The Big Sick

I’ve been telling my film students for the last 20 years that they have been raised during one of the worst periods for romantic comedies in film history. I’ve encouraged them to pretty much ignore what passes for both comedy and romance in films made in their lifetimes, and to go back to the last years of the last century and the first couple of years of this one to find some good ones (though I still claim the best were from the ’30s and ‘40s). The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Billy Crystal days have some good offerings, as well as my personal favorite during that time—Notting Hill.

Now, finally, there is a romantic comedy that works. It shouldn’t—it has too may disparate elements, too many subplots, and a variety of acting styles. Yet it all holds together as one of the best romantic comedies in ages.

A warning to those hoping for a PG- or PG-13 film. This is essentially a PG-13 film with a number of f-bombs, especially in the first half, that have turned it into an R. If that’s a deal-breaker, avoid it.

For the rest of the viewing audience, this is (finally!) an intelligent, genuinely funny, genuinely touching film. Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow (but don’t let that dissuade you), the film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the script with wife Emily V. Gordon, who crafted a fictionalized version of their relationship (and its manifold cultural and family difficulties). The title is something of a spoiler, but the more serious aspects of the film bring both a real-world depth and a context for the humor, which veers from cute and delightful to breathtakingly outrageous.

The humor comes from a multitude of directions, starting with the flirty back-and forth between the two leads (the female lead, Emily, being the adorable Zoe Kazan). Stand-up figures in a great deal of the film, as the lead character is a developing stand-up comedian (also named Kumail). The semi-skewed, semi-snarky humor of the stand-up permeates the film, and provides the most cinematically significant marriage of stand-up and film language since the groundbreaking Annie Hall. Most films featuring stand-up comics merely shoehorn them into “funny” situations; here the humor arises from the comic perspectives that draw forth humor laughs and from any number of situations throughout the narrative. It’s what makes this film continually funny and unpredictable even through some rather conventional romantic stumbling blocks.

Perhaps the least expected but most valuable subplot involves the introduction of Emily’s parents, the powerful team of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They have reason to be hesitant about Kumail when “the big sick” occurs, but they bring their own quite hefty baggage with them. Hunter, as always, is a force of nature, and she more than convincingly portrays a woman who will not be denied. For those not paying attention the last few years, the big surprise is Ray Romano, who just as convincingly plays a father in pain and with a boatload of regrets. His comic skills are used at times, but much less than one might think. It’s the kind of surprise performance that in a weak year might be touted for Best Supporting Actor.

The film almost tries for too much, covering too many people’s stories and heading down too many side streets. But due to Nanjiani’s charm and Showalter’s sure directorial hand, the film holds together. Comically, this is a brave film in how far out on a limb it occasionally goes, but it doesn’t feel brave, just enjoyable. If you, like me, have been waiting a long time for a funny, heartfelt, fresh romantic comedy, your wait is over.

 

 

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The Shack

Things to get out of the way: Yes, it’s taken me this long to see The Shack. And yes, I started to read the book years ago, but was one of the few who never finished it. Plus, I’m posting this analysis/review on both my film page and my Christian writing page. For those who only know my Christian writings, I’m also a film professor. For those who only know my film writings, I’m a Christian and a pastor.

And yet another “full disclosure” issue: my brother Chris, a wonderful singer-songwriter, once had one of his CD’s promoted at the second printing (I believe) of the book as “the music of The Shack.” Unfortunately, things changed behind the scenes and the development of the film took another direction sans his music. But still, my brother is a close friend with one of the film’s producers, and I am acquainted with many a story about the writing of the book and its journey to the screen.

So with all that on the table, here we go:

As much as I would like to just look at the film as a film, and forget the book, it’s impossible to when the book was 1) so popular and 2) so very controversial, in so many ways. There were theological debates galore about the book (as there should have been), and it’s my pleasure to say that the film tends to minimize or even erase most of those problems.

The first successful decision was go all Wizard of Oz and to make the experience of the central character Mack (Sam Worthington) something that (spoiler alert) may or may not have occurred in reality, but certainly occurred when Mack was less than coherent. That immediately dampens most of the theological arguments by placing them in the context of one person’s singular dreams or imagination. Mack, a churchgoer if not yet a true believer, would have the necessary church background to have created the journey we see. So while the film takes him in the most painful and, for him, unwanted directions, it’s built upon who Mack is at the start.

Some of the controversy around the book was the decision to make Papa, the name of God the Father here, a black woman. We can only thank Papa that the rumored plans to make Oprah Winfrey the actress playing Papa were either false from the beginning or came to nothing. But the film explains why Papa is appearing to Mack that way, and it not only makes sense, it was deeply touching.

Making the Trinity visual by casting three separate people is a risk under the best of situations, but 1) it makes sense for Mack to experience God this way, and 2) it immediately creates a religious sense of mystery, which it tends to carry throughout, with only the occasional hiccup.

The film is a little too Hallmark Hall of Fame in look and style, and needed both a faster pace and a stronger hand in the editing process. But the slightly slower pace does allow for the most challenging ideas about God, sin, and pain to sink in. In fact, though it is nothing like it in style or feel, The Shack addresses more real questions about God’s relationship with the individual than any film I’ve seen since Diary of a Country Priest (1951). There are moments in the Narnia films and in Chariots of Fire that are insightful, but they are embedded in those films’ stories. Here, the truths about God and man are the story.

There are too many moments of wrenching sadness, hard questions, and the most profound spiritual insight to go into here; there are at least a couple of months of preaching material available for pastors. It’s clear that many secular writers who wrote about the film simply cannot connect with those moments, as these moments deal with issues that reside most deeply in the hearts of people of faith. It could be easy to dismiss those questions, those genuinely profound answers and the power behind them 1) if you think Christians are simply deluded by definition, and 2) because it’s easy to dismiss ideas that are presented in scenes that occasionally border on the over-sentimental or are visually candy-coated.

Perhaps the spoonful of cinematic sugar ended up making the medicine go down a bit more easily. The issues of the film include the most devastating of losses, the most brutal questions man asks of God, and the most deeply Biblical of answers to those questions. These answers challenge the characters, and us as viewers, to reject those answers as either facile or too hard to accept, or to open our hearts and minds to accept a deeper understanding of how this world operates with a sovereign and loving God. I must confess that there were no questions that Mack asked God that I haven’t asked God, and many of Papa’s answers are hard-won truths that I’ve received, but they were received over time and often with great struggling and dying to self. These are deeply personal and hard-won perspectives on self, sin, and God that have become real to me, and I can only smile a little at those critics that dismissed the more sublime exchanges between Mack and Papa as shallow or evasive. I found them often hard-hitting, and nearly always resonant and profound.

The casting is…interesting. I was a bit concerned about the casting of Octavia Spencer as Papa, as she is a good actress, but could fall into a pattern of big eyes, a set chin and a saucy attitude. She leaves all those behind here, however, and lets her ability to project kindness, sadness, and love just flow out of her easily and naturally. Avraham Aviv Alush as Jesus is alternately strong and delicate, but always loving and friendly. Only the model/actress Sumire is a weak link as the Holy Spirit. (Apparently modern concepts of diversity were called for here, as God is black, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern.) I’m not sure which is more difficult to portray—Father, Son or Holy Spirit. But as the Holy Spirit is the also-ran part of God for many Christians, the Holy Spirit characterization here is thin. Presenting the ethereal in a concrete art form such as film is always a challenge. So we’ll grant some grace and just agree that it remains a challenge.

Tim McGraw—I like you. I like your music. I love your marriage. I love that you have been in two of the most significant movies dealing with faith in the last several years—this and The Blind Side. You’re a presence, to be sure. But you’re still not an actor. I’m not sayin’ to stop. Just keep learning. ‘nuff said.

The casting of Sam Worthington was something of a mystery to me. Why him in particular? But it works surprisingly well. He often slips back into his Aussie accent, and he speaks too softly at times, swallowing his words and ends of sentences. But he has something of an Everyman persona that works perfectly here; another actor might have easily chewed the scenery beyond recognition—especially with what happens to his character. Another actor might have burned through the screen with a very specific persona, e.g., Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, James Franco. They all would have added an individual screen presence that might have made Mack’s experiences too individual, too specific to his character. Worthington is a more recessive screen presence, and what he goes through is more accessible to the viewer because he leaves enough blanks for us to fill in.

For those looking for points of error, there may be a little too much of a suggestion of universalism here, and a lack of specificity about the centrality of Jesus there. But overall, the film is surprisingly on the nose Biblically. If some of the scenes can’t bear the theological weight of too much pressing or expansion, perhaps it’s good to remember that Jesus’ parables generally had one major point to make, and to expand upon them or universalize them would be a error in Biblical exegesis.

The Shack is a parable, not a cinematic Bible study, and it’s presented as one man’s experience. Yet even within that context, its story is strong, its questions nakedly and powerfully direct, and most of the answers worthy of reception and reflection.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

The awkwardly titled newest entry in the Spider-Man series generally succeeds in rebooting the series, and turns into one of the most enjoyable—and funny—mainstream films of the year. There are pitfalls aplenty in rebooting a series so often in such a short timeframe, but this film avoids most of them, only falling apart at the end.

The newest Spider-Man, already introduced in Captain America: Civil War (apparently, Spider-Man liked colons), is played by superhero newcomer Tom Holland, 19 years young (and looking younger) at the time of shooting. Holland of course was hardly a newcomer to performing. He was one of the Billys in Billy Elliot the Musical in London’s West End, and has the dancing and gymnastic skills that add to his graceful action sequences. He was also in The Lost City of Z, In the Heart of the Sea, The Impossible, and TV’s Wolf Hall, among many other shows. But this is his first lead, and he carries the weight of the film on his small shoulders with ease. One critic described previous Spider-Man Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (then a real-life couple as well as a screen pair) as more adorable than a basket of puppies. That was true, but Holland has his own brand of cute and adorable, and the film builds easily around that trait.

This is a reboot that doesn’t just go back to a younger Spider-Man, but the youngest yet, and does so with a completely new attitude. Adding a best friend to Peter Parker (spoiler alert) who knows pretty much right off the top of the film that Peter is Spider-Man, adds a double dose of “I can’t believe I/you can do that” gee-whiz geek factor that is carried slightly too far, but which otherwise infuses the film with a joy of discovery that rejuvenates the entire idea of this superhero. There are also layers of discovery that keep adding life and joy throughout the film.

This Spider-Man focuses less on crime-fighting than on trying to figure out what being Spider-Man means when you’re a high school sophomore who lives with his aunt and has a crush on an older student. Oh, and of course, you’re a science and engineering nerd who is part of a competitive team going to nationals. So yes, there are lots of challenges in this coming-of-age story.

Michael Keaton plays Vulture, the villain of this entry. It was hard for this writer to erase his comic persona from my viewing of the film, but Keaton gives it everything he has. Unfortunately, Keaton’s film history aside from his persona gets in the way. He was Batman, then Birdman, and now wears the wings for a third time as the bad guy. Let’s hope for wingless performance soon.

Where the film falls apart is at the end, where the film’s innocence and sweetness gives way to the corporate mandate of a huge CGI battle. This trend seems to have begun to get out of hand in the Man of Steel battle between Superman and General Zod, and recently crammed its way into Wonder Woman, threatening to ruin the film. The tensions between Peter and Vulture build up unexpectedly and could easily have come to a head without the requisite (and by now, tired) attempt to destroy a city. Please, Marvel and DC, find another kind of climax—please!

What there isn’t enough of is Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei. The ending of the film indicates there might be more of her in the sequel. We can only hope—a film can’t have enough Marisa Tomei in it.

The film is a bit overstuffed, both with characters and plot points. But the main sparks work. One set of sparks is between Spider-Man and Iron-Man, who takes on a typically snarky but more paternal role with Peter, a connection that works surprisingly well with both characters. The other sparks are provided by Peter and his best friend and Peter and his classmates. This is where Holland is at his most vulnerable and sweet, and where he demonstrates his strongest ability to carry a film. He’s major star material.

There are a couple of surprises along the way, one being something of a shock/twist. Can’t say more, of course, except that it’s totally unexpected and yet makes sense as the film progresses.

This latest reboot has taken the series in a positive direction, exploring new attitudes of innocence and discovery, all hanging on the shoulders of a smart, endearing, and multi-talented young man. It may be the most enjoyable and entertaining of the series. It’s certainly a refreshing new beginning.

 

 

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The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade has always sat there on my “must-see” list, like a little thorn in my side. I knew I “should” see it, but its 2+ hours length and its age—released in 1925—always pushed it down the list until I would forget about it. It also starred John Gilbert, whose career famously fizzed out in the early sound film years, with him becoming something of a sad sack or joke, even being lampooned by Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.

Then the film appeared again on my horizon, and I made myself see it. So very glad I did. It was much more than I expected, and a marvelous experience in its own right.

The film checks a lot of boxes. It was the biggest hit of its year, and the most successful silent film of its time. It made a superstar out of John Gilbert, and provided the best context in which to judge his work. It was a studio–saving film for the young M-G-M, and it set the template for war films right up until today. But none of that really tells of its delights.

It’s a grand epic, for one, wonderfully balancing grand battles (WWI) with the personal story of a young and spoiled man who grows up, brutally, during the war. There is everything we have come to expect: a love story (or two), the bravery and fear found in battle (and even the PTSD that Hollywood forgot to cover for decades), and the horrors of war.

There’s a little work one has to do to appreciate the film. One is to look at the viewing of an old film as a trip to another place and another time. What many of us would give to travel to a faraway place, or to a whole other time in history! This is the mindset we need in watching silent films—a happy free trip to a different time and place. Silents aren’t constructed like sound films; they communicate almost solely in images, with the exception of the musical score and the occasional intertitle (surprisingly sparely used for such a long and complex film). It’s a whole other way of enjoying the film experience, but like sampling a new food, it can be a delicious departure from the usual.

The film starts off as a solid and well-made but typical silent, with a camera that doesn’t seem to move much, huge sets that seem like they were from the teens, comedy bits that go on way too long, and love scenes that border on the silly to a modern viewer. But then…there are two set pieces that lift this film way far above the other films of its time.

One is the (spoiler alert) mid-film separation of James (Gilbert) from his newfound French love (Renée Adorée) as he heads to battle. If you leave your modern experiences behind and give yourself over to the scene, you’ll be drawn into one of the most gut-wrenching and visually stunning separation sequences in film history. I watched in something like amazement as I saw the director take this into a cinematic realm I’ve rarely seen in a film—daring, beautiful, emotional. I thought the film couldn’t get any better.

Then the battle sequence began. Also daring, beautiful, and emotional, but in a completely different way. The reverse tracking shot that dominates the beginning of this sequence is extraordinary; we tend to forget how smooth the camera could be in the late silent era, and how imaginatively good directors could use it. Watching our three male leads walking toward the camera—with neither they nor the viewer knowing what might happen—creates a tension between narrative suspense and nearly distracting cinematic magnificence. Watching gunfire come from “behind” us, hitting those in the midground and background, was both exciting in film terms and awful to watch. These are the battle scenes that set the high bar for other films to try and attain. Director Vidor spends a lot of time literally in the trenches, yet not a moment is unnecessarily drawn out or wasted.

The last treasure I picked out was the acting. I admit that I put Gilbert in two places before this film—as the great sound failure, and as the lesser half of the famous Greta Garbo-John Gilbert pairings. Garbo went on to cinematic immortality; Gilbert went on to obscurity. So his acting here is a revelation, given one more shift in my ability to appreciate. Putting aside what his voice was like, or what may have been engineered during his early sound films to end his career, most critics now seem to think it was his inability to adjust his acting style (and to be honest, his lover persona) into sound films. Be that as it may, his work here is a master class of silent film acting, with all the expressions and gestures of that style. With that in mind, it was understandable why this film made him such a star. He was able to convey every emotion and nearly every thought with his toolbag of movements, large and small. The style would quickly fade just a few years later, but here it is in full form, and a near-perfect fit for that time’s film style.

Much more than a successful war film, or even a well-made one, The Big Parade is an epic with two set pieces that made my jaw drop in respect and complete artistic enjoyment. I haven’t been that artistically stirred in months.

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49th Parallel (AKA The Invaders)

49th Parallel is a propaganda film that doesn’t feel like one, though it is as potent as any persuasive film could be. (It was called The Invaders when first released in the U.S.) It’s also an unusual combination of star vehicle, travelogue, documentary, war movie and international intrigue. It’s an early World War II entry, made before U.S. involvement and determined to help bring that involvement about.

The story is fascinating: A German submarine makes its way into Canadian waters. The Germans send out a scouting party to the mainland when the submarine gets bombed into oblivion, leaving the group stranded and eager to head to the then-neutral U.S., located south of the—you guessed it—49th Parallel. Along the way, they kill, abuse, hide, and connect with various representatives of the free world. The film was clearly designed with a persuasive purpose, but never gets distracted from a riveting story. In fact, the various connections they make along the way not only highlight the differences between the ideologies of the Free World and the Third Reich, but they seem as close to organic as this kind of a film can get.

Along the way, the meet a lot of different kinds of Canadians, from Hutterites (a lovely and at times powerful sequence featuring a teenage Glynis Johns (who pulls off a convincing rebuke to the Germans) to French-Canadian trappers to festival-goers to campers enjoying the supposed safety of the Canadian wilderness. There’s a little speechifying along the way, but one by the inimitable Anton Walbrook as the Hutterite leader refusing to call the invading Germans “brother” in spite of their common nationality is a masterpiece of declaration and powerful acting. A lesser actor might have been undone by the length and complexity of the speech, but Walbrook makes his many words seem as if he’s both speaking extemporaneously while also drawing from a deep well of conviction. Its power is only increased by the fact that this dramatic rebuttal of the Nazi leader’s attempt at connection stays completely within the bounds of the story.

The film is gorgeous to look at—no surprise when it’s the work of David Lean’s most celebrated cinematographer Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). Lean himself was the editor, explaining how a film that was a long two hours for its time keeps moving without haste or sluggishness. The music is by first-timer (to a feature film) legendary composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Though British-but-playing-German-really-well Eric Portman’s Lieutenant Hirth is the real lead in terms of narrative, the film features three big names right at the beginning: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, and Raymond Massey. Olivier shows up in the beginning with an unusual performance as French-Canadian Johnnie, a trapper just returning to base after a year and finding out that Canada was indeed engaged in the war. His French accent is somewhere between eye-rolling and laughable, and he’s often over the top in his performance. But he may well have the best lines in the film, and he throws them about with at times hilarious abandon.

IMDB states that first-billed Leslie Howard doesn’t arrive until nearly an hour and a half into the film, and third-billed Raymond Massey doesn’t arrive until even later. Howard plays the apparently weak art enthusiast/intellectual who doesn’t take the war seriously because he thinks he’s somewhat above it and geographically far from it. It’s one of the film’s particular strengths that folks who think that the enemy couldn’t possible reach them end up finding them, shockingly and dangerously, right in their midst. Howard, of course, eventually proves his bravery.

Massey, a Canadian actor playing a Canadian for his only time, is also a bit over the top, but at least that is a reprieve from the stolid, grave style he developed later.

The film is more amusing at times than its plot makes it sound, and is more moving than intellectually ideological. As one who is partly Canadian and is familiar with Canada near the St. Lawrence River and Niagara Falls, it was enjoyable to see a film that begins and ends at those spots. (Spoiler alert—they never make it to the 49th Parallel.) Combining a variety of acting styles, a solid and intriguing story, occasionally breathtaking scenery, an occasional documentary feel, and boiling with passionate conviction mostly held below the narrative surface, 49th Parallel is a film unlike any other. Elements, themes, and actors may be compared with other films; this film combines them uniquely, and for those interested in war films, is a must-see.

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The Other “Gaslight” (British, 1940)

Most folks interested in classic Hollywood films know Gaslight, the 1944 melodrama that gave Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. Also the winner of the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White, it was a well-regarded, deftly crafted film that received nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay and Cinematography. (No nomination, however, for director George Cukor.)

Fewer know the British version of the play, made four years earlier, and which might have disappeared from film history if M-G-M had been successful in destroying all the copies. In our win-lose culture, the temptation might be to compare so as to decide which was “better, “ or which aspects of each film were “better” than its film companion. (Actually, there is a 1939 “telefilm” version of the West End production filmed before the BBC cameras, so this 1940 film version is the second version.)

There are no easy comparisons between the 1940 and 1944 films, though there are clear differences. The Hollywood version has higher production values—no surprise—and could be considered slicker both negatively and positively. The British version, though released in 1940, feels more like a mid-‘30s film. That may be because director Thorold Dickinson cut his teeth in the silent era, which may also account for the lovely camerawork that favored set and image over the admittedly strong performances.

Perhaps enjoying the differences between the plots, actors, and lead and supporting actresses is most fun. The earlier film quickly jumps into the story, and reveals what’s going on early. The second gives more backstory, and is more gradual in its revelations, adding suspense of a more Hitchcockian king. To say more would be to spoil the fun.

The male lead in the 1944 version is “swoon-worthy” idol Charles Boyer playing against type. The British lead is Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is best known as the lead/villain of the Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, but he was also featured in a much more sympathetic role in that directorial pair’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (He’s also well known for La Ronde, Lola Montès, and 49th Parallel.) Unlike these later performances, Walbrook here is nothing like the romantic Boyer, but is effete, cruel from the start, clipped, impatient, and nearly mustache-twirling. Boyer brings his charm to his version, which adds another level of complexity and enjoyment to the American version.

The female leads, of course, are where most comparisons might be made, and perhaps unfairly. Ingrid Bergman, after Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was an international star, and was the most radiant and beautiful screen sufferer since Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Winning the Oscar over Barbara Stanwyck’s classic performance in Double Indemnity demonstrated the respect for and interest in Bergman’s work here. In contrast to her almost florid exhibition of confusion and pain is the earlier work of her British counterpart Diana Wynyard, known as a star of the West End stage and the winner of a Best Actress nomination for 1933’s Cavalcade. Wynyard’s Bella is a smaller and perhaps more fragile character, but the performance is a marvel of small gestures and internalized disappointments and confusions.

Worthy of other enjoyed comparisons are the two housemaids. The British version takes a longer time to display the character of the pretty blonde, but (spoiler alert) the relationship she has with her boss becomes more blatant and adulterous (though modern audiences might have a hard time understanding her attraction to such a harsh and forbidding character, in spite of his money.) The American version is the young (17 years when she started the film) British actress Angela Lansbury, making her film debut. She won the first of her three Oscar nominations for her work here, and if viewers only know her from “Murder, She Wrote” or as the original singer of the song “Beauty and the Beast,” then find a way to see the 1944 film, followed by the original Manchurian Candidate. That should erase the memory of Jessica Fletcher or Mrs. Potts, or at least make room for a broader view of this woman’s great talent.

If you’ve seen and enjoyed the Hollywood version of Gaslight, you may have to work a little to just sit back and enjoy the British version. But if you see it as a companion piece rather than a film offering elements of competition, you’ll likely enjoy the experience. It’s not less or more, it’s just…different.

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Watch on the Rhine (1943) and In Which We Serve (1942)

My excursions into the films of Powell and Pressburger brought me back into the world of the 1940s, and specifically, World War II. My next film to see is 49th Parallel (also known as The Invaders in the U.S.), which won Pressburger his only Oscar and was Powell’s first outing as director working with Pressburger. But in the meantime, I’ve visited two other “classics” to see what all the excitement was about.

Watch on the Rhine always grabbed my interest because it won Best Actor for Paul Lukas, whom I knew little about and who won the award over Humphrey Bogart’s seminal work in Casablanca. I might have written that off as simply a fluke, except that Lukas also won the first Golden Globe as Best Actor (not a big deal), the National Board of Review Best Actor Award (you’ve got my attention), and the New York Film Critics Circle Award (OK, I’ll watch the film).

The film itself hasn’t aged well, to be kind. It’s based on a successful play by Lillian Hellman, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett. It looks and feels like a play, and a rather old and stodgy one at that. It’s overly talky and not well translated into a cinematic work. The words spilling out of the children’s mouths in particular are nearly painful—no one, no one talks like that, not even brilliant children with strong international backgrounds.

If you look it up, you’ll see Bette Davis’s picture and name strongly featured. She fought against the marketing angle, as her part is more supporting than anything, and she just wanted to be part of a strong anti-Nazi work. She’s fine, but is clearly leaning on her usual rhythms and clipped speech.

What is great is that central performance. Lukas is wonderful in a part that could have been dry and stuffy and arch and something like Raymond Massey became as he aged (think East of Eden and you’ll see what this could have been.) Lesser actors might have been overwhelmed by the lines the poor man has to say. But he (perhaps having perfected it on the stage) artfully internalizes the conflicts, and the words are believable. Yet even saying that, one must wonder if Lukas’ reputation as a stage actor, his admittedly fine work here, Bogart’s work that was all of a piece in a better film, and of course, the strong anti-Nazi message, all conspired to pile the awards onto Lukas. Other than revisiting the performance, now known primarily as the one that took Bogart’s award away, it’s not worth seeing the film. The film manages to raise a fascinating question about what is self-defense, which of course must have resonated more strongly before and in the early stages of the war. But aside from that question, which it tosses out but doesn’t develop, the film is businesslike, earnest to a fault, and to be honest, occasionally ridiculous. I’m glad I saw it, but will likely never spend the time watching it again.

What might be worth watching again was In Which We Serve, which I also watched because I had to fill in that gap. I had read about the film for years, knew that the legendary Noel Coward won a special Oscar for his work here, and I wanted to see the first film directed by David Lean. (It’s credited to Coward and Lean, but rumor has it that it was only a few weeks before Coward handed the duties entirely off to Lean.)

Unlike the “filmization” of Watch on the Rhine, In Which We Serve is an actual movie. It has a surprising three-part flashback structure, the camera becomes a part of the action instead of just showing it, and I can only assume that the tight rhythms of the film come from Lean, best known at that point in his career as the best editor in England (49th Parallel, Major Barbara and Pygmalion, among several others). And the cinematography was by future director Ronald Neame, with camerawork by the brilliant Guy Green.

The film moves, breathes and has more life in one scene than all of Watch on the Rhine, in spite of that film’s pertinent ideology. The story is king here, with three Brits of various ages and stations in life dealing with the (spoiler alert) sinking of their ship. It’s almost like a middle-of-the-war British version of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There’s excitement in the set-up, and energy in the action scenes. There’s also pathos (great at times) in the personal stories featured as well. Rousing and touching at the same time.

The film features a bravura performance from the relatively unknown Bernard Miles, a strong performance by the young John Mills (who would go on to do great work with Lean in the future) and a near-shocking performance by screenwriter, playwright, actor, singer, composer, and co-director Noel Coward. The shock isn’t that Coward could act, but that this effete writer of biting social comedies could pull off a believable performance as a seasoned naval officer. He does, and solidly. If you have a good eye, note the performance of a very young and nearly cherubic Richard Attenborough and a young Michael Wilding, still better known as Mr. Elizabeth Taylor #2. Better yet is the film debut of the great Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter).

It’s clear that Lean was ready to burst onto the film world as an accomplished director (Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago). The performances are solid, the camerawork is intelligent and artistic, and the film engages the viewer from the first image. Lean had clearly learned a few things from the Soviet directors and editors, as some of the images and a lot of the editing patterns reminded me of the best Soviet cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

There is a certain earthiness to many British films of the times, and a kind of raw inelegance. Between Coward’s script, his performance, and Lean’s direction, this film is nothing like that. The film combines these elements in a swiftly moving, strongly dramatic, visually exciting way. There’s little else like it in early 1940’s British cinema, and it stands up surprisingly strongly today. If you need to choose between Watch on the Rhine and In Which We Serve to satisfy your WWII itch, go with the latter.

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