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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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.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

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We learn right away that Cleo has a doctor’s appointment in two hours where she’ll receive the results of tests that will tell whether or not she has cancer and the prognosis if she does. The movie does just exactly what the title tells us it will. We follow Cleo for those two hours leading up to the appointment.

We see moments of excitement where she’s convinced she’s going to get good news, and even though she doesn’t have any good reason to anticipate any of the potential answers (only the tests can answer those question), she convinces us that she’s going to be okay and we share in her joy. We also see moments where she’s convinced she’s dying. Again, she’s so convinced that she convinces us, and we feel her despair.

Then there are the moments where she just tries to live her life. She’s a professional singer, and the time she spends in the studio is filled with conflict that we realize isn’t normal. She usually gets along well with her band and the songwriter she works with, but everything’s different this day. She doesn’t express any of what she’s going through personally to her co-workers, but we can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling every second that she’s physically at work but mentally at that appointment that hasn’t come yet.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, and through most of the movie Cleo doesn’t do very much. The world goes on around her. We hear conversations going on that aren’t relevant to Cleo and therefore aren’t important to the story or to us. What matters is what’s going on inside of Cleo as the world goes on around her, while she’s going through the most anguish and anxiety she’s ever experienced in her life. Corinne Marchand makes us able to understand what’s going on inside of Cleo every second of the movie because of how expressive she is as an actor when she doesn’t speak.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a challenging film because we’re expected to think and feel with the character, not follow a story. We’re expected to build empathy on our own, not because the story has had an emotional impact on us but just because of what she’s going through. That’s precisely what makes it a masterpiece. Corinne Marchand’s acting performance and Agnes Varda’s direction take us inside the soul of Cleo for those two hour leading up to her appointment.

As we focus on Cleo’s mental and emotional state as she awaits the news of her own mortality, we are confronted with our own views on mortality. It allows us to experience what it feels like to wait for that news and asks us to try to keep living in the midst of the waiting, just like Cleo’s forced to. But’s it not the type of living we’re used to. It’s a type of living that focuses on the reality of death, confronting our beliefs about death and what comes after death and also confronting our current life and how we’ll live differently if we get good news. Even though the movie reveals the results of Cleo’s tests at the end of the movie, they really don’t matter to our experience. As we’ve been faced with Cleo’s traumatic wait, we’re forced into our very own traumatic meditation where we ask the same questions Cleo does and we think about the same things Cleo does because they are universal realities that we all must confront but usually don’t until in a situation like Cleo’s. And going through it with Cleo is challenging and painful but ultimately hopeful and rewarding dependent on the conclusions we come to during this meditation on the shortness of life.

Easy Rider (1969)

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So we all know Billy and Wyatt start off on their journey with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack. But it’s what happens before that and another Steppenwolf song on the soundtrack that makes all of Dennis Hopper’s countercultural masterpiece work. They collect the drugs from their connection that they plan to make their fortune from. They talk about getting to New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras, where they will make their money. They get on their bikes and we hear Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.”

The song is used as kind of a prayer, very literally asking God to damn the pusher, and this is exactly what we see unfold in the rest of the movie. We see the results of their greed and their willingness to use people for their own gain without any regard for human life. “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round with tombstones in their eyes, but the pusher don’t care if you live or die.” Every time Billy and Wyatt get off their bikes, we see this disregard in new, more profound ways until in the end the “prayer” is answered.

Along with playing Billy, Dennis Hopper also directed Easy Rider. He and Peter Fonda, who played Wyatt, co-wrote the screenplay. But the story unfolds so naturally, just following them on their bikes, encountering different people, that it would feel more like a travelogue than a movie if it weren’t for the opening with “The Pusher.” The two arranged everything we see in this remarkably strange and brilliant film in a way that is actually a lot like several of the psalms of the Bible. A prayer for vindication against enemies is followed with praise to God for his justice. Throughout Easy Rider, we see the results of an evil that is harming and killing many people and eventually something that looks very much like the divine justice expected in those prayers of the Psalms.

Billy and Wyatt talk a lot about freedom as they hang out with hippies and to some degree see themselves as hippies. But they’re not interested in the communal hippy lifestyle. They have their own countercultural movement that loves drugs and the idea of freedom just as much as the hippy movement did, but their idea of freedom is built on hypocrisy. The more money they get the more free they are, but of course that means that the more free they are, the more bound other people become since they have to get new people hooked on new drugs in order to reach the freedom they’re looking for. They hate corporate America because it’s too scared of freedom and wants to keep people bound, because it’s only interested in its own monetary gain at the expense of all other people. Yet they refuse to admit that their behavior is exactly the same. They refuse to admit it, that is, until they’ve just about made all they’re money. They think they’ve accomplished the point of their trip and are about to get all the money they need to make them free when Wyatt very randomly responds to Billy’s bragging about their gain by saying “Billy, we blew it.” This movie’s most famous line is an admission of hypocrisy, greed, and all types of evil that makes the way for a perfect conclusion to everything that started when they got on their bikes and headed to New Orleans while we listened to “The Pusher.”

 

 

Chinatown (1974)

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One of the things that made the 1940s such a great decade for film was its development and perfection of the genres that remain favorites today. One of the things that made the 1970s such a great decade for film was its re-structuring and making room for fresh innovation in those genres. Most times 1970s films used the conventions of 1940s movies to end up doing their own thing. The Godfather movies and The Sting are definitely gangster movies, but they’re nothing like the ones in the 30s and 40s, in the same way that they’re nothing like each other. Annie Hall is definitely a romantic comedy but it’s a far cry from The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown isn’t the usual 70s movie, not that there really is such a thing as my last few sentences show. It doesn’t do it’s own thing. It inhabits the very same world, even the very same Los Angeles as the 1940s detective noir films. J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is the same type of emotionally detached detective as those Humphrey Bogart played whose every line crackles with dark humor and cynicism yet is deep down very concerned about justice. The first line he speaks is to a grieving man who has just found out his wife is having an affair. Instead of offering any kind of empathetic response, he crustily says “Curly, don’t eat the Venetian blinds.”

Inhabiting the same world of 1940s noir does not mean that Chinatown is unoriginal. All the great noir movies are loaded with twists that make sure everything revealed in the end is like nothing that could have been expected from the beginning. Chinatown offers that in ways many filmmakers probably wanted to do in the 40s but couldn’t because of decency requirements. But the main thing that sets Chinatown apart from 40s noir is its insistence on starting dark (what the French word noir actually means) without ever relenting.

Because J. J. Gittes is like all the great detectives in the 40s movies, he isn’t quite as hardened as he appears. He still had a desire to see justice accomplished,  and all the 40s detectives, at least in the movies I’ve seen, have gotten that pleasure. If you haven’t seen Chinatown, I promise I’m not giving anything way by saying that J.J. Gittes doesn’t get to see the justice he’s looking for. The movie has to work that way because although it is a 40s film noir made in the 70s, it is also an indictment on the American criminal justice system.

From the beginning, we see people who make their living in seedy ways. J.J. Gittes is accused of being the seediest, when we get to see that his attempt for justice is real and that he’s really the only protagonist the movie has. He’s the only character with any empathy, even though his attitudes and language constantly betray that empathy. Underneath everything we see, we can tell that J.J. is a man who has seen the rich owning the city and being able to get away with anything they want because they’re rich. But we also see a man who believes things don’t have to be that way. He’s hardened because of what he’s seen but he’s not so hardened to believe that it has to stay that way. But as it was true in the 40s and still in the 70s, it’s still true in 2017 that wealth often wins over truth and justice in America. Chinatown brilliantly uses all the conventions of a favorite genre and of a time come and gone to tell the truth of the culture of its own time, something that unfortunately is still very much true in the culture today. And because it is so bleak and hopeless, it helps us really feel that truth. As we feel that truth and own it, we won’t be as emotionless as J.J. Gittes, but we can have the same hope that he had, the hope that truth and justice are possible in our culture no matter how removed it is from them right now. Wealth is  still the highest priority in our nation; the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, the helpless don’t get helped, the criminals go unpunished and the inequity of the criminal justice system shows the rampant racism still alive in the U.S.A. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. The more we see the reality and the bleakness of the situations we live in, just like Chinatown did for its own time through a story set in the past, the more we are able to empathize with others and find small ways to make a difference in our surroundings.