Posted in Movie Reviews

Movies That Stick With You

"We rob banks"
“We rob banks”

If you’re on Facebook, you’re no doubt familiar with (and probably incredibly annoyed by) those quizzes that always seem to be in circulation. However, there’s one that recently crossed my path again after four years, and I’ve been intrigued by how my views have changed or in some instances remained the same. I’m referring to the quiz that begins with the instruction: “List the first fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. Fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”

So free-associating I went. It wasn’t until I completed my list and went to the “Notes” section of my Facebook page that I realized I had taken the quiz before. Here are the results:

2014                                                                    2010
Bonnie and Clyde                                   Bonnie and Clyde
Up in the Air                                            Smiles of a Summer Night
Some Like It Hot                                     L.A. Confidential
Days of Wine and Roses                       The Talented Mr. Ripley
Vertigo                                                       Music Box
The Godfather                                         The Seventh Seal
The Last Picture Show                          The Magnificent Ambersons
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?       Sherlock, Jr.
Yankee Doodle Dandy                           Meet Me in St. Louis
L.A. Confidential                                     The Letter
Now, Voyager                                            Laura
A Letter to Three Wives                         A Letter to Three Wives
Elmer Gantry                                             They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Smiles of a Summer Night                    Public Enemy
Persona                                                        Howard’s End

A couple of observations: While some of the films have changed, two of the key players did not: Bette Davis (“The Letter” vs. “Now, Voyager”) and James Cagney (“Public Enemy” vs. “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), which didn’t surprise me at all—they’re among my favorite actors. Several of the movies fell off the list during the intervening years due to sheer fatigue on my part—much as I love “Laura” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” I’ve recently had to give these two a rest as I did with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (one can only take so much Jude Law at his most gorgeous). I can’t say I included any stinkers, though I was surprised to find I had picked “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 2010. And the only movie I regret omitting from either list is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen.

That “Bonnie and Clyde” tops both lists is proof that what you experience in adolescence stays with you forever. I saw this during its first release when I was a junior in high school; no other movie I’ve seen since looks quite like it. Today’s first-time viewers might yawn, but I can’t emphasize enough how shocking the violence and the blood were in 1967, yet how refreshingly hip it all seemed before the shooting started. The ending is both famous and infamous, but the earlier scene in the field, as Buck lies dying of a head wound and the gang is surrounded by law enforcement, is an incredible ballet of death. While all the actors are excellent, Gene Hackman as Buck is the true standout.

“Up in the Air” is my favorite recent film. It definitely rates its own blog post, so stay tuned. Three of the repeaters, namely “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” remain among my most watchable films. The first of these has amazing grit and spectacular performances from Jane Fonda and Gig Young. “L.A. Confidential” is one of the most perfectly cast movies I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that a number of viewers complain that the plot is too complicated, but when I saw it during its first run, I could really feel the story unfold, like a flower opening. If you want to see what a terrific job screenwriter Brian Helgeland did, try the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based—it’s a great read but you’ll spend a lot of time backtracking just to keep things straight. In an entirely different mode, “Smiles of a Summer Night” is unquestionably Ingmar Bergman’s loveliest film. It may be hard to believe coming from the director that gave us “Winter Light” and “Through a Glass Darkly,” but each time I watch it I feel much better about the world in general.

I hadn’t seen “Days of Wine and Roses” in quite a while until Turner Classic Movies ran it one recent Sunday morning, which was odd scheduling indeed. While the film’s set pieces are well-known—Joe’s tearing up his father-in-law’s greenhouse in search of that hidden bottle, Kirsten’s enticing Joe into drinking with her in that cheap motel room—the freshness of the couple’s early relationship makes their descent into alcoholism that much more painful. Interestingly, in the original version of this story, which aired on television’s “Playhouse 90,” Joe and Kirsten are both heavy drinkers when we first see them; there’s no suggestion that he coerced her to drink as there is in the film. Piper Laurie is as wonderful a Kirsten in the televised version as Lee Remick is in the movie version, though Cliff Robertson can’t hold a candle to Jack Lemmon’s later performance as Joe Clay (If you’d like to compare teleplay to film, the former is included in “The Golden Age of Television” anthology)

Addie Ross' parting shot to three wives
Addie Ross’ parting shot to three wives

I was tickled to see that even with a four-year lapse in time, I had “A Letter to Three Wives” in the same position on both lists. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and more universal, perhaps, than Joseph Mankiewicz’s next film, “All About Eve.” You couldn’t ask for a better cast: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are the stand-outs among the husbands and wives, Celeste Holm supplies Addie Ross’ arch narration, and Connie Gilchrist as Ms. Darnell’s mother and especially Thelma Ritter as Sadie the maid (“Soup’s on!”) are wonders to behold. It’s not just an incredibly funny movie—there’s a tragic thread in the relationship of Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, two people who are afraid to say “I love you” to each other. I should warn you, however, that there’s one minor fault in the film: the ending is a bit rushed, to the extent that you may not be sure that Porter is telling the truth (nearly everyone I’ve known who’s seen it says the same thing). Reverse and replay it—you’ll see that he is.

And what 15 films always stick with you?

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Posted in Broadway Musicals, Movie Reviews

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Have I mentioned I grew up at a time when the Broadway musical was still in its prime (not to mention affordable)? Because I was lucky to live in the New York metropolitan area, I was able to see the original productions of so many shows now considered to be classics. One of the best–and loveliest–was Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “A Little Night Music” stands apart from other Sondheim shows. Its music doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, and the wry romance of the story resulted in his wittiest lyrics. There’s no doubt the excellence of the work rests a great deal on what Bergman already created. In style his film is reminiscent of the Mozart/DaPonte operas–it almost begs to be sung. Despite the satisfactory rearrangement of the lovers, you’re left with the impression that all happy endings are evanescent (It’s a safe bet that Charlotte and Carl-Magnus Malcolm will probably grind each other down into dust). But the reward is a visually beautiful film directed by a master, with Gunnar Bjornstrom and Eva Dahlbeck as Frederick Egermann and Desiree Armfelt so ridiculously good together they outdo even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The original production of “A Little Night Music” was a bit sweeter than the Bergman film. Charlotte Malcolm was sharply comic, rather than tending toward tragedy, Carl-Magnus was a barihunk without quite the wit of his film counterpart, Frederick was somewhat less dry, and it was obvious that his relationship with Desiree had ended many years earlier than in the Bergman version (Desiree’s child is a girl who’s about ten years older than the film character’s son). On stage, William Daniels, who had replaced Len Cariou as Frederick Egermann, was wonderful in the role. The sheer theatricality of the show was such fun: “The Glamorous Life” (“Bring up the curtain, la la la”) accented by a harp glissando and Desiree’s sweeping gesture to cue the scenery of the play within the play; the clever design of Charlotte’s hobble skirt, which turned out to be culottes; that breath-taking moment when the curtain rose on the second act, with the cast lounging on the lawn of Desiree’s estate, all dressed in their beautiful summer whites. Not to mention how wonderfully Glynis Johns sang “Send in the Clowns” so late in the show’s run, yet making it sound like fresh thought. It’s hard to think of another show that could match that production in elegance.

Glynis Johns as Desiree
Glynis Johns as Desiree

“Night Music,” musically speaking, is all of one piece. Every song in the score, waltz or not, is in three or its multiple; the unstoppable “A Weekend in the Country” is in 12/8. But your ear is never bored since Sondheim plays with tempo throughout the show and tricks you into thinking he’s doing alternate meter as in “The Glamorous Life.” However, I think the most crucial musical ingredient is the contribution of Jonathan Tunick, perhaps the most gifted orchestrator Broadway has ever seen. He adds warmth to the score with some lovely woodwind writing, especially for alto flute and English horn, and he softens the odd tonality of “Night Waltz I” (“The sun won’t set..”) with those lush strings.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment in “A Little Night Music.” “A Weekend in the Country,” with its busy choruses and Charlotte’s sage advice to Anne about how to outshine Desiree (“Wear your hair down with a flower/Don’t use makeup/Dress in white/She’ll grow older by the hour/And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night”)? And the unique juxtaposition of “Now” “Soon” and “Later,” only to hear them come together in a trio? Which reminds me: there’s an unusual bonus on the original cast album at the point when Anne (Victoria Mallory) and Henrik (Mark Lambert) sing the line “I don’t mind it too much.” Their voices so perfectly mesh that her soprano sounds like an overtone of his tenor (In fact the actors married during the run of the show and their daughter played Anne in the recent revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway cast album still makes the best case for the show. The recording of the revival has its merits—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and the lieder singers are excellent–but the orchestrations, therefore the sound, is leaner, making it “less than” from a musical standpoint And by all means avoid the movie version, which changed the locale from Sweden to turn of the century Vienna and ends up laying the proverbial egg (Diana Rigg is a great Charlotte, but it’s just not worth the agony).

So while Hans Christian Anderson may never be risqué, “A Little Night Music” will always delight.