Nightfall (1957, Directed by Jacques Tourneur) English 8

Starring Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, Rudy Bond, Frank Albertson, Jocelyn Brando, James Gregory

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Taut. Spare. Expert.

Average Joe James Vanning (Ray) might know where some money is hidden; money stolen from a bank. An insurance investigator, Ben Fraser’s (Gregory), been following him for months now, and things escalate when two men from Vanning’s past catch up to him-the two men who actually robbed the bank, John (Keith) and Red (Bond). Anne Bancroft plays the femme fatale turned angel who takes it on the lam with Vanning. This is a terrific film. The plot, structure, characterizations, acting are all first-rate in what I think was considered a B-film. Aldo Ray, who I was previously unfamiliar with, has a very easy going demeanor that belies the situations he’s put in throughout this film, and it doesn’t seem forced. He’s a natural. The villains-the two criminals on Vanning’s tale-are excellent; cold-blooded and menacing, sadistic at times. At roughly 80 minutes, Nightfall is a masterclass on economy of time and gripping from start to finish.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(417)

Searching (2018, Directed by Aneesh Chaganty) English 7

Starring John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sarah Sohn, Joseph Lee, Ric Sarabia, Steven Michael Eich

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(7-Very Good Film)

Tense. Inventive. Surprising.

Told exclusively through web cameras and found footage, Searching follows David Kim (Cho), a widower, through every parent’s nightmare: his teenage daughter is missing. Police seem pretty sure that she’s run away, but David knows that she wouldn’t do that… would she? In searching for his missing daughter, he finds out how little he knows about her. Marketed as the first found-footage thriller, the style, poorly done, would be just a cheap gimmick, or, done slightly better, a neat trick. In Searching, the found-footage, the suspenseful, gripping story, and the acting make for a fantastic thriller. The style ratchets up the intensity. Like most thrillers, Searching depends a bit on farfetched solutions and contrivances, but it’s so expertly done, that there is no reason to complain.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(406)

The 39 Steps (1935, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock) English 10

Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie

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(10-Masterpiece)

Stylish. Thrilling. Fast-paced.

Classic Hitchcock thriller about a man (Donat), a victim of chance, who gets wrapped up in international espionage and a conspiracy plot. A couple of romantic subplots spice up the proceedings. One with Margaret (Ashcroft), a bereaved Scottish wife who helps him elude police, and the second with Pamela (Carroll), an uptight, unhelpful British blonde who, of course, turns out to be the love of his life. Stylish and efficient (the film’s only about 80 minutes or so), this is one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining movies, which is to say one of the most entertaining movies period.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(402)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Directed by Lewis Milestone) English 8

Starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Surprising. Dramatic. Suspenseful.

How many classic Hollywood films can you say that you didn’t know where it was going by the end of the first scene? The Strange Love of Martha Ivers kept me guessing all the way through. Not because of any great mystery or some revelatory plot twist, but by its unique structure, its host of compelling characters, each flawed, and its blending of genres and styles. Part film noir, part melodrama, the film begins with its main characters as unhappy children. Martha is a young, orphaned girl raised by her cruel but wealthy Aunt Ivers (Anderson made a rich career out of perfecting these ice queen roles). Martha has a crush on the town delinquent, Sam Masterson, and asks him to take her away, far from their small, claustrophobic town lorded over by her Aunt. While Martha pines for Sam, another young boy, the meek Walter O’Neil pines for Martha. Loyal and infatuated, Walter covers for Martha as often is required. As the first act plays out, Walter’s loyalty is pushed to the limit but doesn’t break, as he witnesses Martha striking her Aunt, causing her to tumble down some stairs and die. Martha claims innocence, Walter corroborates, and Sam makes his way out of town by himself.

The film picks up some twenty years later. Sam, now played by Van Heflin, is a drifter and a gambler with an extensive criminal and war record; a classic antihero. Like the movie itself, Sam is capable of surprising you, whether that means rising to an occasion or letting you down. He arrives back in his hometown by accident and hopes to leave as soon as possible. Waiting on a car repair, he meets a troubled young woman, Toni Marachek (played by the film producer, Hal Wallis’ infatuation, Lizabeth Scott). She shows an interest in him, and Sam, being only human, reciprocates. Toni is gorgeous and is set up as the film’s femme fatale (trouble). She, too, has a criminal record and is soon hauled off to jail for violating parole. Sam finds out that old, meek Walter O’Neil (played by Kirk Douglas) is now the town’s D.A, and sets out to persuade his “old friend” to help. He also finds out that Walter ended up marrying Martha (played by Barbara Stanwyck). The rest of the drama unfolds in a surprising, bold, exclamatory fashion. The femme fatales, blackmail, murder, and antiheroes mark the film as noir, and the over-done performances, alcoholic tantrums, thunderous musical score, and family secrets point towards melodrama.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works as a tribute to both styles. It’s also a big, elaborate production (A-list stars, director, and producer) as opposed to many of the noirs of its era. Its best quality, however, is its distinct characters, each tremendously flawed and inconsistent. Sam is a brute and a cad, Walter is insecure and a drunk, and as for the women, it’s best just to watch the movie and find out for yourself. Kirk Douglas makes his entrance into film with a bang, leaving the biggest impression out of the cast. Lizabeth Scott was a highly criticized actress in her day, and, to be fair, you could reasonably call her performances inanimate; wooden. I enjoy her presence and what she brings to the screen, especially in the role of “dream girl,” which she is usually given. It’s a fantasy, an unrealistic role in the first place, and her one-dimensional, distant performances make her presence seem out of place, out of time, and timeless. She doesn’t seem real, and I say it adds something to the roles. It’s a pleasure to watch rather than being awkward.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(400)

 

The Black Widow (1954, Directed by Nunnally Johnson) English 6

Starring Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Peggy Ann Garner, George Raft, Reginald Gardiner, Otto Kruger

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(6-Good Film)

Tense. Surprising. Well-executed.

Bigshot Broadway producer, Peter Denver (Heflin), gets mixed up with a seemingly sweet young woman and aspiring writer, Nancy Ordway (Ann Garner), but when he comes home one day to find her dead in his apartment, all the evidence points to him being the murderer. He has to race to find the killer before the cops settle on him, and then there’s his wife, Mrs. Denver (Tierney), who’s bound to get the wrong idea. This is a very satisfying murder mystery with a couple of twists and a handful of well-drawn characters. Ginger Rogers is a scene-stealer as the theater diva, Carlotta Marin, who loves gossip and hurls thinly veiled criticisms any chance she gets. The Black Widow is fairly by-the-numbers as far as whodunnits go, so if you’re weary of conventional mysteries, look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you’re like me, and never tire of a solid murder mystery, this is a solid picture.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(380)

Heathers (1988, Directed by Michael Lehmann) English 6

Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker

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(6-Good Film)

Quotable. Savage. Uneven.

“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” So says Heather 1/ Head Heather/ Heather Chandler. There are three Heathers, plus a Veronica (played by Ryder), making up the most popular clique at Westerburg High School, but lately, Veronica’s been disillusioned by her friends. In fact, she doesn’t even like them, and wonders why she spends all her time with these girls. Then she meets the weird new boy in school, J.D (Slater), and falls for him. He gets her to help teach the abusers at school a lesson, starting with Heather Chandler. This is a pitch-black satire. I appreciate the edge, the wicked dialogue, and free-wheeling script. However, I didn’t buy Slater in his menacing role, and I feel the third act loses steam because of it. Ultimately more quotable than enjoyable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(378)

Belle de Jour (1967, Directed by Luis Bunuel) French 7

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, Jean Sorel, Genevieve Page, Pierre Clementi

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(7-Very Good Film)

Fascinating. Striking. Ponderous.

A satirical, almost whimsical tale about a bored young housewife, Severine (Deneuve), with seemingly everything, who becomes a high-end call-girl during the day time. Later, she meets and is oddly attracted to a local thug named Marcel (Clementi), whose obsession with her puts her duplicitous life in danger. A lurid, fascinating film by Luis Bunuel, considered one of world cinema’s old masters, Belle de Jour is one of the few he did that I’ve embraced. It’s regarded as a commentary on a woman’s fantasy life, but, as it’s written and directed by men, I think it has more to do with men’s fantasies about women. Deneuve’s Belle de Jour, as she is later called, is part classy, elegant lady, part prostitute. A feminine version of Venus in Furs’ Severin. In any case, the sordid story is handled with expert control and exuberant style.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(367)