Hello, movie fans! Here’s a second list of my favorite (and not so favorite) films — many of them acknowledged cinema classics by any definition of the term and, as the title of my post suggests, memorable in their own ways. Let me know your views and thoughts on this list, which is in semi-alphabetical order. Happy reading!
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Though filmed in the “wilds” of the California hills and originally conceived as a vehicle for movie tough-guy James Cagney, this classic version of the story of Robin Hood and his merry band of thieves is grand movie-making at its finest. It proved a box-office bonanza for the Warner Brothers studio at a time when the hounds of war were yapping at the heels of Europe, with many of the predominantly British and/or UK cast sensing the difficulties their fellow countrymen abroad were about to undergo. As a result, there are superb performances from just about every member of the group, especially the excellent Robin Hood of the youthful and athletic Errol Flynn, who was never better in green tights. Olivia de Havilland, in her third pairing with the swashbuckling Flynn, is the lovely Lady Marian, Claude Rains the slightly effete but thoroughly malevolent Prince John, and Basil Rathbone the slimy scoundrel Sir Guy of Gisbourne — and a fairly decent swordsman, at that. With yeoman work provided by Melville Cooper as the phlegmatic Sheriff of Nottingham, boisterous Alan Hale in a repeat of his earlier silent stint as Little John (he was to assume the role one last time in 1950’s Sword of Sherwood Forest), bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette as the rotund Friar Tuck, and Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Patric Knowles, Ian Hunter (a model King Richard), Montagu Love, Lionel Belmore, and many others in fine support. Exquisitely scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, for which he won a deserved Oscar. It’s possibly the closest Korngold came to his concept of “opera without words.” Directed with flair and gusto by Michael Curtiz and second unit director William Keighley, whom Curtiz later replaced. Perfect family entertainment and lavishly filmed in early three-strip Technicolor. For adventure and romance, it has never been topped. Remade many times, with Richard Todd, John Derek, Richard Greene, Sean Connery, and, in recent times, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, and Russell Crowe taking turns as Robin.
Peter Shaffer adapted his successful stage play for the screen, both opening up and expanding the drama along the way. The basic fiction of Antonio Salieri’s murder of his rival Mozart is retained, but it’s the locale (filmed in Prague), the richly elegant eighteenth-century costumes, and the charismatic performances that give this film its vibrant life, in addition to the master’s heavenly music, performed on the soundtrack by Sir Neville Marriner. Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “To love God”) Mozart, precocious and scatological — well documented in his voluminous correspondence with his wife, father and sister — was a true and undeniable genius of his or any other time. A prolific composer, he dabbled in just about every conceivable musical form; produced works of astonishing range, beauty and originality; and achieved worldwide fame and recognition in his short life. On the other hand, the Italian-born Antonio Salieri was a fairly run-of-the-mill mediocrity who wrote innumerable pieces for the church and the theater, almost none of which have survived into the modern classical repertoire. F. Murray Abraham was catapulted into the front ranks of lead actors with his fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the jealous court composer Salieri, helped in large measure by the superb makeup job of veteran Dick Smith. Tom Hulce is the vulgar, potty-mouthed, maniacally cackling but ever-so-charming “Wolfie,” a finely detailed achievement, with Elizabeth Berridge as his klutzy lower-class spouse, Constanze. Hulce and Berridge’s distinctive Americanness is wisely exploited by Czech director Milos Forman as a counterpoint to the highbrow snobbery of the snooty types that populate the backstabbing royal court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, played with a haughty air of self-confidence (and boundless good humor) by the wonderful Jeffrey Jones. The other cast members include Simon Callow (a noted author in real life, who played Mozart on the British stage), Roy Dotrice (as Leopold Mozart), Patrick Hines, Charles Kay, Christine Ebersole, Vincent Schiavelli, Kenneth MacMillan (in an amusing bit restored for the expanded director’s cut), Barbara Byrne, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 of the Star Wars series) in a “small” role. The movie narrowly misses a four-star rating, as the play was much more concentrated on the stage and is shorn of some of its lovely literary language due to the different requirements of the film medium. In addition, it takes extensive liberties with the perception and presentation of Mozart’s operas that distort their true historical nature and significance. Other than that, it’s a fabulous showcase for classical-music lovers. (Too many notes, indeed!)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Western ambience, Western atmosphere, Western attitude — but wait! It’s not a Western at all, but a reasonable facsimile of a film noir that takes place in broad daylight (now there’s a novelty for you). Clearly, opposites attract in this case. And talk about having a bad day, each one of this movie’s denizens experiences what can only be described as a less than fulfilling sojourn. John Sturges, the director, had slaved away on Hollywood B-pictures for nearly a decade before rising to prominence with this brief but tightly concentrated, highly suspenseful thriller. This was Sturges’ second foray with Tracy (their first was the formula courtroom drama, The People Against O’Hara), who initially declined to participate in the production. However, he quickly changed his mind, once he got wind that film noir icon Alan Ladd was willing to do the picture if Tracy wasn’t. Bad Day at Black Rock turned out to be Tracy’s final screen appearance for MGM — indeed, a bad day for MGM! The story takes place in the aptly titled Black Rock (it was filmed in Lone Pine and Alabama Hills, California, near the Sierra Nevada mountains), a frontier dustbowl dwelling at the end of World War II, where a mysterious one-armed stranger’s sudden presence and polite inquiries into a Japanese-American named Komoko are met with antagonism and suspicion from the local townsfolk. The stranger’s probing and the hostile reactions of the citizenry ultimately turn the atmosphere of this sleepy, redneck ghost town topsy-turvy. Spencer Tracy plays John Macreedy, the laconic loner, who can take extremely good care of himself (he has a mean karate chop). Robert Ryan is Reno Smith, the town’s mover, shaker and resident mischief-maker, as well as all-around bad apple. He’s got the townspeople tied around his little pinky, or so he believes. When things start to unravel around him, Smith lashes out aggressively, much like a cornered mongrel. The always excellent Ryan and a taciturn Tracy shine in this one; they go toe-to-toe in verbal discourses that define one another’s characters in understated ways (the screenplay is by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman, from a story by Howard Breslin). Our “modern action movies” can take a lesson from these two worthy pros in how to convey craftiness and subtlety through looks and glances alone. The “action” aspects are expertly handled in a real-world manner by Tracy and the mean-as-a-junkyard-dog duo of Lee Marvin and eternal fall-guy, Ernest Borgnine. A haggard Dean Jagger is the alcoholic sheriff with a permanent hangover (and guilty conscience) over what happened to Komoko. Featuring John Ericson and Anne Francis (who starred together in the short-lived TV-series Honey West), with Walter Brennan, Russell Collins and Walter Sande, all good in Sturges’ first major Hollywood hit. It’s a rather slow starter, but stick with it — you’ll be amply rewarded for your patience. Superb widescreen photography by William C. Mellor. The deep, dark secret everybody wants to avoid discussing concerns a fallen comrade of Japanese descent who saved Tracy’s life; he wants to pay respect to his dead buddy by returning the hero’s medal to his father, Komoko. Andre Previn wrote the powerful score. This film was a springboard to Sturges’ later string of all-male ensemble efforts, most notably Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), all three of these actioners high-level macho-escapist fare at their feverish best.
Of all the religious widescreen Hollywood epics released in the fifties and early sixties, this sound version of General Lew Wallace’s “Tale of the Christ” is the most revered. And for good reason: it boasts a marvelous international cast, impressive life-size sets, beautiful location shooting, and that awesome chariot race near the end. Oh, and don’t forget a major miracle or two! Charlton Heston is at his jaw-clenching, agonizing best as the long-suffering Judah Ben-Hur (Academy Award for Best Actor). How he manages to confront and overcome the various challenges posed to him by his rival Messala is the major thrust of the drama. The excellent Stephen Boyd is on a par with Heston as a magnificent Messala, the very embodiment of raw Roman ambition. Despite revisionist claims of homosexual vibes between these two characters, Judah and Messala are merely fiercely competitive boyhood chums. They have differing ethno-political views that interfere with their childhood friendship — and that inevitably lead to conflict and tragedy. It’s strictly a man’s world, however, with the only minor flaw being the limited, stilted roles for the women, particularly Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther. Judah’s Roman love-interest Flavia, played by Marina Berti, was all-but cut from the final release print; the loss is regrettable, as she would have given Heston’s driven character a personal dimension and added layer of warmth. She appears briefly in the scene where Quintus Arrius (solidly played by British veteran Jack Hawkins) adopts Judah as his son. The film is long but never boring. Several writers laid their hands on the screenplay, among them playwright Christopher Fry and author Gore Vidal, although the onscreen credit is given to Karl Tunberg. The direction is by William Wyler, with a fine assist from his second unit team headed by Yakima Canutt, is technically precise. He succeeds in creating a high degree of tension between the two main protagonists; credit is due him as well for sustaining interest in their feud throughout the over three-hour course they do battle in. The music by veteran Miklos Rozsa is a model for films of this type. He went on to score several more epics in a similar vein, including El Cid (also with Heston), King of Kings and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The ending is a bit too literal, but serves as a fitting conclusion to what went on before. The movie betrays its fifties origins mostly in its treatment of Jesus, who is never seen in close-up, only in long shots and from behind. He’s played by opera tenor Claude Heater. Others in the (very) large cast include Finlay Currie, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring, and Hugh Griffith, an Oscar-winner for his supporting role as Sheik Ilderim.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for gay British film director James Whale (The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man), whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein from 1931. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork creation; yet almost 80 years later it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Played to pathetic perfection by a middle-aged Boris Karloff (The Mummy, The Black Cat), the film has been cloned and parodied by everyone from Abbott & Costello and Mel Brooks to The Rocky Horror Picture Show — often copied, but never equaled. A most satisfying viewing experience, and a right of passage for anyone seriously interested in the horror-movie genre. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless, anxiety ridden Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director — and how he relishes those rolled “r’s”), into creating a mate for the lonely Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Universal Studios objected to Whale’s humanization of their prize moneymaker, especially the scene of the Monster weeping as the “Ave Maria” blares forth in the background. Their subsequent entry in the series, Son of Frankenstein (1939), reverts to the Monster’s brutish nature. A pity! Expressionistic sets, bizarre shadows and camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor and the slow-witted E.E. Clive as the village burgomaster, along with the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Terrific music score by Franz Waxman, and featuring Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, Reginald Barlow as Hans, Mary Gordon as Hans’ wife, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl. It quite literally ends with a bang. Essential viewing.
The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of stars, screenwriters, and actual historical events conspired to make this exercise in what would normally have been a formula B-picture into a timeless film classic, one you really can’t resist. The meeting of incongruous leads Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the cynical owner of a popular Moroccan nightspot (and latent freedom fighter), and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the luminous lost object of his affection, will forever be remembered as an inspired episode in the Warner Brothers canon of wartime romances. Viennese actor Paul Henreid plays the stalwart second lead as underground resistance leader Victor Laszlo. The screenplay was by Howard Koch (the scriptwriter for Mercury Theatre’s famed “War of the Worlds” broadcast) and the twins Julius and Philip Epstein; among the many high-points are the first meeting of Rick and Ilsa, Sam’s rendition of “As Time Goes By,” the stirring singing of the Marseillaise, the highly-quotable line “Here’s looking at you kid,” and the famous finale at the airport. Others in the sturdy ensemble include Claude Rains as the dapper inspector Louis Renaud, Conrad Veidt as the nefarious Nazi Major Strasser, Peter Lorre as the repugnant Ugarte, jowly S.Z. Sakall (erroneously billed as S.K.) as Carl the headwaiter, Marcel Dalio (a real-life refugee from the Holocaust) as Emil the croupier, Leonid Kinskey as Sascha the bartender, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot Café, and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam the singer-pianist, who faked his own piano playing. Many other supporting bit players from the marvelous Warner Brothers stable are scattered throughout, including Leon Belasco, Mischa Auer, Oliver Blake, Torben Meyer, William Edmunds, Madeleine LeBeau, Helmut Dantine, Joy Page, John Qualen, Ludwig Stossel, Frank Puglia, and Dan Seymour as the venerable Abdul the doorman. Directed with showmanship, flair, and a rich noir-perspective by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, and brilliantly scored by Max Steiner, who contrary to belief did not write “As Time Goes By.”
In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama Chinatown. With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay (by writer Robert Towne), superb art direction (W. Stewart Campbell), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as producer), it took the cinema world by storm; movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture. That one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson, and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. After a series of red herrings, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power. As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross (a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston, outstanding in a secondary role) casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Nicholson looks smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (costume design by Anthea Sylbert). So’s that snazzy roadster, too, but it’s all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast – a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him, as Jake finds himself at sea in a hum zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions. With their masks lifted, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were. Most impressive are the camera angles, which were shot from behind Jake’s back. The feeling is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for oneself what Jake is about to discover and unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the disintegration of everything he holds dear. Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening anyway. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense, to her own detriment. Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar, always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character are the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area). Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young, James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who has the last word: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood who slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith – a gem of a composition. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister take on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.
Citizen Kane (1941)
What is there left to say about this landmark production? Nothing at the time prepared Hollywood and RKO Radio Pictures for the firestorm of controversy this classic feature generated upon its initial release. The story of the assorted problems it encountered with its plot (purportedly based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) and subsequent distribution is well known. What we’re ultimately left with is a masterpiece of the cinematic art form, what can conservatively be termed a true collaborative effort by all concerned. It’s still amazing to learn, after all these years, how truly revolutionary this production was: the mere fact that it came out of the Hollywood dream factory of the 1930s is proof enough of its uniqueness. Theater director, writer, producer and actor Orson Welles has been given far too much credit for having single-handedly invented many of the camera angles and lighting techniques we now take for granted. In truth, he and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, were basically following a textbook example of how to make a motion picture. They both get an A+ for effort and delivery. The marvelous script is by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, although Orson tried to suppress that fact for years thereafter. There is so much to see, and specifically to hear, in this marvelous maiden work that multiple viewings are absolutely mandatory to fully appreciate what is cinematic storytelling at its very best. The plot has been reworked time and again, most surreptitiously by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and, to some extent, The Godfather series. The large cast, many of them past veterans of Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air radio program and his Federal Theater Projects, includes Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, Edward Sloane, George Coulouris, Ruth Warwick, Ray Collins, Fortunio Bonanova, Philip Van Zandt, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford, Gino Corrado, future film director William Alland as the inquisitive reporter, future tough-guy Alan Ladd, and young Orson himself (in a corset, no less, to hide his massive bulk). The extraordinary sound design and deep-focus photography, as well as the musical score by the untested Bernard Herrmann (in his pre-Alfred Hitchcock days), add up to an oppressive atmosphere of a life lived lavishly on the edge. The music for the pseudo-opera Salammbô, an ingeniously lyrical set piece, features many nods to classical composers Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold; although Welles had in mind the French Romantic style of Massenet’s Thaïs, but this will do.
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994)
Sequel to the successful yuppies in mid-life-crisis comedy City Slickers, which also stars Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Patricia Wettig, and Jack Palance in his Oscar-winning supporting role as the laconic cattle boss Curly. They’re back, along with Jon Lovitz (replacing snippy colleague B. Kirby Jr.) as Crystal’s no-account brother. Others from the original cast show up at the end, including Josh Mostel, who’s got to be a dead ringer for Wayne Knight they look so much alike. This version has funnier set pieces than the first film, as well as a bigger part for Mr. Palance, whose acerbic asides are just as caustic. The plot is a retread of Warner Brothers’ The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in which Crystal, Stern, Lovitz, and later Palance as Curly’s twin brother Duke, go to the Nevada desert in search of a fortune in lost gold. It includes snippets of the Walter Huston dance, Crystal’s imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and scenes and music from The Godfather Part II. It’s colorfully shot on location in Moab, Utah, and the screenplay is by Crystal and the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who’ve written several winners for director Ron Howard. As far as sequels go, this one is better than the usual scattershot continuation, and is fairly high up on the laugh meter. Mark Shaiman’s tuneful Western-style score is a shameless rip-off of Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven theme music, but it’s a fitting tribute nonetheless. There are a couple of crude jokes and bits, and Crystal engages in some comic hanky-panky with wife Wettig (who has a reduced role here) — but nothing too offensive, at least by adult standards.
Duck Soup (1933)
The most irreverent and irrepressible screwball comedy the Marx Brothers ever perpetrated on moviegoers — and, at slightly over an hour, their most concentrated effort at hilarity ever. Most of the jokes and routines had been perfected by the team in numerous stage appearances, and were already considered old hat by the time they were filmed. Here, they’re elevated to high art, if not high jinks. The threadbare plot, which is but a flimsy excuse for the film’s marvelous comedic high-points, involves dubious Freedonian dictator Rufus T. Firefly’s wrongheaded attempts to wage war against the neighboring Sylvania. Groucho Marx plays the easily flummoxed Firefly, with brothers Chico and Harpo serving as Sylvanian “spies,” while fellow sibling Zeppo tags along as Firefly’s male secretary. Margaret Dumont is priceless as the boys’ clueless foil, Mrs. Teasdale. Tall, aristocratic, and with a flair for fun and mischief, Louis Calhern is the Sylvanian ambassador Trintino, Raquel Torres is the slinky Spanish-style vamp, and old pro Edgar Kennedy (he of the slow burn) is the put upon lemonade vendor. Many outrageous and totally ludicrous skits (“Peanuts, getta you peanuts”) are punctuated by Groucho’s sly commentary, Chico’s fractured English, and Harpo’s silent slapstick. That coat of his yields some singularly offbeat items, to say the least. The musical sequences are pure unabashed fun (play close attention to Groucho’s entrance song — it’s a riot!) and the rousing closing number is a send-up of old vaudeville routines and minstrel shows — no offense intended. A thoroughly enjoyable romp and on most critics’ Top Ten Funniest Movies Ever Made list, this vehicle was the Brothers’ swan song for Paramount Pictures before they migrated over to MGM.
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Based on the true story of two man-eating lions loose in the South African bush country at the turn of the century, the film stars Val Kilmer as Colonel John Patterson, unlikely cast as an Irish engineer assigned to build a bridge across the River Tsavo, and Michael Douglas as Remington, an American big-game hunter spouting rapid-fire syllogisms. They join forces to rid themselves of the beasts, whose nasty habit of eating up the local workforce is crimping the style of British railroad baron and self-styled martinet Tom Wilkinson (The Patriot, Batman Begins). Others in the cast include Henry Cele (Shaka Zulu), whose prominently chiseled features are welcome in a small role as the doomed foreman, the authoritative Bernard Hill (Titanic) as the smart-ass doctor of the camp, and mild-mannered Brian McCardie (Rob Roy) as the Scottish missionary. The usually solid and distinguished Indian actor Om Puri (City of Joy) seems at sea as a disruptive Hindu leader of the workers. The major attractions, however, are the titular lions, and the ones used in the picture are a truly fearsome and ugly-looking pair. The real-life stuffed lions responsible for all the carnage can still be seen at the Chicago Field Museum, as the narrator John Kani so informs us. He plays the stoic African guide, who has the best line in the film when he’s asked about life with his three wives. Filmed on location, it’s better than your average National Geographic special. There’s real ferocity to the beasts, it’s gorgeously photographed, and the sound design is truly spectacular; this is definite home theater demo material if there ever was one. The main roles are somewhat shallow, however, especially Douglas’ (who also produced), and the ending is as contrived as they come. It’s redeemed by the film music, which is by veteran screen composer Jerry Goldsmith, who after over forty years in the movie business still manages to surprise and please the listener. His wonderful score weaves African tribal chants, dance rhythms, and native drum beats into the seams to very good effect. Directed by Stephen Hopkins and scripted by veteran screenwriter William Goldman. The lions will certainly scare you if the acting doesn’t.
Covers similar thematic ground as Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, and is a close cinematic cousin to such films as Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and other sword-and-sandal epics. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is about to retire and considers handing over the power reigns to popular general Maximus (“The Spaniard”). Before the emperor can do so, however, he’s murdered in true Roman dysfunctional-family tradition by his envious son Commodus, while Maximus is about to be put to the sword. He escapes, in time to find his wife and child butchered by his former mates. Sold into slavery, he manages to seek revenge by finding glory in gladiatorial combat. The film takes this basic plot point and reinterprets it as sports hero-worship, no better illustrated than in an early scene where Maximus and his troops make ready for combat. Substitute helmets and shoulder pads for shields and swords, and you have the opening play of the Super Bowl Game — complete with pep talks, back-slaps, and color commentary (all that’s missing are a couple of “high fives”). Soft-spoken Russell Crowe is fine and dandy as the brawny Maximus. He has “macho action star” scrawled all over his chest. Indeed, since then he’s gone on to appear in the far superior Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Ridley Scott’s remake of Robin Hood. Also featured are Joaquin Phoenix as the conniving Commodus, Richard Harris in the tiny role of the fragile Marcus Aurelius, Connie Nielsen (fresh from her stint as a “fiendish” attorney in The Devil’s Advocate) as Commodus’ sister Lucilla, Djimon Hounsou (a welcome presence) as the glowering gladiator Juba, and Derek Jacobi as the low-key but crafty Senator Gracchus. Oliver Reed hams it up to the hilt in his last screen appearance as the slave trader Proximo. His visage was computer-grafted onto another actor’s body after his untimely passing in mid-production. Spencer Treat Clark (Unbreakable) plays Lucilla’s precocious son Lucius, and Giorgio Cantarini (who co-starred with Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful) has a cameo as Maximus’ offspring. Directed by Ridley Scott, slightly out of his league but managing to find his way around the epic conventions well enough. Excellent CGI effects add a much-needed dimension and lift to some of the outdoor scenes, establishing Rome as a major character in itself. The score is by Hans Zimmer, one of his better ones. Jarringly photographed in a manner similar to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, i.e., a mix of slow motion, stop-action, and rapid crosscutting, with hints of a high-speed documentary style. It all comes together with some roughness around the edges, but should do much to revive the period-action flick, as evidenced by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a year later. It owes as much to Braveheart as to Tacitus.
Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War. Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel. Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious. One of these fictitious creations, Trip (Denzel Washington), is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie. He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina. The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg. After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice. The most poignant portion of the film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously thrown into a ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis, Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, and Jihmi Kennedy, with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles. The exceptionally fine and moving score by James Horner, with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and otherworldly tonalities.
The Godfather, Part I (1972)
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” So begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) making a desperate plea for justice in godfather Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever imagine. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered). Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Vito Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are their life blood. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. Played by the legendary Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of a finger, a cock of the head, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however) for his subtle, tour de force performance, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. Equally deserving is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said this film is about the dark side of the American dream; while true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with screenplay by Coppola and Puzo) is the unquestioned devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite his distaste for dad’s work. Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Sollozzo (cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth. So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those movies that demands our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen it there are always fresh insights to be savored over: the opening trumpet solo – mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more. With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. Striking cinematography by Gordon Willis, incredibly detailed production design by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film score by Nino Rota. Need we say more?
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
At three hours and twenty minutes, it’s almost as long as Gone With The Wind, but not nearly as funny. Francis Ford Coppola’s successful continuation of Mario Puzo’s Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees Sicily to come to New York at the turn of the century, winds up on Ellis Island, has his surname changed to Corleone, grows up in poverty on the Lower East Side, then marries, has a family of his own, and faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) to become a “respected” member of society; and forward to the new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of soft-spoken but ruthless gangster Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut) while simultaneously confronting a traitor within his midst as well as dealing with his failed marriage to skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton). Every scene is a comment on, and a reflection of, similar ones to be found in Part I. Outright lies, blatant betrayals, treachery, duplicity, and double- and triple-crossings galore, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! Spellbinding direction, high production values, and a supremely talented cast make Part II that rarity of movie sequels – damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?). Featuring Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire as Michael’s sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache) as younger brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese); and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Oscar in the process. Also starring playwright Michael V. Gazzo in a winning performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the cast – his salary demands simply couldn’t be met. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary, Richard Bright as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt. Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father. A five-star family affair, to be certain. Would we lie to you?
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
More rambling than either of its illustrious predecessors, with new characters spilling forth by the minute and an unusual familial “relationship” to ponder over, Part III of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the last and least admired installment of the series. His canny exploration into the inner workings of organized crime in America, with Mafia boss Michael Corleone as the chief suspect and subject, closes the circle he started with the Oscar-winning The Godfather some 16 years prior. An older and frailer Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, in gray hair and buzz cut) tries to make good on his past pledges to go straight and legitimize his lucrative Mafia dealings. In attempting to extricate himself from the Family “business,” Michael unwisely hands over the reins of power to a ruthless street enforcer, an onerous “clotheshorse” named Joey Zasa (oleaginous Joe Mantegna). When Michael’s trigger-happy nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia) comes busting in on the action, Don Corleone takes an instant liking to this, his brother Sonny’s bastard son, but is wary of the youth’s violent temper. Further complications ensue, such as Michael’s outwardly charitable donations to and involvement with the Catholic Church, which give way to other, unforeseen repercussions within the hierarchy of that venerable institution – all the way up to the Vatican’s banker, in a thinly veiled reference to the Michele Sindona affair of the late 1970s, along with a few others. There are so many red herrings, as well as false leads and dubious plot twists, especially the romance between Vincent’s cousin, and Michael’s daughter, Mary (an amateurish performance by Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who became a noted filmmaker in her own right); along with son Anthony’s operatic aspirations and eventual debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, it all gets to be a bit much. Still, once all the machinations are finally set in motion, the inevitable grand finale (a truly operatic ending) materializes. It’s a humdinger of a conclusion, which may remind cinephiles of Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. But that Joey Zasa is a prize characterization, thanks to the chameleon-like Mantegna. In addition to him, we get several new personalities, i.e., the crooked Don Altobello (“tall and handsome”), played by short and frumpy Eli Wallach; Franc D’Ambrosio (with a background in musical theater) as Anthony Corelone; the Irish-brogue-spouting Donal Donnelly as Archbishop Gilday, as devious a hoodlum priest as they come; silver-haired lounge lizard George Hamilton as Michael’s immaculately tailored lawyer B.J. Harrison; former middleweight boxing champion Vito Antuofermo as Zasa’s bodyguard Anthony “The Ant” Squigliaro; and veteran thespian Raf Vallone as an exceptionally impressive Cardinal Lamberto, who hears Michael’s guilt-ridden confession, which happens to be the movie’s emotional highpoint. Of the numerous returnees, Diane Keaton is her low-key self as Michael’s ex-wife Kay, whom he reconciles with during the course of the drama; sullen Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister) as the widowed Connie, who totes a suspect box of cannolis to the opera; Richard Bright is a much heavier Al Neri; singer Al Martino appears as singer Johnny Fontane; Gabriele Torrei is Enzo the baker (the nervous fellow who tried to light his cigarette in the first Godfather); and Jeannie Linero as Lucy Mancini, Vincent’s mother. Directed by Coppola in high-flung fashion, with the peerless cinematography of Gordon Willis, production design by Dean Tavoularis, art direction by Alex Tavoularis, and musical direction by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father. It may surprise fans that this picture was mostly filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, also used by Martin Scorsese for his Gangs of New York. It’s not the masterpiece that everyone wanted or expected from Francis, but a worthy pretender nonetheless. Do yourself a favor and see it, if only to have your curiosity sated as to how this whole Godfather thing gets sorted out.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
It’s hard to fathom that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the screen. For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held notion (perpetuated by MGM boy wonder, Irving Thalberg) that “No Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” That boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, purchased the rights to Atlanta native Ms. Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut that went on to break all existing records. As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the book GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described as the American version of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace. The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent periods of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Mitchell concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara, a lively spitfire of a Southern belle who uses large dollops of charm, guile and willful behavior (along with a ruthless capacity for survival) to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara. But what relation does Scarlett have to Natasha Rostova, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye! It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personality of Natasha’s cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (the mirror image of a Melanie Hamilton), with that of Scarlett herself, then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre Bezukhov (standing in for poetic dreamer Ashley Wilkes), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene Kuragina (another side of Scarlett’s capricious nature) and her dashing lover Dolukhov, who safely incorporates multiple aspects of Rhett Butler. We may add another viable connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. These contrasts may one day serve as the thesis for a more extensive study along the same lines. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the literary merits and deficits of its script (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of the slavery issue, as well as its muddled political views, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest. Contrary to belief, wise-cracking Clark Gable (in the role of a lifetime) was not exactly a shoe-in for Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee names as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over his employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to MGM, the opportunity to star in Selznick’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would obtain Gable’s services in exchange for MGM getting the distribution rights. With literally a cast of thousands, some of the other key players involved were Leslie Howard as Ashley, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit participants, including stuntman Yakima Canutt. Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all attention rightly belongs to Vivien Leigh as Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging role. Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the same part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Alicia Rhett and Lucille Ball. In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. The score by Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. The instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett. If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (it’s all a matter of personal taste, in the final analysis), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.
The Graduate (1967)
“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” The first lines of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ film, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought. It seized upon the prevailing mood of the time, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the true essense of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era did. Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel — was the hands-down favorite. The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors: “I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Unable to face up to the challenge, Benjamin isolates himself in his room. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by a laid-back Murray Hamilton). Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings, all goes well with the affair; that is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly beautiful daughter, Elaine (angelic looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect. Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode at the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution. Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. Many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe. Still as fresh, funny and sharp as it was in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
What makes a film a classic? Better yet, what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that David Lean’s 1962 desert opus Lawrence of Arabia conveniently fits both bills. At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. Why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit, it’s got taste, it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. It also features an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and revelatory) performance of the first order. Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed the Oscar-nominated screenplay) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a real hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer. Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak (his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962), without giving away the game or giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure. In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature as well as his high tolerance for pain – the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by Jose Ferrer) is a good case in point. The plot, in brief, concerns misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” according to the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind,” comments Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using ragtag Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now call him. A legend of his own making (helped along by American reporter Jackson Bentley), Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become. In his international film debut, Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) is warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his “ally” in arms. Others in the all-male cast include Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby, Claude Rains as Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton, Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley (the Lowell Thomas doppelganger), and bushy browed Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray. The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another award winner. Director Lean keeps it all together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!”
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Fancy sword-play, dashing derring-do, damsels in distress, padres and peasants in revolt against their oppressors – all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too. These are just some of the doings in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the genre as few others from that period have. Handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree gentleman by day; and as Zorro, devil-may-care swordsman and masked good-guy avenger by night (from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in). Darnell is the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero. This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery, Sr.’s silent adventure flick is superior entertainment all around. Basil Rathbone takes over as bad-guy Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with Power (choreographed by fencing-master Fred Cravens). Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his wife Inez, Montagu Love as Don Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova as extras. Stylishly directed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Blood and Sand), the film reeks of class. It also boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end. The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis and the abusive Captain Esteban. Slowly but surely, Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of Fray Felipe, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords with daring night raids on their purse-strings – sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. In the meantime, he throws the suspicious captain off the scent by courting the highborn Lolita. Remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as Esteban, and Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents; and in 1998 as The Mask of Zorro, starring athletically inclined Antonio Banderas and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Don Diego. Power’s version is still the best by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 94 minutes what it took the other versions hours to do – but never quite made it. A winner in every way.
The Music Man (1962)
Where would high school musicals in this country be without this perennial (and thoroughly entertaining) slice of rural American life, the ever-popular theatrical showstopper The Music Man? An absolutely perfect, razzle-dazzle realization of Meredith Willson’s sprightly tribute to turn-of-the-century, small-town mores. Super salesman “Professor” Harold Hill (Gary Conservatory, Gold Medal Class of ‘05) comes to River City, Iowa, to fleece the local yokels out of their hard-earned cash, by duping them into signing their kids up for a proposed boys marching band. He attempts to deliver on his promise while simultaneously courting the town’s spinster librarian named Marian. It all turns out well in the end, though. Many lively and original musical numbers, along with delightful dance sequences, contributed by a well-blended cast, some from the original New York stage production. Stars Robert Preston, in one of his strongest roles, as the fast-talking con man Harold Hill, lovely Shirley Jones as the warbling Marian, young Ron Howard (then billed as Ronny) as her little lisping brother Winthrop, Pert Kelton (the original Alice Kramden on TV’s The Honeymooners) as the lady with the Irish brogue, Mrs. Paroo, along with Buddy Hackett as fellow flim-flammer Marcellus Washburn, blustering Paul Ford as the self-inflated Mayor Shinn, Hermione Gingold as his wife Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, and the phenomenal barber shop quartet known as The Buffalo Bills. Directed by Morton Da Costa, who oversaw the original Broadway outing. Beautifully captured in widescreen Technicolor glory, an absolute must for full enjoyment. Toe-tapping, trombone-thumping fun all the way. Don’t miss it!
For satire to be truly effective it must consist of the following elements: irony, wit, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, and a surefire sense of the absurd. In addition, it should be devilishly clever as well as funny, with the laughter sticking in one’s throat. Where Network is concerned not only are these elements present, but there’s also an air of urgency to the characters, along with the seemingly distraught situations that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital) and director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Fail-Safe) have placed them in. Much of the story revolves around aging television anchor Howard Beale (an exhaustively manic and over-the-top Peter Finch in his final screen appearance), who heads up the nightly newscast for fourth-rated TV network UBS. Howard is on his last legs, a man with precious little to live for. But instead of retiring gracefully from the scene he threatens to blow his brains out on the air, much to the consternation of news division heads, especially excitable corporate flunky Frank Hackett (a perfectly realized Robert Duvall). Despite the best efforts of fellow newsman Max Schumacher (played by veteran thespian William Holden, whose worn features betray more than a hint of sadness) to keep him in line and out of trouble, Howard escapes from Max’s apartment (in the pouring rain, no less) to make a beeline for the TV studio, where he delivers one of cinema’s most impressive lines: “I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ” His erratic behavior becomes a lifeline for Howard as well as a godsend for the network, thanks to an ambitious rising star in the news division named Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway at her sleaziest). She sees the eccentric anchor as her ticket to fame and fortune: the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, so she says – a combination of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes with our own Glenn Beck – a patently insane fellow who could give the struggling network the ratings boost it sorely needs. The question that was asked at the time of the movie’s premiere was: could TV networks be THAT ratings conscious (and that unscrupulous) as to program a show with the title The Mao Tse-tung Hour, about radical leftists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government? Or be seriously touting Sibyl the Soothsayer as a newscaster? You bet it could. Nowadays, this is what passes for “entertainment” (if you’re unconvinced, tune in to Long Island Medium or Fox News for further proof). And Network was the trailblazer in this respect, the most prescient and forward-looking film Hollywood has ever produced. Finch won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first ever awarded to a deceased star) as the “making-it-up-as-he-goes-along” Mr. Beale. Beatrice Straight won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her scene-stealing turn as Holden’s estranged spouse Louise. And Dunaway ran away with the Best Actress honors for her lead role as the scheming Diane. With Ned Beatty, brilliant as the evangelical head of the network, Mr. Jensen (“You…will…atone!!!”), Arthur Burghardt (an actual vegetarian) as the Great Ahmed Kahn, licking his chops over a bucket of fried chicken; and Wesley Addy, Bill Burrows, Conchata Farrell, and Kathy Cronkite as the slogan-spouting, Patty Hearst-lookalike Mary Ann Gifford, along with Ken Kercheval, Lance Henriksen, and a host of others. They’ll still be talking about this one when we’re old and gray, it’s that relevant. A shocker of an ending tidies things up nicely… well, sort of.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
No, not the Queen album, but just the Marx Brothers’ best attempt at integration of top-drawer comic and musical material into a feature-length film, the boys’ first for MGM’s Wunderkind, Irving Thalberg. A classic comedy of only the most outlandish proportions, its sideways pokes at snobbery, elitism, the establishment, and serious music-making remain timeless and fresh even today. Groucho plays society gatecrasher Otis B. Driftwood (don’t you just love those outlandish names of his?), with Chico and Harpo as pretty much variations of their usual meddling (and incompetent) selves. Verdi’s Il Trovatore gets a well-deserved drubbing (talk about a ridiculous plot!), thanks to the Brothers’ spurious efforts to champion the debut of their new tenor discovery Ricardo Baroni, played by the curly-headed Allan Jones. The romantic subplot between him and the fetching Kitty Carlisle, as soprano Rosa Castaldi, is just another ingredient in the general movie mayhem. They have excellent voices, by the way. Margaret Dumont returns as the rich dowager, Grande Dame and patroness of the opera Mrs. Claypool, whose girdle must be made of cast-iron, she’s so ramrod straight. The wonderfully phlegmatic Sig Rumann is the flustered opera impresario Mr. Gottlieb. And Walter Woolf King lends considerable (if under-appreciated) support as conceited male divo Rodolfo Lasspari. The enjoyable songs (“Cosi, Cosa,” “Alone”) are coupled with a riotous, nothing-sacred finale at the “New York” Opera Company, with some hilarious bits on board an ocean liner thrown in — “And two hard-boiled eggs” (HONK) “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” — that have passed into movie legend. Written by George S. Kaufman, among others, and directed by the Brothers’ favorite handler, Sam Wood. All the vital elements finally clicked for the boys. This was the first Marx Brothers’ movie sans younger brother Zeppo.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Kids may want to tune in, along with their parents, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 product of DreamWorks Pictures, the joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture. It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the voices of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, and Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Ofra Haza, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the parting of the Red Sea. Despite the clash of accents among the talented cast, the story is straightforwardly told, and this version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney Studios) is entertaining and gripping nonetheless. The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated eloquence reminiscent of the Mannerist style of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own. The rivalry between the young prince Moses and future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script is on the same high level as that feature. And there’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to, beautifully sung in the movie by Pfeiffer, and repeated in the end credits as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. This is highly recommended for all family members.
The Searchers (1956)
Which movie was John Ford’s greatest? Some may say The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley; others cite the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But for my money, it has got to be The Searchers (based on the book by Alan Le May), a grandiose statement of Shakespearean proportions in its use of language (sometimes stoic, sometimes descriptive), locale (Monument Valley), comic relief to dissipate tension (the loony bird Mose, the Jorgenson clan, the preacher-turned-Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton), and supremely memorable characterizations, the finest of which is John Wayne. He gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, big sister Natalie Wood as a teenager) from the arms of a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon). Failing to realize that he himself is scarred by his past — not just from battle but with the taint of racism and fear of miscegenation — Ethan lives out his bigotry in a search of his lost soul. It seems that he and Chief Scar are both motivated by feelings of revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on their loved ones. Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, in another indelible portrait), acts as his conscience and guide through this minefield of hate, a Jiminy Cricket trying to keep his uncle honest about his motives in their years-long search. There’s a poetic rhythm and unmistakable melancholy to their journey. Director Ford wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. We merely sense Ethan’s unspoken love for his brother Aaron’s wife, Martha, a lost amour from his youth. Their looks and gestures say it all. The opening number, “What Makes a Man to Wander” (sung by the Sons of the Pioneers) states the story’s theme right from the outset — it reappears at the end, serving the same function as a Greek chorus in summarizing prior events: “What makes a man to wander / What makes a man to roam / What makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home? / Ride away – ride away – ride away.” Although the score is credited to Max Steiner, the song was composed by Stan Jones, a sometime member of Ford’s stock company. But the focus remains on Wayne’s character. Ethan eventually brings Debbie back to civilization, but he cannot partake of the happy homecoming. He stands outside the doorway, forever apart, forever searching, as he walks slowly away. One of Wayne’s greatest accomplishments on screen is the depth to which he was able to plummet to get at Ethan’s brooding character, i.e., that of the rugged individualist wounded by society’s encroachment, who seeks redemption for his sins by doing that which most men refuse to do; to face hardships head-on, only to retreat into the background once their duty is done. Wayne dredged up the darkness that resided within his own psyche: he’s Lucifer after the fall, trying to regain a measure of his humanity; Odysseus after the wars, lost on the Western prairie, pining for home and hearth; and Captain Ahab, driven to madness by his desire to even the score with those who annihilated his kinfolk. The other cast members, all of them good, include Ward Bond, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, Harry Carry Jr., John Qualen, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Antonio Moreno, Pippa Scott, Dorothy Jordan, and Warren Coy. Wayne’s son Patrick makes a cameo appearance. Fess Parker was originally tapped for the role of Martin, but the Disney Studios refused since Parker was tied up with promotional duties as Davy Crockett, a part that Wayne later played in The Alamo. With outstanding location photography by Winton C. Hoch, and a concise screenplay by Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Fort Apache), The Searchers influenced scores of motion pictures, among them George Lucas’ Star Wars series and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
A Star is Born (1954)
In reading critic and author David Thomson’s book “The Big Screen,” I came upon a section devoted to movie musicals — specifically, the 1954 musical version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, produced by Sid Luft (Judy’s husband at the time), directed by George Cukor for Warner Bros., and written by Moss Hart. The 1937 version, produced by David Selznick, was conceived by Alan Campbell, Robert Carson Dorothy Parker, and William Wellman after Adela Rogers St. John’s story, “What Price Hollywood?” (1934), the film of which Cukor also directed. Thomson points out a connection I never noticed before: that the wistful music for both “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born and the song, “Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz (1939) were composed by the same man, Harold Arlen. A coincidence perhaps? Hmm… And both numbers in turn were performed by the same singer, Judy Garland, at opposite ends of her fame and fortune. If it can be said of any artist, it most assuredly exemplifies the work of the former Frances Ethel Gumm: that she wore her pain on her sleeve. In Judy’s world, it would be considered a badge of honor (or dishonor, depending on your point of view) to be shared with anyone and everyone you’d come in contact with. When we’re young and naïve, the mere thought of experiencing pain and hurt are anathema to our very being. It’s so traumatic a sensation that you’d want to flee the room, and the person, where pain is present. As we grow older and, we must admit, hopefully wiser, we long to be near it; to grasp it, hold it, stroke it, much as a moth is helplessly drawn to the flame. We know we may be burned by our proximity to the one whose pain and anguish erupts from every fiber of her soul. But that’s exactly how we should experience Judy Garland’s art at this, the pinnacle of her career. Her pain was our pain — and it’s inescapable. This film, made when she was only 32 (but looking years older), is Judy at her tortured peak, her “swan song” to her fans; an insider’s fisheye glimpse of a complicated life lived in full view of the paying public. By now, most viewers will be familiar with the plot of talented band singer Esther Blodgett (Judy), renamed Vicki Lester, whose career rises in direct proportion to her alcoholic actor-husband Norman Maine’s faltering one. To spare his wife from tumbling along with him, Norman (Mason) decides to end his life by drowning his troubles at sea. Both stars shine in this fabulous Technicolor widescreen CinemaScope spectacular, with Judy providing equal parts vulnerability and humor to overcome her many backstage issues (i.e., her dependency on drugs, her weight problems, and her illnesses, both real and perceived). Besides the aforementioned “The Man That Got Away,” which summarizes the story textually and contextually, there is the 18-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence to admire, choreographed by Richard Barstow to the music and words of Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. Other songs include Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me Go With You,” “Here’s What I’m Here For,” “It’s a New World,” “Someone at Last,” and “Lose That Long Face,” along with a medley of George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart tunes. The other cast members are Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Amanda Blake. Trimmed of approximately 37 minutes after its successful release, A Star is Born has been painstakingly reconstructed to 176 minutes (but not the test-cut time of 196 minutes or the premiere running time of 182 minutes) for the DVD/Blu-ray Disc editions, with scenes and numbers restored using photographs, pan and scan footage and snippets of outtakes, making it a not to be missed one-of-a-kind experience. Sadly, once you’ve seen the end product, you may never want to view it again. Considering what Judy went through in the final months of her life (epitomized in Peter Quilter’s theatrical play, “Judy Garland – The End of the Rainbow”) in eerie imitation of the film’s premise, there’s just too much pain attached. Indeed, she paid the ultimate price for Hollywood stardom. The film was remade again by Warner Bros. in 1977, this time as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
One of the earliest depictions of the story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt still available to modern movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, a former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, who even in the silent-film era was famous for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes. His first crack at the biblical genre was this 1923 silent epic version of The Ten Commandments, starring Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, and Charles de Roche as Pharaoh, produced by Paramount Studios and partially filmed in Guadalupe, Mexico. The moving Exodus episode and the handing down of the commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the rudimentary special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed impressive for the time. The second half of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who breaks God’s rules. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional, melodramatic clutch-and-stagger style, while silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them. Despite the soap opera trappings, the movie proved a big hit at the box office, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day. The first part is the more gripping portion, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You’ll want to fast-forward through the stagy second section, which tends to drag a bit and might prove too mature for young children.
Touch of Evil (1958)
By the time of its release, the film noir genre had just about played itself out, but leave it to that old filmmaker and former “boy wonder,” Orson Welles, to find new nuances in it. Looking like a perpetually bloated bullfrog, Welles brings a lifetime of indulgence and missed opportunities to his role of the fat, over-the-hill police chief Hank Quinlan, a poor man’s Harry Lime — and twice as dishonest and repulsive. The film features Charlton Heston as a swarthy Mexican (!) detective whose wife Welles frames for murder. Heston refused to play his part unless Welles, scheduled to co-star with the lantern-jawed hero, was allowed to direct. His decision turned this potential grade-B thriller into an art-house classic. As reward for his accepting the assignment, Welles hired (and surrounded himself with) such old cronies as Joseph Cotten, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Mercedes McCambridge, and Marlene Dietrich, who donned a gypsy outfit and black wig to play Quinlan’s ex-squeeze. Curvaceous Janet Leigh is Heston’s doting and doped-up wife. The reedited version (allegedly more faithful to Orson’s original vision) is minus some of the fine, Latin-based jazz score penned by Henry Mancini (a major loss), but the justly famous opening sequence is left mercifully intact, and is just as revelatory. The ending has Welles floundering about like a beached whale, while Dietrich tosses off some choice postmortems. A perfect vehicle for rabid noir fans, and a fascinating glimpse into what can be done on a shoestring (nay, poverty row) budget. The luminous black and white photography is admirably transcendent.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
B. Traven’s 1927 novel about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers film depiction. Written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for monetary assistance; and co-starring his actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, it’s an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight. Desperate for a quick buck, two down-and-outers, Fred Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “bad guy” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, a veteran of past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature. After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, however, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves. Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as Gold Hat (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.” For an action-adventure yarn, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Fred C. Dobbs. His descent into a fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart can do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances. Tim Holt is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence. Last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). One can’t fail to mention Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the cast are Barton MacLane, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel, Jose Torvay, Margarito Luna, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker. The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony, and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled.
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
A powerful look into the American criminal justice system and the mysterious ways of jury deliberation and manipulation, the much lauded Twelve Angry Men was director Sidney Lumet’s first foray into the world of first-run cinema. The story was based on writer and producer Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning teleplay of the same name, which he developed for the CBS anthology series Studio One. Rose, who created and wrote the successful TV series The Defenders (which also starred E.G. Marshall), had himself served on a trial jury; both the play and the subsequent movie version were taken from his personal experiences of that event. Although Lumet was a product of the off-Broadway theater circuit (he was a co-founder of the Actor’s Studio), he was also a pioneer of early television, having worked on a variety of network programs, among them You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and the ubiquitous Studio One. The tensions that pervade the 96-minute Twelve Angry Men derive principally from a critical plot element whereby twelve jurors are charged with deciding the fate of a disadvantaged product of an inner-city slum tenement. The defendant, a teenager of Hispanic descent, is alleged to have stabbed his father to death after a loud quarrel. The jurors involved in the case comprise a cross-section of familiar character “types,” each with their own viewpoint based on their individual backgrounds and biases: the bleeding-heart liberal (Henry Fonda), the coldly analytical broker (E.G. Marshall), the narrow-minded bigot (Ed Begley), the self-made businessman and troubled parent (Lee J. Cobb), the endlessly patient jury foreman (Martin Balsam), the mousy bank employee (John Fiedler), the streetwise ex-ghetto inhabitant (Jack Klugman), the chronically indecisive ad man (Robert Webber), the ethnic immigrant (George Voskovec), the common working stiff (Edward Binns), the apathetic sports nut (Jack Warden), and the wise old man (Joseph Sweeney). As they begin their deliberation, the lone holdout, known only as Juror #8 (Fonda), voices a reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt. Claiming the prosecution’s case is based primarily on circumstantial evidence, Juror #8 slowly and methodically builds a case of his own for the defendant’s innocence. The movie takes the juror’s theory and follows it to its startling conclusion. Despite a few lapses in logic, including a controversial move by Fonda involving the weapon used to commit the crime, the structure and (basically) one-room setting are unique to films. Along with Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959, another entertaining, highly adult, almost clinical dissection of a rape and murder case, Twelve Angry Men was deservedly honored in 2007 for inclusion into the National Film Registry. To this day, Lumet’s maiden achievement on film is used in law schools and criminal justice classes as a textbook example of what juries go through in arriving at a life or death decision. One must also mention the claustrophobic environment throughout, thanks mainly to Boris Kaufman’s black-and-white cinematography and the low camera angles. A five-star production hands down, this feature is as relevant today as it was back in 1957— maybe more so! Updated and remade in 1997, it starred Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Danza, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos, James Gandolfini, Armin Mueller-Stahl, William Petersen, and Mykelti Williamson. Part of the “fun” of this version, which is several notches below the excellence of the original, is seeing who got which roles in comparison to its predecessor. Try it and see! ◘
Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes