Summer Film Revivals, Part 2
JULY 27, 1998:
This summer has seen a revival of some of the classic summer films of yesteryear. This article is Part II of Austin Chronicle's look back at these celluloid treasures. For more on this revival, visit the Chronicle at http://www.auschron.com>.
D: Ridley Scott; with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto,
Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton.
D: James Cameron; with Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen.
Alien was a movie so good that it spawned a sequel that was even better,
which, unfortunately, spawned a couple of bad movies, but let's not get into that.
Alien was the first picture that scared me enough to check beneath my bed
before I went to sleep. C'mon, I was nine. What if there was a face-hugger down there?
The only thing dumber than my fear, though, was Ripley herself (Sigourney Weaver).
She went back and got the cat. How unbelievably idiotic (yet, believably female).
James Cameron, long before declaring himself King of the World, already showed his
love for Titanic-scale production by turning Ridley Scott's one-alien opus
into a full-fledged action film with all kinds of sophisticated weaponry and sensors
and scores of those "things," not to mention some memorable lines by Bill
Paxton ("Quit your grinnin' and drop your linen"). Seeing Aliens
on the big screen with the THX turned up loud was a full sensory experience. Every
motion, every eyelash batting, had a noise that set you on edge, and rightfully so,
because those fuckers were hiding in every corner, every crevice. The small screen
just can't do it justice. "Game over, man." - Michael Bertin
D: W.S. VanDyke II; with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Marjorie Main.
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944)
D: Richard Thorpe; with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Gloria DeHaven.
Hollywood has never had much use for married people. In most of its films, they're
next to non-existent; that is, unless you count adulterers and parents (who are,
it's worth noting, married people focused chiefly on someone other than their
matrimonial partner). The rare celluloid couple that is married, childless, and not
engaged in extra-marital hanky-panky tends to be of the "neighborly" type,
the hitched pair of supporting characters who are jovial, loyal, and completely asexual
- as if exchanging vows also involved being neutered. The idea of two people enjoying
wedded bliss, being as stimulated by each other with golden bands on their
fingers as without, seems beyond the imagination of Tinseltown.
Well, not quite. There are the Charleses, the grand exception that proves the
rule. In Nick and Nora Charles, Hollywood gave us a married couple of surpassing
style, humor, and romance. Here were a husband and wife who reveled in each other's
company. They actually conversed. They shared jokes and gifts. They expressed tenderness,
devotion, desire. They even - gasp - danced. They were exhilaratingly playful, teasing
each other about bad habits and past affairs, pulling practical jokes, all the while
their eyes sparkling, their smile flashing equal parts amusement and affection.
This singular cinematic portrait of matrimony is owed to a remarkable confluence
of talents: Dashiell Hammett, who created the Charleses and established their remarkable
rapport in stories that inspired the six Thin Man films; a couple of exceptional
screenwriters who also happen to have been husband and wife: Frances Goodrich and
Albert Hackett, who followed the first three Thin Man movies with It's
a Wonderful Life and The Diary of Anne Frank; and, of course, the actors
William Powell and Myrna Loy, who brought to their roles all their considerable charm
and elegance, and set it off with a spark that flew between Nick and Nora in every
scene, that lit up their faces and made their relationship electric.
The pleasures in the Thin Man films are manifold - the baroque mysteries
on which the movies are hung; the sterling comic cameos by veteran character actors
(blowsy Marjorie Main and Shemp Howard in Another Thin Man; mousy Donald Meek
in Goes Home); the hilarious parade of chipper, chatty crooks who have been
collared by Nick; the shenanigans of filmdom's most antic canine, Asta - but the
greatest pleasure, the thing that makes every picture in the series worth savoring,
is that relationship between Nick and Nora. Like the band of gold that each partner
wears, it's radiant, it's rich, it endures. - Robert Faires
D: Billy Wilder; with Fred MacMurray, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon, Edie Adams.
D: Ridley Scott; with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton.
D: James Cameron; with Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen.
Alien was a movie so good that it spawned a sequel that was even better, which, unfortunately, spawned a couple of bad movies, but let's not get into that. Alien was the first picture that scared me enough to check beneath my bed before I went to sleep. C'mon, I was nine. What if there was a face-hugger down there? The only thing dumber than my fear, though, was Ripley herself (Sigourney Weaver). She went back and got the cat. How unbelievably idiotic (yet, believably female). James Cameron, long before declaring himself King of the World, already showed his love for Titanic-scale production by turning Ridley Scott's one-alien opus into a full-fledged action film with all kinds of sophisticated weaponry and sensors and scores of those "things," not to mention some memorable lines by Bill Paxton ("Quit your grinnin' and drop your linen"). Seeing Aliens on the big screen with the THX turned up loud was a full sensory experience. Every motion, every eyelash batting, had a noise that set you on edge, and rightfully so, because those fuckers were hiding in every corner, every crevice. The small screen just can't do it justice. "Game over, man." - Michael Bertin
D: W.S. VanDyke II; with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Marjorie Main.
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944)
D: Richard Thorpe; with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Gloria DeHaven.
Hollywood has never had much use for married people. In most of its films, they're next to non-existent; that is, unless you count adulterers and parents (who are, it's worth noting, married people focused chiefly on someone other than their matrimonial partner). The rare celluloid couple that is married, childless, and not engaged in extra-marital hanky-panky tends to be of the "neighborly" type, the hitched pair of supporting characters who are jovial, loyal, and completely asexual - as if exchanging vows also involved being neutered. The idea of two people enjoying wedded bliss, being as stimulated by each other with golden bands on their fingers as without, seems beyond the imagination of Tinseltown.
Well, not quite. There are the Charleses, the grand exception that proves the rule. In Nick and Nora Charles, Hollywood gave us a married couple of surpassing style, humor, and romance. Here were a husband and wife who reveled in each other's company. They actually conversed. They shared jokes and gifts. They expressed tenderness, devotion, desire. They even - gasp - danced. They were exhilaratingly playful, teasing each other about bad habits and past affairs, pulling practical jokes, all the while their eyes sparkling, their smile flashing equal parts amusement and affection.
This singular cinematic portrait of matrimony is owed to a remarkable confluence of talents: Dashiell Hammett, who created the Charleses and established their remarkable rapport in stories that inspired the six Thin Man films; a couple of exceptional screenwriters who also happen to have been husband and wife: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who followed the first three Thin Man movies with It's a Wonderful Life and The Diary of Anne Frank; and, of course, the actors William Powell and Myrna Loy, who brought to their roles all their considerable charm and elegance, and set it off with a spark that flew between Nick and Nora in every scene, that lit up their faces and made their relationship electric.
The pleasures in the Thin Man films are manifold - the baroque mysteries on which the movies are hung; the sterling comic cameos by veteran character actors (blowsy Marjorie Main and Shemp Howard in Another Thin Man; mousy Donald Meek in Goes Home); the hilarious parade of chipper, chatty crooks who have been collared by Nick; the shenanigans of filmdom's most antic canine, Asta - but the greatest pleasure, the thing that makes every picture in the series worth savoring, is that relationship between Nick and Nora. Like the band of gold that each partner wears, it's radiant, it's rich, it endures. - Robert Faires
D: Billy Wilder; with Fred MacMurray, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon, Edie Adams.
How far will a man go to climb the corporate ladder? Jack Lemmon plays Bud Baxter, a lowly insurance clerk whose one trump card is his apartment. He's prevailed upon to "loan out" his apartment for secret trysts when married executives at his company have affairs. He has to, of course, deal with the aftermath of their nocturnal visits, as well as grapple with his own conscience. The real problems arise, however, when he starts to fall for the current girlfriend (Shirley MacLaine) of his boss. Wilder co-wrote this jaundiced satire of the company man, and it definitely bears his stamp of blighted hope and cynicism while remaining wildly funny at the same time. Watch out for Fred MacMurray as Lemmon's utter heel of a boss; it's one of his few departures from the vanilla roles in which he was usually cast. Wilder earlier persuaded him to play a scoundrel in Double Indemnity, much to his trepidation; it of course turned out to be a runaway success. The Apartment was as well, dragging home a number of Academy Awards in l960. - Jerry Renshaw
D: Herschell Gordon Lewis; with Thomas Wood, Connie Mason, Mal Arnold, Ashlyn Martin.
This is it! This is the mother lode, the Book of Genesis, the wellspring from which spewed the gallons of grue that flowed through 30 years' worth of splatter and gore movies. Herschell Gordon Lewis had previously worked in the nudie genre until he hit on the idea of Grand Guignol violence for his drive-in releases. Blood Feast kicked things off with the tale of a caterer who worships a mannequin designated as an Egyptian goddess. The goddess feeds on blood, and after 5,000 years she's a mite thirsty. He's been hired to cater an Egyptian feast for ex-Playmate Connie Mason, and in the process various people are relieved of legs, tongues, brains, and other body parts. Torrents of the special-recipe H.G. Lewis gore flow in disgusting (if unconvincing) detail. The acting is terrible, the threadbare budget shows in every shot, but just imagine Southern drive-in audiences lining up around the block back in 1963 to toss their cookies to Blood Feast. Lewis' next feature was 2000 Maniacs, a South's-gonna-rise-again bloodbath aimed right at the chicken-fried set. Offensive, nasty, shabby, and revolting, but also great fun, if you can stand the sight of guts (of course ya' can, you wimp). - Jerry Renshaw
D: George Marshall; with Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix.
THE BIG CLOCK (1948)
D: John Farrow; with Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan.
The Blue Dahlia (1946) has everything you'd want in the way of classic elements: amnesia, helplessness, disillusionment, extreme ambivalence, and a bad, bad girl. Doris (Helen Morrison) has not only been cheating on hubby Johnny (Alan Ladd) while he's been overseas flying low-level bombing missions against the Nazis, she's also responsible for killing their son during one of her drunken driving sprees. The setup: Johnny returns home unexpectedly in the middle of one of Helen's wild parties, and socks her boyfriend, Eddie (a shady clubowner). Helen announces to her guests: "Ladies and gentlemen, I think you'd better leave. My husband wants to be alone with me. He probably wants to beat me up." The crime: Helen is later found beaten to death, Johnny is suspect numero uno. But our favorite suspect is Johnny's war buddy Buzz (William Bendix). Buzz has a plate in his head, blacks out frequently, and worships Johnny. On the run, Johnny stumbles into Eddie's wife, Joyce (Veronica Lake); sparks fly, shadows deepen, film noir magic happens. The two of them drive in the rain - two lost souls in a bleak universe defined by windshield wipers and dash lights. Lake and Ladd, arch film noir icons, crystalline images (as in the classics The Glass Key and This Gun for Hire), seared onto your retina forever. This brilliant, seething-with-ambivalence screenplay by hard-boiled god Raymond Chandler contains such classic gems as: "Just don't go getting complicated, Eddie. When a guy gets complicated, he's unhappy. And when he's unhappy, his luck runs out ..." Speaking of luck, Chandler risked death to write this movie. He developed writer's block in the middle of the project, and decided the only way to finish it was on a bender - a life-threatening gamble for someone as seriously addicted to alcohol as Chandler. But he did it. Boy did he do it.
Coincidentally, The Big Clock is also a movie fueled by alcohol, and the dizzy sense that, on some rare, wild nights, almost anything can happen after you take that first drink - especially if you follow it - and a mysterious female - with a couple dozen more. The foundation: A great cast including Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester, and a plot with a great gimmick: Publisher Earl Janoth (Laughton) is a monomaniacal tycoon who treats his employees (as well as his wife and mistress) as slaves who are all part of a massive machine that he owns, not unlike the big clock which is the centerpiece of his Great Pyramidesque corporate headquarters. Janoth kills his mistress, Pauline, in a fit of rage, then cleverly assigns his top writer, George Stroud (Milland), the job of tracking down her killer. But it just so happens that George and Pauline spent the night before the murder on a serendipity-splattered drunken spree, making him not only the prime suspect, but causing plenty of trouble with George's long-suffering wife, Georgette (Maureen O'Sullivan). Although based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing, the head-spinning, hallucinatory thrill ride provided by the script was the unique specialty of screenwriter (and novelist) Jonathan Latimer, who also scripted The Glass Key. For lovers of off-center hard-boiled and film noir, Latimer (author of the masterpiece Solomon's Vineyard) is the Man. Except for the fact that there'll be plenty of drinking, you never know what's going to happen in one of his stories, but then again, the bibulous and the hard-boiled amongst us should know to expect that. Ah, the curse of memory loss. Kill me now, while I've got these great images in my brain. - Jesse Sublett
D: J. Lee Thompson; with Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen.
You know what? Bernard Herrmann is a god. His score was soooooo good that Martin Scorsese knew he had to have it for his remake. Try to search your memory, find another case in which that happened. Sure, Tarantino used the Coffy score to propel Jackie Brown, but when has a film lifted the entire score note for note? I can't think of one. Not only that, but he had to have Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Peck is in his Atticus mode, a strong upright Southern Lawyer with righteousness on his shoulder. Mitchum ... nobody plays sleazy white trash as well as Robert Mitchum. The man had moonshine in his veins and pork rinds in his mouth. He was a lustin' for young little things and itching for a rassle. He was ... trouble with a capital "T." Personally, I would have double-billed this with The Night of the Hunter, so here's my recommendation. Go see the double feature, run to your nearest video store, rent The Night of the Hunter and watch it afterwards. You will not regret it. Afterwards you'll lock your doors, tuck your loved ones in bed, and sit with a shotgun in your lap all night long. It's a real high. -Harry Knowles
D: Wolfgang Petersen; with Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer.
Oh man, not a movie with subtitles! If you have never seen a foreign film, if you have never seen a great submarine film, if you want to see a great film, see Das Boot. This film is nothing short of breathtaking. With claustrophobic, nightmarishly ghoulish production design, this film is like a defibrillator to the chest. It stops your heart dead in its tracks. You'll cheer for Nazis. That's how good the film is. You'll cheer for those Nazis who lie beneath the surface of the ocean waiting to destroy American ships. You'll root for them. You'll cry for them. You'll live with them. This is filmmaking at its absolute pinnacle. A film of such audacity that you'll feel the bursting of sea water in your face as they sail across the top of the ocean: pounding music, torrential winds, and the Captain (played by the brilliant Jurgen Prochnow) howling against the nature of the sea itself. One of the best films, period. This is why you go see movies. It's the best film that will play in Austin this year. After you see it, demand they show it again. Give it its own week. I want to see it seven times in a row. - Harry Knowles
D: Terrence Malick; with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard.
Some movies are like Dorothy's twister; they just pick you up and whisk you away from the commonplace world you know to a world wondrous and astonishing. Days of Heaven is such a movie. As it unfolds its troubled tale of a romantic triangle, Terrence Malick's second film sweeps us away to a landscape of panoramic vistas, vivid colors, and rich textures. The landscape is one that Dorothy might recognize - the wheat fields of the Midwest - but Malick's vision of it is about as far from the dreary gray plains of Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz as a filmmaker can get. Here, it's a vast, rolling ocean of burnished golden grain, over which stretches a vault of majestic blue. It ripples with life, the movements of which are captured with a clarity and brightness that makes the eye go wide and the jaw hang slack. It's so strikingly photographed - exquisite work by cinematographer Nestor Almendros - that it seems a world new and strange, as dazzling and profound in its mysteries as Oz. In some films, such visual virtuosity would be little more than pretty pictures, trying to distract us from the story's shortcomings. But Malick makes this landscape integral to his tale, a frontier not yet tamed, where nature still rules and can overwhelm feeble human concerns. A stunning film, proof of the power of setting to propel a story and to transport its audience. - Robert Faires
D: John Boorman; with Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox.
At Steve's house you could watch TV whenever you wanted, pretty much whatever you wanted. Every weekend I begged to sleep over at his house - Friday and Saturday if possible - and we'd stay up late, after everyone else had gone to sleep, watching bad horror movies at the extreme, subterranean part of Steve's enormous three-story house. For years. And in all that time, we never saw anything that scared us as much as Deliverance, viewed in the TV room just down from the dining/kitchen area, during prime time - some "ABC Friday Night Special Presentation" - while his parents were in the next room. An adaptation of James Dickey's Southern gothic novel, Deliverance looked fun enough, the story of four city slickers who take their canoe down some secluded river canyon. Burt Reynolds, before he became "Gator," "Bandit," or "Hooper," all buff, no toupee, with his high-powered hunting bow. Cool. Then came one of the most chilling scenes in cinematic history - the rape scene; Ned Beatty squealing like a pig. Steve and I were 10 or 12 at the time, maybe older. Just boys - boys getting a glimmer of what men are capable of. We lost a lot of innocence that night. We laugh about it now, of course, but to this day, "Dueling Banjoes" still gives me the willies. - Raoul Hernandez
D: Billy Wilder; with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall.
Based on the James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity finds Walter Neff (MacMurray) being conned by Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) into devising a plot to knock off her husband and make off with a settlement from his insurance policy. Raymond Chandler worked with Wilder on the screenplay, which led to plenty of problems. The somewhat prissy Chandler despised James M. Cain and considered his work little better than smut (which didn't keep him from developing some dialogue that fairly crackles with sexual innuendo), and the personality clashes between Wilder and him are the stuff of legend. Hollywood didn't agree with Chandler's nature at all, thus the final product bears the imprimatur of Wilder more than Chandler or Cain. The film points up the dark humor and bitter cynicism that would crop up in Wilder's later films like The Big Carnival and Sunset Boulevard. MacMurray balked at the departure from the blandly likable roles that he had played in the past, fearing that he would alienate audiences, but he's completely believable as the rather spineless Neff. An obsessive, sick romance, a black widow femme fatale, and a protagonist bound on a fatalistic one-way trip to the end of the line; that's what noir would become in ensuing years. - Jerry Renshaw
D: Howard Hawks; with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy.
A virtual recruiting film for journalism programs everywhere, comedies just don't come any better than His Girl Friday, and neither do the sort of pedigrees this film wears like a Harvard MBA. Adapted from The Front Page, Ben Hecht's and Charles Lederer's quick-witted play, His Girl Friday crackles with the same type of energy and action director Howard Hawks was known for in his big, bold dramas, only instead of bullets flying, it's one-liners zipping and pinging past your head. The banter between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in this story about an editor who sabotages his best reporter's (and ex-wife) plans for domestic bliss with Bellamy slashes back and forth like dueling rapiers. Reading lips? Forget about it. The dialogue races like bad news on CNN, and the chemistry between Grant and Russell (hubba hubba) bubbles furiously. In fact, all three leads seem to tower over the rest of the cast - scurrying newsmen of old, reporters with "Press" stuck in their hats and old manual typewriters - their larger-than-life presence all but becoming the eye of the storm, which the politically satiric plot swirls around. And the really funny thing about His Girl Friday? It's exactly the type of craziness that good newspapers thrive on. Stop the presses. -Raoul Hernandez
D: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; with Kelly, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Gray.
The lack of popularity of classic musicals always surprises me. There are few genres more in need of the big screen and an audience to work. The best musicals are exuberant explosions. The central conceit of most theatrical films is that they are real. We are being offered, in Jimmy Stewart's words, "pieces of time," ripped from the fabric of life. Whether they are science fiction or costume drama, what's crucial to the emotional success of commercial films is that we believe them. Animated films, experimental works, and musicals constantly remind us that we are watching a film; this is part of their charm. This is an amazing film ... for Cyd Charisse's legs alone. A decade after World War II, three friends meet up only to discover the only thing they had in common was the war. Thinking back on the film, I remember its color and its energy, the crazy we-can-do-anything-we-want feeling marshaled by co-directors Kelly and Donen. After this you'll find yourself dancing in the street, as well as checking out more movies with the amazing Cyd Charisse. - Louis Black
D: Robert Siodmak; with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner.
Was it painter Edwin Hopper or some forgotten film noir cinematographer who first showed us that an all-night diner isn't a place where you get coffee and breakfast but the last way station on the way to hell? It doesn't matter. What matters is that when hit men Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) enter that diner at the beginning of The Killers and ask the cook about the Swede (Burt Lancaster), we know that the Swede's chances of catching tomorrow morning's edition of The Today Show are about as good as those of an ass gasket in a hurricane. The Swede is an ex-boxer, hiding in a small town under an alias after doing something that made somebody mad enough to "pencil" him. Although he's warned, the Swede awaits his brutal, inevitable fate with saintly passivity. His story is gradually and artfully deconstructed by insurance agent Riordan (Edmund O'Brien), the perfect sort of Forties icon who would puzzle over the same why's and how's that tear at the viewer. First red light: The Swede once fell for a beauty named Kitty Collins, played by Ava Gardner. Uh-oh, game over. We know what Ava has done to other men. Burt was a hunk of steaming granite, but how could we expect him to have fared any better than Old Blue Eyes? Man is doomed, but it makes for great art, which eases the pain. That's why Sinatra songs sound so good in all-night diners. - Jesse Sublett
D: David Lean; with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy.
Churchill said of T.E. Lawrence, "I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time ... we shall never see his like again." And one of the greatest men makes for one of the greatest films. A flurry of praise has been heaped of late on David Lean's gorgeous, breathtaking spectacle, which won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography for Fred A. Jones - all of it merited, and all of it even more reason to catch this movie in its imperative big-screen format. At the center of it all is O'Toole, remarkable in his first major motion picture as the deeply complicated Lawrence, the refined Englishman who became absorbed into the Arab culture and then later led them in battle against the Turks during World War I. While Maurice Jarre's rich, escalating score is thunderous in the first reel, the second is riddled rather by gunfire, explosions, and revolt. Here we witness the formerly noble and implacable Lawrence pillage, plunder, get mercilessly flogged by a nasty minded Jose Ferrer, resign, go crazy, vacillate, and resign for good. In the end, we learn little about the man himself, and merely the stuff of legends. But what really sticks is the lush, breathtaking imagery that not only captures the sweeping marvel of the desert - the shock of a pristine sunrise, the waves of blistering heat that so cruelly resemble oases - but also its ability to erode the arrogance and naïveté of man. And long after the question of Lawrence versus his intentions has dissipated, images of the man himself linger - the piercing azure of O'Toole's placid eyes, his face whipped with exhaustion and chalk white with sand, and his meandering footprints pressed in the vast, rippling desert. -Sarah Hepola
D: Stanley Kubrick; with James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon.
Kubrick ... If that doesn't get you into the theatre, then go away. If you listen to the rumors, if you have investigated at all, you've heard that Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's latest with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, is a study of the psycho-sexual mind. Well, here Kubrick shows you how a seemingly normal man can be wrapped around the sexually aware pinky finger of a lollipop-sucking teenage tart. James Mason plays the man, the human man that gives into his 'dark side.' This is a Mason film people don't often see. He plays a fragile man, a lustful man, a perfect man for Lolita. Sue Lyon plays the squirming precocious teen who all men dread/adore. Also strong in the film is Shelley Winters as the mother of this ... little girl. One of the reasons this film amazes me today is how much sexual tension exists on-screen. Kubrick never bursts the bubble with torrid sex hop; instead he keeps the lid on tight. This film boils. - Harry Knowles
D: John Sturges; with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn.
With this adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about the unraveling of an upper-class family at the turn of the century, Orson Welles - oh wait, oops! That's The Magnificent Ambersons. Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and three other people that have escaped into relative obscurity fill out the title duties in this early Sixties action-o-rama flick. The seven American outlaws are recruited to rescue a Mexican village that is constantly being pillaged by local bandits. The Magnificent Seven eventually sign up, but in true testosterone form, do the job for love (of guns) and not the money. Like any Western it's a total guy film. If you bring a date along expect to spend a night paying for it by having to sit through a Tori Amos concert. - Michael Bertin
D: Martin Scorsese; with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Poval, Amy Robinson, Cesare Danova, Robert Carradine, David Carradine.
Scorsese's debut feature about small-time hustlers in Little Italy is as gritty as a mouthful of sand. Keitel plays Charlie, a numbers runner caught between trying to protect his loved ones and trying to protect himself. Robert De Niro cuts his teeth playing psychotic moxie as the destructive, volatile Johnny Boy, but other supporting members turn in memorable performances as well (watch for David Carradine's swift snuff by younger brother Robert). Also debuting are the deft strokes of style that would eventually define Scorsese's filmmaking and come to such brilliant realization in films like GoodFellas - the stalking camera; choppy flashes of insight; bar scenes flooded with red; and layers upon layers of American rock music (and, of course, one great Stones song). I count just seven full-blown brawls, but decay, animosity, and indifference lurk around every corner. - Sarah Hepola
D: Samuel Fuller; with Anthony Eisley, Constance Towers, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey.
Constance Towers plays Kelly, a hooker who gives up the life of a prostitute to start anew in a small town. Redemption is a hard road, however, when she discovers a world of hypocrisy and perversion in her new surroundings. Her new life starts as the local cop propositions her and then becomes her last trick. She gets a job at the local hospital working with disabled kids, flogs the daylights out of the madam at the local brothel, and falls in love with a pillar of the community. Her lover, however, turns out to harbor even darker secrets; in outrage, Kelly brains him with a telephone receiver and winds up in big trouble. The Naked Kiss finds Sam Fuller's tabloid sensibilities boiling to the surface, as it dwells on the uncomfortable and taboo subjects of deviancy, prostitution, and small-town sanctimony. In typical Fuller style, it's a hard look at a nightmarish world, lurid and absorbing enough to demand that the viewer watch. It's part melodrama, part sensationalism, and part surreal, but above all it's absolutely, positively 100% Sam Fuller, with all the nuance and subtlety of a swift kick in the butt. - Jerry Renshaw
D: Stanley Kubrick; with Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolph Menjou, Geroge Macready.
Kirk Douglas is a god. Kubrick is a god. Together in Paths of Glory they are magnificent. This is a film about proper and uppity French military snobs, cowards in the field, wrongfully accused men sentenced to death, and one noble man trying with all his heart to stop it. This film is amazing. I am trying to think of adjectives to make you go see this film, trying to describe all the nuances that are explored by the myriad of tortured human souls, a film that captures, as well as it has ever been shown, man's inhumanity to man. You will be riveted to your seat like an I-beam at the top of a skyscraper. This is one of those films that makes you think: They sure don't make movies like that anymore. Perhaps Spielberg can bring a bit of this in this summer's Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps Terrence Malick can show us the inhumanity of war in The Thin Red Line, but neither of them have Kirk Douglas, and that is very unfortunate. When Kirk chimes off on Adolfe Menjou, you'll understand what it's like to take a puff from your last cigarette. - Harry Knowles
D: Martin Scorsese; with Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci.
This is Scorsese and De Niro at their best. Raging Bull chronicles the rise of the physically imposing but emotionally unstable boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro) and his inevitable slide into a pitiable existence. La Motta climbs his way to the middleweight championship and the fame and fortune that accompanies the title. But despite success in the ring, he is never able to master himself. He is consumed by jealously and convinced that his knockout (pun intended) wife has slept with his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who is also his manager. Jake beats the crap out of his brother, but gets his when he is pulverized in the ring by Sugar Ray Robinson (god love you if you know who played him). The allusions to On the Waterfront are completely without subtlety and the beginning spoils any suspense a linear telling might have had, but who cares? The performances are riveting and the visuals are stunning. The boxing sequences are brutally realistic - there are no crappy Rocky theatrics here - and the humanity oozes out of every scene. Raging Bull is a fine piece of American cinema that you don't have to be a movie nerd to understand or appreciate. - Michael Bertin
D: Vincente Minnelli; with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy.
Of course we all recognize Vincente Minnelli (Mr. Judy Garland and father of Liza) as the quintessential maestro of the golden-age MGM musical (An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain). And to that I say bravo and amen. But love the musicals though I do, the Minnelli films that really cause my heart to flutter wildly are the melodramas (Home From the Hill, The Cobweb, The Bad and the Beautiful). Chief among them is Some Came Running, a film adaptation of James Jones' novel (the first to be published since his bestseller From Here to Eternity six years previously). Sinatra (who was so good in From Here to Eternity) returns to the fold in this story about a prodigal son's return to his provincial Indiana hometown. The hypocrisy, sexual repression, and backwater snobbery here is enough to make Peyton Place look like Vatican City. Tagging after Sinatra's unwelcome hero is the waif-like tramp played by Shirley MacLaine, a dumb, blowzy child-woman whose heart is bigger (and more fragile) than that of the whole town combined. And Dean Martin, as the card-sharp best friend, has rarely appeared as seamlessly smooth as he does in this film. The sexual repression subplot in this 1940s-set film seems rather dated today, but Minnelli's recurrent theme of the artist divided against himself is given full expression. Most glorious, however, is Minnelli's use of CinemaScope. Some Came Running is a film conceived for the wide screen. Often it seems barely broad enough to contain the distances between its characters. And the climactic set-piece at an amusement park is choreographed in pure horizontal action. Minnelli ... always the maestro. - Marjorie Baumgarten
D: Billy Wilder; with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Joe E. Brown.
When itinerant jazz musicians Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon) inadvertently witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, they flee Chicago under the guise of Josephine and Geraldine and head to Miami with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters, an all-girl traveling band featuring Sugar Kane Kowalcyzck (Monroe) on the ukulele. Arguably the best cross-dressing comedy of all time, it's also one of director Billy Wilder's most fluid, vibrant, laugh-out-loud accomplishments, rife with zippy one-liners delivered in Lemmon's impeccable style, and a rakishly outrageous Cary Grant impersonation from Curtis. Monroe is at her gooey, blonde best here as the pouty, hard-drinking Sugar, perpetually on the outs with her manager and forever falling for no-good saxophone players. "I'm tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop," she coos, and then plays right into Curtis' rouse as Shell Oil magnate "Junior." Watch for classic funnyman Joe E. Brown as Miami's answer to Rico Suave, Osgood Fielding III, who promptly latches on to a bewildered Lemmon and proposes the marriage of the century. Zowee! - Marc Savlov
D: Orson Welles; with Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich.
D: Howard Hawks; with John Barrymore, Carole Lombard.
I discovered this film a few years back when it played at the Paramount. I went because ... well ... I don't know. I've never been a Carole Lombard fan, nor a John Barrymore fan. In fact, it was probably because my best friend at the time was a devout Edgar Kennedy follower and well ... he made me go. Ooooooh, the agoooooony!!! (That's ironic humor, baby.) This film was a revelation. Both Lombard and Barrymore are so, so very good that you'll wanna cry. "I close the iron door on you." You'll go around for years saying this to anyone whom you want to go away. You'll say it while giving them a stiff arm to get out of your way. You'll say it with a wild insane look in your eye. And you'll say it because it is useless to resist. I didn't realize going into the theatre that Howard Hawks, fave director of The Thing, Red River, Sergeant York, Bringing Up Baby, and on and on and on, was involved. Here he is directing with the broadest possible strokes and, wow, what paints he has, among them Ben Hecht, screenwriting god of Stagecoach, Scarface, Kiss of Death, Gunga Din. Go see it. Now. - Harry Knowles
D: Henry Levin; with Connie Francis, George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss.
Considering how lame the bulk of teen movies made in the late Fifties and early Sixties look in retrospect, Where the Boys Are stands up respectably well. Considering. That still doesn't change the ludicrous presentation of "moral" issues at hand nor does it obfuscate the silliest of stereotypes perpetrated within, but Where the Boys Are is nonetheless good, clean fun in the sun. It's Easter in Fort Lauderdale and carloads of (white) college students have descended upon the Florida beach town to whoop it up as only college students know how. Naturally, this involves partying, drinking, and (by suggestion) sex, which is where things begin to get a little mucked up. Connie Francis, Dolores Hart (before convent vows, of course), Yvette Mimieux, and Paula Prentiss are "good" girls but, well ... we all know good girls are meant to have bad things happen around them in these types of films. Highlights include the famous "Elbow Room" party scene, where a myopic Frank Gorshin ends up underwater. For true contrast, this film should have been double-billed with Palm Springs Weekend but just think - almost 40 years later, this would be on MTV. - Margaret Moser
D: Billy Wilder; with Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester, Ruta Lee.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
D: Sidney Lumet; with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave.
Two Agatha Christie flicks: one brilliantly done, the other maybe a bit overdone, both gripping. Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of a long-running stage production, plays plot-twist one-upmanship with itself, bringing a murder trial to an absolutely surprising resolution. Seriously, spend two hours guessing away, but there's no way to anticipate what actually transpires in the last 10 minutes of the courtroom drama. Marlene Dietrich is a bit rigid as the cold wife of the accused, but Charles Laughton is perfectly enormous as the defense attorney with glass arteries. Murder on the Orient Express, on the other hand, is as much a parade of stars as a whodunit. Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, and Jacqueline Bisset each try to connive Christie mainstay sleuth Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney) of their innocence in the murder of an American on board the famed train. The ending? Not up to the caliber of Witness, but still, it wouldn't be worth watching if it weren't a bit of a surprise now, would it? - Michael Bertin
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