A few quick movie notes:
Reign of Terror (1949) On Bastille Day this year, I noticed that Turner Classic had an "all French Revolution" lineup of movies, so I noted the names and put a few on my Netflix queue. I don't always remember to arrange my queue before movies go out to me, though, so when "Reign of Terror" arrived, I was disappointed; I was in no mood to watch some overstuffed, big technicolor costume drama that was too heavy on romance and too light on history. Imagine my surprise, then, when the movie started, and I found myself watching what seemed like a film noir in every way--pacing, dialogue, lighting, tightly shot and oddly composed scenes--except for the French Revolution era costumes. The film was so dark that I thought they must either have not had the budget for lights or didn't have money for sets and were trying to hide that. All of the above turned out to be true: the movie is an early film by director Anthony Mann, and it was filmed on a minimal budget--so minimal that they used leftover sets from the recently filmed Ingrid Bergman version of "Joan of Arc." With so little to work with, Mann made what's got to be the only period film noir, emulating the style of the film noirs turned out by the small "Poverty Row" studios (it is one of the great jokes of film history that many of the low-budget "B" or "C" pictures of Hollywood's Golden Age are considered classics while the big, glossy "A" pictures are the one forgotten). "Reign," also known as "The Black Book" is lean, suspenseful, and worth your time.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) A friend was astonished that I had never seen a W.C. Fields movie. I had always thought Fields would just be one of those actors who's always doing his vaudeville act in the middle of a limp plot, but thought I should give him a try. "Never Give a Sucker..." isn't exactly a failure and it's not a success. It's not really funny in a laugh out loud way, but has a few moments where you kind of smile at something that comes out of nowhere, like an unexpected punch in the face (not your face, Fields's face). It's only about 70 minutes, but often moves incredibly slowly; it relies on a lot of physical, slapstick humor, but it's not the Marx Brothers manic chaotic kind; rather, it's the kind where a person keeps repeating something, like Fields's hat getting mangled over and over again in a single sequence. Also, Fields is a low-energy performer--that's fine, that's his style, but it does slow things down. The movie is also, I might add, interrupted several times by musical numbers featuring the angelic looking, faux-operatic singing teen Gloria Jean, who Universal must have been grooming as a replacement for the almost adult Deanna Durbin, the studio's previous opera singing prodigy/cash machine (Durbin was a huge star that few people remember today; if you ever go to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, you'll see the pictures of movie stars she had on her wall, and Durbin is one of them). However, even little Gloria has her unexpected moments--when told by a studio head that she has to sing a song she doesn't like, she coldly stares at the exec, removes a piece of gum from her mouth and sticks it onto the piano before launching into the awful song.
The rest of the movie is so bizarre, I don't know if anything else even compares; maybe "Adaptation" in some little way. Most of it consists of Fields meeting with a studio executive (he of the boring song choice) to have him read his screenplay. As he reads, the screenplay is acted out. And what a screenplay it is--it has things like a flight on a plane that has an outdoor deck for the passengers, a Russian village where some people dress like pre-Revolution serfs, others dress like big game explorers, a few in Tyrolean gear, and of course, someone dressed like a Mexican. There is a giant mountain where a wealthy woman lives with her daughter, who the mother is protecting from the evils of men (who had done Ma wrong). The daughter is, of course, a pretty blonde, who responds well when Fields arrives and teaches her a kissing game. Things work even better when a handsome American arrives and the girl tests out the game on him. Then she sings a jazz number. These scenes are periodically interrupted by the infuriated studio exec who shrieks about how silly this all is (I did like his line that went something like, "She's been living in isolation on a mountain since she was three months old and she knows the jumpin' jive?!!"). And it is incredibly silly. Did I mention the gorilla? Oh, yes, of course. There is a gorilla, too (or, I should say, a man in a cheap gorilla suit). I can't recommend it completely, as I don't know if I enjoyed it very much, unless staring in slack-jawed amazement counts as enjoyment (maybe it does). But if you're interested in seeing a genuine Hollywood curiosity, this is it. And by the way, when I told my friend who said I should see a Fields movie which one I had chosen, he said, "Oh, yeah, it's not my favorite. Never liked that one much."
The Phenix City Story (1953) After the success of "Naked City" in 1948, there was a vogue for what we now see on TV as "procedurals," where viewers follow a team that is solving a crime. Just as the TV shows use "ripped from the headlines" stories for their episodes, the movies were also often based on real cases, making them semi-docudramas. Probably the most intense of these was "The Phenix City Story," which takes its real life roots so seriously that it opens with an extended prologue where a reporter interviews a number of people who were involved in the events in the movie that's about to start, as well as the reporter who broke the story the movie is based on. The events are so astonishing that afterwards I had to do some research just to see if the movie, which has a body count that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, was exaggerating (seriously, this movie spares no one--men, women, children, all get beaten up or killed). Apparently it was. It turns out that Phenix City, Alabama, was known as the wickedest city in America, in thrall to a group of thugs who ran casinos and prostitute rings in order to bring in money from soldiers stationed nearby. With the police in the pay of the bad guys, and elections controlled by them as well, law-abiding citizens grew hopeless and became immune to the crime, trying to ignore what was going on around them, concerned only with staying out of the crossfire. This movie is about what happened when a group of people decided to try to clean things up. Let's just say things get bloody. It is, as I said, astonishing. Definitely a must watch.
Not for the faint of heart.