‘Alien’ Trilogy — The Stuff of Nightmares and Wet Dreams (Part One)

image alien faceThere comes a point in every monster movie — and we’ve been privy to a spate of them in recent years — where the monster shows itself to its intended victim. We cringe as the look of utter horror ripples across the victim’s face. In the next instant, the loathsome beast is about to pounce on our unsuspecting innocent. Yikes!

In Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien (1979), much of what we’ve come to expect from screen monsters has been turned (quite literally) from the inside out. From the moment this monster appears on the scene — and by now, viewers engrossed in the saga know precisely when that moment arrives — our surprise and revulsion are such that, considering the wild ride the movie ultimately takes us on, we can never be sure where or when that beast will turn up next.

As any horror/science-fiction fan will tell you, it’s those unexpected moments audiences crave for and find the most absorbing. The tension that’s been building never lets up: your heart races, your head spins, and the person sitting to your right knows their forearm is about to get bruised before the flick is over.

That’s how it’s been, ever since the original Alien made its feature “debut.” It’s a movie that’s been defying audience expectations for well over three decades. The other films that make up the so-called Alien Trilogy — James Cameron’s Aliens and David Fincher’s Alien3 (discounting the fourth vehicle in the franchise, Alien Resurrection, as beneath contempt and even further below the level of consideration) — have provided similar fodder, but in their own gut-wrenching style.

We’re talking about three individually tailored visions here, and from three different directors with their own distinctive approach — a concerto for sci-fi lovers, each one comprised of a single movement, with variations on a main theme that in almost every respect translates to survival of the fleetest.

Alien: First Movement (Adagio)

Alien logo and poster art

Alien logo and poster art

Rather loosely based on the hoary B-picture, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, with action sequences borrowed from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus such classics of the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars (its immediate predecessor at Twentieth Century-Fox), The Exorcist, and, most logically, The Thing from Another World, this space opera-cum-creep show combines chest-bursting excitement with solid shock-value for the buck, albeit in slow, agonizing doses.

In addition to the obvious horror elements there is plenty of artistry to admire, with a good deal of the credit going to two-time director Scott for his fine sense of the subtle: few filmmakers of his stature (at that point in their careers, at any rate) have used silence to such a nerve-wracking degree. When the thrills do come, they literally jump out at you, thanks to a photogenic feline named Jonesy.

To let readers in on a poorly kept secret, Alien is much more than your average monster-on-the-loose epic. Indeed, with its gleaming slickness, oozing drool, and acid for blood, the Alien takes on undeniably sexual overtones. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s horrific phallic symbol is so grotesque and so disgusting, it’s actually quite beautiful.

Penetration (yes, in all its myriad forms) is taken to the ultimate extreme — but that’s the whole “point” of the picture! It’s what our not-so-friendly neighborhood Alien represents, the creature’s menacing presence standing in for warrant officer Ripley and the doomed crew’s scariest and most nightmarish wet dream. Quite fittingly, it soon becomes the audience’s wet dream as well.

Fear of the enigmatic other, specifically of the one committing the violation, and its intrusion upon our person (call it “intergalactic rape”) epitomizes the unnatural force behind this thriller set in the outer reaches of space — a contradiction in terms when applied to the confined spaces of the cargo transport Nostromo, or the tighter quarters of the shuttlecraft Narcissus.

Like everything else in this dark, moody work, the violations occur in unique, often bizarre fashion: at times, they’re overt; at others, merely hinted at. But no matter how they occur, they’re committed by the Alien (along with a few others) in constantly shifting forms and in ever-more-ghastly situations.

Likewise, each form the Alien takes on comes with its own set of problems, which the ill-prepared and inadequately-equipped crew members slowly come to appreciate. Their collective battle will bring to fruition the movie’s advertising tag line:

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGH!

Adventure Time

The commercial starship Nostromo

The commercial cargo transport Nostromo

The crew’s “adventure,” such as it is, begins shortly after awakening from deep-space hibernation to find Nostromo completely off course. Light years from its destination (i.e., Earth) and hauling a huge and “terribly expensive” payload, the cargo transport intercepts an alien distress signal, resulting in its setting down on a stormy, uncharted planetoid. Their plan is to fulfill what the crew members perceive to be a rescue mission. In truth, they will be the ones in need of rescue!

All told, there are seven crew members, everyday working stiffs very much like ourselves. Indeed, our complete identification with these characters — “truckers in space” as Scott once referred to them, who undergo a traumatic readjustment of their priorities — lends credence to this stark tale of space travelers stranded in a hostile environment competing to overcome it.

What we have, then, is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight phenomenon, pitting an all-too human task force — first Kane (John Hurt) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), then Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), followed by Ash (Ian Holm), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in that order — against an amorphous and ostensibly invincible adversary embodied by the Alien (six-foot, ten-inch Nigerian design student Bolaji Badejo).

Once on the surface of the planetoid, three of Nostromo’s crew (Dallas, Kane, and Lambert) are dispatched to check out the alien spacecraft from whence the distress signal originated. Dwarfed by the gigantic vessel, they scramble about precariously in an attempt to gain a foothold alongside the outer hull. Finally, they are able to enter through vagina-like apertures. (Note: This is the first of several violations, as previously indicated). Their smallish size, in contrast to the enormity of the craft, gives the crew members the semblance of invading sperm cells, unintentionally “impregnating” the vessel’s interior with their seed.

Alien space jockey

Alien space jockey dwarfs the humans at left

No sooner has their investigation begun when it becomes all-too apparent they have stumbled onto something out of the ordinary: a once living and breathing entity, now hollowed out and wholly abandoned. Groping their way in the darkness (as if gingerly stepping in a dream), they come across the massive, fossilized remains of one of the ship’s former occupants, a gigantic alien life form still strapped to its navigator’s chair. The creature’s ribcage has exploded, but from the inside — an ill-fated omen of things to come.

Not only does the ship contain a skeletal inner structure — scenes of the interior reveal a grotesquely shaped backbone or spinal column of some kind — but there are other clues scattered about that indicate something terrifying must have happened to these beings. (The mystery of the alien vessel and its inhabitants was explored — rather unsuccessfully, in our opinion — in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from 2012.)

To get at the source of the signal, Kane is lowered into an inner chamber. At the same time, Ripley, the senior officer in charge, informs Nostromo’s secretive science officer Ash that their computer (whose name happens to be Mother) has analyzed the alien transmission: it’s not a distress signal at all, Ripley advises, but a warning. Of what, is still unknown.

The Better to Hug You With, My Dear

The Face-hugger

The Alien face-hugger on Kane’s kisser

Shifting back to the alien craft, Kane has managed to slip through a laser-like force field that blankets the egg chamber — an intriguing, blue-beamed hymen of sorts that alerts the sleeping eggs an intruder is present. Could this be what the distress signal was warning them about? Perhaps, but the damage has already been done. Kane’s involuntary act, i.e., his accidental penetration of the chamber’s “womb,” starts a chain reaction of events that will bring about his downfall and, it should be noted, that of Nostromo’s crew.

In the past four or five years, I’ve seen this picture at least a dozen or more times. That’s an average of two or three viewings per year. Part of the fun of watching Alien on DVD or Blu-ray is the pleasure I get out of discovering new and hitherto unperceived actions I never had the chance to appreciate before now. One can linger over the smallest details, and on every facet of the production — a freeze-frame here, a line of dialogue there — that, in a cursory screening, would be completely lost on the first go-around.

Take, for example, the sequence in which Kane’s curiosity about the egg chamber gets the better of him. The object that shoots out after one of the eggs splits open and attaches itself to his face resembles a sliced fillet of sole blended with horseshoe crab innards. Its tail tightens around Kane’s neck, while it keeps him alive via an organic breathing tube inserted inside his throat (one more example of penetration).

Ugh! You can’t help clutching your own throat as you witness this highly impressionable scene. That disgusting “face-hugger,” as it’s known to film buffs, reminds us of a large and extremely gaunt, almost skeletal claw grasping at someone’s features. When it does finally detach itself, the crab-like creature expires but its reflexive grasping mechanism is still active. God help the person who comes near that thing!

The same grasping mechanism is alluded to again, but under a different set of circumstances. In the bizarre scene where Ash freaks out and tries to shove a girlie magazine into Ripley’s mouth (still another act of violation), he’s accosted by Parker. Ash reacts to his attack by placing his hand over Parker’s chest (where his heart would be) and squeezing it tightly (is this what they call “copping a feel?”). That reflexive action, whereby Parker is clutched by Ash’s vice-like grip, mirrors the face-hugger’s grasping mechanism to a “T.”

Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)

The “heart” of the matter: Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)

I never noticed it before, but Ash, who’s obviously gone haywire, was instinctively mimicking the Alien’s face-hugger stage that, only minutes later (with cyborg head neatly detached from his torso), he would be praising: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” And further: “I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality …” No wonder Ash admires it: he’s just described himself!

Remorseless, unconscionable, and patently amoral, the Alien’s only thoughts are for the preservation of its kind. It’s reasonable to assume that of all the crew members Ash is the only one who does not meet his end in the Alien’s double-jaws of death. How ironic, then, that Ash’s own demise by decapitation (he’s a robot, so we may presume that he lacks a functioning male organ) is a form of emasculation of the sole crew member incapable of reproducing himself.

In the above instance, Ash poses no direct threat to the Alien, which is why the faceless corporation (Weyland-Yutani, or just plain the “Company”) has instructed the science officer to “Bring back alien life form. All other priorities rescinded. Crew expendable.” Hmm …

Another observation: moments after Ash forces the magazine down Ripley’s gullet, Parker disrupts the proceedings by whacking him hard on the shoulders. This sends the science officer spinning about the room and spewing forth a liquid that, to the average viewer, resembles a milky-white substance we might equate to ejaculate. Parker then delivers the coup de grâce to Ash’s head which subsequently severs his noggin from the rest of his body. Youch!

This unfortunate episode illustrates just how deranged the cyborg has become, and how like a praying mantis (or the HAL-9000 computer?) Ash’s natural predatory instincts have taken over his sick mind. At the first sign of a breakdown, he bounces Ripley about the spaceship’s corridor as if she were a stray beach ball. His eyes begin to twitch and a bead of white sweat runs down his brow. This is followed by the business with the girlie magazine.

Ash's severed head

Detached from reality: Ash’s severed head

Since Ash is basically a neutral being (neither male nor female, one would gather), this incident is as close as he’ll ever come to experiencing sexual pleasure from a human. It’s also among the last things Ash does before the plug is finally pulled on his circuits.

Gender Bending

The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)

The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)

Needless to say, the traditional roles of men and women are, to put it bluntly, indelibly reversed and reassigned in Alien. For instance, that notorious chest-bursting scene is one that not only gives women the willies, but us men, too. And with good reason: it’s a birthing scene, plain and simple, with copious amounts of blood splattering about, and all the yelling and screaming and carrying-on generally associated with live delivery.

Just to be clear, Kane is carrying an Alien fetus to term — that is to say, one that grows at a tremendously accelerated rate. And to make the comparison even more odious, after Brett is seized and killed by the Alien, and Parker blubbers on in a state of shock re: his late partner’s ordeal, he voices serious concerns about finding and destroying the creature: “This son of a bitch is huge! I mean, it’s like a man; it’s … it’s big!”

And what is Ash’s response? “Kane’s son.” Oh, yeah …

The last sequence is the most “revealing,” in more ways than one, of the entire Alien series. Believing she is finally free of the vicious intruder, Ripley, the “last survivor of the commercial starship Nostromo,” prepares herself for deep-space hibernation. She starts to undress and winds up stripped down to her undies and a teasingly petite T-shirt. This is woman at her most vulnerable state.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in panties

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in petite panties

Throughout the course of the film, Ripley is seen as the most competent, the most level-headed, and fiercely determined member of the crew — the word “macho” readily comes to mind. She takes over the normally (for 1979) male leadership role on Nostromo, and resumes the methodical search for the Alien, after Captain Dallas disappears within the airshaft. (In a deleted scene, Ripley finds Dallas in one of the corridors. Barely alive, he is being used by the Alien as sustenance.)

Taking off her “dog tag,” Ripley flips on, or off, a series of switches. She then does an about-face, bending down slightly as she continues her task, thus giving the movie audience a sneak peek at her rump. This is director Scott’s little in-joke, telegraphing to viewers that the film is about to “end” (get it?). It’s also a clever way to throw us off the track by diverting attention away from the slate-gray row of tubes and pumps that line the shuttlecraft wall where Ripley is standing.

The reason for that diversion becomes clear: it’s where the Alien is hiding. He announces his presence by flicking out a hideous six-fingered hand, which makes both the startled audience and Ripley jump about twelve feet in the air. Ripley runs for cover, to the safety of Narcissus’ locker at back where she finds a handy pressure suit and helmet.

Ripley then slowly steps into one of the suits, all the while keeping a cautious eye on the fearsome beast, whose huge, metallic-colored head and tube-like appendages gleam in the shadows. We do not need to linger over the particulars, since most fans of the film know how the story ends: Ripley manages to flush the Alien out of the shadows and open the shuttlecraft’s door; this action is followed by her firing a spear-gun into it, which knocks the Alien out of the craft. Undeterred, the wily creature tries to latch onto the shuttlecraft’s engine, but Ripley turns on the juice in time to fry it into oblivion.

Ripley manages to harpoon the Alien

Ripley manages to dispose of the Alien

One need not be a disciple of Freud (or even a Jungian acolyte) to discern the symbolic nature of the individual elements that make up the above sequence of events. In not so many words, it’s payback time! So let’s quickly go over them, one by one: Ripley’s stripping away of her garments indicates a casting off of her soiled past to face a clean and wholesome future; her fear of impregnation by the Alien leads Ripley to flee to the safety of the locker; her seeking of shelter there represents a ritual return to the womb; her wearing of a pressure suit inside the locker suggests she’s surrounding herself with a layer of protection akin to amniotic fluid; her shooting of the Alien with a spear-shaped weapon is her way of completing the act of penetration — you might say it’s her tit-for-tat moment (“You did that to them, so I’m going to do it to you!”); etc., etc., and so forth.

At the time, Ripley’s fight for survival against an unconquerable foe, her mano a mano battle to the finish, proved once and for all that women — even one as tall and elegant and efficient as warrant officer Ripley — could be just as successful at depicting the action hero as any man could. Sigourney Weaver, who played Ripley, was so identified with the role that she continued to portray the character in the next three installments of the franchise. And her director on Alien, Ridley Scott, went on to film the critically acclaimed Thelma and Louise (1991), with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Callie Khouri that’s been described as a veritable treatise on feminism.

Origin of Species

On an unrelated matter, Roger Ebert, the popular movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, used to throw a fit every time he was forced to debate the efficacy of the Alien’s morphology. His pet theory was that whenever the Alien opened its jaws, it would reveal a second set of jaws; and that second set of jaws would, in turn, open up to reveal … yet another set of jaws! And so on, all the way down to a miniscule pair of tiny little tweezers at the end — much like what happens with those Russian nesting dolls, but with plenty of drool and razor-sharp teeth.

Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo

Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo

It seemed trivial at the time to have made this observation. And, surely, if memory serves me, Ebert must have been the only critic around to have brought the matter up. Still, he had a point to make: if you’re going to show a creature with a twofold set of mandibles, there should be a perfectly logical explanation in nature for their existence. Roger’s reasoning was this: why would a creature such as the Alien, who supposedly clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary food chain, even need another set of choppers in the first place? As Ash inquired of Ripley, “What’s the point?”

As for me, I was more concerned with how an extraterrestrial of the Alien’s shape, size, and strength was never once shown chowing down a meal, or even taking a drink to quench that monstrous thirst of his. One gets awfully dehydrated in outer space, you know! It could be that his extra pair of jaws got in the way every time the Alien tried to get near a water cooler. Whatever!

Not to make light of this argument, but if the Alien really had molecular acid for blood, as Captain Dallas theorized early on about the face-hugger, then how could the creature prevent its veins and arteries, not to mention all those internal organs, from dissolving through its own bone and tissue? Now that’s a subject I’d like to hear more about. Hopefully, it will be tackled in the next iteration of director commentaries. For now, we’re left with good ole Roger.

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

When the Legend Becomes Fact — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Two): Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and the Lone Gunman Theory

Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK

Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK

“Let There Be Light” – And Let Us Be Illuminated By It

Continuing with my rumination on a course I once developed concerning Hollywood and the Historical Film, exactly how much history and how much fiction does one include in such an undertaking? On the flip side of the issue, is there anything we may wish to exclude?

Questions of this nature pose a perplexing problem for the instructor, in that the focus of the course is placed exclusively on the limitations and uses of available sources. And a lot is riding on those same sources!

For example, one can turn to the Bible, a primary source for many people’s moral and ethical guidance, and ask the obvious question: “Is the Bible history, and can it be used to teach history?” First and foremost, such a query must take into account matters of fact, faith and fiction, in addition to myths, legends and the all-important religious interpretation of events.

This is a delicate subject to broach with students because it goes to the very core of their belief system and upbringing. Inside an academic setting, it’s a perfectly valid form of inquiry and well within the reasonable. But outside academia’s hallowed halls, one must tread lightly so as not to offend those same beliefs. Therefore, let us proceed with caution.

To begin our analysis, what should one make of the frequent parables present throughout the Biblical narrative? For one thing, we can say that parables, as told by various individuals — Christ primarily — in both the Old and New Testament, serve the purpose of putting a potentially difficult topic or principle into simple, everyday terms. This was done so that the average layperson might understand and absorb their lessons.

Are there ways we can tell how much of what is being conveyed via parables is truth, exaggeration, verbal embellishment or other such extravagance? If by that question one is referring to “fact checking,” that would be a physical impossibility, considering that, for one, we still have the aforementioned distance problem to deal with, as well as the time factor involved in retracing the steps of who said what, where and when so many eons ago.

What about the problem of errors, mistakes or liberties taken with the known (or generally acknowledged) facts? Do the facts found in the Bible, such as they are, coincide with or run counter to the veracity of events as described elsewhere in the historical record? This is the crux of the problem. For if the historical record — those so-called “known facts” — are found not to coincide with the Biblical explanation of events, do we then discard the historical record, or do we drop the Biblical sources as unreliable?

Here’s another interesting case in point, drawn from the Gospels: we know from history that the Roman governor of Judea — the province where the historical Jesus both lived and died — ruled with an iron hand. The reason for this attitude was both practical and plain: to put down rebellion at the first sign of trouble.

How, then, do we explain Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to swiftly carry out that part of Roman justice demanded of his office, i.e., to execute a potential “rabble rouser” such as Jesus, swiftly and at the first sign of trouble? Wouldn’t we expect Pilate to act as any Roman governor would and take matters into his hands, or would his behavior depart from the norm simply because of his proximity to Christ?

Depending on who you ask, the Biblical narrative would “seem” to indicate the latter, which somewhat contradicts what scholars, historians and other learned individuals know of the historical Roman governor’s role in Christ’s Crucifixion, or for that matter any crucifixion.

This takes us to the next topic up for discussion: is history truth? Or, to put it another way, is there such thing as historical truth? If there is, how does it compare to, say, Biblical truth? You will notice the paraphrasing of Pilate’s own rhetorical query, “What is truth?”

We have seen that history can be subjective — that is, one’s view of a subject is always taken from the person viewing it (thus referring back to the old issue of history as being written by the victors), what tends to be called the “subjective vantage point.” Can this view encompass other vantage points — in other words, a more objective one, whereby a topic, matter or person is interpreted in a less opinionated fashion, thereby refraining from pontificating on its substance? Of course it can! But it’s not that easy, is it?

Again, we come to what I describe as the “invariable variable,” also known as the distance problem rearing its ugly head. By that I mean to ask: are we so far removed from the Biblical (or prehistorical) context of past events as to be irretrievably separated from them?

The answer to that is: it all depends. Different events in the past can have any number of differing, even multiple, interpretations or meanings, whether or not they are viewed from a subjective or objective angle.

The Kennedy Case

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Let’s take one such event from the recent past and examine it from both the subjective and objective vantage points, certainly one of the most photographed and investigated murder cases of our time, i.e., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, as interpreted by filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone in the movie JFK (1991).

Stone’s film charts a familiar course set forth 15 years earlier by director Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation of the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon (a subject Mr. Stone tackled separately).

In Pakula’s picture, there are two crusading reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who write for the Washington Post, headed by Chief Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). In Stone’s reworking of Kennedy’s untimely death and the ensuing investigation of same, Kevin Costner plays crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, as portrayed by Costner, is as far from the real-life fanatical, self-righteous, wrong-headed prosecutor as New York is from Los Angeles.

JFK follows Garrison as he leads his team of investigators on a wild goose chase over unsupported terrain: there are charges and counter-charges, dirty dealings and underhanded activities, clandestine meetings, supposed conspiracy theories, angry Cubans, ex-military types, contrived or fabricated evidence, numerous blind alleys, red herrings, dead or disappearing witnesses, and whatever else the D. A.’s illogical mind conjures up.

Now let us juxtapose Stone’s operatically conceived opus with an actual piece of research material: the 1989 documentary Who Shot President Kennedy? Written, directed and produced by Robert Richter, and narrated by anchorman and reporter Walter Cronkite, the level of investigative journalism demonstrated in this 57-minute feature, which takes into account every known facet of the assassination — from footage of the Dallas physicians who tried to save Kennedy’s life and computerized 3-D images of Dealey Plaza, to a frame by frame analysis of the Abraham Zapruder footage and leading critics of the Warren Commission’s findings — puts to shame many of JFK’s most far-fetched conclusions.

To begin with, what did the city of New Orleans have to do with Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas? Quite a lot, as the film would have us believe. In the first place, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, in an uncanny personification), the so-called Lone Gunman (a designation made years after the fact), was born there; and in the second, Garrison’s bogus criminal case was aimed squarely at a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (a fey Tommy Lee Jones) and his sometime partner, cross-dresser David Ferrie (a peculiarly manic and foul-mouthed Joe Pesci), scapegoats both.

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

The result is Rashomon run amok. In the end, one has no idea who to believe or how to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys (there are no black hats here, only varying shades of gray). In reality, Garrison tried his best to sway an incredulous court to convict Clay Shaw on flimsy if unsubstantiated evidence. If the film had stayed in the Big Easy, it might ultimately have made more sense. As it turned out, though, Stone had his fictional Garrison go in every direction at once, all the while trying his best to keep up appearances as the dedicated D.A. and devoted family man and husband.

What were those directions? Among the various corners turned, the director had his cast and crew look at the case against Oswald in much the same manner as the above-mentioned documentary, which included the single bullet theory (the timing problem, the angle of trajectory, the type of weapon fired, and other incongruous issues), the possibility of a Grassy Knoll assassin (or lack thereof), the photographic and acoustic evidence from Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s alleged ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, likewise his FBI and CIA connections, the president’s body, the supposed botched autopsy (or “altered wounds” theory), and so on. Whew, that’s a whole lot of fat to chew on for three hours of movie time!

As we know from past experience, the longer a specific case is investigated, the more it will reveal about itself. In this instance, however, the more the JFK assassination is probed and poked at, the more speculative it gets and the more speculation surrounds it, which only leads to more unanswered questions and crackpot “theories” — some of which belong to the realm of fantasy and the bizarre, not to mention the harebrained.

Still, does the fact that the most investigated and photographed case in modern history make the resultant inquiry any less meaningful, or the findings any easier to accept? We know there were many problems with the Warren Commission’s Report, but after watching JFK one is forced to admit that Oliver Stone’s version of events is not without glitches of its own. Bravura film-making, which the director’s motion picture undeniably encompasses, does not a true picture make!

Additional problems are presented or addressed, along with newer and ever bolder hypotheses about who killed Kennedy, to include blatant, out-and-out inventions. One gets the feeling that Stone is constantly lurching for a definitive answer, which remains stubbornly out of his reach. The question at this point becomes: has Stone taken undue liberties with the facts? Can he beg our indulgence over their use by employing the oft-quoted “poetic license” excuse?

Oliver Stone conferring with Costner

Oliver Stone conferring with Kevin Costner

We may even put forth a few theories of our own, such as: doesn’t a film’s director have a responsibility — moral, ethical or otherwise — to present the facts as they are? The “truth,” if it indeed exists, is out there (at least, according to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder), so why can’t he see it?

Do directors, by their very nature, have their own agendas to pursue, arrived at before filming even begins? By their action, does it soil whatever believability has been attained, only to be buried under layer upon layer of unproven allegations? 

Are they not attempting to fit pieces of gathered evidence, conveniently labeled “the facts,” into a previously developed, predetermined script? And isn’t this another form of manipulation of past events, a parable to end all parables, the cinematic Gospel according to Stone?

All of the above certainly merits our attention, which may warrant further inquiry at a later time.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Two): ‘I Love the 80s!’

Brotherhood of Man

Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in Cry Freedom (skymovies.com)

Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in ‘Cry Freedom’ (skymovies.com)

During breaks from St. Elsewhere, which was on its last legs anyway as a cutting-edge television series, Denzel Washington participated in a wide range of film projects that took him to unusual and unexplored territory — unusual for him and unexplored for his growing litany of fans.

The first of these, Cry Freedom (1987), featured the actor in the supporting role of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. A contemporary of the late Nelson Mandela and a leading founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in that racially divided state, Biko died in a Pretoria prison on September 12, 1977, after a series of brutal police interrogations.

Most individuals will recognize the name “Biko” as the title and subject of a 1980 protest song by British art rocker Peter Gabriel. The worldwide outcry that resulted from Biko’s violent death — and which Mr. Gabriel’s song openly alluded to — made the activist a martyr to the cause of black resistance against the regime’s oppressive practices. Unfortunately, Biko did not live to see the liberation of his country from the restrictions placed on its citizens’ lives that Nelson Mandela would later bring about with his release from long-term confinement and eventual elevation to the presidency.

Shot on location in Zimbabwe and directed by former actor Richard Attenborough, whose previous work along so-called “epic” lines included such pictures as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Gandhi (1982,) and a biopic based on the life of silent-screen star Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin, 1992), Cry Freedom garnered universal praise for its earnestness of execution and faithful recreation of the period in question.

However, it and other Attenborough efforts drew heavy criticism, too, for their low-voltage dramatics and overly respectful treatment of their subjects. One could say that Attenborough took the phrase “stiff upper lip” a tad too literally.

Still, despite these seeming shortcomings the director received a fiercely committed performance from Denzel, who earned the first of several Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, while sharing a wonderful working rapport with his co-star, the Juilliard School of Drama-trained Kevin Kline as Daily Dispatch reporter Donald Woods, whose posthumous books about Stephen Biko formed the basis for the screenplay.

Coincidentally or not, Cry Freedom also shared similar story elements with another British production from three years’ prior, that of Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), a movie about the Khmer Rouge massacres in the war-torn region of Cambodia. In that harrowing flick, real-life Killing Fields survivor Haing S. Ngor played journalist and interpreter Dith Pran, whose friendship with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston) echoed the close bond reflected in Washington and Kline’s onscreen relationship: that is, of two men of different races and backgrounds joining hands across the divide for a common (and worthwhile) purpose.

The final result, though, received a mixed reception from the press, most of who felt Cry Freedom concentrated too much on Woods and not enough on Biko — a fair assessment given the amount of screen time Kline received over Denzel, but one that did not take into account the narrative arc of the story. To silence the would-be “wags,” as it were, Biko does appear in flashback after his death (albeit, intermittently). Interestingly, the most moving episode occurs when Woods and Biko’s widow, Wendy (movingly played by Penelope Wilton), are left to gaze upon and mourn his mangled corpse.

For Denzel Washington, his quiet, dignified take on a contemporary figure of stature from recent history would without a doubt prepare him for the role of a lifetime, that of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biographical picture of the same name.

Hail Britannia – Or Not!

Denzel as Reuben, For Queen and Country (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)

Denzel as Reuben in ‘For Queen and Country’ (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)

That dream assignment was still a few years off, though. In compensation for the wait, Denzel would prowl the nighttime streets in two back-to-back police/action dramas — one good and one bad. Starting things off on the wrong foot, let’s take the bad one first: For Queen and Country (1989), a crime thriller filmed in England that takes place during the Margaret Thatcher-era of low expectations and high unemployment.

Washington plays Reuben, an ex-soldier born in the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, a former British colony. “He’s a guy who fought for Britain in the Falklands,” Denzel told the Los Angeles Times, “and finds it frustrating when he tries to re-adapt to life at home.” Sounds like a winner for Mr. Washington, right? Wrong! About 60 percent of the picture was financed with American capital, or around $3.5 million. However, it made back a much lower amount than that figure would suggest: box-office numbers from that period show For Queen and Country barely reaching $200,000 in receipts, a dismal showing at best.

The reasons for the film’s failure lay strictly with the formulaic script. It starts off well, with a cool-as-cool-can-be Denzel searching for work in a drastically altered West London landscape — altered, one should add, via a government law that stripped him and other nationals of their rights as British citizens. Encountering blatant racism and an enormous lack of opportunity (the film is front-loaded with anti-Thatcher rhetoric), the out-of-work Reuben reluctantly turns to the drug trade for survival as well as to help a friend in distress.

Our “what the f- – -k?” quotient rises exponentially from here on, as the picture founders under the weight of a standard police-crime procedural topped by a contrived ending. A major wrong turn for our hero Denzel, in its halfhearted attempts to pump him up to action-movie-star status, For Queen and Country veered from a likeable character study to a pale imitation of either an unfunny Eddie Murphy cop caper (of which there are legion!) or a poor man’s Lethal Weapon (without the presence of Mel Gibson for laughs).

Time to Pah-tay, Pah-tay, Pah-tay!

Denzel as Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee in The Mighty Quinn (roberebert.com)

Denzel Washington as Chief Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee pair off in ‘The Mighty Quinn’ (roberebert.com)

A livelier and far more pleasurable outing — in ways that will become apparent to audiences later on, it points the way toward many of the actor’s future endeavors — The Mighty Quinn, Denzel’s next “shot on location” extravaganza, ushered in the year 1989 in true party-hearty fashion.

Picking up on a thread first hinted at in For Queen and Country, The Mighty Quinn takes place on a fictional Caribbean Island called St. Caro (unmentioned in the film, by the way, but spelled out in the book on which it was based). The real island paradise of Jamaica, however, stood in for the dirty dealings, shady situations, and suspicious goings-on that exist in sleepy old St. Caro — none of which disguise the lilting Jamaican accents, gorgeous tropical vistas, and equally beauteous babes that populate the town and parade by Xavier Quinn, the island’s chief of police, charmingly taken by Denzel.

There are more plot twists and memorably implausible moments in this feature than your average Warner Bros. thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age — think the convoluted elements of The Maltese Falcon crossed with To Have and Have Not, and you have a reasonably good facsimile of what Chief Quinn and you, the viewer, have to put up with.

Music does charm these savage beasts, however, with the constantly recurring sounds of Jamaican rhythms never too far in the background, embodied by a guest cameo of Rita Marley, the iconic Bob Marley’s widow, adding a note of authenticity to the nightclub scenes. It’s here that Chief Quinn shows off hitherto untapped pianistic abilities (Denzel claims to have tinkled the ivories while still in high school). He’s also got a pretty decent blues voice, which gets interrupted when a makeshift band strikes up a reggae-rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” an affectionate yet humorous jab at their bemused police chief.

Denzel’s handsomely impressive early visage at a wedding is striking, to say the least: wearing reflective Ray-Bans to ward off the effects of the late afternoon sun, he’s oh-so-dapper in his dress-white constable’s uniform with matching pith helmet. Right away, the chief exerts the force of his authority (and demonstrates FBI-trained fighting skills) with his thwarting of a potential stabbing of the bridegroom by an uninvited wedding guest.

But the big payoff occurs when he finally confronts his childhood playmate, Maubee, languidly enacted and impishly played by a perpetually toothy Robert Townsend. It seems that his buddy Maubee is the sought-after perpetrator of a horrific murder. The victim? The wealthy owner of a luxury hotel in Quinn’s district. This results in a veritable cat-and-mouse game between Quinn and Maubee, in addition to various unsavory individuals they encounter along the way.

Bobbing and weaving — now you see him, now you don’t — Maubee is harder to pin down than a Jamaican bobsled team. Quinn maintains a healthy skepticism throughout, since he can’t believe his no-account friend would involve himself in such a despicable crime.

Denzel and Townsend bounce off one another’s quirks and star-power personalities beautifully in a deliberate, low-key manner that makes the characters’ onscreen association as witty and endearing as any in recent filmdom. And that’s saying a lot for Townsend! A lesser actor would have chewed up the scenery long before the finale, but not him. To what do we owe this credible relationship? Mostly to Denzel’s generosity and professionalism in allowing his acting partner, Mr. Townsend, enough leeway to create a believable counterpoint to Washington’s unconvinced Chief Quinn.

Surely, both Quinn and Maubee’s Caribbean-flavored accents are more authentic in this picture than Denzel’s was in the earlier For Queen and Country. Maybe this film needed to be retitled For Quinn and Country, but that’s a choice the late Swiss-born director Carl Schenkel needed to have considered.

As far as Mr. Washington’s subsequent screen career went, here’s a quote from the late Roger Ebert’s review at the time of The Mighty Quinn’s release: “The film stars Denzel Washington in one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight. In an effortless way … he is able to be tough and gentle at the same time, able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to add my own two cents and declare the entire film to be in this vein: one can’t take it too seriously as a crime drama or too lightly as a musical-dramedy either. It’s both, it’s neither! It’s here, it’s there; it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that — much like its title character, the mighty Quinn, and its second lead, Maubee. They’re amiable and frisky, sexy and scheming when they want to be, yet clever and loyal to each other when the truth eventually comes to light about the murder. Not to give anything away, but in the end when Maubee goes down, Chief Quinn winds up on top … big time. Tanks, mon!

(End of Part Two – To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I See Dead People’ — Whatever Happened to M. Night Shyalaman’s Film Talent?

From Film School to Film Magic

M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)

Indian-born director and screenwriter Manoj Shyamalan, known in the film trade as M. Night Shyamalan, first burst upon the scene a little more than twenty years ago. He grew up in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. In fact, many of his best films take place in or around his hometown of “Philly.”

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Shyamalan was taken with the film medium from an early age. Much like his hero Steven Spielberg (and another young talent, director J.J. Abrams), Shyamalan was a huge fan of Super-8 filmmaking, with literally dozens of home movies to his credit. He went on to direct two early full-length features: a student film, Praying with Anger (1992), which his family helped to finance, and Wide Awake (1995), released three years later.

Shyamalan wrote or co-wrote various Hollywood screenplays, some of which were turned into actual movies. However, in 1999 he hit pay dirt with the stunning worldwide success of The Sixth Sense. Two consecutive first-run features later (Unbreakable in 2000, and Signs in 2001), Shyamalan came up dry with the risible The Village from 2004.

His next flick, Lady in the Water (2006), was even more disappointing, and his worst-performing film excursion yet. He recovered, somewhat, with the release of The Happening, one of those apocalyptic “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” exercises that were all the rage after the 2008 financial crisis. Although it encapsulated some of the director’s pet themes (i.e., of people coming together in a crisis, even though their personal problems get in the way of overcoming their present difficulties), The Happening happened to sink of its own weight.

A critical bomb but a financial blessing, Shyamalan’s subsequent 2010 production of The Last Airbender (in mind-bending 3D), based on the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Nickelodeon network, proved he still had the Midas touch — internationally at least, if not domestically: the film made back its initial investment (and then some) with a whopping $320 million take.

He subsequently entered into a deal with actor Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and their son Jaden, to direct and co-write the screenplay for the sci-fi adventure flick After Earth in 2013, which starred the Smith team (father and son). It received extremely mixed reviews from both audiences and critics and, true to form, bombed big-time at U.S. box offices but earned a whopping $248 million worldwide. Go figure!

Still, the question has to be asked: whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan’s blazing talent behind the lens? Has the fire gone out of his movie-making once and for all? Where is the film-school guru we once knew and where is he headed, now that his early screen successes have all-but dwindled to a mere handful, if that?

It’s hard to tell, really, where the Dark Night of Shyamalan’s soul will eventually end up. There’s only one way to find out, however, and that’s by revisiting the past (another favorite theme of his) and taking a closer look at the director’s previous output and most lucrative film ventures.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense

Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense

A film that seeps into one’s subconscious at odd hours and times, 1999’s The Sixth Sense is a modern ghost story told in purely existential terms. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by a thoroughly laid-back Bruce Willis) tries desperately to help antisocial patient Cole Sear, a young boy with a most peculiar problem: he sees dead people (no kidding!).

Both Malcolm and Cole learn their proper place in the world through a series of passive-emotional shrink sessions interspersed with ghostly visions. Check out Cole’s last name for a clue to his “unique” abilities.

The film establishes its own ground rules, and wisely keeps to them. One of the few modern productions that’s as much of a joy to watch as to listen to, The Sixth Sense quickly established Mr. Shyamalan as a movie maker on the rise, with many intelligent plot points to ponder. It’s cleverly written (one could say too clever by half). The sound design plays an integral part in the drama, as does the rich color scheme and gorgeous cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs). James Newton Howard wrote the creepy musical score.

Willis is superb as the child psychologist Malcolm, and the young and talented Haley Joel Osment (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) underplays his part as the boy, Cole. As actors, he and Willis have an amiable working relationship that gives their characters needed believability. If understatement were used in most movies of this type, we would be reveling in a mass movement at this point.

The surprise ending, which this film is rightly celebrated for, will both shock and perplex you, thus forcing one to go over the entire movie again from the beginning. This is Shyamalan’s strongest suit, that is, his ability to lead audiences in exactly the direction he wants them to go, by both subtle and surreptitious means, until he hits them over the head with those left-of-left-field revelations. Hitchcock would be pleased.

Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid on the Block) lost forty pounds to play Willis’ crazed former mental patient, Vincent Grey, in a remarkably concentrated, intense performance that lasts all of a few minutes on the screen. Vincent is the catalyst that drives what happens next. Glenn Fitzgerald is Cole’s teacher nicknamed Stuttering Stanley, and Shyamalan appears in an unbilled role as a doctor (in honor of his parents, who are both physicians).

An excellent effort by all concerned and a big winner at the box office, The Sixth Sense sealed Shyamalan’s fate for all time. See it, if you can, but not with small children: there are a few intense moments scattered throughout.

Unbreakable (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable

Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price in Unbreakable

Real-life superheroes and their nemeses don’t really exist, but it sure would be nice if they did — and this film charts the thought-provoking possibilities of such an event actually taking place.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s meticulous follow-up to his surprise hit, The Sixth Sense, is an ode to the world of comic-book lore. He is one of the few filmmakers around who can afford to take his time in telling a good story, while giving us plenty of food for thought along the way.

The low-key approach he brings to the subject of comic books and action heroes is much appreciated and clearly in the style of his earlier success above. The film has its longueurs, but is nonetheless extremely well made. We learn there can be no “good” in this world without the coexistence of “evil”; that what we perceive as the status quo is often not what it seems, as the search for one’s rightful place in it can turn into a lifelong, often-times fruitless endeavor. The confrontation between Elijah and David at the end summarizes their relationship: it’s captured in a whirlwind reenactment of scenes reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The acting throughout Unbreakable is splendid, especially by Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn, who has never been sick a day in his life; Samuel L. Jackson (whose coiffure was modeled after that of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass) as Elijah Price, the owner of the comic-book store; Charlayne Woodard as his concerned mom; Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) as Willis’ hero-worshiping son; and Robin Penn Wright as Willis’ stressed out wife. The score is by James Newton Howard, and the muted cinematography is by Eduardo Serra.

The physical look of the production closely resembles the panels of an actual comic book, and offers a unique perspective on comic-book art and its recent manifestations on the big screen. Unbreakable is a captivating, thought-provoking work that certainly predates the current trend in super-hero action spectacles (i.e., X-Men, Spider-Man, Watchmen, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, and their ilk) by several years, while treating the subject with a childlike innocence and reverence for its existential viewpoint.

A fascinating concept, though not totally convincing, we must give director Shyamalan (who also wrote the screenplay) high marks for trying. He even has a bit part as a suspicious-looking sports fan that Willis stops and questions at the gate (his acting isn’t too bad, either). Highly recommended for sports fans everywhere!

Signs (2002)

Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix in Signs

Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix mull around the table in Signs

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds gets a modern makeover in this deliberately paced but more-than-effective suspense thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. One of its many virtues is the lack of elaborate special effects to distract viewers from the main story line.

The plot, in this instance, involves mysterious crop circles found in Mel Gibson’s cornfield, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The question soon arises: are enemy aliens really about to invade the Earth, or is it all a hoax, an elaborate form of mass hysteria? M. Night Shyamalan certainly knows how to handle numerous tidbits of minutiae, piling on hint after hint in subtle and ingenious ways, until the viewer becomes unaware of the full extent of his manipulation. He also has a cameo in a key role as Ray Reddy, a neighbor with a guilty conscience harboring an uninvited house guest.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a grieving, disillusioned ex-minister who needs a healthy dollop of faith to snap him back to reality after his wife (Patricia Kalember) is killed in a horrific traffic accident. He must learn to cope with the loss without his customary assurance and bravado. Gibson is filled with a coiled tension just seething below the surface that manifests itself at key points in the drama, particularly during his son’s asthmatic attacks and in his family’s flight to the cellar. That he’s finally able to pull it together and keep his family intact is one of many satisfactory outcomes at the end.

Joaquin Phoenix is particularly adept as his sad-sack brother Merrill, a former minor-league baseball player who still knows how to swing a bat. Both actors play off one another beautifully. They have a long, protracted, and vastly pleasurable scene in which the discussion centers on the meaning of “luck and coincidence,” “fear and hope.” It charts the film’s course, much as the Vincent Grey sequence from The Sixth Sense did, only fuller and longer.

Cherry Jones is Police Officer Caroline Paski, whose motherly concern for Gibson’s well-being goes above and beyond the call of duty (but not in a bad way). Gibson’s motherless kids are wonderfully played by Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s little brother) and the adorable Abigail Breslin (she’s so cute you want to squeeze her); the eerily subliminal film-score is by James Newton Howard, done as homage to the late master, Bernard Herrmann: there are noticeable traces of Psycho and Vertigo abounding in it. It even begins with that scratchy violin from Camille Saint-Saëns’ concert piece, Danse Macabre. (Talk about creepy!)

There are also numerous references to The Birds and other Hitchcock thrillers throughout its running time. Shyamalan uses a framing device wherein he positions his actors in or near doorways, porches, archways, and such in order to look into the main characters’ souls. Interestingly, there is more humor in this film than in any other the director has worked on.

Of all Shyamalan’s films, this is a must-see for fans of the extraterrestrial invasion genre, despite a few protracted sequences. Stay with this one all the way, though, as you will be amply rewarded for the effort. It should play better on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. And do take the PG-13 rating seriously.

The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs can be viewed and enjoyed as part of a tripartite whole. I encourage readers to download, rent or buy (if you feel up to it) all three of these terrific films. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

As for M. Night Shyamalan’s remaining oeuvre, I’d give them a wide berth for now. Who knows what his future brings? If the past is any indication, something better this way may come … The “signs” all point to some improvement!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948) — Doing the Universal Monster Mash

Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)

Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)

Back in 1948, when horror films had just about reached their peak of popularity after so many low-budget vehicles starring the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy, Universal Pictures decided on a revival strategy of uniting their patented movie monsters with their most successful comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Thus, the engaging romp known as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came into being — and how thankful we fans are, too. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price, this hilarious “creature feature” became Bud and Lou’s most financially lucrative venture.

The plot revolves around two scatter-brained railway porters, Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Costello), finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is intent on reviving the weakened Monster for his own fiendish purposes. Towards that end, the old bloodsucker enlists the aid of sexy scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s pliable brain into the Monster’s body (Holy smoke!).

Before this nightmare can take place, however, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-fidgety Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that and other inopportune moments to transform into (you guessed it) the hirsute Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end.

Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolfman (ebay.com)

Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man (ebay.com)

Riotous farce with great special effects for the period (thanks to makeup artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan) amid the studio-bound sets, the film’s zany script underwent multiple changes to story line and plot, until finally arriving at a fairly pleasing (if highly preposterous) balance between slapstick comedy and out-and-out horror. It may have sounded funny to their millions of fans, but Costello himself remained dubious of its worth — until an added enticement of a $50,000 studio bonus made Louie see the “light,” so to speak.

As a matter of fact, the opening animated sequence, where skeletal versions of Bud and Lou appear alongside cartoon silhouettes of the movie’s monsters and the beauteous Dr. Mornay, as well as scenes of Dracula’s amazing transformations into a bat (and vice versa), were all done by Walter Lantz, who was best known as the animator of Woody Woodpecker.

The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black caped career. It’s awfully hard to tell, though, if his pasty-faced countenance was due to larded-on makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy “biopic,” Ed Wood).

The so-called rapport, unfortunately, was plainly one-sided. According to Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays and was, by all accounts, Lou’s preferred director of onscreen mayhem, Lugosi was not at all amused by their on-set antics, which included all-night poker games, pie throwing, exploding cigars, practical jokes, improvised line readings, and general misbehavior and mischief.

Bud & Lou in Dracula's cellar

Bud & Lou exploring Dracula’s cellar (“Broom closet?”

The appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, a hands-down favorite of movie fans, was re-used innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk (who was Costello’s brother-in-law, by the way) also appear in small bits. Film buffs should keep their ears cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you, Abbott,” instead of “Chick”) as they search for Dracula in the cellar.

Be sure to catch this one on Turner Classic Movies when it’s shown during Halloween time. Our favorite scene from among so many comedic highlights: a worried Chaney confesses to the boys that, when the full moon rises, he turns into a wolf. To which Costello innocently remarks, “You and twenty million other guys.” Chuckle, chuckle. (Laugh it up, fuzzball!)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Exorcist’ (1973) – Our Fright Flick Pick of the Week

The Exorcist (www.imamusuem.org)

Iconic image from ‘The Exorcist’ (www.imamusuem.org)

Confession is Good for the Soul

Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. The temperature in the room has gone down to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. As the priests repeat ad nauseam the ancient phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!”, they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. But instead of healing her, the water makes deep gashes in the girl’s skin, as she continues to bellow and roar in anguish.

The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling and suggestive examples of horror ever committed to celluloid. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the film begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site somewhere in Northern Iraq.

The elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wrinkled up Max von Sydow in old-man makeup) suspects an “old enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic — a powerful demon, to be exact. To his horror, Father Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene described above.

Back in Georgetown, a troubled younger priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose twelve-year-old daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love).

Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist

Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in ‘The Exorcist’

Distressed and at the end of her rope — and far from being religiously inclined — Chris begs the disbelieving Father Karras to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras is not so easily convinced. To start with, the priest has doubts about his own faith, and worries if exorcism is the right path for the mother to take. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” sort to speak, Karras decides to seek the Church’s advice in combating the vile menace that’s taken over Chris’ little girl. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the experienced exorcist of the title.

Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game — and the devil, or something claiming to be the “Evil One,” plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell” is one of the film’s classic lines) serves as the special-FX centerpiece to the drama, one of the scariest features we know.

Filmed on location at Georgetown University near Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx (where yours truly went to school!), the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this much heralded masterpiece of the shock genre. The book, while richer in detail and background information (it was on The New York Times Best Seller list for over a year), was appalling enough for readers; but the film version transcended the normal boundaries of the printed page to deliver a gut-wrenching punch to the solar plexus at every opportunity.

Yet its main strength remains the ironclad script, Blatty’s first serious success for the screen after earlier attempts with director Blake Edwards. He went on to direct The Exorcist III (1990) based on his book Legacy, but none of the subsequent sequels approached the original’s visual flair or dark, satanic tone. The story follows an inevitable arc that leads to the ultimate discovery of who in the end is the devil’s true victim. Kudos as well to director Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts.

The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects — by makeup man Dick Smith (Amadeus), and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere — the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman (both Oscar Winners), and especially Mexican sound technician Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame.

Max von Sydow & Jason Miller (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)

Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) & Father Damien (Jason Miller) in ‘The Exorcist’  (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)

Jason Miller, who was also a fine playwright (That Championship Season) as well as comedian Jackie Gleason’s son-in-law, proved a wise choice for the role of Damien Karras, a man burdened by guilt over the neglect of his elderly mother; while Max von Sydow, who was then in his early 40s, made an excellent elder exorcist. Their faith in the power of good is put to the supreme test in the all-important exorcism sequence.

Along with Burstyn and Blair, this quartet of key players brings a convincing presence to everyday individuals thrust into a maelstrom of horrific events few of us can cope with or ever imagine experiencing. Because of their utter believability, taking whatever was thrown at them in stride (they were locked up for days in an ice-cold room cooled by industrial-strength air conditioners), that exorcism episode retains its devastating power 40 years after the fact. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made — and good eventually triumphs over evil, but not in the way one would come to expect.

The fine supporting cast includes veteran Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman (the subject of Exorcist III), Jack MacGowran (who died shortly after completing his part) as movie director Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge (albeit by ex post facto credit).

And, yes, that really was thick green-pea soup that Linda Blair sprayed all over Jason Miller’s face. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on documented fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on … do it …

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Two) – The Best is Yet to Come!

Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?

Marlon Brando & Johnny Depp, Don Juan DeMarco (www.blu-ray.com)

Marlon Brando & Johnny Depp in ‘Don Juan DeMarco’ (www.blu-ray.com)

From my previous post, whereby I discussed actor Johnny Depp’s earliest forays into the cinematic realm (see link:https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/whats-eating-johnny-depp-the-actor-at-age-50-a-mid-career-retrospective/), one might have gathered from the evidence at hand that the recently turned half-century-old movie star enjoys playing nothing but lunatics, locos, kooks, oddballs, and all-around nut-jobs — and not necessarily in that order.

Far from it! A mere cursory look at his bulging filmography from the 1990s to the 2000s shows that decade to have been a most fertile period for the maturing Mr. Depp, one filled with challenging acting assignments and first-rate opportunities. But more significantly for his many admirers, it featured a welcome diversity and abundance of offbeat characterizations rarely encountered in the portfolio of lesser acting talents.

Take, for example, his pairing with movie veterans Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in the quirky romantic comedy Don Juan DeMarco (1995), about a handsome young man who believes he is the reincarnation of the notorious Latin lover, Don Juan. Depp’s traversal of the delusional but amorously-inspired Señor DeMarco caused a virtual stampede at the box office, compared to his previous efforts.

His spot-on Spanish accent (quite charming, one must say), Zorro-like mask, and broad-brimmed hat — not to mention that elegantly placed earring of his — add flavor and spice and everything very, very nice to Johnny’s onscreen performance. No doubt his seductive voice played a huge role in creating a convincing character, one capable of sweeping women viewers off their feet. Depp also got to show off his burgeoning swordsmanship, a skill that would come in handy on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean a few years hence.

Incidentally, the oft-repeated line, “Have you ever really loved a woman,” is echoed in the theme song by the same name, sung by Bryan Adams (and co-written with Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange) over the closing credits and played several times throughout the picture.

On a side note, Depp’s sessions with portly shrink Brando, wherein one of them has Marlon holding a cup of coffee in his hands while simultaneously reciting his lines to a seemingly attentive Don Juan — with the lines deliberately pasted onto the cup — are just one of that film’s highlights. The other is seeing two over-the-hill screen stars, Brando and Dunaway, play off one another so beautifully (and dance so vibrantly, too). They actually seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously, as they waltz in time to the movie’s theme.

What Johnny must have thought of all this remains an unspoken secret between him and the late Mr. Brando. It was another example of Depp’s eschewing of mainstream material for more (how shall we put it?) audacious and unconventional film fare.

Time is Not on His Side

Nick of Time movie poster

‘Nick of Time’ movie poster

Speaking of the audacious and unconventional … Depp chose as his next project the time-sensitive thriller, Nick of Time. Also from 1995, the film was steered by action-movie director John Badham (Blue Thunder, WarGames, Point of No Return). Here, Johnny gets to play a mild-mannered accountant (we know he’s mild-mannered because of his wire-rimmed glasses — otherwise, how would you know that, right?), recently widowed and toting his young daughter along to a modern-day Amtrak station in modern-day L.A.

Depp meets up with two unsavory plotters, a Mr. “Smith” (vicious and no-nonsense Christopher Walken) and a Ms. “Jones” (humorless cohort Roma Maffia). The duo “enlists” him in an elaborate scheme wherein Depp is forced to comply with their plans to assassinate the state’s Governor (Marsha Mason), or else risk getting his daughter killed in exactly one hour and a half. Why that specific time frame? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out!

Despite the tight deadline (and the preposterous twists and turns of the plot), Johnny manages to convince a reluctant shoeshine guy, played by a crotchety and supposedly deaf Charles S. Dutton, to “aid” him in his quest at thwarting the thugs. This one boasts a reasonably high “incredibility” quotient (or, if you prefer, “What the f—–k was that?”). But with Depp in charge, all turns out well in the end. Would it be otherwise?

As farfetched as these types of convoluted story lines tend to get, Johnny played it straight throughout, sweating profusely as he watches the clock tick down to the appointed hour. So what’s the gimmick? It was all shot in “real time,” which neither audiences nor critics bought. The result: a big-time money-loser for all concerned.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Dead Man (wallmay.net1)

Depp as ‘Dead Man’ (wallmay.net1)

Johnny’s next challenge (and another bomb at the box-office, we’re sorry to say) was to headline a Western — a revisionist Western of all things, by cult director Jim Jarmusch. The film, Dead Man (1995), was not the type of picture most audience members liked or even cared for, but it did draw some positive reviews from critics, including the suitably impressed A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who insisted on calling it “one of the very best movies of the 1990s.” Uh, okay …

Shot in purposefully artsy-fartsy black and white, and with an earsplitting, wholly improvised electric-guitar score by Canadian-born rocker Neil Young, Johnny at least got to work with the independently financed Mr. Jarmusch, who in addition to his directing credits could add screenwriting, producing, acting, editing, and composing to his many and diverse accomplishments.

The picture featured a flock of celebrity participants, all of whom were working for Actor’s Equity wages it would seem (the budget was a mere $9 million). Among his fellow thespians were the likes of Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover (his face blackened by coal), Gary Farmer, Lance Henricksen, Michael Wincott, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and (yikes!) the ever-scandalous Iggy Pop.

Depp plays another of those passive/aggressive accountant types (with the requisite wire-rimmed glasses, no less) who, thanks to bogus advertising, heeds the ad’s bad advice by going west, young man — all the way from Cleveland, Ohio! Upon his arrival in the dingy western town of Machine, he’s told the accounting job has been filled and to be on his way, or else. Whereupon, Depp immediately gets into trouble by shooting the local gambler (Byrne), who happens to be the son of the owner (Mitchum) of the company that just showed him the door. Talk about bad luck!

As you can tell, complications ensue, one of them being the accountant’s name: William Blake. The other is a tag-along, wiseacre of a Native American named Nobody (a droll Gary Farmer), in an obvious homage to those Italian-made spaghetti Westerns starring Terence Hill. Nobody is enamored with Depp’s moniker (hint: he thinks he’s that William Blake, the poet and painter). You can imagine the put-ons, puns, and wordplay these two “fast-friends” engage in! Farmer gets the biggest laugh of all, when he calls Johnny a “stupid fucking white man!” This is in addition to the frequently uttered “Have you got any tobacco?” line, which is an all-too prevalent query, to the point of annoyance.

Depp & Gary Farmer in Dead Man (tvtropes.org)

Depp & Gary Farmer in ‘Dead Man’ (tvtropes.org)

In mirroring its title, the atmosphere throughout Dead Man is deadpan, while the humor (or what passes for humor) is decidedly dark and low-key. Depp, however, is always worth watching. He has a real connection to this production via his own Native American roots, or so it’s been claimed. There’s a spiritual side to the story, too, as well as a touch of poetry and elegance. But what’s the point? The settings are stark and the skies are gray — for atmosphere, one would guess. However, the ever-present violence and one-too-many stomach-churning episodes (including throat-slashing and a head being crushed underfoot by one of the hired guns) may turn more viewers off than on.

Depp’s passive/aggressive mannerisms, however — that is, of a flailing fish out of water, a character so out of touch with his surroundings yet who somehow manages to extricate himself from his difficulties, while at the same time getting involved in situations he’d be better off not getting involved in — would be repeated innumerable times in his film work to come.

(End of Part Two — To be continued …)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘You Must Remember This’ — The Films You Can’t Resist

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!

Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn (emerdelac.wordpress.com)

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.

Amadeus (1984)

Barbara Byrne, Elizabeth Berridge, Tom Hulce, Christine Ebersole, F. Murray Abraham (thesingingcritic.blogspot.com)

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)

Spencer Tracy & Ernest Borgnine (GoneMovie.com)

Spencer Tracy & Ernest Borgnine (GoneMovie.com)

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.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Stephen Boyd & Charlton Heston (classiccinemagold.com)

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)

Boris Karloff (drawing Josmar Lopes)

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.

Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman (chessville.com)

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.”

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson & Faye Dunaway (gonemovies.com)

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)

Orson Welles & George Coulouris (movieimages.tripod.com)

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)

Jon Lovitz, Daniel Stern, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance (jinni.com)

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)

Zeppo, Chico, Harpo & Groucho Marx (moviesovermatter.com)

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)

Michael Douglas, John Kani & Val Kilmer (virtual-history.com)

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.

Russell Crowe in Gladiator (Allstar/Cine Text)

Gladiator (2000)

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.

Glory (1989)

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw in Glory

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw in Glory

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)

Salvatore Corsitto & Marlon Brando (chicagotribune.com)

“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)

Al Pacino (reelfilm.com)

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)

Diane Keaton, George Hamilton & Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III

Diane Keaton, George Hamilton & Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III

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)

Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable in GWTW

Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable in GWTW

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)

Dustin Hoffman & Anne Bancroft (mcantil.com)

“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)

Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole & Omar Sharif (eves-reel-life.blogspot.com)

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)

Tyrone Power & Basil Rathbone (altfilmguide.com)

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.

Shirley Jones & Robert Preston (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)

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!

Network (1976)

Peter Finch (themoderatevoice.com)

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)

Chico & Groucho Marx (avaxhome.ws)

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)

The Prince of Egypt (tumblr.com)

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)

Jeffrey Hunter & John Wayne in The Searchers

Jeffrey Hunter & John Wayne in The Searchers

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)

Judy Garland in A Star is Born

Judy Garland in A Star is Born

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)

Charles de Roche & Theodore Roberts (parallax-view.com)

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.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan (photo us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

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)

Walter Huston, Tim Holt & Humphrey Bogart (watchtheacademies.wordpress.com)

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)

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

E.G. Marshall, Henry Fonda & Lee J. Cobb in Twelve Angry Men

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

A ‘James Bond’ for the New Millennium

Daniel Craig as 007 (dailypop.wordpress.com)

Daniel Craig as 007 (dailypop.wordpress.com)

He rides around in an Aston-Martin automobile with optional seat ejector. He sports a fancy wristwatch with poisoned darts. He straps a flying jet pack to his shoulders to escape his foes. He carries a gas-spewing briefcase, which he uses to fight villains with steel teeth. And he dodges bowler hats with deadly metal headbands.

Oh, and his name is Bond. James Bond.

What is it about James Bond that attracts movie audiences so? Here we are, 50 years since the first feature-length Bond flick, Dr. No (1962), made cinematic history with then-unknown Scottish actor, Sean Connery, in the part that made him an international sensation.

As the dog days of summer drag on interminably into balmy autumn, we approach yet another in the long line of action-adventure fables featuring the intriguingly numbered 007. The latest entry in the series — number 21, by the official count — is titled Skyfall, set for a November 2012 release. It stars British-born Daniel Craig, who, in 2005, was raked over the internet coals (not a bad torture device, eh, Mr. Bond?) by fans and protesters alike for the producers’ poor choice of candidate to re-enact England’s ace of spies. Craig was not the first to be received in such an indelicate manner.

The dashing Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights, 1987; Licence to Kill, 1989), playing a more deadly serious Bond than audiences were willing to sit still for, lasted all of two pictures. He had a much better track record than Connery’s first replacement, former model-turned-actor George Lazenby. After completing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, Lazenby’s wooden performance and zero-sum sex appeal were rewarded with his being permanently dropped from the role.

In 1995, Eon Productions reverted to their original choice to go with Irishman Pierce Brosnan, of the hit TV series Remington Steele. Since his “hit” went off the air in the late 1980s, Brosnan had been floundering as a leading man in such clunkers as The Deceivers and The Lawnmower Man, and as the hapless boyfriend in the Robin Williams vehicle, Mrs. Doubtfire. He eventually got to play the role that many in the film industry felt should have been his all along, after the aging Roger Moore, Connery’s second and longest-lasting replacement, stepped down in 1986.

But after four successful sojourns in the part (GoldenEye, 1995; Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997; The World is Not Enough, 1999; Die Another Day, 2002), the owners of the Bond franchise decided Brosnan was getting a bit long in the tooth (he was in his early 50s) to be 007. Soon afterwards, Brosnan relinquished the role to the steely-eyed Craig, who went on to star in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, as well as in Quantum of Solace (2008).

Will the latest torchbearer for author Ian Fleming’s globetrotting, troubleshooting secret agent be the last of that distinguished line? Don’t bet on it! Fleming penned some fourteen or so Bond stories, in addition to other writers who contributed a number of features for other publications — presumably, enough works to keep the legend alive for additional screen showings.

But in all that time, what have we learned about the character Fleming created? What is it that we find so fascinating about James Bond that has kept up our interest in him for over five decades?

Is it his license to kill and the fact that he can kill with total impunity? Take a look at our own fascination with killers in general. The O.J. Simpson and Laci Peterson cases, for example, were proof enough of our voyeuristic tendencies to view killers, whether proven or otherwise, and their acts of aggression with an almost religious reverence. The one who can kill at will without fear of reprisal is indeed a person to be feared and, to some extent, respected.

But do we fear and respect Bond? Do we go to the movie theater out of fear and respect for this man? Considering the current cost of going to the local multiplex, it’s a pretty steep price to pay for fear and respect.

Perhaps what we feel is admiration for his control over his destiny and for his possession of the elusive secret of life and death. We seem to savor the times Bond has had to use that formidable arsenal of his against dastardly fiends, who seem intent upon either conquering the world or destroying it — their exact motives having been jumbled somewhat by the screenwriters.

Would we still admire him if he appeared in a New York City subway station and suddenly opened fire on an unsuspecting toll booth attendant, after standing on an interminable line to purchase a few random Metrocards? He has a license for that gun, you know. I wonder what we would think … Maybe we would break into applause.

Is it his way with women? Surely, Bond is a charming enough rogue in his own right without that license to kill. The fact that he has been permanently “neutered,” which prevents him from ever impregnating any of those long-legged lasses he’s so often taken to bed, appears to be a skill we might find fascinating.

Diana Rigg & George Lazenby in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

But what kind of a role model is Bond for today’s young males? Looking at the filmed record of his sexual exploits, in only one film has 007 ever gotten married (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and that marriage didn’t last the duration of the picture: his wife was killed in the end — a divorce would have proven far less dramatic. There was only one flick in 20 that showed Bond in any kind of a relationship that even approached monogamy (The Living Daylights).

Is it normal, then, for our fantasy hero to sleep with every woman he meets, whether she be a femme fatale or a simple snack between meals? Is it acceptable for us to acknowledge that since he can never father a child by any of his conquests, it will be “perfectly fine” for him to continue on his merry way; to flaunt responsibility for his actions to the winds, without regard to the social consequences?

This is definitely not a modernist viewpoint. Since he’s been so busy in the boudoir, how come Bond never sees an urologist? Surely, with all that nocturnal activity down there sooner or later the pipes are bound to get clogged up. Shouldn’t he take better care of the one part of his equipment that can’t be replaced by another actor? Do we even care if he does? I like to think we do.

Is it his macho swagger? In his first foray as Bond, Sean Connery displayed a bumper crop of machismo, along with other facets of the character’s personality — arrogance, cruelty, greed, lasciviousness, vanity — not always evident in later features. He also had the hairiest chest of any Bond actor around.

But, then, isn’t Connery Scottish? Don’t Scottish men have less chest hair than, say, Italian men? What would an Italian Bond look like? Choose any nationality and ask whether we measure our fascination with this fellow by the number of curlicues we can draw on his right pectoral muscle? Could this have something to do with his appeal?

What about the other Bonds who were more bare-chested, Daniel Craig among them? Does not having chest hair decrease our fascination for him? If we had known that Ian Fleming originally conceived James Bond as a cross between songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and singer Frank Sinatra (with a scar running down his cheek, no less), would that have changed our view of his creation?

Songwriter-actor-singer Hoagy Carmichael (Photo: Michael Ochs, Archives/Getty Images)

Would we shudder to learn that, of all people, Woody Allen once played Jimmy Bond, 007’s bumbling nephew, in 1967’s Casino Royale? I don’t think fans bothered to notice that Woody even had a chest, much less one with mattes of hair over it. (Move over, Austin Powers!)

How about those amazing gadgets? In almost every Bond flick we are treated to a dizzying display of technological toys and pre-Star Wars inventions, used as a leg up on his various nemeses — the majority of whom have clandestine ties to the mysterious “other side.”

That “other side” was once known as the Soviet Union. Indeed, Bond was a figment of the Cold War mentality: he was a British subject created by a British subject for the perpetuation and dissemination of the ideal democratic (read: British) way of life. Wasn’t there a fellow named Superman who did the same thing over here?

We citizens of the former British colonies needed all the help we could get in combating the Evil Empire. But now that the Evil Empire is no more, of what use are all those fancy gadgets? Could they serve a more peaceful purpose? Do we know of any business executives who could use a gas-spewing briefcase? I could probably name a few politicians who’d be wise to carry one around when visiting their constituents.

We do desire that Aston-Martin automobile, though, and we all envy Bond’s ability to manipulate those inventions and do whatever he commands of them. By this, he gains dominance over his environment and continues to exude his control over it. Now that’s something to admire!!

Finally, are we fascinated by his dangerous adventures? In every one of his films Bond recklessly risks life and limb in perilous pursuit of … what, exactly? Yes, we know he intends to stop Goldfinger from blowing up Fort Knox (Goldfinger, 1964); we know he has to demolish Blofeld’s secret volcano fortress before Blofeld blows up the globe (You Only Live Twice, 1967); and we know he has to put a dent in the drug trade by beating up those nasty old Harlem crime lords (Live And Let Die, 1973). But why does he do those things?

Actors who share a common ‘Bond’– Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan

If Bond was originally drawn to be so cruel as to treat women as sex objects, while displaying a ravenous disdain for them; if he dispatches his enemies with a blink of his eyetooth, why should he care about the state of the world in general? Why should he save the U.S. from total annihilation, or the British Isles for that matter? All for Her Majesty’s sake?? Why should such an apparently unfeeling, uncaring individual want to make a difference in this world? For all we know, he could blow up the Earth himself. Who could stop him? Who would dare to …?

Looking again at the filmed record, Bond has managed to sustain an enviable string of narrow escapes, near brushes with death, and split-second survivals to an astounding degree for a human being. We can really admire that!!!

In sum, James Bond has completely endeared himself to our psyche. He seems to represent man in all stages of development: crawling on all fours, walking on two legs, kicking his opponents in the groin, and running away from them. Man inventing his toys — nay, using them — to thwart his enemies, and then disposing of them at will. Man acting like God.

Could Bond represent all that we dared to dream about in our youth, yet were never able to attain in our boring, humdrum lives? Could he be acting out those daydreams we all had as children, dreams that were later shattered by the reality we had to face as grown-ups?

Could he be primal man, the guileless fool? The last pure innocent before the world became corrupted by sin? Adam before Eve? Adam with Eve, having the time of his life in Paradise, while carving up the Serpent for lunch … with a nuclear-powered carving knife, of course. Bond wouldn’t be Bond without it. ¤

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) — A Meeting of Unlike Minds

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” cautions assistant FBI director, Jack Crawford (a bespectacled Scott Glenn), about his agent-in-training Clarice Starling’s upcoming interview with the brilliant but diabolical Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Wise words, indeed, that unfortunately go unheeded by Clarice.

The worst horrors imaginable are, more often than not, those that reside deep within the recesses of our thoughts. And there’s nothing more frightening than someone who can read those same thoughts, while simultaneously spilling forth what they know about our lives.

In a sense, that’s the true monster to be found in the intense sparring matches — a meeting of unlike minds, if you prefer — between Clarice Starling (stalwart Jodie Foster) and the vicious yet genteel master criminal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (a particularly creepy Anthony Hopkins), in director Jonathan Demme’s superbly-crafted horror flick, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

The film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Gothic novel delves ever so deeply into the psyches of not only Foster and Hopkins’ characters, but also that of the serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a transsexual wannabe who just happens to have a “way” with a Singer sewing machine.

To be frank, this forlorn fellow is a bit of a letdown when compared to the fiendishly clever Dr. Lecter. For one, he lacks the “good” doctor’s intellectual heft, and for another he loses out badly to him in the charm department. I’m sure Buffalo Bill (whose tag line, “He likes to skin his humps,” is as awful as it sounds) was meant to be a lot more than the sum of his victims’ parts. But compared to our gentlemanly sociopath, he is far below — if not exactly in — Lecter’s exalted league.

Still, amid the sordid details of this lame killer’s crimes is the ensuing investigation conducted by rookie agent Starling. It’s a trip not every audience member is willing to make, but no matter. The rewards are high, as the film is decidedly more than your average rock-’em, sock-’em slasher-fest. If anything, it’s a masterpiece of finely calibrated tension — a real nail biter, as it were — never letting up for a minute, and never sensationalizing the crimes for their own sake, a definite plus as far as serial-killer pictures go.

To borrow a phrase from the movie’s dialogue, the plot is “simplicity” itself. Agent Starling is sent by assistant director Crawford on her first major assignment: to pick Hannibal Lecter’s brain (or as much of it as he’s willing to part with) in order to compile a criminal profile of Buffalo Bill.

Although given relatively brief screen time (contrary to popular belief, he’s only visible for a miserly quarter of an hour), Dr. Lecter’s presence is ominously, and irresistibly, felt throughout. Quite rightly, he remains the focus of everyone’s concern; a constant reminder of the menace lurking behind every corner, and in the farthest reaches of our subconscious — much like the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), only more terrifying because of the doctor’s apparently “benign” form.

Suffice it to say that the movie’s best moments occur when Hopkins and Foster are thrown together in a winner-take-all battle of wills that leaves both combatants (and us) begging for more. Demme knows the value of keeping this nonpareil team functioning at full tilt. He also pays careful attention to the story’s various locales and their connection to his main characters.

For instance, there is Lecter’s subterranean prison cell — which feels, for all the world, like the lair of a venomous pit viper, a morbid mixture of Mozart with the macabre, highbrow sophistication and outright violence and brutality. This is made evident in the scene of Lecter’s escape where, even after clubbing to death one of the prison guards, he continues to play the part of a conductor, leading a “performance” of unseen pianist Glenn Gould in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

As the captivating monster Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins gives the performance of a lifetime. It’s shocking to learn that, in the same year, he also appeared in Merchant-Ivory’s prestige production of Howards End, so utterly dissimilar are his characterizations in each. In Silence of the Lambs, the Welsh actor’s cultivated voice has the modulated tone of a trained singer, rising to crescendos of fury, only to fall back again to a near whisper as he toys with his victim’s mind. But make no mistake: that lithe, aristocratic bearing of his masks a truly loathsome creature. (Watch out for his bite!)

Indeed, Hopkins gets under your skin right from the opening buzzer, so to speak. His physical reactions to Ms. Foster’s initial queries mimic those of a caged animal: all tautness and nervous tension — and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. One gets the uneasy feeling that we, the viewers, have been caught eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between a noted shrink and his prized patient. It’s an unforgettable match-up that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Jodie Foster as Agent Starling

Jodie Foster as Agent Starling

And in the challenger’s corner, we have Jodie Foster, equally riveting as Clarice Starling. Keep a close eye on her, as she rises from her chair after the first of their several meetings has ended, her legs almost buckling out from under her from sheer terror and the force of Lecter’s personality. His cutting remarks (“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a good Chianti,” and “You fly back to school, now, little Starling. Fly, fly, fly…”) are a thing of lyric beauty, in a chilling sort of way.

Lecter no doubt finds in Agent Starling a worthy adversary, his poor opinion of her wardrobe notwithstanding (“You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you?”). Mind you, she’s not being inquisitive for her health, but willing to do whatever it takes to pacify the mad doctor — in spite of the cost to her sanity.

With that, Clarice grows to rely on Lecter’s skill in criminal profiling, fully expecting him to come clean about Buffalo Bill’s motives (which he does, but in a most roundabout manner), in exchange for intimate psychoanalysis at a price — a quid pro quo to end all quid pro quos. All this, to help save a senator’s daughter from certain death at Bill’s hands. It’s a selfless act of blind trust, based on her knowledge of Lecter’s inflated opinion of himself and the confidence she has in her ability to counter his bizarre mind games.

Gradually, their dialogue turns into mutual but wary respect. Some critics have even hinted at a possible “romantic” inclination, which is a bit hard to swallow but not above the realm of possibility. For Lecter, it’s an affirmation of his unequaled powers of seduction and deception; for Clarice, an emotional confrontation with, and release from, traumatic events in her past.

Hopkins’ fifteen minutes of fame as Foster’s surrogate confessor paid off handsomely at the box office, their terrific ensemble work garnering well-deserved Best Actor Oscars for both artists. It’s a shame the main “Buffalo Bill” plot keeps intruding on their priceless gab sessions, which are easily the highlight of the film.

Dr. Lecter "enjoying" a meal (craveonline.com)

Dr. Lecter “enjoying” a hearty meal (craveonline.com)

Others in the first-rate cast include Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Chris Isaak, and Frankie R. Faison, who’s appeared in all the Hannibal Lecter movies, including Manhunter (1986). The legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman has a bit part as an FBI director — a nice touch, considering he was one of director Demme’s mentors. The cold, windswept photography is by Tak Fujimoto, while Howard Shore, who went on to greater glory with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, provided the moody music score.

Crisply edited, with nary a wasted scene to speak of, the film captured all the major awards categories in Los Angeles. Despite the honors it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, although the gore quotient is remarkably restrained for a horror thriller. See it at your peril. ◘

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Produced by Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon and Ron Bozman; directed by Jonathan Demme; screenplay by Ted Tally, based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name; cinematography by Tak Fujimoto; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Kasi Lemmons, and Frankie Faison; distributed by Orion Pictures; 118 min.

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes