English Language Wednesday: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

6 07 2011

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is the John Huston directed film based upon the 1928 novel of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs and Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico just trying to scrape by. After coming into a little money the decide it is their time to strike it rich and with the help of an old prospector, Howard (Huston’s father, Walter Huston), they decide to go hunting for gold. The trio ride up to the Sierra Madre Mountains and not before long strike it rich.  Paranoia and distrust start to creep in as their fortune grows and the question of whether their relationship, and themselves, can survive the trip off the mountain begins to set in. John Huston successfully navigates several genres in this unusual Western and gets fantastic performances from all three leads.

“Can you help a fellow American down on his luck?”

One of the best aspects of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is how well it changes atmosphere and how effectively John Huston sets it up. The film begins as a standard adventure film but about half way through he veers it into a psychological drama and Humphrey Bogart gives one of, if not his best performance on screen. The whole film balances harsh violence, humor, weariness, insanity, and a little bit of sentimentalism with the utmost ease. This makes for a well-paced, always intriguing movie that will let you know where its going but never how far. John Huston’s timeless classic is without a doubt one of the more diverse of the age in this respect.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls.”

Spending so much time with only three characters could become dull if not for some fantastic performances. Although the least prominent of the three, Curtin may be the most important. Tim Holt plays this straight character with courage and a serene attitude in face of the madness before him. He is without a doubt the third wheel compared to the two larger than life characters he accompanies but is nonetheless essential. Howard was always a little off and Dobbs has a drastic character arc making the viewers association with the cool-headed Curtin all that more important. When we see him ready to commit murder himself it becomes all that more apparent the effect of their new found fortune. Compared to Curtin, we see the gold effect his two comrades in completely opposite ways. Howard is, more or less, indifferent and without the standout performance by Walter Huston the viewer may not buy it but we see many sides of him making Howard an exceptionally interesting man on his own. Dobbs on the other hand falls victim to the riches that befall him. The story is really about him and Director John Huston knows that, every step of the way he sets it up so that Dobbs eventual downfall is all that more tragic. I don’t think it would have had the magnitude it did if Humphrey Bogart had not been the one cast for in the second half of the film he truly carries it.

John Huston is a legendary director and here he may have created his best work. The performances are exceptional, the story is compelling, and the atmosphere and cinematography help accentuate the rest of the excellent production. There is no such thing as a movie that appeals to everyone but “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” gives that statement perhaps the biggest run for its money as it touches on so many different genres so effectively.

Score: 99/100


English Language Wednesday: Rope (1948)

18 05 2011

Without a doubt one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more under-rated films, “Rope” tells the story of two young men who had just murdered their classmate. They do this being under the impression that those who are superior intellectually do not need to abide by the laws and rules set out for “common man”. So to follow through with this belief they murder their apparently “inferior” classmate David Kentley, played by Dick Hogan in his final role. In an act of sadistic humor, they do this right before a big party in which David’s girlfriend, parents, as well as himself was supposed to attend. This cruel game of theirs continues as not only does one of them begin to break down, their old teacher from boarding school, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), begins to suspect what may have happened to David. “Rope” is truly an experimental film, it is not only Hitchcock’s first color movie but also done in only ten takes over the 80 minute runtime. Despite the different approach, this is still a very worthy Hithcock film.

“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent.”

That is something the smart and charming Brandon (John Dall) says after he commits the murder, but it is a statement which I don’t believe could apply to Alfred Hitchcock because most film-makers today are still trying to catch up to him. Although it is an experimental film it is also a huge success. Hitchcock films long take after long take without ever leaving the position of the camera in between. This causes to movie to feel like it is done in one endless scene, like you’d see in the play it was adapted from. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock would have attempted longer cuts if the technology at the time had allowed it. Despite this movie being over 60 years old this is still a very effective technique for storytelling, yet the difficulties it presents causes almost every director to shy away. Although Hitchcock would later dismiss the long takes as a stunt it still shows how far ahead of his time he truly was.

“We killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. “

Danger is something Brandon consistently flirts with throughout the night and his partner in crime Phillip (Farley Granger) starts to lose his mind because of it. The dinner party is but a game to Brandon but every moment someone comes closer to figuring out what happened to David. Hitchcock is famous for producing suspense and he allows a very carefully constructed slow-burn to build upon each moment to the climax of the film, never releasing the viewer. This is a small departure from his regular routine of building tension in smaller doses towards a plot point or twist whereas here Hitchcock doesn’t release for over an hour until the very end.

“Rope” is not Hitchcock’s best movie, far from it, but it is without a doubt still a great film that just gets overshadowed by such an outstanding filmography.

Score: 85/100

English Language Wednesday: The Red Shoes (1948)

11 05 2011

With the recent success of Darren Aronofsky’s dramatic thriller Black Swan, it seems appropriate to go back to an obvious inspiration in The Red Shoes. The Red Shoes is about young Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a ballet dancer completely committed to her craft. She gets accepted into a company led by the famous director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and works her way to the top. Boris is an incredibly demanding director and when she falls in love with a composer (Marius Goring) he kicks both of them out casuing Victoria to have to choose between her love, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and dancing. This is a lavish story of human passion with believable characters and excellent direction. In short a film not to be missed.

“Why do you want to dance?”

The two main characters and the actors who play them are perhaps one of the biggest strength of The Red Shoes. Moira Shearer brings a presence to her part which is particularly remarkable as this is her first movie. She gives Victoria an innocent girl-next-door feel while a stern conviction brews underneath. She is overwhelmed, determined, and conflicted all at the same time. Anton Walbrook plays the strict, overbearing director in a very human way. He is understandable and very friendly most of the time yet he has a clear goal and will do anything to achieve it. Nevertheless there always feels like a real person underneath making it easy to relate to some part of him. These two characters, along with the rest of the principle cast, all could have been done in stereotypes or one-dimensionally but instead they bring a friendliness and depth to the movie which makes every scene enjoyable.

“Why do you want to live? “

The highlight of the movie may come half way through in the form of a 15 minute long presentation of the The Red Shoes; the play Borris Lermontov’s company is putting on. The music is fantastic and Victoria dances her way through dream-like settings to an echo of our larger movie. The backdrops and costumes are amazing as well as the editing of the directorial team known as The Archers which adds to the fantasy element of this unforgettable performance.

The Red Shoes is about love, passion, and the willingness to do anything to fulfill those dreams; even if it means sacrificing a bit of oneself in the process. Victoria’s journey is engrossing and although the end may not come together as smoothly as the previous two hours went, it is still a fantastic story and visually stunning.

Score: 97/100

English Language Wednesday: The Third Man (1949)

4 05 2011

You know what they say: “Variety is the spice of life.” Taking this sentiment to heart I think it would be appropriate to stick to certain categories each day and Wednesdays shall be devoted to English language films, primarily dramas. So to begin English Language Wednesday we’ll start with Carol Reed’s mystery The Third Man.

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martin’s arrival in Vienna on invitation from his long-time friend Harry Lime. Martin (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling novelist who travelled to Vienna on the promise work from his good friend. To his dismay he finds Lime not there to meet him at the airport or at his residence, only to be informed that Harry Lime was killed in a car accident just prior to his arrival. Holly doesn’t believe everything adds up and goes on a search for the true answers behind Harry Lime’s death. Here we find a host of characters hiding information with contradictory stories, something is being covered up and a befuddled Martin storms his way through town trying to find some answers. ‘Curious’ could quite possibly be the best word to describe this UK mystery as on the surface it looks like a film noir; we have a man entering unknown territory, an inciting death and following investigation, a mysterious girl, and the black/white contrasting cinematography so commonly associated with the genre. Yet despite all of that, the actual qualities that make up a noir are absent, and instead the movie focuses purely on the mystery of it all. In addition the music accompanying is far from that of a tense world of lust and murder, instead being very light most of the time. Yes, The Third Man is a very curious film and frankly that is part of what makes it so unique.

Tale of Two Genres

Carol Reed splits the film into two distinct stylistic parts: the first being a mystery and then it switches after all the facts are discovered into an involving thriller. As Holly Martin digs into the mystery of Harry Lime’s death, it is obvious he is in over his head. Every character he meets is friendly yet are all hiding something or at least intentionally misleading him. For every piece of information Holly receives more is obvious right under the surface; he begins to get frustrated with this lack of true information and the viewer is equally confused as to what is really happening. Reed allows Holly to consistently acquire new information but always with a hint a deeper understanding beyond his grasp causing not only Holly but the viewer to constantly question what is going on. The final half hour turns to film into a fast thriller. Now I won’t ruin the reveal for those who haven’t seen it, but it is rewarding and jump-starts the stakes into overdrive.

45-String Samurai

Quite possibly the most unique aspect to The Third Man is the music. Scored by Anton Karas on the zither, it brings a interesting feel to the movie that turns out to be a stroke of genius by Carol Reed. The zither is a string instrument and unlike the mysteries of Hitchcock which use very tense strings, the zither plucks away one string at a time giving it a very playful feel allowing the plot to movie forward very briskly. The most interesting part of the instrument is that it seems to embody Orson Welles’ character. With every scene, the zither accompanies Welles so well that when we hear the music without him I can’t help but imagining his soul encompassing every scene of this film, or that he is some sort of puppet-master looking over Holly as he struggles with this mystery. This is part of the reason re-watching The Third Man is so enjoyable even with the knowledge of what happens.

The Third Man is not only one of the best mysteries ever made, but also one of the best UK films ever made as well. From its incredible style and cinematography, to interesting characters, and a plot that keeps you intrigued all the time; it is one of the most enjoyable movies to watch and then re-watch again.

Score: 98/100