Category Archives: 1944 Movie reviews

Lifeboat-1944

Lifeboat-1944

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak

Scott’s Review #1,020

Reviewed May 6, 2020

Grade: A-

Alfred Hitchcock, well-known for big, bouncy, suspenseful productions, creates a stripped-down, intimate story of adventures while adrift on a survival boat, leaving plenty of tension and peril. Lifeboat (1944), now teetering on extinction from memory save for fans of the director, deserves appreciation and respect for the brilliant direction and wonderful cinematography alone. The film was met with controversy and some derision for sympathetic depictions of a German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) amid the horrors of World War II.

Events begin in the middle of calm Atlantic Oceanic waters after a dastardly battle results in a German U-boat and a British/American ship sinking each other, leaving fewer than a dozen civilians and service members to survive in one lifeboat. The snooty and glamorous columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), clad in the finest fur coat around, is irritated by a run in her stocking, a travesty in her mind. She is slowly joined by other survivors including a young British woman with a dead baby, a steward, a U.S. Army nurse (Mary Anderson), a wealthy entrepreneur, and other people from most walks of life.

Lifeboat plays out like a more cerebral version of a disaster film. Think- a smart man’s version of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which is said with love since it’s one of my favorite films. But with Lifeboat, there is a darkness and a sadness missing from 1970’s disaster films that were more lightweight. The black-and-white camerawork helps tremendously as does the mist, the rain, and even the strong beating sun. The weather elements play an important role and are characters themselves.

Speaking of characters, the individuals are plentiful and diverse, ranging from British, American, Black, German, wealthy and working-class, to eventually dead and alive with a gruesome leg amputation taking place mid-stream. Each is well-written, exhibiting fear, bravery, and suspicion of the other’s motivations, especially the German captain who communicates in native tongue with Connie, causing conjecture among the other survivors.

Events would hardly be complete without a good melodramatic romance and such is the treat to see two formulate. Connie and handsome John (John Hodiak) share a love/hate relationship, clearly from opposite backgrounds, while the more stable Alice and Stanley (Hume Cronyn) even decide to marry! Genteel Alice reveals a marriage and an affair to Stanley uncovering layers and a complexity to the character.

My favorite character is Connie, and Bankhead is a pure delight in the bitchy, no-nonsense role. She enshrouds the camera from the first scene. Reminiscent of Bette Davis, the actress has a similar composure, stance, and trademark cigarette, but slowly reveals her insecurities and desperation. What fun she is to watch!

A tender and poignant scene occurs at the end of the film and is lovely to witness especially given the tumultuous time of the mid 1940’s. A drifting young German soldier attempts to board and shoot at the survivors but is apprehended. Disputes occur, but instead of shooting or casting the lad over board to drown, he is saved and presumably provided food and water. He inquires why they don’t kill him? The message is powerful and anti-war.

The direction methods are brilliant, looking as realistic as anything could in 1940’s cinema where CGI was decades away. Hitchcock had me fooled as I bought lock, stock, and barrel that the lifeboat was in the middle of rough and murky waters instead of a Hollywood studio tub. The creative method of getting so many characters into one shot wonderfully and effectively provides a claustrophobic feel as the lack of food and drinking water causes hysteria and emotion. The one-set approach is marvelous and perfect for the film’s specific story line.

After decades of underexposure and playing second or third fiddle to other Hitchcock masterpieces, Lifeboat (1944) is finally getting a bit of notice and acclaim. Here’s to hoping the trend will continue as the film contains enough frights and perils to keep anyone guessing which characters will sink and which will swim. Perhaps not the best watch on a cruise ship or other watery surfaces, the escapade will delight most fans of classic black-and-white thrill cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director- Alfred Hitchcock, Best Original Story, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White

Double Indemnity-1944

Double Indemnity-1944

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

Scott’s Review #847

Reviewed December 26, 2018

Grade: A

Double Indemnity (1944) epitomizes the classic film noir genre in perfect fashion. All the necessary elements exist, from intrigue, suspense and unpredictable thrills, to schemes and dastardly deeds by the major players. The on-screen chemistry between leads MacMurray and Stanwyck provide enough romantic flair and provocative moments to entertain all as developments progress when a smitten man meets a femme fatale and a devious plot is hatched.

Director Billy Wilder was one of the most influential directors of his day with this picture being his first effort resulting in fabulous critical acclaim. The accolades put him firmly on the map for years to come culminating in an Oscar win in 1950 for The Apartment. Wilder uses a clever insurance “double indemnity” clause as its title making it one of the best and most influential crime dramas of the 1940’s staking ground for other similarly themed films.

The story is told via flashbacks as a wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) scrambles to record a confession to his colleague and best friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The action rewinds to an average, ordinary day when Neff makes a routine stop to sell insurance and meets flirtatious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She brazenly inquires how she ought to go about taking out an insurance policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge. When Neff deduces Phyllis intends to kill her husband he declines any further help but cannot forget the ravishing beauty and her charms. He ultimately succumbs to her whims and aids her in a wicked crime.

The adventure that the audience is taken on is the most fun aspect of the film. We already deduce that Neff is involved in shenanigans but most of the fun occurs after the murder has been committed and Phyllis and Neff’s scheme begins to unravel. The added component of Neff’s colleague and close friend, Keyes, being in the mix as he starts to suspect foul play is equally compelling. Will he finally figure out that Neff is involved in the plot? Will Keyes cover for Neff if discovered? Will Phyllis’s past-history catch up with her and twist events in a different direction? These questions make the film a great picture.

A debate among viewers can ensue as to whether Neff is sympathetic or not as this point continues to cross my mind with each viewing. One can safely say that he is seduced by the charms of an eager and aggressive woman, but if he is to blame for the crimes is she not even more to blame? As events unfold sides can be drawn and defenses of character’s can be more focused particularly after Double Indemnity’s startling conclusion.

Neff is not a strong, heroic character and is rather weak, easily being manipulated by the cagey Phyllis. Interesting is how little time it takes for him to succumb to her plot and willingly do the crime for her. In the final act Neff does show some needed muscle, but this is only because his “goose is cooked” and he finally realizes the dire nature of Phyllis’s character, but shouldn’t he have discovered this sooner?

MacMurray and Stanwyck have smoldering chemistry and this is a major success of the film keeping the audience invested in the plot. The added measure of the murder victim being rather unknown to the audience adds a macabre rooting value to the pair. Wilder never presents the plot as a romantic triangle or Neff and Phyllis having any other romantic entanglements, so the only roadblock is the insurance company and their suspicions surrounding Phyllis.

Wilder adapted the screenplay from James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and spins a potent film noir from these pages. Double Indemnity (1944) is intelligent, sexy, and mysterious mixing in as much sultry poise as witty dialogue. Thanks to the allure of fine actors and a stunning adventure on a train, the film is a measured success and a highly influential cinematic story.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director-Billy Wilder, Best Actress-Barbara Stanwyck, Best Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Director-Vincente Minnelli 

Starring-Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien

Scott’s Review #845

Reviewed December 19, 2018

Grade: A

With talents such as Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland involved in a project it is tough for the results not to be resounding, and this is the case with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a treasured musical with enough songs and melodrama to last a lifetime. The film is a lively and earnest achievement from both stars when each was at their prime and the film rich with flavor containing a myriad of good touches.

Meet Me in St. Louis is really an ensemble piece featuring a bevy of actors, but the film belongs to Garland for the musical numbers alone. In fact, the film is groundbreaking in that it set the tone for the slew of MGM musicals to follow during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The film is considered one of the greatest and memorable musicals of all time and I certainly share this sentiment.

The story revolves around the upper-middle class Smith family and the setting is 1903 St. Louis. In lovely form the film is composed of seasonal vignettes taking place over the course of a year. Trials and tribulations erupt especially involving the romantic entanglements of eldest sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Garland) and the possibility of the family having to relocate to New York City. Along with the Smith parents, Rose and Esther are three other siblings, grandpa, and Katie the maid. The household is filled with glee, music, and heartbreak.

The seasonal setup the film chooses to showcase is a huge success and elicits a warm sensation. As the title card displays “Summer 1903” we are welcomed into a sunny and picturesque street amid the St. Louis backdrop, perfectly mid-western. The Smith home is showcased, and the viewer welcomed into an idyllic world of a bonded family. In this way Meet Me in St. Louis feels homespun and like a good best friend, able to be watched and re-watched many times over and during any season of the year as it offers a summer fair, a spooky Halloween sequence and a dazzling Christmastime segment.

Other than Esther, the most memorable and fascinating character is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). A mere six-years-old during filming O’Brien gives a startlingly good turn and packs emotional wallop enriching a character arguably interpreted as being obsessed with death with some needed humor. She buries her dolls on a dare throws flour in a man’s face on Halloween thereby “killing” him.  Her biggest scene though occurs during a melt-down when Tootie destroys her beloved snowmen in the family lawn. The actress portrays such rage and despair during this scene that is easy to forget how young she was. She was rewarded for her efforts with an honorary Oscar.

The musical numbers by Garland are absolute treasures. Highlights include “The Trolley Song” performed as Esther rides the afternoon trolley across town hoping that the boy next door whom she is madly in love with, John (Tom Drake), will be on the same trolley. The gorgeously performed number “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite.  Following a lavish Christmas Eve ball Esther sings the song to Tootie and nestled within its lyrics are emotions such as hope and sadness.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is a film that has it all and can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. With memorable musical numbers, romance, drama, and a wholesome, timeless sensibility, the film is a beloved favorite to be dusted off from time to time. Like the finest of wines this film gets better and better with age.

Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Song-“The Trolley Song”, Best Cinematography, Color