Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading
After his great little run of action films from 1975 - 1982 that included The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs, gritty director Walter Hill wandered in the wrong direction with the action musical Streets of Fire and the unfunny Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions. Even though he would go on to have a big hit with the Schwarzenegger muscle bore Red Heat, most of his flicks had potential but oddly fell short (Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill). He did do an underrated urban thriller, Trespass, but otherwise nothing reached that earlier high.
Hill started out as a writer and one of his first credited screenplays was for Sam Peckinpah’s mean spirited thriller, The Getaway. So Hill’s 1987 Tex-Mex action flick Extreme Prejudice, though completely ignored by audiences in its day, now plays as a perfect homage to his one-time boss, Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), the master of masculine violence who had burned out and died a few years earlier. With about as good a cast of tough guy character actors you could find in 1987 (including Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe), time has been kind to Extreme Prejudice. Though it’s set in modern day, it’s now starting to look like one of the better “Westerns” made in 1980s.Continue Reading
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.Continue Reading
Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most of the movies directly about the horrors and political terrorism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s usually center on a dim schmuck who accidentally finds himself involved in the blacklistings. They’ve ranged from the good (The Front with Woody Allen working as an actor-for-hire), the bad (Guilty by Suspicion, the beginning of Robert De Niro’s slid towards mediocrity) and the terrible (Frank Darabont’s awful The Majestic with Jim Carrey, a movie that makes “Capra-esqe” a mortal sin). The usually simplistic genre helps make mega-star actor George Clooney’s second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. (after the interesting but far from perfect Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), seem positively genius in comparison. Instead of piercing the blacklisting from the streets he sets it upstairs in the newsroom of the TV show See It Now, where the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn in the performance of his career) dared to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clooney (who also wrote the script with another one-time journeyman TV actor Grant Heslov) not only makes one of the most pointed films about this ugly period in American politics but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the working of 1950s television. Shot in color and then transferred to a stunning black & white in post by cinematography all-star Robert Elswit (he’s shot all the Paul Thomas Anderson joints up to There Will Be Blood), Good Night, and Good Luck. really is a marvelous film, beautifully realized in its simplicity and a triumph on all fronts.
Murrow and his trusty producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), fluctuate their television news magazine show between lightweight celebrity interviews (Liberace!) and more meaningful political pieces, where their heart really is - the fluff is a way to appease their sponsors and the higher-ups at CBS. Knowing that it could start a battle, they decide to take on the dangerous bullying tactics of Senator McCarthy, who was at the height of his powers. He was ruining careers of American citizens by accusing them of being Communists unless they groveled and told McCarthy what a great job he and his Committee where doing, and they were often forced to name others who may be Communists, just to give more names and more power to the often drunk lout Senator. Murrow and Friendly have to walk a tightrope when the Government begins to hint at an investigation of the station's employees and McCarthy himself falls on his old standby trick, accusing Murrow of being a Communist. Meanwhile the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella, wonderful in the role), is forced to defend his star but also tries to keep him on a short leash (the moments between Langella and Strathairn are the best in the movie). The staff is under their own pressure. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a secretly married couple (CBS policy did not allow employees to wed), and in another captivating performance, Ray Wise plays CBS News Correspondent Don Hollenbeck who admires Murrow but lives in terror of having his own lefty political background exposed.Continue Reading
Woody Allen: A Documentary
At over three hours Robert B. Weide's documentary (originally shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series) is almost “everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen - but were afraid to ask." As a rabid fan I still have some unanswered questions, but I couldn’t ask for a more entertaining examination of the fascinating career of one of cinema’s true masters. Though autobiographical snippets have appeared in most of Allen’s films, he has remained massively private and almost mythically close-mouthed about his filmmaking (for instance never giving any DVD extras), though in recent years he has done more film promoting and made more public appearances (as have guys like Robert De Niro, as the economics of promoting films have gotten more intense and needy). In ’97 Allen was the subject of a fun, lightweight documentary, Wild Man Blues, which was more about his clarinet playing career and his bizarre relationship to his one time step-daughter and now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. For fans that was the closest glimpse into the man (along with Eric Lax’s 1991 book of conversations with Allen). But with Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide (mostly known as a TV director with credits that include Curb Your Enthusiasm) has gotten the most in depth, on camera heart-to-heart with Allen. Filled with wall to wall clips, the film mercifully spends most its time on the rarer early career of Allen and less on the stink he has mostly been putting out for the last 20 years.
Woody’s life growing up in Brooklyn is now the stuff of legend. As a teenager he started giving jokes to newspaper columnists, which led to some writing gigs that eventually put him in a room with future celebrated writers Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart writing for Sid Caesar. He would continue writing for comedians until hooking up with high-end managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe who talked him into hitting the stage and telling the jokes himself. A neurotic and shy young man, Allen never dreamed of being a performer and it often showed. It was a slow rise but eventually, as cerebral comics like Mort Sahl were coming into fashion, Allen found his voice and an eager audience in the groovy coffee house scene of New York’s Greenwich Village at clubs like The Bitter End. Allen soon became a showbiz fixture on the TV comedy circuit; exposure was the goal and here Allen admits nothing was beneath him (the documentary even includes a bizarre clip of Allen boxing a kangaroo a show called Hippodrome).Continue Reading
Run for The Sun
Richard Widmark got his only Oscar nomination playing one of the great psycho creeps in film history, Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. It was his first film and it made him an instant star, most famous for that scene where he pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs while giggling hysterically. Though he was ruggedly handsome with sweepy blond hair, he was never fully able to drop that creepy Klaus Kinski quality, even as he gradually moved into heroic leading man roles, but it helped make even the most generic film a little more interesting. Widmark was part of that impressive group of leading men who emerged after WWII, mostly in Film Noir. Though he starred in a number of significant films including Panic in the Streets, Night and the City, and Pickup on South Street, he is not remembered today with the same iconic status as his contemporaries, such as Lancaster, Mitchum or Kirk Douglas, who all had more important roles on their resume. But with MGM releasing a little known gem, Run for the Sun, on their Limited Edition DVD Collection, perhaps it will help Widmark’s career get more reevaluation.
Though British director Roy Boulting did over 20 movies, he might be best known for making Disney child actress Hayley Mills his fourth wife (he directed her in the oddball horror flick Twisted Nerve). Run for the Sun may prove to be his lost almost-masterpiece (okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s very watchable). The script is credited to Boulting and Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) but the credits say it was based on a story by Richard Connell, making it another kinda-sorta version of his famous short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." Connell's story had been adapted before as a classic with Fay Wray in 1932 and then less memorably in a Robert Wise directed flick retitled A Game of Death in 1945 (and much later and more loosely in the John Woo/Jean-Claude Van Damme collaboration, Hard Target, and the Ice-T trash epic, Surviving The Game). In the end Run for the Sun is about as close to "The Most Dangerous Game" as The Hunger Games is; that is to say, there are some plot crossovers, but not much more.Continue Reading
The Dirty Dozen
The Dirty Dozen, the granddaddy of action super-team flicks, took the sheen off the WWII big ensemble picture (The Longest Day, The Great Escape) and mixed in the military cynicism that was bubbling up (encouraged by doubt about the Vietnam War) with rowdy anti-heroics (MASH, Kelly’s Heroes). Like so many films to follow, the film breaks into two halves easily: first, assembling the team full of anti-authority types (Stripes); and second, the undercover suicide mission behind enemy lines (Inglourious Basterds). After years of dependable supporting performances in The Wild One, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ship of Fools, this may be silver haired, tough guy actor Lee Marvin's signature role (with apologies to the great crime thriller Point Blank and his Oscar winning work in the otherwise forgettable Cat Ballou). The Dirty Dozen gives Marvin the perfect opportunity to showcase his brawn as well as his sense of humor. As Major Reisman, he is assigned the task of putting together a WWII team made of 12 creeps and criminals, many of whom are facing the noose, to first train and then sneak into France before D-Day to kill a group of high-end Nazis (with their dates) at a fancy chateau shindig.
The team is made up of many future stars, or at least interesting cinematic curios...Continue Reading
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director Robert Wise’s 1951 Science-Fiction opus The Day The Earth Stood Still has always been the granddaddy of the friendly alien invasion genre. While the more popular “mean alien” genre dominated Sci-Fi in the decade (The War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the peaceful alien is usually less exciting and harder to pull off. It wasn’t really for another 20-something years that it was done as well again (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and even the ’78 version of Superman). Like the best of Sci-Fi, The Day The Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoia of the period (the Cold War, the atomic bomb). What makes it so much more than the usual hokum of the '50s is the high caliber talent behind it. It has a groundbreaking and influential score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise (after editing Citizen Kane) helped invent the Noir Horror genre with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Afterward he did straight Noirs with films like The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Though The Day The Earth Stood Still has a black and white gloss to it, it also has shadows, lies, and typical Noir pessimism, making it maybe the first Noir Sci-Fi flick.
When a big flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, the handsome alien pilot Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from it in peace but is shot by a jumpy soldier. In response, his big robot buddy Gort emerges and destroys all the weapons present with his head laser. After a debriefing by the military, Klaatu tells a White House official he has an important message for the leaders of the world. Instead he is pooh-poohed and locked up. He escapes and goes undercover as “Mr. Carpenter,” a dim-witted Earth nerd, taking a room in a boarding house to learn more about these strange Earth people. He hangs out with a science loving kid there named Bobby (Billy Gray) who gives him a walking tour of DC and a quickie lesson in Americanism. Bobby’s mom, Helen (the great Patricia Neal), works for Professor Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe), a math wiz, whom Klaatu eventually befriends and to whom he explains his intentions: Earth’s love of war and newly acquired atomic weapons have endangered the universe, and unless the powers that be dump their nukes, he will be forced to destroy the planet.Continue Reading
Though it almost shares a title (but little else) with director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti-war flick The Inglorious Bastards, which was just a dirtier Dirty Dozen knockoff, Quentin Tarantino knows a good title when he sees it. With a minor spelling change he gave us his own comic book WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds. With a definite nod to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, it’s like a Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) piece of propaganda, if those guys were still making those flicks in the 1970s. What at first glance may seem like a nasty and mean Nazi revenge fantasy is actually a tribute to the power of cinema and the power of Tarantino’s beautifully composed dialogue. This may be the most talky war script ever written, but unlike the pointlessly inane ramblings of the film he made two years before this, Death Proof (his half of the double feature movie Grindhouse), this dialogue is used to constantly build suspense, and in the hands of an expert actor like Christoph Waltz, it often sounds like an evil poetry. Aided by the clever score, pirated from other films, and the sharp period detail, Inglourious Basterds proved to not only be one of Tarantino's most ingenious creations, but is a film that has aged well (in the brief years since) and is sure to take its place with the best of the genre (lets call ‘em Naziploitation flicks).
Inglourious Basterds is an equally shared international ensemble piece divided into chapters. First you are introduced to a cat n’ mouse playing German SS man, "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Waltz in a mannered piece of scenery chewing that deservedly won him an Oscar). The film opens with him interrogating a French dairy farmer who is hiding a neighboring Jewish family in his floorboards. He toys with the man before his soldiers shoot up the floor, but the teenage daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape into the countryside. Meanwhile an American unit commanded by a very Southern Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt acting like a cross between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn) leads a group of Jewish soldiers known as the "Basterds" on a dirty trick mission to torture and wreak havoc on Nazis, becoming legends and the thing of nightmares to Nazis, including even a flummoxed Hitler (Martin Wuttke). A few years later, Shosanna, now known as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" (and resembling a young Catherine Deneuve), runs a hip cinema in Paris and is any movie geek’s dream girl. Unfortunately she has the unwanted attention of a young German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators). He is even starring as himself in a recently completed film about his sniper exploits called Nation’s Pride, directed by head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller convinces the higher-ups, including security-chief Hans Landa, to hold the premiere at Shosanna’s cinema, with the German high command in attendance, including the Führer himself. Shosanna and her boyfriend hatch a plan to burn the theater down during the screening.Continue Reading