Friday, December 31, 2010

Sweet Smell of Success

This film features some of the slimiest, darkest, meanest and most manipulative characters ever captured on celluloid. I felt, just a little bit, dirty after watching this film recently. It is impossible to feel any other way!

Tony Curtis, in the finest performance of his career, plays Sydney Falco. Falco is a press agent attempting to gain fame and fortune for his clients. But, more importantly, is fame and fortune for himself. He attempts to curry the favor of big-time newspaper columnist/radio star J.J. Hunsecker. Burt Lancaster portrays Hunsecker with amazing evil and contempt in every word and movement. This film should be seen just to watch these two actors give the performance of their lives. Curtis plays the toady, kiss-ass with a level of sleaze that can almost be tasted as it drips off the screen. And Lancaster's manipulation knows no bounds. Acting magnificence!

The script is top-notch. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, it is wonderful in its evil. They do a terrific job of giving the viewer the feel of desperation for small-guy Curtis and corrupt power of Lancaster. Director Alexander Mackendrick, coming off the wonderful Alec Guinness film 'The Ladykillers', gives us the opportunity to share in the story without pause. He just keeps the film moving towards a fantastic finish. Also to be commended is cinematographer James Wong Howe. He moves the camera through the nightclubs and street life of New York City with ease and grace. Howe had a career that stretched for over 50 years and is remembered for wonderful photography in his films.

One last technical note. Sweet Smell of Success has terrific music and score. From the jazz in the clubs to the score by Elmer Berstein the music alone is well worth the viewing. This film is dark, manipulative and evil. Oh yeah, and terrific as well.

Filmed in 1957, directed by Alexander MacKendrick, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Martin Milner, Susan Harrison and Barbara Nichols. Master film transfer company Criterion has a new DVD set coming out in February for this film. "Light Me, Sydney"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Panic in the Streets

Today is Richard Widmark's birthday. I decided to re-run this look at one of his early thrillers. Enjoy!

Before Elia Kazan directed 'East of Eden', 'On the Waterfront' and 'A Streetcar named Desire' he developed his dramatic chops with this bit of half medical thriller/half detective film noir. Richard Widmark plays Dr. Reed, a Doctor for the Public Health Service. A coroner in New Orleans finds something suspicious with a murder victim and calls in Reed to investigate. Reed believes this body is infected with pneumonic plague and that the city is under a major biological threat. Most of the brass for the city assume he is overly-dramatic, but the Mayor orders the police to help in every way possible. Paul Douglas portrays police captain Warren who has been given the task of solving the murder and containing the disease. Our two heroes have only 48 hours before the plague becomes contagious and spreads throughout the city. Thousands of lives are at stake.

Kazan understands the need for a story to move if we are to have drama. The conflict between Dr. Reed and Captain Warren is in the forefront of the film, but the underlying tension of the plague helps maintain an extremely crisp pace. I read a dozen other reviews of this movie and every single one of them used the word taut. Who am I to argue? Can the protagonists solve the murder and save the city? As viewers we know that the killer is local thug 'Blackie'. He is played, in his film debut, by one-armed push up master Jack Palance. His sidekick, the soft toady 'Fitch' is wonderfully acted by Zero Mostel. There are not a lot of films in which Mostel plays a criminal. It is refreshing casting. Both Palance and Mostel are terrific. Palance plays the evil heavy with aplomb while Mostel's whining lackey is spot-on.

Today, with the many threats facing our planet, the idea of a disease spreading "panic in the streets" is all too real. But before the debut of this film not much had been made of the possibility. Some of the science in this movie is less-than-perfect, but audiences were both entertained and disturbed by the film and its concepts. Writers Edna and Edward Anhalt, who wrote the story upon which this film is based, were awarded an Academy Award for their work in thrilling/terrifying the audience.

Panic in the Streets is a taut thriller. It is fast and most enjoyable.

Filmed in 1950, directed by Elia Kazan, written by Richard Murphy from the story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas and Zero Mostel. Towards the end of the film, Jack Palance's character climbs a boat rope in an effort to escape. He performed this stunt personally after two different professional stuntmen could not make it up the rope!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Out of the Past

Film noir at its best. This 1947 noir classic stars Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. Mitchum plays small-town gas station owner Jeff Bailey. Mitchum makes a few bucks, fishes often and has a lovely girlfriend. A seemingly idyllic life. Then his past catches up with him. The past in the persona of Whit Sterling. Sterling is played, with his usual aplomb, by Kirk Douglas. Douglas has summoned Mitchum to his Lake Tahoe home for a "chat".

As with most film noirs, Mitchum spends his time on the way to this chat telling his story in the past tense. Whether it is Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce noir uses the lead character telling the story in flashback as a main device. Out of the Past is no exception. We learn of Mitchum's hiring by Douglas to locate Douglas's love Kathie Moffat. Kathie is played to evil temptress perfection by Jane Greer. Mitchum follows Greer to Mexico with the intent to bring her back to Douglas for a big payday. But, of course, plans go awry. Mitchum falls hard for Greer's feminine wiles and instead goes on the run with her. But that soon falls apart. Years later Douglas and Greer re-enter Mitchum's now Norman Rockwell' life with the intent to bring harm. But can Mitchum foil their plans?

Director Jacques Tourneur does a fantastic job with the simple noir plot. Greer's evil temptations pull good guy Mitchum over to the dark side. Douglas and his money are the bait, but it is the fabulous Greer that seals the deal. But it is the script, by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel, that is the most important part of Out of the Past. It is biting, dripping in sarcasm and wit, and filled with classic film noir emotion. It seems that each sentence was crafted for maximum impact with minimum words. The script almost reaches out and grabs the viewer on its own. It is powerful and moves a simple story along to keep the viewer riveted.

Filmed in 1947, directed by Jacques Tourneur, written by Daniel Mainwaring with uncredited help from noir master James Cain, starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming. If you like film noir, and I do, this is must-see! I have previously written about other noir classics like Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Big Clock and Chinatown.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Since today is Steven Spielberg's birthday I decided to re-run my article on his the first film he directed.

It is amazing how much suspense you can build with almost no dialogue or sets, just a car and a very menacing truck. This is the film that turned Steven Spielberg from a tv director into a wanted filmmaker. Dennis Weaver stars as a mild-mannered traveling salesman. Driving along a small, California two-lane highway he decides to pass a large truck. No big deal. Happens a million times a day, right? This time the trucker does not appreciate the action. The trucker decides to chase down Weaver. The ultimate in road rage!

Spielberg's storytelling mastery shows. In a stroke of genius we never see the truck driver. It is just a beat-up truck chasing down poor Dennis Weaver. Spielberg later uses this same technique, to great effect, with the shark in Jaws. Of course, with Jaws, the shark didn't work correctly, but why quibble? In Duel Spielberg tells the story with a minimum of effects, dialogue or explanation. Just a rogue truck chasing down our unsuspecting lead. Suspense builds until a satisfying final scene.

Duel was written by Richard Matheson. He is now best known as the author of 'I Am Legend'. He also wrote one of the scariest things I remember from my youth. 'The Trilogy of Terror'. Pick that one up too if you can find it!

Simple, straightforward and powerfully suspenseful. I find Duel to be quite satisfying as well!

Filmed for TV in 1971, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Richard Matheson, starring Dennis Weaver, Eddie Firestone, and a very menacing truck. Spielberg subsequently directed two more films for television, Something Evil and Savage. Can anyone find a copy of either of those? They may be lost for the ages. Perhaps that can be the subject of the next 'Indiana Jones' movie?

Friday, December 17, 2010

North Face (Nordwand)

This movie is intense! Some of the reviews upon its release include quotes like "Heart Pounding" (Boston Herald), "Bone Chilling, Unbearably Riveting" (Chicago Sun-Times) and "The Suspense is Relentless" (Washington Post). And I concur with those comments 100 percent. The climbing sequences are intense, riveting, chilling and relentless. The tensions build throughout the film towards an amazing finish.

North Face is a German film that tells the true story of a group of mountain climbers in 1936. From across Europe, different teams of men attempted to become the first to climb the North Face of Eiger in the Alps. Two of Europe's most celebrated climbers had died attempting this climb the previous year. During 1936 the shadow of war was descending upon Europe as the Nazis continued to expand their power. Millions of people lived in fear of a possible war to come. The Nazis wanted a German team to be the first to conquer this mountain climb. They intended to use this as propaganda, further proof of the "superiority" of the German people. These events also take place just before the German Olympics in Berlin. If the German team attempting to climb the North Face could reach the summit first they would be celebrated across Germany.

However, the film uses the tensions in Germany and Europe as a backdrop for a story that is so intense that to include more could stifle the viewer's ability to relate. The film focuses upon the German climbers Toni Kurz, played by Benno Furmann, and Andreas Hinterstoisser, portrayed by Florian Lukas. Both actors do a fine job in the most difficult of cinema circumstances. But it is the directing and cinematography that dazzle. The story of the climb, the heights, the wind, the cold, the isolation, is what makes this movie so personal and so powerful. The director Philip Stolzl and the cinematographer Kolja Brandt do fantastic work. The story is riveting and they let the story unfold. The climbing scenes are fantastic. I felt as if I was on the side of that treacherous mountain. You will too!

Filmed in 2008, directed by Philip Stolzl, written by Stolzl, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber, starring Benno Furmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek and Ulrich Tukur. For a detailed look at the early climbers and what they faced at Eiger try 'The White Spider' by Heinrich Harrer. Harrer successfully summited the North Face in 1938.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Thing from Another World

This sci-fi classic is on TCM on Saturday. Don't miss it!

This is a wonderfully tense science fiction film. Made in 1951, it set the standard for dozens of film that followed. This movie has almost every character that would become so familiar in future films. The military officer that is sure the visitor from another world is hostile, the scientist that is sure that the visitor is wise, caring and misunderstood, the reporter that cares about nothing but getting the story, etc. They are all here. But when writer/producer Howard Hawks and director Christian Nyby made The Thing from Another World these characters weren't cliches. They had yet to become standards. This movie made them so.

The Thing is an alien who has crashed his spaceship in the arctic. A science outpost has witnessed the crash and they have called in the Air Force. Upon the military's arrival they "take over" and start running the show, much to the scientist's dismay. The air force and the scientists pull a "body", encased in a block of ice, from the crash site. They drag the ice-encrusted alien back to camp. And that is when the fun begins. The humans all believe the creature has died in the crash, but, of course, he springs back to life to terrorize the inhabitants of this outpost. A huge storm blows in and they are cut off from communicating and rescue. Is the alien dangerous or misunderstood? Should they kill the creature or, perhaps, sacrifice themselves to save our first contact with an alien race? How can you deal with a life form with which you can't communicate nor injure?

Much is made of the question Who actually directed this movie? Veteran Howard Hawks co-wrote and produced this film. It came from his company. This is credited director Christian Nyby's first film. It is far and away the best thing he ever did. Nyby had worked as an editor and cinematographer for Hawks for years. Nyby won an Academy Award for editing Hawks fabulous 'Red River'(see my earlier blog). At the time, science fiction was looked down upon by Hollywood executives and critics. Did Hawks want to avoid the criticism for making a sci-fi film? Was he hoping to boost his friend's career? Neither of them ever answered the question directly. After watching it is clear that Hawks' influence can be seen throughout the movie. The tense storytelling, the simultaneous speaking of multiple characters, the linear plot and the use of unseen images to heighten suspense are all marks of Hawks.

Whom ever did the work, or perhaps the teamwork itself, he/they created one of the great science fiction films. A true cult classic. Also, give a listen to the score. 4-time Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin's eerie score is also a precursor for much of the music used in science fiction films to follow.

Filmed in 1951, directed by Christian Nyby, written by Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer, starring James Arness, Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan and Robert Cornthwaite.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tora Tora Tora

An intense look at the buildup and attack at Pearl Harbor told from both the U.S. and Japan perspectives. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the best film showing the intensity, hardship and action of World War Two. The American story was performed and directed by an American crew, while the Japanese side of the story was done by a Japanese crew. This includes the actors speaking in Japanese. This provides an authentic feel that is missing from many war films.

The sequence that dramatizes the actual attack upon Pearl Harbor is technically awe-inspiring. It is quite dramatic and intense. I am amazed that, even though I know the history, how nervously I view this film. Telling both sides of the story makes this film much more intriguing than the over-the-top treatment given by Michael Bay in his Pearl Harbor.

A very deep cast includes veteran actors Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Soh Yamamura, Eijiro Tono, Jason Robards, James Whitmore and Tatsuya Mihashi. They performed well, but are slightly overshadowed by the technically amazing production values. With an excellent script written, in English, by Larry Forester and, in Japanese, by Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima this is the film to see about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the best film about World War Two.

Filmed in 1970, Directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasuka, starring Martin Balsam, Soh Yamamura, Joseph Cotton, Tatsuya Mihashi, E.G. Marshall, Takahiro Tamura, James Whitmore, Eijiro Tono and James Whitmore.

An interesting film note. During the attack sequence, a plane blows-up while moving along the ground. The propeller flies off and "rolls" toward some people. Those stunt people appear to run for their lives. This is not acting, but the result of a malfunction of the stunt plane. It was exploded much sooner than planned and the explosion caused pieces to fly towards the stunt actors. It views as extremely realistic because it is!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Thin Man

This is on TCM today. Enjoy!

Never before nor since have two people consumed so much alcohol so successfully. William Powell and Myrna Loy team-up as the mystery solving sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. This film is based upon a novel by Dashiell Hammett. He is also the creator of the hardboiled detective Sam Spade (best portrayed by Humphrey Bogart). But in The Thin Man his crime fighters are a wealthy socialite and her former detective husband. The only things that Nick and Nora like more than solving murders are drinking and witty banter. And there is plenty of both here.

Powell and Loy are so fabulous together that most other screen couples pale in comparison. Critics loved their on-screen chemistry. Audiences so enjoyed them together, along with their dog 'Asta', that the studio made 5 more movies in this series. The thin man in the title is the victim of a murder. Nick, who has "retired" after marrying Nora, is roped into helping solve the murder. He eventually does. But the murder plot, while interesting and clever, is just the vehicle for us to enjoy this pair. Both Powell and Loy give the performances of their careers. They are fine actors with a full and rich body of work, but I don't think they could ever escape the pressure of such successful teamwork. Their timing is exquisite, their chemistry divine and their delivery perfection. Sometimes I watch The Thin Man just to enjoy their work.

Veteran Director W.S. Van Dyke wisely lets Powell and Loy go for it. He seemingly allows two master actors who work magnificently together to run free. But unlike much of today's "improv" comedy, The Thin Man is crisp and quick. No pauses to stare into the camera nor slow deliveries here. Script writers Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich gave them so many great lines for us to enjoy that you may miss some of them the first time through. When you enjoy this movie be sure to wait a few weeks and then try it again. I guarantee that you will then realize how much fun you missed the first time. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a stiff martini. You may not need it, but you sure are going to want one!

Filmed in 1934, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, written by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendelton and Cesar Romero.