(On Cable TV, May 2018) As a family drama that drives steadily toward becoming a crime thriller, Mildred Pierce has something for everyone: family conflict, rags-to-riches development and a plunge into noir as a final act, bringing us back to the opening framing device. Joan Crawford holds the film together as the titular Mildred, a woman who gets over her first marriage by working hard and establishing a chain of restaurants, only to be held back by a spoiled daughter, a loafing second husband and a terrible family tragedy. That Mildred Pierce ends in murder is no spoiler (that’s how it begins), although the killer may surprise you. The black-and-white cinematography is top-notch, and Michael Curtiz’s direction impressively brings together the sunny domesticity of toxic family life with the harder shadows of criminal noir. The intersection between independent-woman drama and murder mystery is unusual, and makes Mildred Pierce stand out even when slotted in the noir tradition.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Perhaps the best thing about 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is how it doesn’t feel like a 1938 film at all. You can credit the colour for that: One of the first big movies shot in Technicolor with decent image detail, it’s visually distinct from other movies of the time and would remain so for nearly two decades as colour took until the early sixties to truly become the standard. As a result, the film does feel as if it’s from the 1950s, something that director Michael Curtiz’s fast narrative pace helps support. The fantastic Errol Flynn plays the lead part with bravado and wit—the sequence in which he first confronts the enemy in their castle could be transposed with few modifications a modern superhero movie. Olivia de Havilland is nearly as striking as Maid Marian, but let’s be honest—this is Flynn’s film. The other reason why The Adventures of Robin Hood still feels so modern is that it has been endlessly re-used in other modern movies. Nearly every take on Robin Hood (notably the 1973 Disney version, 1991 Kevin Costner vehicle and 1993 Mel Brooks parody) has been inspired by this one, often to the point of re-creating scenes. It does make for a film that can be readily re-watched today with a considerable amount of fun, especially for audiences (kids, for instance) where black-and-white could be an obstacle.
(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.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I really wasn’t expecting much from Yankee Doodle Dandy other than checking off a list of classic movies I should see, so imagine my surprise when I started to be honestly engaged in the film. Initially drawn in by the time-capsule aspect of the film (as a 1942 framing device leads us to late 1800s vaudeville, and then the birth of Hollywood musicals), I really started enjoying myself in-between the honestly funny comic routines inspired by state work and the birth of American musical movies. Academy Award-winner James Cagney (looking like a young Anthony Hopkins?) shows some serious skills in giving life to actor/composer/dancer George M. Cohan through some sixty-some years. By the time the film ends, we’ve been given front-row seats to a highly dramatized depiction of the evolution of American entertainment from theatre to movies, as well as a full biography ending with a striking piece of palatable pro-American patriotism both in topic matter and presentation. The re-creation of lavish stage spectacles is striking, many of the tunes are toe-tapping good and the film remains sporadically very funny even now. Add to that some directorial flourishes from Michael Curtiz (most notably a sequence charting the evolution of Cohan’s Broadway shows) and you’ve got the makings of an unexpected great movie that has appreciated in the seventy-five years since its release. I’ve been watching more older movies lately, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is the kind of happy discovery that will keep me going deeper into the archives.