#210 West Side Story

Watched: December 16 2018

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland

Year: 1961

Runtime: 2h 33min

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New York City, some time in the 1950s. The Jets, possibly the least intimidating gang in movie history, are out jazz dancing and generally being a minor nuisance. When they bump into the equally graceful Sharks, it culminates in an epic dance-off.

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Even their dedication to their ballet lessons couldn’t keep them off the streets

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After the two gangs’ confrontation, former Jet Tony (Beymer) is asked to accompany Jet leader Riff (Tamblyn) to a dance, in order to challenge their rivals to a rumble (which apparently was 1950s slang for a dance battle, possibly involving weapons). Tony has turned his life around and left his gang for a job, but has sworn allegiance to Riff “from womb to tomb” and thus agrees to come.

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The kids didn’t let the fact that the basketball was nowhere to be found stop them from trying to score.

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At the tense dance, Tony meets newly arrived Puerto Rican Maria (Wood), the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris), and the two instantly fall in love. But while this could have been a golden opportunity for the two gangs to put aside their differences and join forces, the romance is not accepted by either side and the lovers are forced to part.

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We can sort of understand the scepticism of their friends though. The couple has barely exchanged three words with each other before they start planning their wedding. Kids!

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Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a fantastically colourful and energetic musical version of the classic play. We absolutely love the dancing, the transitions, the music, the colours, the humour, and the costumes. And Anita (Moreno), Bernardo’s feisty girlfriend.

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Sassy, independent, gorgeous, feisty and talented. Naturally, her character is raped. Women like that must be punished.

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It’s a tragic love story, but it also points out different forms of racism in the USA. In fact, the gangs might be bad news, but the real villain of the piece is racist Lieutenant Schrank. And discrimination in itself.

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Racism and discrimination may well be the villains, but dance is the hero!

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We love all the music in West Side Story (in fact, some of these songs make the perfect soundtrack when you clean the house), but our favourite songs are probably the one the gang sings about Officer Krupke, and I Feel Pretty. The latter because it’s the first time we see any real personality in Maria, who is often a fairly bland character. She does show some industry in the end though, which redeems her somewhat.

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Gone is the innocent, naïve girl in the white dress, to be replaced by a woman in red

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All in all, this is a fantastic movie in which everyone will find something to enjoy.

What we learned: Anything can be solved with a dance-off. And if these people had stuck to that bit of wisdom this whole affair would have ended very differently. Also, play it cool.

Next time: Yojimbo (1961)

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#181 Sapphire

Watched: June 28 2018

Director: Basil Dearden

Starring: Nigel Patrick, Michael Craig, Yvonne Mitchell, Paul Massie, Bernard Miles, Earl Cameron, Olga Lindo

Year: 1959

Runtime: 1h 32min

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A young woman is found murdered in Hampstead Heath with nothing to identify her but a monogrammed handkerchief. Investigators Hazard (Patrick) and Learoyd (Craig) identify her as Sapphire Robbins and start trying to find the truth behind her death.

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“Fill up on pipe tobacco! We shall get to the bottom of this!”

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They track down her devastated boyfriend, David Harris (Massie), and her big brother Dr Robbins (Cameron), but surprises keep coming. First off, the autopsy reveals that Sapphire was pregnant at the time of her death, and the investigators are then baffled when her brother comes in as he is black and Sapphire appeared to be white.

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“…and you’re absolutely sure none of you were adopted? And that you’re not using the word ‘brother’ in a wider sense..?”

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These new revelations lead to an investigation which encounters racism and prejudice, both from the white and black communities and even from within as not all investigators manage to stay neutral. But was her ethnic background motivation for murder? And if so, who was enraged enough by her “transition” from black to white to murder the young girl?

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Look at this happy family she was about to marry into! There’s no way anyone in this blissful household would ever kill anyone.

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We love a good murder mystery, and we love it even more when it deals with real political and social issues. Sapphire may be from 1959 and deal with racism and prejudice in the wake of the first waves of Commonwealth immigration in Britain, but there are parallels to be drawn to recent debates considering Brexit.

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We’re sure there are lots of idiots out there who would love it if all non-whites had stayed in their own clubs like this one…

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We were also reminded of Sarah Jane although her and Sapphire’s stories are different and so are their societies. A great mystery movie with real social and political commentary, we can definitely recommend this.

What we learned: School teachers are very respectable and a bit above the rest. Thank you! Also, racism sucks and we need to stop this shit already!

Next time: Some Like it Hot (1959)

#179 Odds Against Tomorrow

Watched: May 13 2018

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame, Ed Begley

Year: 1959

Runtime: 1h 36min

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Ex-cop Dave Burke (Begley) hires two men to carry out a robbery. Both Earle Slater (Ryan) and Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) are debt-ridden, and they are promised the neat sum of $50 000 each for the job.

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$50 000 may not seem much to risk your life for nowadays, but in 1959 it would buy you protection from several M*A*S*H cast members, which was a real threat at the time

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Slater is a big, stinking racist, and is not happy working with Ingram who is black. Ingram himself is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but has a gambling problem and owes a baddie $7500. Burke, the sly mo-fo, pulls strings to pressure the men and make sure he gets the crew he wants. Soon the three are preparing to rob a small bank.

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The monetary loss was nothing compared to the humiliation of being held at gunpoint by three dentists, one of whom was clearly blind

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As with all (or at least most) daring capers, despite their prep work and good planning, things go awry. This time though, it’s not because of a Dame or unplanned events, but because of Slater’s racism.

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“Why does the black guy get the cool hat? He also got the sunglasses! It’s not faaaair!”

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Odds Against Tomorrow is a very good and suspenseful noir with intriguing characters  and a fantastic soundtrack. Johnny, though by no means perfect, is infinitely more likable than little bitch Slater, who is passive aggressive with his girlfriend Lorry (Winters) and plain aggressive with everyone else. That being said, he too shows vulnerability and humanity at times, and he is disillusioned and angry after a hard life.

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“Honey, even though I try really hard to bang the neighbour, you’re my everything!”

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It’s a caper movie, but it focuses a lot on the characters and what drives them, rather than the heist itself, though that too is tense and exciting.  The ending (which we won’t reveal completely) is heavily symbolic and reminiscent of (slight spoiler alert!) White Heat, and we absolutely loved it! A great, late film noir.

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If intriguing characters, great music, a tense heist and social commentary don’t do it for you, there’s also the glorious Gloria Grahame in a bra. You creep.

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What we learned: All men are evil. Also, racism has no place in a heist.

Next time: Rio Bravo (1959)

#177 Imitation of Life

Watched: April 28 2018

Director: Douglas Sirk

Starring: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Juanita Moore, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda

Year: 1959

Runtime: 2h 5min

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On a busy beach, aspiring actress/model Lora Meredith (Turner) is looking for her daughter. She finds the girl in the company of an African-American lady, Annie Johnson (Moore), who she hires as a live-in babysitter after learning she and her daughter are homeless.

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Ah – the good old days when you could invite random people you met at the beach to come live in your home and it didn’t end in murder-robbery but lifelong friendship.

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Lora goes to see a theatrical agent, Allen Loomis (Alda), who basically tells her that to succeed she must prostitute herself, something she’s not yet quite desperate enough to do. However, she gets a break when a playwright likes her honest critique of his play, and is soon catapulted to stardom, much to the chagrin of love interest Steve Archer (Gavin) who’d rather have her be a stay-at-home mom and his wife.

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“Why would you possibly desire to have your own career and make your own money when you can just shack up with me? I forbid it!”

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Lora and Annie stay friends for the next 10+ years, as the former finds success and the latter eventually gets paid for being her maid. Their daughters grow up, but while Lora’s daughter Susie (Dee) is a well-adjusted blonde with a private school education, Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Kohner) is light enough to pass for white and develops some serious identity issues.

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“This is America! There’s no way anyone will treat you differently just because they find out that you are black!”

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As is tradition, we loved this Sirk film more than we thought we would. Sarah Jane, though an atrocious dancer and slightly annoying, is a tragically intriguing character, Annie is just the best, Susie is pluckily charming, and Lora is self-centred yet understandably ambitious. And there are also some men there, more often than not screwing up the women’s lives.

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There are also gorgeous costumes and sunglasses to die for

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Lora and Annie’s friendship seems to be fairly mutual even though Annie works for Lora, but we learn that Lora knows absolutely nothing about her friend’s life outside of the house, which is very telling.

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“Friends? What friends? But you cease to exist when I leave the house, don’t you?”

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Imitation of Life is about friendship and family and heritage and sexism and racism and authority. And probably lots of other things as well. We loved it, and we’re now off to plan our funerals. Those things are not to be left to chance.

What we learned: If you love someone, apparently it gives you the right to decide for them. And control them. And be petulant if they make their own decisions. Also, racism sucks!

Next time: North by Northwest (1959)

#126 Bad Day at Black Rock

Watched: August 19 2017

Director: John Sturges

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, John Ericson

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 21min

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The tiny town of Black Rock is amazed to see the train actually stop for the first time in four years. Even more puzzled, and suspicious, are they to find a stranger getting off in search of a hotel room and a cab to take him to Adobe Flats.

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“I vote we just kill him now and get it over with. There’s no way we can share our one female resident with yet another man.”

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The stranger, John J. Macreedy (Tracy), is met with hostility from all sides, mainly led by Reno Smith (Ryan) who everyone seems to be afraid of. The hostility increases when Macreedy reveals he is looking for a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko, and he is served a story of Komoko being relocated in the wake of  Pearl Harbor.

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Pictured: tension. And not the homoerotic cowboy movie kind.

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As Macreedy is trapped in the town for the night and all lines of communication with the outside world are sabotaged by local followers of Smith, vet/undertaker Doc (Brennan) is the only one willing to help him. Doc reveals that Komoko is dead, although the details of his death are still unknown to our hero.

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Hint: there’s racism and bigotry at work. Thank God the world is not plagued by those kinds of outdated ideas anymore!

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Smith and his croonies, most notably Coley and Hector (Borgnine and Lee, respectively), no longer operate under any pretense of innocence, and the chances of Macreedy surviving the night grow smaller and smaller.

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It doesn’t help that our hero is a one-armed man trying to fight a pissed off Ernest Borgnine

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Bad Day at Black Rock is an exciting and tense murder-mystery-western with a crime at the centre of the plot which is strangely (and sadly) relevant to our own times and political climate. Macreedy is a stoic badass, yet you’re never sure things will go his way or who he can trust. The men in this one-woman-town must make some tough choices and decide whether or not to make up for the mistakes that were made four years ago.

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It’s hard to see how anything at all could happen in a town this small, let alone something horrible

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There’s nothing not to love about this film. It’s shot in Eastman Color and Cinemascope, and beautifully so. There are car chases, shoot-outs, bar fights, Dames (well – just the one dame, actually), murder, mystery, and mayhem, and we loved everything about it. Loved it!

What we learned: This is a local town for local people. There’s nothing for you here! Alternatively, they don’t take kindly to strangers round these there parts.

Next time: Blackboard Jungle (1955)