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Ring of Fear (1954)
Routine plot, but the real life circus atmosphere makes it worthwhile.
In some ways this is s standard "formula" mystery. Yet it's a very interesting and off beat film in other respects. A young Mickey Spillane; looking like a near clone of Sean Penn; plays himself as a rather inept detective.
The action takes place in the real Clyde Beatty Circus, where a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Clyde Beatty, who also plays himself, was perhaps the most skilled animal trainer of all time and in the 40s and 50s ran his own circus, a serious competitor to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. The best parts of the film (at least from my perspective) were closeups of him performing with lions and tigers, often several at a time. You can actually see the highly specific and technical body poses and behaviors he uses to control multiple animals that would love to tear him to pieces. A fascinating peek into the psyches of large carnivores.
Entertaining and quite out of the ordinary.
La battaglia di Algeri (1966)
Probably the best docu-drama ever. Surprisingly evenhanded.
A stark, unsentimental tale of the 1957 uprising against the French in Algiers, one of the earliest conflicts based on the urban terrorism and "intifada tactics" that seem so commonplace today.
Although the film was made in Algeria only 3 years after independence I was "pleasantly" (perhaps not the best adverb) surprised at how objective and free of propaganda it was. The French are the villains, yet their point of view gets a fair hearing. Even Colonel Massu, commander of the French paratroops, is depicted as a cold, yet intelligent man rather than an evil brute. He is an apolitical soldier carrying out the policy of his government, and will stop at nothing to do so. The FALN are depicted as flawed heroes without halos. Just as ruthless as their enemies despite their righteous cause. I find it ironic that the present day French are so critical of Israel, although the Israelis are a lot more restrained than they were and are fighting a much less unified and more bloodthirsty enemy. If the present day Palestinian groups were as disciplined and goal oriented as the FALN (at least as portrayed in the movie) there would probably be a viable Palestinian state and at least a cold peace with Israel.
It was quite interesting to see both secular and more traditional Muslims uniting in nationalism without the mindless hatred, blatant corruption, and atavistic religious fanaticism we see today. A great history lesson and great cinema, even for those who don't agree with the film's point of view.
Raw and realistic, but a bit loose with some facts
This is one of the earliest examples of a "docu-drama" and one of the best. It's realism causes the viewer to feel true empathy for the participants---especially for the Scottish Jacobites.
While it's certainly true that the English and their Scottish allies were better equipped and had a more disciplined, unified command structure, the circumstances of the Highlanders weren't quite as dire as indicated. Many were indeed poor and malnourished, but generally not to the degree depicted in the film, where almost all are dressed in rags and covered in filth. It is also claimed that most didn't have firearms, yet the majority were armed with pistols or muskets of local or French manufacture. Their lack of discipline and cohesive command caused them to rely on the shock tactics that served them so well at the Battle of Prestonpens, and many dropped their muskets and charged after firing a volley. Interestingly, the English tally of captured weapons after the battle contained many more guns than swords. Swords; especially claymores; were expensive, and most of the poorer men without guns carried axes or pikes.
The contingent of French trained Scots and Irish, equipped and drilled in the same manner as the Redcoats, was larger than shown in the film. And the English forces contained significant numbers of both lowland and highland Scots. Although the English were well provided with artillery, most of their cannons were small three pounders used in urban street fighting or in the American woodlands where they were known as "grasshoppers". The standard light field gun was the six pounder. Despite these qualifications, the battle scenes are graphic and realistic.
Watkins makes it seem as if the Scots were true revolutionaries asserting their ethnic identity, when, in actual fact, Prince Charlie was simply a wannabe monarch seeking to restore the Stuarts, and probably as disdainful of the Highlanders as the Hanoverians were. The modern parallels he tries to draw simply aren't there.
Despite the above, this is a great movie that should be on every history buff and cinema enthusiast's list.
Across 110th Street (1972)
Realistic depiction of the urban decay and racial polarization of the 70s.
The Bad Old Days indeed! As a New Yorker, I found this film to be a grim reminder of how much more lawless and dilapidated New York was during this time period.
I won't rehash the generally accurate comments of the other reviewers other than to say that this is one of the best cinematic deglamorizations of crime (and law enforcement) ever.
Anthony Franciosa is just great as a Mafia enforcer. He's still the same nice, personable guy people my age remember from 60s and 70s television. You really want to be his friend. A great smile and a comforting manner. A demeanor he maintains without a crease while he maims, tortures and kills! One of the most skilled---and frightening---performances of all time. Anthony Quinn is also excellent as a corrupt police captain who has deluded himself into believing that he still has some ethics.
The graphic violence, sex, profanity, and ethnic slurs take it light years out of the family viewing category and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a weak stomach. I don't think the "blaxploitation" label many apply to this film is accurate. The best I can think of is "noir verite". If you're a fan, don't miss this one. If you're squeamish, make a point of doing so!
CSI Goes Medieval . Part Whodunnit and part history lesson. Well done and entertaining.
A literate and highbrow series about a medieval herbalist monk who uses his knowledge to solve crimes. More interesting and much less voyeuristic than CSI and kindred shows.
Most of the previous reviewers did a good job of describing the nature of the series and how truly well acted and off beat it is. Rather than reiterate their commentary, I would like to focus on the show's realistic portrayal of the times. The vast majority of medieval films and/or shows go to inaccurate extremes. In the 50s and 60s, all the women wore brassieres and had Lady Clairol hairdos. The guys were all clean shaven Brylcream men with slicked back pompadours. And everyone's clothes looked freshly pressed and drycleaned. In the 70s, the trend went to the other extreme. All, even the well off, were dressed in filthy, tattered clothes and looked as if they did indeed bathe daily---in a vat of manure. Lots of teeth were missing from every mouth and every face covered with running sores. There was no middle ground between the squeaky clean people and places of the 50s "Robin Hood" series (a good adventure show nonetheless) and the comically exaggerated filth and squalor of "Jabberwocky".
The Cadfael series provided that balance. The set designs and costumes were very accurate renderings of what actually existed at the time, and the series credibly demonstrated how people of that era went about their daily business and social lives. Many, especially the poor, were certainly ragged and unkempt, but few, rich or poor, were oblivious to the appearance of their homes or themselves. Another aspect of this show missing from most similar efforts was it's attempt to show how the tradespeople and middle class of the time worked and lived. Most "medieval" films perpetuate the myth that society was strictly divided into "have everythings" and "have nothings". Everyone is either an aristocrat or a starving, oppressed serf dressed in rags. This show actually gives the viewer an idea of how much more varied and complex medieval society really was.
A first rate show, even more so for the historically literate. Although some of the later episodes hobbled their plots with ponderous soap opera "blasts from the past" from Cadfael's former life as a crusader, I was sad to see the series end. I never read any of the books, but understand that there are still a few that have not been filmed. I would love to see the series revived, although this winning combination of casting and production would be hard to repeat and harder still to beat.
An offbeat tale of vengeance in a "progressive" colonialist society.
A well acted depiction of life in White Rhodesia from the European point of view, and a rather disturbing story of an irreconcilable conflict between a good man's justifiable need for revenge and the necessity of upholding the law. Parents, and those sensitive to violence, should be cautioned that this is an extremely gruesome film with explicit scenes of rape, murder, torture, and mutilation.
The film credibly portrays the lives of European settlers determined to remain in their adopted land despite the increasing danger of rebellion. Most of them honestly believe that it is possible to live in peace with the Africans as long as they are willing to accept their "civilizing" guidance. The rebels are presented as bloodthirsty thugs who terrorize other Africans and have no real program of true revolution other than savage hatred of the White Man. Most of the Africans are more or less loyal to the Whites and are usually shown to be strong, honorable, and trustworthy, although often in a patronizing manner.
Christopher Lee is quite good as a police chief determined to prevent vigilante justice when a group of terrorists led by an albino (pronounced "albeeno" in the film) witch doctor (Horst Frank) rape and murder the fiancée of a man recently retired from the police force. He (James Faulkner); along with a couple of equally vengeful African servants of the victim's elderly father (Trevor Howard); takes off into the bush to find and kill those responsible. These are not evil men out to indiscriminately slaughter Africans but people who feel that there can be no rest for their souls until they spill the blood of The Albino and his crew. Lee sympathizes with their feelings but is firm in his determination to maintain law and order and bring the killers to justice legally. This, of course, also means hunting down the revenge party, causing the settler's militia to mutiny and withdraw from the operation.
The pursuit of both the killers and the posse is grim and realistic, causing the viewer to actually perceive the stresses and fatigue of the participants. Although somewhat cheaply done, subtly racist, and overly clipped and trite in spots, the film is of great interest from both the historical and moral perspective. I saw it many years ago, but, unfortunately, it; like a surprising number of other quality films; hasn't been made commercially available on either VHS or DVD.
Tries too hard and comes up zero.
A real tease that doesn't deliver. Just like the probable real life Cleopatra to any man without an empire to offer. The beautiful and realistic sets and costumes never go beyond a soap opera display. While some of the supporting actors (particularly Rex Harrison as Caesar) do a credible job, Richard Burton is a rather wooden Marc Anthony and Elizabeth Taylor is terrible. She seems more like a spoiled sixties era suburban brat than a ruthless but skilled queen accustomed to wielding power.
I always thought that Marie Windsor; although 10 years older than Taylor; would have been perfect for this role and might have rescued the film. Her age would even have been closer to the real Cleopatra's by the time she and Marc Anthony became joint rulers. I couldn't help giggling when people acted frightened of Queen Liz. She reminded me of a bossy older sister, whereas Queen Marie really would have made the audience shudder if she was angry. I could never understand why Windsor was relegated to B movies, but that's a subject of it's own.
The lack of good battle scenes was also disappointing. A real waste when you think of all the extras and money spent on authentic looking arms and armor. The vaunted sea battle was pretty ho-hum, not nearly as good as the one in Ben Hur. I actually enjoyed the overly melodramatic and less historically accurate 1934 "Cleopatra" much more. Some of the sexual metaphors; both verbal and visual; were really funny, and it was much more entertaining.
Lots of glitz and even some true dazzle. But not much substance, and pretty tedious for four freakin' hours. It didn't have to be this way. What a shame!
An American Family (1973)
The genesis of the voyeuristic "reality" shows of today
I remember this show from when I was a college student. I even had a moronic professor who assigned us episodes to watch. It always rubbed me the wrong way, and I had to endure lynch mob-like opprobrium from my contemporaries when I tried to explain why. Especially when I said that I hoped Lance would just get it over with and commit suicide already rather than torturing his family (who loved him and accepted his homosexuality) with his constant false alarms and solipsistic behavior.
The show reminded me of the sort of TV programs shown in the futuristic society depicted in 1966's "Fahrenheit 451". A time and place where books and independent thought were banned. That film (based on an earlier book by Ray Bradbury) seemed dated, even by the 70s, but is more topical than ever now. And it reminded me of this series, where the lives of insufferably self centered people supplant any and all larger concerns, including abstract and critical thought itself. The fact that this travesty ran on a publicly funded station makes it a milestone in the dumbing down of our society.
Group narcissism at it's most nauseating!
Hogan's Heroes (1965)
A masterful black comedy teaching a real lesson.
It's never ceased to amaze me that this show made it to the air. Especially in the 60s! A show about a funny POW camp run by funny Nazis?! At a time when World War II was fresh in the minds of anyone over the age of 30 and actually experienced by many over the age of 40! Crazier still that all the "Nazis" were Jews. Werner Klemperer (Klink),was the son of symphony conductor Otto Klemperer, who was rich and prescient enough to flee Germany in time. Werner ended up as an infantryman in the US Army. In the Pacific. John Banner (Schultz) and Leon Askin (Burkhalter) were Austrian Jews who barely escaped. Harold Kane (Hochstedter) was an American Jew. French POW Le Beau (Robert Clary) was a French Jew who survived a concentration camp.
The show was well written, acted and directed and most episodes were hilarious, especially to the historically literate. Although the scripts were often a little too cute and avoided direct mention of genocide and death camps, there was never any doubt that the Nazis were truly evil. The worst inaccuracy from my point of view was the portrayal of "average" Germans as terrified, unwilling pawns of the Nazis, many of whom belonged to an "underground" which was, in reality, almost nonexistent in Germany proper.
The show really did have a moral---that totalitarian systems are inherently very weak. People often say that such societies may lack freedom, but that they're "efficient" and "well ordered". This show was great at illustrating how untrue this is. Fear based societies that are intolerant of criticism and enforce accountability in an arbitrary, unjust manner cause people to do and say what they think those above them want to hear, regardless of how this affects real issues or long term goals. And they will withhold critical information that may have a great bearing on events, if that information could cause them to be blamed for something. The consequences of even the most minor infractions are too serious to risk, so people will readily let the whole ship sink to save their own posteriors.
Whenever Klink found a radio transmitter or discovered one of Hogan's other capers the star would often say something like: "OK ya got me Klink. Call the Gestapo. I guess they'll transfer me to a punishment camp. But what will they do to you? They'll want to know how this happened in YOUR camp. What will YOU tell THEM?" This was usually enough to resign Klink to no more than an angry expression and air-punching fist as Hogan scooped up a handful of his cigars, pawed Fraulein Hilda, and swaggered out of the commandant's office. Schultz's solution was simple---to see and hear NOTHING---no matter what he heard or saw. Burkhalter would just blame Klink for everything and Hogan's main job was making Klink look good enough to remain commandant. That's why Hogan always made sure there was never a single escape---despite tunnels that seemingly went everywhere and transported the "Heroes" to nearby Hammelburg for hofbrau, hot frauleins and cloak and dagger operations. With this, Le Beau's gourmet cooking, and a fine wine cellar, who would want to leave and go back to the war?
One interesting tidbit is that Bob Crane married Klink's secretary, actress Sigrid Valdis. And, more significantly, that there really was a Stalag 13 at Hammelburg. Late in the war, General Patton sent "Force Baum" commanded by Major Abraham Baum (a Jew) in a rapid strike behind enemy lines to rescue American and Yugoslav prisoners from the Stalag. Patton claimed that he ordered the attack as a diversion, but his son in law was a prisoner at Stalag 13 and this may have been part of the reason. Force Baum consisted of a few Sherman tanks and some other light tanks and halftracks with about 300 men. It was too large to conceal itself and preserve the element of surprise, and too small to defend itself once German reinforcements arrived. Despite inflicting significant damage to the German rear support area, the mission was a failure. Few prisoners escaped and Patton's son in law was severely wounded and remained a prisoner. Most of the attacking force was killed or captured as was Baum, who was also wounded.
I highly recommend the film "Auto Focus" to fans of this show. A depressing but interesting movie about actor Bob Crane's ultimately fatal obsessions and an unexpected yet interesting look at the early history of home video recorders.
Hogan's Heroes is a successful mix of high comedy and deep meaning. Perhaps the best television comedy of all time.
Good adventure series despite it's somewhat juvenile orientation.
I loved this show as a kid but did NOT want to be Cuffy! Not that I didn't fantasize about being Captain Gallant's little sidekick. But, in my daydreams I was a child prodigy, rifle toting, kickass legionnaire, not a putzy little "mascot". Cullen Crabbe was in fact Buster Crabbe's real life son, but in the series he is actually the son of a dead comrade and calls Captain Gallant "Uncle Mike". In one particularly poignant episode, Cuffy's imperious, snobby aunt arrives at the fort with a court order granting her custody of the boy fathered by her "black sheep" nephew and born to "some kind of an entertainer". Gallant immediately and angrily cuts her off with "A good woman and a fine mother". While the circumstances of his parents' deaths are never specified, it is implied that they were killed in a massacre of some type. I won't say what ultimately happens, but in 50's TV Land, things usually work out for the best.
The first year of the series was great. It was filmed on location in Morocco and many of the extras were real legionnaires or other French colonial troops. While many episodes were a bit too sappy for adults, some of them had good action sequences and more adult themes. The opening scenes feature a powerfully orchestrated version of "Le Boudin", the signature march of the Foreign Legion, and are about as stirring as anything ever televised. Unfortunately, the series morphed into more of a true kiddie show the second season, when political turmoil culminating in the independence of Morocco forced the series onto the back lots of California. In some of the later shows they even cut out the impressive opening.
I once got to meet Buster Crabbe when I was a teenager. A former Olympic swimming champion, he was giving a swimming exhibition at a resort where I was staying with my family. When I tried to speak to him privately after the show, he rather gruffly asked me what I wanted. Needless to say, I was very hurt and said that I just wanted to talk to Captain Gallant and was sorry to have bothered him. As I quickly and angrily turned away, he told me to wait and apologized for being so rude. When I told him how much I liked the show and admired his character, he became quite maudlin and even misty eyed. He spent some time telling me about how much he loved doing the show and what a great time he and Cuffy had traveling around North Africa. Although he didn't come out and say so, it seemed that he considered the show to have been the peak of his career. This made me forgive his initial shortness with me, since I realized that he was now reduced to giving poolside swimming demonstrations. A dream come true that made me happy and sad at the same time. Crabbe's fortunes did subsequently improve and he became a big wheel with the U.S. Olympic Committee. He died in 1983.
In it's first season, a fine show, but not one that would appeal to today's kids and probably even less so to politically correct parents.