Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In honor of screenwriter Robert Towne's birthday, here is a look at his most powerful film!

The most important thing that I can say about this movie: I was thinking about the events, how and why they happened, as if I was the lead character. Chinatown pulls you in and makes you feel like a part of the story. Writer Robert Towne, who won an Academy Award for his script, does a superb job of involving the viewer. Throughout the movie I was wondering what each clue might mean, what would be the next step and how could everything be linked. To me, that is the sign of a fantastic script. Towne has done terrific scripts like 'The Parallax View' (see my blog), 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Tequila Sunrise', but this is his best work. The script would make Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud.

Chinatown tells the story of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). He is a private detective in 1930's Los Angeles. He is hired by a wife to investigate the activities of her husband. She is suspicious of infidelity. He finds what he believes to be proof of the cheating. But he has been used and lied to and everything blows up in his face. This is insulting to our lead detective and he is off on a chase for "the truth". The search for evidence leads him to the halls of power within LA. He becomes involved with what he believes to be a vast conspiracy. But, as we all know, when you mess with those in power they mess back. Things don't always work out for Jake. But, in true film noir tradition, nothing will stop our lead from pursuing the facts. No matter where they lead and no matter the consequences.

The most famous scene is when Jake gets his nose sliced. The man with the knife is played by director Roman Polanski. This is the first film Polanski made in the U.S. after the terrible tragedy of Sharon Tate. Producer Robert Evans wanted a European to direct this film. He wanted the look and feel to be that of someone who did not grow up in America. Polanski did a fantastic job and received an Oscar nomination. The film is gritty and very intriguing. I especially liked the few moments of introspection that Polanski allows detective Jake Gittes. Those small pauses give us, the viewers, the chance to contemplate events while the lead does as well. It is an excellent touch. Sometimes directors are in such a hurry for the next "exciting effect" that they don't give us time to enjoy what is going on. Thankfully Polanski does not fall into that trap.

This film is a slight twist on classic film noir. It is set in the 30's, but has some modern twists to traditional noir. It is more in the modern style and provided the springboard for the resurgence of noir. This movie provided much of the basis for films like 'L.A. Confidential', 'Memento' and 'The Grifters'. Faye Dunaway, portraying Evelyn Mulwray, is a fantastic Femme Fatale. She entices Nicholson into moving over to the "dark side". The viewers can never be sure when she is honest and manipulative or dishonest and manipulative. But like all noir femmes she is manipulative. Both Dunaway and Nicholson received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their work. I believe that this is the film that established Jack Nicholson as a leading man. He had been a character actor, but his fine work here propelled him to super stardom.

Chinatown has an unexpected ending and shockers of details along the way. It is intelligent, well-acted, directed and written and is most entertaining. Be sure to netflix, download, rent or buy this great movie!

Filmed in 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and John Hillerman. For further ruminations upon film noir see my blog about 'Double Indemnity'. This is the last film that Polanski shot in the United States. He chose to flee to avoid jail time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Big Clock

At 10 AM, Eastern time, this film is being shown on cable great TCM. I wanted to share why I like the movie so much.

Fantastic film noir! Ray Milland plays the editor of the largest crime magazine in America. He is ultra-career orientated. So much so that he has missed his honeymoon 5 years in a row. Charles Laughton plays the owner/publisher of the magazine for which Milland works. He has used his immense power and wealth to manipulate Milland into working to the point of destroying his personal life and marriage. Rita Johnson portrays Laughton's long-time mistress. They are having a difficult time in their relationship and she attempts to use Milland to blackmail Laughton. After Milland and Johnson spend the night barhopping she turns up dead. Laughton, in a jealous rage, has murdered his mistress in her own apartment. Milland saw Laughton at her apartment just before the time of her death.

Publisher Laughton also noticed someone leaving his mistress's apartment just as he arrives. He uses his staff, not knowing that his own editor, Milland, witnessed him at the crime scene, to find this missing witness. Laughton wants to frame him for the murder. Milland is forced to find himself to aid in his own framing. Can he elude the massive efforts of the Publishing millionaire? And, can Milland somehow find enough evidence to prove that his boss is the murderer? Before his own time runs out?

The Big Clock is classic film noir. A good man, played by Ray Milland, is tempted by a femme fatale, portrayed by Rita Johnson. Although he resists her temptation, he still ends up on the dark side and in massive trouble. Everything points to him, even witnesses, as the murderer. We know he did not do it, but the publisher's power and money are all working against him in a race against time. Evil, using a beautiful woman, is tempting good. Classic film noir.

Director John Farrow does a nice job of keeping the movie moving. The novel, by Kenneth Fearing, is much longer and more detailed. I like both, but for different reasons. This film is taut and suspenseful. The first half sets up the crime and all the participants. The second half races us toward the confrontation we all know is coming. The script adaptation, by Jonathon Latimer, aids in keeping the movie tight. Milland, Rita Johnson and Director Farrow's wife Maureen O'Sullivan all do fine jobs in their performances. But Charles Laughton steals the show. He is at his creepy best. Constantly checking the time and his schedule, harassing his employees and stroking his mustache all serve to make him even creepier. He is terrific here.

The Big Clock is a fine example of a 1940s film noir. Tight direction and script with classic characters and story line. And a running time of just an hour and a half. A wonderful diversion on a lonely night.

Filmed in 1948, directed by John Farrow, written by Jonathan Latimer, starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan and Rita Johnson. Look for a pre-Dragnet and MASH Henry Morgan. Also, check out the woman operating the elevator in the first sequence. She went on to be Lois Lane in the Superman tv series. Remade in the 80s as 'No Way Out' with Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young. The original is much better, but the remake has its moments.

Friday, November 19, 2010


This film is on TCM tonight. Don't miss it!

I found I had a great deal of difficulty getting to sleep after watching Gallipoli. Director Peter Weir did such a magnificent job of bringing me into the story of young men caught up in a national passion for war that I found myself restless, almost upset. The characters in Gallipoli come to find that a national fervor does not always look-out for the interests of the participants. Many men and women have suffered in the name of national pride.

Mel Gibson, in one of his earliest roles, and Mark Lee portray two young men in Australia in 1915. Lee plays Archy, an underage volunteer desperate to fight for his country. Gibson plays Dunne, a man from the city who wants to avoid the conflict. Both are world-class sprinters who meet on the race track. They build a friendship as Archy tries to enlist even though he is too young. Archy eventually convinces Dunne to enlist with him. Dunne forges a new birth certificate and they attempt to join up. The "Light Horse", Australia's cavalry, only want Archy and the two are separated. Archy goes off to Egypt to train to fight in Turkey. Dunne joins the infantry and the two are reunited in Egypt. They join forces and are sent to the Gallipoli Peninsula to fight the Turks.

Director Weir really makes two films. The first is a sweet and endearing coming of age, buddy picture. The camaraderie between Archy and Dunne develops and I feel almost like one of the gang. Weir's second film is about the horror that is war. In this case World War One. The true story of Gallipoli is considered to be one of the great tragedies in Australian history. Thousands of young Australian men met their death 5,000 miles from home to almost no result. Director Weir brings home the day of greatest tragedy in gut-wrenching fashion.

Film teachers and critics make much of the final, freeze-frame shot of Gallipoli. It is quite a powerful ending. But I find that the picture of abject frustration and horror on the face of Gibson to be the film's finest moment. His look brings home the Gallipoli tragedy in a very personal way.

Filmed in 1981, directed by Peter Weir, written by David Williamson, starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr and Harold Hopkins. The screenplay is adapted from a book, 'The Broken Years', by Bill Gammage. The book is out-of-print.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Fabulous documentary that provides an in-depth look at boxing great Mike Tyson. Tyson is undergoing a bit of a resurgence now. He is filming 'The Hangover 2' and received nice comments about his work in 'The Hangover'. While that film is one of the funniest of the decade, this film is intense and very personal.

Tyson provides a great deal of personal information for this documentary. He has a "no-holds barred" approach and is both honest and self-critical. I have a much different opinion for Tyson after viewing this film. Writer/Director James Toback deserves credit for allowing Tyson to tell his own story. We see the highs of his boxing career sink to the lows of his rape conviction, bankruptcy and public humiliation. The end of the film, in which Tyson speaks about his own desire to change and improve, is moving. I know Tyson the boxer, but now I feel I know, at least a little, Tyson the person.

One moment that I found particularly enlightening. Tyson sued his boxing promoter Don King. He does not speak well of King. The court awarded Tyson a large sum of money, but Tyson does not know how much. "20 million or maybe 30 million dollars". He is not sure. But he is sure that it "wasn't much money". Perhaps to Mr. Tyson that's not much money, but to me it sounds pretty good!

Tyson is an insightful documentary that was nominated for many critical awards. I believe you will find much of interest in this strong film.

Filmed in 2008, written and directed by James Toback, starring Mike Tyson, Cus D'Amato, Mills Lane and many boxing greats.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Parallax View

Since this Warren Beatty gem is on TCM tonight, I thought we should take a quick look!

After viewing this film for the first time I found myself amazed and let the credits roll-by without a glance. It took me a few minutes to get my brain around the ideas and cinematography of The Parallax View. It is not what I expected in any way, shape or form. Surprising, a little disturbing and quite unique. I usually enjoy movies when they can surprise me and this one sure did.

Warren Beatty plays a minor reporter in 1970s Seattle. He is one of a group of 18 people who witness the assassination of a U.S. Senator. 3 years later another of the witnesses searches him out. She is petrified because the witnesses are being killed-off. She fears for her life. Beatty thinks she is paranoid and ignores her information. Until she turns up dead. He then takes off on a search for the truth behind the assassination. This leads him to the Parallax Corporation. He believes they orchestrated the killing and subsequent cover-up. He decides to infiltrate Parallax and expose their ways.

The script, written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., is complex. But it is the directing of Alan J. Pakula and the cinematography/photography of Gordon Willis that define this film. For the first 45 minutes or so I was frustrated with the directing and editing. They did not allow me to comprehend a situation before jumping to another part of the story. I then realized that is the plan. Pakula and Willis use the lighting, editing and photography to keep the viewer slightly off-balance. Just like the reporter Joe Frady (Beatty). This works to great effect as the story develops. I was unsure what was happening and, more importantly, what would happen. These techniques make the movie so much more than the usual conspiracy film. Don't miss it!

Filmed in 1974, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Giler, starring Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paula Prentis and William Daniels.

Saturday, November 6, 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.