When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver Streak, Foul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.
The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.Continue Reading
National Lampoon’s Animal House
The impact that National Lampoon Magazine had on American comedy during the 1970s was enormous, eventually spawning the massively ripped-off comedy movie National Lampoon's Animal House (as well as the Vacation series and some crappy forgettable flicks). You could say that the long running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live symbolically evolved from National Lampoon (as well as from the Second City comedy clubs in Chicago and Toronto). Following the success of SNL's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, John Belushi would earn a cult following from his performance in Animal House that would last past his untimely death four years later from a drug overdose, leading the way for SNL alumni to dominate comedy for decades.Animal House follows two freshmen, Pinto (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst), "a wimp and a blimp," at Faber College in 1962. After being turned away from the elite fraternities they end up joining "the worst house on campus," Delta House. These campus outlaws are in constant trouble with Dean Wormer (brilliantly played by the snaky John Vernon of Point Blank), as they are placed on “double secret probation.” Eschewing academics or athletics, Delta members are either out to get wasted or laid, lead by would-be playboy, Otter (Tim Matheson), and super slob, Bluto (Belushi). There are a number of memorable scenes including Pinto and fellow Delta, Boon (Peter Riegert), along with his girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen), being introduced to pot by a professor (Donald Sutherland); Belushi's stroll through the cafeteria line hoarding food and then his zit imitation; the guys' trip to a Rhythm N Blues club where Otis Day and the Knights perform (a scene ripped off in Weird Science). After the fraternity is expelled their revenge on the s...Continue Reading
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
The Blues Brothers
There was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.
Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson ...
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
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