Friday, March 25, 2011

The Train

This is a most odd and excellent film. In many ways it defies expectations. It is a story of the French resistance fighting the Germans just as Paris is liberated by the Allies. But this movie is not a WW II epic. It stars Burt Lancaster. But he does not portray the typical leading man. The Train is directed by John Frankenheimer. But this film is nothing like his masterpiece 'The Manchurian Candidate' nor his hidden gem 'Seconds' (which was the subject of my first article). It is based upon a true story, but views like an action thriller. So instead of many cliches and typical/expected scenes, this film features a thriller atmosphere with unique characters and intriguing action.

The plot is simple. A German officer is stealing hundreds of rare paintings from Paris museums just as the Allies are to arrive in Paris during 1944. Picassos, Renoirs, Van Goghs, Gaugins, Cezannes and a dozen other artists for the ages. He loves the art, but convinces his superiors that the value of the paintings means they must be whisked away to Germany before the NAZIs leave France. Lancaster plays a railroad yard supervisor who is part of the French underground. The resistance wants him to save the paintings as a "national treasure". He could not care less about art and worries about who might be injured or killed in this dangerous missions just hours before they would all be liberated. But, of course, he eventually takes the mission and must stop the train from leaving France.

Although the plot is simple, Frankenheimer rarely is. The director weaves a fabulous action/caper thriller that features subterfuge, air raids, sabotage, hostages and a dozen other moments to keep us intrigued. I spent the entire time viewing this film with an anticipation of "what could be next?". I appreciate a movie that keeps me engrossed in the action. How could these few resistance fighters stave off the NAZIs and save the artistic heritage of a nation? I won't spoil it, but they use some very unique and interesting tricks, stunts and attacks to try to save the day. But is it possible? You will have to watch The Train to find out for sure!

No look at this film is complete without a mention of the fantastic performance by Paul Scofield. His work as the German officer hell-bent on keeping these masterpieces in his own, and by extension German, hands is powerful. You can feel his drive and desire throughout the film. The Train is almost a battle of wills between Scofield's German officer and Lancaster's French resistance fighter. And an action-packed battle it is. Also, the screenwriter's fine work was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

Filmed in 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Franklin Coen & Frank Davis from the novel by Rose Valland, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau and Albert Remy. For more info on the Germans attempts to loot the art of France and the Allies efforts to recover it, check out Valland's fantastic book 'Rescuing Da Vinci'. It is most interesting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Judgement at Nuremburg

Today is Werner Klemper's birthday. He is best known for being the fumbling Col. Klink on 'Hogan's Heroes, but he is terrific dramatic actor. This is one of the finest movies in which he appeared. Also, today is William Shatner's birthday and he makes one of his first screen appearances.

"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'.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Touching the Void

Stunning documentary about a mountain climbing expedition gone horribly wrong. Two friends, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, have been climbing together for years. They decide to attempt to become the first climbers to make it to the summit of Siula Grande, in Peru, by ascending the west face. Others have tried, but no one has succeeded. This beautiful film tells the tale of their successful ascent and tragedy filled descent.

Director Kevin Macdonald returns to the "scene of the crime" for filming Touching the Void. The natural beauty and majesty of the Peruvian Andes, with its peaks, valleys, glaciers and rugged cliff faces are the true star of this film. By taking us back to the actual location of the climb we are propelled into the story as if we were there. But I am most glad that I was not there. The story of the climbers, elated upon reaching the peak only to become lost in a blizzard soon thereafter, is so intense that I found myself leaning forward, on the edge of my seat, amazed at the events as they unfold. Having the participants tell the story, in the first person, just adds to the verisimilitude.

I must also give credit to cinematographer Mike Eley. The shots of the mountain, cliffs, glaciers, blizzards and the splendor of the Andes make this a magnificent treat for your eyes. This is a powerful story that needs no embellishment. The harrowing climb/decent filled with dangers and beauty make for an amazing film!

I have been on a bit of a mountaineering binge of late. A few months ago I wrote a piece about a magnificent film 'North Face' (see my article here) and I have just acquired the Clint Eastwood flick 'The Eiger Sanction' for future viewing. It seems that every few years a new film about climbing adventures surfaces. From the cheesetastic 'Cliffhanger' to classics like Spencer Tracy in 'The Mountain' you can find many interesting films and some great climbing sequences. For all you classic buffs, 'The Mountain' is finally coming out of DVD. It will be out in 3 weeks!

Filmed in 2003, directed by Kevin Macdonald, starring Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. For more details and info check-out Joe Simpson's book 'Touching the Void'. It is filled with many fascinating stories and details left out of the film.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, here is a list of some of the best films set in Ireland. Enjoy!

The Quiet Man

Far and away my favorite Irish movie. John Ford does a wonderful job in his portrayal of Irish life in a small village during an earlier era. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara star, but the Irish village and countryside are major attractions as well. Winner of an Academy Award for Cinematography. The climatic fight scene is still studied in film schools. "Just a good stretch of the legs".


Clark Gable plays Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was a leader in the fight for Irish independence. This film is a terrific look at Irish history and the quest for home rule. The movie does fall into the maudlin, however. After this film bombed at the box office Gable refused to do any more "period" movies. That was a major part in his reluctance to take 'Gone With the Wind'. The history and supporting cast make this worth a look. I don't think this is available on DVD. Watch for it on cable.

The Commitments

Fabulous story of "the hardest working band in the world". Group of Irish individuals decide to cash in and become famous rock stars. Terrific acting, nice script and the music is first-rate. Fantastic soul soundtrack. Plus Colm Meaney. Is it possible to make an Irish movie during the last 25 years and not cast Colm Meaney? I don't think so!

My Left Foot

Amazing story of artist Christy Brown. Brown has cerebral palsy and can only use his left foot to create his amazing art. Daniel Day-Lewis received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the artist. I most appreciate that the film does not attempt to get us to like Mr. Brown. Day-Lewis plays him in a very unsympathetic way. But the power of the story overcomes some dislike of the person.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

What list of Irish movies would be complete without a leprechaun? And this film has plenty o'them. This is the film that brought Sean Connery to the attention of the world (and James Bond producer Cubby Brocoli). And if an unbelievably young Connery doesn't get your attention, the incredibly scary Banshee will. I dare any viewer to watch this movie and not be scared by the Banshee.

A few other films with connections to Ireland:

Braveheart - Not set in Ireland, but much of the filming was done there.
Crying Game - Amazing shock. Don't tell anyone!
Finian's Rainbow - Francis Ford Coppola films a musical?
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain - Cute story of the effects a geographer can have upon a small town. Plus Colm Meaney.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Wages of Fear/Sorcerer

Wages of Fear is on TCM tonight. Enjoy! It is intense.

This is a special day. Everyone gets two great movies for the price of one! Wages of Fear and Sorcerer. They are both the story of 4 men, on the run from their past, trying to escape their current desperation. They each decide to take a high-paying, life-threatening job driving nitroglycerin across an unnamed South American country. An oil company is paying huge bonuses to anyone who can get the nitro through to put out an oil well fire. Of course, nitroglycerin is very dangerous and will explode when bumped, jostled or warmed. Who will survive the trip and what perils will they face along the way?

Both of these movies are intense! The pressure builds as our drivers face numerous obstacles on the road to fortune and personal salvation. Jungles, mountains, rivers, guerrillas, each other and their own demons must be vanquished if they are to survive.

Wages of Fear was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Filmed in 3 languages so the best prints are subtitled. Stay away from the dubbed version. Clouzot's film is raw, gritty and superb. Yves Montand is fabulous as Mario. We don't know how he got into his personal hell, but he wants out. Clouzot allows the suspense to build until you almost want to scream. At one point I even covered my eyes and looked between my fingers. It's safer that way.

Sorcerer is William Friedkin's remake. He was fresh off 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist' so the studios gave him anything he wanted. It shows. Roy Scheider does a nice job reprising the Yves Montand role. Friedkin goes a little overboard in the first half, but the remainder of the film is just as intense as Wages of Fear. The shot of the trucks driving over rope bridges in a pouring rain is worth the price of admission. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack is quite wild.

Intensity builds to a big finish in both films. Similar in their story, each is a unique experience. Wages of Fear is more respected by critics, but both films deserve a viewing.

Wages of Fear was filmed in 1952, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, written by Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi, starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli and Peter Van Eyck. It is about half sub-titled and half in English.

Sorcerer was filmed in 1977, directed by William Friedkin, written by Walon Green, starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou. Both are based on the novel by Georges Arnaud.

Notes: Before Wages of Fear could be released in the U.S. government censors order some key scenes removed. They felt it was "anti-American".

Wages of Fear was the first film to win both the Golden Palm at Cannes and the Golden Bear in Berlin.
In Sorcerer, the part of Donnelly the head of the gang that robs the church is played by Gerard Murphy. Murphy was an ex-convict who had committed a similar robbery just a block from where the scene was shot.

The magnificent sequence of the trucks on the bridge cost millions of dollars and took three months to complete.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Murphy's Romance

To celebrate director Martin Ritt's birthday, here is a look at one of the great date movies.

Murphy's Romance is a wonderful romantic comedy. Sally Field plays Emma Moriarty, a woman that moves, with her adolescent son, to a small town in Arizona. She is looking for a fresh start on life. She rents a horse ranch and attempts to rebuild her life and herself in this most rustic setting. James Garner plays Murphy Jones, the town pharmacist and philosopher. He has a prosperous business and is settled in this small community. While there are many bumps along the way, Emma and Murphy belong together. Can they each overcome their baggage and be together?

This film is charming and sweet without being syrupy. It is written for adults. People who have experienced some of life's successes and failures. Who have loved and, perhaps, lost. The script, written by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch, is intelligent and entertaining. I deeply appreciate writers that respect the viewer and who write for film goers who are able to follow a plot.

Director Martin Ritt does a fine job supporting two great actors. Under his direction 13 different actors received Academy Award nominations. Ritt allows the story to unfold and for us to get to know, and like, Emma and Murphy. James Garner received his first Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance. It is well deserved. Garner does a terrific job. He is attractive and personable, while still seeming reserved. Sally Field's acting is also superb. Her ability to be both a weak and strong woman in the same film is not easy.

This is a terrific date movie. It has strong leads and an interesting story line. Murphy's Romance should bring a sense of romance to any viewer.

Filmed in 1985, directed by Martin Ritt, written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, starring James Garner, Sally Field, Corey Haim and Brian Kerwin. If you are ever in Florence, Arizona, look for the lunch counter. It is located near downtown.

I wrote about my appreciation for James Garner in an earlier blog about 'The Americanization of Emily'. You can read that entry here.