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None But the Brave (1965)
The Final Line Says It All!
There's a clumsiness to 1965's "None But The Brave" that you really shouldn't let get in your way of the film. The clumsiness is due to Frank Sinatra's direction -- he was a far, far better actor than a director, and wisely chose never to direct another film -- and it exposes itself most prominently in the film's heavy-handed "flashback" sequences.
Having gotten that out of the way, let's consider the film itself. World War II, a small island in the Pacific: a group of marooned GIs find themselves sharing space with an equally marooned group of Japanese soldiers. Reluctantly, a truce evolves; each side has something the other needs. During that truce, enemies develop -- if not a true friendship -- at least an understanding, an empathy, and a respect for, each other. This truce, of course, cannot endure. The outside world -- and the war -- must impose itself, and each side reacts according to its own sense of honor and duty. Rightly so.
Some reviewers have chosen to label this an 'anti-war' film. Perhaps it is. Myself, I prefer to think of it, rather, as a 'pro-humanity' film, one which recognizes that man will pit himself against man time and time again, and for reasons that may or may not be the best, but that -- in the end -- we can, each of us, even in the midst of the most horrific conflict imaginable, step away, even if only for the briefest of moments (or truces), and deal with each other as human beings.
That's what happens in "None But The Brave."
And if the ending is less than satisfactory, maybe it serves to makes us each wish for a better one . . . and a better world!
"There has to be a cure for the common war"
"There has to be a cure for the common war." This quote (Alan Alda as "Hawkeye" Pierce, MD) best states the theme common to both "MASH" (the movie) and "MASH" (the TV spin-off).
This, in many ways, is the only thing common to the series and the movie which spawned it. The movie (and the novel which inspired it) is much more savage in its outrage against a war and a governmental system which exemplifies "man's inhumanity to man" and at the same time expects medical practitioners to support it; doctors and nurses (both of them sworn to duty, not only by the Hippocratic Oath but by an oath to the Armed Forces) strive to repair their patients and, wherever possible, return them to duty for further savagery (an echo, perhaps, of "Captain Newman, M.D.?"). This TV series, however, rises beyond the initial sense of outrage and presents a possibility as to where the various characters might have gone with their outrage.
There is as yet no cure for the common war. There will, most likely, never be. This particular TV series, however, dares to posit the belief that there may be, at least, a means of coping and -- once we've got that straight -- a means of hoping.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Wilder At His Considerable Best
I first saw this film in a theater when it came out. Laughed so hard I fell out of my seat (and was spared considerable embarrassment only by the fact that everyone around me was doing the same thing). I can't count the number of times I've seen it over the years, but I know one thing for sure: I've yet to spot all the gags. (They come so fast upon each other's heels that you're likely to miss two for every one you're still laughing over.)
Wilder plays no favorites -- and he takes no prisoners -- here. Everything within his considerable reach (the Cold War, the postwar era, spy-exchanges, Communism, capitalism, European aristocrats, idealism and cynicism, JUST for starters) is lampooned equally. (Even at least one of Cagney's early performances, in "Public Enemy," takes a shot.)
Frankly, I'm surprised this film today has so many staunch fans who weren't around back when so much of its humor was "topical." Its ongoing appeal has to be attributed both to Wilder's pacing and to James Cagney's hallmark performance as McNamara (a poster child for high blood-pressure if ever there was one). Neither he nor Wilder ever let up, ably aided by a solid cast (Horst Bucholtz in particular, strangely enough!) who manage somehow always to catch up.
"One, Two, Three:" that's how fast the gags fly. See if you can keep up.
A Flawed Beauty Is Nonetheless A Beauty
I finished reading Doctorow's novel just before it was announced that production had started on the movie. I remember thinking, "How the hell do you make a movie of a book where the central characters are named 'Mother,' 'Father,' and 'Mother's Younger Brother?'"
Milos Forman showed how: In a word, beautifully.
And "Ragtime" is beautiful, stunning in its recreation of early 1900s New York, utilizing a script which somehow ties together the central events and their effects on its main characters as well as one of the finest, most haunting soundtracks (Randy Newman, who went so far as to compose several original 'ragtime' numbers) in the past twenty years, topped off with a first-rate cast.
James Cagney was the big news, of course, and deservedly so: Emerging from twenty years of retirement, he showed that he'd not only not lost anything but had added to his expertise. Add Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, James Olsen, Howard Rollins, Keith McMillan and even Elizabeth McGovern (each of them perfectly cast), to name but a few, and you see where Forman wasn't missing a bet.
"Ragtime" suffers, ultimately, due to lapses in editing -- the most grievous lapse the cutting of a short scene which explains Commissioner Waldo's motivation behind the action he ultimately takes with Coalhouse Walker. Some cuts are always necessarily (especially in a movie as sprawling as this), yet that cut -- and several others -- flaw this beauty of a film.
But not fatally. Not at all. More than twenty years later, "Ragtime" is still gorgeous.
The Front Page (1974)
For Billy Wilder, The One That Got Away . . .
Critics justifiably rapped this remake for a very specific reason, and not because it's a bad film. It isn't. The problem is, it didn't live up to their expectations of Billy Wilder. (Wilder himself subsequently expressed disappointment with it.)
Here's the problem: At his best -- "Double Indemnity," "One, Two, Three," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Fortune Cookie" (oh heck, just about every other film he ever wrote and/or directed) -- Wilder's films featured impeccable pacing and timing which made the dialogue -- particularly wisecracks and backchat -- crackle.
With "The Front Page," however, the pacing is absent. Ditto the focus. Take Carol Burnett's turn as Molly as one example: In a role that calls for her considerable comic talents, Wilder allows her first scene to be far too heartfelt as she castigates the reporters for their callous cynicism. There's a flow to this scene that suddenly lurches to a halt, giving the viewer too much time to reflect that yes, there's something truly horrible going on here.
Additionally, Wilder fails to maximize the chemistry between Lemon and Matthau. They simply don't have nearly enough on-screen time together here. As a result, "The Front Page" comes off as far too laidback, a serious problem in a film which takes place primarily (as with the play) in one setting, the newsroom in Chicago's Cook County Jail.
This version has been previously compared with another remake, "His Girl Friday." Whatever else one might say about that version, good or bad, it had at least one facet which this film needs: Split-second timing between its principals.
So is this a bad film? Again, no. There are moments when the "Wilder magic" flashes, but they're too few and far in between. "The Front Page" is simply a "tame" film, one which suffers by comparison with what Wilder could have done with it.
Yancy Derringer (1958)
"In every tale of daring-do . . .
. . . they speak of Yancey D."
So went the theme song to this undeservedly short-lived series. Nominally billed as a "western" (Yancey did, after all, wear a broad-brimmed hat, there were horses about, and his best friend was an Indian), this show was hard to categorize, even in the era of the so-called "adult western."
There was always the hint of a dark side to Yancey, all things considered; a feeling that tucked away behind his reserved manner lay a past that may not always have been too cool (or, alternately, as a friend of mine once suggested, perhaps a bit TOO cool). Moreover, unlike most of his contemporary action heroes, Mr. D. didn't always fight fair: forced into a bare-knuckles match against an huge opponent, Yancey took advantage of his knowledge that the guy had spent the previous night guzzling beer, hammering him into collapse with a series of belly punches you could almost feel through the TV screen.
Not the nicest guy in town, in other words. But eminently effective. And thoroughly watchable. A great series.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The Genuine Article, Still A Miracle
There's a "legend" connected with this film, one which has recently gained new life via AMC: Supposedly, upon completion of principle filmmaking, 1947's "Miracle On 34th Street" then had to be submitted to the heads of Macy's and Gimble's department stores who -- had either man withheld approval -- could have cost 20th Century Fox a small fortune in rewrites and reshootings.
Frankly, in view of the fact that much of "Miracle" had already been shot on location in Macy's New York City store (to say nothing of the fact that studio heads of that era -- or any era, for that matter -- were notoriously prone not to take such financial risks), this "legend" is likely just so much "hype," otherwise known as "nonsense."
Thankfully, this is the only trace of phoniness attached to this jewel of a movie. "Miracle On 34th Street" is just that, in every sense of the word: a miracle.
Take a perfectly-crafted, thoughtful screenplay. Add an impeccable cast (from top-to-bottom, by the way; catch, just as one example, Thelma Ritter's uncredited turn as "Peter's Mother"). Throw into this mix an on-location "shoot" (along with Macy's, there's the store's actual 1946 Thanksgiving Parade, footage in a post office facility and a courthouse) which gives this film a nice sense of verisimilitude . . . just in case you're not already prepared (courtesy of Edmund Gwenn, in a totally-deserved Oscar-winning performance) to recapture your belief in Santa Claus.
"Miracle On 34th Street" is many things: a celebration of the Christmas spirit, a heartfelt plea against the "over-commercialism" (even in 1947)of Christmas, an examination of faith itself . . . just to name a few.
It works on every level. Every bit as well today, 54 years after its initial release, as then. Don't waste your time with the remakes -- both on TV as well as theatrical productions (and the less said about an abortive 1963 Broadway musical adaptation, "Here's Love," the better.)
Go for the original film. Go for the genuine article. Again and again and again.
Heaven's Gate (1980)
A Disaster With Some Beautiful Moments
A quick analogy:
Late one night, some musician buddies and I were jamming and (for some reason) we started working out on Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Thirty minutes later, we were still jamming on that same song and we suddenly realized we were trapped in it! Oh sure, some of the stuff we'd come up with was pretty good, but we couldn't find a way to close it off. Finally, in sheer desperation, someone shouted out, "When did this turn into 'Knocking On Heaven's GATE?'" and the spell -- thankfully -- was broken. We stopped playing, laughed ruefully, and went on to something else.
This is the essence of director/writer Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," a seductive melange of incredibly well-crafted images and sequences that never add up, once you suddenly realize (somewhere deep within the first hour of this sleep-a-thon) that you don't give a flying hoot about a single one of the movie's characters. (With the possible exception, that is, of Christopher Walken's superbly-rendered Nathan Champion -- and he's one of the bad guys!)
"Heaven's Gate" is flabby, and it is shameless self-indulgence on Cimino's part. (It conjures memories of Marlon Brando's "One-Eyed Jacks," in which Brando at one point held up production for three days while waiting for 'the perfect sunset' in a single shot.) In addition to being an exercise in poor story-telling, it's also an example of how historic events can be deliberately twisted and falsified so as to conform to a contemporary agenda: The actual "Johnson County War" (which, by the way, took place in Wyoming, NOT Montana) was a struggle between large, already well-established, cattle operations versus the smaller "Johnny-Come-Latelies;" the local cattle barons (whether rightly or wrongly) accused the newcomers of "rustling" their stock. In such a context, the question of an individual's "ethnicity" rarely, if ever, came into play. The real-life James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Ella "Kate" Watson (Isabelle Huppert), by the way, were allegedly partners in a joint cattle-rustling/brothel operation; in actuality, they met their ends at the hands (and ropes) of a whiskey-laden lynchmob. Strangely enough, however, the actual Nathan Champion's demise -- including the letter he writes in this film -- is historically accurate . . . but then, that meets Cimino's needs here.
Make no mistake: This film is nothing less than superbly mounted. The Harvard commencement, for example, while totally unnecessary to the film, is likely an absolutely accurate recreation of the era's graduation ceremonies (and a beautifully crafted sequence). And I defy anyone to find better individual cinematography than in the "roller-skating sequence" (which ends with a singularly beautiful waltz, haunting in its wistfulness).
Sadly, however, everything's wasted in this film -- cinematography, costuming (excellent, by the way), musicianship and location work. The storyline -- if ever it was really there in the first place -- gets lost; beautiful individual images lead nowhere. By the time (three generations after one began watching this movie) Kristofferson finds himself, inexplicably, on a yacht off Long Island, there's a definite feeling (for me at least) that the five million dollars it took to film this final sequence could have been augmented by another million or so . . . simply to blow that boat out of the water!
Never mind, though: "Heaven's Gate" has already long-since sunk. Of its own weight.
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
A Lesson In Chemistry . . . And Moviemaking
"Bell, Book and Candle," one of two 1958 pairings of James Stewart and Kim Novak, may or may not be a great movie. I've long since given up caring about that question; these days, at the umpty-umpteenth viewing of the film (which dates back to the first time I ever caught it in its "secondary," or "neighborhood release" at San Francisco's Castro Theatre), I find myself still enjoying it as though I were seeing it for that first time.
On the surface, this should rightly be only one among many so-called, and largely formulaic, "sophisticated comedies" of the late-50s era. Wrong!
For one thing, you can't cast James Stewart in such a film and expect it to run true to form! More to the point, you shouldn't expect him to appear opposite Kim Novak (and 'opposite' here is the key word, in that his aura of decency and groundedness were diametrically contrary to the glacial other-worldliness which she personified), and not expect strange sparks to fly. (Hitchcock, after all, relied on this dichotomy, for different purposes, in "Vertigo.")
Add to this mixture certain key scenes which rely upon the comic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs --already well-established in the previous year's "Operation Mad Ball" (and catch this overlooked gem, if you can, if only to see Kovacs at his absolute cinematic best) -- and you're well on your way to understanding why "Bell, Book and Candle" still turns up regularly on such venues as American Movie Classics, to say nothing of its "shelf life" in video rental outlets.
Were that not enough, you get BOTH Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold, a first-rate score by George Duning ("Picnic"), superior production values and -- oh, yeah, by the way -- a storyline that can both make you laugh and pluck at the errant heartstring or two (if you don't watch out!) . ..
You get a lesson in cinematic chemistry. Maybe even . . . alchemy!
Mulholland Falls (1996)
There's an underlying theme to this movie, whether we like it or not: What happens when the good guys are indistinguishable from the bad guys?
It's a worthwhile question, and "Mulholland Falls" might be commended more highly for raising it . . . had not novelist James Ellroy posed it much more effectively years earlier in what became known as his "L.A. trilogy" series, which included (along with "L.A. Confidential") "The Black Dahlia," to which this film owes more than a slight nod for its inspiration.
As a matter of fact, it was Ellroy who first made common coinage of the term, "Hat Squad," a moniker (and even more often an epithet) used by L.A. cops to describe what has been known at various times over the past sixty-plus years as the "stakeout squad," "Metro," "Administrative Intelligence," etc. (Their habit of placing a hat or two up against the rear window of their unmarked cars to warn other officers that they were on a stakeout is still common police practice in a number of departments today. . . although those hats are now usually baseball caps.)
The movie itself, frankly, doesn't work. It creaks. Nolte is Nolte, and that's fine if your main reason for catching a flick is to watch Nick Nolte. Michael Madsen, who rarely gets so good a chance to display his acting chops as in "Reservoir Dogs," turns in his usual yeomanlike performance and ends up largely wasted. Treat Williams comes to a deserved bad end. Jennifer Connelly shows a lot of flesh, and yes, it's very nice flesh, but what of her talent? And Melanie Griffith gets to show short flashes of what she's capable of when she doesn't decide to sleepwalk through a role.
See "Mulholland Falls" on a slow Saturday night . . . if your only option is to sit up with a sick goldfish. And only if you can get someone else to pay the video rental.