Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Thin Man

All 6 Thin Man movies are on TCM today! Skip work and catch them all!

Never before nor since have two people consumed so much alcohol so successfully. William Powell and Myrna Loy team-up as the mystery solving sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. This film is based upon a novel by Dashiell Hammett. He is also the creator of the hardboiled detective Sam Spade (best portrayed by Humphrey Bogart). But in The Thin Man his crime fighters are a wealthy socialite and her former detective husband. The only things that Nick and Nora like more than solving murders are drinking and witty banter. And there is plenty of both here.

Powell and Loy are so fabulous together that most other screen couples pale in comparison. Critics loved their on-screen chemistry. Audiences so enjoyed them together, along with their dog 'Asta', that the studio made 5 more movies in this series. The thin man in the title is the victim of a murder. Nick, who has "retired" after marrying Nora, is roped into helping solve the murder. He eventually does. But the murder plot, while interesting and clever, is just the vehicle for us to enjoy this pair. Both Powell and Loy give the performances of their careers. They are fine actors with a full and rich body of work, but I don't think they could ever escape the pressure of such successful teamwork. Their timing is exquisite, their chemistry divine and their delivery perfection. Sometimes I watch The Thin Man just to enjoy their work.

Veteran Director W.S. Van Dyke wisely lets Powell and Loy go for it. He seemingly allows two master actors who work magnificently together to run free. But unlike much of today's "improv" comedy, The Thin Man is crisp and quick. No pauses to stare into the camera nor slow deliveries here. Script writers Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich gave them so many great lines for us to enjoy that you may miss some of them the first time through. When you enjoy this movie be sure to wait a few weeks and then try it again. I guarantee that you will then realize how much fun you missed the first time. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a stiff martini. You may not need it, but you sure are going to want one!

Filmed in 1934, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, written by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendelton and Cesar Romero.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Decision Before Dawn

1952 nominee for Best Picture is relegated to the rarely seen pile of lost movies. I am a large cinema buff and just viewed this for the first time. No showings on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day nor any other typical platform for WW2 films. Perhaps that is because it is about Germans. Specifically Germans who are captured that agree to return to Germany, before the end of the war, and spy for the Allies. Espionage is a difficult subject to portray when you are spying on your own country of birth. For a spy film to be successful the traditional formula is for a patriotic vision in which a hometown boy risks life and limb for God and Country. But here the spies are spying upon their own homeland. Risky subject matter.

Decision Before Dawn handles the issue with aplomb. Because it is a true story, one in which the writers took little liberty to change the facts for "dramatic" reasons, this film held my attention throughout. Based on the book by George Howe who was an Army Intelligence Officer during the war. It is the first film, at least that I can think of, after WW2 that portrays ordinary Germans as people not as warmongering barbarians. People who are caught between a fanatical regime and a horrible war. I have thought about the situation that these "spies" faced. Returning home to report on your countrymen in an effort to end a bloody war. A most difficult situation for anyone.

Director Anatole Litvak does a fine job juggling the characters and emotions. Coming off of his Oscar nominated direction of 'The Snake Pit' he was given the opportunity to tell a different story in a very direct fashion. There are a few moments of patriotic fervor, but overall the tone is honest and direct. But the real focus of the movie is held by Oskar Werner. This Austrian-born actor plays the torn, but compelling spy 'Happy'. Much of the story inside Germany focuses upon his efforts to obtain important information. His handling of the emotions felt by a person faced with such choices is excellent. Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill, two well known character actors, play his American supervisors. Both are strong in their supporting roles. I also appreciated the work of Hans Christian Blech. He plays another German who volunteers to go back to Germany and spy, but his motives and actions are much clearer than Werner's.

This is a simple film that tells a complicated story. I appreciate the efforts of the Director, Screenwriter and cast to provide insight into a most difficult situation. One fun aside:look for Klaus Kinski in one of his first films. He plays the whining soldier.

Filmed in 1952, directed by Antole Litvak, written by Peter Vertiel from the book by George Howe, starring Oskar Werner, Richard Baseheart, Gary Merrill and Hans Christian Blech. Spoiler alert! One interesting note:actor Oskar Werner's character is captured the same day, December 8th, 1944, that real-life Oskar Werner defected from the Wehrmacht.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Oscar's Biggest Error

Due to reader requests, I have decided to reprint my article about the gravest error ever made by the Academy. See if you agree.

No, that is not the title of the new film starring Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Instead I am using my blog to unload about my personal disdain for the 1980 Academy Award for Best Picture. The 1980 award goes to the "Best Picture" released in 1979. '79 was a fabulous year for American cinema. Over a dozen great films came out that year. And none of them won the Oscar! Below is a list of just some of the films that came out in 1979. The list is of films that did not win Best Picture. The winner is listed at the very bottom of this blog.

There are 5 films starting with the letter 'A' that came out in '79 that were better than the winner:

'Alien' perhaps the most intense fear I ever experienced watching a movie. Ridley Scott did a fantastic job and Sigourney Weaver was great. The first woman to star as the hero in a big-budget action film.

'All that Jazz' Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical masterpiece. Great music and dance and Roy Scheider (taking over from Richard Dreyfuss) is terrific.

'A Little Romance' wonderful coming of age love story featuring a very young Diane Lane. Read my earlier blog.

'Amityville Horror' based upon a "true" story. Scary in its simplicity. That is one creepy little girl.

'Apocalypse Now' A monumental epic. Francis Ford Coppola used every bit of his talent to bring this vision of the horror of war to the screen.

Other great movies that came out in 1979:

'Norma Rae' Sally Field wins an Oscar for her portrayal of the labor organizer.
'Breaking Away' touching coming of age story set against bike racing.
'China Syndrome' Jack Lemmon fights the nuclear power industry. After Three Mile Island, this film shocked the US.
'Manhattan' Woody Allen's homage to the city he loves.
'Being There' Peter Sellers wows audiences by being subdued and still funny.
'La Cage aux Folles' Hilarious French film. Later remade in English as 'The Birdcage'.

1979 was also a year for great cult/indy/off-beat movies:
'Monty Python's Life of Brian', 'Quadrophenia' (my earlier blog), 'The Jerk', 'The Black Stallion', '10' and the first 'Star Trek' movie all get better ratings, more attention and higher ratings than the eventual Oscar winner.

And the winner is:

'Kramer vs. Kramer'. I know, it was an okay movie. But better than 'Alien', 'All that Jazz' or 'Apocalypse Now'? NEVER! For an at the time naive 19 year old it was most disappointing. I gave up on the Academy for the next few years. I guess I am still a little bitter. Thanks for letting me vent my disgust. I think I even feel happier having shared my opinion.