The Big Trail
On the eve of the Depression, studio and theater owner William Fox decided that something new was needed in film exhibition. So he created Fox Grandeur – the first 70mm widescreen projection system. The process used to sometimes mind-boggling effect in The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh’s early sound Western.
The feature supplied the first starring role for the unbelievably young John Wayne, who plays Breck Coleman, a scout who signs on to lead a wagon train of settlers from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. Along the trail, he romances a comely pilgrim (Marguerite Churchill), is menaced by a trio of deadly baddies (Tyrone Power, Sr., Charles Stevens, and Ian Keith), and faces perils ranging from a tribe of hostile Indians to the raging elements.Continue Reading
Blast of Silence
If Albert Camus had made a film noir, it would have been very much like Allen Baron’s little-seen 1961 feature Blast of Silence. This low-budget jewel, which enjoyed a critical renaissance after a 1990 screening at the Munich Film Festival, is less a thriller than it is an existential exploration. In many ways, it anticipated Martin Scorsese’s equally dark New York drama Taxi Driver by a decade.
Writer-director Baron had originally cast Peter Falk as hit man Frankie Bono, but wound up playing the part himself after Falk took his career-making role in Murder Inc. Resembling a less feral George C. Scott, Baron is extremely effective as the solitary, dead-eyed assassin, who arrives in New York City at Christmastime to eliminate a troublesome small-time mobster. After a chance meeting, the lonely, embittered killer is drawn to a girl from his past (Molly McCarthy). But he still has a contract to fulfill, and his world begins to unravel as he stalks his prey.Continue Reading
Country music fans will get a bang out of this well-acted 1972 feature, an unfairly neglected picture (happily just issued on DVD) with a terrific high-energy performance at its heart.
Rip Torn stars as Maury Dann, a second-rate country singer whose life is playing out like one of his songs. The film follows Maury over the course of a couple of days, as he, his band, his devoted driver (Cliff Emmich), his manager-fixer (Michael C. Gwynne), and his blowsy girlfriend (Ahna Capri) travel from a low-rent honky-tonk gig to a marquee show in Nashville. Along the way, Maury gobbles speed (and shares some with his mother!), guzzles whiskey, screws anything that moves, picks up a dimestore clerk turned neophyte groupie (Elayne Heilveil), and generally rampages over everyone in his path.Continue Reading
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he became a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.
Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that heralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.Continue Reading
The Naked Prey
Lean, intense and pictorially spectacular, The Naked Prey made a big impression when I saw it as a teenager in its original theatrical release. My high school buddy Todd McCarthy – today Variety’s chief film critic – saw it with me, and for years he called me “Gampu” in honor of Morrison Gampu, one of its leading native players.
The story is based on a true incident in which a member of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party was tracked by Blackfoot Indians in a tribal “run of the arrow.” Actor-director Cornel Wilde’s film transposes the tale to 19th-century Africa: After the members of his safari are captured and brutally massacred by a native tribe, one courageous member of the party (Wilde) is given a fighting chance, and is released into the bush naked and unarmed, pursued by 10 fierce warriors. In the wild, he is imperiled by human and natural predators.Continue Reading
3:10 To Yuma
The Western is showing signs of regained life, and no picture is a better example of the renascent genre than 3:10 to Yuma. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard story and originally filmed in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, the remake sports compelling performances by its leads, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
The notorious murderer and robber Ben Wade (Crowe) is captured, and struggling farmer Dan Evans (Bale) accepts an offer of $200 to join a motley posse and pack the criminal onto a train to the state prison at Yuma. During an arduous, violent journey, the group is menaced by renegade Indians, rogue lawmen, and Wade’s gang, and the charismatic, deadly Wade presents a threat all by himself.Continue Reading
Zodiac is a smart, taut, and engrossing film about the titular, self-named serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late ‘60s. The murderer, who was never caught, remains a phantom in David Fincher’s drama; the director of Se7en instead focuses his versatile camera on the men whose pursuit of the elusive, taunting psychopath evolves into obsession over the course of years.
After a bang-up opening – Zodiac’s second attack – the film enters the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle, where crime-beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) learn of the killer’s bravado letter to the paper. Soon, a murder in San Francisco pulls lead investigator Dave Tosci (Mark Ruffalo) into the vortex. The action follows the three men as they become increasingly consumed while leads dry up, a key suspect appears, and Zodiac mocks the police and the press as the case drags on.Continue Reading
If you know nothing about film noir, start with Double Indemnity. This classic by director Billy Wilder was among the first bona fide pictures in the postwar genre, and it contains all the essential elements – lust, greed, violence, betrayal – that animated this wondrous American style during its great epoch of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Based on a novel by hardboiled fiction forefather James M. Cain, the biting script was co-authored by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe. The brutal, sleazy tale is recounted (in traditional voiceover style) by canny but weak-willed Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is ensnared by the scheming trollop Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The pair hatch a complicated plot to murder her wealthy husband and collect a large double indemnity insurance policy. But they don’t reckon on the acute intuition of Neff’s friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose “little man” in the pit of his stomach tells him something isn’t quite right.Continue Reading
Ace In The Hole
Though it doesn’t revolve around a murder or a heist, Ace in the Hole remains a definitive film noir. Bitter, caustic, and unremittingly dark, it prophesied our age of journalistic madness as it focused on a literal “media circus” developed by a story-hungry press.
In a virtuoso performance that equals his turn in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-heels newsman who desperately takes a job at a tank-town Albuquerque paper. He stumbles on the headline of a lifetime after the owner of a roadside diner is trapped in an abandoned mineshaft while hunting for Indian artifacts. Envisioning a Pulitzer Prize and a return to the big time in New York, Tatum ruthlessly controls the story, befriending the terrified victim (Richard Benedict), romancing his slatternly wife (Jan Sterling), and cynically working local authorities and big-city editors. Then things start to come apart…Continue Reading
Witchfinder General is a small classic of English horror that only recently saw re-release in its intended form. Originally distributed as The Conqueror Worm, to capitalize on the Edgar Allan Poe vehicles of its star Vincent Price, Michael Reeves’ film has previously been seen with incongruous narration and extraneous nudity added and its original score excised. A 2007 DVD restoration righted these wrongs, and it can now be experienced in all its chilling glory.
In 17th century England, chaos descends as civil war rages between King Charles I’s Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. “Witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins (Price) roams the countryside extracting “confessions” from accused witches and collecting a fee for each hanging and drowning, abetted by the sadistic torturer and rapist John Stearne (Robert Russell). A young coronet in Cromwell’s insurgent army (Ian Ogilvy) and his fiance (Hilary Dwyer) become entangled with the murderous Hopkins.Continue Reading