The Other Son

A- Middle East Culture Clash Drama

  • Written by Noam Fitoussi, Lorraine Levy, and Nathalie Saugeon
  • Directed by Lorraine Levy

It’s rare treat when I see a new film and have no idea how it’s going to end, and this French/Israeli co-production is just such a treat. As I watched it, I could see it ending in either tragic violence or hopeful reconciliation. Or, like West Side Story, in a combination of the two.

Don’t worry. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it disappointed me in its randomness. But The Other Son had very few other disappointments.

The plot could have been played for comedy (in fact it has been, in The Infidel), but Levy chose drama. Two families–one Israeli, the other Palestinian–discover that their 18-year-old sons were switched at birth. Everyone’s first inclination is to ignore the discovery–obviously, the son you raised is the son you love–but that isn’t so easy. Slowly, the two young men, their parents, and their siblings, draw together and become an extended family.

But it’s an extended family with a separation wall between them–literally and emotionally. The Palestinian-born Israeli son, Joseph (Jules Sitruk) can’t join the military, and is told by his rabbi that he isn’t Jewish. The Israeli-born Palestinian son, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), loses the respect of his political activist older brother Bilal (Mahmud Shalaby of Free Men). Both are terrified of the consequences of their friends and neighbors finding out.image

Over the course of the film, the two young men grow a bond, despite not only the cultural and political differences, but their very different characters. Joseph wants to be a professional singer and songwriter, yet he lacks the drive needed to make a living in that difficult business. Yacine, on the other hand, has just returned from a school in Paris, where he did very well on his way to becoming a doctor. There’s a bit of stereotyping here; the boy who didn’t know he was Jewish still grows up to be a doctor.

Speaking of stereotyping, The female characters in The Other Son are far more humanistic and far less stridently political than the men. It’s the mothers who insist on bringing the families together, and the fathers who resist.

Although The Other Son is set and shot in Israel, it’s actually a French production, and that shows. Joseph’s mother is a French Jew who migrated to Israel, and is played by the French actress Emmanuelle Devos. As I mentioned, Yacine studied in Paris. Since the families don’t speak each others’ native language, they communicate in a combination of French and English.

The Other Son doesn’t provide simple answers for the very complex Israel-Palestine conflict. But it does suggest that individuals can learn to get along.

What’s Screening: October 26 – November 1

The Chinese American Film Festival continues through Sunday, while French Cinema Now finishes on Monday. But Not Necessarily Noir keeps going through Halloween, and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival keeps going through the week and beyond. Finally, the Italian Film Festival pops up again for Saturday night.

But not everything is about a film festival. With one exception, every film I discuss below is Halloween oriented–or at least Halloween-appropriate. I’ll start with the exception:

A+ Taxi Driver, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. When I think of the 1970s as taxidriver1a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that Travis Bickle hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t want intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Columbia Pictures has recently restored Taxi Driver, and if the Blu-ray release (see my review) is any indication, a theatrical presentation should look fantastic.

Happy Halloween!

A Young Frankenstein, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks had youngfranktalent. And never more so than in 1974, when he made this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Frankenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. The best alien invasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not quite damning imagewith faint praise), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory. Of course, whether this tale of aliens taking over people’s identities is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy depends more on your politics than on the filmmakers’. Either way, it’s an effective thriller that has been copied many times but not equaled—despite the cuts and annoying narration added by the studio. The closing show in the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War.

B+ Halloween, Balboa, Tuesday and Wednesday, 10:00. In 1978, John Carpenter made a very good low-budget thriller that started a very bad genre: the slasher movie–also known as the dead teenager flick. In the original Halloween, an escaped psycho racks up a number of victims on the scariest night of the year. Yes, the story is absurd–the guy seems capable of getting into any place and sneaking up on anyone–but Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill take the time to let us know these particular teenagers, and that makes all the difference. By the time he goes after the mature, responsible one (Jamie Lee Curtis), you’re really scared.

B The Cabin in the Woods, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. And speaking of dead teenager movies…By the 21st century, the only way to approach this sort of story was to make itimage an ironic comment on the genre (like Scream). This time around, a group of corporate white collar workers control, watch, and bet on the fate of four teenagers who leave town for a weekend and find only horror. By showing us the kid’s suffering through the uncaring eyes of the office workers, filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon force us to confront the voyeuristic nature of the genre. But the movie’s ending just didn’t do it for me. On a double bill with House of 1,000 Corpses, which I neither have nor want to see.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Davies Symphony Hall, Tuesday, 7:00. I haven’t seen this seminal piece of German expressionism in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. With the early animated short, "The Cameraman’s Revenge." This is a San Francisco Symphony presentation, but the accompaniment will be solo, with Cameron Carpenter on the organ.

B- The Last Man on Earth, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. The first film version imageof Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend is also, I’ve been told, the closest to the book. But that doesn’t make it as good a movie as the most recent remake. This time around, Vincent Price is the one human being left in a world run over by mutant vampires. A low budget and unimaginative design hurt the thoughtful and moody story. But the wonderfully ironic ending saves the picture.

Creature Features: Target Earth, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 4:00. If you lived in the Bay Area in the ’70s and early ’80s, and liked to stay up late on Friday nights, you remember Channel 2’s Creature Features. Hosted by Bob Wilkins, it weekly presented a science fiction, fantasy, or horror movie of variable quality, along with trivia, interviews, and announcements about what was going on in the world of sci-fi. Here’s your chance to see a an actual 1976 episode, complete with the original commercials. The movie: Target Earth.

A Double Feature: Frankenstein & The Bride of Frankenstein, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the first film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s very little story in Frankenstein. On the other hand, the first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein,is a full work of art and the movie that earns this double bill an A. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in Whales’ masterpiece. Karloff plays the creature as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him.

Saviors in the Night

Here’s another “hold review” old review. I saw this drama at a press screening before the 2010 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. At the time, I was told that it would receive a full release sometime after the festival. So I wrote this review and held onto it. Now, after waiting more than two years for that release, I’m letting you read the review. Hopefully you’ll be able one day to see the film.

B   Holocaust drama.

I don’t envy any filmmaker who sets out to make yet another Holocaust drama. If there’s an angle to that huge atrocity that hasn’t been explored by other filmmakers—some of them brilliantly—I haven’t found it yet.

Neither, unfortunately, have director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters. Saviors in the Night is a respectable, well-made drama about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The art direction and characterization successfully place you in a rural, German farm community that, reeling under war deprivations and government propaganda, is still a tight-knit community where everybody knows and looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay.

But it has nothing new to say about either the Holocaust’s victims or the few gentiles willing to risk their lives to save a persecuted people.

The night before the Jews of his town will be shipped off, never to return, a Jewish horse dealer asks an old army friend (both earned the Iron Cross in World War I) toFeature hide his wife and young daughter. The friend, a farmer, accepts. Because the wife and child don’t look Jewish, and no one in the town knows them, they’re able to move about relatively freely, using false names and a made-up history (urban refugees weren’t unusual at that time, thanks to allied bombing of cities). The father, however, did business in the town and is easily recognized, and must find less comfortable hiding places.

The middle-aged town people, even those who consider themselves ardent Nazis, seem opposed to mass murder. Those not actively involved with hiding Jews are willing to turn a blind eye to those who are. The teenagers, on the other hand, are dangerous. They’ve been heavily indoctrinated since childhood, and view Jews as non-humans who should be destroyed—as should those who protect them.

But these teenagers are also just teenagers, flirting and fighting and eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure. They’re scary, but the filmmakers make you feel for them. Not surprisingly, they’re the most interesting characters in the film.

Perhaps that’s why Europa, Europa, which was almost entirely about teenagers, was a better film.

Saviors in the Night has its share of clumsy moments. The music score has an annoying way of telling you that you should be scared. Two characters come bursting through a door laughing with joy, so you know they’re about to get some really bad news. The only character who really changes does so much too quickly.

But it has strong moments, too. There’s the mental toll of hiding in an attic for months on end with nothing to do, the terrifying moment of accidental revelation, the constant fear, and the frightening possibility that something could go horribly wrong after the Americans arrive.

Saviors in the Night was based on a true story. So were Europa, Europa, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist. This picture not only stands on the shoulders of the real people whose story it visualizes; it also stands on the shoulders of better films.

Love, Friendship, Aging, and Playing by the Rules: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy through four decades, from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Along the way, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–the same team that created The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus–provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier, a patriot, a young man, an old man, and a decent human being.

Shot in three-strip Technicolor at the height of World War II, in a bombed-out London, Blimp’s very existence seems impressive. The story centers on a foolish British officer whose best friend–sometimes playing the voice of reason–is German. Winston Churchill did not approve. Yet it was made, on a large budget, with a running time of nearly three hours.

My wife and I caught The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Friday night at the Rafael. The film has recently undergone a major 4k digital restoration, and it looks gorgeous. This picture belongs on the big screen, and you have two more opportunities to see it that way this week.

The title seems misleading–at least if you don’t know the historical context. After all, the central character’s name is Wynne-Candy, not Blimp. And while he may have been a colonel at one point in his career, we only see him as a lieutenant and and as a general. What’s more (mild spoiler), he’s still alive at the end. The explanation: Colonel Blimp was a popular cartoon character of the time, a parody of a certain type of fat, old-fashioned, mustached British officer who couldn’t adjust to the changing times.

And Wynne-Candy is definitely a Colonel Blimp type when we first meet him in the filmmaker’s present day of 1942. Woken from a nap in a Turkish bath, he’s a ridiculous figure–pompous, full of himself, and horrified and angry at a young officer who has shown initiative.

Then the flashback–which takes most of the film’s runtime–begins. We meet the young Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey, who also plays the middle-aged and old Wynne-Candy in very convincing makeup), on leave after winning a medal in the Boer War. He ends up in Germany, where he fights a comically formal duel, and befriends a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). War, peace, and the rise of fascism will separate them and bring them back together.

Rounding out the triangle–or perhaps the pentagon–is Deborah Kerr, playing three identical-looking yet very different young women who enter into these two men’s lives. My wife suggested an interesting reason for casting the same actress in all three roles: Every beautiful woman Wynne-Candy sees reminds him of his first love.

Despite Churchill’s initial objections, this is a very British, and pro-British film. It tells us that England should be proud that it won the Boer War and World War I without resorting to the dirty tricks of the enemy (in reality, the Brits committed their own atrocities in those wars). It also argues that the new war is different, and that we must use Nazi tactics to defeat the Nazis.

But don’t mistake Colonel Blimp for simple wartime propaganda. The characters and moral issues are too complex for that. Powell and Pressburger allow various views to be heard and considered. Besides, the story is about people, not ideas.

The filmmakers don’t use Technicolor here as creatively as they would later (see my comments on The Red Shoes), but they use it effectively. The colors pop, adding a brightness to what might otherwise have been a dreary story. Occasionally, it’s used atmospherically to convey the feel of a battleground or a dimly-lit home. Powell and Pressburger seldom distract us with technical dazzle, but every setup counts. And they found some very creative ways to tell us about the years passing by.

The Rafael is screening Colonel Blimp digitally off a DCP. Some people would object. I don’t. Sure, I would have rather seen the original, nitrate, dye-transfer print in Martin Scorsese’s private collection, but that’s not really a practical option. I seriously doubt that a new print–whether or not is was made off the new restoration–would look as good as this DCP. I’m sure it would not look better.

I saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp once before, on TV, and based on that experience I gave it an A. Now that I’ve seen it restored on the big screen, I’m promoting it to a rare A+.

You have two more chances to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp this week at the Rafael: Sunday at 2:30, and Tuesday, at 7:00. Miss them, and you may have to do with home video.

What’s Screening: October 19 – 25

The Mill Valley Film Festival is over, but both the Petaluma Int’l Film Festival and Not Necessarily Noir open tonight. I only just found out about the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which opens Saturday. And French Cinema Now opens its brief run on Thursday.

B The House I Live In, Kabuki, Shattuck, opens Friday. In Eugene Jarecki’s sobering and extremely opinionated documentary about the War on Drugs, we hear from dealers, addicts, prisoners, cops, historians,and prison guards. They’re all sick and tired of this self-perpetuating status quo. Cops are judged by how many arrests they make. Mandatory sentencing laws force judges to put people away for decades. Ex-cons can’t get legal work. And no politician would dare open themselves up to charges of being soft on crime. In traditional agitprop fashion, Jarecki takes a clear stand and lines up his interviews and images to support that stand (which I agree with, by the way). But there’s nothing cinematically exceptional about this doc, which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Read my full review. Filmmaker Q&A Friday at the Kabuki and Saturday at the Shattuck.

A The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Rafael, Friday & Tuesday, 7:00; Sunday, 2:30. Here’s a rare treat: a great Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger epic from 1943 that life_death_colonel_blimpseldom screens in the Bay Area. It follows the career of a British army officer through three wars and the peaces in between. We meet the women in his life, all curiously played by Deborah Kerr, and watch his close friendship with a German officer who is sometimes his enemy. Powell and Pressburger tell the tale in flashback, allowing us to meet the protagonist as a fat, pompous, and rather silly old man before we see the dashing young soldier he once was. Shot in three-strip Technicolor when that was still something special. The film has been recently restored

A- Beasts of the Southern Wild, Castro, Tuesday. How often does this happen. An unknown American director makes his first feature, with a cast of non-actors, imageand it turns out to be magical, joyful, frightening, thoughtful, and unlike any other movie ever made–and it gets wide distribution. Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a young girl living on a tiny, poverty-stricken island off the coast of Louisiana. She has no mother to speak of, her father’s health is deteriorating, and global warming is destroying the island, called The Bathtub. And let’s not forget the strange and scary creatures, released from a melting glacier, who are swimming south to confront her. The whole film unfolds like a dream, sometimes wonderful and sometimes nightmarish, with the real world occasionally peaking through. On a double bill with the Neil Young doc Journeys.

A Psycho (1960 version), United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing to make a low-budget movie in black and white.

A Double Feature: Frankenstein & The Bride of Frankenstein, a great many theaters, Wednesday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s very little story in Frankenstein. On the other hand, the first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is a full work of art and the movie that earns this double bill an A. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in Whales’masterpiece. Karloff plays the creature as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. In addition to this double bill,  Frankenstein  will screen on its own at the Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00.

B+ Under African Skies, Boulevard Cinemas, Petaluma, Saturday, 10:10. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which covers the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many other such documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end. Part of the Petaluma Int’l Film Festival.

B+ Fight Club, Castro, Wednesday. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history. On a double bill with Cosmopolis.

Reservoir Dogs, Roxie, Friday. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, so I won’t give it grade. I remember being shocked, grossed out, and disgusted, as well as thoroughly entertained. On a double bill with Day of the Wolves, as part of the Not Necessarily Noir festival.

C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart, Camera 12, Sunday, 5:00. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by hisThe Day I Saw Your Heart much younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her ex-boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition.The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately well as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions. Part of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

C Side By Side, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30; Sunday, 2:00. How do today’s leading filmmakers feel about the seemingly inevitable transition from a photochemical, film-based cinema to a digital one? Short answer: Many have enthusiastically embraced digital cinema, and the rest accept that physical film’s days are numbered. For most of this doc’s runtime, narrator/producer Keanu Reeves interviews high-profile directors and cinematographers, along with a few editors, timers, and technicians, as they discuss the current revolution. The film gives room to people on both sides of controversy (in other words, George Lucas and Christopher Nolan), but the picture seems weighted in favor of going digital. Concentrating almost entirely on the issue of how movies are shot,  it completely ignores the many problems and controversies arising from the move to digital projection. Read my full review.

The House I Live In

B Documentary

  • Directed by Eugene Jarecki

The United States has 5% of the world population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners. African Americans make up 13% of the country’s population, and an estimated 13% of its drug users, yet 90% of those jailed for non-violent drug offenses are black.

Those are just some of the unsettling statistics in Eugene Jarecki’s sobering and extremely opinionated documentary on the War on Drugs, The House I Live In. And statistics aren’t half of the story. We also hear from dealers, addicts, prisoners, cops, historians,and prison guards, all of whom are sick and tired of a "war" that has cost the American people over a trillion dollars and has done far more harm than the drugs, themselves. We also get to know the maid and nanny who helped raise Jarecki, and listen to an excellent overview of the problem by The Wire‘s David Simon.

Make no mistake about it: This is a major American problem, and one that’s set up to be self-perpetuating. Cops are judged by how many arrests they make, and the easiest way to arrest people is to sweep through a poor minority neighborhood and search anyone who looks suspicious. Mandatory sentencing laws force judges to put people away for decades, and thus feed an industrial prison complex that many small towns and big companies depend on economically. When the prisoners get out, their officially banned from public housing and effectively banned from getting a job, so they go back to dealing–or using–drugs. And no politician would dare open themselves up to charges of being soft on crime.

image

But I’m here to tell you about a movie, not a social problem.

No reasonable person could possibly call The House I Live In unbiased. In traditional agitprop fashion, Jarecki takes a clear stand and lines up his interviews and images to support that stand. The other side’s arguments are simply not considered. I’m giving this film a B because the film is reasonably well made, Jarecki’s argument is strong, and one that I believe in (hey, I get to be biased, too). But I won’t pretend that there is nuance here.

When I call the film "reasonably well made," I mean that it’s briskly edited, seldom boring, and that many of the interviews reveal the humanity of the subjects. But  nothing in Jarecki ‘s technique stands out. You won’t find the humanity of  Werner Herzog or the historical perspective of Ken Burns. Or the humor that makes Michael Moore’s equally biased docs so entertaining.

A bigger problem: The House I Live In leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Jarecki points out that drug use hasn’t gone down since the "war" officially began in 1971, but he doesn’t ask anyone if drug use might have gone up without the war. Nor does he examine how other advanced democracies manage the same problems without our huge incarceration numbers. At no point does he point his camera at a law-and-order politician and get his (or her) side of the story.

Jarecki only seems interested in his side of the story. He wants you to agree with him and hopefully become an activist for the cause. It’s a worthwhile cause, but the result is a limited movie.

The title, a metaphor for America, comes from a left-wing patriotic song written during World War II. Paul Robeson’s recording of the song plays during the closing credits.

Anti-Commie Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

I visited the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to catch two very different films, both from 1953,  and both part of the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War. The first, Invaders from Mars, was all sorts of fun in ways that the filmmakers never intended. The second, Pickup on South Street, instantly became one of my all-time favorite noirs.

My big question: Why show the films in that order? Certainly the taut and thoughtful thriller should screen before the unintentionally hilarious sci-fi absurdity.

Invaders from Mars

I first saw this film, in a 16mm print, at  Gary Warne’s fabled Circus of the Soul bookstore. That must have been around 1977. I believe it was part of a series that Gary called It Came From Beneath the Budget. It was laughably bad then, and still is now.

It was directed by the great production designer William Cameron Menzies (Thief of Bagdad, Gone with the Wind). He should have stuck with production design. The acting is bad, the script is worse, and everything looks appallingly cheap. It cries out for MST3K treatment.

Invaders from Mars is one of those movies where aliens take over people’s bodies for their evil plans. This sub-genre produced one really good movie: the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that one,  the possessed characters continue to act as if nothing has changed. When a spouse or child insists that their loved one isn’t him- or herself, you can easily believe that no one else notices a difference. But in Invaders, you sit there wondering why everyone isn’t asking "How come he’s suddenly an asshole?"

By the way, the Martians aren’t really trying to invade. They’re attacking select people working on a top secret weapon that could one day attack Mars. In other words, they’re acting in self-defense, and much like the American and Israeli intelligent forces who (most people suspect) have been sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program and assassinating their scientists.

The film was not, as I had recalled, shot in three-strip Technicolor, but in a cheaper two-color system called Cinecolor. The PFA screened a horrible-looking, scratched and soft 35mm print.

Pickup on South Street

Wow! What a difference. From a mess to a masterpiece.

Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (whose autobiography I’m currently reading), this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts the wrong wallet on a crowded subway. The wallet, belonging to a beautiful young woman(Jean Peters) contains a piece of microfilm with important government secrets. She has no idea that the people to whom she was supposed to deliver the microfilm are Communist agents. The US government, of course, is also after this valuable piece of celluloid.

Before he came to Hollywood, Fuller spent many years as a reporter on the city crime beat. He knew the underworld. He successfully wrote crime fiction before turning to screenwriting and from there to direction. It’s no surprise that his dialog crackles with both wit and authenticity.

In Pickup, he handles violence as well as dialog. If you’re used to today’s heavily cut action scenes, the fights in this picture are a revelation. Shot in long takes that leave no doubt that the stars took some punishment, the scenes have an immediate impact that doesn’t exist today.

And then there’s the great Thelma Ritter (the nurse in Rear Window). I’ve seen her mostly in comic roles, but here she breaks your heart as a poverty-stricken spinster who sells ties on the streets and information to the cops. She’s saving money for the only thing left she can look forward to: a nice funeral.

Pickup is clearly an anti-Communist picture, but it wasn’t anti-Communist enough for many conservatives of its day. They objected to a protagonist (the word hero doesn’t seem applicable) who’s not at all patriotic, but simply looking out for himself.

By the way, none of the bad guys have foreign accents; they’re all clearly Americans. The film never explains if they’re truly Communists, or just in it for the money.

The whole picture is damn near perfect.

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