Unusual themes

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When I come up with themes each month in the Essentials forum, I go through a lot of ideas. Some ideas are good and I use them. Others are less brilliant:

Sun of a beach

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ED GEIN
PSYCHO
BEACH PARTY
PSYCHO BEACH PARTY

Fried food is in the forecast

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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
HOME FRIES
HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS

Alpha Mail

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M
E.T.
Z
There was another letter but it was sent to three wives.

Coffin up blood

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DRACULA
DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN
DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN
I AM SARTANA, TRADE YOUR GUNS FOR A COFFIN

The answer my friend is blowing in

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THE WIND
GONE WITH THE WIND
ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS
INHERIT THE WIND

Three men and a bag of money

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It starts simply. A few guys are driving on a winter day, when a fox darts out in front of them. They get out of the truck and go after the fox with their dog. The snow is quite deep, it’s cold, and they’re going to get that fox.

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They come upon a densely wooded area. The dog has gone up ahead, and there are crows in the branches. One guy picks some snow up off the ground and forms a perfectly rounded ball.

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He turns to toss it across a field, and it hits a solid object. The solid object is a downed airplane.

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All the snow on top of the plane falls to the ground. The guys step forward to take a closer look, and one of them opens a side door.

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It’s dark inside. As the plane shifts because of the extra weight, the pilot’s head falls back revealing the skeleton of a man that’s been dead for awhile. Crows fly in and peck at the hideous corpse.

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There’s a large black duffel bag inside the plane full of money. How did it get here? What should they do with it? Maybe they can come up with a plan to keep it.

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My complete review for A SIMPLE PLAN will be posted in the Essentials forum on Saturday June 24th.

Essential: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

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This month I’m looking at films where crooks almost get away with their crimes. Most of the main characters are motivated by greed, or at least the chance to get their hands on money, so they can improve their lot in life. Nobody really knows how long Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) was hatching her plan to kill an older unsuspecting husband in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. But when insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) showed up on her doorstep one afternoon, she saw a chance and embraced it.

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The movie is based on a James Cain novel, and its screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. As the story begins Mrs. Dietrichson wants to get rid of her husband, and if she can somehow make it look like an accident, she will be able to cash in on a double indemnity clause. For those who don’t know– an indemnity is a security or protection against a loss. If there is a certain type of accidental death, the payout will be twice as great.

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Of course, the loss of Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband isn’t something that will cause her any real pain or remorse. In order to carry out the diabolical plan, she needs help from that handsome insurance man. At first Neff balks at the idea; he insists he is no murderer. But this changes when he gets drawn into her web of deception. Soon they’ve decided her husband’s death should occur during a train trip he is scheduled to take.

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At the station Neff poses as an injured Mr. Dietrichson, whom they’ve already killed and stashed in the trunk of a car. Mrs. Dietrichson lovingly sees Neff off in front of witnesses, then drives away with the dead body. In the next part Neff heads to the back of the train, and jumps off, making it seem as if Dietrichson took an accidental tumble off the moving locomotive.  At the same time Mrs. Dietrichson brings the car around with the dead body, which they place along the track with the crutches. It all goes according to plan until Neff’s boss, a man named Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), gets involved.

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Keyes doesn’t think it really was an accident. Of course, if he didn’t, the couple would get away with their crime and live happily ever after. In production code Hollywood, this simply can’t be allowed. So we have scenes where Keyes starts investigating– poking around to find out what really happened the night Dietrichson died. Some of the Neff-Keyes interaction is interesting to watch, because there’s a warm father-son type bond shared between them. Keyes probably doesn’t want Neff to be guilty, but it is his duty to uncover the facts.

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To the writers’ credit we don’t actually see Neff full of regret, until near the end. After he regains his conscience, he goes to the Dietrichson home to set things right. There’s a quarrel, and Mrs. Dietrichson shoots Neff, who also shoots her. Realizing he’s killed Mrs. Dietrichson and knowing he has been shot himself, Neff makes his way back to the office to record a full confession into a dictaphone machine. He is critically injured in the film’s final moments, after the confession has been completed and Keyes has arrived.

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This was the second of four pairings for MacMurray and Stanwyck. In their films together, the characters they portray don’t usually enjoy a happy ending. Robinson would work with Stanwyck again in a Columbia western– that time she was his unsympathetic wife. The three stars had long, distinguished screen careers. But DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a high point for all of them. It functions like a policy they took out to insure their legacy against any flops.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY is directed by Billy Wilder and airs occasionally on TCM. 

Theme for June 2017

With a plan like this, how could anything possibly go wrong?

 

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Saturday June 3, 2017

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), with Barbara Stanwyck. Studio/production company: Paramount.

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Saturday June 10, 2017

PURPLE NOON (1960), with Alain Delon. Studio/production company: Titanus/Miramax.

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Saturday June 17, 2017

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), with Walter Matthau. Studio/production company: UA.

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Saturday June 24, 2017

A SIMPLE PLAN (1999), with Bill Paxton. Studio/production company: Paramount.

Coming up in June

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Movie siblings…he’s not heavy, he’s my brother.

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Unusual themes…movie combinations you might never have considered.

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Visiting the set…memories of my visits to different Hollywood sets.

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Three men and a bag of money…who does it belong to and how can they keep it?

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A classic philosophy…what does it all mean?

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Join me in June!

Essential: GREAT DAY (1945)

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Flora Robson and Eric Porter star as a middle-aged couple in England during the Second World War. GREAT DAY was filmed in Britain by RKO and was released in April 1945, while the war was still going on. However, it did not have its American release until a year and a half later, in the fall of 1946, quite some time after the war had ended. As a result, it probably didn’t resonate with U.S. audiences the way it did when it was first seen in Europe.

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Robson and Porter are of course, brilliant. Porter is a man living in the past, still trying to live off the glory of his military service in WWI. He is struggling to step out of the shadows. In direct contrast to this, his wife lives in the present and finds fulfillment in their small community working with other wives as part of the Women’s Institute. For those who do not know, the Women’s Institute was a domestic organisation that turned agricultural products into ‘care packages’ sent to soldiers fighting abroad. The recent short-lived television series Home Fires is also about the British Women’s Institute; in that story, the women were known for making jam.

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The film also features the couple’s daughter caught up in a rather unlikely love triangle. She has been offered marriage by a much older man who promises financial security; but her heart really belongs to a poor soldier her own age. In addition to the main family, we see other families in the community– especially the other wives that Robson’s character interacts with as they prepare for a special arrival.

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The arrival involves Eleanor Roosevelt. Supposedly the American first lady is visiting England, and she would like to see how the Women’s Institute of this particular community does its charitable work. Mrs. Roosevelt’s impending visit is announced at the very beginning of the story; and she does not show up until the end– just out of camera range, naturally. In the meanwhile, the women try to determine the best way to prepare for Mrs. Roosevelt’s arrival. There are several petty squabbles and various bits of gossip that threaten to disrupt their solidarity.

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What makes GREAT DAY work so well is how humanised the women are in the story. Yes, it’s a propaganda piece, but its less about ideals and more about presenting the characters with realism. We are definitely supposed to feel patriotic at the end, and I think the filmmakers do a good job instilling such feelings in us. It’s a unique snapshot in time, just as it was when it was first screened in the U.S. after the war had been won, and the women had gone back to their regular routines. Though I am sure they had many more great days ahead.

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GREAT DAY is directed by Lance Comfort.

Essential: TENDER COMRADE (1943)

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A lot can be said about the communism screenwriter Dalton Trumbo appears to have ‘inserted’ into the film. I don’t disagree with those who say it is there– in a story where a group of women during wartime share a communal living space. Trumbo took a traditional women’s melodrama with a theme about home front efforts, and he used it to talk about fascism in America. Of course, for most of the audience, such ideas went sailing over their heads. And for those had a vague understanding of Trumbo’s goals, they didn’t quite glob on to the bigger picture. During the postwar era Trumbo and his pals– including the director of this film– paid dearly for exploring such issues in TENDER COMRADE.

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I’ve read reviews that zero in on Ginger Rogers’ performance as well as the performance of her leading man Robert Ryan. I didn’t have a problem with either one of them, though some of their scenes are a bit corny. Ryan even has a line where he refuses to let Rogers know the contents of a love note he wrote to her, since he admits it was sappy.

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Some reviewers have commented on the other women Rogers shares a house with in the movie. I’d say Ruth Hussey probably has the best supporting role, playing a lonely wife who tries to justify her unfaithfulness. She gets a few showy scenes, and these moments actually take the focus away from Rogers. Also, a very young Kim Hunter does a swell job as a newlywed, especially in scenes near the end when her character’s husband returns from combat. I didn’t particularly care for Mady Christians’ stereotypical German housekeeper. Trumbo should be blamed for making her a cliched foreigner with a thick accent and predictable comments about her homeland. Most of the housekeeper’s dialogue is unintentionally funny. She’s best when she’s off screen.

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There aren’t many factory scenes. We get one sequence near the beginning of the film, with Ginger riding a forklift in front of a process shot, acknowledging the other women working with her. Hussey has a brief moment riveting, then we cut to a lunch break where they all decide to pool their money to rent a house together. We’re led to believe this is a story about women in modern day America where women feel the effects of war after their loved ones have been taken away from them.

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There are some interesting speeches where they complain about rationing, or about having to do their part while the men are gone fighting. The film launches into very lengthy flashbacks that focus on the romance between Rogers and Ryan. It is almost like Trumbo couldn’t figure out whether to set it in the time right before the war or in the present day. I suspect extra flashbacks were added to increase Ryan’s screen time, since he was an RKO star in the making, and his character is sent off to war and otherwise never seen again.

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Finally, I want to comment on how anti-climactic the ending is. As you can see, even the film’s title card indicates the husband has died. During the film, when the editors prepare us for one of the many romantic flashbacks, there are screen dissolves that show the couple walking in some heavenly realm. It is very obvious he will be killed, long before she receives the telegram informing her about his death. Though I must say the scene where she sets the telegram down and lifts the baby out of the crib and “introduces” him to his father (in a picture frame) is very poignant. After she sets the baby back into the crib, she realizes she will have to keep her chin up and move forward. And I suppose when women saw the film and left the theater, they were trying to keep their chins up, too.

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TENDER COMRADE is directed by Edward Dmytryk and airs occasionally on TCM.