Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960. 10/10

Albert Finney in one of the definitive British ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas. Finney is Arthur, a young disgruntled guy (like a British James Dean with a few weeks more schooling). Arthur, of course, makes things more difficult for himself by carrying on with a married woman, Brenda (Rachel Roberts), who’s married to his friend Jack (Bryan Pringle). If that’s not enough drama, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) comes along.

We’ve also got supporting characters Aunt Ada (Hylda Blake), Bert (Norman Rossington), Robboe (Robert Cawdron), Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris), and Arthur’s mom and dad (Elsie Wagstaff and Frank Pettitt).

We start, naturally, in the factory where Arthur works. Looks like lathe work. We get this advice from him: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” And “All I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.” These are the narrative book-ends of his life. It seems that Jack, more conservative looking than the others, plans to “get on.”

After work, Arthur settles in at home. His dad is zoned out on the TV; anyway, having eaten, Arthur dresses up, and goes out. In a pub, he’s drinking with Brenda, watching a sailor drink it up. Arthur’s plenty drunk as well. He deliberately spills his beer on a lady, then collapses on the staircase at Brenda’s.

That doesn’t stop them from making out. He wakes up in bed with her. Where’s Jack? “Tell him your in a dance team, he’ll believe you!” He does return just then, with their young son, Tommy. At a pub with Bert, he sees a nice-looking woman. It’s Doreen.

They chat. She’s kind of cheeky, but wary. They make a movie date. Anyway, he goes fishing with Bert; they talk of Doreen “first kiss and she’ll expect an engagement ring” thinks Bert. Then they take on the system “They rob rob you right, left, and center!” Bert cautions him to be careful about Brenda.

Him and his dad despise the busybody landlady–she’s the prototype for the landlady stereotype. Anyway, at work, he rescues a rat from a cat’s clutches–for the exact purpose of horrifying a woman co-worker with the thing. He sits down with Jack to have lunch, near enough to hear her squeal. His boss knows it was his work, but can’t prove it.

At home, Brenda makes an excuse to go out to see Arthur. They speculate if Jack knows what they’re up to. “As long as we’ve got each other, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?” Well, Brenda, not so much, considering you’re married on the side, you know. When they sneak over to the bar Jack’s motorcycle’s there. She goes home, Arthur goes in to chat up Jack.

He discovers that Jack’s soldier brother and friend will be visiting. Anyway, time for that Wednesday date with Doreen; they’re obviously attracted to each other, but she’s reticent. At work, more arguing with Robboe, the boss. At the sweet shop where he treats his nephew, he literally bumps into the landlady.

Well, a bit of a happening at Doreen’s; unfortunately for Bert, his date isn’t to his liking. Meanwhile, Doreen and Arthur are doing fine; until her mom comes in. “Well anyway, I like him” The girl says of Arthur. Oh, man, but Brenda has a bombshell for the old boy.

She’s pregnant, “how d’ya know it’s mine?” Is his expected response. She upbraids him on the responsibility of having a child, and bringing it up. Nonetheless, they decide on an (then illegal) abortion. He goes to Bert’s mom to indirectly ask her about finding a doctor to do it. “You are in a bloody fix, aren’t you?” But, she agrees to help. He brings Brenda to the aunt’s place for a ‘consultation.’

He doesn’t want Bert in on the situation. They go out. Some street entertainment: an old guy hurls a beer mug through a shop window; Arthur and Bert try to rescue him, but a witness (the landlady) fingers the guy when a cop comes up. As soon as possible, Arthur takes out his discontent by shooting her with an air rifle. He and Bert play cards, but Mrs. Bull comes back with her husband; undeterred, Arthur doesn’t mind taunting her with the gun.

Wow, Doreen comes calling. Of course the police follow-up, but his dad alibis for him. Meanwhile, Brenda’s trudging around; the abortion was a scam. So, there’s still her pregnancy to consider; plus, she knows he’s been seeing someone else. She observes, accurately, that he doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. “And I don’t want anyone teaching me either!” He replies.

She talks about going to a real doctor, for a price. Walking with Doreen, she mentions an acquaintaince who got married; an obvious hint. He’s dismissive and disdainful ” I like you a lot, then.” She wants him to be just a wee bit decent. Ok, so he promises to take her to the fair. All’s well at first, but guess who else is there? Jack, Brenda, and Jack’s soldier brother.

He sneaks into a hidden spot with Brenda “I’m with some pals from work” (!). Brenda tells him she’s having the baby after all. “What can I do?” He offers, sincerely. They try and hide from her brother-in-law and his friend. (there’s no more secrets in the family; either that, or merely being seen with her is problematic).

Brenda gets her comeuppance from Jack; but Arthur’s treatment is even more abusive–at the hands of the two soldiers. Left in a bad state in an alley, he can barely walk. Well, he makes it back home. Doreen comes to have a look. He tells her the whole story, of Brenda, etc., And then “you ought to stay with me for good” Not exactly a proposal.

“I’ll buy you a ring next week, if you’re nice.” Ok, then. Even Bert admits that she’s great. Later, at her place, things are a bit stiff. Until moms turns in, anyway. On the couch, the floor, fun stuff. Back to the unclear light of day–facing Jack at work. How’s Brenda? “She’s all right, with me” says Jack, protectively.

Well, back to the fishing hole. Looks like Arthur is marrying Doreen after all. After asking him about Brenda, Bert cautions him about life “there’s easier ways to get things than lashing out all the time.” He’s not about to change; at least he still wants to appear the tough guy. He actually catches a fish from the canal. Then, he and Doreen out in the fields, talking.

He can’t pass up an opportunity to throw rocks at houses; she thinks that’s pretty stupid. She right, but, before we end with him smiling, and them walking happily down the hill, he says “that won’t be the last one I’ll throw.” That’s it.

He has cracked his Angry Young Man shell just a bit; we could infer that it’s because of Brenda’s influence. She, is more or less, a cleaned-up, more respectable version of Arthur. Her response to the dull life–of their parent’s generation particularly–is essentially the same as his. She’s just more mature, and a bit more hopeful.

In fact, both Doreen and Arthur get what they want: their marriage is sort of a staging area for finding their dream. That’s symbolized by the row of neat new houses; just the sort of ‘getting ahead’ icon that Arthur would’ve scorned before.

Its always difficult in these Kitchen Sink dramas of Finney’s to find something positive about his character. He’s not overtly abusive like the husband he plays in 1959’s Look Back In Anger, but, as he lets on early, he’s more or less a selfish hedonist. Nonetheless, as in Look Back In Anger, there’s hints of goodness popping out here and there.

He’s kind to his younger cousin, he sticks up for the hapless shop vandal, and, though he despises his parent’s limitations, he respects them. And, in a more substantial sense than his character in the earlier film, he does move on. Realizing that he loves Doreen, he’s smart enough not to alienate her. They both show courage and vulnerability by seeing things through.

It is a bit surprising that Doreen isn’t fazed much when he tells her about Brenda. We can infer that, given their social milieu, a cool guy like Arthur would ‘get around.’ Still, he gets off easy with Doreen; not so much with Brenda, though. She and Jack are the couple that Doreen and Arthur don’t want to become.

Thats not likely in any case, as Jack’s passivity is seen as weak; in that respect, Arthur’s outgoing, aggressive nature is preferable. It could be said that Arthur himself settles for conventionality; but, with Doreen, he seeks contentment instead as a restless, nebulous rebellion. Their relationship and its love, after all, was their creation, and owes nothing to any social tradition or circumstance.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent (Morris does so much with the landlady role, for example). Can’t beat the pacing, tone, or plot. This moves along so smoothly that the viewer might easily be on the next bar stool, or at the canal, fishing, and listening to Finney tell his tale.

Worth seeing and pondering over; drama at its best. 10/10

The Great Sinner, 1949. 9/10

Based on an unfinished tale of Dostoevsky’s, this engaging drama stars Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Set in 1860s Germany, they are Fedja (a Russian writer) and Pauline Ostrovsky (also a Russian). She goes on a gambling binge in a resort town with her dad, General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston). Even Grandma Ostrovsky (Ethel Barrymore) proves to be a gambling fool.

After some beguiling looks from Pauline on the Paris-bound train, Fedja gets off at her stop, and can’t shake her spell. So much so, that he picks up her gambling habit, and inevitably loses everything. There’s more table action here than in most Vegas-themed movies.

In supporting roles, Agnes Morehead makes a scary pawnbroker, Emma Getzel. Frank Morgan’s not only just a jovial gambler, Pitard, but a scammer too. The bad guy here is Armand de Glasses (Melyvn Douglas).

Love at first sight is the name of the game on that train. Actually, we begin with a frame story–Fedja’s on his death bed, having visions. He narrates his story. Meaning we’re quickly at the roulette table in the casino, where Fedja and Pauline meet up again after their train compartment introduction. His advice: “Stop playing, and spend the evening with me.”

He’s to call at her hotel presently. The casino staff is mumbling about business. Fedja discovers that Pauline has hocked some jewelry to cover her debts. He meets her father, but she learns from a telegram that her grandmother is ill. Hanging out in the casino, Fedja drops his guard momentarily “I’m wondering why…why I’m here?”

Because he’s her good luck charm. As for himself “I can’t write a romance without being in love.” But then there’s gambling–here’s casino hand Pitard to welcome him to the tables. Fedja studies the gamblers with a psychologist’s eye.” I felt their fever in my own pulse.” Pitard soon cheats him.

But Fedja seems fascinated by the guy’s self-destructive instinct, and befriends him. Ironically, Pitard very quickly loses a fortune, and shoots himself. Before he dies, and by way of relieving his conscience, he gives Fedja a pawn ticket. It’s a religious medal “the stake [in gambling] is always the soul” he concludes.

With blithe indifference to Petard’s fate, Pauline wants Fedja to take her out gambling. She lets on that she’s considering marrying de Glasse, for his money. Despite their mutual attraction, Fejda’s merely a “mascot.” He finds her “irritatingly beautiful.” After a few more bits and pieces, she admits to Fedja that she’s falling in love with him.

Some great black humor ensues when she tells her dad. He feigns that it’s a catastrophe (as though she’s announced her engagement to an elephant). He mixes that in with the other ‘bad’ news–about her grandma; the old bat’s recovered! Next morning, the general greets Fedja; with card-playing as a metaphor, he basically tells the younger man to buzz off.

Perhaps the General was right about the bad news; Pauline’s really set to marry de Glasse. At Pitard’s funeral, Fedja spies her. She agrees to stay another night. Regarding de Glasse, he asks “why do you both behave as though this man owns you?” Well, thanks to dad’s desperate loan for granny, he does own the family financially. Guess what Fejda’s plan is? Win the money at the casino, of course.

And, naturally, he loses. If he keeps his bet, he loses; if he changes it, he loses. Then some luck. This reminds me so much of Ray Milland’s alcoholic character in The Lost Weekend. The tension is agonizing–winning means he has to keep winning, losing means–having to win. Nonetheless, it’s exciting. Which is after all the point of gambling.

He’s a guru to the other players “I was like the leader of a great army”. And “I was numb, blind, dizzy…it was almost sensuous.” He has an excellent opportunity to quit when the house momentarily runs out of cash. He offers then to pay off Ostrovsky’s debt. Ominously, de Glasse pretends not to have the markers to exchange for the cash.

I bet he thinks Fedja will lose the money before he ‘finds’ the notes. Meanwhile, he and Pauline plan marriage. All seems well. But Fedja, bitten so deep with the gambling bug, falls into his own psychological trap–an obsession with certain numbers. She wants to go to the opera, and begs him to come away from the tables.

Pauline leaves without him, but not before stumbling into de Glasse “a gambler was born tonight” he gloats. She waits up for Fedja. She’s had a nightmare of Pitard; Fedja has lost everything. Incredibly, She blames herself. She says they should leave immediately. But, no; instead she stakes him to a high-rolling card game.

There are so many levels of losing–what we have, what we don’t have, even what we could have. Now Fedja’s writing promissary notes to de Glasse. He’s “speculating on immortality”; that is, signing away anything he’ll ever earn. Now de Glasse stoops low enough to insult the General. Fedja’s going nuts, but, as everyone knows, he only has himself to blame.

Back to the cackling pawnbroker. And back to the tables. Well, Pauline has granny in tow. Fedja says his shame is so bad that he hates the sight of his lover/fiancee. The General tries to cheer him up. Very ironically, Fedja’s best bet, if he plays his cards right (!), is to marry Pauline; grandma’s dying–the girl will be an heiress.

The scenes with the General teaching his mom a card game seems innocent, yet we know he has a cunning plan. We begin to see that when the big shots sit down to play, Gramdma is slick with the cards. Now it’s de Glasse’s turn to twist in the wind. And, granny can’t lose, because, having instantly accumulated a fortune, she just up and dies. Macabre, yes, but well-played (!).

Fedja hallucinates that Pitard has come to talk; but then Pauline, in mourning, comes to comfort him. “Why should the likes of you go on?” crones the pawnbroker. He passes out right there in the shop. Staggering to the cathedral to pray, Fedja seems mesmerized.

Back to the frame story: he lies dying in his garret; Pauline has just finished the book that is the story we’ve just seen. His solace comes in knowing that the sale of the book will pay off Pauline’s debt (actually his debt to her). He asks her forgiveness, and professes his love. I can see that he feels a personal responsibility towards her; but isn’t she now wealthy? Nonetheless, he’s won her. We see vividly Dostoevsky’s theme of the redemptive power of love.

This is a case of the excellent performances making a simplistic plot come alive; the movie never feels preachy–perhaps because of the intensely personal nature of Fedja’s very human tragedy. Huston and Barrymore are so enjoyable, and keep Peck’s gloomy character from darkening the tone entirely. Gardner’s role seems very difficult: Pauline is by turns romantic and feckless. Like Fedja, she’s been pretending for too long. We see that gambling substitutes excitement for emotions.

Strangely, the neediest characters are those carefree souls, the General and his mom. Pitard is sort of a trickster type, wise, but a bit too clever. In fact, de Glasse’s evil is notable in this group of very enigmatic and complex characters.

Very well-put-togther movie with an excellent script. Highly recommended. 9/10.

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, 1964. 9/10

Tony Randall stars as a mysterious carnival performer who saves a town. How? With magic, of course! With a bit of The Wizard Of Oz theme of self-discovery, the fantasy content is highly symbolic as well as surreal. Also featuring Barbara Eden as town librarian Angela, with her son Mike (Kenin Tate); plus Arthur O’Connell as chief bad guy Clint Stark, John Ericson, and Noah Berry, Jr.

This is so well-conceived that there’s barely a bad scene. Randall creates an absolutely mythic role; with so many aspects to look at. The early 1900s atmosphere, just out of frontier days–and so still in effect a Western. And a familiar Western theme–townspeople under the thumb of exploitative movers and shakers.

The locals themselves, much like in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, are played for every trick and hint of oddity. Then, the outsider, Lao himself (again like the new sheriff in Blazing Saddles) literally comes riding into town to change things up.

The gullibility, ignorance, and level of comeuppance (for Stark and his jerks) plays with consistent anarchy throughout. Only the out-and-out good guys, Angela, Mike, and the newspaper editor, Ed Cunningham (Ericson), are spared raking over the coals. Even the mythlogical characters are often off-key, out-of-it, goofy, and just fun.

If the movie’s taken on it’s own terms, it’s hard to find fault.. The special effects are actually quite good; the huge snake, for example, is downright convincingly weird. Likewise, when Medusa turns the haughty woman to stone, she really looks it.

A magic mirror (not Medusa’s), is, of course, a movie screen. It shows a bunch of apocalyptic stuff–more or less an indication of where we’re headed (the town, in the literal sense) if we don’t shape up. This is clever, as the screen indeed passes for an illusion to the characters, but it’s a bit of plausible futurism to us.

At the same time, the carnival motif serves as a metaphor. The linking of magic with gratification and disappointment gives an intriguing look at the presence of deception in the midst of reality. When, Oz-like, Lao tells the boy that, in effect, magic is everywhere, we’re touching at the theme. In a handful of dust “You see not the dust, but a mystery.” True enough–isn’t creation itself magical? And mysterious? (Later this message is repeated, with simply “life” as the miracle).

Fittingly, Lao’s carnival looks like a squatter’s camp from the outside, but is a labyrinth of wonders within. Translation: things aren’t as they appear. We could even take the set-up psychologically; inside of the person (the tent) are the more interesting soul and mind (the magical stuff). Angela notices that the place seems bigger on the inside. Metaphorically, of course, that’s true.

Lao plays both a good and bad witch. When the bad guys junk Cunningham’s press, Lao summons new machinery. Ultimately, Stark avails himself of Zeus’s services; at that point, we know that the jerk is weakening. Indeed, Stark’s takeover plan is soundly defeated; Stark admits (thanks to Lao) that he ‘wins by losing.’

Ironically, he touts the coming of the railroad as a boon for everyone. True enough, but doesn’t that bring a whole new set of problems? Meanwhile, a couple of die-hard bad guys, their boss defanged, figure to bring down Lao. An instantly-appearing dragon wards them off; it grows before our eyes into a city-destroying monster. It continues morphing, sprouting the seven heads (faces) of Lao.

What a climax! Even Lao is in danger until a rainstorm reduces the monster to the little lizard it grew from. Very weirdly, Lao uses a rainmaking machine to summon that–with its flurry of fireworks. Maybe that device ties into the flim-flam culture of the time, or we can see it as a sort of last-ditch reserve element in Lao’s otherwise spiritual arsenal.

Forgot to mention the Ed/Angela romance. With the beguiling Eden, it can’t but be noticeable. In any case, although it’s clearly a tacked-on subplot, it doesn’t get in the way. Naturally, after much hesitation, Angela ends up in his arms.

Despite his masterful performance, a somewhat thorny issue is the casting of Randall as Lao. Couldn’t we have an Asian guy in Lao’s role? For that matter, why should the magician be Chinese anyway? Sure, it’s superficially more exotic, but, in that case, how about a Mexican or Native American (nothing out of the ordinary for 1900 Arizona)? With all that said, the movie works because of him; he just can’t not entertain.

This is fantasy in the truest sense. Filtered a bit through the period lens, and branching off into (often hilarious) satire, The Seven Faces is light-hearted escapism which nonetheless contains a great deal of cautionary wisdom. Highly recommended . 9/10.