(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) If you’re even a casual fan of classic cinema, The African Queen is a must see, even for no other reason than it features Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in familiar roles—Bogart’s kind-hearted rogue, and Hepburn later-career matriarch. The story takes place deep in Africa during World War I, as a Canadian adventurer (Bogart) rescues an English nun from German attack. Escaping to friendly territory is not a certainty, especially when their tiny boat is faced with the threat of a German warship blocking their way. The adventures build up to a pretty good finale. While the innovation of shooting much of The African Queen on-location deep in Africa has paled a bit for today’s audiences, the results are clearly appreciated on-screen with a film that looks quite a bit more realistic than many of its studio-shot black-and-white contemporaries. (Legend has it that most of the crew suffered greatly from the shooting conditions, except Bogart and director John Huston who mostly drank alcohol rather than water.) Bogart got an Academy Award out of the film (a lifetime achievement reward in all but name) while Huston and Hepburn got nominated for their efforts. The result is a product of its time, but The African Queen has aged rather well and significantly better than many other films of the time.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) There are a lot of not-so-good things about the bombastic, almost-chaotic musical Annie: It moves more slowly than it should, has a number of overly cute moments, doesn’t quite know what to do with Carol Burnett as the film’s main antagonist and places a lot of weight on the shoulders of young Aileen Quinn. Aaaand, I don’t care. It’s a perfectly serviceable musical at a time when musicals were considered passé, and its best numbers (“Tomorrow”, “It’s the Hard Knock Life”, “Let’s go to the movies”, “Easy Street”) are memorable, hummable and likable. I like the exaggerated caricatures that fill the movie—but then again I like musicals best when they take on a grander-than-life quality that wallows in their particular nature. In that regard, Annie is nearly perfect: it’s a musical that knows that it’s a musical and never lets up an opportunity to exploit that fact to its fullest. Even the political commentary by way of a Roosevelt caricature meeting Daddy Warbucks is hilarious. Veteran director John Huston has fun with the whole thing, and while it could have been sped up a little bit, the result is fun enough. I’m not even bothering to do a better/worse comparison with the 2013 remake, so distinct are the two movies in my mind.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There are actors that elevate the material they’re given no matter the genre or how many years later you see the result, and so while Key Largo is in itself a perfectly serviceable thriller, having Humphrey Bogart in the lead role certainly doesn’t hurt. At times a small-scale thriller in which various people are trapped in a Florida hotel during a hurricane (showing its theatrical origins), the film eventually opens up to a boat-set finale. In another classic pairing with Bogart, Lauren Bacall plays the dame in distress, with strong supporting performances from Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Director John Huston keeps things tight and suspenseful as characters are forced to interacting in a small setting—you can see the influence that the film had over some of Tarantino’s work, for instance. Key Largo is not particularly remarkable, but it does have this pleasant late-forties Hollywood studio sheen, meaning that you can watch it and be assured of a good time.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I was impressed to see how, even seventy years later, there is still such a strong narrative drive to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and how well it balances character development with its plot. It helps that the film quickly sets up its core characters. Humphrey Bogart is fine as a downtrodden American willing to do whatever it takes to barely survive in Mexico, but the film’s highlight is Walter Huston (the director’s father) as an immensely likable grizzled prospector. Meanwhile, Tim Holt does serviceable work at the character who is tempted by various moral choices. With such good characters, the plot comes alive as our protagonist find a way out of a backwater Mexican town to explore a mountain for gold. That they find it so quickly only sets up more difficult choices later on, as gold fever grips the characters and paranoia sets in. Notable for having been shot on location, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those (surprisingly rare) black-and-white movies that I wish had been shot in colour, given how much importance the setting takes. In other areas, however, the film hasn’t aged a bit: the dialogue is still sharp, the plot generally unpredictable and the actors do fine work with the dramatic arc they’re given. Writer/director John Huston did exceptional work and the result still speaks for itself.
(In French, On TV, February 2017) Maybe I’m seeing the wrong movies, but it seems to me that the large-scale adventure film is a lost art in Hollywood. Those seas of extras, trips through treacherous remote locations and against-all-odds stories seem to belong to another time. Maybe that’s for the best, considering the iffy colonial content of The Man Who Would be King. It’s one thing for noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling (a man of his time, and I’ll be forever grateful for The Jungle Book) to write a cautionary tale about two British soldiers becoming god-emperors in a forgotten part of the world; it’s quite another to see this story today through post-colonial lenses. The Man Who Would Be King does have the considerable benefit of a decent third act in which the so-called civilized men are punished for their hubris, but much of the film’s first hour plays uncomfortably, as white men scheme their way to an empire. Still, as a white guy, I have the implicit privilege of being able to picture myself in the lead role, and once I manage to do that, what’s not to like? Michael Caine and Sean Connery together in a single movie, with Connery sporting glorious handlebar facial hair! Shakira Caine (Michael’s wife) in a pivotal role! Christopher Plummer playing Kipling himself! The film does get substantially more interesting in the third act as the façade of the white men’s deception falls away with real consequences. The ending is very good and justifies the framing device. John Huston’s direction is clean and makes the most of the means available to pre-CGI filmmakers. With a scope and sweep that defies even modern films, The Man Who Would Be King is remarkable even today, and the slight discomfort that the first three-quarter of the film may cause to a modern audience is more than redeemed by a conclusion that must have been sobering even to the original short story’s Victorian readers.