Monday, June 14, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The 1970s was a fantastic decade for gritty, urban crime dramas. Audiences were treated to fine films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Seven-Ups, The French ConnectionDirty Harry, and, of course, The Godfather. A lesser-known movie that could be included in that group is Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, featuring Robert Mitchum in his best performance of the '70s (though he's also excellent in The Yakuza).

Richard Jordan as an ATF agent.
Mitchum plays Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a mid-tier criminal in Boston who's facing a 3-5 year prison sentence for driving a truck of stolen goods. A weary middle-aged thug with a family, Eddie will do almost anything to avoid another jail term. Looking for a way out, he meets with an ambitious ATF agent (Richard Jordan) who promises to "do something" for him if Eddie will turn informant.

There's not a lot of plot to The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is more concerned with its characters and its portrait of the Boston underworld. Mitchum portrays Eddie as an experienced criminal, aware of his limitations, who operates within his own ethics. For example, Eddie is willing to snitch on a gun dealer, but he won't provide evidence on the man who hired him to drive the truck. You just don't squeal on the guy that gives you a job.

Steven Keats as a gun dealer.
Mitchum receives exceptional support from his castmates, especially Jordan, Peter Boyle, and Steven Keats. Jordan portrays his ATF agent as an opportunist whose morals are marginally better than the bad guys he pursues. While Peter Boyle appears in just a handful of scenes, he commands the screen as the criminal equivalent of a double agent--he sells out his fellow felons to Jordan while concurrently working as a hired killer for clients like "The Man." However, the film's best supporting performance belongs to Steven Keats, who plays a bottom-of-the-heap gun dealer named Jackie Brown. An ambitious hustler, Jackie is smarter than he first appears--though that doesn't save him in the end. Surprisingly, Keats' work didn't further his career in terms of major movies, though he was a busy TV actor. As you may surmised, Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name "Jackie Brown" for his 1997 movie.

Director Peter Yates lovingly captures the bars, dives, bowling alleys, and deserted buildings where Eddie and his fellow criminals operate. He imbues the film with an urban urgency that lingers after the final scene. (My only issue with the settings is one that's not unique to Eddie Coyle--I'm always flummoxed when characters discuss crimes in public places where they could be easily overheard!) Yates also inserts two tense bank robbery sequences that nicely offset the film's more dialogue-driven scenes. Still, it's one of those talky scenes that provides a memorable exchange between Mitchum and Keats, in which Eddie tries to share his experiences with the younger "operator."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle had been on my "watch list" for many years. I only recently discovered a DVD copy at a local library. I was concerned that my expectations would lead to disappointment--but that was not the case. It's a well-written, well-acted crime drama that falls just short of being included among the best of the 1970s. Still, that's high praise considering the quality of crime genre films during that decade.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Burt Reynolds' Unofficial Remake of a Film Noir Classic

Burt Reynolds as Sharky.
After placing a civilian in harm's way, big city detective Tom Sharky is "demoted" from narcotics to vice. It's intended to be a humdrum assignment, but that changes quickly when Sharky (Burt Reynolds) confiscates a list of seven coded phone numbers from an affluent pimp. One number belongs to a murder victim; Sharky is directed take no action on a second number. That's the one that interests him, of course, and it belongs to a high-class prostitute named Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Sharky and a fellow vice detective bug Dominoe's apartment and learn she is having an affair with a politician running for state governor. Convinced there is a link to the earlier murder, Sharky conducts 24-hour surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. He also begins to follow her and slowly develops an infatuation with the beautiful call girl. That comes to an end, though, when she answers the doorbell one morning and is shot in the face with a shotgun.

If you don't already recognize the plot to a famous 1940s film noir, then stop reading this review now because spoilers lie ahead.

Although it was based on a 1978 novel by William Diehl, Sharky's Machine borrows its premise largely from Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). In both films, a detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is believed to be murdered--only to turn out to be alive. The key difference is that Dana Andrews' detective in Laura falls for a woman he believes is dead. At least, Sharky's obsession is about a "real" woman.

Rachel Ward as Dominoe.
Sharky's Machine could have been a dark mystery with disturbing overtones. Let's be honest, Dana Andrews' character in Laura wasn't that far removed from James Stewart's over-the-edge protagonist in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The problem with Sharky's Machine is that its star--who also directed--doesn't know how to make anything but a Burt Reynolds movie. With his trademark mustache and sly smile, Burt portrays Sharky as a conventional detective who plays tough with the boys and tough-tender with the ladies. The scene where a coy Sharky flirts with Dominoe and then carries her to bed is painful to watch.

Bernie Casey as Sharky's pal.
Reynolds surrounds himself with a capable supporting cast, but gives most of them little to do. It's sad to see a fine actor like Brian Keith relegated to a bit part (but it's also likely he wasn't in demand at that point in his career). Rachel Ward is gorgeous as Dominoe but struggles in a poorly-written part. She showed off her acting prowess two years later in The Thornbirds miniseries. As Reynolds' vice squad partner, Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) delivers the most believable performance.

To his credit, Reynolds tries to tweak his standard formula by setting the action in Atlanta (instead of NYC or Chicago) and incorporating a jazz soundtrack with songs by Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, and others. Personally, I didn't care for the score, but I chalk that up solely to personal taste.

Burt Reynolds initially asked John Boorman to direct, but the filmmaker was still working on Excalibur. Based on his earlier success in the crime movie genre (see Point Blank), I am sure Boorman could have delivered a far superior film. It's easy to speculate on what Sharky's Machine might have been. The reality is that Reynolds' variation on Laura is nothing more than a passable time-filler if you've got nothing else to do.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Jack Lemmon Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Jack Lemmon film and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Meltdown.

2. Tenderfoot.

3. Homage.

4. Enter!

5. The Witches of Greenwich Village.

6. Josephine and Daphne.

7. The Legend of Whiplash Willie.

8. Some Days You Win, Some Days You Lose. (This might be a hard one!)

9. Love and Gin Rummy.

10. Lobsters on a Train!

11. The Disappearance of Flight 23.

12. Ex-Presidents.

13. New York Ain't For Everyone!

14. The Leslie Special vs. The Hannibal Twin-8.

15. Father Tim.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Van Cleef Seeks Revenge; Holden Steals Cattle!

Lee Van Cleef as Ryan.
Death Rides a Horse (1967).  As young Bill Meceita watches a vicious outlaw gang slaughter his family, he notes a distinguishing feature on each killer--a scar, an earring, a tattoo, a spur. Two decades later, a dead cowboy provides a key clue that reignites Bill's desire to avenge his family. As he tracks down the villains, he keeps encountering a man named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Recently paroled, the older Ryan has his own reasons for finding the same outlaws. Inevitably, Ryan and Bill team up to take down the outlaw's gang leader, who has become a successful (albeit crooked) businessman.

John Philip Law as Bill.
Like the previous year's blockbuster The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Death Rides a Horse was written Luciano Vincenzoni, features music by Ennio Morricone, and, of course, stars Van Cleef. Thematically, though, it shares more in common with Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965). Each film features two men pursuing the same villain independently, though they eventually have to team up to accomplish their goal. Some film critics have claimed the two Spaghetti Westerns also share a mentor-protégé premise. That may be true of Death Rides a Horse, but Van Cleef's ex-colonel and Clint Eastwood's bounty hunter do not fit that mold in For a Few Dollars More

In the hands of director Giulio Petroni, Death Rides a Horse is an above-average Spaghetti Western punctuated with a handful of well-staged shootouts. The relationship between Ryan and Bill (John Philip Law) is well-developed, though the big twist is obvious from the moment Ryan is shown on screen. 

Unlike Eastwood, who moved back to Hollywood after his Spaghetti Western hits, Van Cleef remained in Europe until the late 1970s. His most successful non-Leone Western was probably Sabata (1969), though Death Rides a Horse has attained cult status over the years.

Alvarez Kelly (1966).  During the American Civil War, cattleman Alvarez Kelly delivers a herd of steers to the Union Army, who needs beef to feed its troops. However, Kelly barely has time to count his profits before he's kidnapped by the Confederates. They want him to help them steal the cattle for their troops!

Loosely based on a real-life event called the Beefsteak Raid, Alvarez Kelly squanders a promising premise and a strong cast. The film's central focus seems to be the relationship between the apathetic Kelly (William Holden) and a passionate Confederate colonel (Richard Widmark). To drive a deeper wedge between the men, the script includes a hasty subplot in which Kelly helps the colonel's fiancée (a poorly-utilized Janice Rule) escape from the surrounded Virginia capital of Richmond. Despite this, the audience is led to believe that Kelly and the colonel can still become "frenemies."

Standard fare like Alvarez Kelly and Paris When It Sizzles (1964) stifled Holden's career in the mid-1960s. Fortunately, it got a huge shot in the arm when Sam Peckinpah cast Holden as the lead in The Wild Bunch (1969). Richard Widmark wasn't as lucky, though he got a juicy role as an NYC detective in Madigan (1968) and its belated TV series (which aired under one of NBC's Mystery Movies in 1972-73).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon!


Tomorrow marks the celebration of National Classic Movie Day and, as is tradition, we're hosting a blogathon to highlight this annual May 16th event. This year, we're asking classic movie bloggers to list one favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s (or, one film per decade from the 1930s through the 1980s). Our goal is to shine the spotlight on the incredible movies that were made during cinema's classic era.

Thirty of our favorite movie bloggers are participating. We invite you to check out their blogathon entries below. We will highlight a blog's title in red as its 6 Films - 6 Decades entry is published.

Box Office Poisons

Caftan Woman

Cinema Essentials

CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch

Classic Film Obsessions

Classic Film & TV Cafe

Critica Retro

dbmoviesblog

The Everyday Cinephile 

Four Star Films

goosepimply all over

The Lady Eve's Reel Life

Love Letters to Old Hollywood

The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film

Old Books and Movies

Once Upon a Screen

A Person in the Dark

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies

Realweegiemidget Reviews

Reel Charlie

Shadows and Satin

Silver Scenes

Silver Screenings

the Story Enthusiast

Taking Up Room

Thoughts All Sorts

Twenty Four Frames

Whimsically Classic

My Picks for the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon

For my entry in the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon, I chose a favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s. My criterion was a simple one: These are classics I can watch over and over again! If I join one of them in progress while channel surfing, you can bet I will be watching the rest of the movie again.

James Olson and Arthur Hill.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) – This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience.

James Stewart as the pilot.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) – Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so fascinating: the friction among the survivors; their audacious plan to reach civilization again; and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere. Despite the presence of stars James Stewart, Peter Finch, and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character as a quiet, bespeckled German who proposes an incredible plan to save the plane crash survivors—he's irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds everyone together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

James Stewart and Ben Gazzara.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate the jury's emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Out of the Past (1947) –  My favorite film noir has Robert Mitchum as a man who has put his shady past behind him and found love with a good woman in a small community where he operates a gas station. But, as is often the case in the movies, his past catches up with him when a former acquaintance passes through town. With its contrasts of bright lights and dark shadows, Out of the Past is a visual feast. It’s also a compelling tale of a man pulled back into the shadows of his past—no matter how hard he tries to escape them. Kirk Douglas nails the manipulating villain; too bad he didn’t play more bad guys. Yet, despite the presence of Mitchum and Douglas, the film belongs to Jane Greer, an underrated and under-utilized actress who created one of the genre’s best femme fatales.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) – It's hard not to list The Adventures of Robin or The Wizard of Oz as my1930s representative, but I've written about them before. So instead, I will opt for another Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland classic. Often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, The Charge of the Light Brigade is nonetheless a top-notch historical action film. Against the backdrop of the Crimean War, Errol and Patric Knowles play brothers vying for Olivia's affections. An early scene informs us that Olivia’s character, though engaged to Flynn, has secretly fallen in love with Knowles. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Flynn’s British officer as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. I think it’s one of Flynn’s finest performances. The climatic charge, directed by Michael Curtiz, is an incredible sequence (although it resulted in many complaints over the mistreatment of horses).

Spies (aka Spione) (1928) - A diabolical genius heads a mysterious criminal organization bent on world domination. A secret agent, known only by a number, is given the mission to stop the villain. A femme fatale is dispatched to kill the hero--but instead falls in love with him. Is this the plot of the latest James Bond movie? No, it's Fritz Lang's influential silent film Spies, which pre-dates 007's movie debut by 34 years. Spies often gets lost amid Lang's early German silent classics such as Dr. Mabuse (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). And yet, in terms of entertainment and as an expression of Lang's love of cinema, Spies surpasses those better-known films. It's a thrill ride from start to finish, highlighted by a nailbiting train crash and a climax with a clown that could have been devised by Hitchcock. For many years, only a 90-minute print was available--and that's the one I've seen. In 2004, it was restored to 143 minutes.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Love, Hogs, and Mincemeat at the State Fair!

Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.
This bright 1962 remake of the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) was clearly intended to attract the young adult audience. Top-billed Pat Boone had scored a #1 hit song with "Moody River" the previous year. Co-star Bobby Darin was still churning out hit singles with regularity. For good measure, the cast included two up-and-coming actresses: Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin.

Boone and Tiffin played siblings who are attending the Texas State Fair with their parents. Wayne Frake (Pat Boone) hopes to win an auto race. His mother has entered her mincemeat into a contest. Dad has big plans for his prized hog Blue Boy. As for their daughter Margy (Pamela Tiffin), she is looking for something--she's just not sure what.

Pamela Tiffin as Margy.
To their surprise, both of the Frake kids find love at the fair. In between fine-tuning his car's carburetor, Wayne falls hard for Emily (Ann-Margret), a vivacious entertainer that's unlike any of the girls back in Wayne's home town. In another case of opposites attract, Margy becomes enamored with a smooth-talking TV host (Bobby Darin). 

Will the kids' romances turn out to be the "real thing"? Will Mom's mincemeat triumph over the big companies? Will Blue Boy regain his confidence and become top hog? State Fair answers all these questions!

The plot hews pretty closely with the 1945 version, the only musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote directly for the screen. In the earlier film, Wayne isn't an amateur race car driver, Margy's boyfriend is a newspaper reporter, and the setting is the Iowa State Fair. Richard Rodgers also wrote the music and lyrics for five news songs for the 1962 film. (Incidentally, I can't imagine the song "Never Say No to a Man" being included in any future productions.)

Ann-Margret as Emily.
As expected, Pat Boone is the featured vocalist. Surprisingly, Bobby Darin has only one solo number, the mediocre "This Isn't Heaven" (one of the new tunes). The musical highlight belongs to Ann-Margret, who turns "Isn't It Kinda Fun" into a dynamic song-and-dance number. The soundtrack's most famous song, the Oscar-winning "It Might As Well Be Spring," is lip-synced by Pamela Tiffin; most references list Anita Gordon as the singer.

While generally pleasant and diverting, State Fair is still a lesser effort compared to other Rodgers-Hammerstein musicals. Frankly, the songs aren't as good and director José Ferrer doesn't know how to shoot a musical. For example, he uses a wide shot during much of "It Might As Well Be Spring," a sweetly melancholy song that calls for close-ups of the performer's face.

Incidentally, Wally Cox is on-screen for less than ten minutes, but proves to be a supreme scene-stealer as a contest judge who can't enough of Ma Frakes' brandy-soaked mincemeat.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Burgess Meredith

1. In So Far, So Good: A Memoir, Burgess Meredith wrote: "Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid." Actually, Sinatra never played a Batman villain. He reportedly wanted to play The Joker...but Cesar Romero was already signed for the role. 

2. Surprisingly, Meredith's most memorable TV role was not as The Penguin. He played bank teller and book lover Henry Bemis in "Time Enough to Last," one of the most beloved episodes of Twilight Zone. He once said: "I've heard...more about it than anything else I've done on television. I think it must have had a great impact on people. I don't suppose there's a month goes by, even to this day, that people don't come up and remind me of that episode."

3. In an 2016 interview with Empire Online, Rocky director John Avildsen said: "A lot of people came in to audition for the role of Mickey, the trainer. I wouldn’t hire anybody unless they auditioned and I liked them. Lee J. Cobb came in and he wouldn’t audition. We got Lee Strasberg to audition. Then Burgess [Meredith] came in and they read the scene where Rocky is told that he has to get out of his locker. He read the scene a few times and then I said, 'Why don’t you guys go through the scene and do it in your own words?' So they did, and at the end Rocky is walking away, dejected, and Burgess yells, 'Hey, did you ever think about retiring?' Stallone doesn’t know what to say to him, so he says, 'No,' and Burgess says, 'Well, start thinking about it.' That was just perfect, and that’s how he got the job."

Meredith as Mickey in Rocky.
4. Burgess Meredith was highly respected among his acting peers. He received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for The Day of the Locust (1975) and Rocky (1976). He won an Emmy as attorney Joseph Welch in Tail Gunner Joe, a 1977 TV movie about Joseph McCarthy. (Interestingly, the real Joseph Welch played the judge in Anatomy of a Murder.) He received another Emmy nomination that same year for a TV version of The Last Hurrah. Finally, he was nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway play Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) and received a Special Tony for directing A Thurber Carnival in 1960.

5. Director Otto Preminger was a big Burgess Meredith fan and cast the actor in 1962's Advise and Consent (one of my personal favorites), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).

6. In addition to directing for the stage, Meredith helmed two theatrical films. The first was The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949), a mystery starring Charles Laughton as Inspector Jules Maigret. The second was the 1970 oddity The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go with James Mason and Jack MacGowran. Its poster claims: "It'll make you think of Dr. No!" Honestly, I don't believe you will. Meredith's most accomplished directing job was on the Playhouse 90 live TV drama The Days of Wine and Roses, which starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. (She discussed it with us in 2014.)

7. Burgess Meredith was married four times. His third wife was Paulette Goddard; their marriage lasted five years. He stayed married to fourth wife, Kaja Sundsten, from 1950 until his death. They had two children. Burgess Meredith died in 1997 at age 89.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Peter Falk Channels Bogie in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective

A befuddled Lou Peckinpah.
Following the success of his romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), Neil Simon returned to the zany spoof formula of Murder By Death (1976). Indeed, The Cheap Detective could have been a sequel to Murder By Death with Peter Falk reprising his role of Sam Diamond--a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade. Instead, Falk plays Lou Peckinpah, a 1930s hardboiled detective--who is still a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade.

Set in San Francisco, the movie kicks off with the discovery of six corpses in a seedy hotel. One of the victims is Floyd Merkle, the partner of private eye Lou Peckinpah. The police target Lou as their primary suspect since he had been having a nine-year affair with Floyd's wife. That prompts Lou to tackle the case and prove his innocence. 

Madeline Kahn.
He receives a visit from a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) who claims to have knowledge of Floyd's death. However, she will help Lou only if he can recover twelve stolen diamonds, each valued at over $250,000. Meanwhile, Lou encounters his former flame, Marlene DuChard (Louise Fletcher), whose war hero husband wants to establish a French restaurant in Oakland against the Nazis' wishes.

Yes, The Cheap Detective is essentially a spoof of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Its plot is serviceable, but Simon clearly didn't put much effort into it. Instead, he chose to focus on "the funny"--packing his comedy with one-liners, wacky situations, and relying on an engaging cast. An example is the scene in which Floyd's widow (Marsha Mason) comes to see Lou after her husband's murder. Lou asks her: "Are you sure the police didn't follow you here?" She replies: "I'm positive. They came with me." Three police detectives then emerge from two doors behind her. It's the kind of silly--but funny--gag that would be employed two years later in Airplane! (1980).

DeLuise channeling Lorre.
The cast has grand fun playing parodies of famous movie characters from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. John Houseman channels Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman as Jasper Blubber and Fernando Lamas does a fine Paul Henreid impersonation as Marlene's husband. However, the standout performances belong to Madeline Kahn as a Mary Astor-like femme fatale and Dom DeLuise imitating Peter Lorre. Peter Falk serves as the film's straight man, typically setting up the funny scenes for his co-stars.

As with the later Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, the gags are plentiful with more hits than misses. For this reason, I found The Cheap Detective to be funnier than the slower-paced Murder By Death. I suspect I'm in the minority, though, as Murder By Death seems to be fondly remembered by movie fans whereas The Cheap Detective has been sadly neglected. If you've never seen it--or if it's just been awhile--Neil Simon's 1978 comedy is definitely worth a look.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Five Easy Pieces: When Good Performances Aren't Enough

Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea.
The years have not been kind to Five Easy Pieces (1970), which earned four major Oscar nominations and was hailed by Roger Ebert as a "masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity." In retrospect, it's a meandering film that boasts two stellar performances and an iconic scene. That's not enough, though, to justify the bloated running time and the "so what" of it all.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a disgruntled young man from an affluent family of classical musicians, who works in the California oil fields. Bobby lives with Rayette (Karen Black), a pretty but none-too-bright diner waitress who aspires to sing country music. He cheats on Rayette, berates her in front of friends, and is too embarrassed to introduce her to his family. He also gets her pregnant.

Susan Anspach as Catherine.
When visiting his sister Partita, Bobby learns that his father has suffered two strokes. Partita (Lois Smith) encourages Bobby to resolve his differences with his estranged father before it's too late. Bobby's reunion with his family bores him until he meets Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is studying music with his brother Carl. As Bobby pursues the reluctant Catherine, Rayette waits for him at a motel a few miles from the Dupea house.

As a character study, one can forgive the wandering plot of Five Easy Pieces. However, director Bob Rafelson allows his film to lose focus by indulging in extraneous scenes. There are lingering shots of Bobby working in the oil fields. A hitchhiker prattles endlessly about how the world is filled with filth. Bobby gets irate about a highway traffic jam (one of Ebert's favorite scenes).

Karen Black as Rayette.
The film perks up whenever there's a scene with Karen Black as Rayette. The actress keeps the character from being nothing more than Bobby's victim. Yes, Rayette can be irritating, but she sincerely loves Bobby, forgives him for everything, and finds joy in her simple life. In one of the best scenes, Rayette interrupts a ridiculous pseudo-intellectual discussion by asking: "Is there a TV in the house?"

Jack Nicholson is wonderfully convincing as the disillusioned Bobby--who isn't quite sure what he's disillusioned about other than his life in general. One doesn't have to like the character to admire Nicholson's performance or appreciate the tiny details that make Bobby seem real. There's the justifiably famous scene of Bobby trying to reason with a diner waitress who refuses to make any substitutions on his breakfast. However, Nicholson's best scene is saved for what functions as the film's climax--a "conversation" with Bobby's father that's essentially a monologue of self-reflection.

The film's screenplay, Rafelson, Nicholson, and Black all earned Oscar nominations in 1970. If Nicholson first garnered serious critical acclaim in Easy Rider (1969), then Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made him a star. He would make three of his best films over the next five years--The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--receiving three more Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest.

All of those films are better than Five Easy Pieces, a promising character study that gets lost in its own pompousness.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Olivia de Havilland Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred Olivia de Havilland and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Funerals with Footwear. 

2. No Room for a Quartet.

3. Vipers' Den.

4. Charlotte & Emily.

5. The Evil Sister.

6. Elevator!

7. What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?

8. The Mysterious Past of  Mark Sebastian.

9. Rejection.

10. Mother Without a Son.

11. Outlaw Town.

12. The Brothers Vickers.

13. Voice from the Grave.

14. A Wedding in Florence.

15. Trapped Underwater!

Monday, April 5, 2021

Hoosiers: A Tale of Inspiration and Second Chances

Gene Hackman as Coach Norman.
Second chances, the popularity of small town sports, and teamwork are the themes that underlie Hoosiers, a surprise 1986 boxoffice hit.

Gene Hackman stars as Dale Norman, a formerly disgraced college basketball coach hired at Hickory High School. The team has only seven players...and that includes the equipment manager who plays in practice only. Jimmy Chitwood, the town's best player, left the team following the death of the former coach, a father figure to the lad.

Coach Norman clashes with the townsfolk almost immediately, starting with a teacher (Barbara Hershey) who questions his education qualifications. The players' parents don't condone his pass-first basketball approach (four passes before a shot!) and his closed practices. It's not long with there's a petition to remove Norman from his job--although there are those who come to admire his emphasis on teamwork and discipline.

Barbara Hershey.
Hoosiers is a sports movie and a very good one. Set in the 1950s, it captures the importance of basketball in a small town devoid of other forms of entertainment. Heck, the school is too small to field a football or a baseball team, so basketball is everything. As Hershey's teacher says: "You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god...I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old."

Dale Norman loves the game of basketball and recognizes a great player when he sees one. But for him, there are no individual heroes, only teams where the players work together to achieve the victory. I think this is what make Hoosiers a favorite among many real-life basketball players. When the 2002 Indiana University Hoosiers made an unlikely run to the NCAA championship game (ultimately losing to Maryland), the players watched Hoosiers before each tournament game.

Dennis Hopper as Shooter.
Yet, Hoosiers is also a movie about giving second chances and making the most of those opportunities. Coach Norman gets his chance to coach again because the high school principal, an old friend, believes in him. Norman pays it forward by taking on Shooter (Dennis Hopper), an alcoholic former high school star who happens to be the father of one of Norman's players. In one of the film's most amusing scenes, Norman gets intentionally thrown out of a game so that Shooter has to step up and coach the team. Hopper isn't in much of Hoosiers, but he brings out his character's love of the game and his desire to fight the demons that separated him from his family. It's a performance that earned Hopper a Best Supporting Actor nomination (though his best performance of 1986 was in David Lynch's riveting Blue Velvet).

During the filming of Hoosiers, Gene Hackman clashed almost daily with rookie director David Anspaugh and was convinced the film would flop. But after seeing the rough cut, Hackman knew that Hoosiers was special. The story is inspirational and the acting good, but it's the little touches that make it memorable: the autumn colors, the wind blowing through the fields, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score.

The plot of Hoosiers was inspired by the 1954 Milan high school basketball team. Milan, Indiana, boasted a population of just over a 1,000 residents. And yet its high school basketball team played toe-to-toe with the biggest and best Indiana schools for two years. They almost won the state championship in 1953 and then accomplished the feat in 1954 in what has been dubbed The Milan Miracle.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Julie Newmar

1. Born as Julia Chalene Newmeyer in 1933, she was billed as Julie Newmeyer in her first major screen role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). She played Dorcas and was paired with Jeff Richards as one of the seven Pontipee brothers. Richards, a former professional baseball player, was 6' 2", which made him just three inches taller than the 5' 11" Julie Newmar.

2. Julie Newmar won a Tony award as Featured Actress in the 1958 Broadway comedy The Marriage-Go-Round, which starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. She played a Swedish bombshell who wanted the married Boyer, a college professor, to father her baby so the child would have brains and beauty. Newmar repeated the role in the 1961 film version with Susan Hayward and James Mason.

Julie Newmar with Jack Mullaney in My Living Doll.
3. Newmar's first TV series was the 1964-65 sitcom My Living Doll. She plays an android called Rhoda  that becomes the responsibility of an Air Force psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings. Most of the humor is derived from Cummings' character trying to keep Rhoda's android identity a secret. In an interview with Starlog Magazine (issue 148), Newmar stated that CBS considered Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. before casting Cummings. "(The show) needed a different kind of actor...It was not a flip part--it needed a straight actor who could play opposite this bizarre creature so the comedy would come off."

Catwoman with Adam West as Batman.
4. The Batman TV series was already a hit in 1966 when Julie Newmar was offered the role of Catwoman. She had never heard of the show, but her brother had--and told her she had to take the part. Newmar portrayed Catwoman in thirteen episodes during the first two seasons of Batman. Due to a scheduling conflict, she was replaced by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 Batman theatrical film. Also, Eartha Kitt replaced her as Catwoman during Batman's third and final season. Long after the show ended, Newmar acquired her form-fitting Catwoman costume and donated it to the Smithsonian Institution where it's displayed on the third floor of the Museum of American History in Washington, as one of the "National Treasures of Popular Culture."

As Vicki Russell on Route 66.
5. Julie Newmar appeared as Vicki Russell, a free-spirited, motorcycle-riding heiress in two episodes of Route 66. Her first appearance was in the second season episode "How Much a Pound is Albatross?". She returned as Vicki in the following season's "Give an Old Cat a Tender Mouse" (George Maharis had left the series by then). Thus, Julie Newmar is the only guest star to play the same character in two nonconcurrent episodes of Route 66

6. She holds a patent for panty hose! According the patent's abstract: "An elastic shaping band is attached to the rear panty portion and is connected from the vicinity of the crotch to the vicinity of the waist band and fits between the wearer's buttocks to delineate the wearer's derriere in cheeky relief."

7. Julie Newmar was married to J. Holt Smith, an attorney, from 1977 to 1984. They had one child, John Jewl Smith, who has Down's syndrome and lives with his mother. You can learn more about Julie Newmar at her website julienewmar.com

Monday, March 15, 2021

Lemmon and Ford: Life as a Cowboy Through the Eyes of a Tenderfoot

Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford.
The incredibly versatile Delmer Daves directed three of my favorite Westerns from the 1950s, a decade in which the genre flourished. Each film is decidedly different from the other. The Hanging Tree (1959) is a tale about self-forgiveness and the power of love. 3:10 to Yuma shows how a family-oriented rancher and a bitter outlaw can develop respect for one another. The third film--the one we're reviewing today--is another tale of mutual respect. However, Cowboy is also a gritty, colorful portrait of life on the trail in the Old West.

Lemmon as a hotel clerk.
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at a posh Chicago hotel who has fallen in love with Maria, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher. Maria's father dismisses Frank's marriage proposal and decides his family will return home to Guadalupe. Frank is heartbroken, but finds a glimmer of hope when cattleman Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) checks into the hotel. Reese knows Maria's father and discusses buying cattle from him. Frank seizes on a plan: If he can convince Reese to hire him as a cowhand on the trail, perhaps Frank can still pursue Maria.

Reese has no interest in taking a tenderfoot on a cattle drive. However, when he loses a large amount of money in a poker game, Frank offers to reimburse Reese's losses. There is one condition: Reese and Frank will become partners on the next cattle drive. Reese, who has been drinking too much, agrees and he wins back most of his money. When he tries to pay off Frank, the latter refuses the cash and insists on joining the cattle drive.

It's a grueling journey in which the two men learn a lot about each other. Frank becomes tougher and more realistic, while the hardened Reese becomes more compassionate about his fellow man.

Lemmon as a cowboy.
Made in 1958, Cowboy was based on the 1930 novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris. John Huston originally secured the rights as a vehicle for his father and himself. In the early 1950s, there were plans to adapt it for the screen with Spencer Tracy as Reese and Montgomery Clift as Frank. However, when those plans eventually fell through, Delmer Daves expressed interest in making it with Glenn Ford as Reese. Ford agreed on the condition that Jack Lemmon to be cast as Frank.

According to Peter Ford's biography Glenn Ford: A Life, Lemmon was initially hesitant because of his inexperience with riding a horse. Glenn Ford invited him to cocktails and, during a long evening of drinking, convinced Lemmon to accept the role. Lemmon spent the entire first day of filming on horseback and was so sore that three stuntmen had to lift him down from the saddle. In Peter Ford's book, he recalled: "I had to wear a Kotex every day for two months while I was on that friggin' horse. I was never off the damn thing long enough for (the wounds) to heal."

Richard Jaeckel and Ford.
As a film about Frank's experiences, Cowboy is understandingly episodic. Each subplot is designed to show Frank's evolution from tenderfoot to full-fledged cowboy. He watches a stupid campfire prank result in the death of one of his colleagues (Strother Martin). His rendezvous with Maria ends badly. He watches Reese and the other hands turn their back on a friend (Dick York) who's in trouble. In short, it's not an easy trek for Frank Harris, but one which does indeed toughen and transform him. Reese undergoes a transformation, too, even if it's a far more subtle one.

The two stars are fabulous together, with Ford at his gritty best and Lemmon at his most appealing in one of his first serious film roles. The latter makes it heartbreaking to watch Frank lose his initial joy as his perceptions are shattered one by one by the reality of the dusty trail. My only complaint is that Cowboy does them a disservice by rushing to its conclusion. After the script works hard to drive a wedge between the two men, it throws them into a dangerous situation and suddenly they bond together as the film ends.

Jack Lemmon never made another Western. Delmer Daves directed the excellent The Hanging Tree before transitioning to big screen soap operas. Glenn Ford, though, continued to forge a solid career in the genre, appearing in movies like Cimarron (1960), The Rounders (1965), and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).

Monday, March 8, 2021

Rodgers & Hammerstein Films: Ranked Best to Worst

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
1. The King and I (1956) - Yul Brynner's Oscar-winning per-formance as King Mongkut of Siam anchors this clash of cultures (a popular R&H theme) and unlikely, ever-so-subtle love story. Deborah Kerr provides strong support as Anna Leonowens, a British widow who accepts the position of teacher to some of the king's many children. The king's efforts to propel his country into the 19th century make him a fascinating figure and Brynner portrays his inner struggles beautifully. The many songs includes some of R&H's most melodic compositions: Hello Young Lovers, We Kiss in the Shadows, Something Wonderful, and Shall We Dance. My only complaints: The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet is too long and Anna's son disappears for most of the film. The King and I won Oscars for Best Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Recording, and Music Score.

Julie Andrews as Maria.
2. The Sound of Music (1965) - R&H's biggest box office hit played theatrically for over a year in my hometown. Julie Andrews, who snagged a Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins the previous year, earned another Oscar nomination. She plays Maria, a novice nun in a abbey near Saltzburg in the late 1930s, who is sent to serve as temporary governess to widower Captain von Trapp's seven children. In the hands of veteran musical director Robert Wise (West Side Story), The Sound of Music bursts with lively production numbers, often filmed against visually stunning on-location backgrounds. Julie Andrews is effervescent in the lead and well matched with Christopher Plummer's stern von Trapp. The score includes many of R&H's most famous songs: the title tune, My Favorite Things, Do-Re-MiEdelweiss, and Climb Ev'ry Mountain. The Sound of Music won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Editing.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
3. Oklahoma! (1955) - R&H's first stage musical was hailed as innovative when it debuted in 1943. However, by the time it was adapted for film, Hollywood had already copied its formula. There's still much to enjoy with its elaborate musical numbers and director Fred Zinneman's dazzling use of outdoor locations (with Arizona substituting for Oklahoma). However, the narrative compares unfavorably to The King and I and The Sound of Music. The plot essentially revolves around farm girl Laurey's unwillingness to acknowledge her love for confident cowboy Curly. Its popular score includes: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin', The Surrey With the Fringe On Top, People Will Say We're In Love, and the title song. As with the later King and I, there's a lengthy ballet (presented as a dream sequence) that probably worked better on stage. It was surprisingly ignored at the Oscars, only earning wins for Best Sound and Best Music Score.

4. Flower Drum Song (1961) - R&H return to their favorite theme of contrasting cultures, only this time it's a clash between the old and the young among the Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco. The older residents wants to retain many of their culture's traditions while the younger folks want to embrace their new freedoms. The first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song is an ensemble piece filmed almost entirely on studio sets. While it boasts its share of clever songs (I Enjoy Being a Girl) and pretty ballads (You Are Beautiful), there were no breakout hits. Flower Drum Song was also a box office disappointment and didn't win any Oscars. It's a more intimate film than its predecessors and the cast imbues it with charm and warmth.

Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie.
5. South Pacific (1958) - Racial prejudice is the dominant theme in this musical drama set on a South Pacific island during World War II. The plot follows two romances: the first is between a U.S. Navy nurse (Mitzi Gaynor) and a French plantation owner; the second is between a Navy lieutenant and a young Polynesian woman. The problem is that the first romance is joined in progress and the second one is never fully developed. Star Mitzi Gaynor shines throughout, delivering her uptempo songs with energy and her passionate ones with subtlety. However, Joshua Logan's decision to shoot the musical numbers through color filters is a major distraction. (To his defense, his intent was to use softer colors, but the processing was muffed.) Musical highlights include: I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, and Some Enchanted Evening. Happy Talk, though, may be the worst R&H song in any of their movies.

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain.
6. State Fair (1945) and (1962) - This musical is the only one that R&H wrote expressly for the silver screen. The basic plot is the same in both versions: The Frakes, a farming family, spend several days at the state fair. Father Frake aims to win a blue ribbon with his prize hog Blue Boy. Mother wants to win the mincemeat competition. Their kids Margy and Wayne fall in love with, respectively, a journalist and a carnival show singer. I've lumped the original and the remake together because the quality is about the same. Margy's romance works better in the 1945 film with Jeanne Crain while Wayne's relationship is better developed in the 1962 remake with Pat Boone. State Fair is a lighthearted affair compared to the other, more ambitious R&H musicals. However, since it featured songs written expressly for the film, it earned its composers an Oscar for the bittersweet It Might as Well Be Spring.

7. Carousel (1956) - It was a bold risk to build a musical around an unlikable character: a handsome, self-centered carnival barker named Billy Bigelow who marries an naïve young woman. It was also intriguing to have Billy tell his story in flashback, while taking a break from polishing stars in what appears to be Heaven. Unfortunately, it's extremely hard to root for Billy, who constantly makes poor decisions and only redeems himself (somewhat) in the final three minutes of the movie. Oklahoma! star Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones sing beautifully and, for musical die-hards, the June Is Bustin' Out All Over number is pretty elaborate. The big hits were If I Loved You and the inspirational I'll Never Walk Alone.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Ray Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi

Gwangi: The star of the movie!
Made in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi is one of those movies that seems to improve with age. Its far-out “cowboys vs. dinosaur” premise has always held a certain appeal. However, repeat viewings have allowed me to truly appreciate the little touches that made special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the greatest stop-motion animator in motion picture history.

Set in Mexico at the turn of the century, Gwangi stars James Franciscus as Tuck Kirby, a hustler always eager to make a quick buck. He arrives in town to convince his former girlfriend T.J. (Gila Golan) to sell her “diving horse” to Wild Bill Hickok. Tuck thinks T.J. needs the money to save her Wild West show. However, T.J. eventually reveals that she has a new money-making attraction: a miniature horse dubbed El Diablo. The creature was found in the secret Forbidden Valley—one of those places that warrants warnings from wise old gypsy women.

Tuck befriends a paleontologist (Laurence Naismith), who reveals that El Diablo is an eohippus, a prehistoric ancestor of horses. While he and Tuck argue on El Diablo’s future, the gypsies kidnap the little horse and return him to the Forbidden Valley with T.J.’s men in pursuit. When everyone arrives in the now no-longer-secret valley, they discover a prehistoric world that has defied time. It’s “ruled” by a ferocious T-Rex dubbed Gwangi. When the carnivorous creature is injured following a cave collapse, Tuck decides to capture it. After all, Gwangi could be the biggest show attraction in the world!
A wire was used for the rope when animating the lasso.
If a connection between The Valley of Gwangi and King Kong seems obvious, that’s because the former was originally conceived by Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator that brought Kong to life. O’Brien, who later became Harryhausen’s mentor, did a significant amount of pre-production work on the project, then titled The Valley of Mists, in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, RKO shelved the project, allegedly because its executives thought the public was no longer interested in dinosaurs. O’Brien’s premise did serve as a basis for a low-budget American-Mexican production called The Beast of Hollow Mountain in 1956, which was quickly forgotten. A decade later, when Harryhausen and his production partner Charles Schneer were exploring ideas for a new film, Ray remembered the abandoned Valley of Mists.

The Valley of Gwangi gets off to a leisurely start before transitioning to 45 minutes of almost non-stop cowboys vs. dinosaurs action. The film's highlight is the sequence where Tuck and the gang try to lasso the T-Rex. It took Harryhausen five months to animate the scene, carefully matching footage of the actors throwing ropes at a pole mounted in a jeep with the stop-motion movements of his dinosaur model. To "animate" the rope, Harryhausen used wire--again synchronizing it to match the actual lassos being thrown in the live footage.
The T-Rex takes on a Styracosaurus while cowboys watch.
For a scene where Gwangi confronts an elephant, Harryhausen originally intended to use real footage of an elephant. When the filmmakers were unable to procure a pachyderm on location (the film was shot in Spain), Harryhausen went ahead and animated the elephant, too.

While it's true that Gwangi lacks the expressive emotions that made King Kong special, one must realize that the T-Rex wasn't known for sensitivity. On the other hand, Harryhausen adds the little details that make the dinosaur seem real. My favorite is a quick shot in which Gwangi, seen in the distance, pauses to swipe at his nose with one of his little "arms."

Gila Golan and James Franciscus.
In an special effects-driven movie like Gwangi, the human actors are there to basically move the story. James Franciscus is an unlikely choice for a Western; his well-groomed looks just don't seem to fit (at least he looked scruffier in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Still, he's a capable actor and thus pulls off the part of the hustler who eventually realizes he's taken on more than he can handle. Laurence Naismith adds some class to the film, playing the kind of British gentlemen that he specialized in. It's hard to judge Gila Golan's thespian skills as the Israeli actress was dubbed after the producers determined her accent was too strong.

The film's star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen. The Valley of Gwangi doesn't rank with his best work (e.g., Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but it's a diverting little picture with some incredible stop-motion special effects.