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Spotlight on: Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be
Alternate: Stephen Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven

Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be

Jack Benny gives what is considered his greatest screen performance as "that great, great actor, Josef Tura" in this classic black comedy from Ernst Lubitsch, the mind behind such films as Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, The Merry Widow, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living. Eschewing his famous radio personality, Benny's several well-known mannerisms are absent here, giving him room to completely inhabit another person entirely, albeit one with many similarities. Just watch his face as he realizes none of the Nazis has heard of his acting prowess. That's pure Benny.

Carole Lombard shines as his wife Maria in one of her best (and certainly most restrained) portrayals. Known more for slapstick comedies than for the sophistication required here, she gives it her all and, in her final screen appearance (she would die in a plane crash months later), her beauty combines with her comedic talent to draw your eyes to her whenever she is on the screen.

The story is not simple, but is easy to follow. It's 1939 and Polish actors Josef and Maria Tura are performing Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Theatra Polska for a sold-out audience. A pilot with the Polish branch of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) has taken to Maria, and visits her during Josef (as Hamlet)'s famous soliloquy (hence the title). This drives Josef crazy as he receives the same walk-out night after night.

Then Poland is bombed by the Germans and Maria's flyboy is called off to war. One of his mentors, Professor Siletsky, offers to deliver a message back to Maria. He doesn't know that Siletsky is a Nazi. Siletsky has a list of names and addresses given to him by other pilots under similar circumstances that he will deliver to the Nazis if not stopped.

Upon delivering the message, Siletsky takes a shine to Maria as well, inviting her to his room in the protected area. She has to somehow stop his delivering the list. So, Josef and the rest of the troupe of actors conceive a plan to intercept him. Josef will play the role of Colonel Ehrhardt (whom Siletsky has never met), with others playing stormtroopers and the like. But then once Siletsky is killed, someone has to take his place at a meeting with the real Ehrhardt.

Step in Josef again, who dresses as Siletsky and goes to see Ehrhardt (played by former Marx Brothers foil Sig Ruman). Ehrhardt is played as a bit of a buffoon and Josef/Siletsky easily mentally overpowers him, basically making Ehrhardt do what he is told under threat of punishment by Hitler.

Writing this out, To Be or Not to Be seems like a very serious and depressing film, but everything is played light and fun and I was laughing the whole time. This is an example of how black comedy can succeed masterfully. The fact that it was released in 1942 (during WWII) is all the more amazing, as it plays the Nazis as fools, surely something that needed to be done while under their threat.

So, everything ends happily...well, except for one thing, but that is the biggest laugh of the picture, so I won't spoil the last scene for you. Suffice to say that this is one of my favorite films and I recommend it highly.

[See the Lubitsch films nominated in the Sight and Sound Top 10 poll]

Ocean's Eleven DVD Cover Alternate Recommendation: Stephen Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven

You've got to say one thing about Stephen Soderbergh, he can make any kind of movie he wants to. Serious character pieces like sex, lies, and videotape and The Limey; adaptations of others' works like Out of Sight, Traffic, and Gray's Anatomy; or prefabricated Hollywood blockbusters like Erin Brockovich and this one. A nice career-mixture of artistry and paying the bills (like the one-two punch of Erin and Traffic in 2000).

Well, Ocean's Eleven is pure Hollywood--really well-dressed, really cool beautiful people doing highly illegal, totally impossible things. And loads of fun. Watching all these stars strut their stuff up and down the aisles of a Las Vegas casino is pure cinematic entertainment. I mean, talk about suspension of disbelief: eleven guys try to steal $160 million from a vault shared by three casinos owned by Andy Garcia, and nothing goes wrong?

But what do we care? We're just along for the ride. This is escapism at its finest.

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