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Marvelously low-key suspense thriller.
6 August 1999
Perhaps one of the most genuinely suspenseful films every made, this paranoic film should be seen in conjunction with its natural brethren, "The Parallax View" and "The Manchurian Candidate" (which is also directed by John Frankenheimer).

The film's strength lies in a group of superb performance -- Burt Lancaster as the ramrod-stiff and egomaniacal general bent on saving the United States by planning the overthrow of the government; Kirk Douglas as his senior staff officer, who only gradually realizes what his boss is planning and just how dangerous he is; Fredric March as the world-weary President; and especially Edmond O'Brien as the souse of a Senator who, like March, demonstrates the kind of ingenuity and resolve that Lancaster and his co-conspirators assume they don't possess. These performers, as well as a splendid supporting cast, make Rod Serling's sometimes preachy dialogue seem completely real, and some of the scenes -- notably the final face-off between March and Lancaster -- seem on the verge of exploding.

Frankenheimer's low-key direction feeds this tension, by allowing the dialogue and the situations do the work. Would-be filmmakers looking to specialize in thrillers should probably spend more time watching films like this than modern-day "thrillers" like "Enemy of the State" or "Conspiracy Theory" which rely more on violence than actual dramatic tension.
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The Offence (1973)
10/10
Superb psychological thriller with a brilliant Connery performance.
10 February 1999
This is a superb psychological thriller with a brilliant lead performance from Sean Connery.

Connery plays a police detective nearing burn-out, the fuse for which is provided by a child molester on the loose. When a suspect (Ian Bannen) is arrested, the detective takes it upon himself to interrogate the man -- and ends up beating him to death. From there, the film examines what drove the detective to do it, through individual scenes with his wife (Vivien Merchant) and the internal affairs officer investigating the beating (Trevor Howard). The final third of the film takes us step by step through the interrogation, as Bannen turns the psychological tables on Connery, making the detective see exactly the sort of animal that he has become as a result of twenty years of dealing unrelentingly with violence and death.

John Hopkins' screenplay plays very much like a stage play (it was adapted from Hopkins' play "This Story of Yours"), but in this case it works to the film's advantage as Connery's life is compartmentalized (by virtue of the scene structure) in a way that makes his personal life seem completely walled-off from his job, and his job completely walled off from the interrogation. As a result, his character's inability to deal with anything but his job (and consequently, even that) gives us marvelous clues as to why he does what he does. Sidney Lumet's direction -- his third venture with Connery (previously the two worked on two of Connery's best films: "The Hill" (1965) and "The Anderson Tapes" (1971)) -- utilizes the stagy conventions well to advance the story and to enhance the performances.

As for the performances, these are uniformly excellent. Connery has never been better, playing a character who is anything but invulnerable, instead being a bundle of nerves and frustrations which explode into violence at crucial moments. Bannen is every bit his match as a complex, manipulative character who is at the same time sympathetic (as Connery's victim) and repulsive (for the sadistic delight he takes in pushing Connery's buttons). Indeed, one of the strengths of the story is that it is never revealed whether Bannen did in fact molest the children in question -- by doing so, the film makes us understand that this is not the issue. Instead, the film is more about internal demons -- how we all have them, and how we can either control or be controlled by them.

Howard is solid in what is perhaps the least interesting role in the film, but Merchant is phenomenal as Connery's plain wife, who has withstood his emotional abuse and neglect for years, sometimes in silence, sometimes not, but always with dignity. In perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the film, Connery, half-drunk, looks up at her, and asks in wonderment, "Weren't you ever pretty?" Merchant's lines following that are less important for their text, than for her reading of them -- wounded, but still confronting her husband like a prize fighter who's determined not be knocked out by a cheap shot in the fifteenth round.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this film is that it is practically unknown in the United States, and that it did not air in enough American theaters to qualify for the Oscars. Otherwise, it would quite likely have resulted in Oscar nominations for Connery (in an otherwise weak year for the Best Actor category, the only comparable performance nominated was Al Pacino's in "Serpico"), Bannen, and Merchant, not to mention Hopkins and possibly Lumet. All the same, definitely a film worth seeing if you're tired of watching detective films where Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson blow away half of Los Angeles.

Rating: ****
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The Hill (1965)
10/10
Gritty prison drama, superbly acted by all.
9 January 1999
"The Hill" is the first of five films Sean Connery made with Sidney Lumet, and is one of the best, largely because it focuses on ensemble acting, and because each of the actors are up to the task.

The film is set in a North African prison camp during World War II, where a group of five inmates (Connery, Ossie Davis, Roy Kinnear, Alfred Lynch and Jack Watson) have just been assigned. The Sergeant-Major who runs things at the camp (Harry Andrews) has a novel theory about rehabilitation -- break down the wills of the inmates by repeatedly running them up and down a sandy hill built in the middle of the compound, then rebuild them as model soldiers. Despite the martinet-type attitude, Connery and each of his fellow inmates begins to rebel against Andrews and his new, sadistic assistant (Ian Hendry), culminating in the death of one of the inmates and the consequent attempt to cover up the incident.

In black-and-white, Lumet has done a remarkable job of giving the location the feel of hell-on-earth, and his noted ability to work with actors is visible here. Connery is excellent in the second-best performance of his career (the best was his 1973 performance in "The Offence", also with Lumet directing) as a career soldier whose not all that certain that the Army's outdated discipline is worth anything. Equally good performances are turned in by Davis as a West Indian soldier who takes the racist barbs of his jailers and rebels in his own, unique way; Watson as a brutish inmate who begins to develop a conscience; Ian Bannen as a sympathetic guard; Lynch as a sensitive man not meant for the army or jail; Andrews; and Michael Redgrave as the ineffectual doctor who finds courage at the crucial moment.

Probably the best performance, however, is turned in by Hendry as the deeply insecure, sadistic loose cannon of a guard who truly sets events in motion. At once, his performance is villanous, but with an edge of immaturity that makes it almost difficult to hate him -- until the end when the other characters really begin to appreciate just how dangerous he is.

Unfortunately, this film was ignored by the Oscars -- a tragedy especially from some actors who have/had generally been ignored by the Academy and other awards groups (i.e., Connery, Hendry, Andrews, Davis). It did, however, win an award at the Cannes Film Festival for Ray Rigby's superb screenplay.

You may need to listen close to pick up some of the dialogue, but by all means, see it if you get the chance.
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Psycho (1998)
Most of the comments given miss the point entirely.
6 December 1998
Van Sant is an extremely gifted director -- see "My Own Private Idaho" for comparison. The problem is that what Van Sant is attempting is to remake -- shot-for-shot -- another (brilliant) motion picture. This is not "remaking" a picture, which implies taking a new angle on the same story, but rather "copycatting" another director's work. Not creative, but duplicative. True, there are some elements here which are new (color, Norman masturbating while watching Marion Crane in the shower), but these are relatively minimal. As a result, Van Sant forsakes the one thing that makes a true director -- creativity -- to supposedly do something no one else has done -- copy Hitchcock shot for shot.

Moreover, the shot-by-shot remake misses the point. One of the things that made the original so brilliant was due to Anthony Perkins performance, in which his character appears seriously disturbed, but not particularly dangerous. Remember, Anthony Perkins had never played anyone quite like that before; the closest was his portrayal of Jimmy Piersall, a baseball player had a nervous breakdown, in 1957's "Fear Strikes Out." By contrast, casting Vince Vaughan (admittedly a truly gifted actor) does not convey the same disturbed innocence that Perkins could. Indeed, Vaughan's physical build and his menacing looks throw any semblence of surprise to the uninitiated out the window. His preceding performance (funny and scary as it was) in "Clay Pigeons" doesn't help matters much.

I have no problem with remakes (though I wish Hollywood would put as much effort into making original films), but a remake should convey an original concept or read on a film. Otherwise, you could do just as well by watching the original.
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