Friday, July 30, 2010

Le Dernier Combat

Since I wrote about one of my two favorite Luc Besson films the other day, I decided to reprint my look at this little seen film.

This is one of the more original films I have ever seen. And since I have seen almost 6,000 movies that covers a lot of ground. Directed by a fledgling Luc Besson, best known for 'The Fifth Element', Le Dernier Combat is almost without dialogue. I can remember less than 100 words spoken for the entire film. Since this film is French it makes the issue of sub-titles vs. dubbing a moot point. However, without dialogue does not mean without story or action. This film is visionary and unique.

Le Dernier Combat tells the story of 'The Man', played by Pierre Jolivet, in his search. What is he searching for and what will he do when he finds it? We don't know. (None of the characters in the film have names. I guess without dialogue how can we learn their name?) Jolivet, who co-wrote the script with Besson, is riveting as 'The Man'. The film is set in an Earth that has been almost destroyed. While we are not exactly sure by what we do know that everything is in ruins. This creates some very interesting visual opportunities for writer/director Besson. The skyscrapers covered in sand and the fish that rain from the sky are just two examples from a film that helped build Besson's reputation for visual mastery. Along the way The Man meets others attempting to survive the destruction. Jean Reno, one of the world's finest actors, is fabulous as 'The Brute'. And veteran actor Fritz Wepper portrays 'The Captain'. But it is Jolivet, who co-wrote the script with Besson, who captures and keeps our attention.

How Jolivet faces the new world and all its difficulties is the plot of Le Dernier Combat. It seems that everyone on Earth is out to destroy everyone else still alive. But how 'The Man' attempts to recover his humanity is what makes this movie worth watching. There is nothing but the will to survive. Can 'The Man' stop fighting long enough to regain the person he was? Can anyone, in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, retain their humanity? Or are we all just animals, ruled by base emotions and instincts, that pretend something more?

This film is visually intriguing and filled with emotion and drama. The cinematography alone makes it worth seeing. The acting and directing have turned Le Dernier Combat into a bit of a cult classic. The only criticism I can find is that Besson borrowed some of the feel and image of 'Mad Max'. While I believe that this is accurate that does not make Le Dernier Combat unoriginal. It is anything but.

Filmed in 1983, directed by Luc Besson, written by Besson and Pierre Jolivet, starring Pierre Jolivet, Jean Reno, Fritz Wepper and Jean Bouise. The soundtrack was written by Eric Serra. He has become Besson's favorite composer and has worked on many movies. 'Goldeneye', 'Nikita' and 'Subway', in addition to this film, are just a few examples.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Judgement at Nuremberg

"We did not know. No one knew about the terrible things going on at the camps."

"Besides. What could we have done? Who are we to have made a difference?"

I have a dear friend who was born and raised in Germany, post-WW II. He tells me that no matter with whom he spoke he could not get anyone to talk of the happenings during the War. The only thing he could extract from the adults who lived through the war was that they had no idea. No idea of the atrocities. No idea of the horrors. No idea at all. That very concept plays at the heart of this riveting film. What could the people living in Germany under the NAZIs do? What responsibility did they have? Was it possible for no one to know?

In Judgement at Nuremberg the question is raised about the judges themselves. The film tells the story of the trial of 4 prominent judges of the Third Reich. The allies are trying them for war crimes after World War Two. Spencer Tracy portrays the judge, from America, who is in charge of the proceedings. Burt Lancaster plays the most famous of the German judges on trial. Richard Widmark does terrific work as the prosecuting attorney, but Maximilian Schell, among all the wonderful actors, almost steals the film. He won an Academy Award for his fantastic work in Judgement at Nuremberg. Although his character is appalled at the horrors of the NAZIs, he puts his total effort into defending the German judges. His passion comes through vividly.

Also nominated for acting Oscars were Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland. This was Garland's first movie in over 7 years. Screenwriter Abby Mann, who worked primarily in television through-out his career, also won an Oscar. Even though the movie is almost 3 hours, the tension from the script and acting keeps my attention. Director Stanley Kramer also deserves recognition for putting all that talent, and all those egos, to excellent use.

This is one of the great courtroom dramas. With deep moral and philosophical questions, great acting, writing and directing and drama for the entire film, Judgement at Nuremberg is a terrific film.

Filmed in 1961, directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann, starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and, in an early in his career appearance, William Shatner. Judgement at Nuremberg was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but lost out for most of them to 1961's monster hit 'West Side Story'. If you are interested in more information of the history of the Nuremberg trials, I suggest you get Leon Goldensohn's fascinating book 'The Nuremberg Interviews'.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thank You for Smoking

This is laugh-out-loud satire. It is biting in its sarcasm and bulls eye accurate in its spoofing of the political correctness movement. The humor is dark, which is just the way I like it! There must have been a dozen moments in which I thought "thank you for saying that". Too much of our society has been cast asunder in an effort to never offend, bother or upset another person. I welcome offense, celebrate bother and, to anyone who wishes to offend me, I say "good luck". Let's celebrate our differences, even those that are upsetting. It is our differences that make life interesting.

Thank You For Smoking follows a tobacco lobbyist/spokesperson as he attempts to persuade the public that smoking just might not be as bad as everyone wants you to believe. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, the lobbyist for tobacco companies. He travels America, giving speeches, debating on television and all-in-all battling for the right to smoke. A fictional Vermont Senator, portrayed by William H. Macy, decides to put a poison label on every pack of cigarettes. The two of them battle for public opinion. Naylor takes up with an attractive reporter, played by Katie Holmes, who later betrays his trust and spills all of his dark secrets. Naylor does his job and spins the tobacco story while trying to remain a role model for his twelve year old son.

Aaron Eckhart says that after he read this script he dropped out of another project to play Nick Naylor, heroic tobacco spin-doctor. I believe that almost every actor involved felt the same way. So much of this script is fabulous. Every character has at least a few terrific lines to excite the actor. This film was written and directed by Jason Reitman. He has since gone on to write and/or direct the box office hits 'Juno' and 'Up in the Air'. The hard-hitting sarcasm in this movie is fantastic. But the film also has a personal and sentimental side. The relationship between father and son is touching.

The film is based upon the best-selling novel by Christopher Buckley. Both Reitman and Buckley are the sons of big names in their fields. Jason is the son of Writer/Director Ivan Reitman while Christopher is the son of Author/Columnist William F. Buckley. Perhaps there is genetics at work? Even though the novel was a best-seller it took almost 15 years for the book to hit the big screen. The Hollywood studios must have decided that it was too "sensitive" a subject about which to make a film. There have been six disgusting films in the 'Saw' series, but a look at lobbying, tobacco and political correctness is too sensitive? In what world do movie executives live?

There are many wonderful performances in supporting roles. Besides Eckhard, Holmes and Macy, JK Simmons, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott and Rob Lowe all have terrific parts. I am certain that they all jumped at the chance to be in Thank You For Smoking. This kind of ensemble film, with a fantastic script, must be an actor's dream. I believe they enjoyed being in this movie as much as I enjoyed watching.

Writer/director Jason Reitman has a wonderful quote about his films. "I don't want to make films that give you the answer. If there is a message to my films - and I hope there isn't - it's to be open-minded." I couldn't agree more!

Filmed in 2005, directed and written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, starring Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

Monday, July 26, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

Ranked #2 on American Film Institute's (AFI) list of Most Inspiring movies.

Ranked #25 on AFI's list of Greatest Movies of All Time.

Ranked #1 on AFI's list of Courtroom Dramas.

Atticus Finch voted top screen hero of last 100 years by AFI.

The Harper Lee novel upon which this film is based won the Pulitzer Prize. It is currently the most assigned book in the US among high school students.

To Kill a Mockingbird is Clark Kent/Superman's favorite film.

Ranks #54 on IMBD's voters list of all-time best films.

Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

To Kill a Mockingbird also won Oscars for Best Writing and Best Art Direction.

Nominated for 5 other Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture. It lost out, on both awards, to 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

This list shows how large an impact To Kill a Mockingbird made upon its viewers. The film's powerful message about race relations rings as true today as when it was made. The script is compact and intelligent, the acting fantastic and the Robert Mulligan direction is perfect. By focusing this story upon the children, novelist Harper Lee and screenplay writer Horton Foote keep the story simple without being simplistic. They make strong statements about racism, poverty and innocence while entertaining us from beginning to end.

A wonderful film. It is worth a watch every few years!

Filmed in 1962, directed by Robert Mulligan, written by Horton Foote, based upon the novel by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Frank Overton and Robert Duvall in his screen debut.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Leon - The Professional

This is a most unique film. It has elements that I found captivating and others that made me quite uncomfortable. But, overall, Leon-The Professional is well worth a look.

In 1994 French director Luc Besson had a break in his schedule. He was about to start 'The Fifth Element' starring Bruce Willis. However, Willis was delayed working on his current project. Besson did not want to lose the crew and decided to make a feature film about a character from an earlier work. This film focuses upon the Jean Reno character from Besson's 'La Femme Nikita'. In 'Nikita' Reno stars as Victor the Cleaner, a professional hit man. Here he becomes Leon-The Professional.

Leon is a slow individual who has come to America and become a professional thug. He has become a master at his craft by refusing to become involved with anyone or anything. Natalie Portman, in her debut, portrays Mathilda. Mathilda is 12 and lives in the apartment next door. Her father is involved in transporting drugs and her entire family is killed when her father tries to steal some drugs. Leon saves Mathilda and she vows revenge. Gary Oldman, at his creepiest best, plays Stansfield. He is the head of the drug gang. Mathilda convinces Leon to teach her to be a "cleaner" so that she can avenge her father and brother's deaths. He reluctantly agrees and they develop a camaraderie. I will leave the story of their success or failure for you to view unspoiled.

Reno, Portman and Oldman are all fantastic. Director Besson, who also wrote the script, gets great work from all three. Oldman's ability to petrify and disturb the viewer is put to full value. He is over-the-top and under-control at the same time. But the bond between Reno and Portman makes the film, somehow, touching. Leon comes to realize that his life has been entirely empty while Mathilda needs his guidance and protection. They become important to one and another. That special relationship propels Leon-The Professional from typical action/assassin flick into something much more. However, that relationship is also a little creepy. There is an underlying tone of sexuality. Remember, Mathilda is 12. In France that may be standard, but in the US it is uncomfortable. I found myself squirming, just a little, at a few moments of their interaction. As did American audiences. The film was edited, to remove much of this content, for American release. Pick-up either the international version or US version depending upon your preference.

But Besson has made one of his best films. He may be better known for 'The Fifth Element' and 'The Transporter', but this film and 'Le Dernier Combat' represent his finest achievements. For a film about drug deals gone bad, professional hitmen and the murder of a young girl's family, Leon-The Professional is somehow warm and sweet. I hope you enjoy.

Filmed in 1994, directed and written by Luc Besson, starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello. For more info on 'Le Dernier Combat' you can read my earlier article here.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Today is Donald Sutherland's 75th birthday. Happy Birthday!

Many critics and viewers have said this film should be called 'Bree' and not Klute. Since the Jane Fonda character Bree Daniels is the focal point of the story. But it is the actions of detective Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, that force the story to move forward. His persistent inquisitions make Bree discover so much about herself and how we find out who is the killer.

It is true that this film hinges upon the performance of Jane Fonda. She wins her first of two Best Actress Oscars for her amazing work in this movie. As I said in my tweet (@movieguysteve), it is amazing how she was willing to be so unglamorous. Bree Daniels is a manipulative call girl. But Fonda's portrayal shows her to be an insecure woman who is attempting to live her life to the best of her abilities. She wants more, like most of us, but her frailties and faults get in the way, again just like most of us. You should watch this film just for her acting. During the denouement the camera focuses upon her face as she listens to a tape of the murder of her friend. You can feel the growing fear and disgust that Fonda expresses with just slight movements of her facial features. She is fantastic. I sometimes forget what a fabulous career she has had. I have written earlier pieces about 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' and 'Barefoot in the Park'. Jane Fonda can act!

The other performers in Klute are also terrific. Donald Sutherland, in the role of the lead detective, shows little emotion. Just a drive to find the facts and solve the case. Roy Scheider is so sleazy as Bree's agent(pimp) that I squirm, just a little, while he is on screen.

The script, written by Andy and David Lewis, is straightforward. A man goes missing and his wife wants him found. The police, after finding a note to a prostitute in his desk, assume that he has run away. His employer and wife hire Klute to go to New York and locate the man and the truth. There he finds that the prostitute (Bree) has been receiving obscene phone calls and feels that she is being watched. Is this the man that Klute is looking for? His efforts lead to the discovery of multiple murders and endangers Bree's life. Private Detective Klute pushes against all those involved in an effort to solve these crimes.

Klute is an excellent piece of film making. Director Alan J. Pakula moves the film along. I do find it interesting, however, that for a film about the multiple murder of prostitutes that there is very little violence or sex. That makes this film very different from most. Many writers and/or directors would have chosen to play up the sex and violence. Not Pakula. He keeps the film intelligent and stays away from gratuitous nudity or violence.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by Andy and David Lewis, starring Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider and Charles Cioffi.

One note: In her autobiography, Fonda says that she spent time on the streets with prostitutes before filming Klute. After this experience she felt that she was not attractive enough and that she should be replaced by Faye Dunaway. I am very glad that the producers convinced her to continue on. This film is much better for her performance.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Caine Mutiny

"The strawberries. I had them with the strawberries."

Before this film could be released the U.S. Navy required a disclaimer be placed at the opening of the film. The Navy wanted to be sure that every viewer understood that The Caine Mutiny is fiction and not based upon an actual mutiny. The Navy originally withheld any cooperation because of this concern. But the popularity of the book upon which the film is based, along with the fact that Humphrey Bogart would star, eventually changed the Navy Brass's minds.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Captain Queeg. He is the Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel during World War II. His senior officers, portrayed by Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Robert Francis, come to believe that Queeg is incapable of commanding a ship under the pressure of war. After some bizarre behavior by Captain Queeg they decide to relieve him of command. Two of them are tried for mutiny and are defended by Jose Ferrer. The courtroom sequences would later be produced as a Broadway play, but on screen we get to see the entire story.

Bogart is fantastic. In his last great performance he plays Queeg with aplomb. Some of Bogart's mannerisms and quirks are still used by actors and comics today. Bogart's willingness to play someone so unpopular is refreshing. Many of today's leading actors should consider this performance. Also excellent is Fred MacMurray. He plays the slimy Lieutenant Keefer. Keefer is a writer outside of the navy and is the driving force in convincing the rest of the officers that Queeg must go. But in the moment of truth he fails to support his fellow officers. Under appreciated Jose Ferrer carries the courtroom portion of The Caine Mutiny. He rarely fails to deliver top-notch work. This is no exception. His dedication to defend the mutineers makes the second act fantastic.

The novel, written by Herman Wouk, won the Pulitzer prize. The film was nominated for 7 academy awards. The Caine Mutiny, deservedly, has great credentials. Enjoy this fine film!

Filmed in 1954, directed by Edward Dmytryk, written by Stanley Roberts, starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Michael Caine

Michael Caine is one of the great actors of the 20th Century. He did so many wonderful movies that some have been lost from our collective appreciation. Today he is considered, and cast, as a first-rate character actor. His work in 'Batman Begins' as Alfred or the elder hippie Jasper in 'Children of Men' seem to be his current bread and butter. But I just saw a British film with him back in the lead. 'Harry Brown' stars Caine as the aging version of the tough guy seeking to clean up his drug-ridden neighborhood. He has become a much-appreciated actor. And that appreciation is well deserved. I saw an interview with him in which he was asked why he had made some bad movies. He replied that he is an actor. He would love to make only masterpieces, but he took work to fill his schedule. Such honesty is missing from many celebrities.

But I want to look at some of his early films. I hope to jog some people's memories of the fabulous films of his early career or to inspire some newer movie fans to pick-up copies of some under viewed classics. Enjoy!

This list is limited. One hint. If you hear that a Caine film is being remade-get the original. It is probably very good.

The Man who Would be King

I wrote an entire article about this terrific film. You can read the details here. This is the crowning jewel of Caine's career. He and Sean Connery star as two British soldiers looking for adventure in India/Pakistan/Afghanistan of the previous century. The go on an emotional, physical and spiritual journey that leads to Connery becoming King of Kafiristan. Wonderful interaction between Caine and Connery with a majestic setting and intriguing characters to boot.

The Italian Job

If you have seen the Mark Wahlberg remake don't be put off. This original is a top-notch heist film. The sequences with the minis make this film must-see by themselves. Caine is terrific as Charlie Croker. Croker is leading his unique group on a theft of magnificent proportions. Terrific chases and an ending that is to be seen to be believed.

Get Carter

The quintessential tough guy. Caine plays Carter. Carter is a man of questionable morals who intimidates, roughs up or does other violent work for his boss. When his brother turns up dead, in a suspicious car crash, Carter wants to know why. And by whom. He is warned off from investigating by almost everyone he meets. But, we know, he can't do that. Another film with a terrific final moment. Again, don't be turned off is you saw the Sly Stallone remake. Stallone might have a bigger chest, but I find Caine's Carter to be much more intimidating.

Dressed to Kill

Director Brian DePalma's 1980 film has generated much debate in the film community. Did DePalma "steal" from Hitchcock or is this an homage to the classic director. I believe the later, but I can understand anyone who thinks this is just a Hitchcock film under a different name. But if you are going to "borrow" why not borrow from one of the greats? Caine plays a psychiatrist who's patient has been murdered. A prostitute, played by the most-attractive Nancy Allen, is the only witness. The police suspect her and she must prove her innocence. The scenes in the museum and the elevator are extremely reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. If you enjoy his work you will enjoy this homage. Plus, as an at the time 19 year-old, Nancy Allen does look nice in all her outfits.


Acting battle between Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. I think Caine wins. Brilliant job by both terrific actors. Olivier's wife is about to leave him to be with the much younger Caine. Caine stages a robbery of Olivier's home to facilitate this change in relationships. There is a multitude of plot-twists as we race toward the climax. Each has their own motives and manipulations as they try to outdo the other. Who will emerge victorious? The viewers. Great acting, terrific direction and an intricate plot will entertain almost all. One bit of bad news. This DVD is out-of-print and quite expensive. It is also of less-than-stellar quality. This film is crying out of a Criterion reissue. I hope they are reading!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace

Since it is on TCM today, I decided to rerun my article about this great classic!

This is a screwball comedy for the ages. Hilarious to this day. Laser quick dialogue, over-the-top performances, wonderful direction and the absolutely impeccable timing of the great Cary Grant. What more could one ask for in a movie?

This film is based upon a very successful Broadway show. The producers of Arsenic and Old Lace perfected a movie making equation that is still being copied today. They hired one of America's top directors, Frank Capra. They added the perfect comedic skills of superstar Cary Grant. Joining them were red-hot script adapting brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. Then the two women who perfected the Brewster sister's characters on Broadway, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, join the cast. Add fantastic character actors like Peter Lorre, Jack Carson and John Alexander. Put all these things together and the result is a classic dark comedy. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not have a good time. It is impossible!

The plot follows Mortimer Brewster, portrayed by Cary Grant, as he returns to see his aunts. He is there to inform them he is getting married. Since he is a celebrity who has sworn to "never marry" the press is hot on his tail. Upon arriving at his aunt's home he finds that they have been murdering men to whom they rent their spare room. The women feel they are "ending the loneliness of these poor old men". He is stalling the bride while attempting to learn more about these murders. Soon the police are involved, the crazy family members are running about, the brother who has escaped from jail arrives and the sisters are planning a new murder. The perfect script for a comedy!

As I have been working on this blog I have viewed some films for the first time in years. One thing has become very clear. Cary Grant is a comedic genius. I wrote about his timing in an earlier blog 'His Girl Friday'. And seeing Arsenic and Old Lace again just confirms my belief. Other film funny men receive more credit today, but his timing, use of facial expression and body movements and choice of scripts has caused me to search out all of his films.

Director Frank Capra is one of America's greatest. His films include this one, along with 'It Happened One Night', 'You can't Take it with You', 'Mr. Smith goes to Washington', 'Mr. Deeds goes to Town', and Christmas classic 'It's a Wonderful Life'. If you have the opportunity to see any of these films - Take It! They are fantastic.

I don't know how to explain why the story of two senior citizens who murder men who rent a room is funny, but it is. Enjoy Arsenic and Old Lace.

Filmed in 1941, but released in 1944, directed by Frank Capra, written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair. The part played by Cary Grant was originally offered to both Ronald Reagan and Jack Benny. To our benefit, both turned it down.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to Marry a Millionaire

This film creates much debate within the cinema community. Filmed in 1953, the movie finds three models as they search for a husband. Now, the very idea that your identity as a woman is made by your husband seems outlandish. But, in 1953, that was the belief of many women across America. I also think it is important to remember that in much of the world today this concept is as strong today as 56 years ago. So How to Marry a Millionaire provides a look at pre-feminist America.

Along with providing a look at the USA of the 1950s, this movie has some wonderful observations on sexual politics and gender issues. Because the stated goal of all 3 leading characters is to marry a millionaire, we are treated to many instances of men and women on the prowl for companionship. The screenplay's author Nunnally Johnson does an intriguing job of showing the similarities and differences of men and women in relationships. I am quite fond of Johnson's work throughout his career. He penned some terrific scripts and adaptations from early on with 'The Grapes of Wrath' through the end of his career with 'The Dirty Dozen'. Most of his scripts provide some insights into people and their relationships.

But more important than the deep-sounding issues of pre-feminism, sexual politics and gender roles, How to Marry a Millionaire is a fun movie. There are plenty of laughs to keep you entertained. And we get to gaze upon Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable for 88 minutes. That alone makes it worth a watch. The plot is simple. Our three leading ladies rent an upscale apartment from which they hope to catch a wealthy husband. Since they seem to find "gas pump jockeys and soda jerks" in their current lives, 'Schatze Page', played well by Lauren Bacall, organizes a plot to move in high society circles. They go through the ups and downs of such a plot until they each find the love they have been searching for. Of course, things never go exactly as planned, but that is all part of the fun.

One detail that I love. This movie is filled with inside jokes. For example, in one moment Lauren Bacall's character 'Schatze' says "I love older men. Take that guy in the 'African Queen'". That guy is Humphrey Bogart and she was married to him. Or, Betty Grable's character 'Loco' hears a Harry James song on the radio. She talks about how much she loves Harry James. When this was filmed, she was married to Harry James. Those kind of inside jokes just add to the fun of How to Marry a Millionaire.

This is a simple film with great actresses spouting nice writing for our entertainment. Not bad for 88 minutes.

Filmed in 1953, directed by Jean Negulsco, written by Nunnally Johnson, starring Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun, William Powell, Cameron Mitchell and David Wayne. For a more detailed look at John Ford and Nunnally Johnson's masterpiece 'The Grapes of Wrath', read my earlier blog.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Marathon Man

Is it safe?

Taut thriller that combines the everyman on the run storyline with excellent performances. Dustin Hoffman plays a graduate student living in New York City. He believes that his brother, portrayed by Roy Scheider, is an international businessman. Of course it wouldn't be much of a film if that was true. Instead Scheider is a spy working for "the division". When his brother is killed Hoffman pursues those responsible. Leading the bad guys is Laurence Olivier. Olivier plays an aging Nazi that is collecting the diamonds he stole from Jews during World War Two.

The fabulous thing about Marathon Man is the chemistry of the cast. Hoffman and Scheider "feel" like brothers who have a history. Marthe Keller, a Swiss actress known best in Europe, plays the love interest to Hoffman. Their relationship grows in an authentic way. William Devane is Scheider's boss/co-spy. Devane has made some terrific films and is spot-on here. But the film's central story line revolves around Hoffman and Olivier. In the later part of his career Olivier gave up the over-acting and became a complete performer (my earlier blog 'A Little Romance'). He plays the cool and calm Nazi to perfection. You distrust and dislike him from the moment he appears. He and Hoffman make a terrific protagonist/antagonist couple. I find myself rooting for Hoffman just to see Olivier lose. Great job! Olivier was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film.

This movie is also a great collection of talent. Besides the outstanding cast, it was written by William Goldman. He adapted the screenplay from his best-selling book. The film builds and has a deliberate pace in the beginning. But the tension, and my interest, grow as the story continues. Goldman has written many great scripts including 'Princess Bride', 'All the President's Men', 'The Hot Rock' and, one of my favorite movies, 'Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid'. He has a deft touch with language that I so appreciate. Marathon Man was directed by John Schlesinger. He won an Oscar for 'Midnight Cowboy'. He deserves kudos for allowing the script and actors to carry the film. There is only a small amount of special effects. The violence is limited, but is very terrifying. For anyone who has seen it, the sound of Olivier's drill can not be forgotten. It still brings a chill to me.

A terrific cast, intelligent script and crisp directing combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable film. It is a top-notch thriller.

Filmed in 1976, directed by John Schlesinger, written by William Goldman, starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller and William Devane.

Notes: The torture scene in Marathon Man was shortened after many members of the preview audiences became ill. Also, the line "Is it safe?" is listed at number 70 on AFI's list of great movie quotes.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Goodbye Girl

Marsha Mason has been dumped by yet another man. She and her daughter are left on their own in a tight, two-bedroom New York apartment. Unbeknown to her, her ex has sublet the apartment to someone else. She becomes quite surprised, and panicked, when the new renter attempts to remove them from their home. Richard Dreyfuss, in his academy award-winning role, portrays that new renter. The film follows the story of the struggling actor, Dreyfuss, and the back in the business dancer, Mason, as they attempt to rebuild their lives and careers while sharing this apartment.

This is one of the great romantic comedies. Unlike most of the genre, these characters are real and substantial. Neil Simon writes dialogue of which most other playwrights can only dream. Quick one-liners are intermixed with well-developed people and stories. As I watch The Goodbye Girl I find myself beginning to side with either Paula (Mason) or Elliott (Dreyfuss). But soon I will be working my way to the other side. And back again. Quinn Cummings plays the 10 year old daughter Lucy. It is nice to see a child that doesn't scream at her parents and steal a car. She is just a kid in a difficult situation.

Director Herbert Ross allows the script to tell the story. Done with a minimal amount of editing, no special effects and few sets. Just good acting and great writing. The scene in which Elliott (Dreyfuss) performs a flaming, gay version of Richard III is worth the price of admission on its own. 1977 was a good year for director Ross. Two of his films were nominated for Best Picture. This one and 'The Turning Point'.

We, and Hollywood, need more movies like The Goodbye Girl. This movie is warm, tender and quite funny. Terrific.

One side note. 1977 was also quite a year for Richard Dreyfuss. Not only did he win the Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl, he had a bigger box office hit with 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'.

Filmed in 1977, directed by Herbert Ross, written by Neil Simon, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Panic in Needle Park

The most obvious reason to view The Panic in Needle Park is because it is Al Pacino's first movie. This is before he lit up the screen in 'The Godfather' and 'Serpico'. His ability to capture your attention is evident from the start of his now lengthy career. This film tells the story of Bobby and Helen. They are two young people who become heroin addicts in New York City. The film is gritty and raw, but not as disturbing as Sid and Nancy. There have been many films about drug use and abuse. This is a compelling one.

Pacino plays Bobby, a small-time hustler who steals and deals his way through life. He boasts to Helen about spending time in 8 different jails. Kitty Winn portrays Helen. Helen has split from her relationship with Marco (played by a very young Raul Julia). From the start Bobby finds her most interesting. They become a couple that dabbles in drugs. As the story moves forward Helen becomes deeply addicted to heroin. They both attempt to move beyond the despair of drug abuse, but, somehow, can never seem to escape. Crime, drug dealing and prostitution become part of their daily lives.

The script was written by some literary heavyweights. The Panic in Needle Park script was co-authored by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and is based upon the James Mills novel. The film provides what appears to be an accurate view of the life of heroin addicts in Needle Park. It is a life of danger and despair, but Bobby and Helen's feelings for each other cast light upon their dark world. Director Jerry Schatzberg pulls no punches in showing us the underbelly of the drug culture.

Look for appearances by actors who would later gain some fame and notoriety. Raul Julia, Joe Santos (Hill Street Blues), Kiel Martin and Paul Sorvino are all in this movie. Just pay close attention because they go by quickly. I am not sure why Kitty Winn never became a bigger star. She is fantastic in this film and shows the ability to connect with audiences. She later played 'Sharon' in 'The Exorcist'. I wonder why she left acting and what she is up to today.

This is a difficult film to watch because of the life choices made by the characters. But, in some way, their care for each other provides a positive message among all the negatives.

Trivia: Kitty Winn is the granddaughter of General George C. Marshall. Marshall was the U.S. Chief of Staff during World War Two and went on to lead the 'Marshall Plan'. This plan provided the funds for Europe and Japan to rebuild after the War.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn.