Jack, Zack, and Bob: a layabout pimp who isn’t much of a talker, a downbeat DJ whose way with words is buttery smooth, and an Italian tourist with an ever-growing notebook of American idioms, an affection for American poetry, and a less than firm grip on English. A motley trio who land themselves in the Louisiana slammer, which they manage to escape from. This being a Jim Jarmusch movie, however, the prison break isn’t for the sake of thrills or suspense; Down by Law is a cool, languid, funny and fable-like hangout film, with Roberto Benigni’s Bob serving as its crucial ingredient, the spark that along with Robby Müller‘s pristine black-and-white cinematography and John Lurie’s evocative score brings the magic.
Bob might be the foreigner, but Zack and Jack are even more ineffective at meaningful communication. Rather than verbally hash out their beef with each other, they can’t help but get into physical tussles. “Do you say, in English, ‘I look-a at the window’, or do you say, ‘I look-a out the window?’” “Well, in this case, Bob, I’m afraid you gotta say ‘I look at the window.’” Language itself might be the film’s most wonderful motif.
As charismatic as he is cynical and unscrupulous, down on his luck newspaperman Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas, fantastic) stumbles on exactly the kind of “human interest” story he can exploit to get himself out of the boonies of New Mexico and back into the big leagues of East Coast journalism. A man has gotten himself trapped deep inside an old Native American cliff dwelling just off the highway, and while getting him out could have been a matter of hours, Tatum – abetted by a couple of other morally bankrupt individuals who see an opportunity to cash in – connives to stretch the incident into nearly a week, allowing himself the time to generate national publicity and attract the media spotlight. Leo Minosa, meanwhile, alone and buried up to his waist in the claustrophobic darkness of the cave, can do nothing but wait as his health and hope of being rescued wane – a disturbing thing to witness. A riveting, gut-punching critique of media sensationalism and greed, the movie might not have any fedoras or foggy city streets, but it’s undoubtedly in the realm of film noir with its pessimistic, hard-bitten outlook and savagely amoral primary characters. I love that in the end, Wilder declines to give us any reason to have faith in these people, instead only further twisting the knife.
Gary Cooper’s pioneering Western deserves its place in the sun
The year 2021 marks the 120th birth and 60th death anniversary of Gary Cooper who, after some 100 films over four decades, is most remembered for one.
First let’s get the quiz out of the way.
The starring role in a Western was once offered in turn to John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston. All turned it down. Which movie was it?
The movie that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four?
The movie that won four Golden Globes? The same movie that marked Lee Van Cleef’s Hollywood debut, in which he didn’t deliver a single line?
High Noon (1952).
The very utterance conjures up images of the Old West but with a theme that’s as alive today as when it was released.
The story’s been told and re-told a hundred times. If you’re interested in the Cold War theatrics backstory you could do worse than read Glenn Frankel’s book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (Bloomsbury). But you’d do better to watch the movie – without distraction, start to finish.
It may be fun for 21st century audiences to insist ‘tell us the story’.
A more fascinating question though is: what does the story tell us?
High Noon is (it seems sacrilegious to use past tense) about the mother of all confrontations. The greatest of all showdowns. Not between Marshall and outlaw. Not between Sheriff and Indian. Not, as many critics have us believe, an allegorical political fight between communism and democracy. Not a metaphorical fight between civilization and chaos. Not a fight at all.
High Noon is, more than anything else, about a man confronting himself, his fears, his weaknesses, his utter desolation. His discovery that defiant strength sometimes hides beneath seemingly debilitating weakness. That the sensible thing (saving your skin), is seldom the right thing. That the only kind of respect worth fighting for, is self-respect. That respect comes not only from what you did ‘back then’ but also from what you’re doing ‘right here, right now’.
High Noon is also about a woman confronting herself. Her realisation that love is nothing if it isn’t tested. It earns its stripes not amidst the swirl of success but amidst the ruin of rejection. Courage and conviction are central to love – a love that flees both, isn’t love in the first place.
That’s what makes High Noon endure beyond its age, rise above its genre.
Contemporary audiences spoiled by colour, hi-def, high-octane direction, high-tech cinematography, editing, sound and polished acting may well wince at the movie’s relatively bare look and feel. But it struggled with the tools of its day to tell a story that would outlive it. We must approach it with the patience and understanding it deserves. The way we’d approach a 92-year old lady or a two-year old boy. We must make the effort to learn from it, to look beyond its apparent dribbling.
High Noon remains the first of the major Westerns to turn its back on scripts preoccupied with guns, girls and gold. Some of the most memorable 1950s and 60s Westerns – The Searchers, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 3:10 to Yuma, Last Train from Gun Hill, Magnificent Seven, True Grit – merely followed High Noon’s anthem of defending the defenceless, sacrificing self-interest for a greater good.
High Noon spoke compellingly to that generation then. It speaks as hauntingly to ours now. It will speak as eloquently to generations to come. Its lead actor – man’s man Gary Cooper – plays the fearful, conflicted, needy protagonist Will Kane. Four decades before Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny (Unforgiven). Like Cooper, Eastwood would play macho-lead for years before he played more flawed protagonists – heroes for their moral, not physical feats.
Critics may still pan the casting of 50-year old Cooper opposite 23-year old Grace Kelly but as the odds stack up against him, their age differential is the least of his worries. The 5’6” petite Quaker bride looks up at her 6’3” gangly groom and snaps: ‘You don’t have to be a hero, not for me’. He barks back ‘I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy!’
In those closing scenes with Cooper left alone to face near-certain death before vengeful outlaws, the camera rises to brood upon a town that’s washed its hands off his predicament. The soaring lens at once mocking his alienation and willing him to rise above himself. In one of Hollywood’s most poignant moments a forlorn Cooper nervously tugs at his belt, wipes the sweat off his brow and with one last despairingly hopeful look at the deserted streets, trudges toward his fate – an armed gang riding in on the noon train.
In one of the most courageous script-twists for that era the town’s lawman is rescued not by archetypal hired-guns, powerful ranchers or strongmen but by a woman. A deeply spiritual woman, who abhors violence. As he battles alone, his bride who first deserts him, turns back, then defends him in that final gunfight.
Producer Stanley Kramer, Director Fred Zinnemann, Screenwriter Carl Foreman and Music composer-conductor Dmitri Tiomkin, in their own way, stamped their identities on a film that shines even after repeated viewing. 2021 also marks Kramer’s 20th death anniversary. He produced and directed some of the best movies of that era – The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and produced The Wild One and Death of a Salesman.
Katy Jurado, the first Latin American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress in Broken Lance) won her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for High Noon. Fittingly, Jurado as Helen Ramirez, one-time lover of both villain and hero has some of the best lines.
It’s Helen who says with clarity: You’re a good-looking boy, you’ve big broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.
It’s Helen who talks courage into a fleeing Amy: I don’t understand you. If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight!
Amy taunts her: Why don’t you?
Helen taunts her right back: He’s not my man. He’s yours!
And it’s Helen who warns: Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too.
Of the hundred or so movies he acted in, over four decades from the 1920s to the 1960s, Gary Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor on five occasions and won twice – one for High Noon. He beat some heavies that year – Marlon Brando (for Viva Zapata!), Kirk Douglas (for The Bad and the Beautiful) and Alec Guinness (for The Lavender Hill Mob).
The 25th Academy Awards 1953 saw some pretty sharp 1952 contenders for Best Picture alongside High Noon: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Pandro S. Berman’s Ivanhoe, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man. DeMille’s movie won but High Noon should have. It isn’t merely a ‘Western’. It isn’t merely an American movie about American stories. It’s a universal movie about universal values and choices. It isn’t even a 1950s movie but a movie for all ages.
Gary Cooper’s filmography is overwhelmingly black-and-white. High Noon was no different. As if by extension, his character Will Kane demonstrates that when it comes to choosing between good and bad, life isn’t technicolour. It isn’t even grey. It’s, well, simpler. Cooper seems to say that the greatest victory is one in which we stubbornly choose what’s doing what’s right over self-preservation or meek submission to overwhelming power. Each age, Cooper seems to say, will make that choice harder by trying to redefine ‘what’s right’. It’s up to us to see through that.
Cooper carried that rather simple black-and-white moral compass late into his “colour” career – Man of the West, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, They Came to Cordura, The Hanging Tree. But in no other other movie is his morality as utterly convincing as in High Noon. There’s a point when you no longer see Will Kane but Cooper himself. And he seems to say, courage isn’t the absence of self-doubt but the refusal to stop wrestling with that same self-doubt. So he wrestles, with no more certainty than the fact that he must wrestle. He isn’t so much standing his ground as refusing to flee. He isn’t scared about giving up or giving in because his new bride and the whole damn town are watching him. He’s terrified because he’s watching himself.
In one scene Judge Percy laments: This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.
Few characters in movie history have been more wrong.
A comedy of coincidence causing chaos and one great big misunderstanding, with an enjoyably balanced combination of slapstick and screwball. Fed up with his wife’s extravagant spending, J.B. Ball, a oafish banker with a fortune as big as his ego, tosses his wife’s newly purchased sable coat off their roof. It happens to land on Jean Arthur’s Mary Smith, a single working girl without much money of her own, who thereafter is mistaken by various folks as Ball’s mistress. One of those folks is Mr. Louis Louis, the proprietor of an upscale hotel at risk of being foreclosed on by Ball, and who thinks he can stay in business by putting Smith (whom he presumes is Ball’s mistress) up in one of his rooms.
The very first gag – Ball tripping and tumbling down a set of stairs – had me worried the humor would be too broad for my taste, but I was mistaken. It‘s plenty amusing. Edward Arnold and Luis Alberni as Ball and Luis respectively are very funny; Ball’s often looking hella confused and frustrated, while Louis mistakenly thinks he’s solved his problem. While Mitchell Leisen’s direction is more or less just point-and-shoot, it doesn’t need to be much more than that since the physical gags are cleverly and energetically executed, and Sturges’ witty screenplay offers many laughs. Even better than the accumulation of individual jokes is the joy in watching Arthur’s Mary revel in the luxuries of the rich. With sparkling tulle dresses, a lavish hotel suite, meals on the house, and of course that new coat, Mary couldn’t more pleased, and Arthur sweetly conveys her delight. A solid Sunday matinee.
Easy Living (1937) Full Movie
Easy Living is not currently available to purchase or rent digitally. The above link is a YouTube upload of the full film.
After raising five kids over five decades of marriage, elderly Lucy and Barkley Cooper are separating. Not because they want to though. No, it’s that with Barkley out of work, he can’t keep up with the mortgage payments on their house anymore, and none of their grown kids have the wherewithal—or much of a desire—to take in both of their aging parents. The Cooper children aren’t intentionally being cruel, they’re just too preoccupied with their own lives and relationships now to put much thought into how they might keep their parents under the same roof. So Barkley goes to live with one of their daughters, Lucy goes with one of their sons, and since they’re still, after many many years, deeply in love, Lucy and Barkley’s hearts ache for each other.
The cold, snowy winter setting, which I loved, fits with the sadness at the film’s emotional core. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondie play Barkley and Lucy, and they’re both heartbreakers; their missing each other and disappointment with the situation they find themselves is profoundly poignant. McCarey’s direction is delicate and his rhythm unhurried as he cuts back and forth between husband and wife in their respective new homes, and his camera watches with a compassionate eye as Barkley and Lucy gradually come to the crushing realization that living together again might not be possible. But they do get one last night with each other before the physical distance between them becomes even greater, a romantic night out on the town where they relive their honeymoon with a little help from some generous strangers. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful movie.
Just as people flock to movies to escape the fearful thoughts of our current virus lockdown, moviegoers of the 1950s were flocking to movies to escape fearful thoughts of Cold War anxieties. Monster and alien films were especially popular, with the decade providing a slew of wondrous and crazy cinematic creatures attacking familiar, real world sights. One such creature was very simple but went a long way, just like the movie it stars in.
For those familiar with the notion of the 1950’s sci-fi monster movie plot, “The Blob” easily identifies with that. Suspense builds as a meteor falls to Earth and releases the creature into a small-town community. It’s as classic as it gets, while also doing some things different compared to what came before. The story is very fun, both in its execution and how it lives up to what we consider the standard blueprint of the genre. It’s an innocent and non-taxing plot to be enjoyed.
There are also some lively characters. Steve McQueen leads the pack in his breakthrough role, demonstrating even in this simple role how charming and talented he is. He’s a likable and well-meaning guy to track a monster with. Everyone else does a great job too, having well-defined personalities and organically developed skills. Aneta Corsaut deserves special mention for breaking the mold of stereotypical horror damsels and for being an active help to the plot.
What’s probably most remembered is the special effects. They are crude even for the time, but there is still craft and creativity on display. The actual Blob looks good in motion, with its dark red appearance and all the variety of ways the director portrays it. There are also creative uses of drawn animation, which aren’t too shabby either. Visually it remains unique and the charm of it rubs off in an appealing way. Fake for sure, but never without heart or intent.
Rounding it out is the overall mood itself. Most of that stems from its low budget production design, which wears its 1950’s setting with a badge of honor in hindsight. From the costumes to the cars, it does give a peek into how the world of small-town America went about life. Not to mention some funny dialog among the characters. A classic monster score over it all seals the deal, most especially the theme song that’s strangely swings for such a serious movie. Thanks, Burt Bacharach!
“The Blob” is the poster child for the 50′ alien monster movie. Whenever someone compares modern creature cinema or recalls a film of the era, they most likely are going to think of this one. It doesn’t have the budget or name recognition of its peers, but that doesn’t matter when all in all, it’s so darn fun. It’s entertaining all the way through. If you want something more modern, Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake is also excellent.