You can Count on Porgy, Dillinger, and the Unbearable Bess

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Brain surgeon Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives a Bohemian lifestyle in Prague. He meets and romances a waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche) who moves in with him, but is confused by his multiple lovers, including Sabina.

When Sabina gets Tereza a job as a photographer, she inadvertently photographs Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and, realizing their importance, smuggles them to the west.

Sabina, Tomas, and Tereza flee to Switzerland where Sabina has an affair with a married professor in Geneva, but when he abandons his family for her, she ends the relationship. Unhappy, Tereza returns to Czechoslovakia and Tomas follows.

I’m a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis’s work, but this fell flat. I’m unclear if the film was arguing commitment and monogamy are useless and antiquated notions or trying to affirm them. It casts their various sexual escapades as protest against communist oppression, but then suddenly reinterprets them as selfishness. The movie wants to do and say so much, it winds up saying nothing.

You Can Count on Me (2000)

Desperate for money, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) temporarily moves in with his sister Sammy (Laura Linney) and her young son Rudy.

The three of them form a happy family until Terry takes Rudy to visit his biological father. When Rudy Sr. is dismissive of his son, Terry attacks him and Sammy is left to bail him out of jail.

Not long after this, Terry leaves, but the two siblings are more aware and accepting of each other. They may not live similar lives or have similar goals, but will respect each other’s decisions.

Kenneth Longeran’s debut film is a quirky, messy film about a dysfunctional family which resonates because of the incredible performances of Linney and Ruffalo amd Matthew Broderick, channeling his work in Election (1999), as Sammy’s demented boss and lover, Brian Everett. Linney is an underrated actress and one of the highlights of every film she’s in. Ruffalo has finally gotten some mainstream attention as Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Now You See Me (2013), but he’s more at home in small independent films like this.

Porgy and Bess (1959)

When drug addict Crown kills a man, he flees Catfish Row, a small fishing community in South Carolina.  Desperate for a place to stay, his girlfriend, Bess (Dorothy Dandridge) movies in with the crippled beggar Porgy (Sidney Poitier). They live an idyllic domestic life until Crown returns and rapes Bess when she refuses his advances. Later during a confrontation, Porgy kills Crown.

After this murder, the drug dealer Sportin’ Life (Sammy Davis Jr.) convinces Bess to leave with him. The film ends with the despondent Porgy pledging to find and bring her back.

Poitier would explode into super-stardom in the 1960s, becoming the most critically acclaimed black actor of the era. This movie propelled him to those heights.

Dorothy Dandridge was the first black woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for her work in Carmen Jones (1954). Poised to become a huge star, she let others influence what roles she would take and died in 1965 at the age of 42

The story of Samuel Goldwyn’s effort to bring this musical to the screen despite numerous setbacks would make a fascinating film.  He badgered the Gershwin estate for years before they allowed the film to proceed. He fired the first director, Rouben Mamolian, who had directed the original, commercially unsuccessful Broadway production. The film’s second director, Otto Preminger had a prior relationship with Dorothy Dandridge which contributed to the on-set tension. The Gershwins were opposed to casting Sammy Davis Jr., but immense pressure from Davis’s friend, including Frank Sinatra, forced Goldwyn to include him in the film. A fire during production ruined many of the sets and cuase a massive delay in filming. Many of the eras leading African-American actors were unwilling to star in the film because they felt it perpetuated stereotypes. Sadly, the film’s financial failure ended Goldwyn’s career.

The finished product is a fascinating look at black experience in early 20th century America. By adapting the tropes of Italian opera to a downtrodden and disrespected class of people, Gershwin makes the black experience in the United States universal, and by fusing classical musical concepts with jazz, he brought new respect to the genre.

Unfortunately, this important piece of American film, musical, and racial history is rarely seen because of lingering disagreements with the Gershwin estate.

Dillinger (1945)

This film chronicles the brief life of John Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney) who rose from humble origins to become public enemy no. 1.

Following his arrest for a small robbery, Dillinger befriended several more hardened criminals in prison and joined their gang after his release, but his insatiable ego lead him to take control of the group and kill its leader, Specs, who had served as his surrogate father in prison.

Eventually, Dillinger was located by police and shot coming out of movie theater in Chicago.

This is a decent movie about one of America’s most famous and mythologized mobsters, but by the mid 1940s, America’s fascination with mobsters was waning and Tierney doesn’t have the charisma of James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, who made us identify and root for the bad guy. This lack of emotional investment makes the film bland and forgettable. Dillinger’s notoriety deserves a better movie.


A Royal Resume

Despite her retirement from Hollywood at age 26 to become the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly was ranked the 13th greatest female film star by the American Film Institute.

Because she retired so young, her public image was frozen as a young, beautiful woman and her marriage into royalty created a unique mystique among American celebrities. Add a tragic and unexpected death, and you have a recipe for a legendary career.

This is my ranked list of her films.

High Society (1956)7) High Society (1956)

Successful jazz musician C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby) remains enamored with his ex-wife, socialite Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly), but she is about to marry George Kittredge. To complicate things even further, she develops feelings for Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) a tabloid newspaper reporter covering her wedding.

This musical film is based on Phillip Barry’s 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, which was adapted into a far superior 1940 non-musical film.

A  romantic love triangle is one thing, but a “romantic rectangle” rarely works because the person in the middle comes across as hopelessly indecisive, and a two-hour movie is not enough time to develop three independent relationships. Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant pulled it off, but this movie could not.

It’s fascinating to watch Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra share a screen and feels like a passing of the torch, although Bing was allegedly icy to Frank during the film’s production.

It’s a noble attempt, which boasts some fun Cole Porter music and a cool cameo by Louis Armstrong and his band, but ultimately it falls flat.

Mogambo (1953)6) Mogambo (1953)

Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (Ava Gardner) travels to a remote African outpost to meet her friend, but he doesn’t show up. While she waits for the next boat to return home, she meets big-game hunter Victor Marswell (Clark Gable) and married couple Donald and Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly). Both Linda and Honey Bear immediately fall in love with the charismatic Marswell.

Marswell is attracted to Linda, but when he realizes how much Don loves her, has a change of heart and concocts a plan to make her hate him with Honey Bear’s help.

Kelly does a fine job with what she’s given, but with no indication her marriage to Donald is unhappy, it’s difficult to understand why Linda falls for Marswell. We can only assume she was willing to throw away her marriage because he’s so unbelievably attractive.

John Ford directed a lot of good movies, but this remake of Red Dust (1932), also starring Gable, is not one of them.

To Catch a Thief (1955)5) To Catch a Thief (1955)

Former burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) comes out of retirement to clear his name when a copycat goes on a spree in the French Riviera.

He befriends wealthy socialite Jesse Stevens and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) anticipating they will be the next victims and exposes the real culprit, his friend and former associate Bertani with the help of his daughter Danielle.

Cary Grant is at his most charming as the unapologetic Robie who is nonetheless indignant anyone wouldn’t take him at his word he’s turned a new leaf.

The film sets up a false expectation Frances is involved in the crime, and much of its pleasure derives from defying those expectations. While Kelly is engaging in her final film with Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not the best pairing of the two legends.

High Noon (1952)4) High Noon (1952)

On the day Will Kane (Gary Cooper) retires as marshal of Hadleyville in the New Mexico Territory, he leans Frank Miller, a notorious criminal he arrested, was pardoned on a technicality and will arrive in town on the noon train to extract his revenge.

Kane stays in town to confront Miller despite the objections of his new Quaker wife Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly).  After unsuccessfully asking the townspeople for help, including his former deputy (Lloyd Bridges), he confronts Miller and his gang alone. Kane would have been killed, but his pacifist wife arrives in time to shoot one of the gang members and provide Kane with an opportunity to kill Miller.

The film is often seen as an allegory for the House Un-American Activities Committee, but this beautiful and honest film is more than a political allegory, brilliantly demonstrating how lonely doing the right thing can be. Everyone knows Kane is right, and everyone wants to believe they would make a similar choice, but most of us would hide or run, but a great man does the right thing in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Rear Window (1954)3) Rear Window (1954)

After breaking his leg, professional photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to his apartment and spends his days spying on his neighbors out the back window.  Observing their lives, he develops backstories for them; a dancer becomes “Miss Torso,” a solitary woman is renamed “Miss Lonelyheart.”

One night, Jeffries hears a woman scream and seeing Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) behave suspiciously, is convinced he murdered his bedridden wife. To prove his suspicions, Jeffries employs his much younger girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelley), and home-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). As they become his eyes ears, and legs, their danger becomes a vicarious thrill for him, until the investigation ends in a chilling confrontation.

Kelly doesn’t have a lot to do here but look pretty, but Stewart is excellent playing against his wholesome public persona as a sexually repressed voyeur.

The simple premise is augmented by some of Hitchcock’s most impressive cinematography. The camera sweeps from apartment to apartment like Fred Astaire, which obfuscates the invasion of privacy committed by Jeffries.

This is a brilliant movie about voyeurism and the way we create narratives to make sense of the world.

The Country Girl (1954)

2) The Country Girl (1954)

Despite opposition from the show’s producer, director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) casts fading star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) in his new musical. Dodd believes Elgin’s recent career slide is because of his wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly) but, since the death of their young son, Elgin has become an unreliable alcoholic.

As Dodd realizes the truth, and the extent of Georgie’s patient, loving support, he falls in love with her. After the show is a success, Dodd assumes Georgie will leave her husband and begin a life with him, but the faithful, long-suffering Georgie stays with her husband.

Any movie with William Holden is guaranteed to be better than average. From Sunset Boulevard (1950), to Sabrina (1954), to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), to Network (1976), he’s always the coolest guy in the room.

Bing Crosby is a long way from his work as Father Chuck O’Malley and Bob Hope’s sidekick. His willingness to play an unglamorous, washed up alcoholic adds a heightened poignancy to the film.

When Kelly defeated frontrunner Judy Garland for the Academy Award for Best Actress, there was a public outcry. Garland’s work as Esther Blodgett is one of the highlights of her incredible career, but this is a slightly better film, and Kelly’s work in it has been unfairly maligned because she defeated a sentimental favorite.

This is a beautiful film with much to say about grieving and loyalty. It’s one of the few films to demonstrate how difficult “happily every after” can be, portraying marriage as a grueling chore with no promise of anything but pain and misery. However, Georgie believes it’s worth the effort because for better or for worse means something to her, and despite her feelings for Dodd, she cannot abandon her vow.

Dial M for Murder (1954)1) Dial M for Murder (1954)

When Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair, he plots to have her killed.

Ray Milland won an Oscar for his work in The Lost Weekend (1945), but his career is best understood as a slightly more celebrated version of Ronald Reagan.

In one of her most astounding roles, Kelly transforms an adulterous, duplicitous woman into a sympathetic victim. On paper, we shouldn’t like Margot, but we do because of Kelly’s vulnerability.

Based on a play, this film’s claustrophobic production design adds another layer of tension.

I love this film because it is the purest Hitchcock: a betrayal, an intricate plan, a murder, and a beautiful blonde.  It’s certainly not profound and doesn’t offer any insight into the human condition, but these are not the prerequisites of greatness, sometimes being a well constructed thriller from one of the greatest directors is enough.

Heaven Knows When You’ve Been Unfaithful, Mr. X

Malcolm X (1992)

Minor criminal Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) was arrested for robbing the home of a wealthy white couple and sentenced to 8-10 years in prison because of his association with white women.  While in prison, he joined the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, and changed his name to Malcolm X. Naturally charismatic, he attracted attention and followers within the faith infuriating Muhammad and his followers. When Malcolm gave a controversial speech following the assassination of President Kennedy, Muhammad ostracized him.

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Best of the 1940s

His Girl Friday (1940)His Girl Friday (1940)

Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is an editor for The Morning Post.  His ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), was a star reporter for his paper, but quit when she got engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

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Welcome to the really Big Show

The Truman ShowThe Truman Show (1998)

As he turns 30, a series of events leads Truman Burbank to suspect everything is not as it seems and begin an investigation which leads to an unsettling discovery: he’s the unwitting star of a reality television show. His entire life has been filmed by hidden cameras and broadcast on a dedicated network.

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Dean’s List

Despite only appearing in three major films before his death at age 24, James Dean was ranked the 18th greatest male film star by the American Film Institute.

This is my ranked list of his films.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

3) Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Teenager Jim Stark (James Dean) moves to Los Angeles with his parents and befriends outcasts Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood). When bullies goad Jim into a game of chicken, it ends in a tragic accident, which, in turn, leads to a confrontation with police at the Griffith Observatory.

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Best of the 1990s

Postcards from the Edge (1990)Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) reluctantly moves in with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a star of musical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s, because studio executives demand she stay with a responsible party when she returns to work following a stint in a drug rehabilitation center.

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Best of the 1950s

Sunset Boulevard (1950)Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Faded silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) steadfastly believes she will regain her former glory and hires writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) to help with her planned comeback, but as the project drags on their relationship becomes dangerously complicated.

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