(On Cable TV, January 2019) As much as it may displease some purists, there are times where the remake improves upon the original film, and my feeling after watching the original Murder on the Orient Express is that this may be one of those pairs. Oh, I liked it well enough—there’s something just delicious about seeing a gifted detective stuck in a remote location (here: a train immobilized by snow) as a murder has been committed and everyone is a suspect. Agatha Christie wrote strong material in her original novel, and it’s up to the filmmakers to do it justice. Under Sydney Lumet’s direction, the atmosphere is quite nice, and the editing is surprisingly modern with a number of flashback cuts. The ensemble cast is remarkable, with names such as Lauren Bacall (who looks fantastic), Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins in various roles –some of them with very little time as the story goes from one interrogation sequence to another. Still, as absorbing as it can be, it’s probably worth watching the original before the remake, as the cinematic polish of the later Kenneth Branagh version is far better controlled, and so is the take on Poirot: Here, Albert Finney plays him far too broadly as a farce character, whereas the remake wisely makes sure that behind whatever eccentricity shown by the detective is a conscious veneer soon exposed. The Murder on the Orient Express remake doesn’t necessarily strip the original of anything worthwhile, but it does make it feel slightly less impressive.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) Humphrey Bogart was the man’s man in the 1940s (and even well thereafter), his marriage to Lauren Bacall was the stuff of tabloid legends, and film noir was the decade’s flavour. So it is that Dark Passage goes down smoothly as we’re presented a sordid little melodrama of murder, double-cross, escaped criminal and cosmetic surgery. Unusually enough, much of the film’s first half does not show the protagonist’s face—the film either features first-person camera shots, or obscures the protagonist’s face until he undergoes cosmetic surgery and takes off the bandages—at which point he’s revealed to have none other than Humphrey Bogart’s face. The rest of Dark Passage speeds by, as our unjustly convicted protagonist tracks down his ex-wife’s killer and finds love with Lauren Bacall. San Francisco plays a good role in the story—there might have been something in the Hollywood water system at the time, given how Orson Welles’s noir The Lady from Shanghai also used the city’s backdrops liberally the same year. The plot is far-fetched, but the atmosphere and the stars help make Dark Passage a classic film noir.
(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 TV, November 2017) One of the problems of approaching a movie education by going backwards in time is that you see the end before the beginning. You end up watching the revisionism before the classics that are being revisited, and actors at the end of their career paying homage to themselves at their prime. It usually makes sense in the end, but the first impressions can be strange. So it is that while I’m impressed by The Shootist’s approach to the last few days of a legendary gunman (John Wayne, in his final role), I can’t help but feel that I would have gotten far more out of the movie had I seen it after watching the dozens of essential westerns and John Wayne movies. Not only is The Shootist about a gunslinger counting down the days until cancer kills him, it’s explicitly about the end of the Far West as a distinct period—it takes place in a city where automobiles are starting to displace horses, water and electricity are changing the nature of living, and where civilization doesn’t have much use for killers, even righteous ones. The film explicitly ties itself to Wayne’s legacy by using clips from his previous movies as introduction to his character, and there’s an admirable finality to this being Wayne’s last role. I found myself curiously sympathetic to his gruff character, and easily swept along the plot even through (or given) I’m firmly in favour of modernity over the western. Other small highlights can be found in the film—Ron Howard plays a callow youth who learn better, Lauren Bacall looks amazing and there’s even Scatman Crothers in a minor role. Under Don Siegel’s direction, the atmosphere of a city entering the modern age is well done, and there’s a genuine melancholy both to the film and to Wayne himself as they contemplate the end of eras both social and personal. I’m not quite so fond of the specific way the film chooses to conclude, or the various action highlights that seem perfunctory as a way to alleviate what is essentially a contemplative film. But even as I head deeper in the Western genre, I think I’ve found its epilogue in The Shootist.