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The Brothers Bloom director Rian Johnson recently drew together a list of his favorite con and heist movies. The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges’ movie (and his first great film) about a father and daughter attempting to romantically con a wealthy but naive brewing magnate, is indeed on the list, as it should be. (The film also played on the last night of Johnson’s Festival of Fakery at the New Beverly in LA earlier this year.) And now, since Netflix added the film to it’s streaming service on tax day, you can enjoy this classic romantic heist.
It’s a simple setup: Jean and her father ‘The Colonel’ (Barbara Stanwyk and Charles Coburn) are gamblers and con artists who haunt ships and other playgrounds of the wealthy. When they set eyes on Charles Pike (a baby-faced Henry Fonda), just back in civilization after being up the Amazon for a year, Jean knows what she wants: his money.
Pike is naive as hell, but not quite dumb. OK, he’s actually fairly dumb, and part of the reason that Sturges’ movie is so refreshing is that, as Jean actually falls for him and the con goes pear-shaped and then their romance really gets messed up, Pike is never a shining hero, or even a very respectable one. He’s kooky and borderline retarded, but Henry Fonda keeps him interesting and funny at the same time. Stanwyck, meanwhile, is the perfect leading lady for this story: far more enchanting in motion than in any portrait, and with a lashing verbal wit and streak of anger that makes her impossible to forget.
Sturges slips enough observation and humor about class to keep the movie from being too fluffy. (Eugene Pallette as the elder Pike, furiously ringing a bell to summon his breakfast, is amazing.) It’s not quite The Rules of the Game, but it’s a hell of a lot more funny. There’s a technically brilliant early setpeice with Stanwyck savagely criticizing other girls’ efforts to attract Pike and a few magnificent supporting characters. And there’s plenty of the sardonic and perfectly-timed dialogue that you’d expect from an early ’40s hit. (A waiter to the ship’s bartender after Pike arrives to great notice: “They want the ale that won for Yale. Rah, rah rah.” to which the reply is, “Well, tell ‘em to go to Harvard.”)
Watch The Lady Eve now on Netflix; there’s also a fine Criterion Collection DVD available.
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