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The October Man (1947)

It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.

He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.

Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.

It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.

Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.

I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.

Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.

If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.

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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Temptress (1926) – The Greta Garbo Blogathon

Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.

I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.

The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.

No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.

Opening scene

But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.

The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.

Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.

The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.

Dangerous woman

Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.

Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.

It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.

This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.

The opening sequence of The Temptress.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Movies

 

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Right Cross (1950)

Ah, to be June Allyson. She has her pick of men in Right Cross, a boxing drama where both Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban are deeply in love with her. Poor Dick Powell, though, doesn’t have a chance in the film, despite being married to June Allyson in actuality.

Right Cross is a boxing drama, a love triangle, and a not fully fleshed-out examination of what it means to be Hispanic American. Pat O’Malley (June Allyson) is the daughter of fight promoter Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore), but runs the business for him because of his ill health. The business is on the decline, but they do manage the current boxing champion, Johnny Monterez (Ricardo Montalban).

Pat and Johnny are in love, but Johnny won’t propose because he’s afraid that if he were no longer champion, she would no longer love him. He can’t believe she would really love him for himself, a man of Mexican background who has had to fight for everything he ever had.

There is also a plot-thread involving Johnny’s hand, which has been injured several times. The doctor warns Johnny that his hand could go at any time, spelling the abrupt end of his career. For Johnny, it is a race against the clock, to find a way to make enough money to deserve Pat before he ends up back where he started: with nothing.

The third wheel to the romance is provided by Rick (Dick Powell), a sports journalist carrying a torch for Pat, but he is also a good friend to Johnny. His hobby seems to be drinking and brawling.

It’s a very intriguing set up and the characters are all appealing, though the plot is imperfectly executed. For one, June Allyson and Dick Powell actually have the better chemistry in the film (which isn’t exactly an imperfection, because it is delightful). Not all off screen couples have good on screen chemistry, but June Allyson and Dick Powell did (they are also adorable in The Reformer and the Redhead). Rick comments that “it’s either there or it’s not,” and we are supposed to believe that it’s not there in the film, but it actually is. The scene where Rick tries to cook a spaghetti dinner for Pat (unsuccessfully) and shows her how he would play a love scene is very sweet and almost made me wish that Rick and Pat could be together.

They even have chemistry in this picture

But the main problem is how the film lets some very interesting plot points drop conveniently at the end. Johnny’s mother does not trust “gringos” and is not pleased that Johnny is dating Pat. Johnny is also ashamed to bring Pat home to meet his mother. At the same time, he does not want his sister to date a “gringo.” And Pat’s father is not thrilled that Pat is dating Johnny. The plot sets up these problems, only to let them disappear at the end.

That being said, the cast is highly appealing. Especially June Allyson and Dick Powell. It’s not that Ricardo Montalban isn’t appealing, but his character is callow and has the unfortunate habit of using others to do things for him that he should do himself, like constantly sending Rick to patch it up between him and Pat, which seems callous, unless he’s oblivious that Rick does love Pat. He has some growing up to do.

June Allyson, on the other hand, is very mature, without being matronly. One of the things that is appealing about June Allyson is how naturally she wears her charm. She seems down to earth, utterly capable, unpretentious, like someone you would like as a friend. She seems natural. Like she’s hardly acting at all. Like she just IS.

That kind of persona is easy to overlook and I’ve always rather taken June Allyson for granted. Thanks to Simoa of Champagne for Lunch, who is hosting “The June Allyson Centenary Blogathon,” I’ve had a chance to think about her roles afresh. And to appreciate  how she can make acting look so easy and natural. I believe that she could be a fight promoter. She can play a professional person without looking like she’s trying too hard to convince us that she’s a professional. She seems totally comfortable as a woman, as a woman in love, and as a fight promoter. Quite an accomplishment. It actually might have been nice to see more of that side of her character in the film!

More posts about June Allyson from the blogathon can be found here.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2017 in Movies

 

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