Movie Project #19: Rififi [1955]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rififi [1955]

Rififi [1955]
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Auguste Le Breton (novel), Jules Dassin (adaptation), René Wheeler (collaboration) and Auguste Le Breton (collaboration)
Country: France
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici, Marie Sabouret
Running Time: 122 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I noticed this on several “best of” lists for film noir, crime, the 1950s, etc. and wanted to make it a point to finally see it.

Accolades: Won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival, part of the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time

When it comes to heist films, there is Rififi and then there is everything else.

Fresh out of prison after serving five years for stealing jewelry, Tony (aka “The Stéphanois”, played by Jean Servais) is struggling to adapt to the life he once knew. He drinks too much, has a nasty cough that suggests possible lung disease, has hit a cold streak playing cards, and to top it all off, his former girlfriend is now property of a Parisian mob boss. Needless to say, when a colleague (Jo, played by Carl Möhner) approaches him with the idea of pulling off another jewelry heist, it doesn’t take long for Tony to warm up to the idea.

Two other men — Mario (Robert Manuel) and master safecracker César (Jules Dassin) — enter the picture, and the group begins developing an increasingly detailed plan to rob a popular Parisian jeweler’s storefront. Their research is immaculate — they make multiple trips to the store, checking in on its security system while also learning the inticracies of the building itself. The store’s alarm system is easily triggered, as mere light vibrations will set it off for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Rififi [1955]

In a bit of ingenious filmmaking, we are able to watch the group as they buy an identical version of the alarm and start pondering ways to mute it. Tampering with the wires and the insides of the alarm will immediately cause a ruckus, so there appears to be no clear way to disable it. Just as the men are starting to lose hope on the operation, Tony finds a way to quiet the system using fire extinguisher foam. Eureka!

The actual heist is the stunning centerpiece of the film. For nearly 30 minutes, Dassin shows the group executing their plan, most of which takes place in complete silence (meaning no music either). It’s a rather amazing accomplishment, as there is so much tension and suspense without anything being said. This type of sequence could never happen today.

But yet with Rififi, there is still *more* after the heist. Here the criminals have to deal with the aftermath of their feat, and it isn’t pretty. The film gets shockingly violent after this, especially by 1955’s standards.

Rififi [1955]

Perhaps even more incredible, the film manages to turn these anti-heroes into likable characters. Tony, in particular, is an absolute brute at the beginning of the film. How can we root for someone so self-loathing who also unnecessarily smacked around his ex-girlfriend? Yet by the end of the film, we see that he *does* have a set of morals, and we want to see him succeed. All four thieves follow the “code of silence” after the heist, which is admirable in its own right.

Rififi is still an impressive piece of filmmaking, and it’s clear that it has influenced nearly every major heist film since its release. It’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino selected it as one of the “coolest movies of all-time” — hell, without Rififi, there would be no Reservoir Dogs. A must see.


Movie Project #14: Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Film Noir
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of the most highly regarded Film Noirs that I still had not seen.

Accolades: Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993, part of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series, Empire 500, 501 Must See Movies, the Criterion Collection, and many more “best of” lists

Is there a bigger louse in film than Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success?

Here is a man (and I use that term loosely), a press agent, who will do anything and everything to get his clients mentioned in a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He is willing to bribe, blackmail, extort and even pimp out his acquaintances if it helps him make a quick buck. Falco is a sleazy shell of a man.

“You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”

The author of this newspaper column, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), isn’t much better. Rather than ooze slime, Hunsecker uses his power and authority to bully his way through life. He has an ego the size of Texas, and he is especially intimidating to his younger, 19-year-old sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Everybody knows Manny Davis – except Mrs. Manny Davis.”

Susan is in a happy relationship with noted jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and they have begun discussing the prospects of marriage. One problem: Susan desperately wants her brother’s approval, and Hunsecker is not ready to do so.

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Instead, J.J. schemes with Falco to find a way to break up their romance. Falco, failing at this task much like everything else in his life, grows more and more desperate while aiming to please the very influential columnist. He tries selling “tips” to other gossip rags in an attempt to label Dallas as a “marijuana smoking commie.” What entails is an increasingly foul and dirty game of smearing, with both Falco and Hunsecker seemingly digging themselves deeper and deeper in their power plays.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!”

Lancaster and Curtis are terrific in the lead roles, especially the latter. Curtis excels at portraying what is essentially the cesspool of humanity. Even when he is in the distant background during a few scenes, I found myself keeping an eye on him just to see if I could figure out what he had up his sleeve. The character of Falco never stops conniving and scheming his way to the top.

“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

Sweet Smell of Success has some of the best dialogue I have seen in film. It is immensely quotable (as seen throughout this review), and it is a scathing attack on newspaper and print media. This is a film with horrible people doing horrible things, but damn if it isn’t entertaining.


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.).


Movie Project #34: Gilda [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.

Gilda [1946]

Gilda [1946]
Director: Charles Vidor
Genre: Drama/Film Noir/Romance
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and George Macready
Runtime: 110 minutes

Rita Hayworth. Having never seen a film with this red-haired dame, she has become something of a mythical goddess to me over the years. Between Jack White’s constant fawning over her, and references from film writers, I had heard so much about the actress without ever actually seeing her perform. It was with this in mind that I added Gilda to the project, arguably her most popular film.

Gilda is a Film Noir with an especially thick layer of sexual tension. Hayworth plays the titular character, an undeniable femme fatale who is caught between two men. Her husband, Ballin (George Macready), is the boss of a South American casino. His righthand man is Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford, also the narrator), who once had a past with Gilda. She spends her time flaunting about and staying out late with strange men, much to the chagrin of Johnny, who is trying to keep her in check. Gilda is something of a wild stallion, however — impossible to tame.

Gilda [1946]

There’s also an air of homoeroticism between Ballin and Johnny, though it is never overtly mentioned in the script. This bizarre love triangle spins a dangerous web, especially once the truth comes out about Johnny and Gilda’s past. Their relationship borders that fine line between “love” and “hate”, and it’s especially intriguing to see this play out.

At its core, this is a Rita Hayworth film. She glows in every scene she is in, especially in the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease. Just by merely removing her long, black glove, she oozes a kind of sex appeal rarely seen on screen. This rivals Marilyn Monroe’s legendary “I Wanna Be Loved By You” number in Some Like It Hot, as both show two classic beauties in their prime.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda [1946]

The problem with Gilda is exactly what makes it so great — Rita Hayworth. Take her out of the picture and there’s nothing left but a middling noir. Sure, Glenn Ford and George Macready round out a strong main cast, but she is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the film. Using a different actress would have been a grave mistake, and the film would have suffered greatly without her.

As it stands, Gilda is worth seeing, but only because of Miss Hayworth. The sexual tension she creates between both men is a work of art, and I have never seen a film with such a strong love-hate relationship as found with her and Johnny. There is no mistaking her legacy.


Movie Project #20: Touch of Evil [1958]

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.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Touch of Evil [1958]
Director: Orson Welles
Genre: Crime/Film Noir/Thriller
Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles and Janet Leigh
Runtime: 95 minutes

Touch of Evil had me hooked from the opening shot. The three-and-a-half minute tracking shot begins with a man sneakily placing a bomb in the trunk of a car. A couple enters the car and begins driving slowly through town, not knowing that their lives are in danger. They are forced to stop on multiple occasions to let pedestrians cross the road. As they sit waiting, the suspense reaches new heights. When will this bomb go off?

The car continues moving forward. Now we see happy newlyweds walking down the street — later, we learn that this is drug enforcement official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh). As they walk down the street, they continue to cross paths with the slow moving vehicle. We can practically hear the bomb ticking… we know it’s going to go off, but when??

The car reaches the US/Mexico border. After some banter with the border patrol, the riders are sent through to American soil, where the bomb promptly explodes. Talk about a hell of an introduction… welcome to Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Orson Welles’ gritty Film Noir never lets up after the opening scene. This is a technical masterpiece, with some truly stunning cinematography. It’s easy to just sit back and stare in awe at the visual prowess on screen, but yes, there is a terrific crime story to back it up.

The fact that a Mexican bomb blew up on American soil is very bad news for Vargas’ home country, so he decides to keep tabs on the ongoing investigation. All sorts of police officers arrive on scene, but two of them take charge: Captain Harry Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his faithful partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Quinlan, a sweaty, unshaven man of immense girth, immediately butts heads with Vargas, who insists that he will not get in the way. However, when Vargas (rightfully) suspects Quinlan of planting evidence at the crime scene, the testosterone battle reaches new, murky depths.

Touch of Evil has many twists and turns, and it digs heavily into police corruption thanks to Orson Welles’ role as one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His Quinlan is not a good man, though he may have once been, and he is the type of guy who will do anything to maintain his position as top dog. Welles plays him with a snarl, delivering a dark and unforgettable performance. Charlton Heston is also terrific as the drug enforcement agent Vargas, even though it is laughable that he is supposed to be Mexican. Special mention must be made of Janet Leigh, who is brilliant even as her poor character gets innocently caught up in the middle of this web of crime.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Touch of Evil has been released as three different versions. The original 1958 theatrical cut was a 93 minute hack job that was revised without Welles’ knowledge (or so he claimed). In 1976, a new version was discovered and released, though it still included several re-shot scenes (even moreso than the original cut). Finally, in 1998, the most complete version was released, as most of Welles’ original complaints were addressed, and the film was pieced together per his former requests. This is the version I ended up seeing, and by all accounts, this is the best one.

As much as I love Citizen Kane, a strong case could be made for Touch of Evil being my new favorite Orson Welles film. I fell in love with the film right from the beginning, and its dark subject matter kept me intrigued throughout. As far as Film Noirs go, it doesn’t get much better than this (even with Heston as a Mexican).


Quick Reviews: Detour [1945], Ghost Dog [1999], Series 7 [2001], The Secret World of Arrietty [2010], Mass Effect [2007]

This has been an unexpectedly busy month, but I still found time to do a new batch of mini-reviews:


Detour [1945]
Detour [1945]
This short Film Noir (runtime: 68 minutes) has gained a lot of respect over the years, and rightfully so. Tom Neal stars as Al, a piano musician who decides to hitchhike from New York City to Hollywood in order to meet up with his starry-eyed dame. Along the way, he gets a ride from a well-off bookie in a convertible. This is where shit hits the fan. While taking a turn driving, Al pulls over to put up the top during a rainstorm. It is at this time that he notices the bookie has passed out, and upon opening the car door, his new friend falls out and hits his head on a rock. Al freaks out, takes his wallet and car, and continues on to Hollywood. He meets the femme fatale of the film, Vera (Ann Savage), and boy is she a cold-hearted woman! She is easily one of the nastiest women I have seen in a noir, and poor Al just can’t catch a break. It’s amazing just how much plot was able to get crammed into this brief film, and it is worthy of its praise as one of the more underrated Film Noirs. I could have done without the tacked-on final scene, but this is an enjoyably dark and gritty way to spend an hour. 8/10

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Talk about an unorthodox badass. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an inner-city self-trained samurai, a guy who acts as a hitman and lives in a pigeon coop. His best friend is an immigrant who doesn’t speak a lick of English. Ghost Dog is a weird dude, but he is lethal with a weapon, and he isn’t afraid of anyone despite getting tangled up in some nasty mafia business. This Jim Jarmusch film is a little slow in spots, but its odd humor (i.e. an old mob gangster belting out some Flava Flav jams) and killer RZA-curated soundtrack work greatly in its favor. 7.5/10

Series 7: The Contenders
Series 7: The Contenders [2001]
This dark satire of reality TV is equal parts Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. The concept is that six contestants are chosen via a ‘random’ lottery, with the ultimate goal being to kill off the other participants and remain the last person standing. Director Daniel Minahan, a former reality TV producer himself, does a terrific job making the movie feel like an extended marathon of an actual reality show, complete with Will Arnett as the narrator. The movie has a cool premise, and the production fits the theme perfectly, but it never really digs into anything meaningful. Yeah, reality TV sucks, and it’s fun to bash it, but the spoof could have had more of a bite to it. Still, an enjoyable enough movie, and a mindless way to spend 87 minutes. 6/10

The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
Studio Ghibli’s latest feature is a somber and melancholy affair, yet remains charming at the same time. Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a “borrower”, a little person who lives under the floorboards of a house with her parents (voiced by real-life couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). They make a living by borrowing unneeded supplies from the human beings (i.e. sugar cubes, tissue paper, etc.). Arrietty forms an unlikely friendship with a young terminally ill human boy, Shawn (David Henrie), but these types of interactions are risky for the borrowers, who could lose everything if discovered. The plot plays with our curiosity, but its slow-moving pace may not fare well with young children, and it takes too long to get to the meat of the story. The animation is gorgeous, as expected, but the soundtrack is just cheesy and feels out of place. Arrietty is a decent movie, but does not compare to the high marks previously set by Studio Ghibli. 7/10


Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
After starting and stopping my campaign a couple times, I finally sat down and played through the entirety of Mass Effect. Yeah, I am quite a few years late to the party, but better late than never. This sci-fi action/RPG epic was a lot of fun, though it started off slow as hell. It wasn’t until I left the Citadel, the huge political space station, that the game picked up. I became hooked once I was able to explore the galaxy and began visiting untouched planets. Driving the Mako vehicle was a bit of a chore, to put it mildly, but the rewards of new side quests and items made it worth it. It was a lot of fun to explore character relationships (I romanced Liara) and make an effort to either be “good” or “bad” (I opted for Paragon until the very end — let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of the Citadel). Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game by any means — the freezing and drops in frame rate were especially annoying — but the great story made this a fun experience anyway. Can’t wait to play through the rest of the trilogy. 8/10

Have you guys seen any of these movies or played this video game? What do you think of them?

Movie Project #3: M [1931]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round 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.

M [1931]

M [1931]
Director: Fritz Lang
Genre: Film Noir/Thriller
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann and Inge Landgut
Runtime: 117 minutes

I will never hear “In the Hall of the Mountain King” the same way again.

For my first Fritz Lang film, I opted to see M. For some reason, I was under the assumption that this was a silent film, so I was mildly surprised when I heard children speaking in the opening scene. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked into the movie.

Set in 1930s Berlin, M tells the story of a child murderer and those who are searching for him. The killer is Hans Beckert (Lorre), a portly man who lures children by buying them balloons and other small gifts. After several children disappear and are thought to be murdered, the police begin frantically searching for clues. Fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, underground raids, vast location searches — they are doing everything they can to put an end to the killings. This is bad news for the criminal underworld, as their frequent raids are putting a major hit on their business. In an effort to get the police off their backs, the big time crime bosses pool their resources and decide to eliminate the murderer on their own.

M [1931]

Much of the movie follows the efforts of both the police and the criminals as they pursue Beckert. In fact, despite being the central figure of the movie, Beckert doesn’t really get that much screen time. We see his shadow and we hear his whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, but we don’t see him that often, at least not in the first half of the movie.

When the killer is shown, however, Peter Lorre makes the most of his screen time. Beckert is played as creepy, a real disgusting shell of a man who claims to have no control over his actions. He really is a disturbing fellow, and Lorre portrays this perfectly.

M feels well ahead of its time. The subject matter is very heavy, and everything about the film just has a dark, grungy feel to it. This isn’t the type of film I would expect to come out in the 1930s, regardless of its location. A haunting film that is constantly engaging, I don’t think I could have asked for a better introduction to Fritz Lang. I can’t wait to see more of his work.


Movie Project #39 and #40: Last Tango in Paris [1972] and The Maltese Falcon [1941]

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.

Last Tango in Paris [1972, Bernardo Bertolucci]
Last Tango in Paris [1972, Bernardo Bertolucci]
Starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi.

I don’t know if there is a more controversial film in my project. Last Tango in Paris gained a lot of notoriety with its theatrical release, as it received the ominous NC-17 rating. This is a movie that has no shame, and I would imagine that Maria Schneider was at least partly nude for half of the film, if not more. The movie focuses on an anonymous affair between the young Jeanne (Schneider) and the much older American hotel owner Paul (Brando). Paul is a recent widow, and Jeanne is a recently engaged woman who somehow seems pure and innocent. What transpires for much of the film’s 2+ hour runtime is a series of mindless physical hookups where not much else happens. The film’s last 30 minutes or so serve as a stark contrast to the rest of the picture, and this is when all hell breaks loose.

This final 1/4 of the movie is very interesting, but it took a hell of a long time to get there. Scenes of increasingly graphic sex can only do so much before they become trite and shallow. Brando’s performance is undeniably strong, but it is rather unfortunate how emotionally damaging this film was to Schneider. Apparently the uncut version of the film is a whopping 250 minutes — for me, two hours was plenty enough as is. Until the intriguing final act, Last Tango in Paris is a bit of a bore that relies too heavily on gratuitous sex to get by. 6/10

The Maltese Falcon [1941, John Huston]
The Maltese Falcon [1941, John Huston]
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George.

I am amazed that it has taken me this long to see The Maltese Falcon, which is widely considered as the grand-daddy of Film Noir. This is the movie that made Bogart a big star, and his role as private investigator Sam Spade is even more impressive than his later turn as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. This film revolves around an elusive treasure, a jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon. Spade gets drawn into the mess after working with a new client, the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor), and soon he becomes entangled in the web of crime and murder.

Director John Huston’s first directorial effort has a wonderful mix of action and slick dialogue, and he is aided greatly by the casting of Bogart, who delivers a performance for the ages. His turn as Spade ranks as one of the most badass characters in cinematic history. There are lots of familiar faces here — Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr. — and all involved are terrific in their roles. The Maltese Falcon is a fantastic Film Noir that is worthy of its classic status. 9/10

Movie Project #37 and #38: The Big Sleep [1946] and The 400 Blows [1959]

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.

The Big Sleep [1946]
The Big Sleep [1946, Howard Hawks]
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely.

I added The Big Sleep to my project because I had been reading Raymond Chandler’s novel at the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish the book due to my poor reading habits, but I was still excited to see the film. After recently seeing Casablanca, I was looking forward to more of Humphrey Bogart. In this regard, The Big Sleep does not disappoint. Bogart cruises through the movie, effortlessly playing the hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe. His chemistry with the young Lauren Bacall is impeccable, and the cast is loaded with strong performances.

While I greatly enjoyed Chandler’s writing, especially Marlowe’s snarky and quick-hitting one-liners, I had a hard time keeping up with the plot during the second half of the film. A number of characters were introduced in a short manner of time, and it was a little challenging to keep track of everyone, as well as their actions. Still, there’s no denying that this is a fun watch with Bogart and Bacall working together, and it is a strong Film Noir. 8/10

The 400 Blows [1959]
The 400 Blows [1959, François Truffaut]
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier.

The 400 Blows offers a look into the life of a troubled teenage boy living in Paris. Antoine Doinel (Léaud) struggles in school, often clashing with authority and failing homework assignments. He has a rocky relationship at home, as his mother seldom wants anything to do with him. A series of unfortunate events leads Antoine into even darker times, as he runs away from home, skips school, and begins to steal from others. Nothing is going well for him, to say the least, and it appears that he doesn’t have a very bright future ahead of him.

The 400 Blows has a simple story, but it is an intriguing one nonetheless. While Antoine ultimately behaves like a juvenile delinquent, it becomes apparent that he likely would not act this way if someone would have just given him a chance. He certainly has a lot of potential, but it’s hard to realize this when every authority figure is constantly harping on the poor kid. Much credit must be given to Léaud, who is fantastic in the lead role, and I am curious to see some of his later work with Truffaut. This is a remarkable coming-of-age drama that still holds up today. 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