Saturday, June 30, 2012

36 Hours

This forgotten James Garner thriller is on TCM today.  Check it out!

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'.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Island in the Sky

This is a love-it or hate-it kind of film.  For many it provides and interesting story of survival against the odds, while others find it slow and "talky".  Since I am mentioning it here you can guess from which camp of opinion I spring.  I find the story to be intriguing while the characters, especially the rescue pilots, to be compelling.  Give this movie a viewing and drop me line.  To which camp do you belong?

Director William Wellman won an Oscar for writing 'A Star is Born' and was nominated for directing 3 films.  He puts his talents to good use here.  The story is simple.  An army cargo plane with civilian pilots crashes in snowbound Canada during World War Two.  The crew of the downed plane, led by Captain Dooley (John Wayne) attempt to survive the very cold conditions without much in the way of supplies.  His comrades in the pilot corp battle the odds to find them.  Because of bad weather Wayne was unable to broadcast his location before crashing the airplane. 

Island in the Sky follows the time-honored storyline of a race against time.  The downed air crew have little supplies and the weather is very bad.  Can the rescue search teams find the crash survivors before the elements finish them off?  Director Wellman tells the story in a very direct fashion.  There are no extraneous story lines or scenes and no subplots to distract us from the drama.  I appreciate that.  Too often film makers feel the need to have an action plot line and a romantic plot line with some comedy, and perhaps a song, to capture all the "demographics".  That is part of the reason for some people find this film average.  No romance, no musical numbers, no comedy interludes.  Just the dramatic story of search and rescue.

This film is not a typical one for star John Wayne.  There are no horses nor any fistfights or shootouts.  He made very few films that relied only upon story.  He chose well with Island in the Sky.  This film also features a deep cast.  Many of the "John Wayne Players" appears, but it is Lloyd Nolan, as one of the rescue pilots, who captures the most attention.  His interplay on the phone with one of the crashed crew member's family shows his acting chops.  However, the biggest star of this film is the Canadian countryside.  Beautiful mountains, harsh blizzards and amazing scenery are an integral part of the movie.  Of course, since it was filmed in the Sierras of California I guess I should say that the California countryside is the star of this film.

Today cable television is littered with survival shows.  'Survivorman', 'Man vs. Wild', & 'Dual Survival' all do well in the ratings.  Here is a chance to see a dramatic interpretation of search and rescue with John Wayne in the lead.

Filmed in 1953, directed by William A. Wellman, written by Ernest K. Gann from his novel of the same name, starring John Wayne, Lloyd Nolan, Walter Abel, James Carey, Jr. and Sean McClory.  Look for quick appearances by Fess Parker, Mike Connors and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer.  For a look at director William Wellman's best film, 'The Ox-Bow Incident", you can read my article here.  Also, this movie was made by John Wayne's production company.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Apartment

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine delight in this Billy Wilder comedy on TCM today!

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter. Baxter works at desk number 891 on floor number 19 for one of the largest insurance firms in the world. His desk sits in the middle of a giant room full of desks. Each is home to another worker just like him. C.C. Baxter often stays late, working without overtime pay, to get things done. He is a responsible, well-liked, anonymous cog in a giant insurance machine. Yet, C.C. Baxter is getting positive reviews and references for promotion from executives throughout the company. Many of the senior executives know C.C. Baxter and he is in contact with execs all over the firm.

Fred MacMurray portrays Mr. Sheldrake. He is the president of this monstrous insurance company. He wants to know why so many executives, from different divisions, are giving Baxter glowing reviews. Why are these execs pushing for Baxter's promotion? Earlier in the firm's history a similar story played out. In that case, the junior nobody was running a book-making operation and taking bets from all the other employees. What is the story with Baxter?

Shirley MacLaine plays Fran Kubelik. She is an elevator operator for the firm. Everyday dozens of employees ride her elevator to and from their offices. She is cute, personable and most witty. She avoids all the advances from every executive as they try different ploys to get her to go on a date. The fact that most of them are married doesn't seem to slow down her would-be suitors. But, so far, she seems to have avoided all entanglements.

Baxter has chosen an interesting path to success. He lends out his apartment to executives at the firm. They use his place to rendezvous with their mistress. This makes him very popular. In exchange, they give Baxter glowing performance reviews and recommendations for promotion. He is soon on the fast track to the top floor. Since he lives alone and has little company the situation seems to be perfect. But he develops a fondness for Miss Kubelik. He is now torn between pursuing the lovely and witty elevator operator and advancing his career. When the head of the company, Mr. Sheldrake, wants to use his apartment the choice becomes even more difficult.

Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote The Apartment. He was coming off the giant success of 'Some Like it Hot' (my review) and was on top in Hollywood. He teamed with his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond for this sarcastic yet warm comedy. Casting Jack Lemmon was his best decision. Lemmon can toss-out one-liners with the best. He has impeccable timing and uses subtle voice and volume changes to deliver lines at their sarcastic best. In this movie, he is a character with which the audience can relate. We want him to succeed, to find happiness and love, to move beyond his lonely existence. Shirley MacLaine is fantastic. A truly wonderful, understated performance. She portrays the woman with a tough exterior covering for her disappointment with life to perfection. Also, Fred MacMurray plays the philandering husband with a zest that is spot-on. He is a cheating wretch, but he is also charming. You can see why women would be interested even while they know it is not going to go well.

Wilder's direction, along with his script, is wonderful, as always. Wilder won 6 Oscars in his life with 3 of them coming from this film. The Apartment won Best Picture while Wilder won Best Director and for Best Screenplay. His name is littered throughout my website. He also directed 'Double Indemnity', 'Some Like it Hot', 'Witness for the Prosecution' and 'Stalag 17'. I can safely say that if you are considering watching a movie that is directed and/or written by Billy Wilder you should get it. You won't be disappointed!

Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter faces a tough choice in The Apartment. He must choose between his career and love. You, however, face a simple decision. Should I watch this move today or tomorrow?

Filmed in 1960, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Best Worst Movie

No film starts out hoping to be terrible.  But, somehow, a very large number of very bad movies have been made and, unfortunately, seen.  This intriguing documentary tells the tale of one of those horrible films.

In 1989 an Italian director named Claudio Fragasso went to Utah to film a script written by his wife Rosella Drudi.  Using an incredibly small budget, local non-professional actors and almost no effects they created 'Troll 2'.  The finished film was never released for the big-screen.  It aired a few times on cable and then attempted to fade into oblivion.  But a small group of rabid fans have, one-by-one, convinced others to see this movie.  They found the lack of acting talent, effects or continuity to be endearing.  Slowly, over a decade, these fans found others who love this terrible movie.

Best Worst Movie attempts to provide some explanation for how this phenomenon occurred.  Filmmaker Michael Stephenson takes his cameras to showings of 'Troll 2'.  Showings, not on movie screens, but instead in comedy clubs, office buildings and bars.  Showings that are sold out by fans seeing the films for the 1st, 20th or 100th time.  The documentary goes on to follow 'Troll 2's adult star George Hardy from his hometown in Alabama as he attends screenings around America.  Screenings where he is treated as a "star" with photo and autograph requests and standing ovations.

Stephenson brings a unique perspective to this documentary.  You see the director of Best Worst Movie played Joshua Waits, the young boy who is at the center of 'Troll 2', as a youngster.  He thought it was going to be his "big break" and that he would be a movie star.  Movie stardom was not to be, but Stephenson has made a compelling documentary.  This documentary is so engrossing that I have ordered a copy of 'Troll 2' for my own viewing.  It has been on many a worst-film list and I have  always avoided seeing it, but now is the time.

Even if you choose to avoid 'Troll 2' I highly recommend you enjoy this entertaining documentary.

Filmed in 2009, directed by Michael Stephenson, featuring George Hardy, Erika Anderson, Darren Ewing and Jason Steadman.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The 27th Day

I love 50's Sci-Fi.  Science Fiction has the ability to look at complex social issues without driving everyone away.  The 1950s saw major changes in both American society and international relations.  But because this movie features an alien that is attempting to trick Earthlings into ending our existence, complex issues are discussed without creating distrust nor aversion.  This film is rarely shown on cable so should purchase, rent or Netflix the DVD.

The 27th Day is a simple film telling a simple story.  An alien "beams-up" 5 people to its space craft.  These are people of different religions, incomes, genders, abilities and nationalities.  The alien gives each of these pill a set of 3 devices.  Each device, if activated, will vaporize all human beings without a certain distance of any point on Earth.  Because this film was made at the height of the cold war it features characters from behind the Iron Curtain as well as Westerners.  Each of the 5 individuals must decide, for themselves, what to do with these devices.  No one else can access them.  The film follows the paths of these five people faced with a life vs. death decision for millions.  To pressure these people the alien informs the world that they have these devices.  Soon the entire planet is on a hunt to locate these chosen five and their alien machinery.

Director William Asher worked primarily in television.  Given the opportunity to direct a small-budget film he uses a direct style that moves the film along crisply.  Screenwriter John Mantley adapted the script from his own novel.  He also worked primarily in television.  Their collaboration results in an intriguing, face-paced film of only 75 minutes.  Not only is the cold war part of the story, but The 27th Day also looks at race relations, good vs. evil and other immortal quandaries under the cover of Science Fiction.

The decision to cast Gene Barry as the lead is a sound one.  He was already well-known for an earlier Sci-Fi flick 'The War  of the Worlds' that was well-received.  He is accompanied by a little-known cast each chosen to represent a specific portion of humanity.  The cast is fine, but it is the plot and its conundrums that are of import.

Filmed in 1957, directed by William Asher, written by John Mantley, starring Gene Barry, Valerie French, George Voskovec and Arnold Moss.  For a look at some other 50s Sci-Fi you can click on these links:'Forbidden Planet', 'Panic in the Streets', 'The Thing from Another World', and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Stranded:I've come from a plane that crashed on the mountain

In 1972 a plane carrying an Uruguayan rugby team crashed on its way to Chile. Most of the crew and passengers survived the crash and attempted survive. This films is a compilation of interviews with some of the survivors.

Stranded is one of the most interesting documentaries I have seen in some time. By giving us the first person perspective of that terrible crash and ordeal I felt personally involved in the struggle. This story was first told in the Piers Paul Read book 'Alive' which was then made into a 1993 theatrical release starring Ethan Hawke. This documentary shares the interviews with the survivors as they tell the story in their own words along with some excellent recreations.  It also includes some of the actual photos taken by those survivors at their camp high in the Andes as well as some news footage of their rescue and eventual confession of the horrors they endured.

Documentaries have the ability to tell a story in way that transfers emotion and situation that no drama can. This terrific and intense film gives us almost more emotion that one can take. To see people talk of the difficulty in considering cannibalism vs. starvation, life vs. death, sacrilege vs. faith is, at times, difficult to take. But the strength and openness showed by the survivors is a story that is, ultimately, life affirming. I highly recommend this outstanding film.

The writer/director Gonzalo Arijon understands the power of the narrative and allows the participants to speak for themselves. They take some of the survivors, along with their families, back to the crash site to further illustrate the event. Arijon is better known for his socialist leader's study 'Eyes Wide Open', but this is his best work.

Filmed in 2007, written and directed by Gonzalo Arijon, starring some of the survivors of the Andean plane crash.  It is in Spanish with sub-titles.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Move Over Darling

This delicious comedy is on TCM this evening. Have fun!
I know, I know. What's this? you say. A sappy Doris Day movie? Has Steve the movie guy gone soft? No, I still love 'Apocalypse Now' and think that Kirk Douglas as 'Spartacus' kicks butt. However, there is a place in my heart for silly romantic comedies. This one is a remake of the classic Cary Grant and Irene Dunne film 'My Favorite Wife'. The original is fun, but this is one instance where I find a remake more satisfying than the original.

Doris Day stars as a woman who has been stranded on a deserted island for five years. Her husband, played by the great James Garner (earlier blogs for 'The Americanization of Emily' and 'Murphy's Romance'), has her declared legally dead. Doris Day is rescued and returns home on the day of his wedding. This leads to a complex storyline as each of the parties attempts to get their own way. Polly Bergen is fantastic as Garner's new bride while Chuck Connors portrays 'Adam'. Adam was the only other person on the island with Doris Day for those five lonely years. How did Doris Day and Chuck Connors spend 5 years on an island alone? What did they do all day? And can Garner extricate himself from his new bride to return to his first love? As we know all along, Garner and Day still love each other and belong together, but obstacles abound.

As I have admitted previously, I have a "man-crush" on James Garner. He is able to carry a movie no matter the plot or script. Great smile, charisma to spare and an ability to draw in the viewers. He makes any movie worth seeing. However, in Move Over Darling there is more than just Garner. Day plays her usual chaste self with aplomb. The supporting cast here is strong. Along with Bergen and Connors, the always wonderful Thelma Ritter plays Garner's Mom while Don Knotts is corralled into being a stand-in for 'Adam' that Doris Day hires to help with Garner's jealousy.

This remake was originally intended to star Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe. I believe that Ms. Monroe is under appreciated for her comic talents, but the casting of Day and Garner makes this movie fun fun fun. Next time you're in the mood for a flashback to the "chaste" 60s pick up this film! I guess, at least sometimes, I am just an old softy.

Filmed in 1963, directed by Michael Gordon, written by Hal Kanter and Jack Sher, starring James Garner, Doris Day, Thelma Ritter, Chuck Connors and Don Knotts.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Bad Sleep Well

Since today is director Akira Kurosawa's birthday I thought it prudent to look at one of his seldom seen films.
The Bad Sleep Well is a hidden gem from acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Loyal readers know of my appreciation for his films. I previously wrote about another over-looked film of his, 'Dersu Usala'. After watching this film, for the first time, I wonder why this film has been passed over. Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, especially 'The Seven Samurai', and for his Shakespeare adaptations. This has the feel of both of those elements without the costumes and historic settings.

This film is set in post-war Japan. Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune portrays 'Nishi', a man who is the suck-up secretary to the Vice President of a major land development corporation. We join the story at Nishi's wedding to the handicapped daughter of his boss. The V.P. is wonderfully played by Masayuki Mori. His understated evil is menacing and disturbing. Terrific acting. Everyone believes that Nishi has married this woman to further his career at the corporation. But he cares not for his career. It is vengeance he seeks!

We come to learn that Nishi is actually the illegitimate son of a man who committed suicide to save embarrassment for this V.P. during a scandal involving bribes and kickbacks. Japan has quite a "face saving" corporate structure and you were expected to kill yourself before allowing disgrace to fall upon your employer. Nishi blames the officers of the company for the death of his father. He wants to expose their wrong doings and bring them to justice. Of course, without evidence this is difficult. So he has spent years working his way into the good graces and insider job. He wants them to pay. Pay for their years of graft and corruption and to pay for his father's death.

The film is a fantastic story of Nishi's manipulations of the players in his quest for justice. By working so closely with the executives he has learned many secrets. He uses those secrets to apply pressure on the corporate officers. He has been supplying clues to the local police, but they can not gather the evidence necessary for any convictions. Nishi must force "the bad" to confess. He uses all kinds of subterfuge, threats and manipulations. He later comes to realize that he too has become one of the bad. But does his end justify his means? That is for you to decide.

This is a terrific movie. Part noir, all gritty suspense, great acting and directing and Kurosawa's wonderful use of imagery. Buy this DVD today. Be sure to get the Criterion Collection DVD. As always, Criterion has done a wonderful job with the restoration of a 50 year-old film. You won't be disappointed.

The following notes contain references to specific plot details that are better left unknown before viewing the film. Please view The Bad Sleep Well before continuing.

There are three main points of debate about this fantastic film. Did Kurosawa borrow from Shakespeare's Hamlet for this movie? Is the opening sequence properly connected with the rest of the film? What about the ending?

Many critics compare this movie with 'Hamlet', especially the third act of the play. While I can see the connection, and Kurosawa did often use the bard for inspiration, I think that the critics are much more interested in referencing Shakespeare than was Kurosawa. Yes, he probably found some ideas to be common with Shakespeare, but almost every traditional story has those as well. Almost everything written since the 17th century has something in common with Shakespeare. But the comparisons are primarily of tone not content.

The opening sequence of Nishi and Yoshiko's wedding is also much discussed in the film world. I found it to be an important insight into the culture of Japan at the time. The extremely formal language, attention to detail and stiff setting show us how stifled life in post-war Japan could be. We learn about how someone could be willing to kill themselves before allowing disgrace to fall upon his employer. I know few today who would commit suicide instead of informing the police of the illegal actions of their boss. But that was Japan. Many critics feel that the tone of the wedding is very different from the rest of the film. With that I definitely agree. But weddings are different from the rest of our lives.

The ending. Wow! The courage it took for Kurosawa to end the film with such a twist is refreshing. The entire film points to one outcome and then we get slapped in the face. I relish when a film maker says "sorry, but all your expectations were wrong". I won't give details, but feel free to drop me a comment below or an email at to opine about your opinion of the ending. I think it was great.

Filmed in 1960, directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa and Takashi Shimura.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath

This John Ford/Henry Fonda classic is on TCM tonight. Enjoy!
Truly magnificent film. Touching, sad and inspirational. The Grapes of Wrath is almost 70 years old, but the emotions and message are as true today as when this film debuted. Based on the classic novel by John Steinbeck, this is the story of the Joad family during the Great Depression. They have lost the family farm in the dust bowl. This story follows the Joads as they move to California in an effort to find work. Upon arriving they find conditions to be little better then where they left. Prejudice, hunger and unbearable conditions pressure the Joads at every stop.

Henry Fonda, as Tom Joad, gives one of the performances of his life. He gives us a window into the soul of someone who has been kicked around by life. He represents all those Americans who lost so much during the Great Depression. Masterfully directed by John Ford. He deserved the Oscar that he won for Best Director. Wonderful touch in what could have been a maudlin story. He got the very best out of the cast, script and crew.

While Fonda was terrific, I feel the best portrayal in the film goes to Jane Darwell. She plays Ma Joad. While Tom Joad can go off and fight the good fight, Ma Joad must stay and care for her large, ragtag family. Darwell is outstanding and received the academy award for Best Supporting Actress. Her character holds the family together and her acting holds this picture together. First-rate!

Compelling, moving and as important today as in 1940. One of the greatest ever.

Filmed in 1940, directed by John Ford, written by Nunnally Johnson, starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine and Russell Simpson.

Some notes on the John Steinbeck novel upon which this film is based. The novel was banned in several states and most of California upon its release. The book was so controversial that the library in Steinbeck's hometown, Salinas, CA., did not stock it until the 1990s. The novel's ending was just too provocative to be allowed in the 1940 film. In the book Rose-of-Sharon's baby is stillborn and she offers her breast milk to a dying man. Strong imagery for today let alone 1940. Also, I consider this book to be the best novel ever written. One note about the movie. Stalin banned this film in the Soviet Union. He did not want anyone in Russia knowing that even very poor Americans had a car.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Panic in the Streets

This is one of the early examples of the medical/pandemic thriller. Think Soderberg's 'Contagion' done in a film noir look. Enjoy it on TCM this afternoon!

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!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Hustler

Since today would be Paul Newman's 87th 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 24, 2012


The free flow of books, ideas and information today is due, in no small part, to the efforts of Barney Rossett.  Mr. Rossett was the publisher/owner of Grove Press and The Evergreen Review.  During the 1950s Grove Press fought long-running legal battles to publish, in America, books like Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer' and, later, the works of William S. Burroughs like 'Naked Lunch'. Grove and Evergreen also introduced writers like Samuel Beckett (they published 'Waiting for Godot'), Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Kenzaburo Oe and, my personal favorite, Eugene Ionesco.  For his efforts, Rossett fought decades of lawsuits and arrests for publishing these materials.  Later, Grove introduced some films like 'I am Curious:Yellow' and added a fight for cinematic freedom as well.

Miller's works were already sold in Europe, but were banned in the United States.  They were considered "obscene".  Rossett was introduced to these works on trips to Europe.  He decided that they should be available in America.  In a day and age when you can get almost anything on it is important to remember that only 50 years ago owning or selling these books would get you arrested. 

As Grove would publish these books they had to fight legal battles as they were confiscated in many different states or cities.  He practically bankrupted himself in the legal battle for freedom of the press.  We give awards and medals to heroic individuals and I believe Mr. Rossett deserves one as well.

Obscene is a simple documentary that tells the story of Rossett's life-long commitment to freedom.  There are interviews with many authors and compatriots.  There is also a look at the efforts of the FBI to close him down.  Directors Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortonberg let the players tell the story in their own words.  I found many nuggets of interesting, off-beat and compelling details in this fascinating story.

Filmed in 2007, directed by Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortonberg, starring Barney Rossett, featuring appearances by John Waters, Gore Vidal, Erica Jong, Ray Manzarek, Al Goldstein, John Sayles and many other celebrities of writing and film.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Caper double feature

There is a wonderful double feature of "caper" flicks on TCM this evening. Relax, make some popcorn and get comfy!

First-up is the 1971 Sean Connery great The Anderson Tapes. This film is one of Connery's attempts to move away from the Bond image and create new characters on the big screen. For more information, follow this link to my earlier article.

Following The Anderson Tapes is the original 1974 Walter Mathau gem The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This post refers to the 1974 original not the Travolta & Denzel remake. The remake is worth seeing, but very different in tone.

I was filled with trepidation when I first learned of the remake of this film. The original was released when I was 13 and is one of my favorite films of the 70s. Because it is near my heart I was quite worried that the original classic would be tainted. But that is not possible. This movie is one of the treasures of the era. It is a caper flick extraordinaire. When Walter Matthau asks "how you going to get away with this" I still wonder. Even though I have seen the film half a dozen times. The idea of hijacking a subway car is preposterous on its face. The Peter Stone screenplay of the John Godey novel makes it all come together.

Everyman actor Walter Matthau plays Lt. Zeke Garber, the transit cop in charge of protecting the hostages on hijacked subway car Pelham 123. Robert Shaw portrays Mr. Blue. He is the mercenary who has hijacked the subway car. He is aided by three associates named Mr. Green, Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey. Because we know nothing about the hijackers, not even their names, they seem more menacing. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) is a former subway employee with a grudge who has figured out a way to "get away with it". The film splits its focus between the subway car and the police/city efforts to deal with these criminals.

I love caper movies. How will the criminals steal the loot, trick the police and escape capture are concepts that keep my attention. Also, the efforts of law enforcement or the victims to bring them to justice is an intriguing story line. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three combines both parts of the caper movie with equal aplomb. The criminals, and their master plan, are believable and compelling. The transit cops, city police and city officials are also realistic and interesting. I spend the viewing time following the details and personalities as they face each new intense moment.

Walter Matthau is terrific. He plays the "regular guy" with skill. His characters are available to the audience. I feel like I know the guy he portrays (see my earlier blog about 'Charley Varrick'). He carries this film. With very little actual action for 3/4ths of this film, the dialogue and acting must capture the viewer and hold them. The entire cast does a fine job. Especially Matthau, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam. All three of them make me want to see what happens next.

The David Shire score helps keep the tempo of the film. It is raw and gritty and makes me feel like I am on the train. The opening of the film has simple images, but the score makes you feel like the action is already happening! The soundtrack has been difficult to find for years. When you can find it, the soundtrack is usually expensive. NPR film music expert Andy Trudeau considers this film's score to be one his top 10 ever.

Interesting and exciting. Enjoy The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Filmed in 1974, directed by Joseph Sargent, written by Peter Stone, starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Jerry Stiller. For tv fans, look for a quick cameo by Doris Roberts as the Mayor's wife.

Notes:Since the release of this movie no #6 subway has left the Pelham Bay station at either 1:23 or 13:23. Just a little superstitious I guess. Also, the producer says that this film did very well at the box office in New York, London, Paris and Toronto, but was a flop in most other cities. Those four cities have large subway systems. And the color of the hat that each criminal wears matches their name

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Train

This Frankenheimer classic is on TCM today. Enjoy!
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.