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Leave it to prosemaster extraordinaire, Richard Matheson (a favorite of mine
and the man Stephen King acknowledges as being his biggest influence), to
come up a premise so simple yet so believable and terrifying that the viewer
will never look at an eighteen-wheeler the same way ever again...and leave
it to cinematic wunderkind, Stephen Spielburg, to do right by Matheson's
script and win acclaim in the bargain.
Though some may argue that "Bullit", "Vanishing Point", or maybe even the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" could be called the ultimate car chase movie, "Duel" deserves this designation better because it does something none of the above films can claim. The story literally starts on the road and ends on the road. No location in the entire film is ever out of sight of the highway and, in spite of the brief conversation with the wife, virtually nothing else happens outside the highway. For David Mann (played adequately enough by Dennis Weaver) and the monster truck he's trying to get away from, the road and everything alongside it is their entire universe. Nothing else of importance exists outside of it.
Though it's never mentioned in the film, this would seem to take place on the California highways. When I went out there about eight years ago, I went down roads that seemed to be not too dissimiliar to the ones shown here. They seemed to stretch on forever, no vestiges of civilization in sight for miles. Spielburg uses this setting to great advantage. Being in your car in a crowded city intersection is one thing, but on those highways with nothing but your car and a homicidal maniac in a diesel for miles? The isolation factor that cars naturally produce jumps up a thousand percent. The radiator hose problem made me think of many other times that I had similar troubles with cars I've had. Of course, I never had someone trying to kill me at the time, but...
Anyone looking for drama, character development, or all the other elements that pseudo-critics point out as the mark of cinematic excellence are liable to be disappointed by "Duel". It's what King described in "Danse Macabre" as a Tale of the Hook. It's only purpose is to scare the hell out of you. Damn if it doesn't work. THAT'S the mark of a classic.
I despise most vampire stories. Not even Florence Stoker's dear departed
husband could keep me occupied after the first act in Transylvania in
"Dracula". The vampire has been so romanticized as an archetype
(particularly during the '90s) that I can't but feel that most horror fans
have forgotten exactly what made us afraid of these guys to begin with.
Murnau's "Nosferatu" is just such a reminder and, because of that, is the
only screen version of "Dracula" that I have ever loved.
Though Murnau, in the hopes of dodging the copyright bullet, took many liberties with the novel, he actually shot a great part of the film on location (an unusual practice for the time) in the historical Dracula's old stomping grounds: the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. The town, landscapes, and castles were all for real, not just some fancy studio backdrop. To me, it helps convey the tone of authenticity, as you can believe this story being told. As for Max Schreck, no charming, suave seducer is he. With his bald head, bushy eyebrows, rat-like teeth, pointed ears, nails as long as the fingers they are attached to, emaciated build, and stare that seems to come from the bottom of Hell itself, he is the primal, archetypal image of the vampire of legend.
While some could interpret this tale as a subtext to Nazism or anti-Semetism, at it's core, it's simply the tale of a monster, who brings ruin and death in his wake. That such a tale has managed to survive it's era, considering the obstacles that could have totally removed it from view, is the gain of all who have seen. Eat your heart out, Bela Lugosi.
It seems to me as though no one remembers this film. In fact, I think that
it would be fair to say that I wouldn't have become intrigued enough by it
to finally rent if I hadn't seen just the briefest of clips of it on an ABC
news broadcast. When I think about it, I realize why should anyone remember
it? This was made during the Golden Age of Bond, which this film acts as a
dark mirror to. More's the pity, actually, as this was one of Richard
Burton's finest performances.
Burton is cast as Alex Leamas, a nerve-dead, aged secret operative operating out of West Berlin. After a routine assignment goes awry, Leamas is sent home and out of the service. He struggles to try to live a normal, average life as a librarian's assistant, but he can't make it work for him (something that is not helped by his chronic alcoholism). This fact is made forcefully clear when he winds up beating a local grocer and is sentenced to jail time. Slowly but surely, he allows himself to be pulled back into the Cold War he operated in, not suspecting or maybe not even caring that his superiors are setting him up for a fall.
One will never mistake Alex Leamas' grey, rainy world for the sunlight universe of James Bond. It offers what is probably the ugliest depiction of the Great Game on film: drunkards, ex-Nazis, Jews, and die-hard Communists swimming like sharks through a fish pond, all of them devouring any who get in their way. None have any more than lip-service loyalty to their fellow operatives, their countries, or maybe even their own ideologies. At it's center stands Burton, playing Leamas as a walking dead man, festering with hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that eventually sends him into the gutter. His devastating parked car monologue alone is worth the price of renting this one from the local video store.
It's bitter cynic tone may have been the film's undoing; rarely have I seen a film so downbeat in it's depiction of humanity. Still, it is not one that deserves to be forgotten.
I went into "Glengarry Glen Ross" totally blind. I had no idea who David
Mamet was really (other than the fact that he was a writer), never saw any
of his plays, or realized that he'd been in business for a while (through
some backtracking, I found out that he was the writer behind the film
version of "The Untouchables", one of the best films of the 80's). All that
changed after I saw this brilliant, BRILLIANT film. It amazes me how all the
big names in this film (and there are plenty, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Al
Pacino, Ed Harris, and Alec Baldwin) were pulled together for this two-act
movie play about a salesman's life. It's all very dialogue heavy throughout,
only about three or four different locations (the primary action all taking
place in the office) and yet I was never bored for a second. Counting up all
the "F*** You!"s in this film has convinced me that the tongue stings in
ways a torture specialist can only imagine. The dialogue is clever, vicious,
and occasionally even a little funny (particularly when Pacino is in action;
intentional or not, he can be a VERY funny guy). The plotting doesn't show
all it's cards straight away, as there are one or two suprises that
ultimately catch the viewer off-guard.
Now as to the cast, what to say that hasn't been said? Hmmm...nothing really, I suppose. Watching Lemmon's desperation, Harris' anger, Pacino's laid-back cool, Spacey's authoritarian chutzpah, and Baldwin's icy dissection of his employees is astounishing to behold. Lesser actors would have made the results much less memorable and/or believable. These guys make it unforgettable. Two decades from now on, when all the hooplas of the 90's "hits" dies down, people will rediscover what I already know: "Glengarry Glen Ross" is one for the ages.
Some movies are like buried treasure; someone manages to slip them into the
theater, practically under every critic's nose, where they either thrive or
famish and then vanish into the nearest video catalog. "The Big Red One" is
one of those films. For all the hoopla created by "Saving Private Ryan"
(another excellent film, which, in my opinion, had a better
understanding of it's subject than a lot of it's critics gave it credit
for), it owed a great deal to what Sam Fuller did a decade and a half
Lee Marvin, an actual WWII veteran himself, holds the film together as the tough but exhausted seargent. When he tells Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker, folks) that you don't murder animals, you kill them, the look on his face after that seems to say that he wished it could be some other way. It's hard to grab defining moments in this film as stand-out, but the two sequences that stick the most to my mind are the taking of the insane asylum and the horrors of the concentration camp. While other movies have focused on specific campaigns, "The Big Red One" deserves high marks for painting the broad canvass of the Second World War from the perspective of the guys who actually had to do the work.
Most filmgoers are probably more familiar with this film's 1987 updating,
"No Way Out", starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. That said, "The Big
Clock", as with most originals which later spawn remakes of one form or
another, is the better film to my mind. It features Ray Milland as a
workaholic crime magazine editor for a ruthless publisher (Charles
Laughton). Milland has developed his own special method of catching
criminals, consisting of glomming onto details that the police disregard as
irrelevant. How little does he suspect that, within 24 hours, that same
method is going to be used against him...
He stays the night at his boss' mistress to sleep off a hangover. When Laughton strolls in for a suprise visit, Milland manages to get away before being IDed, but not before Laughton sees his shadowy figure on the stairs. In a jealous rage, Laughton kills his mistress and later sets about framing the figure he saw...who, unknown to him, is actually the man he's putting in charge of the investigation, Milland! What follows from this setup is one of the most elaborate cat-and-mouse games I have ever seen on celluloid, the key difference here being that the cat has no idea who the mouse is.
The leads are what make this film stand out. Milland was always very good at playing "the man caught in the middle" and this time is no exception. Kirk Douglas once noted in his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son", that whenever Laughton speaks his lines, it's as though the words just suddenly occurred to him rather than reciting something from memory. It's definitely put to good use here; Laughton oozes menace and coldness with no discernable effort. Other notables in the cast include Elsa Lancaster ("Bride of Frankenstein" and Laughton's real-life wife) as an eccentric artist who helps Milland and a then-unknown Harry Morgan as a silent, suspicious bodyguard to Laughton's publisher.
While perhaps not extraordinary in and of itself, "The Big Clock" is still a good film worth watching, buying, and owning.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Belfast-based comics writer Garth Ennis said it best: "There are two kinds
of people in the world, my friend...those who dig Clint Eastwood
movies...and dweebs." While I have to admit that my heart belongs to the
opening act of "The Man With No Name" trilogy, "A Fistful of Dollars",
is no denial in my mind that "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is actually
the better film. Many directors have tried imitating it's style (including
Don Siegel's substandard "Hang 'Em High" and Eastwood's own first Western
offering as star/director in "High Plains Drifter"), but none have truly
come close to the eccentricities on display here.
I have a suspicion that the storyline is actually based on historical fact. Consider this account from Joel Rose's "The Big Book of Thugs" under the entry of "The Reynolds Gang": They were organized in 1863 by Texans Jim and John Reynolds. They were briefly interned in a Civil War prison camp for Confederate sympathizers and after being released, began making robberies that, according to Jim Reynolds, were to help out Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. The loot was buried somewhere in the area of Handcart Gulch and Spanish Peaks in Colarado Territory and later, after Jim Reynolds and four members of his gang had been executed by Colonel John M. Chivington of the Union Army, John Reynolds, dying from a fatal wound during a holdup, supposedly whispered out the location of his old gang's ill gotten loot. Unlike the movie version, it was never found.
Regardless of whether or not this was the actual basis for TGTBATU, it is nevertheless a film more grounded in history than a lot of it's comtemparies and, indeed, more than a few of it's successors. The Civil War is part of the backdrop, but it does so on a forgotten front of that war, the Western theater. Most high-school history classes would have us believe that nothing happened out West, but plenty did. In fact, the last skirmish of the war, if I'm not mistaken, was in New Mexico and, ironically enough, a Confederate victory.
The central of this film is greed. You don't just see it in the quest for the Confederate gold by Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco. There are signs of it everywhere; in the hotel manager talking about how he'll be glad to get the Northerners in town for the money they'll bring in, Bill Carson appealing to Tuco's greed for a single sip of water, the gang of cutthroats who are systematically robbing the Confederate prisoners of their goods. Set up against the harsh desert backdrop, it exposes the ultimate folly of that greed (the best symbol of it perhaps being the cemetary where the gold is buried). A little over a decade before the Reagan era of "Greed is healthy, greed is good", this film provides the ultimate rebuttal to that argument. Greed has gotten just as many men killed, if not more, than patriotism ever did. Such a subtext makes "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" the cinematic child of John Huston's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and the precursor to Oliver Stone's "Wall Street".
As great as Leone, Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach are, there is one member of this team that pushs this film into the status of greatness: score writer Ennio Morricone. Not only does he manage to write one of the most recognized theme tunes on the planet, he also adds the extra tension needed to convey the drama with the necessary oomph, the best examples being in Blondie's torturous walk across the desert, Tuco's frantic search through the cemetary (my personal favorite and so good that Lucasarts did a slowed-down version of it for their western shooter, "Outlaws"), and, of course, the final three way shoot-out. He still composes scores for many other films to this day, I've been told. A good example of his most recent work would be the 1990 version of "Hamlet" starring Mel Gibson and directed by Franco Zefferelli. But I truly doubt that he'll ever be able to top the legendary work he did here.
To clear the air on certain misconceptions that may arise from what I say
here, I've read the book. I've liked the book. I realize that the movie
truly has nothing in common with it aside from the fact that an artificial
man is brought to life in both. But none of the above took away from my
enjoyment of James Whale's rightly considered classic film. The tacked on
introduction scene and the obligatory happy ending are indeed laughable when
one thinks of what is horrific in this day and age, but I was hooked from
the surreal credit sequence on. To me, the real ending of this film will
always be at the burning windmill, an ending of an all-too-believable
Colin Clive is a little bit overblown as Herr Frankenstein, but he does a capable enough job with the title role (something that is usually tacked onto the monster instead). Edward Van Sloan, a favorite of mine from the Universal stock company, does quite well himself as Frankenstein's old teacher, Dr. Waldmann. As for Karloff...*exhale in admiration* what can I say? I first knew him as the narrator and voice of the Grinch in Dr Seus' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (I didn't find this out until years later, but find out I did). "Frankenstein" marked the first time that I'd ever seen him on the screen for real. From the stiff walk to the eternally mournful face, he made the misunderstood monster his for the ages (it is also telling that, in spite of this, Karloff went on to a long, illustrious, if underappreciated, career).
Two other facts that stick in my mind about this movie: the creation sequence and the naming of two of it's characters. The heavy-industrial machinery used to create the monster was inspired by the silent Fritz Lang classic, "Metropolis" (indeed, many films, from the original "The Mummy" and "Bride of Frankenstein" to "Dark City" and "The Matrix" owe a debt to this excellent science fantasy), specifically the grafting of Maria's image onto the android. This machinery, I am told, would later go on to a return engagement in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein". Fact #2: anyone who has read the novel will know that the first name of Frankenstein is Victor and his best friend's Henry. Apparently the play (or perhaps the screenplay writers; I've no way of knowing) switched these two around to where we know have HENRY Frankenstein and VICTOR his best friend.
The only thing that has "sucked" about "Frankenstein" is its imitators vainly trying to make lightning strike twice (pun intended). But don't bet the house on any ever coming close. A hundred years from now, this brilliant alternate work will still stand as truly classic as the book that helped to inspire it.
While perhaps not as taut as "The Maltese Falcon", but just as intricate
"Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential", "Harper" is an under-acknowledged gem
a film that's as cool as it's leading man. It's with this film that I
to get a better appreciation of Paul Newman, easily one of the most
versatile leading men Hollywood has ever produced. Here, he plays Harper
something of a SOB, always looking at the paycheck as his top priority.
that the pond he has to swim in is any better; a frigid woman client, a
hot-to-trot teen daughter, a duplicitous servant, an attorney who's the
closest thing to a friend Harper has, a washed-up nightclub singer, her
sinister, Texan husband, and a cult leader aren't exactly what one would
call charming dinner company. It also doesn't help that the guy Harper's
trying to find isn't even liked by the wife who hired him (thanks to the
under-appreciated fire and spirit of Lauren "Betty" Bacall, one of the
originals) or anybody else. The only thing they like is his
Like a good boxer, the plot bobs and weaves, never letting the audience know when the next surprise is coming until it's too late. While Chandler is cited when talking about this film, it also makes me think of Hammett's many, many tales of the Continental Op. Not everybody always tells the truth, not everything is what it seems, and the best laid plans of mice and men (to paraphrase Bobby Burns) wind up falling through. Some people may not have the patience for this film in our razzle-dazzle, in-your-face age of entertainment, but for those who prefer their movies with a soft, subtle touch, this is one for you.
The best context to look at "The Petrified Forest" is through the context of
the first great disaster of the 20th Century: World War I (or, as it was
known then, "The Great War"). I had just finished reading a long, thorough
history of World War I when I saw this one and even though this is some
twenty years after that awful catastrophe (all wars usually are, but this
one especially), one can still feel it's aftershocks rolling through that
desolate landscape. Maybe that's why Leslie Howard's character, Alan Squier,
wound up wandering through there, as it probably reminded him of more than a
few days and nights in No Man's Land (a term invented by the Great War to
describe the space between enemy lines). A lot of non-American WWI veterans
came out of it really messed up. The whole foundation of the 19th century's
ideals had been laid to waste by this new and brutal world that WWI brought
about. So it's not very suprising to me that Squier feels "obsolete", as he
puts it; the role he had hoped to take with his world doesn't even exist.
The best he can do is give Gabrielle Maple the chance he can never
Duke Mantee (played by Bogie in a superb, breakthrough performance) is also a relic, but from a different period, that of the Roaring Twenties. Not for nothing were such outlaws as John Dillenger and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow glamourized during this period; one could possibly point to our current fascination with serial killers as this phenomenon's modern equivalent. But by 1936, the period of the romantic outlaw was drawing to a close if it wasn't already over (a point made five years later in "High Sierra"). Mantee is totally without hope of escape or even a reprieve. He sees his fate as clear as day and doesn't kid himself about his chances of eluding it forever. That, more than anything, would explain his rapproachment with Squier and perhaps his reluctance to shoot him until Squier gives him no choice. Mantee may know his own fate well enough, but he has no wish to inflict that fate on someone in the same position.
Granted, there's a lot more layers and angles going on in "The Petrified Forest" than what I've just mentioned here, but this was the one that grabbed the most. Because human nature doesn't change that much, perhaps that's why this brilliant stage piece still holds my respect.
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