Thursday, March 16, 2006

Give Thanks for Bogart

Four months behind. That's just unconscionable. I've got excuses - this was the start of the Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon, where I piled up far more movies watched than reviewed in depth, then the SF marathon, then I was moving... Coming up is the Boston Underground Film Festival, and the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Seeing and writing about a lot of movies is hard work.

Anyway, back in November, the Brattle had a Bogart series. The usually play Casablanca around Thanksgiving weekend - the logic probably being that a lot of people are out of town , so rather than miss part of a rep series, they may as well go with a standard that brings the locals in. But, since it's far from a secret that they were hurting for money last year, so they programmed a lot of stuff that would bring people out. Who's going to say no to Bogie at the Brattle? If you want to support the theater, it's a lot easier to do that for these films than, say, Jacques Doillon.

(And, hey, they're not out of the woods yet, despite a one-year reprieve; if you can find your way to give them some extra money via ticket sales, donations, becoming a member, it would be appreciated.)

It's a pleasure, though. When To Have and Have Not is the weakest film in a series, you're doing better than all right. Nobody's perfect, and Bogart made some clunkers over the course of his career - think The Barefoot Contessa - but he was also involved in a really disproporitonate number of outright great movies.

That's the benefit of the studio system - you have Bogart working at Warner Brothers at the same time as John Huston, Howard Hawks, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, etc., so once there's a combination that works, they can put them together again in fairly short order. Today, with most talent free agents, everyone probably makes closer to what they merit in terms of what they bring in, but trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time can take years.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

There is not a whole lot to say about Casablanca that is new. I feel vaguely silly writing anything at all, because anyone likely to read this probably already knows that this film is an all-time classic. Here in Boston/Cambridge, the Brattle Theater runs it at least twice a year, often preceded for a month by a trailer that regulars have memorized ("but they're all trapped!"). People attending a "Great Romances" double feature February 13th were advised to arrive by four the next day if they wanted to get tickets to the annual Valentine's Day showings. And despite Theo's constructing the Red Sox team that finally won the World Series, that his grandfather Philip and great-uncle Julius wrote this classic screenplay may be the Epstein family's greatest claim to fame. This is a beloved, famous movie, and rightly so. Do people really need to be convinced to see this?

Well, sure, maybe. People aren't born having seen it, and even if they have absorbed the plot and some of the greatest lines through osmosis, there's still plenty of delights to be found from actually watching the movie. There's a great cast on hand, so they can get introduced to some of the finest stars and supporting characters of classic Hollywood all at once. They can assure themselves that Humphrey Bogart does not, in fact, use the line "play it again, Sam". And they can witness just how a fantastic cast and crew can make a flawed story into a classic, and what a delight it is when that happens.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

Nasty thing, greed. It's in every one of us, lying dormant while we have nothing, waiting for us to get a taste of prosperity before flaming up and convincing us that it's not enough. That's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a nutshell, and few if any have played that theme as well as director John Huston and his cast.

As the film starts, we see Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) homeless in Tampico, Mexico, begging money off American tourists. After hitting the same American up for money three or four times, he's directed to Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), who's offering work. There he meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and after they convince McCormick to actually pay them rather than running off, they meet an old-timer named Howard (Walter Huston), who convinces them to re-invest their earnings in a gold-mining venture. It's hard, at first, but that difficulty is nothing compared to what happens when the mine pans out, and each is worrying about the others coming after his hoard.

Read the rest at HBS.

To Have and Have Not

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

So, it's World War II. Humphrey Bogart is playing an expatriate American running a small business in an occupied French colony, more or less minding his own business until an important resistance figure and his wife show up and turn his world upside down. This sounds awful familiar, but the action takes place not in Morocco, but Martinique.

Truthfully, To Have and Have Not really only resembles Casablanca in broad outline. Bogart's Harry Morgan operates a small fishing boat, and business isn't nearly so good as it is at Rick's Café. His first mate Eddie (Walter Brennan) drinks most of the profits, and his most recent customer (Walter Sande) refuses to pay up. The beautiful Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall) arrives on the island just as the war starts to come in earnest - a trip to secretly transport de Gaule lieutenant Paul de Bursac (Walter Szurovy) and his wife Hellene (Dolores Moran) ends with de Bursac wounded and the authorities hot on their trail.

Read the review at HBS.

The Big Sleep

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

The Big Sleep isn't confusing; it's rich. Its plot is too convoluted for many to fully grasp in one viewing, but where that could be seen as a negative for many films, it's a delight for this one. Depending on the type of person you are, it either gives you an excuse to re-watch it (and experience all the bon mots and pretty ladies again), or it will allow the film's stature to build when you watch it again for all the great lines.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate the blackmail of his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Before he can leave the Sternwood mansion, though, older sister Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) is looking to take control of the situation. Good luck with that; every rock Marlowe turns over reveals some new crime, be it blackmail, drugs, gambling, or murder. And when the person initially blackmailing the Sternwoods is found dead, that doesn't mean their problems are over - it just means there's more (and more dangerous) people involved than had originally been thought.

Read the rest at HBS.

Key Largo

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

Key Largo was one of four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall did together, and as such it's tempting to make them the central focus of the review. But I've already written a couple bits about them recently, so let's talk about Edward G. Robinson.

If you compare stars of yesteryear to those of today, Edward G. Robinson might be said to be his era's Christopher Walken. He was ubiquitous, showing up in a lot of supporting roles. He had an instantly recognizable voice, look, and persona that he carried between films, so that when he showed up, it didn't take more than a few moments to know what this guy was about. He played a lot of bad guys, and bounced freely between A and B movies. He was a famous enough name to be prominently displayed on the poster, but his presence alone probably didn't put a lot of butts in seats. People were glad to see him more than they went looking for him.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Maltese Falcon

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

The Maltese Falcon straddles the line between pulp fiction and film noir like few other films. The black statue of the title is a fantastical target for the film's motley crew of thieves and scoundrels, and ancient treasure suggesting far-off places and high adventure. It's not in some mysterious European vault, though; it's in Los Angeles, and none of the people involved in the caper are particularly high-minded.

Certainly not Miles Archer, a private detective who is putty in the hands of a woman (Mary Astor) who claims to be seeking her missing sister. The next morning, though, Archer's dead, and even as his business partner Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is unceremoniously having the office door re-stenciled, he aims to find out why. The trail leads to a pair of hoods (Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.) and a collector of rare antiquities (Sydney Greenstreet), all looking for a black statuette originally belonging to the Knights Templar.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: Probably Game 6, as I try to balance reviewing stuff while it's fresh in my mind with working down the backlog.

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