Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
Running Time: 216 minutes

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to film. Just this year alone, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises were recipients of this buzz word. But if there were one film to truly deserve the “epic” moniker, it would be Lawrence of Arabia.

Arguably the most intimidating entry in my project — largely due to its nearly four hour running time — I waited until just the right time to finally see the film. Thanks to this year being the 50th anniversary of its release, a fully restored version has been making its way around select theaters nationwide. As such, I spent my Christmas evening at my favorite cinema, the Music Box Theatre, taking in Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a man who I knew little about beforehand. Set during World War I, we follow along as Lawrence rises from being an eccentric British Army lieutenant to an improbable leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. The journey there is anything but conventional.

Lawrence befriends a number of desert leaders along the way, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He earns their trust and respect thanks to his noble actions. In one pivotal moment, the Arab group notices a man has fallen off his horse quite a ways back. While the general consensus is that it is too risky to go back for him, Lawrence takes matters into his own hands and rides back alone. He emerges, a small blip in the seering desert horizon, no longer alone, but with the man clinging to his back. This response cements Lawrence’s status as a leader, and soon the Arabs become even more accepting of him.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The fact that Lawrence is able to emerge as a crucial figure in the Arab revolt is nothing short of fascinating. He is anything but a traditional military hero, and it’s easy to see why director David Lean wanted to film his story. Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, delivers an unprecedented performance as Lawrence, bringing about an unusual form of charisma. He is enigmatic, a rebellious figure who is also a bit effeminate. He’s a man of action, and some of his behavior near the end of the revolt is startling.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Omar Sharif plays a key role as Lawrence’s main compatriot in the desert, with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn also performing admirably as important Arab leaders. On the British side of the spectrum, Donald Wolfit and the always reliable Claude Rains play military and political leaders, respectively. Arthur Kennedy makes an appearance as an American war correspondent, looking to make Lawrence out to be a hero. Special mention should be made of José Ferrer, who is only in the film for five minutes but is a driving force in one of the most memorable scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Perhaps the most important figure in Lawrence of Arabia is the desert itself. The cinematography by F.A. Young is simply amazing, and the landscape is used to maximum efficiency. Several scenes show the sun beaming down on those below, with long, sweeping shots that show just how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things. An especially memorable moment happens when Sherif Ali is introduced. At first, we see a tiny dot in the distance. In the hazy heat, it’s difficult to tell if there is actually something there or if it is an illusion. Slowly but surely, the small dot grows bigger, and it isn’t too long before Ali enters the scene. What happens next is unexpected, but this moment perfectly encapsulates just how daunting these massive deserts truly are. I can’t recall another film that so effectively uses Earth’s own natural beauty.

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography). It’s one of the most widely recognized films of all time, with unanimous praise from most. The accolades are more than deserved, as this is a near flawless work of art. As of this writing, the film is still being shown in a handful of theaters. If it’s playing anywhere near you, this is a cinematic viewing experience you must not miss.

10/10

Movie Project #39: Notorious [1946]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Notorious [1946]

Notorious [1946]
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Genre: Film Noir/Romance/Thriller
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains
Runtime: 101 minutes

Seeing an Alfred Hitchcock film for the first time is always an exciting experience. Last year, I witnessed a handful with fresh eyes, including the fantastic Vertigo and Psycho (both for this project). For this year’s project, I included another of his most highly-regarded films: Notorious.

Released in Hitchcock’s first decade in America, Notorious is a post-war thriller with film noir elements that also happens to provide one of cinema’s most intriguing love stories. Cary Grant stars as T.R. Devlin, a secret agent who is an important figure in a plan to infiltrate a Nazi organization that has relocated to Rio de Janeiro. In order to do so, the government enlists the help of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. While privately against the Nazi beliefs, she still has ties to those in Brazil, and she is sent to seduce their leader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Her commitment to the job is unparalleled, but there is a wrench in their plans: Devlin and Alicia fall madly in love with each other.

Notorious [1946]

This love triangle leads to some tense moments, as Alicia is asked to do things that were not part of the original plan. She is also tasked with riding that delicate balance between acting in love with Sebastian while still attempting to discover intel about the Nazi operations. Devlin does his best to remain detached, trying not to mix love and his work, and never flat out saying “I love you.” But when your love interest is Ingrid f’n Bergman, it’s hard to stay in check.

There are several noteworthy scenes in Notorious, including many that rank amongst Hitchcock’s most suspenseful. One unforgettable sequence happens at a huge party at the Nazi headquarters. Alicia has stolen a key to the wine cellar, where she is to lead Devlin in hopes of uncovering a secret to the organization’s operations. Everything is going well until the hosts begin running low on alcohol upstairs. Sebastian and an associate start heading downstairs at the same time Devlin and Alicia are investigating the cellar. The suspense builds as the chances of a successful escape grow very slim.

The film’s conclusion is also thrilling, including one of the slowest descents down a staircase that I have ever seen.

Notorious [1946]

Despite being nearly 70 years old, Notorious holds up remarkably well today. The story, while taking place shortly after World War II, is a timeless tale of espionage and romance. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are a fantastic pairing, two gorgeous Hollywood A-listers with strong chemistry. Claude Rains adds a great deal to the film as well, delivering a performance that somehow makes the audience sympathize with the plights of a Nazi.

It’s a bit shocking that Notorious only received two Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Hecht). Then again, Hitchcock’s lack of support from the Academy is well-known (he never won for Best Director). Regardless of these oversights, Notorious ranks among his best work, and it is easily one of my favorites from this year’s project. This deserves to be mentioned when others talk about the director’s more popular and critically-acclaimed work (i.e. Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc.).

9/10

Movie Project #29 and #30: Sunset Boulevard [1950] and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950, Billy Wilder]
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim.

Holy hell, what a film! The fact that such a biting satire about the film industry was made in 1950 blows my mind. The movie opens up mysteriously with a dead man floating in the pool. This man, Joe Gillis (played by the brilliant Holden), proceeds to narrate the film from beyond the grave, and the movie follows the events that led up to his demise. While on the run from repo men, Gillis pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Well, it turns out that the long-retired silent film star Norma Desmond (the scary-good Swanson, a former silent film star herself) is living there, and she sparks up an interest in the failing writer of Gillis. What transpires is truly bizarre, as Gillis becomes involved in a love triangle with Desmond and a young writer (Nancy Olson).

The world that Norma Desmond lives in is beyond fascinating, as she has clearly lost her mind and is stuck living in the past. She believes she will make a great comeback someday, and her reassuring butler (von Stroheim) refuses to tell her otherwise, fearing she will commit suicide. Her descent into madness culminates with one of the most memorable closing lines ever uttered on film: “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Sunset Boulevard also has some terrific moments of dark humor, and I particularly loved the brief cameos from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. This was the first time I had heard Keaton speak! There really is a lot to love about this movie, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 10/10

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.

It says something about a movie’s power when a statement made 70+ years ago still holds relevance today. The always awesome James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive Boy Scout leader who is oddly selected to take over as a US Senator after an incumbent passes away. When he gets there, he is enamored with the sights and sounds of Washington D.C., even getting himself lost in the process. He quickly finds out that he doesn’t belong there, as he has no interest in the political bullshit that goes on every day. Still, he perserveres, especially after he finds out about a scandal that would build a dam over his proposed Boy Scout campsite.

As a story of one man fighting for what’s right, it’s hard not to admire the movie. Smith, aided by his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), is a likable guy, and his big moment — a very, very long fillibuster — is quite brilliant. Superbly acted with a great screenplay to boot, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still holds up today. 9/10