The Buccaneer (1958) Review

Director: Anthony Quinn

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the War of 1812, pirate leader Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) has to choose sides from between the United States and Great Britain in fighting near New Orleans. Anthony Quinn is best known as an actor, but this work finds him in the director’s chair. This is actually a remake of The Buccaneer (1938). Unfortunately, neither film is any good.

This is loosely based on a true story (Jean Lafitte was an actual high-seas brigand who became involved in the War of 1812), and Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) makes several appearances. There’s not really much worth reporting on the action front, as it’s pretty mediocre throughout. The movie contains a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, but don’t get your hopes up. It feels limited in scale and low in intensity. There are some nice pyrotechnics involving British rocket artillery, though.

The Buccaneer never feels all that authentic, with the whole production looking stagebound. A forgettable and undercooked romantic subplot turns out to be pretty important to the picture, with this melodramatic element dragging out the flick’s runtime, even after the Battle of New Orleans is over. The overall feature also feels a little too cutesy to be considered a hard-boiled war film.

So what goes right? Well, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is quite good. It’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Sorry, Anthony Quinn, this one’s a dud. I’ve seen worse, but I still can’t recommend it. Sure, it reunited Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner after The Ten Commandments (1956), but that’s not enough for me to enjoy it. If you do happen to watch this misfire, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Woody Strode, playing pirate Toro.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

The Double Man (1967) Review

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Double Man may not be as famous, action-oriented, or spectacular as the James Bond films of the 1960s, but I think that it can hold its own against them. Like the 007 movies, this is an adventure-thriller about a badass government agent trying to stop the baddies while in an exotic location. Here, CIA operative Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) travels to the Austrian Alps after learning that his son has died in a mysterious skiing accident there (the current plot synopsis on IMDb contains what could be considered spoilers, so avoid reading it if you want to go into this one blind).

I wouldn’t consider The Double Man to be an action flick, but there is some decent action in it once things start escalating. That being said, there’s a lot more footage of people running around, chasing each other, than actually fighting one another. Despite not having a lot of exciting physicality for most of the runtime, I find this to be an engaging motion picture that sticks the landing.

A big part of this feature’s charm comes from its intense leading man, Yul Brynner. You could think of him as a more stoic and less hedonistic version of the aforementioned James Bond. He’s dead-set on finding out what happened to his son and spends the entire movie giving people icy stares that could kill you if you make eye-contact with them. He does sort of engage in some stalker-ish behavior in one scene (not cool, Yul!).

The Double Man is not a wild thrill ride of an action-adventure film like the 007 flicks from around the same period, but I think it holds up just as well. It’s more focused and the main character has a more personal stake in the plot (something that the Bond flicks sometimes struggled with). If you’re a fan of Brynner (and why wouldn’t you be?), check this one out. Yul be glad that you did (pun!).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Producers (1967) Review

Director: Mel Brooks

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1967 version of The Producers was the directorial debut of popular comedy director Mel Brooks. It’s received a ton of praise over the years, which isn’t bad for his first film, but I’m less ecstatic about it. The plot is about Broadway musical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempting to put on the world’s worst, most offensive play as part of a money-making scam.

The ideas in this movie are hilarious on paper. The script that the main characters settle on for their intentionally horrible production is insane, and should’ve resulted in more laughs. Instead of laser-focused satire, the flick resorts to ultra-broad humor, typically oriented around people falling down, making silly faces at the camera, or screaming their dialogue. I adore senseless comedies like Airplane! (1980) and the The Naked Gun trilogy, but the high-jinks found in The Producers were frequently too easy and obvious, even for my preferences.

There are some decent jabs at the dark side of the American Dream here, but it’s not enough. The subject matter of the picture was once considered audacious, but, after decades of increasingly edgy and groundbreaking satire, it doesn’t quite have the same power that it did back in 1967. Some of the aghast faces of the audience members during the play’s first performance are still pretty funny, though.

This work only runs eighty-eight minutes, and it still feels too long. If you and I sat down and you explained this film’s premise to me, I’d probably think that it would be an out-of-the-parker for me. However, the execution just isn’t there. I’ll give The Producers some figurative points for its bizarre ideas, but it just can’t overcome the fact that too many of its sequences are about as funny as a funeral.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Love with the Proper Stranger was just one of three movies starring Steve McQueen to be released in 1963, and it’s the weakest of the trio. It also just so happens to be the second McQueen film to have both the words “Love” and “Stranger” in the title (the other being Never Love a Stranger [1958]). Anyway, the picture that this review concerns is about aspiring musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen), who is confronted by a woman named Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) who says that she’s carrying their child.

Maybe this just isn’t my type of movie, but I found it to be a bore and a chore to get through. Love with the Proper Stranger toys with some interesting topics, like some moral issues (that I won’t spoil here) and the importance of asserting one’s individuality, but it sinks into a mire of talkiness. I would also fault it for having a false climax or two.

“I don’t care what happens to these people” (referred to as the Eight Deadly Words by the website TV Tropes) is a saying that can stop a film dead in its tracks. This was the reaction that I had to this feature. For most of the runtime, I was pretty apathetic to the outcome of the plot. Like any bad flick, I just wanted the whole thing to end (at 102 minutes, it certainly could’ve been worse, though).

In my opinion, the Elmer Bernstein musical score is just about the only thing to go right in Love with the Proper Stranger. The critics thought differently at the time, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards (although it didn’t win any). I guess I’m in the minority on this call. I find little redeeming value here, so I’d say that you can safely skip this one unless you’re a Steve McQueen completionist.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Citizen Kane (1941) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In both the 1998 and 2007 editions of the American Film Institute’s lists of the greatest American movies of all time, Citizen Kane came in at number one. Can this motion picture possibly live up to the ecstatic levels of praise that’s heaped upon it? The plot of the flick in question is about reporters struggling to figure out the meaning of “Rosebud,” the last word spoken by dying newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles).

Citizen Kane is an interesting feature to review because of the near-universal acclaim it has received. It’s an unquestionably ostentatious and pretentious movie, but perhaps rightfully so. It’s surprisingly modern-feeling and undated by time, with various elements competing for the audience’s attention in some scenes. While the flick was intended to be a take-that aimed at William Randolph Hearst, it does sometimes feel like a brilliant tech demo searching for a compelling story. The film is a parade of one terrific use of cinematic technique after another, making the viewer wonder what trick the filmmakers are going to pull next. The story takes a backseat to all of this experimentation.

Citizen Kane is sometimes compared and contrasted with one of its rival movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood: Casablanca (1942). I have a hypothesis that moviegoers can largely be divided into two groups: Citizen Kane People (who adore certain films for the impact they have on the art of cinema as a whole) and Casablanca People (who love certain pictures for the impact that these works have on them as a person). Count me in as a Casablanca Person through and through.

Some modern viewers of Citizen Kane are left with the impression that it’s “dated.” I disagree. This feature probably never appealed to the normal filmgoer in the first place, even back in 1941 (it’s easy to appreciate, but nearly impossible to love). It’s mostly for hard-core cinephiles. We also need to put to rest the false notion that films were “proto-movies” prior to the release of Citizen Kane. One viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) will put that idea in its grave. Anyway, I’m going to give Kane a positive, but not euphoric score, as I enjoy it, but, as far as pictures I’d bring with me on a desert island go, this one’s not very high on the list. Hey, I’m a Casablanca Person. What do you expect?

My rating is 7 outta 10.