Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Quick Change/After Hours

I decided to bundle these two similarly-themed films into one package for your entertainment. Both of these films came out in the mid-to-late 80s and are set in New York City. That is not the New York of today, but the crime-ridden, anger-filled, anti-everyone New York of the 1980s. The city had come out of bankruptcy, but was still dealing with financial problems, large amounts of crime and the general bad attitude of its citizenry. Both of these movies exploit/expose the underbelly of the world famous "New York hospitality". That is to say, none.

Both of these films tell the stories of New Yorkers who are having a difficult day/night. Each need the help and support of the people around them. And whether they are new friends or just passers-by, that help is very hard to find. Things spiral out of control with one disappointment following another. If only our lead characters could find a little compassion or understanding. But the film makers, who are from the city, found few givers of the help/compassion/understanding type. Also, both of these films can be a little painful to watch. I want the protagonist to succeed, but New York just keeps conspiring to get in the way.

Quick Change

This is the directorial debut of Bill Murray. When his original choice for director, Jonathon Demme of 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Philadelphia' fame, became unavailable Murray decided to direct himself. Along with the movie's writer Howard Franklin this became the only time Murray stepped behind the camera. The plot follows Murray and his accomplices Geena Davis and Randy Quaid as they rob a bank in New York. After escaping with the money, all that is left is a quick drive to the airport and their escape to tropical lands. Of course, that becomes impossible. Disasters, large and small, conspire to keep them from their successful escape. But what fun would it be if they just drove to the airport and flew out of the country? The advertising tag line for this movie is "The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare." That sums it up.

After Hours

After Hours is probably the least-watched film of all the work of director Martin Scorsese. Famous for his urban, gritty feel, Scorsese tells the story of one extremely difficult night in the life of 'Paul Hackett'. Hackett is well portrayed by Griffin Dunne. Dunne is one of those actors that everyone thought would be a star, but never quite caught on with the viewing public. He does an yeoman's job here. Hackett has met an interesting woman on his way home from his word processor job. He is invited over to her apartment very late that night. The movie becomes more and more bizarre as each new character is introduced. Originally hoping to hook up for sex, now all he wants to do is get home. Again, New York City conspires against our protagonist. Will he ever get home? I love the surreal sequence of the angry mob searching the city for him being led by an ice cream truck playing its music. Just what is Scorsese trying to say when an angry mob is led by every child's favorite, the ice cream man? The tag line for After Hours is "What's the worst night you ever had? . . .". Again, that sums it up.

Part of the fun of both these films is the casts. Look for many to-become-famous actors in small parts throughout these films. In Quick Change be sure to look for Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub of 'Monk' and the late Phil Hartman of 'Saturday Night Live'. After Hours features performances from Teri Garr, Rosanna Arquette, Catherine O'Hara of 'SCTV', Cheech and Chong and Bronson Pinchot of 'Perfect Strangers'.

I like both of these films. They are cynical, hardcore looks at America's largest city's underbelly. They were made by New Yorkers about New York. I never lived there and, after watching these two movies, I am glad I never did.

Quick Change was filmed in 1989, directed by Bill Murray and Howard Franklin, written by Franklin, starring Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Jason Robards and Randy Quaid.

After Hours was filmed in 1985, directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Joseph Minion, starring Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Cheech and Chong, Verna Bloom and Catherine O'Hara.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well is a hidden gem from acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Loyal readers know of my appreciation for his films. I previously wrote about another over-looked film of his, 'Dersu Usala'. After watching this film, for the first time, I wonder why this film has been passed over. Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, especially 'The Seven Samurai', and for his Shakespeare adaptations. This has the feel of both of those elements without the costumes and historic settings.

This film is set in post-war Japan. Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune portrays 'Nishi', a man who is the suck-up secretary to the Vice President of a major land development corporation. We join the story at Nishi's wedding to the handicapped daughter of his boss. The V.P. is wonderfully played by Masayuki Mori. His understated evil is menacing and disturbing. Terrific acting. Everyone believes that Nishi has married this woman to further his career at the corporation. But he cares not for his career. It is vengeance he seeks!

We come to learn that Nishi is actually the illegitimate son of a man who committed suicide to save embarrassment for this V.P. during a scandal involving bribes and kickbacks. Japan has quite a "face saving" corporate structure and you were expected to kill yourself before allowing disgrace to fall upon your employer. Nishi blames the officers of the company for the death of his father. He wants to expose their wrong doings and bring them to justice. Of course, without evidence this is difficult. So he has spent years working his way into the good graces and insider job. He wants them to pay. Pay for their years of graft and corruption and to pay for his father's death.

The film is a fantastic story of Nishi's manipulations of the players in his quest for justice. By working so closely with the executives he has learned many secrets. He uses those secrets to apply pressure on the corporate officers. He has been supplying clues to the local police, but they can not gather the evidence necessary for any convictions. Nishi must force "the bad" to confess. He uses all kinds of subterfuge, threats and manipulations. He later comes to realize that he too has become one of the bad. But does his end justify his means? That is for you to decide.

This is a terrific movie. Part noir, all gritty suspense, great acting and directing and Kurosawa's wonderful use of imagery. Buy this DVD today. Be sure to get the Criterion Collection DVD. As always, Criterion has done a wonderful job with the restoration of a 50 year-old film. You won't be disappointed.

The following notes contain references to specific plot details that are better left unknown before viewing the film. Please view The Bad Sleep Well before continuing.

There are three main points of debate about this fantastic film. Did Kurosawa borrow from Shakespeare's Hamlet for this movie? Is the opening sequence properly connected with the rest of the film? What about the ending?

Many critics compare this movie with 'Hamlet', especially the third act of the play. While I can see the connection, and Kurosawa did often use the bard for inspiration, I think that the critics are much more interested in referencing Shakespeare than was Kurosawa. Yes, he probably found some ideas to be common with Shakespeare, but almost every traditional story has those as well. Almost everything written since the 17th century has something in common with Shakespeare. But the comparisons are primarily of tone not content.

The opening sequence of Nishi and Yoshiko's wedding is also much discussed in the film world. I found it to be an important insight into the culture of Japan at the time. The extremely formal language, attention to detail and stiff setting show us how stifled life in post-war Japan could be. We learn about how someone could be willing to kill themselves before allowing disgrace to fall upon his employer. I know few today who would commit suicide instead of informing the police of the illegal actions of their boss. But that was Japan. Many critics feel that the tone of the wedding is very different from the rest of the film. With that I definitely agree. But weddings are different from the rest of our lives.

The ending. Wow! The courage it took for Kurosawa to end the film with such a twist is refreshing. The entire film points to one outcome and then we get slapped in the face. I relish when a film maker says "sorry, but all your expectations were wrong". I won't give details, but feel free to drop me a comment below or an email at to opine about your opinion of the ending. I think it was great.

Filmed in 1960, directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa and Takashi Shimura.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Lives of Others

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that has incongruous parts. Like "jumbo shrimp" or "pretty ugly". I am about to use an oxymoron that I never thought would become a part of my vocabulary. This film is a Good German Movie. I have used many adjectives to describe German cinema. Boring, slow, dull, long, obtuse and odd are the first ones to come to mind. But I can not remember the last time I uttered the phrase Good German Movie. But this film deserves all the kudos that I can offer. While I must admit that the pacing is a little slow in the opening the film is intelligent, well-written and interesting. I wanted to know what happens. That is the highest praise that anyone can say about a movie.

This film is set in 1984 in the Communist nation of East Germany (GDR). Ulrich Muhe plays Wiesler, an employee of the domestic spying agency Stasi. He has been instructed to gather damning information about an author (Sebastian Koch) and an actress (Martina Gedick). He is confident that he will find out all their secrets. But, as his spying continues, he finds himself becoming quite interested in The Lives of Others. He begins to empathize with their plight as he listens to topics of conversation and actions that are forbidden to him. He is faced with difficult decisions in his role as spy. As was all too common in East Germany, nothing good can come from such a situation.

I am not the only one who enjoyed The Lives of Others. The film received the Academy Award for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film and received the most nominations in German Film Award history. It also won the Cesar (France) Best Foreign Film award, the Silver Condor from Argentina, the Grand Prize in Brazil, the Best Film at the European Film Awards and about 50 other major prizes from around the Globe. Das Leben der Anderen is from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. While his name is quite a mouthful (as almost all words in German seem to be) the film is quite compact in its use of language. The script has little superfluous language and relies upon the viewers involvement in the story to carry the film forward. I found myself wondering what was going to happen and how this situation could be concluded without intense suffering and depression. I will not "spoil" anything by giving details, but the ending of this film is most intriguing.

Director von Donnersmarck does a wonderful job with lighting and costumes. The Stasi spy is shown primarily in greys while the artists have color and warmth in their lives. He also gives us a taste of what life under the communist thumb could mean. In one scene an innocent joke turns into a terror-filled moment for the comedian as his superiors overhear the joke. This must have been a constant pressure in the East for the almost 50 horrible years of oppression.

An interesting tidbit: All the listening props are actual Stasi equipment on loan from collectors and museums. The actual "bugs", recorders and other spying equipment were used to provide authenticity. The prop master himself spent two years in an East German Stasi prison. He insisted upon the authentic machines being used. Even the letter steamer, which can open up to 600 letters per hour, was the type used by the East German spy agency.

The film does have a "European" style and pace. If you need action at all times this is not the film for you. And the film is in German with subtitles. But I suggest to all my readers to see this movie. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a terrible situation. I am so glad to live in the U.S.A.

Filmed in 2006, written and directed by Florian Henckl von Donnersmarck, starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Tukur. For a detailed look at the spying efforts of STASI you can check out Kristie Macrakis' book 'Seduced by Secrets'.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

All That Jazz

It's Showtime!

I love an autobiographical film where the star passes away. Just what does Bob Fosse want us to know about himself? Director/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his "life story" in this film. Roy Scheider stars as Joe Gideon. Gideon is a Broadway director/choreographer, film director/editor and world class jerk. He drinks, does drugs, cheats on his wife, works too much and generally is a bother to all around him. But Gideon, like Bob Fosse, is an unbelievable talent. So everyone puts up with his faults to be around his star quality and talent. Eventually, as in all good fables, his life comes crashing down and the "piper must be paid". Jessica Lange portrays Angelique. Her character has been called both the 'Angel of Death' and the 'Angel of Life'. I guess it depends upon your perspective.

This movie is a masterpiece and should be required viewing for every film student on Earth. Fosse directs and choreographs musical numbers like no one else. He forgoes the quick cut and the close-up. Instead he allows us to view the entire number, usually from a small distance and always cutting with the music not just to make another cut. Would someone please tell MTV and every other director/editor that we can enjoy a scene without 3 cuts per second. Our attention span isn't that small! The dance numbers are vintage Fosse. The 'air-otica' sequence was "borrowed" by Paula Abdul (she would call it a tribute) and other scenes have been copied by Beyonce and others. But it is the opening sequence, with its hundreds of dancers in an open casting call, that shows the ability of Fosse. He tells the entire story of 'A Chorus Line' in 8 minutes. Beautifully set to George Benson's 'On Broadway' we can feel the tension, disappointment and exhilaration of the dancers as they attempt to get a job with a legend.

Along with the music/dance numbers is a terrific script, co-written by Fosse and Robert Alan Arthur. The story of Gideon's lack of respect, for both others and himself, is a descent into death. Gideon's constant flirting with the Angel of Death shows his desire to end his failures. Roy Scheider as Gideon is terrific. Originally Fosse had cast Richard Dreyfus, but Dreyfus couldn't handle the job. Scheider was then thrust into the film well into rehearsals. His portrayal of the addict/womanizer is compelling. Lange is also terrific as Angelique. Her constant "flirty" attitude as she attempts to lure Gideon to his death is spot-on. Sandahl Bergman, as the lead dancer in the air-otica scene, and Ann Reinking, as Gideon's love interest, are both eye catchers.

I am not a big fan of musicals. The bursting into song strikes me as odd. But in All That Jazz I find myself glued to the screen. Combine a story about a Broadway musical director and the unmatched choreography of Bob Fosse and I watch again and again. As I said in an earlier post, how this film lost the Best Picture Oscar to 'Kramer vs. Kramer' is unbelievable. That should be a plot on the X-Files it is so alien and absurd.

This movie is fantastic and should be seen by everyone! The dancing, acting, script, direction, soundtrack and impact are all amazing.

A note about Bob Fosse: Fosse holds the "trifecta" of directing awards. He is the only person to win a Best Director Oscar, for 'Cabaret', Tony, for 'Pippin', and Emmy, for 'Liza with a Z'. No other human being has won all three awards in their life and Fosse did it in the same year! He may have been a workaholic, but at least it was good work.

Filmed in 1979, directed by Bob Fosse, written by Fosse and Robert Alan Arthur, starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Sandhal Bergman and Ben Vereen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stalag 17

Since today is Director Billy Wilder's Birthday, I have decided to rerun my post about a great movie. William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar while Billy Wilder and Robert Strauss were also nominated for this movie. Enjoy!

Stalag 17 is one of the few films I have ever given a "perfect" 10 out of 10. Director Billy Wilder and star William Holden have crafted a movie that can not be improved upon. The script is superb, the acting award-winning and Wilder's direction is some of the best work of his illustrious career. I have seen this movie many times and each time I am committed to the characters and the storyline.

William Holden portrays J.J. Sefton, a POW in a German prison camp in the winter of 1944. He is the "scrounger" and a general self-centered malcontent. He can obtain goods that the other prisoners can not and is willing to barter with the German guards. This creates a lot of envy and suspicions amongst the other prisoners. When two escaping prisoners are killed Sefton is suspected of being a "snitch". The other prisoners ostracize him and some even wanted him killed. But is he the informer? And, if not, who is?

Holden plays Sefton to perfection. He comes across as uncaring, smug and egotistical. He is, at times, hard to like. But just because you don't like someone or don't appreciate their personality does that mean they are evil and not to be trusted. The basic questions of human understanding, equality and tolerance are raised from a very unique perspective. After reading the script Holden refused the part. He did not want to play such an unlikeable character. The studio had to require him to do the movie. He was rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar. He had previously worked with Director Wilder on Best Picture nominee 'Sunset Blvd.' to rave reviews and box-office success. The two are fantastic together. Both films are terrific and should be enjoyed by many.

There is also a terrific supporting cast. Peter Graves, Otto Preminger and Don Taylor head up this ensemble. I grow emotional, with each viewing, as Graves actions unfold. But this is definitely a William Holden film.

Stalag 17 is a taut, well written drama that should make you think as well as feel. As I said, a 10 out of 10.

Filmed in 1953, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Edwin Blum from the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, starring William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor and Peter Graves.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pumping Iron

This documentary covers the epic battle between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title. Pumping Iron covers a 4 month buildup as bodybuilders throughout the world prepared for the finals in Pretoria, South Africa. While everyone in the movie is built, somehow Arnold appears bigger and better than everyone else.

It is fascinating to see these two future stars in their "natural" environment. Arnold is a five-time defending champion who, at age 28, is tops of the bodybuilding world. Schwarzenegger is about to shift from competitive bodybuilding to starring in movies. The "Terminator" to be exudes charm and personality throughout his workouts and public appearances. He excites the crowd and gathers the fans no matter where he is. Ferrigno is the up-and-coming challenger. Ferrigno is 24 and about to burst upon the bodybuilding world and, in a few years, would be forever known for his role on 'The Incredible Hulk' television show.

Filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore captured over 100 hours of workouts, appearances and interviews in the months before the final. They do an excellent job of presenting what could otherwise be very boring material (guys lifting weights). The attention to personality and detail make this an informative and intriguing documentary.

As I watched this movie, while eating some Mac and Cheese, I felt like getting back in the gym and pumping iron again. To me, that is the sign of an excellent film!

Filmed in 1975, directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore, based on the book by George Butler and Charles Gaines, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Katz and Lou Ferrigno.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It sucks being sick

It sucks being sick. I am sorry, but no new items for a few days. I can't even hear the movie over my coughing. Hopefully, things will improve very soon!

Saturday, June 12, 2010


If you are a big fan of the television show be forewarned. This film, from Director Robert Altman, is much darker than the tv show. There is drinking, sex, drug use, racial stereotypes and all sorts of other "politically incorrect" things. It is full of black comedy, sarcasm and biting satire. I believe that Altman, screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. and novel author Richard Hooker are making a strong statement about war and how individuals survive armed conflict. The characters in M*A*S*H use that dark comedy to somehow manage to get through the pressures of war. Unless you have been through it, I don't think anyone can understand how awful things can be. But everyone involved is attempting to survive the horrific experience. "Gallows" humor and dark comedy are many individuals coping mechanism. This film reflects that survival technique to maximum effect.

M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War. The film follows the story of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. I use the term "follows the story" loosely. This film is more a collection of vignettes than a cohesive plot. Some moments are more poignant or funny than others, but the film in total is Robert Altman's best work. He allows the actors to develop characters with which viewers can relate on a personal level. This almost improvisational technique results in fun and challenging chaos on screen. You may find one episode better than another, but the film is funny!

Altman has a history of using ensemble casts. He does so here with some of the generation's best actors. Donald Sutherland (Hawkeye) and Elliott Gould (Trapper John) play two doctors who were drafted into serving in the military. They use copious amounts of alcohol to numb themselves to the carnage. Robert Duvall portrays Major Frank Burns. Burns is the "regular army" antagonist to our two doctor protagonists. He is the constant butt of jokes and ridicule. Other fine actors are also in M*A*S*H. Tom Skerritt, Rene Auberjonois, Roger Bowen and Sally Kellerman all have prominent roles. Director Altman uses this terrific cast to excellent results. Whether you prefer the football sequence, "Hotlips" scenes, the surgeon's visit to Tokyo or the "suicide is painless" vignette there is something to entertain everyone.

Although the film is set during the Korean War it was filmed and released during the height of the Vietnam War (1970). There was much attention, both pro and con, heaped upon this film as a metaphor for Vietnam. There are portions of this film that provide support to both sides of the stay in Vietnam debate. Some people boycotted the movie because it was "communist sympathizing". I never found that to be true. M*A*S*H shows that war can be horrific and that, sometimes, the people in command make terrible decisions. It also makes a strong statement that most people involved in a war would rather be at home. That's not "communist". I think that is just real.

The cast is excellent, the directing is terrific and the script is hilarious!

One note: Sally Kellerman has a very brief nude scene. She was 33 at the time. A few years ago she appeared nude in 'The Boynton Beach Club'. She was 69 for that nude scene. Good for her! That takes courage. It is probably much easier for a 33 year old woman to do a nude scene than someone who is 69. But she is not backing down to anyone or any year.

Filmed in 1970, directed by Robert Altman, written by Ring Lardner, Jr., starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman and Roger Bowen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Campy 70's Sci-Fi

All my loyal readers know that I am a sucker for a campy/cheesy science fiction film. And there was no period cheesier nor campier than the early 1970s. So many "great" movies came out, within the genre, in a very short period of time. For me, as a youngster just starting to love the movies, it was a great period in cinema. Science Fiction films are allowed to talk about social issues that can be overlooked in mainstream dramas. Racism, overpopulation, social structures, corporate influence, personal identity and genetic research are all issues approached in these movies. It becomes okay to discuss controversial issues because it is "in the future" or "in outer space". For example, the first inter-racial kiss on prime time television was on 'Star Trek'. The censors allowed it because the show was set in the future.

The 1950s saw the emergence of "B" movies. These are movies that were made to fill the second half, or "B" slot, of a double feature. Because, at the time, science fiction films were considered kid's movies most of the sci-fi films of the 50s had small budgets. This forced them to use less-than-stellar special effects, actors and costumes. Many of the sci-fi films of the 50s made money and some are fantastic. You can read my articles about 'Fantastic Planet' and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'.

Sci-Fi changed its position in the movie world with the 1968 release of '2001:A Space Odyssey'. This film was critically-acclaimed and well received at the box office. Now all the major studios wanted in on the action. But they still worried about the budgets. So the films received support from the studios to help them look better, but they never got the backing of the accountants for lots of money. That didn't happen until 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' in 1977. Then came the scariest movie ever 'Alien'. After that came 'E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial' and its monumental success. Of course box-office champ 'Star Wars' came out in 1977. Now all the studios were giving huge budgets to its sci-fi films.

This leaves that period between 1968 and 1977 for the campy/cheesy era! I, and so many others, love many of the films that came out during this period. The films below were released between 1968 and 1976. Here are some of my favorites:

Planet of the Apes

This is the film that started the era. The Pierre Boulle book upon which the movie is based is quite different in its setting. In the novel the apes have flying cars and a very advanced world. But that would cost lots of money to film. So the studio changed it to lower the costs. This film stars Charleton Heston. He becomes the King of the era with 3 movies on our list. One warning. Please stay away from the remake. Please, please, please! This is the first of 5 movies in the series. Each had a lower budget than the one before.

Omega Man

Charleton Heston 2.0 on our list. This film is based upon the Richard Matheson novel 'I Am Legend'. This was just redone starring Will Smith. Both versions are intriguing, but I prefer the cheesier 1971 movie. Most of humanity has been either killed or mutated by a disease. Heston plays one survivor, alone, in Los Angeles. The mutated beings don't appreciate this last vestige of humanity. He fights for survival. Both in a physical sense and an emotional one.

Silent Running

You can read my detailed look at Silent Running here. Bruce Dern does a wonderful job as perhaps the last environmentalist in existence. He fights to protect the few remaining trees from destruction with the help of ultra-cute robots. Super-cheesetastic fun!

Soylent Green

"Soylent Green is People!" This film has become a cultural icon and has been spoofed/homaged in dozens of other movies and television shows. For lots of details you can read my blog about another film with Charleton Heston. Heston is King!

The Stepford Wives

Fantastic look at the numbing effects of "fitting in". As someone who cherishes individuality, The Stepford Wives is a perfect wave to start a discussion about sublimating your desires, goals and passions to that of the larger society around you. This film also kicked-off a great debate about suburban lifestyles in America.


Another film in which the individual is asked to give up on their dreams for the "good" of society. James Caan as 'Jonathan E' is fantastic! I devoted a post to this movie. You can read it here.

A Boy and his Dog

Ultra-low budget film with the best shock ending of the group. Yes, even better than 'Planet of the Apes'. The movie also offers a look at a very young Don Johnson. For lots of interesting details, you can read my in-depth article.

Logan's Run

The bidding is currently under way for the remake of this cult classic. In Logan's Run all people must die at 30 years old. But a few don't want to and attempt to escape the ruling class. Michael York plays Logan. Logan is a "sandman" who must capture/kill anyone who attempts to "run" from their fate. Very interesting take on societal pressures and your "duty" to the country.

These are some of the films with which you can have the most fun. They feature intelligent concepts that got short-changed in the film making budget process. But, perhaps, the lack of funds has something to do with why so many people love these movies. Everybody loves the underdog.

Almost every film of this era has either been remade or is being remade. Usually the original is much better. Do yourself a favor. When you hear that an older sci-fi film is being remade, pick up the original right away. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Upon its release, this film was panned by most critics and quickly moved to the bottom half of double features. Now, 48 years later, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is both critically-acclaimed and loved by viewers. This is a compelling Western, one with a depth of character and story that is often missing from the genre. This film is well written, beautifully filmed and powerfully acted. It deserves its place in the pantheon of Westerns.

Jimmy Stewart portrays Ransom Stoddard. Stoddard has just graduated from law school and moved to the American West. He hopes to make a name for himself among the outlaws, ranchers, settlers and dreamers that populate the West. Upon arriving he takes a job as kitchen help in the town's busiest restaurant. John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon. Doniphon is the "baddest" dude in town. He is liked by many and respected/feared by all. Both Doniphon and Stoddard have their eye on the lovely woman who also works in the restaurant. She is played by the terrific Vera Miles.

The antagonist to our two heroes is the title character Liberty Valance. He is perfectly portrayed by Lee Marvin. Valance is obnoxious, foul-mouthed and very tough. Everyone, with the exception of Doniphon (Wayne), fears Liberty Valance. Valance singles out Stoddard (Stewart) for his abuse. Stoddard, being from the East, has no skill for dealing with such a person. He can neither fight nor shoot. He believes that laws and sheriffs will protect him from the wilder elements of the frontier. But the Wild, Wild West is not fully tamed. How can a city-slicker like Ransom Stoddard stand up to an outlaw like Liberty Valance?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the last big western from Director John Ford. Ford is a 4-time Oscar winner that had been at the top of directors for over 20 years. His films featuring Monument Valley in Arizona had amazed viewers who had never seen such magnificent scenery before. From 'Stagecoach' to 'My Darling Clementine' and on through 'The Searchers' John Ford told amazing stories of the American West. But Liberty Valance is different from most Ford Westerns. Instead of amazing scenery and epic vistas, this film was shot primarily on sound stages. It is a personal story that focuses upon the characters. The traditional Ford cinematography is nowhere to be found. This movie tells the story of the changing West and Director John Ford changed his style to help tell that story. He returned to using black and white film. This too helps force our attention to the detail of the characters. These subtle changes in film making for Ford help to put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the list of wonderful films.

This film has everything. John Ford doing some of his best work. A terrific script filled with tension and character. Strong leading actors in John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. A very deep cast including Vera Miles, Edmund O'Brien and Lee Marvin. It is one of the great films and should be enjoyed by all!

One story about this movie that I love. Both Stewart and Wayne were huge stars before this film was released. Who would get top-billing? Having your name appear first in the credits (top-billing) was a sign of status in Hollywood. Both actors agreed that Stewart would get top-billing in all the advertising. Things like the posters, lobby cards, etc. would all feature Jimmy Stewart above John Wayne. Wayne would get top-billing in the opening credits. This would create some balance between the two stars. At the time, most people thought that Stewart got the better of John Wayne. Many more people see the advertising for a film than see the actual film. But John Wayne got the last laugh. His name still appears above Stewart's in the opening credits on each and every DVD, video and tv screening of the film. We still see Wayne getting top-billing long after the advertising materials have all but disappeared. Never try to best John Wayne!

Filmed in 1962, directed by John Ford, written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin and Edmund O'Brien. For more information on John Ford and his impact on film read a fantastic book by Scott Eyman 'Print the Legend:The Life and Times of John Ford'. The title of the book is in reference to a line in this movie.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Double Indemnity

Every short list of great American cinema includes this film. Far and away, Double Indemnity is the best and purest example of "film noir". To me, the heart of "noir" is that an evil temptress must seduce a pure and good person over to the dark side. In this case Barbara Stanwyck provides the temptation and Fred MacMurray is the one being corrupted. Edward G. Robinson plays the third vital role:the moral authority that must pursue and capture the evildoers. All three are perfect in their roles. Stanwyck convinces MacMurray to move from good to evil and Robinson works to bring them to justice.

Film noir is a cinema movement that experienced its heyday in the 1940s. As the world battled evil and tyranny in World War Two so does the movies. After the war ends, the movies continue to provide the classic evil corrupting good story line, but instead of nations the focus is upon individuals. An important aspect in this movement is the woman being of questionable morals and virtue. So much of Hollywood was hindered by the Production Code. This code greatly inhibited Tinseltown's ability to show women in this light. Film noir allowed for women to be sexual, tempting and criminal. All things that were greatly discouraged by the code.

Double Indemnity was directed and co-written by the great Billy Wilder. He, along with Raymond Chandler, turn James Cain's novel into a film filled with biting dialogue. The script is what makes a simple crime movie into the embodiment of an entire cinematic movement. Billy Wilder is one of the great directors and his work here is perfect. Lighting, camera movement, dialogue, acting and staging all combine to create an American masterpiece.

Stanwyck plays a woman who wants her husband dead to collect the insurance money. MacMurray portrays the hapless insurance salesman seduced into helping her collect on the "double indemnity" clause in the policy. This clause means that Stanwyck collects double if her husband dies in an accident. Robinson is MacMurray's co-worker who is the insurance company's specialist in finding fraud. The trio are perfectly cast in their roles. Each provides a wonderful platform for the different elements of the story to evolve.

This is one of my personal favorites. It is crisp, entertaining and intelligent. I hope you enjoy it as much as I. How this film lost out on the Best Picture Oscar is a mystery to me. And to lose to 'Going My Way' adds, just a little, to the oversight.

Filmed in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

In the Heat of the Night

There are two scenes that are etched into my memory with no hope of ever removing them. First, there is a moment when the Police Chief, played perfectly by Rod Steiger, asks Sydney Poitier's character what people call him up North? Poitier responds "They call me Mister Tibbs!". Being a black man in the South he was being called many other things by the local residents and police. The power and frustration that comes through as Tibbs, a Philadelphia Police Detective, finally gets to be acknowledged is overwhelming. So strong that they named the sequel 'They Call me Mister Tibbs'. Second is an interchange when the local bigshot and plantation owner, who is white, slaps the "uppity" Poitier. Poitier slaps him right back. The bigshot is surprised beyond belief. So is Police Captain Gillespie. The thought that some black person wouldn't just take the abuse is something they never considered. Priceless.

In the Heat of the Night is fantastic from start to finish. Two powerful storylines converge in a big finish. We have the plot line of the black, Northern police officer struggling to deal with racism. All the while he has been enlisted by local police to aid in capturing a murderer. Most of the local police are quite disturbed by the idea of a black man, and a "Yankee" at that, to be part of the team. Rod Steiger is terrific and his performance as Police Chief Gillespie won him an Academy Award. You can see the tension that this unique situation causes portrayed upon his face. His mannerisms, inflection and body language play a major part in his performance. Equally wonderful is Sydney Poitier. He shows the frustration and difficulty of being considered inferior, but sublimates that to help solve a murder. The supporting cast, featuring Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates add to this rich cinema experience.

While this film won Best Picture, director Norman Jewison did not receive the Best Director statuette. That went to Mike Nichols for 'The Graduate'. But In the Heat of the Night did win five total Oscars. That credit falls firmly on the shoulders of Jewison. He took a taut script from Stirling Silliphant that is based upon the novel by John Ball. Silliphant would later write one of the great disaster films 'The Poseidon Adventure' (read my post). But what 'Poseidon' has in over the top fun, this film has in tension and rich characters. Jewison then adds the deep cast to the script and turns them loose. But all the while he forces the pace. There is little down time here. Just excellent writing, acting and directing that move us ever forward toward the exposing of the murdered.

In the Heat of the Night is powerful. An intriguing murder mystery, the story of the difficulties of racism and the growing admiration between lead characters make for terrific viewing. This film would go on to inspire a long-lived television version starring Carroll O'Connor. Why the tv show is not out on DVD remains a mystery to all.

Filmed in 1967, directed by Norman Jewison, written by Stirling Silliphant, starring Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates. Jewison also directed another film highlighted here at Steve the Movie Guy. You can read my post on 'Rollerball' here. Trivia Note:Steiger resisted the idea of chewing gum and only adopted the practice upon the insistence of director Jewison. Eventually he grew to appreciate it and went through 263 packs of gum during filming.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Robert Shaw was a Massachusetts born abolitionist during the Civil War. He volunteered to be the commanding officer a the first all-black unit of volunteers that would fight for the United States against the Confederacy. This unit, the 54th Mass. Regiment, would fight in major moments through-out the Civil War. Glory tells their amazing and moving story.

Director Edward Zwick combines two traditional movie genres in this film. We have an epic war film with battles that seem life-like. And we have a wonderful character film that shows us so much about the individuals that made up the 54th Massachusetts. The movie's cast helps to make the film so powerful. Matthew Broderick, as Col. Shaw, does a first-rate job. This is one of the few times that Broderick branches out into serious drama. He should consider it more often. He provides us with insight into the difficulties of a white officer leading a group of black soldiers during the Civil War. He faced prejudice from his Southern adversaries and fellow officers and enlisted men from the North. Shaw's personal letters make up a large source material for this movie. It definitely shows.

Also in this amazing cast are some leading black actors. Morgan Freeman, as the sergeant who leads the men through training and battle, gives his usual strong performance. A very young Andre Braugher is terrific as is Jihmi Kennedy. But Denzel Washington stands out among the fabulous portrayals. He would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His work in Glory is some of the finest acting you will ever see. The range of emotions experienced by his character, Private Trip, is vast. Denzel definitely deserved the award. As I talk to people no one can think about his character without mentioning the effect that Pvt. Trip and Glory made upon them.

This is a deeply moving film, filled with emotion, and it is a well-crafted war movie. See it for both of those reasons.

Filmed in 1989, directed by Edward Zwick, written by Kevin Jarre from the books 'One Gallant Rush' by Peter Burchard and 'Lay This Laurel' by Lincoln Kirstien and Richard Benson as well as the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy and Andre Braugher.

One personal note: There was some questioning of casting Denzel Washington. At the time he was best known for his work on television in a show called 'St. Elsewhere'. I loved that show and was glad that some of the cast was getting major attention. 'St. Elsewhere' also featured future headliners Howie Mandel, Ed Begley, Jr., David Morse, Mark Harmon and Alfre Woodard. I am not sure why, but most of the show is unavailable on DVD. Also, Washington had also done a wonderful movie entitled 'Cry Freedom'.