REVIEW: “Bande à part” (“Band of Outsiders”)

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“Band of Outsiders” was Jean-Luc Godard’s seventh film and a unique entry into the French New Wave movement. Viewed by some as Godard’s most accessible movie, “Band of Outsiders” is a playful, saucy romp which has influenced a variety of filmmakers through the decades that have followed. While the film may be considered a bit lighter than some of Godard’s other work, many of the director’s signature touches can be clearly seen.

Friends Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) recruit the reluctant Odile (Anna Karina) to help them pull off a heist. Odile lives in a villa with her Aunt Victoria and a mysterious wealthy man named Stoltz. One day she tells Franz of a large stash of money kept inside the villa. Franz and Arthur devise a plan to steal the money and Odile serves as their insider. But it grows more and more obvious that she doesn’t want to go through with it. She’s not a criminal. She’s actually sad, lonely, and looking for some validation to her life. That’s the only reason she connects with Franz and Arthur.

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Things are made more interesting by the fact that both men are smitten with Odile (at least to some degree). Franz is low-key and clearly in love with her. Arthur is a rude, rebellious, hellion so naturally Odile falls for him. Godard doesn’t give us the standard tensions or follow the same path as most movies featuring this kind of love triangle. It doesn’t become the focal point of the story. It’s simply a component of their relationships that slightly persuades how things turn out.

While the heist is the ultimate goal, the film is about these three characters. Godard treats them as…well…a band of outsiders. They each seem to be living in their own make-believe worlds. They seem to treat life as if it were a movie. We even get moments where Franz and Arthur act out scenes from gangster films. On one hand the trio shows a fresh and energetic approach to living that we see in their frolicking around Paris. On the other hand there is the naive indifference they have to reality and consequences. Only Odile seems to struggle with this.

While the characters and their relationships are the central focus, there is the heist angle which is also unique and unconventional. At times the film feels like a prototypical American crime drama that has been infused with French New Wave irreverence and style. The story sets its aim on a pretty familiar target, but Godard’s auteur’s approach gives us more than the normal heist movie tropes. Our trio are the most inadequate and unprepared people to be trying such a score. We see it in their lackluster planning and in the disastrous end results.

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As with most of Jean-Luc Godard’s movies, there are certain moments that make the film unquestionably his. There is a great cafe sequence featuring a fun and crafty ‘moment of silence’ and the famous “Madison Dance” which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s dance sequence in “Pulp Fiction”. There is the equally famous ‘record-breaking’ race through the Louvre museum – a chipper and playful moment just before things take a darker and more realistic turn. And of course there are numerous artistic references to poetry, music, and film.

I could mention several other things that make “Band of Outsiders” a good film. I could mention the wonderful performances led by the magnetic Anna Karina. She was Godard’s wife at the time and his camera loves her. I could mention the film’s smart and effective blend of excitement and pathos. But ultimately it comes down to a fine filmmaker, good material, talented performers, and that spirited French New Wave perspective. For me that’s a perfect recipe for a great movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

2015 Blind Spot Series: “La Dolce Vita”

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For the film’s main character Marcello, La Dolce Vita or “the sweet life” is like a carrot dangling before a horse. It keeps him moving forward while remaining out of reach. Marcello, played with spot-on precision by Marcello Mastroianni, searches for happiness, contentment, and fulfillment – that good life hinted at by the movie’s title. But for him they are unattainable dreams. Or are they unattainable? Are they goals meant only for the more talented and affluent? Are they far-fetched canards that prey on gullible optimists? Or do they really exist if only he were looking in the right places? This is a small handful of the questions asked in “La Dolce Vita”.

Federico Fellini’s seminal classic has been broken down, dissected, and interpreted a number of different ways. The film’s basic structure becomes apparent as the movie progresses. It basically consists of seven independent episodes bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. It’s common timeframe starts at nighttime and then moves to the dawn that follows. Marcello serves as the common link between each episode. Many critics have highlighted the film’s significant sevens: the seven episodes, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, etc. This is an intriguing perspective that begs for a more careful examination of the film. Personally I’m more drawn to other concepts and themes that Fellini explores.

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Marcello is our connection, our mooring, the pulsing blood vessel running through the entire film. Early in the movie he comes across as spirited and confident. In the famous opening prologue a helicopter is transporting a huge statue of Christ to St. Peter’s Square. Marcello follows in a second helicopter filming the event, but takes a detour to solicit phone numbers from some rooftop bathing beauties. In the first episode we see him at a lively nightclub where he brushes off the threat of a man who wants to “smash his face” and leaves with a beautiful heiress. In both of these scenes Marcello appears to be self-assured and full of energy.

But as the film moves forward and the layers of the character are peeled back, we see a very different man. Marcello is a tabloid journalist whose work consists of chronicling the escapades of wealthy socialites, pseudo-actors and actresses, and self-indulgent playboys. It’s shallow and unfulfilling work that does nothing to satisfy his desire to be a serious writer. In fact the longer we stay with Marcello, the clearer we sense his growing state of melancholy.

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Marcello Mastroianni perfectly displays the suave, voguish facade Fellini is going for. Mastroianni’s handsome face, well-groomed hair, fancy suits, and stylish sunglasses sells us a character who seems cool and satisfied. But we watch him grow more weary and jaded with each passing episode, with each superficial aristocrat he encounters, with every shallow and spurious ‘news story’ he covers. Through Marcello the film builds up a lavish, attractive, self-indulgent perspective and then knocks it to the ground. It tempts us to indulge in the trendy excesses of “the sweet life” while at the same time systematically destroying the very idea of “la dolce vita”.

Fellini’s view of the good life and the quest to capture it could be called cynical. But it could be he is pointing to a particular perception of the good life (one that was especially popular in 1959 Rome) and focusing on its seductive dishonesty. The film gives us plenty of great scenes and characters to examine in our search for answers. There is the early nightclub scene and the meeting of Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a rich and beautiful heiress who sees Marcello as her man of convenience. He clearly has feelings for her, but she basically uses him as her toy.

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Then there is the famous episode with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) a ravishing buxom blonde actress from America. She arrives in Rome and Marcello is to report on her stay. Swarmed by obsessed news reporters (it’s from “La Dolce Vita” that we get the word paparazzi) Marcello dismisses Sylvia at first. But soon he falls for the ‘perfect woman’ aura that surrounds her and which culminates in the film’s most memorable moment – wading in the Trevi Fountain. But like waking up from a dream, Marcello’s romantic moment dissolves before his eyes. Again, something else outside of his reach.

Perhaps the most telling is the three-part episode revolving around Marcello’s friend Steiner (Alain Cuny). He’s a wealthy intellectual who represents everything Marcello hopes to be. He’s has a luxurious home, the perfect family, high-class friends. In one scene Marcello and his unstable fiancé Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) attend a party at Steiner’s home. Marcello loves mingling with Steiner’s poet, artist, and intellectual friends and at one point Emma tells him that someday he will have Steiner’s material and social affluence. But in the third act of Steiner’s episode Fellini hits Marcello and us head-on with a not so subtle smack of reality. Another dream crushed under the weight of truth.

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This only scratches the surface of “La Dolce Vita ” and its numerous themes and concepts. I could talk about the scene where Marcello is typing at a seaside cafe and meets a young waitress named Paola – perhaps the one truly innocent character of significance he encounters. I could speak of the episode where Marcello’s father pays a visit. It’s the only clear look we get into Marcello’s past. I could go on and on. Fellini gives us so much to talk about and he never wastes a moment. Every episode and every scene offers something of narrative, thematic, or cinematic value.

I could go on and talk about the incredible visual technique used by Fellini, the diverse and personality-rich locales, the beautifully strategic use of music. With “La Dolce Vita” Federico Fellini has created a masterpiece that feeds off of every aspect of the cinematic experience. He captures your eyes with his entrancing visuals, he sucks you in through his fascinating characters, he challenges you through his intelligent thematic examinations. In a nutshell “La Dolce Vita” is cinema that we don’t see these days. Thankfully Fellini gave us this rich classic that is always worth revisiting.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

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Director Federico Fellini has long been one of Italy’s most important gifts to the world of cinema. A daring and proficient filmmaker, Fellini had a career that featured various stages of evolution. Most notably was his turn from popular Italian neorealism to an almost surreal fantasy mode of cinematic storytelling. There are some who have viewed Fellini’s shift in style and approach as a turn in the wrong direction and a small handful of his later films may support that view. But I can’t go along with that, especially when said style shift gave us treasures like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2”.

“8 1/2” is a semi-autobiographical film that gets its name from the eight and a half feature films and shorts Fellini had made up to that point. For the first time in his life Fellini was experiencing a creative stall. His struggles with director’s block inspired him to start over and make a film about a prominent Italian director laboring through the same creative pains. Trusted actor and friend Marcello Mastroianni would play the lead role of Guido Anselmi who is an undeniable reflection of Fellini with a few added dramatic twists.

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At first glance it may be easy to dismiss “8 1/2” as a malaise of off-beat dream sequences and surreal imagery. But as with every great cinematic work, there are layers of creativity and ambition that one can’t appreciate with a single viewing. There is no doubting that at that point in his career Fellini was a visual storyteller and his images play a pivotal part in “8 1/2”. But they aren’t images just for the sake of images. Fellini has specific things in mind and it takes some digging to find their meaning.

Take his dream sequences as an example. Each of the film’s dream sequences serve as an escape for Guido – a refuge from the anxiety and stresses of his real life. But each dream also feeds us information about who Guido really is. Some are simply memories taken from his past. Some are past memories heightened with hyperbolic flare. Others are full blown dreams emphasizing Guido’s perspectives, his fantasies, or his different states of mind. In other words the dream sequences in “8 1/2” aren’t simply indulgences or vain attempts at masking Fellini’s uncertainties.

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While the movie isn’t thick with plot, it paints a mesmerizing portrait. Its story resides within the Guido character and the absorbing performance from Mastroianni. We get an idea of who Guido is through the film’s unforgettable opening scene. While caught up in a massive traffic jam smoke filters from the vents of his car filling the cab. Desperate for help he pounds the windows, but everyone around him simply stares. He manages to escape and makes an angelic-like ascension. But while in the air and getting a small taste of freedom, he feels the tug from a rope that is tied around his leg. On the other end of the rope is a member of his production team who represents the maddening life he can’t seem to escape.

Guido is surrounded by chaos. He is a respected director working on a big budget science fiction picture, but his deadline to begin filming has come and gone. A huge hunk of “8 1/2” takes place at a fancy Italian resort where his cast and crew have gathered to begin working on the film. The problem is Guido has hit a creative wall and his apathy is frustrating everyone involved. He is bombarded with pressure from his short-tempered producer, his misanthropic lead writer, a high-maintenance French actress, and several others from his production crew. Guido has no defined plan for his movie and we slowly witness the emotional toll it is taking on him.

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There is another contributor to Guido’s melancholy. It’s his messy, complicated web of relationships which includes his wife and mistress. The alluring Anouk Aimée plays Guido’s wife Luisa, a smart and elegant woman frustrated by her husband’s indifference. Carla (Sandra Milo), his mistress, is a chintzy, nagging starlet who irritates as much as excites. It appears as if Guido juggles these relationships without an ounce of thought. At one point in the film he has both women at the resort at the same time. But is this simply a mismanagement of his mangled love life or is it an intentional move by a man desperate for some form of resolution? As with most of “8 1/2” there is more to it than what we see on the surface.

Guido’s perception of women, love, and romance is skewed. We see this in the film’s famous harem dream sequence which features all of the women in Guido’s life embodying various fulfillments of his imagination. While it does reveal his warped perspectives, the dream also visualizes the internal conflict that’s fueling Guido’s deteriorating state of mind. In essence Guido can’t escape the turmoil in his dreams or his reality. To combat this mental and emotional back-and-forth Guido loses himself in reoccurring visions of the “perfect” woman. The stunning Claudia Cardinale represents his ultimate fantasy. She is his symbol of purity, spontaneity, and innocence. She is always dressed in white and she appears with a ghostly elegance and grace. She is his dream girl.

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But as with everything else in Guido’s life, reality offers a much different perspective than his fantasies. That gets to the greater point of “8 1/2” – dealing with reality instead of fleeing from it and finding genuine inner happiness. At the same time and more directly Fellini examines the pains and pressures that accompany creativity – the inspirations and expectations filmmakers struggle with during the creative process. Roger Ebert called this the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s hard to argue with him.

“8 1/2” is a movie that marches to its own beat and it doesn’t follow any established formula or convention. It is free of any and all caution and hesitation. It is a film that will undoubtedly still have detractors who won’t completely respond to its unbridled vision. But it could be said that the true beauty of “8 1/2” is found in its confusion. It’s found in the physical and psychological mayhem. It’s found in Fellini’s unique film language and audacious visual approach. And the most amazing thing about “8 1/2”? It found its genesis and inspiration in the mind of a struggling, burdened auteur. It just goes to show that true cinematic art, much like the life we choose to live, originates within us and not in some polished and meticulously detailed script.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

2015 Blind Spot Series – “Au Hasard Balthazar”

Anne Wiazemsky as Marie in Robert Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZA

The brilliant auteur Robert Bresson has been called the father of French cinema. Many of the greats from France’s New Wave movement considered Bresson their chief influence. Other filmmakers from around the world often pointed to Bresson’s work as effecting the shape and form of cinema for generations. He was known for his unconventional style and techniques which found their roots in his own unique philosophies behind the art of cinema.

Bresson had an intriguing filmography and one of his best pictures is his 1966 drama “Au Hasard Balthazar”. His films often focused on lead characters weighed down by or struggling with their circumstances or their inner-self. The conflicts and turmoils they faced often left them physically or emotionally broken. Bresson’s films are not for those looking for a lighthearted affair. They are thought-provoking examinations of humanity that refuse to shy away from our crueler and harsher sides. “Au Hasard Balthazar” is a stirring example of this approach.

The film follows a donkey named Balthazar who encounters a wide assortment of deeply flawed people during his life. We first see him right after birth living on a small rural farm. Over the film’s quick 95 minutes Balthazar changes hands several times . Many of his owners and handlers abuse him often physically but sometimes out of sheer neglect. But Bresson doesn’t take a cheap way out. Balthazar isn’t a miracle animal. He doesn’t speak or come up with clever ways to repay his abusers. No, he’s just a donkey. Simple, innocent, and true to his nature. He knows what donkeys know, feels what donkeys feel, and acts as donkeys act.

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Why is that so important? Because it puts the spotlight on humanity. Balthazar is doing what he should be doing. It’s the people he endures along the way who show their very flawed and sometimes wicked sides. It’s an indictment on the reality of how things are. When speaking on the movie the great filmmaker and one-time critic Jean-Luc Godard called it “the world in an hour and a half”. It’s a sad picture that is sometimes hard to look at. And despite his limitations Balthazar is still intensely sympathetic and able to touch our emotions.

But Bresson doesn’t just follow Balthazar around everywhere. He also tells us the stories of several characters who play roles in the donkey’s life. The main one is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). She lives on the farm where Balthazar is born and shows love towards him. But in another instance of straying from the conventional, Marie also sits idly by while a group of young thugs led by the slimy Gerard (François Lafarge) beats Balthazar. Marie becomes an emotionless hollow soul, in some ways like Balthazar – a victim of her circumstances. But she loses herself in a much darker place.

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Gerard ends up with Balthazar on a couple of occasions and his cruelty towards the animal is unsettling. Gerard is a thug, a thief, and is shown to possibly be a lot worse. There are parts of his story that didn’t make sense to me, but Gerard’s brand of sadistic evil is felt by man and beast. Balthazar also spends time with a baker, a traveling circus, and a local drunk. We see all of these people through the clearest and most honest eyes possible – Balthazar’s.

Several of Bresson’s signature style choices are clearly seen in the film. Most obvious is his penchant for using non-professional actors in his roles. You will rarely find room for big movie stars in a Bresson movie. The director would hire unknowns and then train them specifically for their part. He didn’t want an ounce of theatrics from his actors and he was known to film a scene over and over until every hint of performance was removed. Even more, Bresson didn’t refer to his performers as actors. He called them “models” and they offered a raw and reserved take unlike what you see in the mainstream. When watching “Au Hasard Balthazar” this can be a challenge especially for those not accustomed to Bresson’s work. The characters can appear cold and indifferent, but that also causes us to look at them in a very unique way.

“Au Hasard Balthazar” can be a difficult film to take in. Its narrative can be a bit challenging but once you connect with Bresson’s greater message everything falls into place. It’s visceral and heartbreaking. At the same time it holds a mirror up to the world we live in. And while this film was made in 1966, the reflection it casts is just as piercing today as it was then. Godard’s description of the film is spot on. Bresson shows us the world. The question becomes how are we going to change it? Even more, can we change it?

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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To see my full 2015 Blind Spot Lineup click HERE…

REVIEW: “Key Largo”

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Bogart and Bacall. Those two names together personified what it once meant to be a Hollywood couple. The two were the talk of the town both for their great chemistry onscreen and their romance off. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell in love on the set of the 1944 Howard Hawks film “To Have and Have Not”. They would go on to make four films together, the final one being 1948’s “Key Largo”.

“Key Largo” was one of Bogie’s six movies to be made under the direction of close friend John Huston. It was also his fifth collaboration with Edward G. Robinson and the first time in their films that Bogart received top billing (although if you look at the placement of their names on the title screen there’s still room for debate). Loosely based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, “Key Largo” took the form of a brilliant crime drama anchored by a great cast and superb performances. It takes elements from other Bogie films such as “The Petrified Forest” and the aforementioned “To Have and Have Not”. But mainly its just great storytelling and watching Bogart and company work is most pleasing.

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Bogart plays ex-officer Frank McCloud. After recently leaving the military he heads to Key Largo, Florida and the Hotel Largo. It’s ran by an elderly man named James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the father of a soldier who died while under Frank’s command, and Nora Temple (Bacall), the soldier’s widow. They welcome Frank with open arms anxious to here about their love one’s service and sacrifice. Frank notices the hotel also has a shady group of secretive customers. They turn out to be wanted gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his gang. Their plan is hidden and their motivations unclear, but soon Frank and the Temples find themselves held captive for the night all while a destructive hurricane passes through.

“Key Largo” builds itself around one great exchange between characters after another. Trapped inside by the threatening weather offers up plenty of great moments. Arguably the best is when Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is asked to sing a song from her days as a successful performer. Her reward – one drink. It’s said that Trevor was nervous about the scene but was promised plenty of time to rehearse it by Huston. The director then shocked her by calling on her to perform the scene in front of cast and crew with no rehearsal whatsoever. The raw, nervous, and emotional first take is the fabulous scene we see in the movie. Trevor went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and many point to that great scene as a big reason why.

There are numerous other amazing scenes that come to mind. Lionel Barrymore, disabled from arthritis in real life, standing up and taking a swipe at one of the gangsters. Rocco’s fall into fear as the hurricane’s intensity amps up. Rocco giving Frank a gun and an opportunity to rid the world of him but at a price. There are so many of these scenes that pour out of the rich and intelligent screenplay from Richard Brooks.

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The film also shines through the lines of Huston’s camera. While not as crafty with his angles and lighting as in his first film “The Maltese Falcon”, Huston still develops some beautiful and dramatic shots through a variety of cool techniques. “Key Largo” was filmed almost entirely on a Los Angeles set but you would never know it. Huston ably creates a strong sense of place and at no point was I doubting the films setting. And the details – from the perspiration brought by the hot and humid pre-hurricane afternoon to the fury of the storm and the damage it brings, Huston uses details to develop the setting yet never overdoes them. The looks and the sounds of the film are simply superb.

“Key Largo” may not be considered one of Humphrey Bogart’s top-tier movies but its such a great classic film. His slick and cool lead performance is effortless and his chemistry with Bacall is undeniable. Her subtle beauty and stunning screen presence are evident and there is no doubting that she made the movie better. This is a really good Bogart and Bacall vehicle but there’s much more to it than that. “Key Largo” is just a great film and another clear example of the strength of the Golden Age of cinema.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Heiress”

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At times William Wyler’s “The Heiress” comes across as an extravagant stage production. That makes sense since it was adapted from the popular 1947 Broadway play. But the original story actually came from the the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James. Husband and wife playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz brought James’ book to the stage and were later convinced to write the film’s screenplay. Their familiarity with the material and their mellifluous writing style mixed perfectly with Wyler’s perfectionism. The result was a highly acclaimed that still garnered critical praise and several Academy Awards.

In many ways the film’s star Olivia de Havilland can be thanked for making the movie happen. She went to see the play based on a recommendation and before it was even finished she was making calls. She first convinced the wonderful William Wyler to direct the film. He was instrumental in getting studio support and in convincing Augustus and Ruth Goetz to write the script. Montgomery Clift added another popular face to the production and the wonderful Ralph Richardson, who had taken part in a London stage version, was also cast.

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The story is set in 19th century New York City and focuses on a plain and reserved young woman (de Havilland) from the upper-class Washington Square neighborhood. She lives with her wealthy and proper father (Richardson) who does a poor job of hiding his disappointment. Her shyness and naivety draws her father’s insults and disenchantment and her feelings of self-worth are practically nonexistent. But their relationship takes a worse turn when she starts a relationship with a charming young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift). Her father thinks Morris is after her inheritance and he certainly doesn’t believe she’s capable of attracting a decent man. This three-way conflict makes up the core of this story.

“The Heiress” is unquestionably talky, but when the script is so fluid and its placed in the hands of such great performers, it’s easy to get lost in it. The Goetzs have no problem moving the story from stage to screen and Wyler’s directorial fingerprints are everywhere. His calculated long takes and his precise attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll notice. The film moves at a wonderful pace and it always keeps its focus. It also takes some pretty heavy subjects and treats them with respect.

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And then again you have the marvelous performances. Olivia de Havilland is nothing short of fabulous and she would go on to win her second Academy Award for her performance. Ralph Richardson is simply perfect as the arrogant aristocratic father. His well-spoken eloquence and tinge of snobbery is exactly what the role demanded. And then we have Montgomery Clift who I think does marvelous work. Apparently he didn’t think so. It’s said that Clift disliked his performance so much that he left the premiere before the film ended. That is definitely a case of being your own worst critic because I thought he was excellent.

“The Heiress” is a true motion picture classic and it is crafted by the talents of some of the best filmmakers and performers to ever work in the business. It has a very stagey feel and rightfully so. But it’s great drama that dissects and exposes its characters while telling a dense and emotional story. This film may not draw the attention of some modern moviegoers but it should. If you love movies, treat yourself by seeing “The Heiress”.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS