Summer Movie #41 – Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941): Walter Pidgeon plays a big-game hunter who winds up looking at Hitler through a rifle scope sometime shortly before the war and then spends much of the rest of the film trying to escape Nazi agents. Joan Bennett plays the spunky English girl (heavily suggested but never actually named a prostitute) who winds up helping him while delivering lines in a terrible “Cockney” accent. The movie is also notable for featuring a young Roddy McDowall in his first Hollywood movie (he had just been evacuated from England due to the German bombing). Lang is a great director as always and here is highly motivated as he makes the first of his explicitly anti-Nazi films. The film is exciting and takes a couple of unexpected turns. I’m not sure the “we will prevail” ending quite works, but it does have the benefit of being one of the most straightforwardly vengeful versions of that theme I’ve ever seen in a wartime film. Frankly, after watching that ending I’m pretty sure Lang would have really appreciated Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”.
Summer Movie #42 – Gog (Herbert L. Strock, 1954): Strock, who went on to make films such as “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” and “The Crawling Hand” is directing the third of Ivan Tors “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy – in 3D, no less. Richard Egan plays a scientist/government agent dispatched to a secret lab to investigate strange happenings. About 1/3 of the way through the movie he encounters a German scientist running a huge computer (N.O.V.A.C.) that, along with running the whole base, operates two robots called “Gog” and “Magog”. “Gog” is the name of the movie. It also has somewhat dire Biblical associations. Hmmm… what could be responsible for the mysterious deaths at the base? I wonder? This is exactly what it looks like – a government agent hero, lots of science-ing, a smidge of condescending sexism (one the one hand – numerous women shown as being competent in scientific and technical areas, on the other hand they are all underdeveloped secondary characters and the men make cringe-worthy comments right to their faces – so not that different from today, really), and lots of incorrect use of scientific and technical jargon (“If the control rod is removed from the reactor it will explode!”). I love this stuff, wart and all, so it was fun.
Summer Movie #43 – The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (Henry Hathaway, 1951): James Mason stars as Erwin Rommel in this biopic. The movie mostly concentrates on Rommel’s growing disillusionment with Hitler after 1942 leading to his involvement in a plot to remove Hitler from power in 1944 – involvement which led to the general’s death. Mason is good in the role and Jessica Tandy is also good as his wife. The directing is competent, but there is little of great note. One problem is an over-reliance on stock footage in some scenes – for example the narrator mentions the D-Day invasion and then we are treated to several minutes of footage of Normandy over swelling music. These sorts of scenes actually take away from the more human drama of The fall of Rommel. The movie also plays heavily into the mythologizing of the general which the British, in particular, seemed prone to. Not bad if you are into WWII movies, but also not one of the best of those, either.
Summer Movie #44 – Khyber Patrol (Seymour Friedman, 1954): Richard Egan is an American (well, “Canadian”) serving as an officer in an Indian lancer regiment. Raymond Burr is a duplicitous Afghan officer. You have political intrigue, you have a love triangle, you have Maxim guns, you have harem girl spies, you have an Afghanistan that looks a lot like southern California, you have lots of white guys playing south Asians. You can guess the end of the movie right now.
Summer Movie #45 – The Beast with a Million Eyes (David Kramansky, 1955): I do miss Mystery Science Theater 3000. This movie was co-produced by Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff and if you know those names, you know everything about this movie. This was the third of a three picture deal Corman had and he only had $29,000 to make it. It has a decent concept – an alien invader who works by taking over all of the minds of all of the life forms. After that, all of the creative power of this film was pretty much spent. Sometimes they say that every dollar of a budget is on the screen. In this movie, most of the dollars probably went for wages, hotel rooms, and food.
Summer Movie #46 – Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960): In this film Jules Dassin plays an uptight sophomoric (in the full meaning) American from Middlebury, Connecticut (Dassin’s actual home town). Arriving in Greece he meets a prostitute played by Melina Mercouri and entranced by her beauty and love of life immediately decides to change her. This is half romantic comedy and half clash of cultures. The film was widely acclaimed and rightly so – it is full of the joy of life and doesn’t have a mean moment in it. Somehow this just seemed really appropriate on a weekend where it seems like the Greeks have decided to trigger an economic meltdown. They’ll make it through – they always have.
Summer Movie #47 – Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953): I’d never seen this before and I’m sorry, but how perfect is this movie? Take one of the best directors ever, add two screen legends in Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn (in her first starring role), then mix in impeccable camerawork and the city of Rome. An absolute classic film results. Frankly, if you can’t find something to love in this movie you need to check when your soul was removed. Evidently in the 1970s Peck and Hepburn were approached about a sequel. Luckily that didn’t happen. Outside of anything else, it would have ruined a perfect ending. Peck, standing alone in the audience hall, not really hoping she’ll come back but staying because he wants her to. Then the long tracking shot of him walking slowly down the length of the room, turning to look back with that air of no hope but desire, then he turns, that slight smile, and he leaves. Any ending where they wound up together would have been false. Perfect.
Summer Movie #48 – War of the Worlds (George Pal, 1953): I’ve seen this several times and watching it is the equivalent of eating junk food. The only “nutritious” parts of the movie are the Oscar-winning special effects. Otherwise we can learn a few things from this film: 1) There are NO black people in southern California; 2) Women have two speeds – sweet subservience and totally losing their shit; 3) Martians hate historical monuments; and 4) Martians may have advanced knowledge of physics and engineering but their understanding of biology is at about the level of Jenny McCarthy. I remember watching this as a kid and thinking during the early scene where the Martians blew away three guys waving a white flag – “Why would Martians know the first thing about what a white flag means on Earth?” Later, when they kill a minister showing them a cross, I thought “How would they know what a cross is? All that happened on Earth.” Thus began my road to understanding the interpretive nature of symbols and becoming an atheist.
Summer Movie #49 – What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015): One of the toughest things to do well in any biography of a celebrated artist is to walk the line between telling the story and praising the subject. This documentary does that extremely well. You see why Nina Simone has the place she has in music history and the history of the Civil Rights struggle. You also see a flawed person who willingly remained in an abusive relationship (and the interviews with her ex-husband are disturbing) for quite some time, who had a mixed track record as a mother, and who was seemingly driven by many demons. This also does a good job of showing the impact mental illness can have on a person and those around them, but without fully allowing that illness to serve as an excuse for every short-coming. This is not a fun story, nor is it falsely uplifting in that “VH-1 Behind the Music” style that is so common. What triumph there is here is well-deserved, and this documentary is well worth watching.
Summer Movie #50 – Point and Shoot (Marshall Curry, 2014): This is a documentary about Matthew Curry, who went on a self-described “crash-course in manhood” which led him to a motorcycle journey across the Middle East that included time as a journalist embedded with US troops in Iraq and then took him through Iran to Afghanistan and finally Pakistan – then the real story began. He eventually went to Libya and fought in the revolution against Qaddafi and spent five months as a POW. As I often do, I read some of the reviews of this movie and almost all of them seem to miss the point. This isn’t really an adventure story, nor is it an attempt to talk about the geopolitics of the Middle East. This is about the American urge to reinvention. It is about the line between identity and what we want to portray to others, especially in the era of cellphone video and social media. It is also about an individual experience of war. The movie doesn’t condemn or celebrate, it just explores one really complex story and one that is very worth the watching.