’s a dream sequence midway through the film that was designed by none other than Salvador Dali. The man-on-the-run plot feels familiar to Hitchcock fans (echoed in, say, North by Northwest), but it allows stars Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman to develop some pressurized chemistry. The details of the plot are less important than the meticulous details of its execution, and the way the film becomes just a bit more straightforward in time for its conclusion. There’s a memorable moment near the end that still jolts viewers through a combination of an obvious practical effect and a flash of colour. This isn’t one of Hitchcock’s finest films, but it’s nowhere near the bottom either—although it’s perhaps more fascinating as a prototype of later Hitchcock movies and a reunion of some very different artists than a wholly pleasing thriller in its own right.
(On DVD, September 2018) Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I could just stop here and that’s all you’d need to know about Notorious. If you really want to know more, consider that it’s a romantic suspense thriller in which an American agent asks the daughter of a disgraced man to offer herself as bait to enemy agents, with the complication that he himself is falling for the woman. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been re-used in many, many other movies such as Mission: Impossible II) But, of course, the plot is the least of the film’s strengths, what with Hitchcock gleefully messing with the conventions of the romantic thriller and the limitations of the Hays code to deliver a two-minutes on-screen kiss. It’s good fun, especially when you measure today’s expectations against what’s shown in the film. (Ten minutes in, and there’s a drunk-driving sequence that would be flat-out unacceptable today.) The ending is a bit abrupt but no less satisfying. Grant and Bergman are at their respective best here, even though they’re both playing darker version of their usual persona. Still, Notorious remains a worthy Hitchcock thriller from his black-and-white Hollywood phase.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) The term “gaslighting” seems to be everywhere these days thanks to the truth-denying efforts of the current US administration, so why not go back to the source that named the issue? Fortunately, there’s a lot to like in Gaslight beyond the terminology—this story of a woman being deceived and endangered by her husband remains a really good thriller today. Ingrid Bergman is as attractive as ever as the heroine, while Charles Boyer handles the transformation of his character from attractive stranger to an abusive husband very well. An 18-year-old Angela Lansbury shows up in a small role. The film’s cinematography is notable in that it gradually transitions from a brightly lit romance to a stark chiaroscuro Gothic (or noir) thriller as the story evolves. The suspense is gripping, and the use of mystery does help propel the narration forward. Director George Cukor is best-known for comedies, but he was equally adept at adapting novels to the screen and Gaslight is a perfectly acceptable thriller. There were a fair number of women-in-domestic-distress thrillers during the 1940s but Gaslight holds its own against most of them.
(Second or third viewing, On DVD, January 2018) I first saw Casablanca in the mid-nineties, as I was rummaging through my university library’s collection of film classics. I really, really loved it at the time, to the point of writing a Science Fiction parody that has thankfully not escaped my hard drive since then. Casablanca remained my standard for accidental greatness from the Hollywood studio system, the kind of film where magic just happens from competent people just doing their job. (In discussions about classic cinema, I usually oppose Casablanca to Citizen Kane, both of whom I love dearly but the second of which was designed to be a masterpiece while the first just sort of happened.) I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to another viewing now: What if the film wasn’t as good as I remembered? What if it fell flat next to the thousands of movies I had seen since then? I shouldn’t have worried: Casablanca is still as good today as at any time since its original release. It’s a film that grabs you quickly and seldom lets go, whether it’s firing on romantic or thrilling energy. Blending comedy, passion, suspense and political issues (now deliciously historical), Casablanca is one of the original four-quadrant triumphs, seamlessly going from one thing to another along the way from a gripping opening to a memorable conclusion. Humphrey Bogart is impeccable as the protagonist, but the supporting performances are fine across the board, from Claude Rains to Ingrid Bergman to Paul Henreid, all the way to the extras singing The Marseillaise given how (Casablanca histories tell us) that they were nearly all European exiles or refugees. Historically, Casablanca rolled the dice and landed a solid 12, describing a personal tipping point right after the country decided to go beat up Nazi Germany. Still, there is something for everyone in this film—you don’t have to catch the allusions to the date of the events to feel for its heroes at the most basic level. The Paris scenes may feel redundant, but they provide some of the film’s best quotes and movie-star moments. All told, iconic Casablanca remains a triumph of moviemaking, as good as the genre ever gets. I look forward to seeing it another time.