Decision Before Dawn (1951) At its edges, it’s your standard war picture, featuring square-jawed Americans and shifty Nazis and a training montage. But at its core, it’s a tight, spare thriller, in which a German POW, recruited to act as a spy for the Allies, attempts to worm his way through his homeland. The journey is tense, obviously, but also humanizing, finding warmth in the citizens of a country that knows it’s losing the war.
Hellfighters (1968) If it weren’t for the widescreen photography and the appearance of John Wayne, I’d peg Hellfighters as an early-70s TV movie eager to replicate the sweep of a disaster flick, yet limited by budget to shorten the action and stretch the in-between character drama. What should’ve been a thrilling look at the dangerous lives of oil field firefighters (flames! explosives! death!) winds up an overlong, overly dry soap opera in which Katherine Ross mopes about fiancé Jim Hutton not wanting her around flames and explosions and death. The impressive fire sequences aren’t enough to salvage this directionless, wooden, and often dopey drag. The third act, combining an oil fire with an assault by Venezuelan guerrillas, reeks of desperation and hardly succeeds in waking us up.
Raising Arizona (1987) When I first saw Raising Arizona sometime back in 1987-ish, I was wowed by its unique voice and uncompromising weirdness. (I had yet to discover Blood Simple and wouldn’t really know the Coen name until Miller’s Crossing.) The film still holds up on this level, to be certain, but more impressive is how the Coens haven’t faded over the years. Usually early works end up being this odd because their makers have no one to tell them otherwise, which changes as they’re hired on to make bigger films requiring more creative concessions (or, perhaps, a lessening desire for the outlandish that can come with age and steady employment). The Coens, meanwhile, for all their acclaim and their name recognition, still make films with unique voices and uncompromising weirdnesses. If the Coens made Raising Arizona today, I’d like to think it would be just as insane.
An Invisible Sign (2011) “Life is much harder than math” is the takeaway lesson (and, embarrassingly, an actual quote) from this mess of a film where everyone’s either crazy, an asshole, or a crazy asshole. Jessica Alba stars as an introvert obsessed with numbers – supposedly in an OCD and/or autistic way but mostly just in a “look, she just likes numbers a lot because she’s a weirdo, I don’t need to have it make sense, do I? I don’t have the time for that kind of effort!” way – and becomes a grade school math teacher. Not including the one scene where she presents the idea of greater than and less than symbols (and, apparently, becomes the first person in history to stumble upon the “the symbol looks like a mouth always eating the larger number” idea), her lessons revolve entirely around which numbers kids like, and bonus points if they can find something that looks like a number. You know, math! Scripted by the duo behind The Wedding Planner (unsurprisingly, their only prior screen credit, although in fairness, many problems may lie with the novel upon which their script is based), An Invisible Sign lacks any understanding of mental illness, teaching, or people. Sincere supporting performances from Sonia Braga and J.K. Simmons get wasted among the forced quirk and loose plotlines which never make much sense. It does have a scene where Jessica Alba has an axe sticking out of her leg, resulting in the best unintentional laugh of the week, so that’s something.
The Rocketeer (1991) I don’t know anyone who’s seen The Rocketeer who doesn’t love The Rocketeer. I hang out with the right people.
The Big Heat (1953) 34 years later, I still look at Glenn Ford and see Pa Kent – and it’s always fun to see Pa Kent punch a guy. The Big Heat is dark, dark stuff, a film noir that’s heavy on the noir, perhaps because it goes to great lengths to set up the hero’s bright world. He’s a cop, sure, but he’s also a happy husband and father living in Eisenhower’s suburbia; when tracking down suspects and enemies in a case involving a fellow officer’s death, he lands in cleaner nightclubs and swankier gangster pads than the usual genre squalor. All these settings give the violence a greater impact, the plot a harder edge. A young Lee Marvin terrifies as a sadistic crony, while Gloria Grahame steals the show as his tormented dame.
Head (1968) In which The Monkees get stoned, commit career suicide, and end up accidentally making one of the best movies of the 1960s. Slightly in-depth write-up here.
Three on a Match (1932) A messy yet oddly compelling melodrama from the last days of the pre-Code era. The premise (playing off the titular superstition, three old friends reunite, share a match, then watch as one of their lives falls apart) is a weak one, possibly thrown together hastily as some producer thought of the title and ordered a writer to paste it into the first script he could find. Joan Blondell and Bette Davis are essentially minor roles here, with the real story following Ann Dvorak as she spirals downward after ditching her rich hubby for a gambler. The plot bounces all over and the whole thing’s ridiculous (kidnapping! drug addiction! Humphrey Bogart!), but when it clicks, it draws us in well enough, leading us to a finale that’s unexpectedly powerful.
A Night to Remember (1958) As I discussed back in January, the 1953 and 1997 Titanics falter because of the clutter – both films are packed with Love Boat plotlines that ultimately could take place anywhere and are only driven by their setting when the scripts bother getting around to it. A Night to Remember, meanwhile, is celebrated for its historical accuracy, and while that makes the film sound like a dry, emotionless drag, it’s quite the opposite. By keeping all subplots focused around the ship and its predicament, we get a greater sense of the characters and how they react to drama at hand. There’s an honesty at play that accentuates the humanity of the tragedy. This time, once the band starts playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” I’m out, crying straight through until the boat finally goes down.
Female (1933) Here we have a movie about an intelligent, strong-willed, sexually liberated business executive who celebrates her independence and her triumph over the gender expectations of the times… who (spoiler alert) winds up deciding she’s “just a woman,” the office is no place for her, and she’s better off marrying a guy so she let him run her company while stays home pumping out kids. Goddammit, 1933 mores, you ruin everything.
Merrill’s Marauders (1962) Don’t let the jingoistic open and close fool you: this is some heavy stuff, brutal and quite sad. What would’ve otherwise been a generic war picture becomes, in Samuel Fuller’s hands, an unflinching look at the toil war takes on a man. Here’s a movie far ahead of its time, with soldiers breaking down physically, emotionally, and psychologically, with no puches pulled. (In one crushing scene, a burly character is reduced to tears.) Even the sound effects strive for realism – for once, the guns sound like real guns, the explosions like real explosions. Put together, the film is a slap in the face, a determined ploy to present truths rarely seen in genre efforts of its day.