Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the body is eventually discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

Thieves’ Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California… not the setting you’d expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise.

Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream.

Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world’s most elegant truck driver. Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance.

The love story is very sincere, and very simple, and dare I say it- very touching.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

In his introduction to this must-see classic on TCM’s “Noir Alley”, Eddie Muller stated this was the picture that got him hooked on film noir as a teen while playing hooky from school. Film critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of “film gris,” a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Most of the movie is shot on location, in produce warehouses, back alleys, and country roads. The story takes about 15 minutes to get going, but from there it delivers in big ways! Soon after WWII, with people desperate to believe in the American dream, this film suggests that that dream isn’t for everyone. A.I. “Buzz” Buzzerides (who was of Greek Armenian heritage) based this movie on his working-class roots, before he became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. Director Jules Dassin (who came from Ukrainian Jewish parentage) does a terrific job; he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and moved to France to pursue his career.

Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte, then in his late 30s) is a first gen Greek-American who returns home from the Navy to his loving parents and blonde/”girl-next-door” fiance, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). After a few moments of domestic happiness, he discovers that his father has lost his legs. He was involved in a truck accident after dealing w/ a San Fran fruit dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), who refused to pay a fair price for a truckload of tomatoes. Figlia also had his thuggish employees get Mr. Garcos drunk. Nick, who is both ambitious, clever, and hot-headed, is bent on getting revenge.

Nick goes to see Ed Kinney (the local man who bought his father’s old truck) and says that he will buy it back, but Ed proposes a deal with Golden Delicious apples, where they may both make a lot of money. Nick invests most of his savings in another truck and buys apples from a Polish farming family. They plan to drive directly to the market (w/o sleeping) to keep the fruit fresh. The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the filmmakers; there are scenes that are exciting and dangerous (before the time of special effects). Ed’s truck has a problem with its axle, and Nick arrives first in San Fran.

Nick parks his truck directly in Figlia’s loading dock and goes to compare prices for his cargo. After talking to a few smaller sellers, he meets Figlia (who has a reputation for being crooked). Figlia is surprised, and maybe also a bit impressed, by the younger man’s confidence. Nick says that his partner is still on the road, so he’ll return later. As always, Cobb does a great job as a fast-talking villain.

At a small diner nearby, Nick is approached by an alluring Italian refugee- Rica (Valentina Cortese)- who he is almost too sleepy/tired to notice. She asks him for a light, though there are several other men ready w/ matches. Then, she leans across him to get a container of sugar for her coffee. He’s bemused by her actions and walks away. She boldly asks him if he wants to come rest in her room (from where he can observe the market).

Film noir romances usually lead to the hero’s downfall, but it’s the opposite case here. Sparks fly between Conte and Cortese in their scenes, incl. one where she plays tic-tac-toe (on his bare chest)! Censors had rules about women revealing too much skin, so the director went the other way. As for Cortese, her hair is dark, short, and curly and (unlike her Italian peers who moved to Hollywood in this era), her face and body are angular. Most amazing- she hadn’t yet learned English, so spoke her lines phonetically!

Conte grew up in Jersey City and worked as a trucker; he was discovered (at age 25) by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield while waiting tables. Like Garfield, Conte is short (for a leading man), w/ deep-set dark eyes and thick brown hair. Kazan helped Conte get a scholarship to study acting in NYC; the young man quickly revealed his potential. All the actors, incl. the colorful sidekicks, do a great job in their roles.

SPOILER-FREE Review: Parasite (2019) directed by Boon Joon-ho

A struggling family in Seoul, South Korea scheme to enter an upper-class/well-connected household in this genre-bending thriller from director Bong Joon-ho (Okja; Snowpiercer). As a young boy, Boon saw a (censored) version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and was “overwhelmed” by the music and structure of the house (behind the Bates Motel). Parasite is the first Asian film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was described by Bong as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.”

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an unemployed family man and head of the Kim family, which includes wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a 20-something artistic daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and idealistic college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). One day, a former school friend of Ki-woo’s drops by w/ a gift (and possible job opportunity). While Min is studying abroad, he wants Ki-woo (who he trusts) to take over as the English tutor for a teen girl, Da-hye. At first, Ki-woo is hesitant; Min explains that it’s fine since he has a recommendation. The Parks live in a mansion which wouldn’t be out of place in southern California. The coldly handsome father (Sun-kyun Lee) has studied abroad and works in his own tech company. Da-hye has an 8 y.o. brother, Da-song, who loves anything connected to the Boy Scouts. The mother (Yeo-jeong Jo), though still youthful and pretty, is also “simple” (gullible).

There are quick changes in tone, as the audience is taken on a journey from the Kim’s crowded sub-basement apt. to the Park’s spacious house (designed by an internationally-known architect). The musical score fits seamlessly w/ the movie; Boon recommended baroque music and works of Bernard Herrmann (one of Hollywood’s finest composers) to his own composer. It’s not only clever, it’s also suspenseful, scary, and darkly funny w/ pointed social commentary. Though all the main 10 characters get their time to shine, the heart of this tale is Woo-shik, a youthful 29 y.o. w/ a slim build who grew up partly in Toronto. The audience I saw it w/ definitely was rooting for him, esp. during the (wild) third act. The crux of this story is the relationship between the son and father (the director noted); Song Kang-ho (who is a star in his native land) gets the chance to show many different sides to being a man getting by somehow in today’s society. This is a must-see, even if you don’t get hyped for scary films! I had passes to a free screening at Landmark E St the night before opening.

Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!

The Farewell (2019) starring Awkwafina

[1] This movie is very touching, and it is broader than just culture by itself. It also talks about individual identity and family responsibility, life and death, and the human experience.

[2] Lulu Wang has written an absolutely beautiful and personal film and has clearly poured her heart out into it. Her dialogue is funny, human, and poetic. 

[3] This story is absolutely deserving of an audience, and combines together through a beautiful lens a clashing of Western & Eastern philosophies of life that really should be examined.

[4] …one film that as you watch entertains you with thought, and fun laughs and has the drama of pain and emotion all wrapped up in one. It has themes of trust, love, and most of all secrets something that all families can relate to. 

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s indie film centers on Billi (Awkwafina- a rapper/actress from Queens raised by her grandmother), a 31 year-old aspiring writer (also living in Queens, NY). She discovers that her Nai Nai (“grandma” in Mandarin) is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. The extended family has decided not to reveal this to Nai Nai (which is common in China and perhaps a few other Asian cultures). Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma- a prolific Chinese-American character actor) and his older brother construct a story: the family will say goodbye when they return to China for the wedding of Haibin’s son, Hao Hao and his Japanese bride, Aiko. For an Americanized, individualistic, and independent woman like Billi, this lie seems wrong.

Awkwafina does very well in her role; you almost forget that she started out in comedy. (FYI: She was cast in this role before her breakout roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8.) Billi obviously loved her grandma; she calls Nai Nai daily just to talk from NYC. Several film critics have pointed out that the actress has the (rare) ability to do much while seeming to do little. Just notice her posture, sighs, and expressions. Her mother, Lu Jian (Diana Lin- a Chinese-Australian actress) warns Billi that she must participate in the lie. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao- a very popular actress in China) is a well-rounded character, full of life, jokes, and joy.

As a (Jewish) viewer of this film noted on IMDB, it follows in the tradition of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Though these three movies center on East Asians, they have universal themes and will appeal to diverse audiences. The parents (or older generations) get their share of screen time and are fully-fleshed out characters.

It was very difficult for Wang to get funding; after all, the film has an all Asian cast, is mostly subtitled, and she had only directed one feature film before. Even one of the potential Chinese investors said it’d be “more interesting” if she added a white guy (“real American”) character for Billi to bring home- WOW! After Wang appeared on NPR discussing her problem, an experienced producer (Chris Weitz) reached out to her. His credits incl. About a Boy (2002), The Golden Compass (2007), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).