Monday, May 28, 2012

Capsule Review: Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East ends with Anna, our consistently abused main character played by the luminous Lillian Gish, floating helplessly on a chunk of ice while heading towards a roaring waterfall and her almost certain doom. The sequence ranks among the best D.W. Griffith ever filmed, with the cross-cutting between Anna's chilly fate and the gallant David (played by Broken Blossoms' Richard Barthelmess) desperately searching for her making for an exciting, unforgettable climax. The rest of the film is fairly standard, though well-executed, melodrama featuring Gish's Anna being tricked into a fake marriage by the dastardly Lennox Sanderson (a slimy Lowell Sherman) and being ostracized and shamed for bearing a fatherless child. It's presented as a condemnation of unfaithful men as well as a tribute to the patience of women, and was based on a popular turn of the century play by William A. Brady. The silent film was later re-made in 1935, featuring Henry Fonda as David and Rochelle Hudson in the Anna role.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Capsule Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

As extensively analyzed and beloved as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, it's easy to forget just how overwhelming the jagged, expressionistic visual  must have been to the audiences of the early 1920s. Fueled by two great performances - Conrad Veidt as the somnambulist Cesare and Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari - the film's erratic pace can sometimes make for a frustrating viewing experience, but the twist ending - a controversial decision at the time - still holds some surprises for those used to more tame silent fare. Friedrich FehĂ©r's acting is wildly over the top, but perhaps the gesticulating might have been necessary to be noticed when next to a towering, ghostly sleepwalker or the bug-eyed, troll-like doctor. Notable for introducing flashbacks within flashbacks into the language of cinema, and creating a tale that was endlessly imitated by the monster movies of the  following 30 years. It's also been remade several times, including as recently as 1995 (with Doug Jones as Cesare), but none can equal the impact of the German original.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Capsule Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

The ambitions of the character of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy are not so far off from that of any determined young man, he just happens to have the viciousness (and occasional rage) to pull it all off. His rise through the crime world happens naturally, though starts with a (literal) bang with the murder of a police officer. James Cagney imbues the role with a wiry, searing energy that so dwarfs his co-stars - Edward Woods in particular - that he nearly overwhelms the picture. You can't take your eyes off of him. He's the whole show here, though the pre-code material still feels quite risque if you're only used to the more sedate crime pictures of the 40s. The plot holds few surprises, particularly if you've seen the thematically similar Little Caesar from the same year, but created a frame which almost all future films featuring a character rising through the criminal underworld would follow. Some amazingly memorable moments - Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face, Cagney walking towards his possible doom in the pouring rain - are muted by the general predictability. Still, it remains supremely entertaining.