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The FBI Story (1959)
So Completely Hoover-Approved, He Even Let His Boyfriend Appear In It!
15 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
There are moments in this film when it actually gets up on its back legs and starts to shake the tail feathers a bit; the opening sequence involving a Colorado n'er-do-well named Jack Graham murdering his mother and 40-some other people (he bombs an airliner) in an attempt to collect on insurance (mostly because of Nick Adams); some of the early domestic scenes between James Stewart and Vera Miles as a couple who love each other but don't always like each other, and the nasty story of an Oklahoma banker who becomes a for-profit serial killer in a scheme to swindle Native Americans out of their oil-rich land.

But then the story of this marriage loses its early edge, and the film bogs down into Hoover-Approved propaganda about the Bureau, failing to note that the director's desire to turn what was supposed to be a law-enforcement agency into a private cult wired to jump every time his sphincter muscles trembled often undercut good law enforcement, turning regional offices into vicious rivals for Hoover's approval instead of colleagues working together to get their appointed job done. And, of course, the none-too-surprising dose of anti-Communist hysteria which implies that any looking askance at the Bureau's tactics was tantamount to treason. Needless to say, there's nothing about Hoover's career-long blackmail of sitting presidents, or the way that they sometimes used him to gather dirt on their enemies, or the fact that Hoover's ego was too delicate to allow him to admit that there was this big thing called Organized Crime that he hadn't even tried to get a handle on (and ego and incompetence seem far more likely motives for Hoover's non-pursuit of La Cosa Nostra than stories about snaps of J. Edgar in a frock -- no one as obsessed with dignity, and possessed of so little, as Hoover, would ever make themselves that vulnerable to ridicule or exposure).

The cast does what they can. James Stewart and Vera Miles are always appealing, Nick Adams suggests some of the chilly squishiness of the sort of bush-league criminal he was playing, and Murray Hamilton is very appealing as the Hero's Best Friend, whose main function in the plot is to get killed, which he does. Some of Joseph Biroc's photography is subtle and handsome (I'm thinking particularly of a scene on the balcony of a seafood restaurant), and it's always refreshingly unfussy. Max Steiner's music in the first few minutes, which involve the airline bombing, has a chill and an edge his stuff rarely did, before it settles into big-movie bombast. Mervyn LeRoy's direction is utterly undistinguished. But then, this wasn't so much a movie as it was Hoover's Valentine. To Himself.
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Point Blank (1967)
Sad, Sad . . .
6 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
The most famous sequence in this film is Walker (Lee Marvin) striding down an empty airport corridor, inter-cut with the morning routine of the wife (Sharon Acker) who betrayed him and let her lover (John Vernon) shoot him and leave him for dead. The set-up promises a bloody payoff in which the two no-goodnicks get theirs . . .

And indeed Walker bursts into the woman's apartment, silences her roughly, and empties his Big Gun into . . . an empty bed. The lover has deserted her (he sends a monthly pay-off), she dreams of suicide, and we realize that this supposed femme fatale is just a sad, weak woman who knows she did something terrible and has been paying the psychological price ever since.

And so begins a pattern; Walker works his way up the leadership chain of the crime family, and none of the men he encounters, and whose deaths he is indirectly responsible for (he doesn't actually kill anybody) can pay him back the $93,000 he wants, or give him back what he really wants, those few brief months of happiness with his wife before the snake oozed into their wrong-side-of-the-law Garden of Eden.

The screenplay is adapted from "The Hunter," which was written by Donald Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark. 'Adapted' is the key word, because the original book is an icy pulp-novel blood-bath where the main character, Parker, really isn't interested in anything but the money he's owed and casually kills anybody and everybody who gets in his way. (The book is interesting mostly as a stylistic exercise, personally, it left me with a major case of The Creeps.) This is a crime story that is really a mood piece about loneliness and missed connections and bad karma. The acting is incredible; not just Marvin as the despondent Walker, but Angie Dickinson as his sister-in-law who has heartbreaks of her own, and John Vernon, Michael Strong, Lloyd Bochner, and Carroll O'Connor as the slick, empty men he destroys. Sharon Acker is absolutely heart-breaking as his betraying wife, even though she's really on-screen for maybe 10 minutes tops, and Keenan Wynn takes a role with little substance and fills it with a commanding, unsettling presence.

A lot of talent behind the camera as well; Phillip Lathrop's photography has a mesmerizing chill to it, using the Panavision screen to create empty spaces that unnerve the audience (setting the film in Los Angeles also helps, even with all of the skyscrapers, it's still a suburb in search of a city). Johnny Mandel's music is both eerie and mournful, and the sets not only use color for psychological purposes, but find the formal beauty in even the most vulgar of settings.

Behind all of this ultimately, of course, is director John Boorman, who had already made the underrated comedy/drama CATCH US IF YOU CAN (shown here as HAVING A WILD WEEKEND), which could have been just a silly vehicle for The Dave Clark Five but, thanks to Boorman's direction, Peter Nichols' script, and the performances of the cast (including Dave Clark), remains one of those "60's movies" that behaved the way that films of the era were supposed to, asking unsettling questions about life and not always providing pat answers. POINT BLANK is also a genre film that is ultimately something more than that. Uncommon enough then, and kind of hard to imagine being made at all these days . . .
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Robin Hoodlum (1948)
"Just as I thought. A trap . . ."
1 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Robin Hood's archery skills are rather suspect, The (new) Sheriff of Nottingham is far from the sharpest knife in the drawer, and the devotion of Robin's Merry Men to tea and crumpets has left them rather out of shape . . .

ROBIN HOODLULM is the first cartoon that UPA did as part of their "audition" for Columbia Pictures to become the studio's regular supplier of cartoons. To call the film a parody wouldn't be accurate; it's sort of an off-hand riff on the usual elements of the legend, whimsical in tone, visually rich without making a big deal about it, and, as others have noted, a nice reversal of the usual "Fox and Crow" cartoons, with the Fox (who plays Robin) getting the upper hand for once. Less remarked upon is the film's (refreshingly) spare use of dialog and a smart musical score. As far as I'm concerned, the only version of the story that's any better is the one with Errol Flynn . . .
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"I'm Looking For FANG!!" (also with 75% more Moneypenny than usual)
28 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
In a recent article, TV critic Jamie Weinman noted that 1967 was the year that James Bond stopped being cool. The Bond film that year YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was less successful than predecessors, and that was also the year that Italian filmmakers stopped cranking out spy films and started cranking out westerns . . .

Before they quit, though, they gave us just about the goofiest and most enjoyable Bond rip-off ever made-- OPERATION KID BROTHER, which is also know as OPERATION DOUBLE 007 and OK CONNERY, all of the titles pointing wildly to the star of the film as saying "He's actually SEAN'S BROTHER!!" At any rate, Sean's brother Neil Connery plays Neil Connery, a plastic surgeon/hypnotist/archer/lip-reader/karate-fighter . . . No doubt he can also unblock drains and make a perfect angel-food cake, but nobody in the movie asks him to . . . At any rate, Dr. Connery is plastic-surgeon-ing/hypnotizing/lip reading for a gathering of medical experts on the Riviera when his patient is kidnapped, first by Allied Counter-Intelligence, then by bad guys from the criminal gang Thanatos (no doubt formed by people who were fired from SPECTRE during one of Blofeld's efficiency drives). Apparently, the young lady knows something she doesn't know she knows. and after being kidnapped, she gets tortured by a short lesbian and shot to death by a hot-cha-cha Italian lady. There's also a lady spy who dresses at various times like Barney Rubble, Phyllis Diller, and a can-can dancer. She's played by Daniela Bianchi, who co-starred with The Other Connery in FROM Russia WITH LOVE and manages to remained poised and amused throughout. Her boss is played Adolfo Celi, who was in THUNDERBALL, which also starred The Other Connery, although like Ms. Bianchi, he pretends to find Neil terribly impressive. Almost with a straight face.

One of the great things about this movie is the presence of Lois Maxwell, who played Miss Moneypenny for years in the Bond films, and was always a highlight. She is here as well, and for once, she gets out in the field and proves she can kick ass as well as any plastic surgeon/hypnotist/lip-reader/archer. And look cool while doing it. As for Bernard Lee, he's along for the ride as well. Smiling broadly and apparently a bit soused. What the heck. The movie can survive it . . .
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La ronde (1964)
27 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
There are a few moments in this film that transport you almost bodily back to Arthur Schnitzler's play REIGEN; the first is a long shot of Anna Karina sitting, lonely and abandoned, in a crowded dance-hall while her soldier boyfriend (Claude Giraud) makes time with other women. The unspoken pain that Karina radiates in this scene is palpable (it's also yet another reminder that she was often the only good thing about several films directed by her then-husband, Jean-Luc Godard).

More laurels to Jane Fonda, who is wickedly funny as a cheating wife whose fear of getting caught far surpasses any moral qualms she may have about committing adultery. The scenes with her twit of a boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) and her pompous hypocrite of a husband (Maurice Ronet) genuinely sparkle.

Alas, the rest of the film is mostly middlebrow ooo-lah-lah; pretty sets and costumes, lovely photography by Henri Decae, and a great title sequence by Maurice Binder. The actors are all certainly competent and then some, but few of their performances really score. And the film as a whole has neither the savage aim of Schnitzler's original play or the gentler wit of Max Ophul's 1950 film of the material. I suppose it gave audiences a few naughty frissons back in the mid-60's, but not enough real entertainment . . .
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Now, Voyager (1942)
Well . . .
4 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
As these things go, not bad. You will not believe that Bette Davis is transformed from a dumpy, borderline-suicidal spinster into a woman that fills the hearts of two men with deepest devotion. You will believe that she peeled off the padded dresses, wiped off the greasepaint uni-brow, and made with the job lots of designer dresses.

You'll also believe the almost impossible relationship she had with her mother. There was an almost homicidal gusto to Gladys Cooper's performance as the awful Mrs. Vale, a delight in tormenting the one vulnerable creature fate has placed under her power. The script (and apparently, Olive Prouty's book) were honest enough to leave the relationship unresolved and unresolvable. The moments when Davis holds down her gorge and answers the old battle-axe politely but firmly are among the most moving in a "mere" Hollywood movie.

The scenes of Davis and Paul Henried and their circumscribed little romance are touching and realistic--two people not happy, but not willing to risk the chaos that would result if they went looking for it.

Only John Loder, as the Nice Young Man who suddenly shows up as vague competition for Henreid, feels out of place. He's a plot device, and the only thing I can say about the character is that he is gone quickly and that Loder did his duties gracefully.

Several people have praised Irving Rapper's direction here, and it's polished enough, but nothing extraordinary. In particular, Davis is still, except in the scenes with Cooper, way too phony and practiced. You can hear the wheels running in her head, not to mention her nice, clean diction as she declaims to the third row of the balcony at times. There was none of the wit, delicacy, or oddly appropriate artificiality that she displayed under Vincent Sherman's direction in one of her last big weep-a-thons, MR. SKEFFINGTON. But Sherman seemed to remember he was doing a movie--not just a Bette Davis movie . . .
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Glossy Trash
19 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The original novel ran several bazillion pages and told the tale of one David Alfred Eaton, who couldn't think of anything worse than being his father, a nasty steel-mill owner, and essentially becomes him. Along the way wives, children, mistresses, and the general populations of several east-coast and mid-western states and cities are dragged into his miserable wake, all of it ending with the realization that he's a worthless bastard who might as well have died after service in WWII, the last time he was of any use to the world at large.

The film shoves events forward to the years after WWII, lops off a great deal of the book, and gives everything a happy ending. Along the way, screenwriter Ernest Lehman weaves in some bitchily-amusing dialog, Elmer Bernstein gets the Fox studio orchestra to sigh and weep appealingly, and Leo Tover's wide-screen color photography makes the whole thing look like an expensive luxury item, the sort of thing that our protagonist would buy one of the women he's ignoring, hoping that they'll shut up and leave him alone . . .

It was rather gutsy of Newman to play the role of Eaton, and play it rather honestly. He makes Eaton into a cold, snarky, insufferable bastard, determined to make the whole world pay for the fact that Daddy (Leon Ames) loved his dead brother more the he ever loved the son that survived. (The scene where Dad 'fesses up to this fact is full of creepy, incestuous overtones.) As his wife Mary, Joanne Woodward also is rather gutsy, not to mention smart and sexy, particularly as dressed by the costume designer William Travilla, who never made Marilyn Monroe look this good. Her character marries Newman's in spite of the fact that she's really in love with someone else, but makes a serious good-faith effort at the wife thing, with Newman responding once every six months, and then running to the ends of the earth, not to mention the wastes of California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania to avoid spending any time with her. When she finally takes up with the old boyfriend, the movie primes you to hate the woman; I found myself wondering what took her so long. As the Sweet, Simple, Unspoiled girl that promises Eaton a New and Better Life, Ina Balin works something close to alchemy, turning a sappy cliché into a vivid and appealing woman. A woman far too good for the creep that Newman is playing . . .

Still, the movie has one of the great tell-off scenes in Hollywood history, Newman throwing a promotion and all of the crappy business ethics that go with it back in the face of the pompous bore of a boss (Felix Aylmer) offering it to him. It's corny and hammy in a lot of ways, but Newman gives it wit and zest beyond anything it really deserves. There are few things as delightful to watch as a good actor letting rip.
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Lobotomies, Carnivorous Plants, and Dear Old Aunt Violet . . .
13 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The plot is a mish-mash of Gothic horror, family psychodrama, Catholic guilt, and The Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name. But the original was written by Tennessee Williams, who was a poet masquerading as a playwright, and it ran only one act.

The film version was written by Gore Vidal. To his credit, he retained as much of Williams' dialog as possible, particularly towards the beginning and the end of the film, but there is considerable padding in-between, and Vidal, who was Clever at best, does not live up to the standard of Williams, no doubt one of the factors that fueled his obvious, and seething, jealousy towards his "good friend." The padding includes mad-house scenes where the extras were obviously encouraged to whoop it up like the extras in 28 DAYS LATER, and lots of heavy-handed hints about Sebastian's, er, proclivities.

Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) is a rich widow with a million dollars to give away. She's thinking about giving it away to the Lion's View Sanitarium, a public mental hospital in New Orleans, to help pay for such things as, well, keeping the power on. There's only one catch; she'd like their hot-shot brain surgeon, Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a recent transplant from Chicago, to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), the better to end her "obscene babblings" about Mrs. Venable's son Sebastian, who had died the previous summer. Eventually, Cukrowicz injects the young woman with Sodium Pentothal and discovers that Sebastian was homosexual and that he used first his mother, and then his cousin, as "beards" to arrange homosexual liaisons with other men. His mother was "useful" when he was young and trying to hook up with sophisticated older men. He started using his cousin the year before to pick up the rough trade at public beaches (she caught their eye and then he started handing out the cash). Eventually, a gang of the young men he had exploited attacked him on a hillside overlooking the town and then killed and partially cannibalized his corpse.

The acting is a mixed bag. Hepburn comes off best, despite the dragon-lady nature of her role and the ghastly hats she has to wear in several scenes. The arrogance that often made her off-putting in many roles is perfect for the role of a woman who has been raised to believe that the fact she came from money and married more of it makes her some sort of superior being. And she also makes you feel the loneliness beneath that arrogance, the loneliness that made her attach herself to her son like a barnacle as the years went by, because he was the only real company she ever had.

Elizabeth Taylor starts out very nicely in the role of Catherine, showing flashes of great humor and poignancy. And then she remembers to Act. Bang! Up pops the breathless little voice and the big eyes, and she turns into Catherine O'Hara spoofing Elizabeth Taylor trying to Act. She only connects in flashes after that, although she is genuinely affecting at the end when she recalls finding the dead man's munched-upon remains. Her scream and the crying after that are filled with genuine horror and sadness.

As the doctor, Cukrowicz, Montgomery Clift has a nothing part, but he displays a certain amused reserve while doing nothing much and is the audience's connection to the real world of sane people, where rich old ladies aren't trying to get people's brains chopped up and their gay sons come back from the Mediterranean with a tan . . .

Joseph L. Mankiewicz did his usual job as a director; hire some vivid actors and point the camera at them. The results aren't as much fun as A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, but they're still a hell of a lot better than CLEOPATRA. So, for that matter, was the average episode of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES . . .
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Good In Spite of Itself . . .
23 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The prototype for every brooding-jerk-with-great-real-estate potboiler ever written or filmed since. Spoiled brat Cathy Earnshaw loves (as much as she can anyone but herself) sullen stable-boy Heathcliffe, but marries rich weakling Edgar Linton. Her jerk brother Hinley inherits Wuthering Heights, runs it into the ground, and has it bought out from under him by the now-rich Heathcliffe, who keeps him around to torment and humiliate. He also marries Edgar's lovely sister Isabella as revenge and ruins her life, all the while brooding over a woman who isn't worth having. Cathy, annoyed that she can't have her cake and eat it too, gets sick and dies, mostly out of spite, it would seem. At the end, Heathcliffe, having spent the years since Cathy's death making himself and everybody else even more miserable than before, wanders off in the middle of snowstorm and dies. In death, he is reunited with his Great Love, and one can only hope that they were promptly escorted to hell . . .

The material is awful, but thanks to Laurence Olivier's performance as Heathcliffe, Gregg Toland's beautiful photography, and William Wyler's quiet, atmospheric direction, the damn thing works. Charles Macarthur's script leaves off the last chapters of the novel, where Heathcliffe and Cathy's kids marry and make peace between the two families, but that was always annoying and unconvincing (and borderline incest on top of it), so the Happily Ever After isn't missed. Merle Oberon was never much of an actress, but she had the air of spoiled willfulness that makes her perfect for the role of such an insufferable creature anyway. David Niven is poignant as the nice guy who falls in love with the wrong woman and comes to realize it, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is utterly heartbreaking as Isabella, whom Heathcliffe marries and then destroys. As the nasty weakling Hinley, Hugh Williams, the actor and playwright, throws some splendid and pathetic snits and makes it quite easy to enjoy his richly deserved torture at Heathcliffe's hands. Oh, and Donald Crisp, Flora Robson,and Leo G. Carroll are here, too. They're great as always.
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BUtterfield 8 (1960)
What a Dump!
7 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The movie begins as the book did; Gloria Wandrous wakes up in someone else's apartment (which isn't unusual), casts a cynical eye over the evidence of gilded Manhattan domesticity, and brushes her teeth in bourbon. There's some money on the living-room mantelpiece to replace a ripped dress. Insulted, she leaves the money behind, scrawls NO SALE on the mirror above the mantelpiece in lipstick and storms out, wearing one of the fur coats belonging to the Lady of The House.

This all takes about two or three minutes, is all but wordless, and given an appropriately chilly atmosphere by Bronislau Kaper's strings-and-saxophone score. If the movie had ended there, minor masterpiece.

But it didn't. The movie is based on John O'Hara's 1935 novel of the same title, which was sort of trashy, too, but this is gutless trash. O'Hara's Gloria was maybe 17 or 18 at the most, a wealthy girl floating by on a river of bootleg hooch and sordid entanglements with awful men, her behavior shaped by her childhood, when a friend of her widowed mother repeatedly molested her. (O'Hara based the story on a real case). The movie's Gloria is ten years older at least and a well-paid call girl who does a bit of modeling on the side, as a cover. This fact makes the opening scene, effective as it is, rather ridiculous. A real working girl wouldn't like being treated like dirt, but she would probably swallow her anger for fear of alienating a regular customer.

Then there's the attempt by the screenwriters to make Gloria's relationship with human sewage Winston Liggett into a Great and Heartbreaking Forbidden Love, instead of the degrading, sado-masochistic mess that pushes Gloria to self-destruction. As Liggett, Laurence Harvey is great when he's all slimy self-regard and cruelty, and downright embarrassing when he's asked to suddenly express tender emotions. As for Taylor, she was at the height of her beauty, but her performance was mostly a mannered embarrassment, complete with that ghastly tic of going all breathy in her "big" scenes. Her then-husband, Eddie Fisher, is pleasant as the platonic friend she crashes with sometimes, and Mildred Dunnock is touching as Gloria's loving, if obtuse, mother. As Harvey's wife, Dina Merrill, changes shirtwaists and looks concerned. (O'Hara makes clear that Liggett's relationship with his wife is simply a slow-motion version of what he's doing to Gloria, and also that the woman knows it; once again, the movie lacks the guts to explore this kind of dark psychological material).

You want to see a good movie about a New York call girl? Check out GIRL OF THE NIGHT, starring Anne Francis and released the same year, or KLUTE, with Jane Fonda, released in 1971. A good movie from an O'Hara book? TEN NORTH FREDERICK, released a couple of years earlier, which took a bad novel by the same writer and told it ten times faster and with solid performances by Gary Cooper and Suzy Parker. A good movie with Liz Taylor? Can't go wrong with NATIONAL VELVET . . .
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The Group (1966)
Considering what they had to work with . . .
13 November 2007
Anyone who thinks that this film is anti-man is wrong; the problem is that it was adapted from a novel that is, frankly, anti-human. Mary McCarthy's novel was one long sneer at all of the women she graduated from Vasaar with and who didn't have as wonderful and fulfilling a career as she did. They're too passive or too ambitious or too flirty or, most fatally, not Mary McCarthy. At least they went to Vasaar, though, so they are better than all other human beings on earth . . .

Surprisingly, Sidney Buchman's script manages to make flawed, but sympathetic characters out of the story he had to work with. Joanna Petet is wrenching as the ambitious, well-meaning Kay, whose husband Harald would probably never live up the her standards even if he weren't already a self-pitying, alcoholic bastard. Jessica Walters is ultimately endearing as Libby, who is not quite as sophisticated as she likes to pretend she is, although smarter than she lets on, and Shirley Knight is a rock of common sense as the quiet, hard-working Polly. It was refreshing to see Candice Bergen maintain grace, poise, and femininity even while she plays a "lesbo," but that accent of her always drove me crazy. Was it supposed to be English or Scandanavian, or a relic of the Duchy of Lower Fenwick? Carrie Nye has little more than a cameo as the artist that Harald is cheating on Kay with, but she rolls her r's magnificently and plays the character with deadly comic timing. She's also one of the few characters who actually has a little fun . . .

As others have said, it takes about an hour to sort everyone out and become involved in their stories, but the time invested pays off. Considering that there are eight main characters, kudos to Buchman and director Sidney Lumet for getting things sorted out so quickly. And to Lumet for toning down his tendency towards flash in his early films to serve the characters; the resulting film is a real drama, with comic touches, not a bitchy soap-opera.
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Werewolf (1995 Video)
When International Co-Production Runs Amok . . .
18 April 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Let's see--the leading man is Italian, the leading lady is German, the main villain is Mexican, and the co-writer/director is Iranian--all gathered in what may or may not be Flagstaff, Arizona to ineptly tell the tale of werewolves who actually look more like bats and bears and apes than werewolves, or even were-puppies, for that matter. There's also the immortal score which Keith Bilderbeck derived from his Concerto for Cello and Werewolf (sorta like how Miklos Rosza adapted his Violin Concerto into the score for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES -- although I suspect Miklos might be a bit insulted by this suggestion), and there are brief appearances by such Z-movie stalwarts as Richard Lynch (who's really pretty good--he almost makes his little monologue full of pseudo-Indian mythology sound interesting) and Joe Estevez (who's just sort of paunchy and absurdly intense). There's also the archaeological dig that turns into a barroom brawl and the leading lady's pool game with what looks like a fey, tubby leather freak. And haven't even gotten to the real-estate agent who doesn't like to wear pants and the grounds-keeper who runs around with a shotgun and spreads lacivious gossip about Dracula's private life . ..
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Crawford Gable and Montgomery Earn Their Money--The Hard Way
16 August 2002
The sort of old movie that makes old movies seem, well, OLD. The dialogue creaks and heaves towards the punch lines, the plot twists can be seen coming a mile away, and the characters behavior is totally subservient to the need to keep the hero and heroine from recognizing their obvious love for one another until the last possible moment. That Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Robert Montgomery bring something even RESEMBLING emotional truth to this remainder-bin exercise is a tribute to their talent. As for poor Crawford, she has to do this heavy lifting in a closet full of really ugly costumes, full of frills and doo-dads (in one scene, she wears an evening gown covered with what looks like looped extension cords--was the designer smoking dope when they dreamed this one up?). Anyone who says they don't make movies like they used to is right--and that isn't necessarily a bad thing . . .
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King Creole (1958)
Elvis and Harold Robbins come up with a good movie-Huh?
2 November 2001
A good movie taken from one of the novels that Harold Robbins wrote back when he was actually a writer, and not just a manufacturer of adolescent sex fantasies. The original novel was about a JD turned mob-owned boxer; the movie makes him a musician and gives the story a happier (i.e., cleaned-up) ending, but the New Orleans atmosphere is surprisingly strong, the songs are great, and Elvis Presley gives a real performance as the angry, mixed-up, but decent hero, who discovers that he has more backbone than he thought. And Walter Matthau is very, VERY scary as the mobster who tries to buy Presley body and soul and gets nasty when he discovers he can't. And it's all given a nice, punchy treatment by director Michael Curtiz, who proved that his career didn't end just because Errol Flynn was too old to be jumping around in tights any longer . . .
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Making a Silk Purse From a Sow's Ear--Or Trying To
12 October 2001
When theater critic Robert Brustein reviewed Elia Kazan's Broadway production of William Inge's THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, he talked about how Kazan's direction wildly goosed-up what was essentially a rather quiet play. Apparently, Inge vowed not to fall behind next time (although nothing here could equal the hysteria of Inge's NATURAL AFFECTIONS). The resulting screenplay, about small-town teenagers and sexual tensions isn't just overcooked, it's all but boiled away with excess. Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) isn't just deeply hurt when Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) dumps her for The Easiest Girl in Town (besides his sister--who's very serious competition)--she literally goes off the deep end. But in a movie with alcoholism, hysterical, hypocritical repression, and gang-rape at the family New Year's party, this is rather mild stuff. And the actors, particularly Pat Hingle, yowl and screech and generally carry on in a thoroughly embarrassing manner.

There are exceptions. One is Natalie Wood, who is utterly heartbreaking as a young woman caught between her own desires, pressures from the young man she loves, and the standards of her time and place. She makes you feel how these conflicting pressures literally begin to tear her to pieces and transforms a flash part into a deeply affecting performance--her eyes seem genuinely foggy with yearning, and when she cracks, the force of the breakdown is truly frightening.

Another exception is Warren Beatty--he gives no performance at all, delivering almost all of his lines to his third shirt button and squinting indifferently at almost everything. This was the performance that launched him on his way, and rarely has a serious film career been built on so indifferent a performance. Fortunately, Beatty played pick-up fairly rapidly as the gigolo in THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE and the pimp in ALL FALL DOWN. Otherwise, it would have been straight to a TV cop show for Our Warren--which might have been better for film history, to be honest. Finally, special mention should be made of Zohra Lampert, who plays the woman that Beatty marries when his father loses all of his money--she does so much with so little and is so appealing while doing it that when the film ends you find yourself caring about someone besides Wood--because of Lampert's character, you almost find yourself worrying about Beatty's character, in spite of his best efforts.

The director was Elia Kazan, who made a number of good decisions here (hiring Wood and Lampert, Boris Kauffman as cinematographer and Anna Hill Johnstone as costume designer) and a small raft of bad ones (Beatty, Hingle, Inge's script, and the yowling hysteria of Barbara Loden--then Mrs. Kazan and a much better actress than this film would lead you to think--she was good in her husband's earlier film WILD RIVER and quite brilliant as the numb center of her only film as a director, 1970's WANDA). As was often the case, his direction was a mixture of both the intelligent and the slickly overdone--there are strong performances and intelligent use of the camera and editing--and there is screeching hysteria and flashy, pointless angles and edits. Kazan's work as a movie-maker, particularly from the 50's on, was always pretty much this way, and one had to take the defects with the often-considerable virtues. More than once, he almost succeeded in making a silk purse from a sow's ear--it was just a little tougher on this occasion.
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The Skydivers (1963)
Remember Folks, Sex For Sundries is FUN!!!
5 June 2001
Just try and keep this straight: Harry is married to Beth (with whom he runs an airport/parachuting school), but catting around with Suzy, who also has a thing going with Frankie, who used to work for Harry. Frankie's place as mechanic has been taken by Harry's war buddy Joe, who would probably like to take Harry's place as Beth's husband as well. But when Harry leaves Suzy and calls her a "broad" in the bargain, well, she just has no other choice but to Do The Nasty with the local pharmacist in exchange for a little acid to pour all over Harry's parachute, which she does with the help(?) of Frankie (actually, she does the driving, the planning, gets the acid, and actually applies it to said parachute--while he stands and/or sits around looking stupid and/or nervous).

Anyways, after you're finished doing the sexual algebra--well, there isn't much left to do after that, except enjoy the spectacle of writer/director Coleman Francis' misfiring-synapse style of editing, in which the flow of scenes is interrupted with irrelevant closeups or bits of action involving other characters who have not previously been been seen on-camera (all but the most important characters in this film tend to pop up without explanation and to disappear in similar fashion--given that this film is too cheap and amateurish to deserve shelter on Poverty Row, Francis probably couldn't afford actual exposition, or maybe he didn't think about it until after the bulk of the film was shot, or maybe he shot the footage, got drunk, and suddenly ran across it in the editing room and tried to splice it in before the Four Roses left him snoring over the moviola).

You could talk about the acting, I suppose, but it would be a waste of time, given that most of the cast, with the exception of Kevin Casey (Beth) and Marcia Knight (Suzy) don't actually bother with it. The cast seems to consist mostly of people who gave him money to make the film or the relatives of people who gave Francis money to make the film, or of members of his family, or of people he ran into while on a bender. The result is the weirdest cast this side of a Fellini movie, but unlike Fellini, who generally picked talented and/or appealing oddballs to appear in his films, Francis just picked oddballs. Although there IS a tall blonde here that wouldn't look out of place dancing in the Trevi Fountain at dawn--Marcello Mastroianni optional.
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A Touch of Frost (1992–2010)
Not as extraordinary as it once was, but hardly an embarrassment
12 November 2000
Warning: Spoilers
A TV cop show cobbled together from a series of third-rate police procedurals, starring a sit-com actor trying to go dramatic and centered around a Cop On The Edge Who Bends The Rules shouldn't work as well as this one did for a while. But at its best, the seemingly-rickety contraption really soared.

The aforementioned police procedurals were written by R.D. Wingfield, their primary virtue being that he stuffed each of his "Frost" books with enough plots to keep the show going through some four series before they ran out of material. And the writers sometimes did marvelous stuff with that material; the very first episode, "Care and Protection," adapted from Christmas FROST, is an often wrenching study of how people fail to protect the ones they love, or in trying to do so, bring on escalating tragedy. "Noting to Hide," uses one strand from the second book, A TOUCH OF FROST (the death of a young junkie in a public toilet), as the launching point for a story about the self-destruction of a family, with Frost watching helplessly as his investigation of the death brings this about.

But even with the same scripts, the show wouldn't be quite the same without David Jason's performance as Frost. For the first few series, it was one of the most brilliant pieces of sustained television acting I've ever seen, the only serious competition to Andre Braugher's performance as Pemberton on HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS I can think of. Frost is a sensitive soul, borderline-suicidal at times, whose greatest joy has been his work, and even that has begun to gnaw at him in ways it hasn't previously. And much of this is conveyed with only the slightest flicker of the voice and eyes, which in Jason's case are enormously sensitive instruments (the man is brilliant at the tricky business of listening and reacting to other actors in silence). The tough-outside/sensitive-inside stuff could have been one more cliché, except for the wrenching life which the acting brought to it.

Unfortunately, the show continued beyond its natural shelf life. Frost was a character moving slowly but inexorably towards self-destruction, and when that failed to materialize, even after his rather devastating break-up with the nurse he fell in love with after she tended his dying wife in her last months, the show became more of a routine mystery program. A good one, mind you, but not quite the powerful experience it once was. As for Jason, well, the sense of something extraordinary happening in front of the camera is gone, but he's still better than all but a handful of actors who appear regularly on television. It's time to move on.
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John Updike May Be in The Credits, But He's Not in the Movie
20 May 2000
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK is not the best of John Updike's novels, but it's a masterpiece compared with this hash of a film. Updike's novel, about three women on their own in a small New England in the late 1960's, messing around with magic as a distraction from their troubles and unintentionally summoning up the Devil himself, is a spiky but diverting fantasy (Updike wittily plays with the idea of female outcasts as witches, as many of the women of the past who were accused of witchcraft were often just such outcasts). He also makes good use of his period setting; amidst the general social upheavals of the time (not to mention the fact that ROSEMARY'S BABY was released during the summer of '68), would it be terribly surprising if someone managed to conjure up Satan, and get involved in a messy sexual quadrangle with the fellow?

None of that is to be found in the film. Eastwick is just a picture-postcard setting for the story, and although Satan (aka Darryl Van Horn) still beds the trio of friends, it's all rendered as some sort of hip, luxe romp, something that in-crowd, liberated sort of people get to do, as opposed to the unsettling group-sex mess that Updike describes (in a bit too much detail, frankly). Moreover, the "witches" of the title are nothing of the sort until the end; screenwriter Michael Cristofer eliminates all of the details of the women's mini-coven, and the bits of magic they do to amuse themselves and get their bit of revenge on the small-town types that make their lives more unpleasant than they already are. Also gone are most of the violent deaths that Van Horn causes as his relationship with the women deteriorates.

And it wastes most of the cast. Jack Nicholson luxuriates in playing Satan, of course, and he's amusing enough, but he's too old and finally too polite for the role (he isn't terribly Jewish either, but frankly that's something of a relief; there's an edge of anti-semitism in Updike's depiction of the devil as a New York Jew). Both Cher and Susan Sarandon were more than adequate to their roles, and they give the characters some texture (Sarandon is hilariously silly after her character throws off her repressions)-- but Michelle Pfeiffer is lovely to look at and pleasant to know--not much more and hardly credible as a woman who's given birth to a passel of children. There are those who thought Updike's portrayal of the women in the novel was tinged with misogyny, an idea which has some merit, but he gave thm the sort of guts, bone and muscle they don't have on screen, and the film's conclusion, which shows them living in some sort of flossy high-rent feminist paradise, complete with lots of domestic help (as opposed to the more mundane fates of the women in the novel) is annoying. The Devil came to town just so this trio could become well-heeled single mothers? Sounds a bit too L.A. for a fellow who comes from Pennsylvania . ..

The film gets what little charge is has from George Miller's direction; he gives the more fantastic scenes a feeling of real-world magic; what happens is sometimes so lovely and extraordinary that you start laughing at the wonder of it, and the finale, where the women use a bit of magic to send their boyfriend back to his hometown is breathtaking and hilarious. But Miller agreed to direct this script, which earns him at least ten demerits--I mean, the MAD MAX movies were better than this . ..
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