September 2012 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wilder: A Foreign Affair (1948)

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In wrecked, post-war Berlin, a congressional committee from the United States comes to the occupied city to investigate the morale of the American troops. The conservative republican Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) from Iowa brings a birthday cake to Captain John Pringle (John Lund) from his girlfriend. Later she splits from the other congressmen and their handler, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell), and decides to investigate the decadence of the military on her own. A pair of excitable G.I.'s pick her up take her to the night-club Lorelei, where the lead attraction is the singer Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), who is the secret mistress of Captain Pringle. Congresswoman Frost overhears that Erika belonged to the Nazi Party and is protected by a senior officer, and she enlists Pringle to help her in the investigation. The officer seduces Frost to protect Erika and himself from martial court, but his feelings begin to falter as Schluetow's Nazi connections come back to haunt the both of them.

A Foreign Affair is the next Wilder movie that I would deem a lost classic. Unlike Ace in the Hole, it did ok back in its day so it is even more baffling what happened to this film. I am thrilled that this movie is finally getting a DVD release because it deserves to be seen more.

The movie is known mainly for Marlene Dietrich being in the film but I think the one who does the best is the lead actor John Lund. Many people reading this might say John who? Lund was a up and coming actor at the time of this film and he didn't do anything of note afterwards so this was his moment to shine and shine he did. Jack Lemmon and William Holden were far and above the actors who got the way to read Wilder's scripts the best but I would put Lund in the next rung down. He got the rhythms, the playfulness and the attitude better than most and he was able to take a character that is playing everyone and is close and made him very likable.

In the wonderful book Conversations With Wilder, the author Cameron Crowe states that he believes that A Foreign Affair is Wilder's most personal film, and I happen to believe him. For me Dietrich, is the personification of Berlin for Wilder. This movie was filmed three years after the second World War, and Berlin meant many different things to the man behind the camera. It was a place he loved from when he was younger, and yet hated and couldn't trust because of the atrocities that occurred. A little more than a year before he made this, he had been in the city to film his documentary for the army that we covered two weeks ago and the state of the town left a deep impression on him.

So here he makes a film to exorcise some of those demons and makes a character who is not only a German but an ex-Nazi. Just like Berlin, Wilder made her sexy and yet intimidating a person that wants a second chance but doesn't make a clear cut case on why she should get it. She is not good for Pringle, but he can't seem to make a clean cut from her.

The Third Man is (rightly) loved in part because of how the city of Vienna was filmed postwar and A Foreign Affair is shot just as well and makes a great time capsule for this period in world history. Danny, do you agree with that, and what do you think of Lund?


Unconditional (2012)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site

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It sucks when you have to get a message out and you have to compromise. You have a good message, an important message. But to deliver it requires a story broad enough for any audience, since you want to get that damned message out, and that requires looking at what you think people want and doing that too.

That's where compromise can become compromising. Unconditional has wonderful, pointed things to say, but you may never know it because the plot that it's been grafted onto may be, and please excuse my French here, one of the stupidest goddamn things ever written.

What stinks is that plot is so artificial and forced, while there's a great deal of good, touching film playing in the background. And, maybe worse, the addition of the bad plot is that it seems to exist solely to bring the presence of a white person into this film. Because, as the movie making myth goes, no one goes to see a film with an all-black cast.


Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood (1957)

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Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a milestone for a few different reasons.  First, this is marks, at least for his filmography, the dead center of his career.  He had not yet slipped from the pedestal of worldwide fandom he established so he was free to flex his creative muscle with the studios a little more.

Second, this is the first time Kurosawa adapted one of Shakespeare’s plays for the big screen.  As I’ve said before, when Kurosawa is devotional to capturing the essence whatever he’s adapting for cinema the results are the least inspiring of his career.  Neither of us were very big fans of The Idiot and while The Men Who Tread on Tiger’s Tail had a couple of interesting confrontations there wasn’t much meat for me to latch onto.  If I remember correctly, next week’s Kurosawa adaptation of The Lower Depths suffers from the same issues of slavish devotion and dull execution.

His Shakespeare adaptations are on an entirely different plane of quality and execution from the rest of his films.  Just look at the list - Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran.  They all run just shy of perfection and this version of Macbeth is the most artistically fulfilling and downright creepy film that Kurosawa had done at this point in his career.  Yes, there are films I feel a deeper connection to (One Wonderful Sunday) and ones I think are more exciting (Seven Samurai), but the creativity he shows with his Shakespeare adaptations separate the films from his other ventures.


The Tall Man (2012)

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The Tall Man is the second-cousin to the DVD waste-bin of the sky.  It’s presented by the advertising material preceding it as the kind of low-grade dreck that you’d expect of Asylum instead of a promising director.  If you but into that horrible tactic of persuasion I don’t blame you.  The presence of a generic scary man in a coat behind the all too wide-eyed heroine is yet another cliché that doesn’t seem to die.

Yet, here stands a film that pushed my cynicism to the bloody limit and shattered it.  There was no way a movie about an internet meme monster could possibly be any good.  More so, it was film starring one of the most poisonous acting presences of Jessica Biel, who has yet to star in a single film I’ve liked out of the near Baker’s Dozen times two that she’s been featured in.  The deck was stacked, yet a lot of my notes reflect an internal struggle that was loudly brewing.

As I watched, the notes continued.  Risk after risk was taken without a single consideration to how the audience might follow any of the threads The Tall Man leaves behind.  Somehow, this film manages to be a singlehanded ode to almost every kind of horror film popular in the last ten years while still clinging to the central tenant that horror films still cling to some very misogynistic trends that are yet to die anytime soon.  Here sits a film that is willing to acknowledge the sad truth of that in the most blatant B-grade way possible.


Wilder: The Emperor Waltz (1948)

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In Austria, the American traveling salesman Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) arrives in the palace of Emperor Franz-Joseph I with his mongrel dog Button expecting to sell one gramophone to him to promote his sales in the country. However, the guards believe he has a time-bomb and he does not succeed in his intent. When the dog Sheherazade of the widowed Countess Johanna Franziska von Stolzenberg-Stolzenberg (Joan Fontaine) bites Button, Virgil visits her and sooner he falls in love for Johanna and Button for Sheherazade that is promised to breed with the Emperor's dog. When Virgil asks permission to marry Johanna to the Emperor, the nobleman exposes to the salesman that their difference of social classes would doom their marriage and offers a business to Virgil.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site

After making Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Death Mills, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett decided to take a step back. Wilder, especially, was traumatized by the horrors he saw while touring post-War, post-Holocaust Europe, and desired to make a film about the Europe he grew up in. A magical joyous world of singing, dancing, and liederhosen.

It didn't turn out too well. The crappy part is that this joyous vision also involved Bing Crosby. Then Paramount's biggest star, he was already famous for the Road To movies he made with Bob Hope, and he'd won the Academy Award a few years back for Going My Way. He was a big ol' crooner at heart, and not exactly what I would call romantic leading man material, tossing out lines like "I think you're both full of pickled pumpernickel!" with utter seriousness.

His glassy eyes make it look like he's staring ten feet behind whoever he's talking to, and his exact range of emotions begins and ends at 'dutifully passive'; his pet dog in the film, Buttons, is a more charming lead by a mile.

He plays opposite of Joan Fontaine, who must have gotten a lot of work in the 50's since she's so good at playing a robot here. Her character starts off as stuffy, but hears Bing excrete one of his musical numbers and then she goes all gaga. Her emotional reactions to him function much like a light switch.

Speaking of light, this is Billy Wilder's first color film. The result isn't terrible-- Technicolor rarely is-- but it's simply used, well, as color. There's barely any of the dynamism here present in his black and white works, and if Brackett and Wilder weren't plastered onto the credits and their senses of humor chopped up into the screenplay, I wouldn't think that this was from them.

There's so much badness here that it's hard to encapsulate, but The Emperor Waltz has absolutely no forward momentum. Everything that happens in the movie seems to happen in the last ten minutes. And I definitely want to talk about the end at some point since I find it both awful and fairly offensive to boot. Ryan, now that you've managed to track down the film, what do you think? Am I being too mean to a Wilder lark?