Tuesday, June 28, 2011

36 Hours

This intriguing film presents us with an interesting question. What is the most effective way to extract accurate information from a prisoner? While this film is set in World War Two the question is a pertinent today as it was in 1944. From waterboarding to drugs, sleep deprivation to beatings, interrogation remains a most difficult enigma.

36 Hours is set just days before the Allied invasion of France at Normandy. The Germans have captured Major Jefferson Pike. Pike is portrayed by one of my favorite actors James Garner. His interrogators know that the US & British forces are about to invade the European continent, but where? They have kidnapped Pike in an effort to learn of the plans. The SS want to physically torture Pike, but an innovative psychologist, played superbly by Rod Taylor, wants to use his new method. He has built a replica American hospital, filled with doctors, nurses and patients, and tries to convince Pike that the war is over and he is suffering from amnesia. Only by examining his memories can Pike be "cured". Will this American officer fall for the ruse and provide all the details of the invasion? Or should he be beaten and abused to force him to talk?

This is a simple movie done very well. Writer/Director George Seaton moves us through the film's plot with aplomb. We are presented with the concepts and then Seaton allows the fabulous cast to keep us entertained. And, as always, James Garner leads the way. Garner is one of Hollywood's most personable and entertaining leading men and he is no exception here. In support we find Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Both of them provide solid acting, but Taylor is the one to keep an eye upon. He is able to move in the world of counter-espionage and psychological manipulation in a way that makes him seem to be the hero, not the German Officer attempting to stop the Allied invasion.

This is a straight-forward thriller that provides stimulation for the intellect as well as keep you enthralled. Do you think you could be fooled by the efforts portrayed in 36 Hours?

Filmed in 1965, written and directed by George Seaton, starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Look for John Banner late in the film. He went on to his biggest fame as Sgt. Schultz, "I know nothing!" on TV's long-running sit-com 'Hogan's Heroes'. I have written articles about 3 other James Garner films: 'Move Over Darling', 'Murphy's Romance' and one of my favorite films of all-time 'The Americanization of Emily'.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas may be the King of the hidden gem. This is one of his fantastic films that have been overlooked since their release.

The 1950s could be called the decade of Billy Wilder. The Polish-born director started the decade with an Oscar for 'Sunset Blvd.' went on to more Oscars and nominations for 'Stalag 17', 'Sabrina', and 'Witness for the Prosecution'. He ended the decade with the film that AFI voted the best comedy ever, 'Some Like it Hot'. In between those revered films, he made wonderful movies like 'The Seven Year Itch' and 'The Spirit of St. Louis'. Few individuals in the history of cinema have had such a decade. As both a director and a writer he created films that were popular upon their release and cherished today. However, one film that he wrote and directed in the 50s was not well received and few have seen it since. Ace in the Hole.

Released after his monumental box-office and critical success 'Sunset Blvd.' this film flopped at the box office and was denigrated by the critics. It did so poorly financially that after his next film, 'Stalag 17', made millions for the studio his profits were docked for the failure of Ace in the Hole. But I believe that the critics and movie-goers missed one of his best films. Kirk Douglas stars as a down-on-his-luck reported that is stranded in New Mexico with car troubles. He begs the local paper for a job. After languishing there for a year he stumbles upon the story of a lifetime. A local man is trapped in a cave-in in a small, tourist-attraction of a mine. Douglas immediately sees the potential for his return to big time news reporting and begins to manipulate everyone around the story. From the trapped miner, to his family, to the sheriff and on to the national press, everyone is taking their cue from Douglas.

Ace in the Hole is a cynical look at the power of the media. Today, we are aware that much of the press/media has their own agendas. And profit is often at the top of the agenda. Those agendas control/distort they way they tell each story that they cover. In 1951 that was not common knowledge. People thought they could trust the newspapers, radio stations and tv to provide them with information without bias. Wilder's exposing of that manipulation of the public was not well received. Moviegoers did not want to see Kirk Douglas as the mastermind of a massive deception. And they did not want to believe that their beloved information sources could be so corrupt.

This movie is dark and cynical. But it also tells a fascinating story. In many ways it reminds me of another fantastic film 'Network'. This film's message is more subtle, but it is just as powerful a look at the power of the press and its ability to manipulate our society. I highly recommend obtaining a copy of this terrific film ASAP.

Filmed in 1951, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Lewis Martin and Porter Hall. This film was initially released under the title 'The Big Carnival'. In that version the studio made many changes. Please obtain the proper Ace in the Hole version as Billy Wilder intended it to be seen.

Many of the films referenced above have been looked at, in-depth, in other articles of mine. Here are links to those articles:

Stalag 17
Witness for the Prosecution
Some Like it Hot

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success

Today is Tony Curtis' birthday. TCM is showing a number of his films. This movie is one of the greats being shown. Don't miss it!

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"