Monday, September 27, 2021

Juggernaut Narrowly Avoids Submersion

Richard Harris as Fallon.
Made during the 1970s disaster movie craze, Juggernaut (1974) replicates the ocean liner setting from the earlier Poseidon Adventure, but adds a twist. What if there was a bomb on board--seven of them, to be precise--and a limited amount of time to defuse them?

The premise unfolds slowly with the opening scenes devoted to the passengers and staff of the Britannic. Captain Brunel (Omar Sharif) pilots the ship with detached authority and has a dalliance with a married passenger (Shirley Knight). The overenthusiastic social director (Roy Kinnear) tries to entertain shipboard guests with bingo games and shuffleboard. A woman gets seasick and tries to find ways to amuse her children.

Omar Sharif looks concerned.
The plot finally picks up when one of the cruise line's board members receives a call from a man identifying himself as "Juggernaut." He states that he will blow up the Britannic within 24 hours if he is not paid £500,000. As the police try to track down Juggernaut, the Royal Navy sends explosive ordnance disposal specialist Tony Fallon (Richard Harris) and his crew to the ocean liner to defuse the bombs.

For most of its running time, Juggernaut is a clunky affair in need of better storytelling, tighter editing, and more memorable characters. It finally shifts into high gear during the final half-hour which focuses mostly on Fallon’s desperate attempts to defuse the bombs. The result is that the film ends on a high note, which may account for some of its positive reviews. (Is there such a thing as a false-positive film review?)

Shirley Knight as Mrs. Bannister.
The cast is certainly capable with Sharif, Harris, Knight, Anthony Hopkins, and David Hemmings. None of them are given much to work with, though Harris projects the right amount of swagger as the bomb disposal expert. Shirley Knight also brings conviction to her throwaway role, making her character the only passenger that elicits any concern. It's a far cry from the character-centric, infinitely more suspense-laden Poseidon Adventure.

It's hard to fault director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, The Three Musketeers) for the film's weaknesses. Two directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Medford, left the production prior to the start of shooting. Lester was a last-minute replacement and he completed Juggernaut with two weeks left on the production schedule. He also re-wrote the script with Alan Plater. The author of the original screenplay, veteran scribe Richard Alan Simmons, was so unhappy with the revised screenplay that he changed his credit to "Richard De Koker." He based his original script on a real-life bomb threat aboard the Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 (in which no bombs were found).

Juggernaut has the pedigree to be a first-rate thriller, but unfortunately nearly sinks under its own weight until the extended climax. Still, those scenes generate enough nail-biting to keep the film from being a total waste of time. Then again, you could just fast-forward until there's only a half-hour left and use the 70 minutes you saved to do something more productive.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Gregory Peck Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Gregory Peck 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.  A Day With Anya.

2.  The Other Son.

3.  Savage Command.

4.  Queequeg and Me.

5.  Maddalena.

6.  The Man Who Forgot Himself. (This one works for two movies!)

7.  The Cipher.

8.  Maycomb.

9.  The Big Muddy.

10. Ghost Town.

11. Black Hair, Blue Eyes. (This one might be tough!)

12. Flag.

13. The Final Days.

14. Cady's Vengeance.

15. Ward 7.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Best Seller and Alien Nation: Cop Buddy Films with a Twist

James Woods and Brian Dennehy.
Best Seller (1987).  Cleve is a professional killer who feels he never got the respect he deserved from his ex-employer, a powerful corporate executive. To gain revenge, Cleve (James Woods) approaches Dennis Meechum to write an exposé about the corrupt businessman who used Cleve's services. A police detective who once authored a non-fiction bestseller, Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is skeptical at first. Gradually, Cleve persuades Meechum that his tale is true; it "helps" that suddenly both men become the targets of murder attempts.

Made in 1987, Best Seller is mostly a study of the relationship between Cleve and Meechum. Granted, there are the requisite action scenes and a climax filled with multiple corpses, but that's not the focus. Instead, Larry Cohen's screenplay explores the rocky "friendship" between a smooth, charming, vicious killer and an honest cop struggling to be a single parent. The strength of Cohen's script is that it dupes into believing that Cleve may not be so bad, then shows him performing a cold-blooded, needless murder. Like the audience, Meechum eventually becomes intrigued with the engaging killer--but he's smart enough to never fully trust his new ally.

Coming off a Best Actor nomination for Salvador (1986), James Woods pulls in the audience with his riveting portrayal of Cleve. Brian Dennehy provides an effective foil, but his role is less showy. Best Seller belongs to Woods and his compelling, creepy character.

It's not a brilliant film. There are too many gaps in logic, such as when Meecham--whose life has been threatened--leaves his teenage daughter home alone. My recommendation is that you overlook its faults and watch Best Seller to see Woods at his best.

Mandy Patinkin as Francisco.
Alien Nation (1988).  In 1991, Los Angeles is the home to 300,000 aliens who arrived three years earlier when their spaceship crashed on Earth. Labeled Newcomers, the aliens are humanoid in appearance and have been partially assimilated into American society. Treated as slaves on their planet, the Newcomers have embraced their new freedoms. Still, they are viewed by many humans as a race to distrust and even fear.

Police detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) loses his partner when they intervene during a convenient store robbery in Slagtown, the slang name for a Newcomer community. Determined to find his partner's killer, Sykes volunteers to team up with Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), the first Newcomer to be promoted to detective. The prejudiced human gradually realizes that his new partner is intelligent and dedicated, even if he does have a propensity to follow the rules.

James Caan as Sykes.
With Alien Nation, screenwriter Rockne O'Bannon (Farscape) goes to great lengths to create a new world--and then does little with it. He litters the story with fascinating tidbits about the Newscomers: their favorite foods include raw beaver; they can breathe methane; they can master the English language in three months; and consuming too much sour milk makes them drunk! Alas, none of these revelations factor into what is essentially a boring a plot about a businessman trying to start a drug racket.

Mandy Patinkin is entertaining as Sam Francisco (whom Sykes calls inside joke since the producers were not allowed to use the name George Jetson). James Caan provides a nice foil, but he has played roles like his independent, grumpy cop far too often in his career. In the end, they make Alien Nation watchable, but not especially memorable.

The film did spawn a short-lived TV series and five follow-up television movies starring Eric Pierpont as Francisco and Gary Graham as Sikes (now spelled differently).

Monday, September 6, 2021

Cold War Thrills in The Bedford Incident

Richard Widmark as Captain Finlander.
The 1960s was a grand decade for top-notch Cold War thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Fail Safe (1964). Although it falls a little short of those aforementioned films, The Bedford Incident (1965) remains a first-rate drama that crackles with tension from start to finish.

Richard Widmark stars as Captain Eric Finlander, who commands the U.S.S. Bedford, a destroyer whose purpose is to monitor Soviet submarines and "prevent by threat a certain course of action by the enemy." The Bedford's new chief physician, a reserve officer named Potter (Martin Balsam), clashes almost immediately with Finlander. The captain belittles Potter by stating he did not request a new medical officer and holds reserve officers in low regard. 

Potter and Ben Munceford, a journalist on board to write a story about Finlander, soon detect on a pervasive atmosphere of apprehension aboard the ship. The crew works long hours, remains constantly on high alert, and are discouraged from going to sick bay. Munceford (Sidney Poitier) also picks up on Finlander's unbridled excitement when the Bedford discovers a Soviet submarine patrolling near Greenland. The captain insists that his mission is only deterrence, but Munceford begins to wonder if Finlander is obsessed with destroying the Soviet vessel.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford.
The Bedford Incident is a slow burn that methodically builds suspense to its unexpected climax. There are no action scenes. Rather, James B. Harris--in his directorial debut--is content to let the screenplay do the heavy lifting. Harris, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several films (including Paths of Glory), directs with an unobtrusive, sure hand. The film's most memorable scenes--when Potter confronts Finlander and when Munceford interviews the captain--could have been lifted from a stage play. That's meant to be a compliment as it shows Harris's total trust in his actors to deliver the drama.

Veteran screenwriter James Poe's adaptation of the novel by Mark Rascovich wisely avoids turning The Bedford Incident into a contemporary Moby Dick. Yes, Finlander is obsessed with the Soviet submarine, but his sense of duty keeps him from pursuing personal goals at the expense of imperiling his country. This internal dilemma is what makes the final outcome in The Bedford Incident so devastating.

It's easy to see why Richard Widmark, who also served as one of the producers, was drawn to The Bedford Incident. It provides him with one of the best roles of his distinguished career. I love the aforementioned lively interview between Munceford and Finlander in which one can see the latter trying to dampen his temper and choose his words carefully because of his distrust of the press. It's a master class in acting.

Martin Balsam and (far right) Wally Cox.
Sidney Poitier is content to play Munceford as a catalyst. We never learn much about the journalist, but through him, we learn a lot about Finlander, Dr. Potter, and a former German U-boat commander on board as a NATO observer (the excellent Eric Portman). James MacArthur and Wally Cox are also present in small but pivotal roles. Look quickly and you may be able to spot Donald Sutherland and Ed Bishop (UFO) as crewmen.

The Bedford Incident was the third teaming of Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, following No Way Out (1950) and The Long Ships (1964). When Widmark died in 2008, his friend Poitier said: "His creative work is indelible on film and will be there to remind us of what he was as an artist and a human being."