AFI #9: Vertigo

james-stewart-vertigo-thumb-400x230-32546Vertigo is the fourth and final Alfred Hitchcock film in the AFI top 100, and of the four I’d rank it as the second best behind North by Northwest, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and #55 on the AFI list. For the record, my favorite Hitchcock film is To Catch a Thief, which is not on the AFI list

Vertigo is a solid thriller, with an incredible twist that catches most viewers off guard. The film is almost always included by reviewers as one of the best American films ever made and some even suggest it is the best American film ever. I don’t know what film those people watched, but like a lot of films it likely gets better the more you think about it afterward. I did some reading about the film after viewing it last night to see what all the fuss was about, and much of it centers on the themes rather than the plot. In that retrospect, and in an Academic sense, the film does indeed deal with several key issues not the least of which is society’s manipulation of and abuse of women. Vertigo centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired cop who unbeknownst to him is set up by an old college buddy to play a role in a crime. Of course, the crime is perpetrated upon a woman and even after the deed is done Scottie himself takes advantage of a woman’s love to its sordid and unfortunate conclusion. Even the subplot, the suicide of a woman 100 years earlier, is misogynistic. The film is all about the manipulation and destruction of women!

Which brings us to Mr. Hitchcock himself. Some critics believe Vertigo is a self-analysis of Hitchcock himself, with the Jimmy Stewart character as Hitchcock. If so, is Hitchcock self-aware of his misogyny or is the film a critique of those who criticize him? I’m not sure, but there is certainly a lot written about it on the Internets. One thing that is clear is that in many of Hitchcock’s films his lead female characters are icy cold women to whom bad things happen. This is clearly the case in Vertigo with the demise of both Madeleine and Judy and god only knows what Hitchcock is trying to say about manipulative women with the mother in Psycho! I’ll give him this much, he sure knows how to pick gorgeous women to star in his films. Kim Novak is stunning in Vertigo (both playing Judy and Madeleine) and I gushed about Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. But without question his most beautiful star, and for my money one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, is Grace Kelly who not only stars in Rear Window but is also the star of To Catch a Thief and Dial M For Murder.

So, what is Hitchcock’s legacy relative to the AFI top 100? His four films on the list is the top performance by a director, so does that make him the best American director according to AFI? I’d say several directors have had better single films, but it’d be hard to argue that Hitchcock didn’t have the greatest portfolio of films ever. My personal opinion is that he’s easily one of the top 10 best directors ever, though I wouldn’t put him at number one. That place is reserved for Martin Scorsese in my book, followed by Woody Allen and Spike Lee. But that’s an argument for another blog post!

Next up: Schindler’s List

AFI #20: It’s a Wonderful Life

250px-Donna_Reed_with_James_Stewart_(1946)Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight off — I had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life before last night. I know what you’re thinking. I swear I’d never seen it. Does that make me un-American? Nah, it makes me a Jew.

If this is one of your favorite movies, or you think of it as a Christmastime tradition, you may want to stop reading because I’m about to skewer this piece of crap. It was all I could do to get through it, and given I’m a huge James Stewart fan that’s saying something. Let’s begin with the obvious. What a bunch of sappy garbage. God talking to angels and mean old Mr. Potter trying to take over the lovely town of Bedford Falls. It’s ridiculous. I’m already on the record saying I think Frank Capra is a horrible director who makes awful films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for example which I trashed earlier in this countdown). The screenplay is silly. The plot is even sillier. It’s a pure rip off of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what this film has to do with Christmas frankly, given that the only connection it has is that it ends on Christmas eve. Why did this become a Christmas tradition? It makes no sense (maybe simply because it is a rip off of Dickens?). Is it a Christmas film because God and angels have speaking roles? I won’t even go into the ridiculous religious themes of the film with all the praying and guardian angels. Yuck!

I’ll say one good thing about this film — in spite of everything else it has some decent performances by James Stewart and Donna Reed (quite the 1940s babe by the way!). Reed makes you want to settle down in a town like Bedford Falls and have a bunch of kids. Stewart is his usual wise but somewhat silly good guy. Oh, one more good thing about this — I don’t have to watch it ever again! Go ahead, say I’m a grinch. Bah Humbug!

Next up: On The Waterfront

AFI #26: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Well, if you’ve been following along with my silly trek through the AFI top 100 you know by now that I have a low tolerance for “classic” films that just don’t hold up. So it should come as no surprise that on this, my first-ever screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was unimpressed. Sacrilege you say? Poppy-cock I say. This film is a sappy, ridiculous mess that has a much better reputation than it deserves. And I love James Stewart. I just don’t care for Frank Capra (with the exception of It Happened One Night).

I don’t simply dislike classic films, so you can’t blame this on that. In fact, several of my personal favorites are old — Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story to name a couple. Those films are great because they are great films with incredible acting and brilliant dialogue that stands the test of time. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just plain dumb. And by the way, the ending is the most ridiculous part. Spoiler alert: the so-called “happy” ending takes place only because Senator Paine ( Claude Rains) comes clean at the end. There was not going to be any redemption for the feeble Mr. Smith — he was going to lose his bid to show the world that politics is evil — until Sen. Paine decides, for some unknown reason, to throw himself on the mercy of congress in a ludicrous confession. Where’s the moral in that? Mr. Smith goes to Washington and fails to blow the lid off corruption. Some plot.

011809mrsmithI will give credit where credit is due though. Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders was wonderful as the sassy but ultimately helpful secretary to Mr. Smith. Ironically, of the three Oscar nominations for acting that the film received she was not among the honored. But despite her great performance her character does have a major flaw — she falls for the idiotic Mr. Smith even though his naiveté about politics (and life for that matter) is obvious. She’s be better off marrying the unattractive but intellectually equal Diz Moore. This film was all wrong.

I would like to say there was at least one memorable line wrapped up in Mr. Smith’s long-winded diatribe in congress:

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”

That’s a nice bit of writing, but it’s alone in an otherwise dull script. And of course the sentiment is as true today as it was in 1939, and probably 1839 and 1776 as well. Guess I’m a pessimist, but the more things change the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to politics.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — so many films you think you love from their reputation just don’t hold up when you see them again with a critical eye. Just because something is old does not make it classic.

Next on the list: To Kill a Mockingbird

AFI #44: The Philadelphia Story

We should begin this review with a caveat: The Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite films of all time. For me, it has everything you want in a great film. First and foremost, the dialogue is superb. In fact, given it was written in 1940 I would argue the screenplay is ahead of its time for its wit, innuendo and double entendre. The story is based on the Broadway play by Philip Barry but the adaptation work by Donald Ogden Stewart and the delivery by the first-rate cast makes it stand out.

The story itself is witty and interesting. For those of you who have not seen it, the story revolves around a socialite family from Philadelphia. The upper crust Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is about to be married to the hard working and virtuous George Kittredge. However, Tracy’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up at the family estate the day before the wedding with a couple of undercover reporters from Spy Magazine (think TMZ) (Macaulay Connor played by James Stewart and Liz Imbrie played by Ruth Hussey) who think they are there to cover the social event of the season but are in fact there at Haven’s bidding in trade for the magazine not publishing a salacious story about the family’s patriarch. The Lord family catches wind of the plot and decides to play it up for the reporters, but of course nothing goes as planned and a drunken wedding eve leads to unexpected resolutions, declarations of love and ultimately a happy Hollywood ending.

The film appeals to me on so many levels. To begin, Hepburn has never been more beautiful and funny. Tracy is a woman who has always been thought of as cold and aloof, a “trophy” to be admired and put on a pedestal. But all she really wants is to be loved for who she is. Marrying George is obviously the wrong thing to do, but it takes her ex husband and a romantic writer to help her see how to get what she really wants. Grant is dry and sarcastic as Dexter, who is still in love with Tracy and is there not so much to win her back from George but to protect the Lord family from the ruthless media because he doesn’t want any of them to be hurt. And then there is Jimmy Stewart’s Connor, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor. Mike Connor hates his job at the magazine because he is a “real” writer but he needs to pay the bills. He goes to the wedding thinking it will be a typical snooty society event but he finds the Lord family is down to earth and of course Tracy is both intelligent and loving and he falls head over heels for her. The scenes in which Stewart and Hepburn are drunk are some of the funniest scenes ever filmed.

As a former journalist I love the character of Macaulay Connor. In fact, he is one of my favorite movie characters ever and one of the reasons for my son’s name (don’t tell Leslie our boy is named after this character because she’ll deny it but it was definitely in my mind as we decided on the name Connor). Stewart is remembered for other great roles including Harvey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life and Rear Window, but he only won one Academy Award and it was for playing Macaulay Connor!

The smaller roles also make this film so wonderful. Tracy’s little sister Dinah, played by 14-year-old Virginia Weidler is hysterical, as is Roland Young’s Uncle Willie. Tracy’s mother Margaret, played deadpan by Mary Nash, is clueless to the goings on and delivers some of the films most memorable lines.

I have seen The Philadelphia Story perhaps a dozen times or more and whenever it’s on TV I stop to watch. It’s truly one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic comedies.

Next on the list: Midnight Cowboy

AFI #48: Rear Window

The second Alfred Hitchcock film so far on the AFI Top 100, Rear Window stars Jimmy Stewart as a professional photographer who is laid up with a broken leg with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors out his window. When he thinks his a neighbor has killed his wife he tries to put together the story along with his girlfriend, his nurse and a detective friend. The result is really less of a suspense film and more of a commentary on society.

In terms of suspense the film is a little slow and not nearly as action packed as other Hitchcock films like Psycho, North By Northwest or The Birds. But I enjoyed it for its statement about human nature. Stewart’s character Jeff watches over his neighborhood and judges each neighbor. There is “Miss Lonelyhearts” who dines with imaginary friends, and the songwriter who struggles with his art but throws parties with lots of people. There are the newlyweds and of course “Miss Torso” who dances around in her underwear and appears to have many men chasing after her. But of course Jeff becomes obsessed with the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, who slaves over his ill wife until one strange night she seems to have disappeared. Jeff watches Thorwald’s strange behavior and rushes to the judgement that he has killed his wife.

Frankly I’m not sure why Rear Window is considered a great film by so many, including the AFI. Aside from the interesting characters in the apartment complex it’s a pretty silly film, especially the end in which Thorwald goes a little crazy. The whole premise that Thorwald would kill his wife with the shades open and then continue to prance about his apartment packing up her belongings is far-fetched. So too is his reaction when Jeff lets him know that he is on to his scheme. Thorwald’s behavior is so unbelievable that it borders on ridiculous.

On the other hand, Jimmy Stewart does a nice job as Jeff. His character has the best lines (along with the sharp-witted nurse). On top of that, any film with the gorgeous Grace Kelly is worth watching. Still, Jeff doesn’t seem to want to marry Grace so he’s really not that bright after all.

Next Up: A Streetcar Named Desire