WB Top 100: North by Northwest (1959)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

We had no expectations coming into “North by Northwest”. Sometime ago (before we began this project), we bought a small box set of Alfred Hitchcock movies. We started with “Rear Window” which we both enjoyed and stopped with “Vertigo” which we both hated. As such, we never got around to watching the other classics in the collection, including this one. After finally seeing “North by Northwest”, it is definitely better than “Vertigo” but probably not as great as “Rear Window”.


“North by Northwest” felt like a Bond film without a 007. Cary Grant leads as Roger Thornhill, an ad man by day falsely accused of being “George Kaplan” by night. Kaplan is a supposed government agent on the trail of Phillip Vandam (James Mason), a smuggler of government secrets. When kidnapped one evening by Vandam and his cohorts, Thornhill narrowly manages to escape, but in an attempt to clear his name, he ends up falsely accused of assassinating a United Nations official. Forced to flee, he only falls deeper into the movie’s intrigues.

Even now, “North by Northwest” is a beautifully constructed movie. Some of Hitchcock’s shots remain breathtaking. With lots of location shoots across the continental United States, there is a road movie element to the entire affair that fills the film with authenticity. When the characters made their way to Chicago, I could have sworn they were standing next to a statue that Diane and I just saw in our early April visit to the city. I was also convinced the villain’s evil lair on the side of Mt. Rushmore was real, but that turned out to be a bit of movie magic.


Cary Grant was fantastic. At first, I was annoyed that he was “just an ad man” yet still succeeding at the whole international spy thing. His performance won me over anway. His charm, his look, his suit – they all screamed “man you wish you could be” while he was caught in a situation I would never wish for. His charm and confidence seemed to increase as the film progressed with his earliest scenes being somewhat inconsistent with the middle and latter part of the movie. A minor nitpick at most.

Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall, the romantic interest, was also charming. It was nice to see sex and sex appeal be more overt for a change. If I did not know to expect more from a female lead, I would have been shocked how the movie implied their initial relationship was only going to be a random one-night stand on a train. The fact that they fall in love at all afterward was cheesy and that Eve Kendall ending up as just being romantic bait for the villain was a bit insulting. But both were expected and neither ruined anything about the movie.


Truth be told, as much as we enjoyed watching the movie, it was more fun than anything else. That’s not a knock by any stretch but it does make it hard for me to write at length. It’s a pre-007 007 movie that deserves all the attention you are willing to give it.

What more is there to say?


For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Ben-Hur (1959)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

I managed to forget that a more recent “Ben-Hur” ever hit theaters in 2016. After watching the 1959 film, I would have thought a remake was overdue but apparently not. The 2016 version’s failure is for the best since the 1959 version still holds up with great acting, a fascinating story, and some amazing special effects, and action sequences – for its time and even now.


Starring he-who-was-Moses, Charlton Heston plays the movie’s titular Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince living in Judaea. After being betrayed by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman Tribune played by Stephen Boyd, Ben-Hur is forced into slavery. In slavery, Ben-Hur is driven by his twin desires of revenge against Messala and vengeance for whatever was done to his mother and sister.

I was surprised to learn that “Ben-Hur” was based on an American novel from the late 1800s. I was even more surprised to know that it was a bestseller up until the release of “Gone with the Wind” in 1936. And, despite being from the South, I always forget that “Gone with the Wind” was ever a book. I am not sure what any of that says about our culture – a lack of appreciation for our culturally significant works, these authors are both one-hit wonders on the same level as “Mmmbop” by Hanson or “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, or people and cultures just move on. Still, I thought it interesting.


Even more interesting, as someone with no prior knowledge of “Ben-Hur”, was its New Testament-adjacency. The movie’s extensive runtime is mostly about a Jewish Count of the Monte Cristo but ends with a Passion Play (complete with the censored face of Jesus and a lack of credit for his actor). I should have guessed from the movies outset when it gave away the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ”, but it was another 40 minutes of runtime I could have otherwise avoided. That’s not to say the parts with Jesus were bad or even unjustified by the movie’s narrative; they just felt excessive on top of an already excessive movie.

It’s amazing how much ground “Ben-Hur” covers. Starting in Roman-controlled Judaea, Ben-Hur’s time in slavery is spent on Roman galleons at war in the Mediterranean. After saving the life of his Roman slaver, Ben-Hur is honored by the Roman Emperor, is adopted by his former slaver and made a legal citizen of Rome and rises to fame as a champion charioteer. After that, he journeys back to the Middle East, meets an Arab man with a vested interest in chariot racing, and eventually challenges Messala in the Circus Maximum as revenge.


If anything, “Ben-Hur” should be remade as limited television series on something like HBO. Each leg of Ben-Hur’s journey alone could constitute an entire season’s worth of material. The fact that the movie manages it all in 3 1⁄2 hours is a bit of a miracle on its own.

Of course, no discussion of this movie should be had without mentioning the chariot race. By far, this part was worth the entire runtime and I cannot recommend it enough even for modern viewers who may be discouraged by the excitement potential of a movie from the near-60s. You owe it to yourself to see it first and then read all about how it was done (including carving out an arena from a rock quarry). Neither of us could turn away and seeing very life-like mannequins get trampled through chariot wheels and horse hooves was troubling to say the least.


For me, the best part came after when Ben-Hur confronts a broken and beaten Messala. Rather than some triumphant moment of friendship overcoming their differences or forgiveness between two equals, Messala doubles down and stoically faces his own death to do so. For me, it was an immensely satisfying and realistic end to the villain, and I am grateful he went down swinging rather than falling prey to an unearned redemption.

“Ben-Hur” is a long, long movie, but it is fun. I doubt I ever revisit it and I probably will not recommend anyone seeing it beyond what I have already said here. Still, I am glad I experienced it and now know what it is about. I feel like I have come just a little bit closer to learning about my culture’s history through the lens of ancient Rome and ancient Judaea.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Gigi (1958)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

Based on a book of the same name, 1958’s “Gigi” is a musical-romance with songs and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe, the same duo that would later do “My Fair Lady”. The film is set in Paris and feels distinctly French despite being American-made. “Gigi” also won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1959, as well as many other Academy Awards in other categories, which were all likely well-deserved … at the time.


It is hard to imagine anything more French than “Gigi”. Set in 1900’s Paris, the film opens with a stroll in a Parisian park that recalls George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The character Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier, introduces himself directly to the camera as an older gentleman prone to chasing younger girls. He then sings in his distinctive French accent a song that celebrates how young girls grow to be worthy objects of lust. He expresses it a little differently, but it is not at all a song that has stood the test of time, at least not lyrically. Unless you like the idea of sexy French grandpas leering at children in a park.

Creepiness-aside, Chevalier was a global treasure and he is positively enchanting throughout “Gigi”. He is the French self-ideal: a charmer, a gallivanter, and someone who can still get erect even in his twilight years. His character is full of life, but when juxtaposed against his nephew, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan), he helps grease the plot with, for one last sex joke, lube. Obviously.


Unlike his Uncle, Gaston thinks everything is a bore. He says so in his introduction song several times and the line is called back to throughout the film. His boredom is an extension of his immense privilege as an imminently wealthy young gentleman. I still found the character and the actor to be a delight. He plays the straight man in the movie, and a few temper tantrums aside, I genuinely wished he would succeed in finding love.

The titular character of Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, was also a treat. We previously saw her in “An American in Paris” opposite of Gene Kelly. In the seven years between the two films, Caron has significantly improved. In “An American …” she primarily danced and swooned her way through the film’s plot, but in “Gigi” she proved she can lead a film and manage a speaking role. Far less dancing here, but Gigi’s youthfulness saturates every scene she is in and her charm lifts up a film that would be lesser without her.


Isabel Jeans as Aunt Alicia and Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez manage to steal the show despite having almost no songs in a musical. Their characters combine to bring much of the comic relief to the film. Madame Alvarez plays Gigi’s grandmother, whom Gigi lives with, and her sister and Gigi’s aunt, Alicia, gives Gigi weekly lessons. 

These lessons all focus on their intent to train Gigi not as the marrying kind of girl, but as a sort of professional mistress. The movie does nothing to explain this and it only made sense after reading about it later. This was by far our biggest flaw with the film. Maybe there is something about French culture I am missing that was more evident to Americans in the 50s?


As watchable and enjoyable as it was, “Gigi” fell apart in its final act. With the gap in storytelling, sudden changes (yes, plural) of heart by Gaston feel out of place. His inability to decide how he feels about Gigi, combined with a tamer era limited in how blunt it can be about a controversial topic like children/only barely of age mistresses, leads to whiplash that sours the movie. When you add in the many elements that do not hold up to a modern audience, you are left with solid performances, some well-sung songs, and a Best Picture winner that is pretty forgettable.

With one exception: “I Remember Well” is a perfect song. Listen for yourself:


I wish the movie had been about Maurice Chevalier, an old gentleman who has slept with everyone in Paris, recall the one mistress who he truly loved and courting her again despite the years taking them in vastly different directions. It could still be funny and could still be very, very French.

Eh, bien.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a decidedly-less sweaty watch than our previous “based on a Tennessee Williams” production, “A Streetcar Named Desire”. It has the same level of drama, intrigue, and Southern accents though. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are just as attractive as Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando (if not more so). Adapted from a play of the same name, “Cat …” demands attention from the moment it invites you into the home life of the well-to-do Pollitt family. Attention, for the most part, well-deserved.

As a movie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” fails to take advantage of the medium. Through and through, this is still a play and it feels every bit as claustrophobic with characters spending their time slowly moving as a group from one room to the next. Outside of a brief trip to the airport and a quick look at the horses, the camera (and players) never leaves the Pollitt family home.


Still, “Cat …” is an intense watch. Largely due to the performances, for a movie that spends its entire run time following people yelling at and talking over one another, it’s a wonder it isn’t boring. Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie “the Cat” oozes sex as she saunters around in her well-rounded figure, but never at the expense of playing a well-rounded character. She wants her husband Brick (Paul Newman) to love her again.

Despite her intensity and familiarity, Newman plays Brick in the film’s early going as passive as possible around Maggie. The film opens with him drunkenly failing to recapture his glory days as an athlete before we meet him again in his family home weathering the Mississippi heat with glass after glass of whiskey. The movie’s strongest hook is cast early on: why has Brick turned to alcoholism? What happened between him and Maggie?


She tries to breeze past his coolness with more important things. Brick’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur, is dying and Brick’s older brother “Gooper” (played by Jack Carson, previously seen in several movies on our list) is angling to be his successor. Along with Gooper’s wife, who is referred to throughout the film as “sister-woman”, Maggie doesn’t want the pair to cut her or Brick out of the estate.

At first it may seem like Maggie is being selfish or only looking out for herself. I think the story does a good job of pushing back on this assumption. Gooper’s wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), is terrible. Throughout the movie, she makes snide remarks about Brick and Maggie when both seem somewhat civil to her. Worse, she forces her five children to sing over-and-over again to “impress” the family patriarch, Big Daddy (golden voiced Burl Ives). The fact that Big Daddy and Maggie both hate the children – the rest just ignore them – really resonated with us both.


The story, and everyone’s deep-seated mistrust of one another, slowly unravels as the seams start pulling apart. One issue I had was the big reveal of why Brick and Maggie are no longer on good terms with one another. The film does its best to lay the groundwork for Brick’s recently deceased best friend to be a potential homosexual romance, but it’s forced to hold back from pulling the trigger.

In our research, this was a criticism that Tennessee Williams himself had of the film. It would have been truly groundbreaking to witness for 1958. Whether Brick himself is gay is undercut by the film’s happy, hetero ending, but there is enough implied for modern audiences to fill in the gaps and answer these questions for themselves.


With top notch performances, a good dramatic arc, and a lot of southern phrases, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” stands up. It’s an important “toe in the water” for a story revolving around a homosexual repression gone sour. I would’ve preferred the whole foot, but there is a real benefit for being so coy when looking back from a much more gay friendly future makes the conflict on Paul Newman’s gorgeous face all the more powerful. Chiseled out of self-doubt, self-loathing, and repression, and opposite the sexual icon of Elizabeth Taylor, “Cat …” is bound to cause conflicts for any sexual orientations.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

It is startling to see film that predicted the future. It is even worse when you read that audiences at the time largely ignored the movie. Of all we have watched in this series, 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” stands out as one of the most unforgettable and, for me, it is my favorite movie so far.


“A Face in the Crowd” stars Andy Griffith before he made his name in television on The Andy Griffith Show and later Matlock. Griffith plays a drifter named “Lonesome” Rhodes. Detained in a rural Arkansas jail for public drunkenness, Rhodes is discovered by a local radio personality, Marcia Jeffries (played by Patricia Neal). She also happens to be the niece of the radio station’s owner. She is immediately smitten with Rhodes’ easy charm, folksy wisdom, and his singing and guitar playing. She convinces her uncle to give Lonesome a slot on their radio station and it’s a natural fit. Quickly, Rhodes gains in popularity and gets noticed by a Memphis television station before he finds his way to national fame with his own program filmed out of New York.

Andy Griffith is as American as the Fourth of July. Growing up, the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show was a signal that somewhere in some room my father was watching television. I never took to watching the show, but through him I am very familiar with its primary players: the maternal Aunt Bee, Ron Howard’s everykid Opie, Don Knotts as the lovable fuck-up, and America’s dad Andy Griffith himself.


Diane, however, came into “A Face in the Crowd” never seeing The Andy Griffith Show or, for that matter, Matlock. Though she knew who he was and recognized his face, we each watched the film with vastly different expectations of Andy Griffith the actor.

For me, that proved to make the character of Lonesome Rhodes more enticing. He is Andy Griffith, wholesome television personality, the same way a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a sheep. From the movie’s opening where a grumpy Rhodes is turned over on the floor of a jail cell and asked to play a tune on his guitar for the radio, I couldn’t look away from Griffith’s performance. As he cleared his throat from a bottle of hard liquor he keeps in his guitar case to his speech about his fellow downtrodden and discard inmates, his charisma is evident. When he finally pairs his raw, salt-of-the-earth demeanor with his raspy vocals and intermittent strums of his guitar, the song he plays about being a free man in the morning completes a perfect introduction.


“A Face in the Crowd” and Griffith play off the story as the beginnings of a rags-to-riches story. In a way it is, but beneath the surface biopic of a nobody with nothing rising to be a somebody with something, Griffith plays Rhodes with such intensity that it is like peering into a storm on the horizon. In ever scene, he demands your attention and challenges you to look away. Unlike similar stories, Rhodes is not a man to be cheered or admired. He has no character flaw the audience wants to see corrected. There is no love that will fix him. This is the origin story of a villain that balances awe of his ascension with demand for his fall.

I am deliberately trying to be vague because I feel like this movie should be a required watch for modern audiences. “A Face in the Crowd” foretells the rise of populism in American politics. It’s eerie how many things it gets right. The Nixon-Kennedy Debates, famous for being the first televised presidential debates, would not happen for another three years. In “A Face in the Crowd”, the so called “man of the people” Lonesome Rhodes is brought in to help rebrand the television image of a Senator running for President to make him more appealing to people who vote with their heart and gut rather than on the merits of the candidate.


Through these political ties, Rhodes is looking to become a chief influencer for the entire country. In fact, the word influencer is used several times here. I cannot imagine a movie about a man who takes advantage of his charm to win over the common main, despite his loathing for them, went over well in a day-and-age where the medium of television was still a fresh idea and the concerns about how less virtuous people could take advantage of a nationwide audience were mostly unexplored. Though not a focal point of the film, it is easy to see the populist “not a politician” character of Rhodes one day aiming for the office of President himself. It fascinates me to see a movie raise the issue of populist American leaders long before the likes of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and then Trump.

Beyond the plot, I have nothing but praise for the performances. Its cliched, but Andy Griffith is electric in this role. From his forced laugh to his “awe shucks” look, he flips back and forth from madman to comforting friend with ease. Easily on par with Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, Lonesome Rhodes feels like he exists, independent of Griffith the performer, as a force of pure self-interest willing to use any and everyone to gain more power and influence.


Opposite him, Patricia Neal’s Marcia works perfectly as the on again, off again love interest and “creator” of Lonesome Rhodes the brand and influencer. I loved her character because she too feels real. From the start, she is enamored with Rhodes and its evident she is developing feelings for him, yet she tries to resist because she also understands that he is a destructive force. When he suddenly proposes to her, despite just telling her that he was with another woman, her agreement does not feel like Hollywood cliché as much as it feels like an honest depiction of a person caught in a toxic relationship. When Rhodes shows up married to a 17-year old girl instead of divorced and ready to marry Marcia, it’s a confirmation that Rhodes is the bad guy and Marcia the hero. That she persists loving him on the margins of his success without coming off as a lovesick woman character in a bad romance movie is a marvel of the film’s script and Neal’s performance.

A young Walter Matthau also has a supporting role as Mel Miller. He meets Lonesome Rhodes and Marcia in Memphis, where he is hired as a writer for Rhodes on his new television show. He sees through Rhodes outward persona and gradually comes to love Marcia himself. Like the mature, modern writing of Marcia’s character, Mel does not force a love triangle into a movie where it does not belong. He exits from the two’s life once he realizes their effect on him, but when he reenters the picture toward the end, he helps say what an emotionally distraught Marcia cannot.


This is not just a well-written and expertly acted movie. The cinematography is also fantastic. Early on when the movie is centered in no air conditioning Arkansas in the middle of the summer, every actor has a fresh sheen of sweat on their brow. It gives the movie a realness that others in this series have lacked. With the lines about how Rhodes only owns one shirt, the absence of sweat and the varied wardrobe of Rhodes later in the film help add a visual continuity that only furthers the story as a rise out of poverty and obscurity to something more. It’s one of those details, deliberate or not, that give the whole film an authenticity that adds to the immersion.

If it is not otherwise clear, we loved “A Face in the Crowd”. I have no complaints about this movie. I would recommend it to anyone, especially those interested in the history of politics or who want to see chaotic evil Andy Griffith literally own every scene he is in. This is exactly the kind of movie I hoped to find in this series. Like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, it is a piece of cinematic history that I would have missed otherwise and hope to revisit again and again. “A Face in the Crowd” is an American classic, beyond its time when it first came out, and now finally in a time where it is more relevant than ever.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

Calling 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days” anything less than a monumental achievement would be unfair. Its breadth, its beauty, and its journey have no analogue in any of the films we have watched in this series thus far. Yet, as we traversed the globe on a comedic adventure, I felt like more than eighty days had passed between the movie’s beginning and it’s somehow-abrupt end.


Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jules Verne, “Around the World in 80 Days” stars David Niven as Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout. Set in 1872, Phileas Fogg, a highly punctual English gentleman, takes a bet from the other gentleman in the Reform Club (an all-male private club of which Mr. Fogg is a member). The wager falls on whether or not Phileas can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less to which he alone believes he is capable. Joining Phileas is Passepartout, his newly hired valet and the film’s primary source of comedy.

I was unsure what to expect from this movie. Though familiar with the work of Jules Verne, I have never had the pleasure of reading any of his writing, and have only experienced his ideas filtered through the minds of others throughout a myriad of pop culture adaptations and homages. In regards to the film’s authenticity to its source, I cannot attest, but I did not expect an outright comedy. To be frank, “Around the World in 80 Days” was not for me. I rarely laughed and far too many scenes seemed to go on until their jokes turned to tedium.


That is not to say there was nothing I enjoyed in the movie. “Around the World in 80 Days” is still a beautiful film. Shot on location around the world, if this film were shot today, it would likely be limited to one or two major locations or heavily feature CGI. More than the plot or humor, traveling various countrysides on train or seeing things from the perspective of a hot-air balloon was plenty of adventure for me.

The acting is also fantastic. Prior to watch, I had no real experience with either David Niven or Cantinflas. Both gave spirited performances. I enjoyed the overly English gentleman of Phileas Fogg. In many ways, he is an atypical protagonist in this kind of film, and the fact that someone like him (distant, a bit cold, too posh) ends up with the girl rather than his lady-chasing valet struck me as odd. In some ways, I found Phileas to be a kind of proto-Doctor Who character, sorting out the world’s problems and making the impossible happen as only a white Englishman can!


In regards to his valet Passepartout, I have no idea what the studio paid Cantinflas, but I can guarantee it was not enough. This man did everything: comedy, stunts, dances, etc. The script did him little justice, yet I found impossible to take my eyes off the man. Sure, some of that was me staring at his horrible facial hair, but the vast majority was my awe at his immense talent.

Beyond Niven and Cantinflas, “Around the World in 80 Days” was loaded with familiar faces. A young Shirley MacLaine plays Indian Princess Aouda (yeah, we rolled our eyes too). Charles Boyier, Peter Lorre, and Frank Sinatra all have brief cameos. Those are only the ones I noticed, though it appears there were many more (such as Cesar Romero, television’s Joker, as a henchman and Buster Keaton as a train conductor).


In trying to recall much more of the film for this review, most has already been forgotten. Other than the positives above, I just remember being bored when the movie wasn’t showing off a few sweeping shots of an authentic location. Cantinflas’s bullfighting scene stands out still as in it nothing happened but the same exact motions on repeat. I applaud the actor for getting in the arena with a bull, but either it is a dull sport or the film’s depiction of it is less than thrilling.

Like the punctual Phileas Fogg, I can easily see this film circumnavigating pop culture every few decades to arrive on time to be remade anew with a different aging actor and a fresh face of comedy. This is exactly the kind of family-friendly adventure movie that demands a seat at the movie theater and a bag of popcorn. That is not to say the movie is timeless, just easy. Watch it for the scenery porn and the cameos.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: The Searchers (1956)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

John Wayne was synonymous with masculinity in our household growing up. To this day, my father, an ardent fan of Wayne’s and all Westerns, refers to his coffee as “John Wayne coffee” whenever he takes it black (which is often). In 1956’s “The Searchers” starring John Wayne, his character adds a scoop of sugar to his coffee and that was the first sign that this was all a facade.


Despite the reverence for John Wayne growing up, I never took to his movies or Westerns at all. My father and grandfather were big fans, but science fiction and fantasy took an early hold on me. As “The Searchers” began, I admitted to Diane that I had never watched a John Wayne film all the way through and then we both realized that the only thing either of us had seen him to completion was that one episode of I Love Lucy.

“The Searchers” stars John Wayne as Ethan Edward, a man returning to his brother’s home after an eight year absence where he presumably fought in the American Civil War and the Mexican Revolutionary War. Shortly after returning home, Comanches attack and murder Ethan’s extended family and run off with his two nieces. Ethan is left with Martin (played by Jeffrey Hunter), a part-Cherokee orphan raised by Ethan’s brother’s family, and the two set off to find the girls and seek revenge.


Ethan Edward is the best and worst thing about “The Searchers”. While he does experience some character development (slightly less racist and more accepting of Martin’s heritage), it comes at a glacial speed considering the movie covers a five year period. Wayne’s performance fascinated me and I instantly was drawn in to his ruggedness. It’s immediately evident why young men would want to emulate a tough guy like John Wayne, even when the character of Ethan Edward is nigh unlikable. He’s racist, rude, has a problem with authority, and is shaded by mysteries. Where has he been? Is he a good guy? Is he a criminal? These are all questions the movie had me asking and left me asking since there was so little resolution.

In truth, we neither liked nor disliked this film. Similar to “Giant”, I imagine more creative control and tighter editing could cut a great film out of so much material. Too much of “The Searcher” plods along and left me feeling bored. While some of these stretches helped establish an atmosphere and mood, more often than not they left me feeling as empty as the countryside they rode over. Much of their journey was summarized in a letter, which likely saved time and money on production, but I wish that had been the crux of the film. I never got a feel for Ethan or Martin and the characters barely change from the beginning of the film to its end, despite spending five years traveling together. I also struggled to root for Ethan and his blood lust or Martin and his earnest ineptitude despite their reasoning being justified.


I did feel somewhat impressed by the film’s depiction of Native Americans. Sure, many of the action scenes involve lemming-like Native Americans falling over for seemingly no reason, but at least their characters are given dignity, narratively-speaking. Though underexplored, Chief Scar, the film’s Native American villain played by German-American Henry Brandon, is seeking vengeance for wrongs done to him and his people by whites. Other Native Americans also fall victim to Chief Scar and, to an extent, help the main characters in their journey.

Moving from Native Americans to the main characters, I felt the film had tone issues in its final act. There is an entire secondary plot about Martin and his love interest Laurie (Vera Miles). It leads to a humorous wedding scene where a returning Martin is shocked to find Laurie marrying another man and, as much I enjoyed it, it did not fit in with this moody vengeance plot “The Searchers” tried to focus on. It ends with a Yankee soldier asking if their men will be ready because Chief Scar just so happens to be in the area again and they want to launch an offensive. This soldier is the butt of several jokes and it is all a roundabout way of getting the movie and its characters to an actual climax (complete with happy ending).


“The Searchers” is shot beautifully with many amazing outdoor shots (including a horseback ride through deep snow that looked treacherous). Other times, it is a Western shot in a studio with cheap backgrounds. In the things not depicted or examined – Chief Scar’s vengeance, Ethan’s past, the romantic eyes made between Ethan and his sister-in-law – I found myself wandering back to them while the film trudged along with what it was willing to show me. There is a lot here to enjoy, but they are pieces independent of the tighter, more focused, or more revelatory film I wanted to see. In my opinion, “The Searchers” was just okay.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Giant (1956)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

As the saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas”, and whoever first uttered that phrase must have been referring specifically to 1956’s “Giant”, a 200+ minute historical drama about a fictional Texas family with over a half-million acres of land and all the problems that come with being wealthy and white in the 20th century. Shot and acted beautifully, “Giant” attempts to be a compelling Western following the lives of Leslie Lynton (Elizabeth Taylor) as she begins married life on the ranch of rich Texan Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and on through until the couple welcome their grandchildren into the world. Despite its quality, this script left me bored.

Those look like power lines. Unsure when the USA got those, but I will excuse it for the excellent greenery shots.

Of all the films we have watched thus far, the closest comparison is “Cimarron”. Both “Cimarron” and “Giant” are based on books of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. Like “Cimarron”, “Giant” is an epic portrayal of a family over several decades in a place (the American West in the 1900s) undergoing major social and cultural changes. Both films also have female characters who attempt to break up the patriarchy and assert themselves as coequals to the men in the story and they both touch upon the subject of racism.

While it took research to realize that both films shared a similar origin, in comparing a film I liked (“Cimarron”) with a film that I found to be quite dull (this one), the reasons for one’s success over the others are clear. “Giant” suffers in its character arcs, devotes less time to the agency of its female lead, and never felt like it was about anything or had something to say. The similarly epic “Cimarron” also had this issue, but the narrative was better anchored by the character arc and subsequent focus on its female lead as she made her way in a world independent of her absent husband.

There was some chemistry between these two. 

As aimless as it was, “Giant” is not without its highlights. As I mentioned before, the film was shot and acted beautifully. Early on, we meet Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie in a verdant, green Maryland as she is wooed by Rock Hudson’s looks and the wealth of his character Bick Benedict. When the movie flashes forward to her arrival in Texas and at his ranch house, we see a vast, flat desert wasteland. It is never a question that Bick is rich, but the imagery drives home the idea that Texas is still largely a blank page to be written upon.

The story seems to bounce back-and-forth between “fish out of water” and female empowerment until it skips a few years ahead and resolves either plot in the interim. In general, I do not mind these kinds of films that are epic in the years they cover rather than scope of the journey, but the pacing never made sense and I felt disoriented by the movie’s frequent, unannounced time jumps. They do a great job with hair and makeup to age the leads, but other characters, such as the family uncle who lives on the ranch with them, appear to remain the same age for many years.

The aging job was really well done.

While the plot fought to put us all to sleep, the acting did just the opposite. Rock Hudson gives a powerful performance and has the clearest arc of the entire cast. Early on, he is racist to the point of ignoring a sick child of a Mexican-American family that works on his ranch until his wife forces the issue. Toward the end of the film, in an intense diner fight scene, he defends the right of a Mexican family to eat there because his son married to a Mexican woman and he now has a Mexican daughter-in-law and a half-Mexican grandson. It’s not much of an arc since he still refers to his grandson by a racist term, but the parts of “Giant” that deal with these topics are easily the film’s highlights.

Rock Hudson was also ridiculously handsome in this movie. I am just saying.

This whole progressive woman plot went nowhere.

Elizabeth Taylor also turned in a fantastic performance, though her character seemed to matter less and less as the movie progressed. Early on, she stages a sit-in because she wants to be allowed to talk politics with the menfolk. It’s the first outward sign of her progressive bent and another contribution to the film’s overall theme of progress and change in the American West. By the end of the movie, she is still just a wife and a mother, roles women typically play, and never arises to some additional prominence like Sabra in “Cimarron” who becomes the first female congresswoman from the state of Oklahoma.

Finally, we arrive at James Dean in his last role. Dean would die before the release of “Giant”. In the movie, he plays Jett Rink, a hired hand on Benedict’s ranch who falls in unrequited love with Leslie. He and Bick do not get along, but Bick’s sister (who dies early in the film from a horseback riding accident) leaves him a piece of the family land in her will. Jett tries to get Leslie’s attention, but, like Leslie, the film wastes little time on their relationship. Jett eventually strikes oil on the land and quickly becomes richer than the Benedicts and becomes a famous Texan oil tycoon.

This could’ve been Dean at his very best if the movie were in anyway about his character.

It’s a shame the script failed Dean as Jett or that he spends so much of the movie mentioned but not seen. Jett never recovers from his love of Leslie and he carries that burden throughout the film. He attempts to court Leslie and Bick’s daughter who is much younger than him, but she gently turns him down. Dean’s portrayal of the embittered but wealthy man is spot-on and a great departure from the other two roles we have seen him in as a moody teen. In the movie’s final scenes featuring Jett, as he is surrounded by the opulence and triumph of his wealth, he sours the scene with his alcoholism and despair. In truth, I couldn’t take my eyes off the character anytime he was on screen, and if he had been a bigger focus of the film, the plot would have benefited.

There was a strangeness to seeing James Dean play a character older than he would ever be or watching him for the third and final time in a movie. He has survived on as a pop culture icon, but in seeing the full canon of his film work, I have a much greater understanding of what was lost. Though a lesser part, his turn at Jett Rink in “Giant” proves that he was a talented young actor with unseen potential and secures the tragedy of his early death.

He’s a cowboy!

As a follow-up to “Rebel Without A Cause”, I should also mention that both Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper make appearances. The former plays the sick Mexican child who lives on to make an appearance at a Christmas party, utter only a couple lines, and get shipped off to World War II to die off screen. The latter plays Bick Benedict’s son, the same son who would marry a Mexican woman. It was a treat seeing Dennis Hopper play a much more prominent role. Unlike his later movies, in “Giant”, he played a far less opposing character though his intensity is evident in just his second film credit.

It is a shame that there was so much to be enjoyed about “Giant” when the overall film left me grateful it was over. Unlike “Cimarron”, which benefited from the scope of time it covered, “Giant” would have benefited from being a smaller film. The movie does convey the evolution of Texas over the period of history it covers, but with all the grace of reading the cliff notes and none of the deeper introspection I wanted. “Giant” took a giant leap through Texas history and stumbled.

You got to know when to hold ’em …

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

After enjoying “East of Eden”, I was excited to finally see “Rebel Without A Cause” and more of James Dean. Like so many films on this list, “Rebel …” is a movie most have heard of but, as time goes by, few have seen. Now having watched it, we can safely say that it has aged very poorly.

If Don Adams were in this too, then it would be a much better movie.

The second film on our list to star James Dean, this 1955 picture follows Dean as Jim Stark, a moody teenager and the new kid in town. “Rebel Without A Cause” depicts teenage violence and criminality in a way that I imagine alarmed many people at the time. The film opens with three teenagers brought into a police station for unrelated reasons. Our protagonist, Jim, was arrested for public intoxication, Plato (played by Sal Mineo) for murdering puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for a curfew violation.

Each teenager takes turns admitting their problems at home to Detective Ray (Edward Platt, who I recognized instantly as the Chief from television’s Get Smart). Jim is frustrated by his father (Jim Backus, who I also recognized instantly as Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island) because he never stands up to Jim’s mother and the two always fight. Plato was abandoned by his father as a child and his mother is always away, so he is constantly in the care of the family maid. Judy is no longer treated like a little girl by her father and she feels ignored by him, so she finds different ways to act up in hopes of getting his attention.


All three teenagers are released. Despite only interacting with one another minimally while at the station, through the course of the following day, both at school and on a field trip, the three will meet one another, become friends, and fall in love. They will also be involved in a knife fight, an accidental suicide, breaking-and-entering, several murder attempts including a police officer, another breaking-and-entering, and one will lose their life to a police officer. It really is the busiest first day of school ever put to film.

To understand why we disliked “Rebel Without A Cause” it is important to first understand what made this film groundbreaking at the time and why I think many of its parts are still significant, even though the sum of those parts was severely lacking for us.

Museums are always better with a knife fight.

First, I found it fascinating that the movie depicts a disturbed teenager (Plato) who is ostracized and bullied by other kids, his extreme acts of violence are ignored (murdering puppies), and he is left with insufficient adult supervision and easy access to a gun which he is willing to use. This fascinated me because too often I feel like our culture depicts youth violence, especially gun violence, and to some extent bullying, as a post-Columbine problem. Clearly that is a mischaracterization if a movie in 1955 was already (and thankfully so) depicting this issue.

The movie’s depiction of teenage violence is most important to me because it is an easy argument against older generations that talk about surviving bullying like it’s a badge of honor and a rite of passage that all children should be required to go through, rather than helped to avoid. In the case of the accidental suicide, Jim, as the new kid at school, is challenged by Judy’s boyfriend Buzz to a game of chicken where the object is to drive a car at a cliff as fast as possible and jump out of said car as late as possible before it careens off into the water. Luckily, I was never challenged to such feats of strength and determination as a child, but if that is in any way a representation of the level of bullying in 1955, then I think we are all better getting as far away from that as humanly possible.

I thought this was a legitimately cool shot.

Second, though it is problematic, I enjoyed that “Rebel Without A Cause” tried to be about more than just moody teenagers and tried exploring some of the psychology as to why these teenagers were acting in antisocial, criminal, and horrible ways. Plato was under-explored, unfortunately, and Judy’s plot felt tacked-on, but I loved Jim’s reasoning. When contrasting the demeanor and persona Jim must adopt to survive “normal” teenage life with his father’s softer approach to confrontation, I fully understand Jim’s inability to reconcile his father’s position in their household with what the world keeps telling him a man should be. While the movie does little to depict the arguments of his parents in a way that justifies Jim’s feelings, it is an interesting example of a reality not yet able to come to terms with maleness and fatherhood as soft and supportive rather than brash, aggressive, and powerful.

Finally, there is James Dean himself. As mentioned in the “East of Eden” review, it is hard to judge James Dean, the cultural icon, for his acting ability on one performance alone. While obviously typecast in a similar role, Dean can hit several emotional high notes and its easier for us to understand the immense potential he had as a very young actor.

This is a dumb horror movie death in a dumb teenage drama movie.

Now, with all of that said, “Rebel Without A Cause” was a disappointing film for us both. Knowing nothing about the plot before seeing it, the film has aged poorly and was one of the more frustrating movies we have seen in a long time. For instance, the movie takes place over a single night, but that night seems to stretch to the point that all believability is lost.

Further adding fuel to this fire, no one in this movie acts like a normal person. It felt like someone took the character intelligence from modern slasher movies and forced it into a teenage drama. For example, Buzz dies when he failed to jump out of his car, and all the teenagers drive off. Before Jim makes it back home afterward, the police have been notified and pictures of the accident have already appeared on the news, but when Jim admits to his parents that he was involved, they don’t support his need to come forward to the police because they want someone else to tell the police. It makes no sense and the Buzz story, much like his life in that car on that cliff, drops off almost instantly in favor of three of his goons (one is even named Goon and played by a very young Dennis Hopper) wanting to get Jim for ratting them out to the police. Of course, Jim did not get to tell the police because, like the puppy-murderer-releasing bastards that they are, they ignore troubled teen Jim when he comes to unburden himself.

Somehow the puppy-killer is a good guy and someone we are supposed to by sympathetic toward?

Even the teenagers act erratically. Jim is a whirlwind of emotions, which is explained, but Judy falls in love with a boy she just met after her boyfriend careens off a cliff to his death in the same night. And Plato, by far one of the creepiest characters we have seen yet, was both disturbed and disturbing. If you have seen “The Room” and recall the neighbor kid of an ambiguous age who clings on to a couple far too closely, even in their bedroom with them, that is Plato exactly only somehow less creepy (and likely the basis for “The Room” character). Plato treats Jim like he is his dad. If the field of psychology was better defined at the time, then the writers of “Rebel Without A Cause” may have had enough to research and use in their script, but it just wasn’t there yet, and it shows in how the movie depicts these psychologically-weird character relationships.

There is a lot to enjoy about this movie and I mean no harm to its importance at the time, but the story is all over the place, the film needed to be edited for logic, and most of the topics and social commentary have been done better by more current media with a fuller understanding of child psychology. That’s not to discount how prescient this film was and remains. Even with its convolutions, there are important messages to extract from a movie like “Rebel Without A Cause” that are still relevant today. This movie isn’t far off from the phenomenon of something like Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix or any other similar movie or television show that attempts to tackle topics that sadly and tragically go undiscussed or under discussed regarding teenagers. As much as I ended up hating watching this movie, I cannot hate that it exists.

Happy endings!

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: East of Eden (1955)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

1955’s film “East of Eden”, starring James Dean, is the first movie on our list to star the actor and the first time we have seen him act. In his tragically short life, all three films featuring James Dean are featured in this box set. Along with “East of Eden”, there is also “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant”. Given his status as a cultural icon, our reviews for these films will spend a lot of time on James Dean, but, at least in the case of this film, “East of Eden” is worth seeing regardless (and perhaps because) of James Dean.

No joke, this movie is shot so beautifully with some really interesting direction. For instance, this shot on a moving train.

Adapted from renowned American author John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, the film takes place in California in the late 1910s shortly before the United States got involved in World War I. Primarily taken from the book’s second half, the 1955 film version of “East of Eden” focuses on the relationship between two brothers, Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), with their father Adam (Raymond Massey), a successful farmer with a reputation for his goodness and Christian values. While Aron is the perfect child and his father’s favorite, Cal is a troubled young man desperate to understand who he is and why his father will not accept him for it.

The cinematography in “East of Eden” does a fantastic job of bringing rural California to the big screen. Shot in CinemaScope, the film holds up well today. Like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, it is great to see another film shot on location, especially in a part of California that isn’t Hollywood or one of the state’s major cities.

Or this shot at an angle that heightens the aggression of Adam.

On first impression, Diane and I were both mixed on the acting of James Dean. He did a convincing job of playing a troubled youth, but my prior knowledge of Steinbeck had me worried this would be a Lennie situation from Of Mice and Men (in other words, a mentally unstable character). Without another role to judge him against, neither of us felt comfortable negatively reviewing Dean’s work in “East of Eden”. In truth, he is compelling here and brings plenty of emotion to the role. In the film’s climax when he presents a gift he believes will win his father’s love, Dean’s Cal finds only heartbreak from the disapproval he receives in response. That heartbreak is the audience’s heartbreak as well when Cal’s eagerness throughout the entire film to please his father turns into absolute despair.

We were also impressed by Raymond Massey’s Adam and Richard Davalos’ Aron. From one of the film’s earliest scenes, Adam confesses that while he understood his son Aron, he never understood his other son Cal. The movie doesn’t explore Adam’s morality too deeply nor does it try to expose him as a fraud. His confusion over his son Cal is to be expected since Cal often does what he wants despite any repercussions such as when he steals a coal shoot to help his father’s business. Aron, a mirror image of Adam, never has to try to earn his father’s approval since everything he does is in accordance with how Adam would wish it be done.

Or scenes like this which frame the father with the two brothers standing apart from one another.

Like the book, “East of Eden” the film is a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. In the book, there is more explanation and background (since it covers several generations), but the film seems to do a good job distilling the highlights. There is no attempt to be clever or to hide this retelling either. Cain and Abel are mentioned specifically and Adam’s religion is a major part of his character.

Diane and I took a long walk after watching the movie. At first, I had little to say, but as we talked and shared our opinions, we both realized that there is a lot of subtext to “East of Eden”. For instance, during the film’s climax, Cal reveals to Aron that their mother is still alive despite their father telling them otherwise all their lives and that she is a woman of ill repute. The shock of Aron learning about his mother and other related events causes Adam to have a stroke. Despite stating earlier that nothing would cause him to join the war, Aron enlists and runs off to fight in World War I the next morning leaving Cal to take care of a father who he claims he no longer needs. Paralyzed and with limited speaking, Adam asks Cal to send away his annoying nurse and Cal takes this as a sign that he should remain and look after his father.

Or a scene like this which Dean acts the shit out of with just his eyes and body language.

Without Adam confirming it, Cal states that his father wishes for him to remain by his side. Like Abel who was murdered by Cain, in the novel, Aron goes off to war because of Cal’s actions and dies. Unlike the myth where Cain is forced into exile, here Cal remains behind in an exile of his own choosing (the constant torture of trying to appease an overly moral man) and Adam also joins him in exile perhaps to pay for failing Cal as a father.

Or, at least that is my take. More surface-level, Cal tells his father that it is his choice what kind of man he is and that he chooses to remain by Adam’s side to take care of him. Adam sheds a tear because his son did listen to his lessons and may finally turn his life around. Cal understands that he has the power to be a good person now and he assumes the position of Abel (the favored child) while his brother petulantly marches off to a war he never believed in as his first and last act of defiance against his lying father.

Or, finally, Dean on a swing (complete with the camera moving to match his momentum).

Either way, “East of Eden” is a solid film and one worth having a few chats about. The film looks great, the acting is compelling, and the story will hold your interest. Diane and I both enjoyed this film and we look forward to confirming whether or not James Dean was a great actor.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.