Vertigo (1958)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie is based on a novel with a title much better than the movie’s title. Boileau-Narcejac’s Dentres les morts means “From among the Dead.” I haven’t read the novel, but it’s a better title because it’s what every frame, every twist and turn, every character, and the eventual solving of the mystery in Vertigo is all about.

The movie starts with the traumatic event that caused the main character’s vertigo. When we see his attempts to recover from the trauma, we see that he sees himself still as living among the dead (among those who died in the traumatic event). He agonizes over whether or not he could have saved anybody, if he did the best police work he could have done, if the whole matter was his fault.

He learns that his vertigo can only be cured by another traumatic event. He’s quit the police force but gets a call out of the blue asking him to take up a private job of detective work. It’s a ridiculous offer with a ridiculous premise, but he accepts it because he is trying to find his way out from among the dead. Just as he thinks his vertigo will be cured if he finds his way into another traumatic situation, he thinks he will have the opportunity to answer all the questions that nag him about the last one. So the whole plot to solve the mystery put in front of him is for Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) a way to recreate his past and see if he can make it turn out differently, in a way where he’s not disappointed in himself anymore.

He didn’t fail in the situation that haunts him, but that doesn’t stop him from believing he’s a failure and from living as if he’s a failure from that point forward. He didn’t just quit the police force, he quit living until getting obsessed with this new case. It was his way out of his situation “among the dead.”

It’s not only the Jimmy Stewart character who finds himself “among the dead,” but every character in the movie. At the beginning, we see him with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who’s in love with him, but he sees her more as a sometimes-maid, sometimes-nurse, and sometimes-mother. They had a romantic relationship long ago that she wants to resurrect but he doesn’t show any signs of wanting any life back to their relationship as it once was. She sees him as her only hope to find her way back from “among the dead.”

In case you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t tell you about any of the other characters and how they are “from among the dead” without giving away major plot points. And being an Alfred Hitchcock movie and the greatest mystery movie of all time, Vertigo is loaded with twists and turns. Except for what I’ve already described as far as everyone’s place “from among the dead” and their pursuit of a way out, nothing is ever as it seems until the very last second of the movie.

But if you have seen Vertigo you know that this doesn’t matter for multiple viewings. Knowing all the revelations doesn’t make it any less rewarding to rewatch and rewatch. I watched it last week for about the 10th time. There’s always more depth to the characters and to the storyline than meets the eye, so even knowing how things turn out, there’s always something to be missed that needs another viewing. But I wish that Hitchcock would have given the movie a title like the novel. From among the Dead tells us that this is a movie about attempting to regain life when it’s been stolen. And even though we don’t get to know for sure if Scottie ever finds his way out “from among the dead,” we do know that he had a chance. These spiritual, philosophical, and psychological concepts that fill every second of this film are what makes it come alive.

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The Lost Weekend (1945)

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Don Birnam (Ray Miland) is a writer, or at least he tries to be a writer and wants to be a writer. His addiction has overtaken all his plans, hopes, and relationships. It has stolen his life. He tells a bartender of a novel he wants to write, only it really isn’t a novel, it’s his autobiography. He says it’s a horror story named “The Bottle,” and that’s exactly what The Lost Weekend is. It’s a horror movie, and the bottle is its villain.

Billy Wilder uses all the techniques used for horror films, making sure that The Lost Weekend would not be like any other addiction drama. It never tries to teach anything about addiction. Instead, it tries its best to show what it’s like to be so completely bound to something else, to lose all personal choice and self-control. The music of the theremin tells that there’s a monster (a bottle or other impending temptation to drink) lurking around the corning waiting to attack Don. The creepy shadows of bottles appear to help us grasp the ever-present reality of Don’s perceived need for a drink. The screams and wails of others with him in a 1940s hospital give us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience DTs and to live in a time when even the institutions that were supposed to work with addicted people had little to no experience, knowledge of addition, or empathy for what their patients experience. We see Don’s own vivid nightmares at the hospital. And the nurse has no concept of compassion or care but is more like a ghoulish guide for Don’s night in the hospital.

Billy Wilder’s decision to make The Lost Weekend a horror film means that an audience gets to feel and experience the horror of addiction. Most addiction dramas focus on the families of the addicted person, the growth and eventual realizations that lead towards the character’s overcoming of the addiction. These films do not show anything like the reality of addiction. It takes a horror movie to do that. The Lost Weekend is almost a movie without an ending. Yes, we see a glimmer of hope when Don throws out some booze and abandons his plan for suicide, but the movie leaves us with no sense that this is permanent. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. That’s the reality of addiction.

So by making The Lost Weekend a horror movie, Billy Wilder not only tells the truth about addiction but also cries out for people to have empathy. It should be impossible to watch this movie and still credit addicts with more ability and responsibility to choose than they actually have. We don’t need AA characters hitting us over the head with phrases like “it’s a disease,” like we get in most addiction dramas. We get to see the sickness for ourselves. We get to feel at least a little of what Don feels because whether or not we can understand addiction, we can understand fear. By capturing all the fear of a horror movie, Billy Wilder helps us to understand addiction and to gain empathy for the people who suffer from its devastation.

Other Billy Wilder films I’ve reviewed:

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Stalag 17 (1953)

Some Like It Hot (1959)

 

Blade Runner (1982)

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a movie that asks what it means to be human. Like Frankenstein, mere mortals attempt to create life, but in the world this film invents, most other mortals don’t see this as an abominable thing as Mary Shelley’s characters do. The original theatrical release is still my favorite after the multiple director’s cuts that have been released over the years. I say that mostly because of Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration. It helps bring a classic 1940s film noir element to sci-fi that introduces us to Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckert as a detective just like those in film noir. But much more importantly it also lets us see that Rick values the lives of the genetically engineered beings known as replicants who resemble humans in every way except emotion.

While those around him call him the great blade runner and want to see him once again be the hero they thought he always he was for “retiring” replicants, in the narration he tells us that he sees himself, and blade runners in general, as killers. As in any police work, sometimes killing is necessary and unavoidable, but it’s killing all the same. The genetically engineered replicants aren’t treated as human by other police, but Rick sees things differently, more like a real police officer when forced to kill in the line of duty. Is that because he’s a replicant himself or just has a moral compass that nobody else in this future world has? Of course, people have debated this for 35 years and the movie never answers it. I hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t answer it either. Yet I think it’s the second.

Every character in Blade Runner either has a seared conscience, a seared emotional capacity, or both. Rick has no emotional capability when we first meet him, just like the replicants he’s hired to kill. But a new replicant model, Rachael (Sean Young), was made with implanted memories through which she was able to develop her own emotions. She also was made without the 4-year lifespan of all the replicants before her and without the knoweldge that she’s a replicant. Through Rachael, Rick begins to feel again, and they fall in love. Yet his respect for a replicant’s life began long before meeting Rachel though.

Back to that noir-esque narration. After hearing his boss give him his next orders and calling replicants by the derogatory term “skin jobs,” Rick tells us in the narration that his boss is the type of person that would have used the “n” word long ago. That tells us that he believes replicants are fully human. And all his actions throughout the movie continue to show that belief. Because he believes that, and because he respects human life unlike most people in this very dark vision of an amoral, violent future, he does his job much different than anyone would expect him to. During the intense and terrifying chase scenes between Rick and the great villain Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), we see Roy’s humanity. We see the humanity of the replicants he killed. We see the humanity of Rachel.

Rick believes that replicants are human from the beginning, but he doesn’t feel it and can’t express that belief in any tangible way because he’s not emotionally connected to his own conscience. It takes Rachael for him to learn to feel the truth behind what he believes. Thankfully the movie never tells us for sure if Rick is a replicant or not, because all we need to know for sure is that he is human and that he believes replicants are human. As he learns to feel what it means to be human and how to act on the moral beliefs already established in his character, we the audience are taken on our own moral journey in our very own world that parallels perfectly with the dark, futuristic world of Blade Runner. Not that we’re as hopeless and inhumane as the world in the movie, but we are pretty selfish and need to wrestle with the question of what it means to be human and how that relates to our selfishness. Our answers to that question determine the relationships between our consciences and our emotions. It determines how we live in relationship with others and what we’re willing to risk.

Concerning the lack of certainty of Rachael’s lifespan, Rick is told “too bad she’s gonna die, but then again who doesn’t?” He simply nods, and that nod shows us that he’s not going to waste any more time questioning her humanity or his own. He’s going live and he’s going to love even though he lives in a world that has no consideration for life or love. Blade Runner confronts our views of other people and urges us to reject the selfishness so abundant in our world.

7th Heaven (1927)

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Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.

Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.

Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”

He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.

What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.

The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.

7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.

Notorious (1946)

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Identity and guilt are common themes in Alfred Hitchcock movies, and especially in his romances. Of course Hitchcock was the master of suspense. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him a master of romance, but he was. Olivia De Havilland’s character in Rebecca needed to come to terms with her own identity as separate from the identity of the titular character for the sake of her marriage. Gregory Peck’s character in Spellbound needed to confront guilt from his past and learn to identify himself as his doctor and eventual lover does so that their romance can be what they want it to be.

In Notorious, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is an alcoholic with a reputation for sordid sexual behavior. The movie opens with her father accused of treason against the U.S. for Nazi espionage. The people she surrounds herself with makes her look like she’s involved in the same criminal political activities as her father. But Devilin (Cary Grant) knows better. He’s the only person who knows her, even before he’s met her thanks to his own expertise in espionage.

Once they meet, they fall in love very quickly as people in 1940s movies usually do. Fast as is it, though, it is real. We know it’s real, but it’s harder for them to convince each other that it’s real. Alicia tries to change her ways. She desperately wants to change her ways. But she depends on him to see her as a different person than she was in the past before she really believes it herself. He wants her to change just as desperately as she does, and he knows that he loves her but he’s not sure if he believes her. Is her change really an act of love or is it just a momentary whim?

As they fall in love, they know they’re going to be working together, but they don’t know that her espionage work will be of a sexual nature. This work brings in all the suspense that Hitchcock is known for, but the heart of this story is not the criminal justice work they do but the way the work tests their love. She has to learn to accept herself as a person capable of loving and worthy of receiving love. She needs to stop identifying herself by the guilt of her past and become transformed by love. He needs to do the same thing as far as she’s concerned, he needs to learn to see her first as the woman he loves rather than the woman he knew her to be in the past.

Watching Alicia and Devilin struggle to make their romance work is a thriller in itself. Of course I’m thankful to Hitchcock for all the spy-related plot twists, the discovery of war crimes, and all the revelations that come as their investigation goes on. Every second of Notorious is intense and gripping, but none of it would work if it weren’t for Alicia’s transformation, essentially a spiritual journey that’s necessary to make their romance work. Whether or not Devilin believes Alicia at any particular moment determines whether or not he steps in to protect her from some of the most dangerous circumstances that she has no control over. Hitchcock was at his most brilliant when he tied together thrilling, romantic, and spiritual themes all into one perfectly composed masterpiece like Notorious.

 

Other Alfred Hitchcock movies I’ve reviewed: Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942); Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Psycho (1960)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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Vincente Minnelli’s classic movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis follows a family at the turn of the 20th century beginning at the end of the summer, right around Labor Day. It opens with the title song saying “meet me at the fair.” All are excited about the knowledge that the World’s Fair will be in their home town of St. Louis at the end of the year. Following the family from Labor Day through their experience at the fair right after Christmas, we take a delightful journey of Americana nostalgia, probably the best trip like this the movies have ever given us.

Films in the 1940s and 50s with this type of nostalgia tended to be either patriotic sap or nationalistic propaganda. But Meet Me in St. Louis takes us to a different world altogether. Yes, it’s supposed to be America at the turn of the century, and many parts of the movie are easy to accept as the way life was then. But there’s an equal amount of oddity that keeps the movie from going over any sentimental edge. It’s that oddity that makes this movie so special.

The main oddity is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a four-year-old girl who’s as macabre in the way she talks as she adorable in the way she looks. I heard Quentin Tarantino call this his favorite movie on an episode of “Under the Influence” on TCM. For him to say that about an Americana family musical would sound very weird, but once you’ve heard Tootie talk, it’s hard not to think about committing murder while eating a tasty burger. The first time we see Tootie she’s singing an obscure hymn from several centuries earlier for the funerals of children who died of the Black Plague. It was obscure long before the turn of the 20th century, so before Google made us able to research these things instantly, somebody would have to be completely obsessed with death and dying to even know this hymn, and Tootie certainly is. The hymn became slightly less obscure when people in the 1940s wanted to know what Tootie was singing, and the answer to that question shows just how twisted this little mind is. She built a cemetery for dead dolls. When trying not to get in trouble, she quickly changes the subject to something that involves blood. She gleefully talks and sings about the most cheerless realities of existence, all with a joyous gleam in her eye.

Over the four months that we get to follow this family, we join them in every holiday they experience. Thanks to the dark goofiness of Tootie, the best of course is Halloween. The traditions that Tudi and her sister take part in probably have no basis in reality. This is one of the great joys of Meet Me in St. Louis, we’re taken to a specific place at a specific time in history, and it all seems pretty believable for the most part except for some of Tootie’s excursions, but we don’t need to know or care if these traditions had any basis in reality. We get to know and love the family so much that we believe these are their traditions, and that’s all that matters.

September may seem way to early to start thinking about holidays, especially when this is the movie that introduced the world to the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but it starts right in the season we’ve entered as the time for as sense of excitement for all that the rest of the year holds. Without ever wandering into ungenuine   sentiment, Meet Me in St. Louis is a great film about family and tradition, odd enough to stay constantly entertaining and hilarious but holding dear the joys, hopes, and promise that can come through family, holidays, and tradition.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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D.W. Griffiths made his share of epic films in the 1910s in America, but the Russian filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein broke brand new ground with Battleship Potemkin. The film is an epic to be sure, set during several of the most crucial moments of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. But each of the five moments covered are set almost exclusively within the battleship, and the whole Revolution is seen from the view of the soldiers on that one battleship. It’s the first intimate epic and without it there would never have been a Gone with the WindLawrence of Arabia, or Barry Lyndon.

Battleship Potemkin is barely an hour in length but immerses us fully into every detail of this group of soldiers and their involvement with each of the five important moments of the war. The first section is an introduction to the battleship and the horrible conditions that the soldiers are subject to. It’s made clear that the military officials have access to much better and do not need to feed the men with the rotten meat they’re always given.

The first section sets the stage as the foundation for the episodic way that the rest of the movie is going to unfold. We’re shown the injustice of the Russian military and the greater Russian government of the time all through the horrendous conditions of the soldiers aboard this one war ship. The rest of the episodes show the soldiers’ revolt, a mini-revolution as part of the bigger Russian Revolution that coincided with the war against Japan.

More than anything Battleship Potemkin is a cry for justice. Just as the soldiers are unnecessarily forced into conditions that are not fitting for any human, their actions during the four later episodes are filled with heroic stances against tyranny. Their own victimization brings urgency to their stands, but none is doing it for himself. The last two episodes take a outside the battleship for a very short time, but it’s just long enough to know that the stances these men have taken against tyranny has had an effect on the whole nation.

The actions of heroism depicted in Battleship Potemkin are selfless acts of sacrifice. Within the ship, every act is done for the protection of the brotherhood created in that battleship. We know they have bigger views and bigger ambitions that see their service as for their country and possibly the world, but whoever it is they’re fighting for and whoever they’re fighting against, there is never an ounce of self interest in what these people do.

Eisenstein’s film is an extremely powerful picture of the power of unity and brotherly love. Although it was a very small victory that didn’t stop the tyranny already existing or prevent the rise of the further tyranny that marred most of 20th century Russia, it was still a victory. The movie shows this victory as entirely the result of selflessness and unity.

There’s a scene in the fourth episode that looks a lot like what we saw on the news a couple weeks ago from Charlottesville, Virginia. The soldiers get off the battleship celebrating what looks like a victory with many people greeting them when an ambush is arranged against them that looks a lot like the way the car suddenly became a weapon in Charlottesville. The evil of the tyranny around them and the system allowing it to happen is a lot like our own political climate where the hate groups have a newfound voice thanks to our president who won’t admit any responsibility in the attacks, but anyone who heard him talk during his campaign knows that he made the way for this to happen and for many more situations like it.

But even in the midst of that reality that was opened to our eyes, there is hope as long as there are people willing to selflessly stand against hatred and injustice. The mutinous soldiers of Battleship Potemkin are a wonderful example of that through their unity and brotherhood. Their example shows us that there is always room for victory even if it looks like we’re losing the war, but that victory only can come through selfless acts of unity, love, and peace.