Category Archives: 1941

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a great man.” – Citizen Kane – Best Pictures of 1941 (#1)

Orson Welles both directed and starred in his classic "Citizen Kane

I’m sure choosing Citizen Kane as the best picture of 1941 is about as surprising as bananas in a banana cream pie. It’s impossible to discuss the best movies of 1941 and not at least consider Orson Welles’s groundbreaking classic – though I’m perplexed by anyone who doesn’t agree that it is the best film of the year and, probably, the decade. (I won’t get into whether it is the best film ever made.) Even today it is fresh and exciting, so we can only imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1941, a year when studios fed U.S. filmgoers a heavy diet of brainless slop like the Betty Grable musical vehicle Moon over Miami, the lifeless Deanna Durbin pic It Started with Eve (with Charles Laughton no less), and those god-awful Charlie Chan movies.

It’s something of a chore to come up with anything original to say about Citizen Kane. I think more ink has been used on this movie than any other, though Birth of a Nation may be a close second. And it’s easy to see why. Orson Welles was a young, unproved director and by all the rules of Hollywood really should have never been able to make this movie with the absolute control RKO gave him. But the product he turned in is superior on every level to most of what was coming out of Hollywood. The story is tight, the acting is superb, the photography is crisply creative, and the direction is nothing short of visionary. Welles proved that he would be a force for decades to come, though he might have been more productive if he hadn’t been so difficult to work with. Nevertheless, Citizen Kane still stands as his crowning achievement.

A taste of Gregg Toland's gorgeous black and white cinematography

It wasn’t always so, of course. Like so many films now considered classics, it pretty much bombed at the box office. Much of its failure in 1941 can be blamed on William Randolph Hearst – on whom the character of Charles Foster Kane is based – and his zealously loyal national newspaper employees who waged a furtive campaign against not just Citizen Kane, but RKO as well. They stopped publicizing their pictures or, maybe worse, only published negative reviews. The most vicious was Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons who it has been rumored strong armed other studio heads into shutting Citizen Kane out of their theaters by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of them and their starts. Brenda Blethyn played Parsons in RKO 281, the 1999 dramatization of Welles’s struggle to make and distribute the film. She has a deliciously frosty scene where she spreads out 8 by 10s showing the explosive evidence of what she could expose to the horrified heads of Hollywood. It’s unlikely Parsons ever actually articulated any threats, though the studios probably knew they oughtn’t to annoy the Rupert Murdoch of their age and locked the film out of their theaters on their own steam.

But Citizen Kane did make it in their theaters when RKO’s head George Schaefer threatened the other studios with lawsuits. Hollywood moguls were never ones to go too far out on a limb, so they reluctantly allowed their theaters to screen the film, but by the time it finally got to audiences the initial rave reviews were muddied by all sorts of aspersions that it got a reputation as being – gasp! –  artsy, a death sentence to the popular success of a picture. It wasn’t until it’s re-release in the late 1950s that audiences who had only heard vague rumors of Welles’s masterpiece (or squinted at shoddy bootlegged 16mm prints) were able to assess the movie’s value – and it went on to earn a reputation of greatness.

That reputation can often turn off casual filmgoers, but it shouldn’t. I’ve heard people who haven’t seen it worry that it will be boring, because aren’t all great movies highfaluting nonsense only accessible to educated –read snobby – people? Citizen Kane is far from boring. The “mystery” of Rosebud shakes out to be a silly gimmick, but Welles uses it to illuminate a life corrupted by power. We are immediately sucked into the mystery, gimmick or not, and we become entranced by the journey this character makes from innocent Colorado schoolboy to media mogul. There is nothing boring there. Or I’ve heard people worry that they won’t understand it, like trying to read James Joyce. Great movies shouldn’t be enigmatic or obscure and Citizen Kane is an accessible classic of the Hollywood era. Maybe it isn’t as crowd pleasing as the smash hit Gone with the Wind, but audiences don’t walk out of theaters scratching their heads like they just sat through David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I’ve also heard some complain about it being in black and white and, well, there isn’t much reasoning that can be done with people who are that dopey.

Citizen Kane is the best movie of 1941 and probably of the entire decade. Some call it the best picture ever made and, if I didn’t believe that to be a rather silly designation, I would at least concede that it is at least on the short list for the title. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest breaking down and giving it a try. You can knock out a classic and you will probably find it better than its reputation for greatness led you to believe it to be.

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“I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity…. But with a little sex.” – Sullivan’s Travels – Best Pictures of 1941 (#2)

McCrea's John L. Sullivan meets resistance from his studio bosses for his proposed "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Writer-director Preston Sturges would make a string of classic comedies through the 1940s, but his best, the definitive Sturges film, is Sullivan’s Travels. It argues for a position near and dear to my heart: the nobility and value of comedy in a world beset by tragedy, poverty, and war.

Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a successful but artistically discontented Hollywood director. Sullivan wants to break out of the world of what he thinks of as frivolous musical comedy and make something serious, something important that speaks to their troubled times, something that will shed light on the plight of the poor. He sets his sights on a Grapes of Wrath-type novel O Brother Where Art Thou? (by Sinclair Beckstein) The studio executives, horrified at the prospect of another high-brow bomb, push Sullivan to direct a sequel to his smash hit, Ants in Your Pants of 1939.

Sullivan, however, doesn’t back down, but when one executive asks what he knows about trouble, he has an epiphany. He realizes that he doesn’t know anything about standing in a breadline, scrounging for food in trash cans, or tramping in boxcars, so what could he possibly have to say about it? Sullivan hatches a plot to disguise himself as a hobo and go on the road to experience a life of poverty. While Sullivan sees this as a research opportunity, the studio smells a great chance for publicity.

The always stunning Veronica Lake with Joel McCrea

So Sullivan dresses himself in rags and sets out to experience life as a hobo, but the studio steps in and turns the experience into a circus as an army of publicists follows him in a luxurious bus. That is until he meets a penniless would-be actress who agrees to show him the ropes. Veronica Lake shines as the cynical actress worn out by Hollywood casting couches and an avalanche of nos. Together they shake the publicity hounds and embark on a journey that is at turns hilarious and tragic.

Sturges’ script – like most of all his scripts – is witty and bright. My favorite exchange occurs as Sullivan is trying to convince the studio executives that there is a market for serious movies about the evils of unregulated capitalism by citing a heavy picture that ran for six weeks at the Radio City Music Hall. When an executive points out that the same film closed after a week in Pittsburgh. Sullivan: What do they know? Exec: They know what they like. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.

Exchanges like these reveal Sturges’ disdain for elite do-gooders who want to make serious films to uplift the poor, to give them a voice. Don’t they already have voices? And if they choose not to use them for issues educated elites think they should, maybe it’s for reasons other than ignorance, laziness, or apathy. Maybe they understand their situation just fine and don’t need to be lectured to by people who eat three square meals a day and have no idea what they’re talking about. Sullivan’s butler tries to talk him out of his excursion by arguing that the poor already know about poverty and “only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” He goes on to say: “You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.” (After the butler leaves the room, Sullivan leans to his valet and says, “Say, he gets kind of morbid sometimes.” His valet replies, suspiciously, “Always reading books, sir.”)

John Sullivan discovers there's something noble about making people laugh

Sturges finds nothing low-brow about making people laugh, especially those people Sullivan sought to uplift and enlighten. And maybe a filmmaker (or writer) can make the same point with humor. It worked for Mark Twain and Will Rogers, why not Preston Sturges as well.

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“We’ll own this country some day.” – The Little Foxes – Best Pictures of 1941 (#3)

Herbert Marshall and Bette Davis scheme against each other in "The Little Foxes"

Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn was no stranger to the murky intersection of personal relationships and business. He was pushed out of more than one company he helped found, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, less for business reasons than for personal antipathy. Given this background it is no wonder that Goldwyn was attracted to Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, which explores the violence and exploitation possible in just about any relationship (connubial, sibling, friend, etc.) when business intertwines with personal relationships.

The Hubbard family has clawed its way up from social and economic irrelevance to prominence in their unnamed Southern town by the turn of the twentieth century. They are a breed of new capitalists who displaced the old Southern aristocracy in the decades after their defeat in the Civil War. They did not, however, get rich through hard work or innovation, but through the exploitation and outright cheating of the poor, and by picking the bones of struggling families of the old aristocracy. (Ben Hubbard even marries Birdie, the daughter of one of these clans, to gain access to the prestige of her family name.) The Hubbard siblings, Oscar, Ben, and Regina, value profit and power above all else. They are even willing to sacrifice their own relationships with each other and their respective families in order to secure profit.

Their latest scheme is to building a textile mill to their city. Bringing manufacturing to a town that already provides the raw materials (cotton) isn’t in itself a bad deal, but the carrot they dangle before a prominent Northern investor is the promise of laborers willing to work for $3 a week rather than the $8 he has to pay in the North.

Brothers Oscar and Ben are in, ready with their share of the investment needed to get the mill going, but Regina needs to convince her estranged husband Horace to put in as well. Horace, however, is convalescing from a serious heart condition in Baltimore and Regina connives to get him back home so she can convince him to invest in the mill, even though she knows he will be reluctant. Horace has grown more and more disgusted with the business tactics of the family he married into and sees the mill as another way for the Hubbards to suck up more of their town’s riches. His refusal to commit forces Regina and her brothers to scramble to make sure the deal goes through – and they aren’t above a little dishonesty.

The Hubbard clan gathers with money on their minds

The rest of the film is a rousing competition of wills and cunning as everybody maneuvers for the best position to maximize their own profits. Ben and Oscar hatch a scheme to cut out Regina and she retaliates by blackmailing them into a greater share and on and on it goes.

Hellman’s play translates well to the screen, especially with some remarkably good performances. Bette Davis delivers one of the best performances of her prolific career as Regina, dominating every scene with nothing more than her presence. Herbert Marshall appears as Regina’s husband Horace. He plays Horace as a sensitive man tired of his wife’s greed, but quietly accepts her by going away. He manages to take one last stand against this mill, but Regina’s determination may prove too much for his weak heart. Since the entire Hubbard family can’t be rotten (and I’m even leaving out Oscar’s son Leo, a dumb and arrogant kid that, knowing the course of U.S. history, is probably bound to be a U.S. Senator or something) we also have Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra played by Teresa Wright. She is sweet and naïve, completely unaware of her mother’s and uncles’ nefarious double-dealings. Though her character does not get the screen time others do, at the end, the movie is more about her coming of age and disillusionment about her family as anything else. (A principled young newspaper reporter was added to the screenplay as her love interest and to prod her toward the light, probably because Hollywood big shots couldn’t conceive of a woman having an idea of her own, without a sensible man planting it in her head.)

William Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s photography buttress the strong performances and polished writing to complete one of the best movies of 1941. For me this would have been a shoo-in for best of the year if it were not for a sparkling, socially-conscious comedy and a pesky, but unavoidable masterpiece.

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“If you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” – The Maltese Falcon – Best Pictures of 1941 (#4)

Humphery Bogart and Mary Astor toy with each other in "The Maltese Falcon"

The Maltese Falcon is a movie that should have been just another low budget B-flick based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, but director John Huston proved that the trashiest material can be made into great art. (Billy Wilder would do something similar with Double Indemnity in 1944). Huston’s writing and directing are sharp and confident, full of the youthful exuberance of an ambitious artist finally able to execute his vision after years of laboring in the Hollywood system. Huston seems all to eager to show up the establishment that had hampered him for so many years with a sharp visual language and witty dialogue.

The film is all about pretense, artifice – a fitting subject for an art form that thrives on the subversion of reality. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, a hardboiled San Francisco detective who gets caught up in an intricate web of deception and conniving. Hired by a mysterious woman, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to get her sister away from the man who corrupted her, Spade soon realizes nothing is as it seems. His partner is murdered (along with the man they were hired to follow) and unimaginative police detectives assume Spade had something to do with it. So Spade sets out to find out who killed his partner – not so much because he had so much affection for the man, but because, as he says, it would be bad for business for a private detective to have a partner’s murder go unsolved.

From there he uncovers a sort of international scavenger hunt for a gem encrusted medieval figurine known as the Maltese Falcon.  O’Shaughnessy is one of several individuals looking for the bird including the foppish Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the jovial fat man (Sydney Greenstreet), and an insecure, moody henchman (Elijah Cook, Jr.)

The major players eye the prize

Neither Spade nor the audience ever truly know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t – or if everyone is lying at all times, as often seems the case. These people lie for the fun of it, like when Gutman palms a $1000 bill to make it look like O’Shaughnessy stole it. When Spade calls him out, Gutman smirks and readily admits trying to stir up trouble. He loves the game.

We’re not even sure how seriously we should take Spade. He fits well into this perfidious world without ever officially joining it. In a scene with Gutman, Spade loses his temper, shouting and stomping around to great effect. He storms out of the room, pauses for a moment, and grins. It was an act and, though his hand shakes from the adrenaline, he was never out of control. We see that Spade can turn on the adrenaline to act the part he thinks will be most effective, though this knowledge also makes us in the audience aware that even our protagonist isn’t always (or ever) reliable. There is just no one for us to trust.

The most ambiguous relationship in the film is between Spade and  O’Shaughnessy. There appears to be a romance kindling between them, but there is so much lying going on that we can’t tell if either of them are serious, or if they are just using each other. I suspect they are falling in love, but their lies make the romance impossible. The first time Spade kisses her, he holds her head in his hands and pushes his thumbs into her cheeks, distorting her face. He is playing with her as much as she is with him, but they are still falling in love.

The Maltese Falcon is a rich, multi-layered film that works as a straight film noir, or as a deeper comment on the blurry line between truth and reality. By some point we don’t really care about the mystery; we just love seeing these characters toy with one another. Huston’s vision is scrupulously realized in one of the early films that sparked the film noir genre, complete with stark cinematographic contrasts populated by characters of questionable morals. It’s remembered as a Bogart film, but there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Bogart shines because everyone is allowed to steal a scene at one point or another, including director John Huston. The film is a genuinely collaborative effort and a richer movie-going experience because of it. It’s entertaining and thoughtful, intriguing and fantastic, all traits of a great movie.

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“I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” – Ball of Fire – Best Pictures of 1941 (#5)

Sugarpuss O'Shea gets comfortable in "Ball of Fire"

How can you not love a movie with Barbara Stanwyck playing a nightclub singer named Sugarpuss O’Shea? The name alone always leaves me howling, but then insert her into a modern day retelling of Snow White and you have something incredibly funny.

Of course this isn’t a straight retelling of the fairy tale made famous by the Disney film. In modern day (1941) New York, Prof. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), a straight laced scholar focused on his research, and his six colleagues are leisurely at work on a comprehensive encyclopedia. They have been working for several years and, much to the chagrin of the trustees of their grant, are still several more years away from completing it. Prof. Potts and his colleagues work and live together in a large Manhattan home, only getting away from their books for brisk strolls through Central Park. Their insularity keeps them close to their books, but Prof. Potts realizes that it has made him wholly inadequate to pen his entry on slang, all of his examples having been found in old, out of date books. He decides to find a cross section of New Yorkers close to the living, breathing, ever evolving modern slang and ventures out in the city. He distributes his card to assorted men and women hip to the lingo: a garbage man, news boy, etc. He invites them all to paid group sessions where they will teach him everything they know.

Potts forays into a nightclub where he sees Sugarpuss perform and decides he has to have her sharp tongue in the sessions. She quickly shoos the man away, but he leaves his card for her. Later she finds out that the police are looking for her to testify against her boyfriend, crime boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) in a murder case. She needs a place to hide out so she concocts a scheme to crash with the mild mannered professor. She shows up at his house, makes up a sad story, and soon Potts and the other professors welcome them into their home – much to the displeasure of their housekeeper.

Sugarpuss injects some life into the somber house with music, laughter, flirting, and, as always, a budding romance with Prof. Potts. The old men begin to cut loose and, for the first time in many years, start to have a good time. Things are complicated however when Lilac decides he needs to marry Sugarpuss (so she can’t testify against him) at the same time Prof. Potts has decided to ask her to marry him.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck

 

Both Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are marvelous, playing well opposite of each other with a crackling chemistry. Cooper played manly men and tough guys for so long that it’s nice to see him play a nerd. And Stanwyck does hard-boiled sexy like few could (or still can). They are supported well by superb supporting performances, especially from the other professors including such solid supporting actors like Oskar Homolka amd Henry Travers.

And let’s face it. Watching older, conservative folks awkwardly grapple with slang or any other modern ideas is pretty funny. Though I have smugly sat on the “in” side for years, I am increasingly finding words and terms incomprehensible, the sure sign of aging, making continued hipness unattainable (and for those my age or older who try just turn out to be sad people clinging to the days when our waistlines were naturally trim). So I have to accept the fact that kids will come up with new words and phrases in a secret sphere of cultural consciousness that I am not tapped into – nor am I sure I would want to be. Even screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett acknowledged their disconnect from the world of popular slang so — somewhat creepily — they spent afternoons at the drug store across the street from Hollywood High School, eager to catch scraps of slang for their script, much like Prof. Potts. Thankfully I don’t need to embark on a similar project; I’m fine not understanding … though I do wish someone would teach kids that even in emails and Facebook posts, punctuation IS necessary.

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The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family – Best Pictures of 1941 (#6)

The Toda Family in happier times

The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is an Ozu gem that is rarely seen in the United States today. I don’t think it has ever received a video release here (though I didn’t look into it too closely so I could be wrong about that). But this poignant and thoughtful movie about duty to family at a time when duty is being subsumed by notions like personal happiness and fulfillment deserves renewed attention. This is a theme Ozu would return to in 1953 with his classic Tokyo Story. While Tokyo Story has a universal feel to it (often being compared to Leo McCarey’s 1937 U.S. film Make Way for Tomorrow), Brothers and Sisters has a more uniquely Japanese flavor.

The Toda family is a well-off clan made up of two adult sons and three adult daughters. One son and two daughters are married and have their own families, while another son and daughter remain unmarried. Early on we understand that the family is actively searching for a good match for their younger daughter Setsuko. The unmarried son, Shojiro, is something of an embarrassment for the family: unemployed, few prospects, little ambition, lots of drinking. Setsuko and Shojiro still live with their mother and father, a comfortable, unchallenging existence.

Life for everyone is thrown into tumult when the Toda patriarch, Shintaro, dies after a family celebration for his birthday. Subsequent examination of his finances shows that he was nearly bankrupt and if the family is to honor his debts, they will have to sell off the family home and most of their possessions.

Suddenly there is no money for their mother’s and Setsuko’s living expenses. Worse yet, there isn’t even money enough for Setsuko’s dowry and all the decent marriage offers evaporate over night. The married siblings and their spouses worry about how their obligations for their mother’s and sister’s upkeep will crimp their lifestyles. Their mother and Setsuko are ignominiously shuffled from one house to another, each sibling eager to pawn off the pesky family members on the nest sibling. Meanwhile, Shojiro, unable to do much, leaves for a job in Japanese-occupied China.

Tensions rise through polite smiles

In each household Mother Toda and Setsuko are constantly reminded they are burdens and in the way. When Setsuko tries to get a job, to help with expenses, her sister is outraged, arguing that it would be beneath social standing and degrading for her to work. This, she argues, will make it even harder for her to find a suitable husband. Little conflicts like these bubble up in each house, forcing Setsuko and her mother, who want to avoid putting anyone out, into one uncomfortable position after another.

The movie is at times frustrating and heartbreaking, until an unexpected figure sets the family straight. Today the put-out family members might receive a bit more sympathy, but if we consider traditional concepts of filial duty in Japan, we can begin to understand how moving this movie must have been to audiences that may have experienced similar situations. It’s a movie that challenges our presumptions about responsibility and is still relevant in today’s world of dispersed families and privileged personal space. It certainly deserves an audience in Japan and around the world.

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“You know Mac, sometimes I feel like I don’t know what it’s all about anymore.” — High Sierra – Best Pictures of 1941 (#7)

Bogart's Roy Earle contemplates the Sierras

Crime movies often eschew such subtleties as character development in favor of car chases and gun fights. Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra is a rare type of crime picture that is first and foremost a character study of a man who knows he wants to change his life in some vague, abstract way, but has no idea how to go about it. The obligatory robberies and gunfights are there, but they aren’t nearly as compelling as watching Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle struggle with the only life he knows – crime – and his apparent desire for a quite, honest life and to do right, both for himself and others.

At the start of the picture Roy has just been paroled from prison in Indiana, but going straight is never a consideration. He immediately breaks his parole by leaving the state to go to California to reconnect with Red (Arthur Kennedy), his former crime boss. What, after all, would Roy have done in Indiana? Honest businesses aren’t usually lining up to hire aging ex-cons. In California Red sends him to a lakeside resort in the Sierra Mountains to meet up with a couple of other hoods. Together they are to plan and execute a jewelry heist in a ritzy Palm Springs-esque desert resort on the other side of the mountain with Roy as their leader.

 

Planning the heist

The hoods Roy meets up with are young crooks in awe of the legend of “Mad Dog” Earle, a nickname that belies Roy’s calm, quiet demeanor. Roy takes charge of the operation with efficiency and menace, batting down any indications of dissension, conflict, or challenges to his authority. One possible wrinkle in their plans is the presence of a girlfriend, Marie (Ida Lupino). One of the crooks brought Marie along for the company (or the prestige of having a beautiful woman on his arm), but it doesn’t take long for the two young men to start squabbling over her. Naturally Marie takes the opportunity opened by the bickering to cozy up to Roy.

Roy is tough and is committed to pulling off this job, but years in prison and his approach to old age (I love the touch of grey hair at his temples) makes him hunger for something deeper than money, they only positive asset one can acquire through a career of crime. While he is putting the jewelry heist together and kindling a romance with Marie, he also develops a friendship with a salt of the earth type Midwestern family that he met on the road traveling to California. Roy is attracted to their values and honesty, but he is especially taken with their 20-year-old granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). He is charmed by her innocence, intrigued by her beauty and naivety, and moved by her clubbed foot that causes her to walk with a pronounced limp. He vows to get the money to pay for her operation, giving Velma a new lease on life and possibly beginning to reclaim his own soul (though he never grapples with the dilemma of using stolen money to do it).

 

A doomed romance

Humphrey Bogart gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the conflicted criminal. He is almost schizophrenically divided between what he wants to be and what either history, tradition, or nature has demanded he has to be. Though tension between Bogart and Ida Lupino reportedly caused Lupino to vow never to work with him again (which probably ultimately hurt her career), they have good chemistry together. I especially like that we’re never sure how things are going to work out, even though the Hayes Office ensures we know what will happen to Roy. After Velma gets her operation the outcome is unexpected both for Roy and for us. It seems he really can’t get away from his past, no matter how pure his intentions. He corrupts everything he touches and it’s a poignant moment when he realizes he can’t even perform an act of charity without negative consequences. And it’s not just that operation that goes wrong. The heist backfires and Roy has to go on the run. The only question is will Marie be dragged down with him?

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