Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Director: Terence Fisher                                    Writer: Anthony Hinds
Film Score: Benjamin Frankel                            Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Starring: Oliver Reed, Anthony Dawson, Catherine Feller and Clifford Evans

Though the studio made dozens of Dracula and Frankenstein films, it seems hard to believe that Curse of the Werewolf was Hammer Studio’s only werewolf film. When Universal gave Hammer the rights to remake their films in England, the one stipulation was that they could not remake The Wolf Man, their classic 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. Since Universal owned the rights to Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, they asked them to film that instead. The reason probably has to do with the fact that Curt Siodmak’s screenplay to the Chaney vehicle was an original story rather than an adaptation of a public domain work like their earlier classics. Anthony Hinds wrote the adaptation of Endore’s novel, setting it in Spain in order to use the sets constructed for the uproduced film The Inquisitor, and truncating much of the historical research of the first half of the novel. Oliver Reed, despite his bad-boy reputation he would earn later, was patient and no doubt appreciative of the opportunity to appear on film in a leading role. He also helped that he had a good relationship with director Terrence Fisher and a healthy respect for producer Anthony Nelson Keys.

The film has an interesting beginning. Instead of a prologue before the credits, the credits begin immediately over the eyes of Oliver Reed as the werewolf. In many ways the entire first act of the film could be considered a prologue, establishing first the backstory without any real information about what all of this has to do with lycanthropy. The film is set in Spain and begins with a curious beggar, Richard Wordsworth, wondering why the church bells are ringing on a weekday. It’s because Anthony Dawson, the Marques, is getting married. Looking for charity Wordsworth heads to the banquet. Once there Dawson humiliates him before giving him food and then has him thrown into the dungeon and forgets about him. Decades later, after the little mute girl who has helped take care of him has grown up, Dawson takes a fancy to Yvonne Romain and when she doesn’t reciprocate she is thrown into the cell with Wordsworth and raped by him. After she is released she kills Dawson and runs away, discovered near death by Clifford Evans. Romain is pregnant and ready to deliver near Christmas, a curse in some cultures for a child born out of wedlock. But Romain dies giving birth, and the child is raised by Evans and his housekeeper Hira Talfrey.

A few years later a wolf is suspected of killing animals in and around the village, and when Evans figures out it’s the young Leon, Justin Walters, he erects bars on the bedroom window and manage to keep his “bad dreams” from happening again. Finally, when the boy has grown into Oliver Reed, he sets out on his own to make his way in the world beginning his working life at a winery. He’s befriended by the other worker, Martin Matthews, and falls in love with the vintner’s daughter, Catherine Feller. But one Saturday night, as the full moon comes out, Reed turns into a werewolf and not only kills a prostitute, but Matthews as well before heading back to his home village and killing another man. This is the beginning of the long third act--an extended finale--when the secret comes out and the town grapples with what to do about it. Oliver Reed does a solid job as the tortured youth, though some might say it’s a bit too tortured. In the context of the film, however, it works. It’s a different kind of story for Hammer and so there’s no clearly defined villain, and no Peter Cushing-type hero, though it’s still difficult to know why the studio never returned to that monster again since the film made back five times its production costs.

Other than Reed, Anthony Dawson is the main draw for film buffs. Best known as the blackmailed villain in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, he is perfectly sadistic in the film and dominates the screen in the few scenes he has. There is little special effects work in the film, other than one transformation scene near the end of the film when Reed’s--rather artificial looking--hands transform into paws. The full werewolf makeup was saved until the finale, a grey wolf with a lot of white hair rather than the traditional brown. The stunt work in the finale is also pretty terrific, with Reed’s double climbing up and down nearly the entire set before arriving at the bell tower of the church. And behind it all is the magnificent score by Benjamin Frankel. The studio’s house composer, and the man responsible for the most memorable scores in the Hammer catalogue was James Bernard. Frankel, in addition to scoring films, was also a working composer and conductor in London. He had first worked with the studio in their pre-gothic days and his score for the film is, above all other composers who worked with the studio, second only to Bernard. Curse of the Werewolf may not one of the finest examples of Hammer’s output, but it does occupy a beloved space in the hearts of fans as the only werewolf film essayed by studio.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blücher (1988)

Director: Oddvar Bull Tuhus                              Writer: Sverre Årnes
Film Score: Lillebjørn Nilsen                              Cinematography: Harald Gunnar Paalgard
Starring: Helge Jordal, Frank Krog, Hege Schøyen and Geir Børresen

Before there was Titanic, and even before Leviathan, the idea of underwater salvage had been explored in this Norwegian thriller entitled Blücher, after the name of a German warship that the protagonists are after. The film is one of industrial espionage, which can run the gamut from high drama like The Formula from 1980 or hokey like Duplicity from 2009. This one falls in the former camp. Blücher, though a financial success, was also the last feature film from director Oddvar Bull Tuhus who had achieved a good deal of critical success in the seventies. In 1973 he was awarded the Norwegian Film Critic’s Prize for his film Maria Marusjka, and two years later his documentary drama Streik! was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. After this film the writer-director-producer went into feature film production as well as television work for Norwegian television primarily in the area of drama. His work here is solid and while not necessarily a gripping thriller in the American sense, it has its moments. The underwater photography is terrific as well, and the real high point of the film as whole, especially as many of the underwater scenes take place at night.

The film opens in front of a diving salvage business, with Helge Jordal telling his partner that they need to get going of they’re going to get to the dive on time. From there the credits roll on a calm ocean in the dark, at water level, with Jordal and Frank Krog in a rowboat. They’re diving at night to salvage a German cruiser that they want to get to because they have been blackballed for illegal salvaging in the past. At the same time a German industrialist, Edwin Christie, arrives in Oslo amid protests because Norwegians believe he was a Nazi during the war, and the only thing that can prove his past affiliations are the documents aboard the ship. Several people have attempted to get into the ship, which is lying upside down on the bottom of the Oslofjord, but all have died trying. Norwegian government officials, meanwhile, are angry because they can only make the deal if the demonstrations stop. The police discover Jordal and Krog the next morning, still in their boat, but they keep their success at finding a way in a secret, and when the police report appears in the papers the next day newspaper photographer Hege Schøyen shows up at their door wanting to take pictures of the wreckage. She turns out to be the daughter of Jack Fjeldstad, head of the Norwegian company doing the deal, attempting to get ahold of the documents before the divers can bring them up from the bottom.

Things get complicated when the two men fall for Schøyen and she works them against each other. Meanwhile a real news reporter, Geir Børresen, wants the story as well and is willing to blackmail Krog about a scandal from his past to get him to comply, all while the government’s strong-arm man in the form of police chief Bjorn Fløberg, is pressuring Fjeldstad to get the deal finalized. Throughout the film, Jordal and Krog manage to stay one step ahead of everyone, the police, Fjeldstad, and even Schøyen. That is, until Fløberg hires a hit man to take the divers out. The plot is convoluted one, especially because the interests of the government and Fjeldstad are the same and yet Fjeldstad is under the gun to keep the documents from falling into the hands of the media. Lillebjørn Nilsen and Arlis Andersen’s score for the film make effective use of acoustic blues guitar and some nice slide work, a welcome relief from the synthesizer-driven scores at the time in the U.S., or even in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot from three years earlier. The other notable aspect is the cinematography itself, under the direction of Oddvar Bull Tuhus. It is also very European in the late eighties style, again, much different from the American films from this time. The acting by the principals might be below what Hollywood has to offer, but there are enough other positive aspects of the production to make Blücher recommended viewing for fans of European films.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle                                 Writer: Damien Chazelle
Film Score: Justin Hurwitz                                 Cinematography: Sharone Meir
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist

The first statuette given at the Academy Awards ceremony is for the best supporting actor. At last year’s show it was the great J.K. Simmons who took the prize for his intense work in Whiplash. Writer-director Damien Chazelle had originally turned a portion of his screenplay about a driven music teacher into a short film featuring Simmons and Johnny Simmons as the drummer. After a successful run at Sundance, Chazelle was able to attract investors to produce the full film, signing Miles Teller to play the role of the drummer and attracting the likes of Paul Reiser as well. After completion of the film Chazelle went right back to Sundance and again received positive reviews. J.K. Simmons, of course, was praised as well and a few weeks before the Oscars he also won the Golden Globe in the same category. The film also won Academy Awards for best sound mixing and best editing. The praise, however, was not universal and there were many critics who felt much of the discussion of genius and its relationship to practice is untrue and that the film denigrates jazz in the process.

The film begins with Miles Teller working out on his drum kit in a practice room of a performing arts college in the Bronx. When J.K. Simmons comes into the room Teller stops. Simmons asks him to play a couple of things then leaves. When Simmons comes back in Teller brightens, but it was only to get his coat he forgot. At the movies that night Teller tells his father, Paul Reiser, who is supportive, saying that he has plenty of time. At rehearsal the next day Teller, in his first year, is an understudy. Simmons’ shadow is seen outside the door but he doesn’t even come in. Simmons is a famed conductor and teaches the most advanced class in the school, hand-selecting students for his band. One morning he shows up and tests the other students in Teller’s class, then picks Teller to meet in the practice room the following morning at six. Tell waits in the empty room until nine, when the band actually shows up, and finds out he’s the new alternate drummer for Simmons’ top band. From there, the sadistic Simmons demonstrates his unmerciful style, pushing students to excel like a drill sergeant, breaking them down and humiliating them in order to get the best performance possible. Finally, Teller earns the top spot on the drums.

With his newfound confidence he begins dating the girl from the concession stand at the theater, Melissa Benoist, confronts his cousins at the dinner table about what he feels is their inferior pursuit of sports, and soon loses all fear of Simmons himself as he dedicates his young life to achieving excellence. But when Simmons pushes him too far, Teller loses control and nearly destroys everything he has worked for. The whole point that Simmons character makes--that genius can come out of practice--is certainly untrue, and is easily the Achilles heel of the film as everything follows from that. The only thing that practice can do is to reveal genius that already resides within the individual. Nevertheless, that’s not necessarily the most important point of the film. When Simmons says that no one pushes kids to be more than what they are, he’s right, and it’s this idea that needs to be celebrated. Humiliation is in the eye of the beholder, and for those who are easily humiliated, that kind of treatment can be a valuable lesson, something that will inevitably make them a stronger person. The real message of the film is whether or not the collateral damage is worth it. How far is too far, and what do we lose in the single-minded pursuit of excellence? Whiplash has no easy answers, but the powerful way in which it raises those questions is well worth seeing.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Director: John Cromwell                                    Writer: Lester Cohen
Film Score: Max Steiner                                    Cinematography: Henry W. Gerrard
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Reginald Denny and Alan Hale

Of Human Bondage is the film that made Bette Davis a star, though it’s difficult to see why. Davis certainly played her share of despicable characters, from Jezebel to Baby Jane, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that this was the worst of all. The story comes from the novel by Somerset Maugham, which RKO had optioned. After director John Cromwell had seen a young Bette Davis in Michael Curtiz’s latest film he suggested her to producer Pandro Berman, who not only agreed with the choice but was able to get the blessing of Maugham himself. Leslie Howard, on the other hand, was anything but happy. He had a lot of clout in Hollywood at the time and hated the idea of an American playing the part. On the set he was clearly unhappy with her during filming. Still, Davis persevered. She received tremendous reviews, much to the horror of Warner Brothers who had loaned her out to RKO. Many thought her lack of an Oscar nomination for best actress was a snub by the Academy, but it seems clear that in an era that finally managed to put teeth into the production code, her performance was something of a throwback. Either that or Jack Warner engineered the omission. Either way, as oftentimes happens, she was awarded the Oscar the very next year for the film Dangerous.

The opening credits roll over a Parisian skyline. Leslie Howard is being driven through town and gets out at a café. There he meets with his art teacher, Adrian Rosley, and tells him he’s thinking of giving up painting because he doesn’t believe he has the talent. Rosley goes to his studio to see for himself and agrees, so Howard moves back to London to study medicine. During examinations at the free clinic, his professor embarrasses him about his clubbed foot, but later one of his fellow students, Reginald Sheffield, asks him to assist in gaining the affections of a waitress, Bette Davis, because he’s been to Paris. The first shot of her in the restaurant is waiting on Alan Hale. Though she acts rudely to Howard, he’s smitten but she sees his clubbed foot as he’s leaving and dismisses him. He doesn’t know that, however, and comes back the next day. She agrees to go out with him, but is still cold and distant as he desperately tries to win her over. It’s painful to watch as Howard tries so very hard to be with her and she is simply mean and nasty to him. Though he threatens never to see her again, after he flunks his exams he seeks solace in her and manages to kiss her, keeping his hopes alive. Against the advice of all his friends at school, Howard says he wants to marry Davis. When he proposes, however, she drops the news that she’s engaged to Hale.

On the advice of Reginald Denny, Howard seeks out a new love and finds a good one. Kay Johnson is everything that Davis is not, kind, supportive, appreciative and thoroughly in love with him. She makes him study hard for his exams, and his life is finally on the right track. Then Davis shows back up, pregnant and abandoned by Hale. But when Howard confronts Hale, it turns out he never actually married her. Realizing she has Howard on the hook, Davis now plots how she can get Howard to marry her and avoid scandal, even though she doesn’t care for him at all. The story is a fascinating one for its portrayal of raw emotion. In many ways it could be seen as a proto-noir film, but for the fact that it’s overly dramatic and too sentimentalized to be noir. Still, the obsession that Howard has for Davis, even though she is ruinous to his life, would fit very well in that genre. There is a relentlessness to the plot that is also very noirish, and it can be difficult for the viewer to take. One can see why the film was so popular in its day. Even though it was made in 1934, it still fits very much into the pre-code ethos of the early thirties.

Davis’s Cockney accent is a bit forced, which is too bad. It might have been better had her part been one of a stranded American. Alan Hale’s German accent is just as bad, though. Director John Cromwell has a very pleasant style that is indicative of the era. He makes Howard’s foot the focal point of many transitions and, with the aid of Henry Gerrard, gets some fluid camera movement in many of the scenes. One of his favorite transitions is a simple pan that moves from one scene into the next. Max Steiner’s original score for the film was evidently blamed for laughter by preview audiences and he was ordered to go back to write a new one. It’s not a particularly memorable score for the composer and perhaps his haste in assembling new material is the reason. Despite the initial misgivings of Leslie Howard, the actor would go on to work in two more films with Davis, The Petrified Forest in 1936 and It’s Love I’m After the following year. The film was remade twice, but neither of them resonated with audiences. The original Of Human Bondage remains a powerful film for its time and comes highly recommended.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Director: Robert Mulligan                                   Writer: Horton Foote
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                              Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and Robert Duvall

Though it has one of the best reputations in Hollywood--and probably would have won the Academy Award that year if not for Lawrence of Arabia--I found To Kill a Mockingbird to be a disappointing film. Of course the story is from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee that captivated the country upon publication and has continued to be required reading in schools ever since. In fact, Lee’s success was so daunting that she never attempted to publish another novel afterward. The singular aim of the novel, intended or not, is to demonstrate the insidious effect of prejudice by intertwining two stories, one about a white shut-in who is the subject of negative rumors around town and the other is a black man falsely accused of rape. In both instances it is people’s prejudice that keeps them from bothering to discover the truth about either man. That is the job of the young narrator, Scout Finch who, along with her brother Jem, discovers that the truth about people is not always readily apparent and that there are dangers continuing to ignore it. Unfortunately, Horton Foote’s screenplay allows the white man to redeem himself in the town’s eyes, while letting the black man continue to twist in the wind of racism.

The film begins with the establishment of the time and place, Alabama in the midst of the Great Depression, as well as the Finch family. Widower Gregory Peck plays the patriarch while newcomers Mary Badham and Phillip Alford are his children. Peck is a lawyer in a small town and one of the leaders of the community. When a small boy, John Megna, is visiting his aunt next door he makes friends with Badham and Alford, and the three become obsessed with the mysterious neighbor down the block, Boo Radley, who never leaves his house. At the same time Peck is asked to take the case of Brock Peters, a black man accused of rape by poor white trash James Anderson and his daughter Collin Wilcox. When Peck agrees to do his best to acquit Peters, the people of the county get angry at him for not going along with the accepted order of things in the racist South. Though Peck loses the case, he winds up humiliating Anderson in the process, proving not only that Peters is innocent, but that Anderson himself is the one who beat his daughter. It is Anderson’s act of revenge that takes up the last act of the film and finally brings the reclusive Robert Duvall out of his house.

Because of the success of the novel, there was little difficulty in getting the film made. Gregory Peck signed on as soon as he was asked, and delivered a career-defining performance, reinforced by his winning of the Oscar for best actor that year. The two children were cast through an exhaustive process of looking at hundreds of children, and were so effective that they will forever be associated with those characters in the minds of audiences who see the film. Mary Badham was even nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. Three actors made their debut in the film, the first was Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, who was cast at the suggestion of Horton Foote. The second was Alice Ghostley who played the aunt of John Megna. Finally, the great William Windom was cast as the prosecuting attorney in the trial. The direction by Robert Mulligan is fairly undistinguished, as was his career, though he certainly didn’t embarrass himself. One of the high points in the film is the piano-centered score by Elmer Bernstein, who already had several classic film scores to his credit at the time. The other Oscar the picture received was for best black-and-white production design, which is really very good. Further nominations went to the picture, the director, and to Russell Harlan’s cinematography.

One of the best things Harper Lee’s novel has going for it is her wealth of social criticism. Everything from the ineffectiveness of public schools and the injustice of the legal system, to the anti-intellectualism of Americans and the hypocrisy of religion are exposed for all to see though the objective gaze of her young narrator. But with a deft hand, Horton Foote managed to expunge everything that could possibly be controversial, which is to say, interesting, and leaves the story a mere husk of childhood events. Even worse, the very backbone of the novel, where Lee demonstrates that the Brock Peters character was executed so that he couldn’t go free on appeal, is changed in such a way that it only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks and subverts the centerpiece of the film, the closing argument by Peck that has always been at the heart of people’s love of the film. The real travesty of the film is that Foote was awarded the Oscar for his adaptation, as though he was being rewarded for reinforcing the status quo under the guise of a fictional exposé. While To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a masterpiece, it nevertheless fails to live up to it’s potential and therefore must be considered a flawed classic.

Tap (1989)

Director: Nick Castle                                         Writer: Nick Castle
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: David Gribble
Starring: Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., Suzzanne Douglas and Joe Morton

The late Gregory Hines definitely made the most of what would seem like a small niche in entertainment: tap dancing. He was also the art form’s greatest promoter, bringing to the fore great tap dancers that had fallen into obscurity or had been better known for something else. I’ll never forget his part in a birthday celebration for Sammy Davis Jr. at the end of the entertainer’s life. Hines made Davis’s wife bring his tap shoes even though he was dying of cancer. He was able to get Davis onstage for a friendly duel and before he knew it Davis began pushing him for real. Finally Hines gave it his best shot, and Davis completely cut him. Hines then fell to his knees and crawled over to Davis and began kissing his shoes. In the film Tap, it’s clear that Hines’ and writer-director Nick Castle’s reverence for the man caused them to place him in the optimal circumstance to demonstrate his talents. And they are considerable. Davis is a colossal talent and he shows it here with acting abilities that were completely wasted during his Rat Pack days.

The film begins with Gregory Hines in a prison cell, thinking about how he learned to dance, so he puts his shoes on and begins working out in his cell. Half the other prisoners hate it, and the other half love it, but Hines is in the zone and impressive on his toes. After being released from prison he’s given a job washing dishes, but one of the mobsters he worked with, Jeffrey Josephson, shows up and tells him to put in an appearance at a party thrown by the big boss, Dick Anthony Williams--though it’s probably a violation of his parole. Instead he goes to a dance studio called Sonny’s, sees that his old flame Suzzanne Douglas is dating someone else, then goes up to the private third floor and is reunited with Sammy Davis Jr. The most fabulous scene in the film--possibly the entire reason for watching the movie--comes next when Davis attempts to get Hines back into dancing by interpreting his slight of the old guys having “no legs” as a challenge. The exhibition that follows is truly awe-inspiring. And if Hines had done nothing else in his entire career but capture those men on film in their last hurrah, he would have made an indelible impact on motion picture history.

Davis has a big plan for a performance that only Hines can pull off--if, of course, Hines is willing to do it. When everyone sees him going to Williams’ party, they think he’s decided to go back to his old life of crime. But even Hines isn’t sure. When he gets there he tells fellow hood Joe Morton that when he gets a chance he’s going to take his head off, but he plays nice with Williams, begging off from an immediate robbery job. But Hines comes back to tap night at a local club and winds up bringing all the dancers out into the street to perform an impromptu jam session and dance. This is what Davis’s idea was about. He and the bartender/sound man at the bar want to wire Hines’ shoes to a synthesizer and change the whole complexion of tap. At the same time Hines is making a play for his old girl, Douglas, and simultaneously appearing to be at work for Williams. She tries to get him into the chorus line of a Broadway tap show, but Davis knows that’s a waste of his talents. The conflict, then, becomes whether he’s going to follow his dancing to its ultimate end, or revert to the life of crime that landed him in prison.

While the dancing scene with the old hoofers remains the centerpiece of the film, all of the dancing is exceptional, the impromptu performance in the streets of Times Square, the performance by Savion Glover at the studio, the “black Fred and Ginger” on the rooftop, and even the finale--however impossible--is impressive. The acting by Hines and the rest of the principal cast is equal to the task, with the possible exception of Joe Morton who had the unfortunate circumstance of being cast in a rather one-dimensional role. He does what he can, but there’s no overcoming the deficiencies of his part in the script. If there’s a negative to the film it’s that it suffers from eighties jetlag, most apparent in the soundtrack. The worst offense is in the love scene between Hines and Douglas, with fog dimming the set, beams of light streaming in, and a lame eighties pop song playing on the soundtrack--you half expect Jennifer Beals to go dancing through the room. Other than that, though, Tap is a first-class film and deserves much wider recognition and critical praise if only for the brilliant performance of Sammy Davis Jr.

Act of Violence (1948)

Director: Fred Zinnemann                                 Writer: Robert L. Richards
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                             Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor

Act of Violence seems to begin as something of a precursor to films like The Desperate Hours and Cape Fear, in which an average American family is terrorized by a crazed killer, but before long it turns into something quite different. It’s actually one of only films I’ve ever seen to tackle the subject of survivor guilt. This is a phenomenon in which people are placed in extreme circumstances--usually one of captivity--and in order to survive they must do things that they would never do otherwise, often things that go against their own personal morality. When they survive, they are suddenly left with the thoughts of shame at what they have done to survive, often at the expense of others. Director Fred Zinnemann and his brother knew about this first hand when they escaped from Austria and their parents didn’t, perishing in extermination camps during the war. The story is an original one by producer Collier Young, who would marry Ida Lupino soon after, and written for the screen by Robert Richards who would also pen Winchester ’73. Though it doesn’t really fit the category, it’s also one of the rare films noir produced by MGM.

The film begins with Robert Ryan limping through the city at night. He goes to his room, gets out his gun, and packs a bag to leave. After Ryan reaches a small town in California, he looks in a phone book and circles Van Heflin’s name. Heflin’s a contractor who has just completed a housing project. At the opening he’s there with wife Janet Leigh and their young boy and afterward, to celebrate, he goes on a fishing trip just before Ryan comes over to the house. When Ryan finds out where Heflin is, he rents a car and goes up there, hops into a boat and pulls out his pistol. Before he can take a shot, however, Heflin and his neighbor pull up anchor and leave. When Heflin is told Ryan is out on the lake, he leaves immediately to go home. Leigh, of course, wants to know why, but he’s acting so suspicious that she becomes worried. Ryan shows up that night, but the couple is hiding inside with the lights off, so he leaves. Heflin then explains that he was his commanding officer in the war and Ryan believes his bad luck is Heflin’s fault. But this is not the first time Ryan has disrupted Heflin’s life, as Leigh remembers them packing up and leaving the East in order to come to California. That’s when Heflin tells the story.

Heflin and Ryan had been friends in the war, flew dozens of missions and wound up in prison camp after they were shot down. When Leigh rightly figures out that Ryan wants to kill Heflin, she wants to call the police, but he stops her. There’s something he’s not telling her. This is confirmed when he gets in the car and leaves for a convention in L.A. in the middle of the night while she’s asleep. The next day Leigh sees Ryan at the house and gets scared, but her anger wins out and she confronts him. Then Ryan barges into the house and pulls a gun on her. Before he leaves, he tells his side of the story, and with that, Leigh has no choice but to go to L.A. and find Heflin. Again, she begs him to tell the police, but he says it’s no use. Then he confesses to what he really did when he was in the POW camp. Heflin, knowing his life will be destroyed if this gets out, tells Leigh to go home and she leaves. Meanwhile Ryan finds out he’s in L.A. and heads down there, leaving his girlfriend, Phyllis Thaxter, in the process.

It’s a disturbing story, to be sure, especially when the truth about Heflin’s character comes out. By then it’s difficult for the audience to know who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. Van Heflin, for whom I have gained an increasing respect over the years, does a solid job as the hunted man, while Robert Ryan’s limp may be a bit too theatrical for the piece. Ryan’s also the less interesting of the two characters because, by necessity, less is known about him. Janet Leigh, in only her fifth film, is impossibly young. It’s difficult to call her performance distinguished because it really isn’t her yet, but simply a generic part. The real stand out is an aging Mary Astor--long in the tooth à la Bette Davis, who was two years younger--playing a barfly with mob connections, thinking that this might be the answer to Heflin’s problem with Ryan. Fred Zinnemann would go on to make some impressive pictures after this, High Noon for Stanley Kramer, and the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity, but Act of Violence is impressive in its own right. It’s not classic noir, but it certainly deserves to be more well known and comes highly recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Neighbors (1981)

Director: John G. Avildson                               Writer: Larry Gelbart
Film Score: Bill Conti                                       Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty and Kathryn Walker

One of the great things that comedy directors can do is cast against type. Bill Murray, for one, began a major career revival when he began playing the straight man rather than the crazy man, which I trace to Groundhog Day at the hands of his friend Harold Ramis. Before that, Ron Howard cast Henry Winkler as the milquetoast in Night Shift to great effect. But before both of those came John Belushi’s appearance as a man living a suburban nightmare in Neighbors. In reality, Belushi had already begun to trend that direction anyway. The Blues Brothers, for all its zaniness, had Belushi and Dan Aykroyd acting as the eye of the hurricane while everything devolved into chaos around them. After that the change was more noticeable and Belushi received positive criticism for playing a “straight” role in the romantic comedy Continental Divide with Blaire Brown. So the stage had already been set for his character in this film. The story was from a novel by Thomas Berger, who had also penned the comic Little Big Man, and the screenplay was written by Larry Gelbart who was riding high from nearly a decade of television success with M*A*S*H.

The film begins in a cul-de-sac with two large houses. One is owned by John Belushi and his wife Kathryn Walker, while the other is vacant. The two live a sedentary life and have fallen deeply into a routine that Walker clearly doesn’t enjoy. That night, however, someone pulls into the other driveway with a U-Haul. No children, but they have a dog, and immediately Belushi is on the defensive. When the doorbell rings Belushi looks over as if it’s Dracula, and once he invites him inside he will forever be cursed. Instead it’s Cathy Moriarty, acting as the seductress, and completely reels Belushi in. When Dan Aykroyd shows up, blond and leisure suited, he takes money from Belushi for take-out, and cooks the spaghetti in his own kitchen, while Belushi’s wife gives their steaks to the neighbor’s dog. Add to that accidentally dumping their truck into the swamp and being blackmailed by Moriarty, and the night is quickly turning into a nightmare. It wouldn’t be as bad if his wife was on his side, but Belushi is all alone. The plot takes place in a mere twenty-four hours but Belushi’s character goes through an unexpected arc to the point where he eventually becomes physically isolated as well, which accounts for the decisions he makes at the end of the story.

The film is wonderfully funny right from the outset, and one immediately notices Bill Conti’s contribution to the production is essential. It’s a Mickey Mouse score, to be sure, but there are lots of moments of intelligence. When entering the cul-de-sac he underscores it with a crooked version of “No Place Like Home,” and when Belushi is looking out the window through the sheers at the lights in the neighbor’s house, he has the "Twilight Zone Theme" playing on the piano. Belushi does a masterful job in going back and forth with his character, at once outraged by the antics of Aykroyd and Moriarty, and alternately seduced by them into trying to make friends. Dan Aykroyd is less impressive, basically playing a character from a sketch on Saturday Night Live. It would take a couple more decades before he began to be cast in straight roles as a character actor of any distinction. Cathy Moriarty is breathtaking in only her second film, after having made a big entrance into pictures in Raging Bull the year before. Kathryn Walker is a television actress who had an anonymous quality that is just what the part calls for. Nevertheless, she’s a strong actress and does a good job as support--in terms of acting--for Belushi. The other familiar face is Tim Kazurinsky as the tow truck operator, who had just joined the cast of SNL that year.

By far the weakest part of the film--and something that was rightly criticized at the time--is the direction. John Avildson had received a lot of recognition for directing the Oscar-winning Rocky, and would go on to helm the successful Karate Kid franchise. But here he is out of his element. In a film that calls for a certain amount of surrealism and an emphasis on paranoia, he simply shoots everything straight. It’s not necessarily bad, but it comes nowhere near to realizing the story's potential in a cinematic way. From all accounts, this was not an easy film, and Belushi and Aykroyd wielded their considerable popularity to try everything from creating their own soundtrack with the punk band Fear, to having Avildson fired. The producers on the film, however, were the formidable team of Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and they were not about to be bullied by TV personalities. The production also had to deal with Belushi’s drug use, something that would kill him before he had the opportunity to make another film. Neighbors is a black comedy that has pretensions of social commentary, which is the part of the screenplay that hasn’t aged well but, when allowed to be seen for what it is, can be enjoyed as a terrific comedic romp with two major talents.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Get On Up (2014)

Director: Tate Taylor                                         Writers: Jez & John-Henry Butterworth
Film Score: Thomas Newman                          Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Starring: Chadwick Bozeman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis and Dan Aykroyd

Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s biopic of James Brown, is something of a mixed bag. In terms of the events of Brown’s life, much of it is left vague and unconnected. The portrait of him that emerges from the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is of a lone individual, driven to succeed and never establishing anything like personal relationships that were meaningful in his life. The film actually mirrors that isolation in a way, as the viewer sees everything through Brown’s eyes--even when they disagree with him--and thus never has a sense of the world around him in which he is operating and to which he is reacting. On the plus side . . . the musical performances. Although in thinking about the music itself, there is precious little about him writing songs or being musically creative at all, the way something like Taylor Hackford’s biopic Ray was able to do. What the film does have going for it are powerhouse performances of the James Brown songbook, with Chad Bozeman doing an exceptional job at recreating his dance moves and mannerisms, and thoroughly embodying the character in the same way that Jamie Foxx did with Ray Charles.

The film begins by establishing the shifts in time, opening first on 1988, two decades after Brown’s biggest success. Brown enters a building owned by him and proceeds to humiliate a woman who had the temerity to use his bathroom, then sets about shooting up the place with a shotgun. Twenty years earlier, Brown goes to Viet Nam to entertain the troops and is almost shot down himself. From there, the story jumps back to his childhood in 1939, with mother Viola Davis making the best she can of a bad situation but ultimately making the decision to leave. After that, 1964 shows Bozeman as Brown just beginning to break through with The Famous Flames, agent Dan Aykroyd barely able to reel him in prior to a performance in which he’s been replaced as the closing act by the Rolling Stones. The disjointed narrative continues, with the only real thread running through it how James Brown always pushed forward in order to achieve what he believed was best for him. After his mother left he was raised in a whorehouse run by Octavia Spencer and attended the charismatic church nearby. By seventeen he was in prison, and when a gospel group came to sing, was able to get paroled by staying with the family of one of the boys--leader of what eventually became the Flames.

A chance meeting with Little Richard, who hadn’t yet broken out of Georgia, set Brown’s path to become a star. He told him who to send acetates to, and after a few months on the road his group was recording for King Records in Cincinnati, but by 1955, King didn’t want the Flames any more and they quit. Brown’s first big album he was forced to finance himself because King felt it was too big a risk to expect poor, black record buyers to purchase an album. With Aykroyd’s help he began to finance and promote his own shows, with an attendant increase in the money he was able to earn by eliminating promoters. Eventually he began his own recording studio and record label--People Records--and branched out into real estate, restaurants, and other investments. And while pandering to whites in the beginning of his career, this was only a stepping-stone to being able to make his own decisions as to how he wanted to present his music. It’s a rags-to-riches story of an incredibly flawed individual who had an equally incredible vision of what music could be and influenced countless musicians to this day.

Chad Bozeman does probably as well as anyone could in emulating James Brown on stage. The speaking voice seems a bit off, but that’s quibbling because his performance is excellent. If there’s a disappointment in the film as a whole, it’s the recent trend of breaking the fourth wall and having Bozeman--as well as the younger Brown, Jamarion and Jordon Scott--talk directly to the camera in character. It didn’t work very well for Jersey Boys, and it doesn’t work well here. Viola Davis, as good as she is, seems stereotyped in such similar roles that it makes me angry that Hollywood gives her so little to choose from. And the same goes for Octavia Spencer. Nelsan Ellis plays Bobby Byrd, the boy who got Brown out of prison when he was a teenager, and stayed with him through the end, the Carol Ann to Brown’s Joan Crawford. There are some definite problems with research: a heavyset Maceo Parker playing tenor is just flat wrong, as Parker was thin and played alto. But few casual fans would even notice--let alone even know who Parker was . . . or Pee Wee Ellis . . . or that Fred Wesley wasn’t even in the film. Still, Get On Up is an entertaining and informative look at The Godfather of Soul, an enigmatic figure who was a giant in the musical world.

The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

Director: Frank Tashin                                     Writer: Frank Tashin & Herbert Baker
Film Score: Leigh Harline                                Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Tom Ewell, Edmond O’Brien, Jayne Mansfield and Henry Jones

This is one of the first of a kind of film that would become ubiquitous in the late fifties and early sixties. The Girl Can’t Help It is a rock & roll comedy that is probably best remembered as a color extravaganza that featured many of the top rock acts of the day performing in widescreen and fully saturated fifties color. The film begins with Tom Ewell in a prolog that has since become an example of the way that fifties films attempted to do what television couldn’t. He walks out on stage in black and white, flicks each side of the stage and the screen expands, then the color fades in and, as he begins to introduce the film, Little Richard singing the title song blasts from a jukebox. Ewell is a down on his luck talent agent who is hired by former mobster Edmond O’Brien to make his unknown girlfriend, Jayne Mansfield, famous so that he can marry someone of equal fame. O’Brien chooses Ewell because of his reputation for never getting involved with his female clients. At first Ewell turns him down. Then he sees Mansfield and agrees. Flush with cash, Ewell goes out on the town and the next morning Mansfield comes over to nurse his hangover.

His plan is to build her up until club owners come running to him rather than him foisting her upon them. Interspersed throughout the plot are music performances by a dozen different artists. Saxophonist Nino Tempo is seen auditioning as one of Ewell’s acts. And when Ewell takes Mansfield around to create a buzz they stop first at a small nightclub where Johnny Olenn and his band appear. The great Little Richard performs onstage at a large, expensive, supper club, and at the next stop is Eddie Fontaine. This is followed by Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles, and something of a racist gospel number by Abby Lincoln. Ewell is pining over the loss of Julie London, which is the reason he drinks so much and why he’s down on his luck. She sings “Cry Me a River,” a terrific standard, and something Abby Lincoln should have been able to do. But in spending so much time with Mansfield, Ewell begins to really like her, leading to the conflict of the film. Other musical numbers include rockabilly artists Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and performances by The Treniers, Fats Domino, and The Platters.

In keeping with the fifties morality onscreen, there are several suggestive sight gags. The first is the milk bottles that bubble over when Mansfield walks by. And when Ewell picks up a cigarette girl in a nightclub, their wild night of sex is indicated by cigarettes strewn all over his bedroom floor. Even more obvious is when Mansfield holds Ewell’s milk bottles to her breasts. The interesting thing about the film, apart from the music, is how well the main plot with Ewell and Mansfield works, and by contrast how tedious the subplot with Edmund O’Brien is. Every one else in the cast seems to be in on the ironic nature of the story, while O’Brien simply acts like a cartoon. Ewell is the consummate performer, carrying Mansfield as well as the whole picture when he’s onscreen. The other noticeable performance is by Henry Jones who is wonderfully low key as O’Brien’s sidekick. Though not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, it does have a certain fifties innocence that is enjoyable to watch on its own terms.

As I have come to expect from her, Carrie Rickey does nothing but disappoint in her essay from The B List. She begins with a discussion of early pop art by Richard Hamilton, which is tied to the advertising of the fifties itself, a sanitized, homogenized, one-size-fits-all worldview that is mirrored in Frank Tashlin’s music film. Unfortunately she veers of into Freudian territory--the most prosaic in all of film and literary analysis--and completely misses the point of the film by talking about the sight gags and Mansfield’s breasts. What’s really at work here is something she alludes to without realizing when she sums up the plot as “an agent’s efforts to transform a no-talent into a star.” Rock and Roll began just two years before this film, and in less than a year it would be taken over by “no-talents” like Pat Boone and turned into a commodity to be sold like toasters and dishwashers. The real-life version of this film is Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker, which shows exactly how the events in this film unfolded using the fictionalized beginnings of Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Nevertheless, The Girl Can’t Help It is a slice of Americana that, as Rickey rightly observes, is an extremely effective “cinematic article of pop art.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Countess Dracula (1971)

Director: Peter Sasdy                                      Writer: Jeremy Paul
Film Score: Harry Robertson                           Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elés and Lesley-Ann Down

By the seventies Hammer Films was a pale ghost of what it had been in the late fifties. The reason for that is the departure of so much of the talent that had made those classic films. There was a breathless excitement to the films then, garish color and theatrical sets along with a palpable confidence that leapt off the screen. A decade and a half later, however, the studio was resorting to nudity to draw audiences. Though with horror films being given an X rating by the British Board of Film anyway, why not? Countess Dracula is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In fact, the story is so watered down that the main character isn’t even a real vampire. Instead, she must bathe in the blood of virgin women in order to retain her youth. The story is based on the real life Countess Elizabeth Báthory from Hungary who had reputedly killed and tortured hundreds of women between 1858 and 1610 when she was arrested. The real number of victims was likely less than a hundred. Still, rumors began circulating almost at once that she had killed over six hundred women and that she often bathed in their blood.

The film begins as many Hammer films do, with a a prologue and a funeral. This time it’s a simple matter of Sandor Elés arriving on horseback, late for the funeral. The countess, Ingrid Pitt, has lost her husband and Elés is there for the reading of the will. After the credits roll over still, tinted photographs, the procession makes its way back to the castle, killing a peasant in the process. At the reading of the will Pitt is to share the estate with her daughter, Lesley-Ann Down, and Elés is given the stables while the keeper of the castle, Nigel Green, is given nothing. Though Green has been carrying on an affair with Pitt for years, now that she has her freedom she’s not so sure she still wants him. After sending him away in a rage, she cuts the face of a servant but the blood that splashed on Pitt’s cheek has restored her youth to it. The next day, Pitt is young again, and tells Green that she wants the inheritance all to herself and he plans a phony kidnapping of Down before she gets to the castle. Pitt then passes herself off as her own daughter in order to make a play for Elés. But when the effect wears off, it throws her into a panic and she realizes she must continually refresh her rejuvenation by obtaining the blood of young women.

Like so many Hammer films of this era there’s seemingly nothing wrong with the ideas, but the execution can only be described as tepid. Even their early films that were not strictly horror had more suspense and excitement than this. At one point in the film there is even a gypsy carnival that comes to the village, cribbed from numerous Universal horror films, but without James Bernard or a composer of equal stature to bring the scene to life through the music it adds very little to the production. The ending has an interesting twist, but it’s not realized very well. Instead of using it for shock value, it telegraphs the ending and then takes a long time to reach that point. The acting in Hammer films was never first-tier, with the exception of the leads, but this film has no one who fits that bill. Ingrid Pitt is not a good actress and her terror at being old is never very convincing. So much time is wasted in the film that could have been used to better effect showing her gradual conversion at first, and emphasizing her transformation. But that was not done. Lesley-Ann Down had real potential, but her part was not well written. Countess Dracula is not a bad film, per se, especially considering the low expectations one must have coming in. But on the whole it is rather underwhelming.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Love (1927)

Director: Edmund Goulding                             Writers: Marian Ainslee & Ruth Cummings
Film Score: Ernst Luz                                      Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, George Fawcett and Emily Fitzroy

Though this was a loose rendering of the Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the publicity department at MGM was keen on playing up the romance between its two stars by changing the title, which enabled them to declare, “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love.” The change in title was more than simply a publicity stunt. Gilbert felt that the film should be staged in modern dress rather than historical costumes as it would make the film easier for audiences to relate to. And with the drastic alteration in the ending it would be less of a deception for those expecting the original Tolstoy story. The film had been intended as something of a European production with Ricardo Cortez in the lead opposite Garbo, and Russian director Dimitri Buchowetzki behind the camera, but Garbo took sick and it wasn’t until Gilbert was brought on board with Edmund Goulding to direct that she miraculously recovered. As it was, the studio couldn’t be too unhappy, as now it would have a feature to follow up the Flesh and the Devil, the first pairing of their two stars, which had been extremely popular with audiences.

The film begins with Garbo’s sleigh racing through the snowy Russian winter, but when a horse comes up lame she is stranded. Along comes a young army officer, John Gilbert, who offers her a ride. She accepts, thinking that he will take her home, but with the storm raging he is only willing to go as far as the nearest inn. Reluctantly, she accepts. At the inn Gilbert becomes smitten with the young woman. As they share a small meal the women in the inn assume they’re lovers, and are slightly taken aback when he asks for two rooms. The result is they have already taken all of the luggage, including his, and put it in her room. His attempt to gain more than just his luggage from her is rebuffed, however, but still leaves him enchanted. Later, at the home of Brandon Hurst, he learns Garbo’s identity as Hurst’s wife. He comes to her home the following day and emboldened by his feelings for her, embraces and kisses her. Knowing it would destroy not only her but her husband, she finally convinces Gilbert to leave her alone.

It’s not until several years later, after her son is born, that the two of them meet again at a fox hunt. As they wind up separated from the rest of the group they begin talking and her true feelings for him come out. But now their relationship begins to make them a subject of gossip for the nobility in St. Petersburg. Hurst confronts her about what he believes is merely a friendship and warns her of the consequences of all of the talk. She agrees, but at a horserace when Gilbert is thrown, her visible terror at his possible death comes out and now Hurst knows the relationship is much more. Upon going to Gilbert’s home to warn him away from Garbo, he catches the two of them together and Gilbert tell him that he’s taking her away. Hurst knows he could never win a duel and so he is resigned to losing Garbo, but what he can do is withhold her son, Philippe de Lacy, from her and this he does, refusing to even allow her to see the boy and telling the child his mother is dead. With this, it’s not long before the idyll of their affair turns sour as Garbo grieves for her son and Gilbert is set to be removed from the army for what he has done to Hurst.

The film is a charming one, and Gilbert and Garbo have terrific chemistry together, especially in the scene at the inn and the one on the fox hunt. Two endings for the film were shot, and both of them survive. The first is true to the novel, with Garbo unable to see her son and separated from Gilbert to save his career, she jumps in front of a train and kills herself. The other ending, written by Frances Marion, has the two meeting several years after the death of Hurst. And with nothing standing in their way, they can resume their love and live happily ever after. Exhibitors were given the option of which ending to use, and while the two coasts preferred the tragic ending, the middle of the country opted for romantic fantasy. My screening of the film was a part of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts’ silent film series, the last of this season. As with the rest of the series, the film was accompanied by an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by regional musician Dennis James. While I don’t usually enjoy organ scores on DVD, I have to say that the live experience is much different and adds tremendously to the viewing of the film. Love is a perfect example of late silent filmmaking at its best and is a wonderful vehicle in which to see two great movie stars at work.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

40 Years of Jaws (1975—2015)

Director: Steven Spielberg                              Writers: Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb
Film Score: John Williams                               Cinematography: Bill Butler
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary

I had never really given sharks much though before 1975, but all of that changed after watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws that summer. I was in junior high, between seventh and eighth grades, and I remember the theater being packed so that I had to sit fairly close to the front, something never liked to do. I can’t remember who I was with but I do remember the scene that had the most impact on me and, ironically it almost wasn’t in the finished film. Spielberg, after watching the previews said he got greedy. There was one more scream he knew he could get out of the audience so he went to an L.A. swimming pool and reshot the scene of Craig Kingsbury’s head coming out of the hole in the hull. Nothing had prepared me for that moment, not even the opening death of Susan Backlinie, which was horrifying but not startling. But when Richard Dreyfuss was prying the tooth out of the hull, and suddenly that lifeless head appeared, the entire theater erupted into screams. I’ve never experienced anything like that in a theater since. I went with my family to Hawaii the next summer and, as much as I tried, I could not enjoy swimming in the ocean for fear of sharks and have stuck to the swimming pool ever since.

Though I have probably watched this film in excess of twenty or thirty times over the years it never seems dated and never loses its ability to impress. The occasion for today’s viewing was the appearance of the film in theaters as part of Turner Classic Movies’ series of films being shown on big screens all across the country. In fact, all of the films I have seen in the theater in the last year have been classics rather than new films. This was the first, however, that I had actually seen in person when it was first released and the impact was tremendous. A couple of things struck me as I revisited this classic film. The first was, interestingly, the sound, though this should come as no surprise. The crew responsible for the sound on the film actually won an Academy Award. And it’s terrific. After watching the film on a TV set for decades, the presence of the original sound is a revelation, background discussions I hadn’t heard before, the subtlety of some of John Williams’ music cues, right down to the squeak when Dreyfuss takes the cork off of the shark gun. The other thing that made an impression on me was the close up work of Spielberg and cameraman Bill Butler and how confident Spielberg is at those kinds of camera angles in any number of situations in the film.

Back in 1975, after seeing the film, I sought out Peter Benchley’s original novel and was equally captivated, but in an entirely different way. In fact, the difference between the two could be used as a clinic in how to approach adaptations of popular novels for the screen. I’ve been saying for years that screenwriters who get bogged down attempting to duplicate what makes a novel great are setting themselves up for failure. Spielberg had exactly the right approach, re-imagining the story for a visual medium rather than attempting to maintain the introspective nature of characters in the novel. What he ended up with was his version of Jaws, a film that has been often imitated but never duplicated. The picture opened and closed with a piece by Ben Mankiewicz at the Atlanta TCM studios and he related a number of anecdotes familiar to fans of the film. What I found disappointing in doing research for this review is that the documentary The Shark is Still Working is only available on Blue Ray though it’s been out for several years now. That aside, it was great to return to the theater for a screening of Jaws, still one of the greatest films of all time.

The Super Cops (1974)

Director: Gordon Parks                                 Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Film Score: Jerry Fielding                             Cinematography: Richard C. Kratina
Starring: Ron Liebman, David Selby, Sheila Frazier and Pat Hingle

Is this where Starsky and Hutch came from? Even if it wasn’t it’s pretty clear that the idea for this film was inspired by the success of Serpico from the year before. That film was based on the true story of Frank Serpico who refused to take bribes and wound up on the wrong side of the entire New York police force who wanted him gone. The Super Cops treads the same territory as it’s based on the book by L.H. Whittemore subtitled The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin. But where Serpico had a major star in involved, Al Pacino, and still has an outstanding popular reputation, the later film seems like little more than a TV movie when seen today. Even the soundtrack by the great Jerry Fielding doesn't really lift the production. Gordon Parks, who had directed the first two Shaft films with Richard Roundtree decided to move on to legitimate crime drama and possibly more upward mobility in the industry. Unfortunately, while the low-budget style of Blaxploitation films worked in that genre, he wasn’t able to gain much traction with this film and did very little after this.

The film opens with real-life documentary footage of New York police officers David Greenberg and Robert Hantz receiving a commendation from the police commissioner for their large number of weapons and drug arrests. After the credits roll over footage from the film, the stars playing those officers, Ron Liebman and David Selby, are shown being sworn in as rookie cops and going through police academy training. They naturally gravitate to one another, Liebman the arrogant risk taker, Selby the strong silent type. Though they are initially stuck directing traffic and giving out parking violations, the two clearly want to circumvent the system and wear plainclothes and make real arrests without becoming detectives, so they wind up making busts on their off hours. No one in the department, however, can figure out why they’re doing it. The simple fact of the matter is the crime is everywhere, and they don’t have to work very hard to find it. It just takes someone who wants to do the work, and the rookies volunteer themselves. Once they’re finished with their probationary work, the captain punishes them by sending them to the worst precinct in the city, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the second-largest black community in New York after Harlem.

Liebman and Selby ask to be teamed together and begin immediately to make an impression on the neighborhood. The arrests they make are almost comical because of their inexperience and exuberance. But on their first day, when they make a big drug bust and show up the detectives in the precinct, they get stuck manning the switchboard and doing inventory of office supplies, and are forced to continue doing their real police work on their time off which includes making themselves seen at many of the black clubs where drugs are sold. At the same time Liebman has it bad for a beautiful prostitute, Sheila Frazier, and can’t stop himself from trying to get to know her. To what end even he doesn’t know. Soon the duo is christened “Batman and Robin” by the people in the neighborhood, but while they continue to make arrests they are hampered at every turn by the men in their own department. What keeps them going is the support of their captain, Dan Frazer, who hopes their exploits will gain some recognition and in the process help get him reassigned. Pat Hingle doesn’t make his appearance until the very end, as the police commissioner who gives them their commendations . . . against his will.

By far the biggest flaw with the film is the acting, or lack thereof. Neither Liebman nor Selby exude any kind of physical toughness or agility and it strains credulity right from the start. They have a goofy TV quality that is almost painful to watch. Ron Liebman has done a lot of television work since and is a fairly recognizable face. David Selby, however, is less familiar having appeared primarily in prime-time soaps and guest spots on television. Police captain Dan Frazer had come out of the Kojak series while the prostitute Sheila Frazier had first appeared in Super Fly, which was directed by Gordon Parks’ son the previous year. The most unique aspect of the film is probably the partnership angle. Films like Dirty Harry or Shaft had focused on a lone outsider, while the partnership of the two cops in this film is the obvious precursor to Starsky and Hutch. Despite its numerous flaws, The Super Cops is not a bad film. And if one looks at it in historical perspective, it can actually be seen to hold an important place in the crime dramas of the seventies as the progenitor of buddy cop films and TV shows to this day.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Magnum Force (1973)

Director: Ted Post                                        Writer: John Milius & Michael Cimino
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                              Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, David Soul and Tim Matheson

It says something about the power of this character that even though Magnum Force is the weakest of the Dirty Harry films, it still maintains a large measure of popularity some forty years after its initial release. The biggest problem with the story is that it is a reactionary one, seemingly written solely to counter critics that said the character was a vigilante acting outside of the law, when Harry Callahan was no such thing. Though to be fair to screenwriter John Milius, that was actually Clint Eastwood’s intent. Ironically, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish from the following year would fully embrace the vigilante idea and spawn a series of films that became just as popular as Clint Eastwood’s franchise--critics be damned. Director Ted Post was familiar to Eastwood from his Rawhide days, and had helmed Hang ‘Em High five years earlier, though the two had a falling out during filming because Eastwood had so much control over the production. Milius, who had done an uncredited rewrite on the first film, was brought in officially for this film, along with Michael Cimino who would direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot as soon as principal photography was done on this film. And finally, Lalo Schifrin is on hand with variations on the iconic score that he composed for Dirty Harry.

The film begins in San Francisco with the acquittal of mob boss Richard Devon, bragging to the media. After his car pulls out from the courthouse he’s followed by a motorcycle cop who finally pulls them over just across one of the Bay Area bridges, and once traffic dies down he shoots all four men in the car and leaves. Later, homicide detective Clint Eastwood shows up with his new minority partner--something of a running gag in the series--Felton Perry, and sets up his conflict with authority immediately. Police lieutenant Hal Holbrook orders him back on the stakeout he was banished to, stating that he never had to use his gun when he was on the streets. It’s here that Eastwood delivers the first variation on the signature line in the film: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The next scene is a little forced, however, as screenwriters John Milius and Michael Cimino have Eastwood and Perry go all the way out to the airport for a burger, just so that Eastwood can stumble into a hijacking in progress and insert himself into the crisis in order to take out the hijackers. Nevertheless, like the rest of the film, it may be contrived but it is effective.

Back at the station house Eastwood runs into Mitchell Ryan, a burned out motorcycle cop who is in the middle of his third divorce and vows never to retire and go down fighting. Down at the shooting range Eastwood runs into a group of rookies, David Soul, Tim Matheson, Robert Ulrich and Kip Niven, all of them ex-military and all excellent shots, a challenge to Eastwood’s domination of the department’s combat shooting competition. The next day, out on a lonely residential neighborhood in the hills, the rogue motorcycle cop sets up on the ground overlooking the swimming pool of another mobster and kills a dozen people at a pool party, including Suzanne Somers, with a sub-machine gun. That night Eastwood is back on his stakeout at a Cost Plus, and when things finally go down Perry is humiliated by the thieves in the process. It’s not until a third execution, Albert Popwell in his regular appearance, this time as a pimp after he killed Margaret Avery the night before, that Eastwood is brought into the investigation by the homicide captain, not Holbrook. Holbrook has the detectives looking into mob hit men even though Eastwood knows it’s someone impersonating a cop. Meanwhile the rookies keep finding more bodies and Ryan begins to lose his grip on reality.

Despite it’s flaws, it is an interesting film, especially in the way that it is forced to deal with the killer. Because the plot is so dependent upon deception, the story needs two things: a red herring and to keep the identity of the true killer hidden. But this only serves to undermine the red herring, which isn’t outright destructive to the film, but never quite allows for full suspension of disbelief by the audience. Things actually improve once the identity of the killer is revealed and the climax is the better for it. Still, with so many random events in the film surrounding the murders there seems to be little to hang onto as a viewer. And it didn’t help that it was the longest film in the franchise. The film was criticized in the press, not only by those writers who felt it was just as bad as the first one, but by those who thought the moralizing by Eastwood’s character was hypocritical. Nevertheless, the box-office grosses were even higher than the original film and Eastwood would go on to star in three more installments. Though Magnum Force lacks what the rest of the series has in terms of story, the style and the star are still enough to make it a satisfying film and an enduring Eastwood classic.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan and Van Heflin

This Warner Brothers classic suffers unduly from the fact that it was allowed to slip into public domain, and thus it appears on any number of sub-standard copies on DVD. But this is understandable considering what an odd film Santa Fe Trail is. It attempts to tell the story of abolitionist John Brown during his time in Kansas, but in casting him as the villain it inadvertently makes heroes of the supporters of Southern slavery--though not really. The heroes are meant to be the soldiers who aren’t supposed to take sides in politics but defend their country, which leaves the audience wanting for a clear side to root for. Even so, it’s an interesting, if flawed, story though not a great film. And this is surprising given the pedigree it possesses. It not only has the distinction of being the first teaming of Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, but it is also the penultimate film of Errol Flynn and de Havilland’s successful partnership. In addition, the film was directed by the great Michael Curtiz and scored by the equally brilliant Max Steiner. Ultimately it’s Robert Bruckner’s screenplay the lets the production down and what has no doubt relegated the film to public domain abuse.

The film begins at the West Point Military Academy in 1954, with a group of cadets soon to graduate under the command of Moroni Olsen as Robert E. Lee. Many of them are Southerners and would go on to fight under Lee in the Civil War, but here the story is one of contention between those cadets, Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan as George Custer among others, against an agitator for militant abolition played by Van Heflin. After a fight breaks out the graduates are banished to Kansas in the West--though it turns out that’s just what they wanted rather than sitting in a peace-time army post--while Heflin is dishonorably discharged. At graduation both Flynn and Reagan fall for Olivia de Havilland, the sister of William Lundigan and daughter of a railroad magnate, and on the way with her on the train to Leavenworth, slave trader John Litel’s partner is shot while trying to keep one of John Brown’s sons from taking slaves into Kansas. Once they arrive at the fort, the job of the new officers is to take a wagon train financed by Henry O’Neill to Santa Fe while de Havilland stays back to run her father’s company, and hired hands Alan Hale and Guinn Williams go along to look out for her interests.

Meanwhile, along the trail, Raymond Massy as John Brown has set up a camp to keep slavery out of Kansas at all costs, even to the point of killing the militant pro-slavery groups who were acting like outlaws to coerce the state into slavery. In his group are the disgruntled Van Heflin and new recruit Ward Bond. Massey stops the train to pick up guns packed in crates marked as bibles, and while Heflin wants to settle his old score with Flynn, Massey just wants to take the guns and go. But Flynn isn’t going to let them and takes as many men as he can and gives chase. Eventually the army has had enough as well and sends the troops to hunt down and bring back Massy for execution. That’s when Massy abandons Kansas and heads east to foment war. The most notably historical stretching of the truth is the way the film gathers a dozen famous military men in one graduating class at West Point when in fact their graduations were actually spread over several years both before and after 1954. Other events in the life of John Brown during his time in Kansas--including the deaths of two of his sons who actually died in Harper’s Ferry two years later--were fictionalized as well. The biggest problem with the film, however, is the incredibly disappointing portrayal of freed blacks who are abandoned by Massey and then decide they want to go back to the South and their former lives as slaves.

The one bright spot in the film is, of course, it’s stars. With Errol Flynn’s regular foil Patric Knowles having moved on to Universal by this time, Warners decided to try Ronald Reagan in his place, and the team did well in the two films they appeared in together. Flynn’s other sidekick, Alan Hale, is relegated to comedy relief here just as he would be in the World War II film Desperate Journey, the other Flynn-Reagan film. Olivia de Havilland finally regains the kind of strength of character that had been lacking since she was first teamed with Flynn in Captain Blood, while Raymond Massey delivers a terrific performance as the crazed abolitionist. Van Heflin begins strong, but his part is so small it doesn’t really give him a chance to show his full range of talents. In terms of the direction, Michael Curtiz is everything one could ask for, especially in the battle sequences, with ground-level cameras and overhead shots adding a lot of visual variety, though Max Steiner’s score is disappointingly generic, and some of the production design seems thrown together at the last minute. Santa Fe Trail is not a great film, but is certainly a must see for fans of the stars and the director.