Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Conversation

This is an odd and intriguing little film. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation was his project immediately following 'The Godfather'. While 'The Godfather' was massive, in both scale and success, this film is much more intimate. There is a small cast, simple sets and very little in the way of "action". This movie is very cerebral and is driven by the script and the excellent performance of Gene Hackman. Hackman portrays Harry Caul. Caul is a surveillance expert that has been hired to record an "unrecordable" conversation.

Two people spend their lunch break walking throughout a crowded city park. They never sit down, separate from each other nor allow anyone to get close. Caul has to hire a number of people to be able, with great difficulty, to record their discussion. Why are these people being watched? Are they criminals, cheating spouses or victims of a personal invasion of privacy? What are they talking about? How will this conversation effect those around them?

The job is a difficult one and it takes Caul a lot of work to piece together what was said. Upon finishing the tapes he attempts to deliver them to "the director" (his client). The director's assistant will not allow Caul to deliver the tapes directly and attempts to intervene. Unhappy with the situation, Caul refuses to hand over the evidence and keeps the tapes for himself. Earlier in his career Caul produced some evidence that lead to the death of an innocent family. This has plagued him to this day. His paranoia/guilt has wrecked his life and made it impossible for him to have any personal relationships. He becomes convinced that some nefarious activity is about to take place and is torn on how to become involved or if he even should become involved. At some points he even wonders if what he is seeing is true or delusion.

I won't say anything about the last third of the movie. Once you watch, please feel free to drop me a line ( and let me know what you think happened. The ending of The Conversation has been discussed in film schools, cafes and living rooms since its debut. Also, the film has a haunting jazz score. Composed by David Shire, the score is also featured in film schools for its effect upon the viewer. It is both integral to the film and non-invasive for the viewer.

This movie is small and intimate. We learn a great deal about Harry Caul as a person and about "eavesdropping" as a profession. Even though this film is 35 years old it is still impressive to think about the ability of others to spy upon us. Do you have any secrets you wish to keep? It may not be possible!

The Conversation features a top director in Francis Ford Coppola. He also wrote an interesting script. The cast is superb with Gene Hackman leading the way. The movie builds, slowly exposing the conversation along with the characters to keep us involved and intrigued through a unique ending.

Filmed in 1974, directed & written by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, John Cazale, Teri Garr and Cindy Williams.

Some trivia: The opening sequence involves a mime. That mime is Robert Shields, best known as part of 'Shields and Yarnell'. He was actually working as a street mime in that park at the time of the filming. Both Coppola and Hackman consider this to be their favorite of all the films that either have made. Coppola was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He lost out to Robert Towne for the fabulous 'Chinatown'. Use this link to read my earlier article about 'Chinatown'. The film was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to another Coppola film 'The Godfather Part II'. It was a good year for Francis Ford Coppola!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Hustler

Since today would be Paul Newman's 85th birthday, let's look at one of his finest films!

I invited a few friends over to watch this film. None had ever seen it. They were all quite impressed by this hidden gem. Nominated for 4 acting Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and more. The Hustler tells the story of Fast Eddie Felson, pool-hustler extraordinaire. He travels the small-time circuit looking for people to hustle in a game of pool. He is, of course, better than anyone he ever meets. He allows them to win, ups the stakes and takes them for everything they've got. Many of his opponents don't appreciate the treatment. Later he challenges Minnesota Fats to a big-money game. The action between Fast Eddie and Fats is intense and furious.

The atmosphere of pool halls can be felt by the viewer. I can smell the smoke, taste the beer, feel the desperation while I watch. The cinematographer Eugen Shuftan won an academy award. The Hustler also won for art/set direction. Both are well-deserved. However, it is the actors that carry the movie. Paul Newman is stunning. He is Fast Eddie Felson. Both he and fellow nominee Jackie Gleason did all their own pool shots for the film. Piper Laurie, as Fast Eddie's on-off love interest is amazing. I truly feel for her as I watch. George C. Scott, who refused his nomination for best supporting actor, is fantastic as Newman's big backer.

The Hustler is also credited with saving pool in America. The game was being outlawed and run out of many American cities and towns. Pool was thought to be decadent. According to R.A. Dyer's book 'Hustler Days' pool was on its death bed. Then this movie came out and brought pool back into the mainstream. Millions started playing, pool halls opened across the land and the game was saved. Not bad for a movie.

Filmed in 1961, directed by Robert Rossen, written by Rossen and Sydney Carroll, starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, Michael Constantine and George C. Scott. One bit of trivia. Newman and Gleason filmed all their own pool shots (except for the difficult masse shot). But before signing to do this film Newman had never played pool. He took out his dining room table and practiced all day for weeks before shooting started to improve his skills.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vanishing Point

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the evolution of the car chase in cinema. Chase cinema evolved from films like 'Bullitt' (my post) and 'The French Connection', which used car chases to develop tension and continue the drama, to later films, like 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry' (my post) in which the car chase was the drama and the story was just to get to the action. Some of the biggest directors of today got their start on just such films. Oscar winner Ron Howard started with 'Grand Theft Auto' while multi-Oscar winner Steven Spielberg first directed 'Duel' (my post). They may be making much more cerebral cinema today, but, as young directors, they loved a great car chase! I find that car chase films offer film makers the opportunity to discuss the classic individual vs. society storyline. The driver wants to be free to travel as they wish while the police want them give up their freedom and obey the rules. That is a plot, in one form or another, that goes back as long as stories have been told.

Vanishing Point is from the later group of car chase movies. The storyline is to get us interested in the characters, but the action of the automobiles is what keeps us watching. In this case, it is a 1970 supercharged Dodge Challenger. Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a former cop who has fallen upon hard times. Through a series of short flashbacks, we learn that he was a decorated war hero and police officer who was removed from law enforcement and tried to make a living racing cars. After a personal tragedy his driving career fails and he turns to delivering cars from one city to another. It is on such a trip, from Denver to San Francisco, that our story unfolds.

He meets many characters along the way. This movie being made in 1971, those characters include hippies, racist cops, drop-outs, motorheads, faith healers and a large assortment of the 60s crowd. Clevon Little, of 'Blazing Saddles' fame, stars as 'Super Soul'. He is the dj of a Nevada radio station who deeply empathizes with Kowalski. He is doing his best to assist our driver as he attempts to allude police on a four state chase. One advantage to having a radio dj in the film in the opportunity to include some great soul music. The soundtrack alone makes this a film worth enjoying.

I will not spoil it with details, but film aficionados have been debating the ending since the premiere. I find it to be a fantastic climax while others complain and offer alternate endings. Car chase films have but two possible endings. One, the driver, our hero, escapes the police and goes on to drive another day. Or two, the police, the symbol for the end to freedom in our lives, stop the car from proceeding and imprison the driver. I won't tell you which ending Vanishing Point has, but, after viewing, drop me a line and tell me what you think. I look forward to your opinion.

This is one of the classic car chase films. Remember that this was made before computers took over movies. All the driving, crashing, jumping and more was done by real people in real cars. Oh how I long for the days of stunt people!

Filmed in 1971, directed by Richard Sarafian, written by Guillermo Cain, starring Barry Newman, Clevon Little, Dean Jagger and Gilda Texter as the nude motorcycle rider.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Battle of Algiers

Powerful story of the battle for independence by Algerian Muslims, against the French, in 1957. Although the film is fiction it plays, very much, like a documentary. Many have referenced this film as an allegory for Vietnam, Iraq and other places where locals have battled for independence from foreign powers. The French eventually win the battle of Algiers, but lose the war a few years later when another uprising leads to Algerian independence.

The film follows the story from both the Muslim terrorist/rebel perspective and that of the French colonial forces and army. The Algerian storyline is one of both sorrow and pride. They feel that they have been exploited and discriminated upon by the colonial French. The French believe that they have brought culture, stability and economic growth to an impoverished people. Of course, both are right!

This is the first time, that I can remember, where bombings of businesses and public gathering places were used as a terrorists device. The scenes of the Muslim women changing their appearance and smuggling the bombs into cafes and bars are riveting. The direction, script and acting are all fascinating. The documentary feel makes the impact all the more powerful. Whether it is locals being tortured or the French being bombed, the violence really strikes a cord. If I had been unaware I would swear that much of the film is based on news footage.

Fascinating look at a situation that holds as much truth today as it did in the 1950's. I can't say that I "enjoyed" The Battle of Algiers, but it is a first-rate film.

Filmed in 1966, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi and Fusia El Kader.

This is the only film to be nominated for Academy Awards in two years that are non-consecutive. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967 and for both Best Director and Best Screenplay in 1969.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Although I am not a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan, this is my favorite of all his films. Simple in setting and story, but rich in character! Lifeboat focuses on a small group of survivors of a German U-Boat attack upon their merchant ship during a World War II Atlantic crossing. This group of survivors find themselves thrown together in their lifeboat. Unsure of what to do, which way to head, even of their very survival. How do people of all walks of life, different nationalities, income levels, genders and races react under immense pressure? Can they overcome the elements, and their own prejudices, to find their way home?

Based upon a play by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is Hitchcock at his best. The restriction of only one set (the lifeboat) and no new characters could be daunting for a film maker. But Hitchcock uses his penchant for experimenting to his advantage. I never felt as if the movie suffered due to the lack of new elements. No new characters means we get to know these people in great depth. No new sets means that we focus upon story not on cinematography or costumes. The original Steinbeck work was written for the stage. Screenwriter Jo Swerling takes advantage of the fantastic dialogue to give us a depth of connection with the characters that few movies ever achieve. I found myself agreeing or disagreeing with the statements being made and with the choices made on a very personal level.

Hitchcock also takes advantage of a deep cast. Tallulah Bankhead stars as Connie Porter, a wealthy socialite/writer who travels the world covering the war. She is the first person to be in the lifeboat. Quickly the other survivors join her as their ship is sinking. Hume Cronyn, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull and Canada Lee all do fine jobs in supporting roles. But it is the conflict between Walter Slezak, as the German U-Boat Captain, and John Hodiak, as the sailor who takes command of the lifeboat, that moves this movie forward. Slezak does a perfect job portraying the German officer. He is both conniving and helpful in the most authentic of performances. Hodiak also shines with his leftist ranting and demands for action to keep us focused on this most difficult of situations. All together a terrific cast.

Take the greatest American writer of the 20th Century and add an international icon of a film director. Dump in a deep and strong cast and you end up with a fantastic film about human emotion under pressure. Would you crack?

Filmed in 1944, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Jo Swerling from a play by John Steinbeck, starring Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Bendix, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak and Hume Cronyn. For an in-depth look at another fantastic film penned by Steinbeck, read my post about 'The Grapes of Wrath'.

One question. After this film's release in 1944 some critics labeled this film as "pro-Nazi". I don't find that at all, but I wonder what is your opinion?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Caine Mutiny

This terrific drama is on TCM today. Don't miss it!

"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.

Friday, January 7, 2011

49th Parallel

Fabulous propaganda/adventure film! Filmed in 1941 and released before the U.S.A. entered World War 2, 49th Parallel tells the story of the crew of a German U-boat sunk off the coast of Canada. 6 members of the crew escape the sub and attempt to flee to neutral America. All the while Canadian authorities and citizens are hot on their trail. Eric Portman is strong as the leader of the Germans, while British stars like Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard portray the Canadians.

This film is a good adventure film. The German crew, on the run, attempt a harrowing journey across a hostile continent. They meet Eskimos in the north, French-Canadian trappers, local business men, hutterite farmers and a slew of officials as they traverse the second largest country on Earth. From the shores of Hudson Bay to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains the vast wilderness that is Canada is a major player in this fine thriller.

Also, this film is fantastic propaganda. Filmed by acclaimed British-born director Michael Powell, 49th Parallel tells this story to not only thrill the viewer, but to convince us of the strength of Democracy and the weakness of Fascism/Germany. All, but one, of the Germans are arrogant, Hitler-worshipping, group-thinking hate-mongers. They eventually kill the one member of the crew that feels any compassion/attraction to Canada and its peoples. On the other hand, all the Canadians are individuals, able to think, react and succeed on their own. One scene has the German crew amazed that the leader of a local religious community does not "punish" people who disagree with him. On several occasions the officer in charge of the German crew gives a passionate speech about the strengths of the Aryan/Nordic peoples and expects the local citizenry to join him in fighting the "weak" Canadian government. Much to his surprise, but not to ours, no one wants to join the Nazis. Canadians may complain about their government, but they sure don't want to be Nazis.

Director Powell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Emeric Pressburger do a fantastic job of using film and story to present a political view while still entertaining the audience. This film is terrific as an adventure thriller, but excels when looked at as propaganda. After viewing compare this movie with the films produced by the German film maker Leni Riefenstahl, particularly 'Triumph of the Will'. Her Nazi propaganda features lots of powerful music, marching soldiers and speeches by Hitler and Party leaders. Contrast that with 49th Parallel. No marching soldiers, just ordinary citizens. No bombastic score, just strong story-telling. No speeches by dictators, just speeches by the common person who loves their country and their freedom. If you ever want to explain the differences between Western democracy and Fascist dictatorships you can show these two films. No better statement could be made.

Filmed in 1941, directed by Michael Powell, written by Emeric Pressburger, starring Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns and Anton Walbrook.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Forbidden Planet

To honor the memory of Anne Francis, I decided to re-post this article about the sci-fi classic! Rest in Peace Ms. Francis.

This film is just plain fun! It has everything one could ask for in a 50s science fiction film. The greatest robot ever, a cool monster, psycho-babble (for relevance), lasers, flying saucers, a hot blonde and Shakespeare in space. The only thing missing is more. More robots, more lasers, more blondes!

Seriously, Forbidden Planet is a major sci-fi film. The first successful science fiction film that did not feature a previously known lead (like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers). The audience had to be convinced to come to the theatre based upon their desire to experience a new kind of movie. Science fiction with intelligence and story not just monsters that eat people and destroy cities. I mention Shakespeare because this movie is 'The Tempest'. Take the story of 'The Tempest', move it to outer space and add some references to modern psychology (like "the superego"). Read the play and then watch this movie. Most of the major developments are lifted from the Bard.

Forbidden Planet is also important for 'Robby the Robot'. Far and away the most famous movie robot until the droids of 'Star Wars'. The robot became one of the biggest draws of people at theaters and businesses after the release of this film. Kids loved him! Women wanted him! Men wanted to be him! Okay, that may be a little strong, but Robby was popular (and still is). After the debut of Forbidden Planet, the robot would draw a large and vocal crowd any time he/it was scheduled to appear. A duplicate was later featured on the t.v. show 'Lost in Space', in part to draw in his fans. Robby is listed in the credits as "Robby the Robot as himself".

The movie deserves kudos for being intelligent. It is not just a western in space. Difficult subjects like runaway egos, interpersonal relationships and humanity's impact upon its own future are tackled. One of my favorite things about science fiction is its ability to handle strong ideas and questions and still be entertaining and popular. Films about the ego could turn viewers away, but make it the runaway ego of a space explorer playing God and the audience eats it up.

The plot is simple. A governmental ship makes a routine inspection visit at "Altair IV". Leslie Nielsen, back in the days when he made serious movies, is the space ship's Captain. They are checking on the status of a group of scientists that landed there years ago. They find that only one scientist remains. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Mobius. His daughter, played by the lovely and short-skirted Anne Francis, is the only other person alive. They have built Robby the Robot to help with their lives. Mobius warns the ship to leave immediately. He can't be held responsible for the safety of the ship nor its crew. Why is he so afraid? How did they, and no one else, survive? Each of the crew want to know how to get a date with Anne Francis. When the ship refuses to leave a monster attacks. An invisible, unstoppable monster. Who, if any one, will survive and how will they attempt it?

One other important note:the soundtrack and score for this movie are revolutionary. The composers Louis Barron and Bebe Barron changed movie music forever. This is the first film to feature a score that is entirely electronic. It is so different and unique that the musician's union refused them credit as "composers". Instead the score is called "electronic tonalities". This electronic score would blaze the trail for science fiction films to come.

An intelligent script (thanks Shakespeare), a story filled with surprises, an invisible monster and the best robot ever make Forbidden Planet science fiction fun for one and all!

Filmed in 1956, directed by Fred Wilcox, written by Cyril Hume, starring Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson, Jack Kelly,Warren Stevens and Robby the Robot.