Wait, that’s what it’s about?!

We all make mistakes.  I’ve made far too many to count at this point in my life but we learn from our mistakes as well.  Sometimes, at least.  One mistake I have repeatedly made in the world of cinema is not fully investigating what a movie is about before deciding whether or not to see it.  I don’t mean reading up on the plot, I mean just a basic idea of the story.   In many of these cases, when I finally discovered, by finally watching the movie, what it was really about, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn’t seen it sooner.  Today, Peter Weir’s 1977 masterpiece, The Last Wave, airs today on TCM.  It’s the poster movie for this kind of thing with me and when I finally watched it, it became an instant favorite.  The same has happened for many others.


If you’d like an in depth analysis/write-up of The Last Wave, I did just that a few years ago here at the Morlocks.  It’s here for the taking but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, probably best to watch it first.  For years, all I knew about The Last Wave was that it was a courtroom drama.  Principled attorney Richard Chamberlain defends unjustly accused aborigines in Australia.  Sounded like a Stanley Kramer message movie to me, honestly, and I passed it up any chance I got.  Then, finally, someone asked me about it one day because it was their favorite movie.  I said I was sure it was good but I wasn’t much into courtroom dramas.  That’s when he told me it had little to nothing to do with the courtroom and everything to do with paranormal mysticism, reincarnation, and the end of the world via global flood.  What?!  I had no idea!  I watched it that week and, honestly, it’s been a favorite ever since, which is why I wrote it up here in the first place.  If you still haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Another movie I avoided for years was Niagara, with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten.  For whatever reason I got it into my head early on that Niagara was a fifties soap opera romance flick, a sort of bargain basement Sirk without the insight or under the radar commentary.  When you spend hours upon hours every day for several years reading up on every movie you can think of and then trying to watch as many as you can, things can sometimes get crossed in your head.  And with so many movies to read about and watch – and there are still so many -  it’s easy to toss aside a movie that you vaguely remember seeing mentioned at some point early on and think it’s a crappy romance.  Then, thanks to the internet coming along, I happened upon some conversations talking about the great thriller Niagara and realized I had been wrong all these years.  I finally watched it for the first time right here on TCM and was completely over the falls in a barrel for it (sorry).   It’s a terrific thriller with a great twist around the middle of the movie.  Another great surprise.

Sometimes, however, the surprises are a little more jolting.  Again, I can plead ignorance here but I can’t really give a reason for my ignorance except that for these titles, I just never bothered to read anything about them.  And for this next one, it was a real stunner.  You see, years ago, I remember seeing an old ad for Joe, the 1970 movie starring Peter Boyle and directed by John G. Avildsen.  From the ad, it looked like a comedy to me along the lines of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  It showed a picture of Peter Boyle with a wry smile holding a rifle and an American flag and the tagline said, “Keep America Beautiful.”  So to me, as a young kid, it looked like some movie where a local “joe” becomes a local celebrity for one reason or another and through his simple but honest ways, inspires everyone.  Ahahahaa, oh brother, I couldn’t have been more wrong!  A few years ago it was on TCM and I thought, “Let me finally give this fluffy little movie a look.”  Well, if you haven’t seen it, there’s nothing fluffy about it.  And the character Joe is utterly despicable.  Truly vile.  A racist, blue collar man who blames everyone for his problems, especially if they’re hippies or non-white or both.  And it’s story is about as dark and the opposite of light and fluffy as you can get.  Spoiler: There’s no happy ending.


I had no idea, none whatsoever, for years, what Portrait of Jennie was about.  None.  Zero.  It never really showed up in my film books and I had a vague notion that Joseph Cotten (there he is again) was a painter.  So, I guess I just thought it was about a painter and his muse and it actually is but not how I imagined it.  When I finally saw it, it happened as a result of falling in love with The Devil and Daniel Webster, a movie directed by William Dieterle, the man who also happened to be the director of Portrait of Jennie.  I decided to give it a look, again courtesy of TCM.  Wow.  I had no idea it was a haunting story of a ghostly romance that climaxes with one of the most jaw dropping dream sequences in movie history.  It was one of those experiences where as soon as the movie ended I slapped my head and asked myself scornfully why I waited so long to watch it.

And now one more to make this a nice round list of five movies.  This one was, next to Joe, the biggest shock for me.  It was a movie that, like Niagara, I had thought was some second rate Douglas Sirk knockoff.  When I finally saw it, with no idea what the plot of the movie even was, I was dumbfounded, and in love.  The movie?  Leave Her to Heaven.  Again, wow.  Here I was settling down for what I thought would be a basic technicolor soap opera romance and instead got treated to a thriller revolving around one of the most sociopathic characters in movie history, Ellen Berent, played by Gene Tierney.  If you’ve never seen it, let me just say that Fatal Attraction‘s histrionics don’t come close to the slow creeping dread of Ellen Berent’s zero sum game.  And Alex Forrest is a cream puff next to Ellen.

We all have our blind spots.  I’m sure there are still other movies out there that I’ve passed on because I have a completely different idea of what I think they are than what they really are.  It happens.  We movie folks try to see so many movies and read up on so many more that it’s inevitable some are going to fall by the wayside.  Hopefully, if it’s a movie it turns out we’ll love, we won’t stay away forever.  Of course, it’s also perfectly valid to avoid a movie if we’re pretty sure we’re not going to like it.  That’s why I’ll never watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I’m just not into live action animal movies for kids.

49 Responses Wait, that’s what it’s about?!
Posted By Arthur : April 29, 2016 2:28 pm

Ha! Ha! Yes, but CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF does contain something many do not realize, even after watching it, Newman’s character had had a love affair with his best friend. I’m with you on PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. Loved it since I was a child. I would include POINT BLANK in this category. I tried sitting through NIAGRA but couldn’t. What is its hidden meaning?

Posted By Max : April 29, 2016 2:30 pm

This is an oddball choice but for me, recently, it was Space Station 76. I love Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson, like sci-fi for the most part, and enjoy a good spoof but I had no interest in seeing it. I’d already seen both SF and the 70s spoofed too many times. What? Bell bottoms and disco in outer space? Boy, was I mislead. This movie is pretty polarizing. It is not what you think it is. Well, it is, but it’s not.

Posted By Flora : April 29, 2016 2:39 pm

There are plenty of films I have seen that I had been meaning to watch, but was waiting until I was older to see them based upon my strong reactions to films that I think I was too young to see when I first saw them. I really wish I had waiting until I knew more about the Greek culture – which I did after I visited there -before I saw Zorba the Greek. I was NOT prepared for the ending.

I was much more able to handle Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolfe when I finally saw it.

For me, the movie that fits your example the best is Rear Window. I had always thought that Hitchcock made horror movies only because I knew the famous scenes from Psycho and The Birds. Then Raymond Burr died and he was my favourite Canadian born actor. I loved Perry Mason. He hated his big screen career, except for one movie:
Rear Window:
I decided after he died I had to see it. It was not a horror film at all. I loved it, and I started to go through all of Hitchcock movies. Hitchcock became my favourite director.

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 3:15 pm

This was one of the funniest articles I’ve read in ages. I laughed through the entire thing—and NOT being a morning person, the last thing I do on any given morning is laugh.

I’ve seen all of the movies you mentioned, except “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which I’ve tried to watch several times, but quickly gave up on.

I saw “The Last Wave” in its theatrical release, when I was 27, and it became an instant favorite of mine. I also saw “Joe,” in its theatrical release, when I was 20, and that might have been too much for me, at that age.

I’ve always loved “A Portrait of Jenny” (which I also read), except for Jennifer Jones, whom I could never stand. “Leave Her to Heaven” is a favorite.

I only recently (last year) saw “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” since I generally dislike comedies. I forced myself to finally watch it, when it was on TCM, and I loved it.

A few months ago, I finally forced myself to watch “A Face in the Crowd,” which TCM seems to show every month. I expected a movie-length version of Mayberry, and kept telling myself, for years, that I would watch the next time. Finally, I did, and what happened in that movie certainly never happened in Mayberry.

I frequently force myself to watch classic films that are of genres I don’t like, as medicine, and sometimes they turn out to be candy.

Posted By LD : April 29, 2016 3:25 pm

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, another film directed by Weir and based on Joan Lindsay’s book, was a film I avoided after researching it. I wasn’t certain I would like it, although I had heard good things about it. Then a couple of years ago Criterion released it in dual format and included Joan Lindsay’s book. It was on sale at B&N and I couldn’t resist the deal. One of the few films I have purchased without seeing. I read the book first and then watched the film. Bottom line, I loved it. So when I saw THE LAST WAVE was going to be aired on TCM there was no doubt I would be watching it. Ready, set, record.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : April 29, 2016 3:26 pm

Its funny reading this as for years CAT was considered a classic and probably still is in some circles. Its good but kind of dated. the Cult of Liz Taylor seems to have dissipated over the years. Paul Newman fans would rather watch SLAP SHOT. I’d rather watch Eli Kazan or Nicholas Ray.

The other movies mentioned, practically all of ‘em have devoted followings that money and press can not buy. THE LAST WAVE thankfully avoids the pitfalls of the mono-myth. The use of water is haunting. NIAGARA is like a True Crime magazine cover come to life. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is just sublime! Green with envy!

Oh! One to seek out is LOVE LETTERS with Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones. Its from Director William Dieterle with screenplay from Ayn Rand (!?). Its starts off as a love story, Cotton is ghost writing love letters for his friend in WWII… and then he gets to meet the girl.

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 4:11 pm

RE: the above 2 commenters, I loved “Love Letters,” and yes, yes, yes to “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” And as long as we are talking about movies with “rock” in the title, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” with Spencer Tracy, is a must.

Posted By Mitch Farish : April 29, 2016 5:42 pm

Usually, when I catch up with movies I’ve been avoiding, I realize why I was avoiding them. I thought, since it had Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in it, Leave Her to Heaven might at least be something like Laura, but when I saw it, I was disappointed that it did seem much to much like a soap opera, very static and not involving except for the scene in the boat, but that’s it. You keep waiting for her to do something else just as evil, but nothing equals that scene. Very anticlimactic.

Posted By Emgee : April 29, 2016 7:35 pm

Talking about Laura, that’s one movie i thought for years must be a soaper, but turned out to be an excellent and witty mystery story.

For years i assumed A Place in the Sun would be a treackly love story, judging by the posters. it ain’t.

I’d seen Niagara ages ago but could only remember Marilyn Monroe in a red dress ( funny, that) The story: not a clue, turns out it is indeed a thriller. Who knew?

Posted By Emgee : April 29, 2016 7:42 pm

@ Flora Re: Raymond Burr. He indeed tried to shove his movie career under the carpet after Perry Mason. Undeservedly so: he played in several excellent noir movies. Probably the fact that he invariably played the villain made him want to keep them quiet.

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 7:43 pm

Emgee, you mean that you did not assume that “A Place in the Sun” was an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movie?

Posted By Emgee : April 29, 2016 8:04 pm

@Susan: No, otherwise i’d seen it ages ago. Who wants to see Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini? Oh, wait…..

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 8:07 pm

Emgee, you are distraught, I am sure, that Frankie Avalon never got to play Othello.

Posted By Emgee : April 29, 2016 8:15 pm

As i’m sure he is as well; a loss to us all. Judging by Muscle Beach Party he’d be ideal for the part.

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 8:27 pm

If only he had been British. SIR Frankie Avalon has such a ring to it.

Posted By Emgee : April 29, 2016 8:36 pm

Arise, sir Francis of Avalon! Hmmm, when was the last King Arthur movie made?

Posted By George : April 29, 2016 8:41 pm

For years I assumed CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) was a fluffy musical. Hey, it starred Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Little did I know it was a film noir with Durbin and especially Kelly playing some pretty dark characters. It’s a terrific movie.

I also assumed THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) was a lightweight romantic comedy instead of the biting anti-war satire it was. Another terrific movie I eventually discovered.

Posted By Susan : April 29, 2016 8:55 pm

Alas, Emgee, Annette F is not alive to play Morgana.

Posted By LD : April 29, 2016 9:39 pm

Watched THE LAST WAVE today and found it to be both enjoyable and impressive. Have to admit my favorite is PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK but both films deal with the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime, especially THE LAST WAVE. I don’t pretend to understand Dreamtime fully, if at all, but I do know what a premonition is. There is so much to understand in THE LAST WAVE, but is helped by the use of symbolism. For instance the rainbow, or serpent. I suspect it is one of those films that reveals itself even more through research, if one is inclined to pursue it.

Greg-Read your post about the film. It was interesting and informative. Thanks!

Posted By LD : April 29, 2016 9:43 pm

FYI-Russell Boyd was the cinematographer for both THE LAST WAVE and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. He won an Oscar for MASTER AND COMMANDER….

Posted By mdr : April 29, 2016 9:53 pm

Interiors (1978) – firstly, one expects its director Woody Allen to be in it. Secondly, that it’s a comedy. Thirdly, if it’s a drama by said director, that it wouldn’t be very good.

Wrong on all three counts.

Posted By George : April 29, 2016 10:45 pm

JOE is still a shocker today. If a studio remade it (hope that never happens), Joe would undergo a “character arc” in which he would reform and become a nice guy. It would end with him marching in an MLK Day parade.

And the film’s copious nudity would probably not be allowed in an R-rated movie today … although it might be allowed on HBO.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:21 am

Okay, well, if I got Suzi to laugh in the morning, my work here is done.

So, Suzi, let me ask you this since we both feel the same about Jennifer Jones (I never you didn’t like her). Is it the voice? Because that’s what it is with me. It’s that weird little girl voice that spoils her performances for me.

And Face in the Crowd was a revelation to me about how powerful an actor Andy Griffith could be. He’s downright scary in the role.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:24 am

Arthur, I love Niagara but I don’t know what meaning is intended one way or the other. For me, it’s just a great noir thriller.

And not only Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but Streetcar Named Desire also had heavy editing from the original play. In Streetcar’s movie version, the revelatory moment where Blanche tells Mitch her husband had an affair with another man is completely cut out despite how utterly important it is to her character.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:25 am

Jonathan, I’ve never seen Love Letters and was unaware that was its story. And again with Joseph Cotten! He’s like the king of movies I don’t know anything about until I watch them.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:35 am

LD, I love Picnic at Hanging Rock as well. Have you ever seen the chapter with the “solution” to the mystery. Glad it wasn’t included in the book or movie.

Glad you liked my write up The Last Wave, too. Thanks.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:38 am

Flora, Hitchcock has always had a reputation for the macabre which a lot of people overlap with horror but, as you say, Hitchcock never did horror, except for Psycho and the existential/nature horror of The Birds. Rear Window is a great movie to start with discovering Hitchcock by the way. Just wrote it up here a couple of weeks ago.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:39 am

Emgee, Laura was the exact same way for me. Had no idea it wasn’t just a soaper romance. When I watched it and found out it was a mystery, I was overjoyed.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:42 am

Mitch, you don’t consider trying to frame someone else for your own death, or causing your own miscarriage for both sympathy and to spite your husband, as bad? She’s a pretty rotten person.

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 1:44 am

mdr, Interiors is a movie I’ve always liked very much but I think you and I are in the minority on it. I think it’s still one of his best dramas.

Posted By Autist : April 30, 2016 2:35 am

I saw Interiors a long time ago, and haven’t seen it since, but I liked it at the time.

Posted By LD : April 30, 2016 4:22 am

Yes, Greg, I have read about the eighteenth chapter of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and completely agree that it was better left out of both the book and film. That was at the suggestion of Lindsay’s editor, I think. After seeing the film I wanted to find out as much as I could about it. It would have been a good film to use in your previous post about if a so called “true” story makes a film better. PICNIC is fiction but because Hanging Rock is a real place and with some slight encouragement from the author and film, some people still believe it was based on a true story, or want to believe it. I have a friend who lived in Melbourne for a couple of years and she visited Hanging Rock, with a picnic of course, and she said it was an eerie place.

Posted By Susan : April 30, 2016 5:12 am

gregfarra, My jenniferjonesphobia is not really about her voice. It is her odd, asymmetrical facial mannerisms. Plus, I think she was a terrible actress.

Another movie that silly me refused to see, until recently, because it was a comedy, was “NInotchka,” despite the fact that I love Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. Of course, once I saw it, I concurred that it is one of the all-time greats.

One comedy, however, that I finally forced myself to watch, and hated, was “My Man Godfrey.”

BTW, call me Suzi, again, and I will have to go all Gene-Tierney-in-Leave-Her-To-Heaven on you.

Any of you unfortunate to live in NJ should come to the Montclair Film Festival, which started tonight. I went to the opening night movie, “A Life Animated,” a delightful, heart-warming documentary about a young man with autism. After the movie, the Q&A was conducted by Stephen Colbert, who lives in Montclair.

Posted By Emgee : April 30, 2016 9:23 am

In the same vein as Laura: Gilda. Must be a Rita Hayworth musical. Wrong! saw it, loved it.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with Barbara Barbara Stanwyck.
Of The Thorn Birds and The Colbys fame. Surely one to avoid.
Saw it only last year and again, i was wrong ( it happens.)

Posted By gregferrara : April 30, 2016 10:29 am

Susan, ha, sorry. Force of habit. It’s because of my fellow Morlock, Susan Doll, whose name shows up as “Susan” but who goes by “Suzi”. So when I see “Susan” I automatically reply with “Suzi.” Oops. I’ll be more careful in the future.

Posted By Susan : April 30, 2016 11:27 am

Emgee, Barbara Stanwyck was a WONDERFUL actress. If you just know her/judge her from TV (I was introduced to her from her show, “The Big Valley,” which I watched as a teenager), and have not looked beyond that, you have missed a terrific actress, who made terrific, classic movies. Watch this 5 minute TCM tribute to her, by Jennifer Jason Leigh, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b0HloNhmhc

Posted By Susan : April 30, 2016 11:32 am

gregfarra,I’ll let it go this time, since I like Susan Doll’s column.

Posted By Emgee : April 30, 2016 12:14 pm

@Susan: yes, i’ve come to realise the error of my ways since then.
For years i thought she was mainly a soap drama queen, but having seen several of her movies she’s now one of my favourite actresses. As is so rightly stated above: We all make mistakes.

Posted By Arthur : April 30, 2016 3:17 pm

I certainly cotton to this Cotten trilogy: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, THE THIRD MAN and SHADOW OP A DOUBT. The man was magnificent in all three of them.

BTW very few movies ever made rise to the quality and enduring relevance of A FACE IN THE CROWD.

Posted By gregferrara : May 1, 2016 12:41 am

A FACE IN THE CROWD never feels dated to me. Always timely, always relevant.

Posted By George : May 1, 2016 8:04 pm

One thing that keeps FACE IN THE CROWD relevant is that people can interpret it however they want, depending on their political views. People on the left see Lonesome Rhodes as Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump (or Rush Limbaugh), while people on the right see him as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama (or Michael Moore).

As long as there are political and media figures perceived (by some) as hucksters and con men, FACE IN THE CROWD will stay timely.

Posted By robbushblog : May 2, 2016 2:46 pm

I never knew PORTRAIT OF JENNY was about what it was about until I finally saw it. I figured it was schmaltzy romance film. But, because Joseph Cotten elevates everything he’s in, and because I actually DO like Jennifer Jones, I gave it a try. And boy was I glad I did!

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN also, for me, was a film I avoided for a long time due to my mistaken belief that it was just some melodrama. Also, my sister and mom hate it so much because Gene Tierney was mean to Jeanne Crain. I finally poo-pooed their protestations and watched it for myself. It was pretty great. I don’t listen to either of them anymore when it comes to movies, nor do THEY listen to ME.

Posted By gregferrara : May 2, 2016 9:04 pm

Rob, it’s interesting that we both had the same mistaken beliefs about both of those movies. And both are just great.

Posted By kingrat : May 3, 2016 4:50 am

Greg, you’ve never seen LOVE LETTERS? Dude!!! One of the great romantic films. How should a young woman behave when she has no memory of her past? She begins a new identity as “Singleton.” All four main female characters are quite strong. One of Jennifer Jones’ best performances, with CLUNY BROWN and BEAT THE DEVIL. Now don’t tell me you haven’t seen them, either.

I avoided NIGHT SONG because it was described as: Merle Oberon pretends to be blind to get closer to Dana Andrews. Turns out to ask a serious question about what happens when you pretend to be someone you aren’t to attract a romantic partner. Merle Oberon’s best performance, Dana Andrews is great at self-loathing, and Hoagy Carmichael and Ethel Barrymore are great, too. One of the great romantic films of the 1940s.

Some have thought HIGH BARBAREE must be a western. It’s, um, one of the great romantic films of the 1940s.

I thought THE KEY must be bad, because any film with William Holden and Sophia Loren you’ve never heard of has to be bad. Turns out to be a great film about PTSD, as well as illuminating a little-known aspect of WWII. No, it’s not one of the great romantic films of the 1940s. It’s one of the great romantic films of the 1950s.

Posted By Susan : May 3, 2016 3:30 pm

Kingrat, I also had avoided “High Barbaree” (terrible title) and “The Key” (which I kept confusing with “The Glass Key” and other movies with “key” in the title), but like you, ended up liking both. And I liked “Night Song.”

Two of my favorite romances are “Random Harvest” (Ronald Colman and Greer Garson, and not a movie about problems with farming, LOL) and “The Enchanted Cottage” (Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young). I recommend them both to anyone who has not seen them. Speaking of Ronald Colman, my favorite of his is “Lost Horizon.” I loved the book as a kid and, in this case, the movie was as great. I’ve seen it many times. I am going off on tangents, here, with each thing I mention, but another movie about a remote (Himalayas in both cases) religious order is “Black Narcissus,” which is one of my favorite movies of all time. The cinematography is amazing. Deborah Kerr was luminous and Kathleen Byron gave an unforgettable performance. I thought David Farrar was miscast and it is ridiculous that Jean Simmons (whom I have never liked) played an Asian girl, but the movie is still not to be missed.

Posted By Susan : May 3, 2016 7:34 pm

I just finally watched “On the Beach.” Silly me, avoiding it for so long.

Posted By swac44 : May 4, 2016 11:47 am

I finally watched the ’70s version of Lost Horizon. I thought it would be a boring movie about Tibetan lamas, but instead it was a terrible, terrible musical.

Posted By Susan : May 4, 2016 5:02 pm

Yes, a total insult to the original Lost Horizon–not to mention an insult to the audience, to movies, to musicals, to the universe….

Posted By George : September 18, 2016 9:55 pm

The fact that PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is not an easy movie to categorize, or easy to sum up in a sentence or two (without it sounding ridiculous), may have led to its box office failure. It’s a movie you have to experience for yourself. I think it’s wonderful.

Speaking of wonderful, here is one of my favorite classic movie bloggers/tweeters, Nora Fiore (the Nitrate Diva), talking about JENNIE a few days ago. Hey, TCM, if you’re looking for a guest host, here she is:


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