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Apocalypse Now (1979)
I Didn't Choose The Jungle, The Jungle Chose Me
Apocalypse Now is one of the most, if not the hypnotic film I've ever seen, providing an eerie and otherworldly glimpse into hell itself. It's a film I will think about when I'm in a daze of boredom such as being stuck in a classroom or a call centre while I'm slowly losing my mind as The End by The Doors goes through my head, all while I try to audibly recreate those helicopter sound effects from the film's opening moments (once you hear Walter Murch's sound effects you never forget them). Even the film's synthesized score courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola's own father Carmine Coppola, brings a real sense of unease and wouldn't feel out of place in a horror movie. From the opening shot in which a serene green landscape is infiltrated by yellow fumes and bursts into flames, the war epic is a sensory experience like no other, making you feel the humidity of the jungle with its rich orange palette that bounces of the reflections of the river thanks to the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Yet Apocalypse Now looks shockingly contemporary, absent of any indicators that it was filmed in the 1970's.
Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a man, whom to say the least, has been driven mad by his time in Vietnam. With Sheen's everyman persona, Willard is a vehicle for the audience to view this world through, with a face which is able to express so much without dialogue (often with an unamused expression by the antics of the less experienced members of his crew) and perhaps most importantly, some of the best voice over work ever recorded with sheen's unforgettable, grisly narration. While I am fortunate enough never to have experienced war, I can see the argument being made that Apocalypse Now is not only an inaccurate depiction of war, it is an absolutely ridiculous depiction of war. It's said that war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror, yet Apocalypse Now presents a decade's worth of crazy and surreal events condensed into a single mission. The attack on the Vietnamese village for example is one of the finest battle sequences committed to film and a masterpiece of mayhem captured on screen, and that's only one of many escapades encountered by Willard and the crew of his boat. Likewise as is the case with other films from the 1970's such as Black Sunday, it's surprising from a modern perspective how companies would allow their IP's to be used in films with dark subject matter, such as the case of Apocalypse Now with the use of the Playboy brand.
The mission briefing scene at the beginning of the film is a master class in the delivery of exposition. Alongside the striking nature of the dialogue itself such as General Corman's (G. D. Spradlin) monologue about "good & evil" to the extensive use of props and food (that tape recorder sound effect is another unforgettable Murch sound effect), this 9-minute scene is never anything less than dramatically intense. I do love me some good military jargon ("This mission doesn't exist, nor will it ever exist") plus there is even some subtle humour slipped in such as Willard's delayed, deadpan response to being informed that his assassination target Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone insane. However, what really makes the sequence ever so slightly nerve-racking is the presence of the CIA civilian Jerry (no name is mentioned in the scene yet the name is attributed to him). He shows no emotion with his penetrating stare and feels like the scene implies he holds the real power in the room and speaks only a single line, the chilling phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice". The other notable addition to this scene is a very nerdy looking Harrison Ford as Colonel Gary Lucas (a reference to George Lucas). Ford delivers expository dialogue in an underplayed but striking manner and like his small role in Coppola's The Conversation, he leaves an impression and leaves you wishing he was in the film more (Ford's part was shot after the filming of Star Wars but prior it's release). Ford was reportedly nervous about filming a scene that contained so much dialogue and Coppola incorporated this into his performance (I do wish however the deleted moment in which Lucas makes reference to John Wayne's The Green Beret wasn't left on the cutting room floor). Talk about a film with so many great lines to quote in your daily life as non-cinephiles look on at you in puzzlement.
So which version of Apocalypse Now is superior? While the original on its own is a masterpiece and one I can turn towards for a more streamlined experience, I find the Redux version adds more layers of richness and complexity to an already stellar film, even turning it into something of an adventure film with all these extra detours. I've read criticisms of the pace regarding the Redux cut but I can tell you this viewer has no such pacing issues with this 3 hour and 16-minute version of the film. For starters, I do enjoy the addition of the sequence with the playmates at the rain-drenched camp. While it doesn't add anything to the overall story, it provides some fascinating insight with the portrayal of harsh living conditions for the soldiers and what these men in the wilderness with their pent up rage fighting each other do when they finally get some female companionship.
However, the greatest asset to Redux is the portion of the film at the French Plantation. This 23-minute long sequence taking place in a Shangri-La amidst a war zone offers closure to the character of Miller (Laurence Fishburne) with his burial but more significantly examines the often overlooked French colonial history of Vietnam. This is the only part of the film which directly delves right into politics as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys engage in some fascinating and increasingly intense political conversations. The French characters remain stoic as they declare their refusal to leave the plantation despite the war being in full swing due to France's history of losing various conflicts as well as a monologue of how the United States apparently invented the Viet Cong. The heightened conversion even becomes humorous at one point as two of the Frenchmen started arguing in un-subtitled dialogue as they shout "communiste" and "socialiste" back at each other. The entire plantation sequence plays out like a dream with the use of mist, twilight lighting and later a purple sky. Throughout the aforementioned conversations, one of the woman, Madame Sarrault (Aurore Clémen) stares at Willard throughout the dinner with an attractive glaze. After the dinner, the two converse alone as the sky turns purple and she tells him of losing her husband to war before the two proceed to make love in a breathtaking and foreboding piece of romance, with the music during this moment being my favourite from the film's score - equal parts haunting, equal parts beautiful.
As a counterbalance to all the death and destruction, there's quite a bit of humour in Apocalypse Now from the movie being chocked full of mad lads. Late in the film, we are treated to a perfectly cast Dennis Hooper as burned out gonzo journalist who's losing his mind in the jungle and spouting full-on hippie, pseudo-intellectual nonsense man! However, the king of Apocalypse Now's eccentric characters has to be Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore and his magnificent Calvary hat. For Kilgore war is not only just another day for him (he is completely unphased at one point when a bomb goes off close to him as those around him flinch) he disturbingly feeds off it and has fun along the way. He blasts Richard Wagner from loud speakers and casually drinks coffee while invading a Vietnamese village and once the crux of the invasion is complete, he wants to go surfing with his own branded surfboards. Even more Kilgore madness is present in Redux in which he is given a much more dramatic introduction as his helicopter complete with his calvary hat symbol and the phrase "Death From Above" imprinted on the front as it carries his royal chadness. Yet despite all this, Redux also includes an additional moment in which Kilgore is shown with a more human side as he guides a Vietnamese woman and her baby to safety.
Come the final act of Apocalypse Now, we finally reach the human MacGuffin that is Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. I have never been a huge fan of Marlon Brando, with his mumbling persona I often find it hard to take him seriously as an actor, but Apocalypse Now is one film in which I find him to be a compelling presence. Much has been said about Brando arriving to the film's set overweight and unprepared for the role, yet Kurtz' many ramblings are strangely compelling even though I have to ask myself when listening to them, "what the hell is this guy going on about?". It could easily have come off as Grandpa Simpson telling stories that don't go anywhere but the immaculately light god-like figure doesn't come off as such. What makes Kurtz final demise so fascinating is that he is a rare example of an adversary who willingly allows himself to be taken out - a man who has accepted his fate. There's something beautiful to watching Willard pummel Kurtz as he falls to the ground along with the intercut shots of a water buffalo being mutilated as it too falls to the ground - it's elegant and graceful despite its graphic nature. Despite the iconic typography of the film's title, Apocalypse Now has neither a title screen nor any opening and closing credits, making it feel like a film that could be edited into an endless loop, going around in circles for hellish infinity.
Blade Runner (1982)
I've Seen The Future And It Will Be
I often hear similar stories of people's first experiences watching Blade Runner, finding the film dull but coming to appreciate it years later - my story has the same trajectory. I first tried to watch Blade Runner (of what I believe was The Final Cut) on TV in Christmas 2009, only to stop watching after half an hour due to boredom. Over the years, however, I would be compelled to return to Blade Runner several times and get more out of it with each viewing. The tech-noir world of Blade Runner is one to get lost in with its use of neon and many billboards of geishas, albeit a more depressing, dystopian one than say that of Star Wars; one in which the city of Los Angeles appears to be stuck in a state of perpetual darkness and it very frequently rains. Now when watching Blade Runner, I'm watching a movie set in the past date of November, 2019. Once again, like Star Wars, the technology present is highly contradictory, this is a world in which flying cars exist and photographs have unimaginably high pixel counts, yet they still use CRT televisions and mobile phones don't appear to exist. It contradictions like these which we can observe in the real world just adds to the unique and fantasy aspect of the Blade Runner universe.
The visual style of Blade Runner has since become a massive cliché - often imitated but never equaled. It feels like every shot or background prop has a story to tell such as those many photographs in Rick Deckard's apartment. The man-cave interior of Deckard's apartment is perfectly suited to his loner personality, a classic world-weary noir protagonist. The film's blurring of the lines between what is human and what is machine results in me always having to remind myself that these replicants of whose plight I've drawn emotional investment towards, are not humans at the end of the day. Why should I feel sorry for the vulnerable replicant Rachael with her smudged eye makeup created from her tears? Blade Runner provokes many a thought of what it means to be human. I suspect the appearance of Rachael must have come about from a desire to create an ideal woman since nobody else in Blade Runner casually dresses like a 1940's femme fatale (I haven't heard of anyone else note Rachael has a strong resemblance to Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen from 1942). Likewise, I don't want to know if Deckard is a replicant or not, I prefer the ambiguity and the mystery along with the many unanswered questions of this universe.
The love scene between Deckard and Rachael is one of the greatest in cinema history. The sexual tension builds up as a shirtless Deckard wipes away the blood of his face and Rachael lets her hair loose. Subsequently, the manner in which Deckard prevents Rachael from leaving the apartment as he shuts the door with his fist and then proceeds to kiss her along with the saxophone solo from the love them being as close to cheesy as it can get without it being so, brings the swoon factor up to 11. My shallow desires just wish the extended, deleted version of the scene was left in any of the version of the film (in the 80's Sean Young got to have a sex scene with both Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner).
The effects of globalization as seen in Blade Runner present L. A. (or at the very least one portion of the city) having Japanese inhabitants as the majority population. If the filmmakers were intending to make accurate predictions of the future, the world of Blade Runner would be more likely dominated by Chinese influence. What Blade Runner does reflect accurately about our modern world is the increasingly oppressive corporate culture and the surveillance of everyday life. There are no evident signs of government in Blade Runner yet corporations rule the roast as the Mayan pyramid-shaped headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation dominates the skyline. Like Cyberdyne Systems in The Terminator and Omni Consumer Products in Robocop, 1980's pulp sci-fi tried to warn us of the dangers of unbridled corporate power. Such power is seen turning in on itself as the film's corporate overlord, the slimy, dubious Eldon Tyrell with his magnificent glasses succumbs to a gruesome death in the only moment of the film in which I want to avert my eyes from the screen in a classic case of the Frankenstein monster turning on its creator. It's little often pointed out that Tyrell's death is very similar to the murder of Mr. Gaines in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In both films, the murders take place at night in the victim's bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both characters are wearing a robe while having a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds.
Lucas and Spielberg gave special editions a bad name, but Ridley Scott's Final Cut of Blade Runner actually shows they have a place (providing the option of viewing the original still exists). There are no pointless CGI additions and it fixes the niggling technical flaws of the original such as the shot of Roy Batty's dove flying towards the sky. While I appreciate the Final Cut, there is a charm to those imperfections of the original, showing that even the masters can make mistakes. I will also defend the voice-over narration present in the theatrical version. It's not up to the poetic quality of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and is hokey but I find it endearingly so and does make the plot easier to follow and gives the film a bit more character (plus we get to hear Harrison Ford drop the "N" word).
Blade Runner is by no means a nihilistic film, rather it is one that shows beauty in despair (the original ending shows that green pastures apparently still exist in this world of ecological ruin). This display of goodness, truth and beauty culminates in Roy Batty's final 42 word Tears In The Rain monologue, as the obviously Christ-like figure conjures magnificent images of Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate to the magnificent score by Vangelis. The Blade Runner soundtrack is one of the few film scores in which I can listen to the entire thing (even John Williams Ladd Company jingle is awe-inspiring). It is the perfect accompaniment to walking down any urban landscapes at night (I can recall multiple mornings when I would listen to Tears In The Rain as the sun would rise back when I worked night shifts) as oneself reflects over its romantic nature and harkens for nostalgia, often and like the replicants in the movie, for memories we don't even have.
Don't Give This One Amish
Any public fascination with the Amish and their stark contrast with the modern, civilized world sadly translates more than often to the group being the butt of jokes in movies, sitcoms and oddly enough, many TV commercials (look it up). Regardless of how accurately Witness represents the Amish, it's as serious and as comprehensibly researched as Hollywood has ever taken the subject matter (customs, language, dialect and all) - a human portrayal without any condescension. Witness is the story of an Amish community being forced to cooperate with the outside world after a young Amish boy is a material witness to a homicide. The expertly paced story neatly falls into the classic heroes' journey, as police detective John Book (Harrison Ford) has to leave the world he knows to take refuge in the unfamiliar but eventually has to set things right in his world.
Witness was Harrison Ford's opportunity to showcase his acting chops playing a contemporary, real-world character as John Book, the upstanding figure of morality in a world of police corruption. Ford projects much warmth with his interactions with the little Amish child Daniel (Lukas Haas), posing as a Freudian father figure, while Ford's trademark dry wit never fails to amuse ("learning a lot about manure, very interesting"). Early in the film there is a scene in which Daniel mistakes a Rabbi for an Amish man, this is the reverse of a gag from another Harrison Ford movie, The Frisco Kid, in which Gene Wilder plays a Rabbi who mistakes an Amish man as being a fellow Rabbi. Kelly McGillis on other hand has that country girl look and conveys a sense of purity to the character of Rachael. The forbidden love she shares with Book builds up the sexual tension between the two, most memorably during the sequence as the pair dance by Book's car to the song Wonderful World by Greg Chapman (I've never seen anyone drink lemonade more manly than Harrison Ford) - This repressed longing is far sexier than any sex scene could ever be.
The mid-1980's was a period when real-world dramas featured futuristic, synth music scores. Maurice Jarre's score for Witness wouldn't feel out of place in Blade Runner but the odd combo of futuristic-sounding music over the rural landscapes of Pennsylvania is effective (likewise, that barn construction sequence may lack the dancing from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers but is no less splendid). It's just ironic that this music is juxtaposed to a world in which modern technology is shunned.
One of the most interesting scenes in Witness is that in which an Amish elder speaks to Samuel about Book's gun, tying in with the film's broader theme of pacifism vs. Conflict. In what could be seen as an anti-gun argument from the Amish perspective, the elder states "this gun of the hand is for the taking of human life" and that it is only for God to take life. Samuel however, who has witnessed a man being murdered, refutes this and states "I would only kill a bad man". The film presents two sides of an issue without taking a side or being propagandistic, letting the viewer draw their own conclusion.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word "Nazi" is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch - one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.
Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn't have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain's orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.
The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night. Contraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson's early foreshadowing asking Sorensen "Have you ever been put in irons?" to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film's final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot - as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.
Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds "Why don't you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone". With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can't help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals - appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.
I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson's ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned. It's never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they're probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film's ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.
Adjoining the Nazi's London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as "Patriotic Plaster Products". Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can't tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds "They always said he was tough". Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister -Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.
The Return of Doctor X (1939)
The Life Of The Flesh Is In The Blood
The Return Of Doctor X is a movie with very little value to it aside from the anomaly of being Humphrey Bogart's only horror/science fiction film in which he plays the titular Dr Maurice Xavier, a.k.a. Marshall Quesne (pronounced "caine"). Dr. Xavier is essentially a zombie-vampire, a doctor who was sentenced to the electric chair after trying to see how long babies could go without eating (gruesome even for today, let alone 1939), only to be resurrected by a proto Dr Frankenstein, Dr Francis Flegg (John Litel) and is kept alive by regular injections of Type One blood. I do love the Karloff-like design of the character with his pale, white face, punk rock style hair with the white streak and a rabbit which he carries around with him (I'm making this my future Halloween costume). The Return Of Doctor X is a rare instance in which Bogart played a subservient character, of whom is quite Peter Lorre-esque with his tragic and pathetic demeanour, while his unnatural body movements and limping call back to Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster. The film's climax does, however, venture into more traditional Bogart territory in which Xavier partakes in a gangster-style shootout. Bogart is a consummate professional who doesn't phone in the role regardless of how much he was known to detest it. Just contrast him to his master played by John Litel, of whom the movie gives him somewhat of an arc in which he eventually regrets his actions playing God, he is a much more generic bad guy.
According to the audio commentary for The Return Of Doctor X featuring director Vincent Sherman (of whom went on to do better work in his career), the film had a troubled production with the original script going in one direction and then being significantly altered during filming. This is evident when watching the film's trailer of which the majority of footage featured is not in the finished picture not to mention the film's as various credit errors (Wayne Morris is billed as Walter Barnett but is referred to as Walter Garrett in the film). Likewise, the film oddly gives the "All persons fictitious" disclaimer full-screen treatment before the opening titles, whereas it's usually in small print at the bottoms of the credits. What was the studio worried about?
The premise of The Return Of Doctor X has potential with its mix of vampirism and reincarnation but with the exception of Bogart, the mystery yarn fails to flesh out the story or characters (although I do find it interesting that the movie has to explain the more recent scientific discovery of blood group types, whereas today this is common, layman knowledge). Wayne Morris might have worked at the title character in Kid Galahad but he's no leading man material in the role of a go-getter reporter from Wichita. The Return Of Doctor X is a typical example of the Warner Bros B-movie product of the late 30's/early 40's - the film is by the numbers and has no real flashy moments. Worst of all, it is masquerading as a sequel to the two-tier Technicolor, pre-code gem Doctor X, however, there is no connection between the two films. Many would point to The Return Of Doctor X as an embarrassment in the career of Humphrey Bogart, however I would point to it as another example of how great an actor he is as he brings so much life to an otherwise average film when he's on-screen. Boris Karloff made a career playing roles like this, why should Bogart's attempt at playing a monster be looked down upon?
Big Boy! Big Boy!
Just how many films exist which are centered on rollercoasters? - Unfortunately, exceedingly few. Well, that's where the aptly titled Rollercoaster comes into play. Rollercoasters and theme parks, in general, have been a fascination of mine since childhood with all those hours spent sitting at the computer playing Rollercoaster Tycoon (ah, good times). Even the ending of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had me disappointed when that lovely rollercoaster was set on fire in order to kill the creature. I can happily sit all day and watch nicely shot and edited footage of theme parks as well as POV footage of Rollercoasters of which this 70's thriller has in plenty supply.
Rollercoaster is often mischaracterized as a disaster movie and while it does feature that 70's disaster movie motif of having an all-star cast, the only disaster occurs at the beginning of the film in which a bomb is detonated on an active rollercoaster (shot at Ocean View Amusement Park, Virginia). This leads to a very well staged and brutal sequence in which carriage goes off track and bodies are seen being crushed on screen, albeit very briefly. Throughout the remainder of the film, the killer in question is threatening disaster rather than having disaster play out. Rollercoaster is also one of several films in the 1970s to feature Sensurround, a process to give the viewer a sense of vibration. This along with the film's ties to the disaster genre gives the impression Rollercoaster is going to be a gimmicky picture however it's a stronger film than its exterior would indicate. Rollercoaster is a Hitchcockian, cat & mouse thriller which if anything owes more to Jaws than the disaster movie genre (both films feature July 4th as a major element in their plots). Rollercoaster also makes a worthy companion piece to fellow terrorist thriller from 1977, Black Sunday, which both explore how public attractions can't just be shut down due to terror threats. Likewise, it goes without saying that in the 21st century no company would allow their brand to be featured in a film in which their product is at the basis of a terrorist attack while the plot itself would be less likely to occur in today's surveillance world.
No motive is given to the killer played by Timothy Bottoms (simply billed as the "Young Man" in the end credits), however, the character comes off more frightening this way than if he was given a clear motive (see Peter Bogdanovich's Targets for a similar villain). In one scene the Young Man is shooting with precision at a fairground range and is asked by the carnie if he is ex-military to which the Young Man gives no response. Could he be a Vietnam veteran? - Along with his knowledge of explosives, the movie leaves such a reading open. The relationship between the hero Harry Calder (George Segal) and villain in Rollercoaster takes place over audio channels as they never encounter each other face to face until the end. This dynamic would later become commonplace in action films such as Die Hard or Speed, but Rollercoaster is the earliest film I'm aware of to feature this trope. In retrospect, I feel Bottoms gives the strongest performance in the film. He has a cold, calculating menace to him and even manages to do a lot with his eyes and tone of voice. Timothy Bottoms would later go onto portray U.S President George W. Bush a total of 4 times, and once you know that you can't unsee it. The middle portion of Rollercoaster involves a lengthy sequence of mind games at King's Dominion Park, Virginia, in which the Young Man orders Harry to perform a series of tasks including wearing a funny hat and going on various rides (including one titled Vertigo - a little Hitchcock reference?) in order to transfer a briefcase containing a cash ransom. It's a very well constructed piece of suspense similar in vain to the Simon Says series of mind games in Die Hard With A Vengeance (not to mention that camera trick they pull off on the Rebel Yell rollercoaster is a real shocker).
So who is that band featured in Rollercoaster playing at the film's finale in Six Flags Magic Mountain on the 4th of July? They're called Sparks, a respected music act from what I gather despite their resemblance to an 80's hair metal band as seen in the film. Their song Big Boy is played as a bomb squad is attempting to find and disable an explosive on the rollercoaster and on first viewing, it feels like the song is on loop for a comically absurd amount of time, even with several intervals in which the film cuts to other scenes in which the song is not played. When watching the film again and timing how long the song is actually played for it only lasts 5 minutes but on first viewing, I could swear it felt more like 20 minutes (good tune though). The roller coaster featured in film's climax is the Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California which opened the year prior in 1976 and is the first rollercoaster in the world to feature a complete 360-degree vertical loop. The score by Lalo Schifrin on the other hand is surprisingly varied. The carnival motifs are original pieces composed for the film and not just lifted stock music, and like any carnival music, its one part joyous and the other part sinister. The score also occasionally transitions into the style of Bernard Hermann's Psycho score and even throws some nice blaxploitation style funk into the mix at the beginning of the Magic Mountain sequence.
The film's writers Richard Levinson and William Link were primarily involved writing for TV, thus Rollercoaster does have a made-for-TV vibe to it which it can't quite shake off. The plot itself does sound the type of premise which would be the basis for a TV movie and unlikely to make it to cinematic A-picture. The characters themselves in Rollercoaster are only surface-level interesting but the plot has enough intrigue to keep it engaging. George Segal is likeable as everyman Harry Caulder who gets caught up in the Hitchcock tradition of an ordinary man getting trapped in an extraordinary situation. He is also given an odd but memorable introduction seen trying to give up smoking via Clockwork Orange style methods. Likewise, the always cool Richard Widmark does his reliable thing however I'm just disappointed Henry Fonda's role in the film barely goes beyond a cameo. Fonda's part could have provided some entertaining comic relief with the antagonist relationship he shares with George Segal by popping up now and then but instead only appears in two scenes and is clearly phoning in his performance - the part must have been a quick pay-cheque. Regardless of shortcomings, for now, Rollercoaster is probably the best film in the not so contested category of best rollercoaster film of all time.
We're No Angels (1955)
Angels With Dirty Faces
We're No Angels was Michael Curtiz' second Christmas film in a row (despite its release date of July 1955), although unlike White Christmas, We're No Angels is a less secular affair with its use of biblical references in the tale of three, perhaps not so wise men who bestow gifts on a distressed family at Christmas. We're No Angels is both sentimental and darkly comic as the Ducotel family in a French colonial town on Devil's Island (despite none of the cast appearing remotely French) are not massively bothered by having three escaped convicts stay at their adjoining home/business. The three disreputable men go to the Ducotel household intending to rob them but end up getting caught up in the spirit of the season after having a voyeuristic insight to the troubles bestowing the family and their failing general store. We're No Angels is a bright and colourful affair with the scenes in the bustling port town in particular showing off Curtiz' directorial skills. The picture even calls to mind Larceny Inc (1942), another film in which a group of criminals inadvertently turn around a failing business.
A large portion of the film's dark humour comes from Aldo Ray alone in the role of Albert, a sexual offender type convict of whom we don't know the extent of his activities but the movie hints that it ain't pretty. Much of the film involves him having an attraction and interacting with the family's daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott), including pinching her derrière and carrying her fainted form into her room with the door closed - once again, the family takes no objection to this. Likewise Isabelle appears to have a serious medical disorder in that she faints multiple times in a short period and even has an unrequited love for her second cousin. Contrasting the more lowly and thuggish Albert is Peter Ustinov as the eloquent and well-spoken Jules. His technique of cracking locks and opening safes involves him lightly touching the outside of a device and then bumping the side of his hand lightly against said device, resulting in the hatch opening - is it this simple in real life or is the movie playing loose with safe and lock-cracking techniques?
We're No Angels was Humphrey Bogart's big career opportunity to show off his eccentric comedic side as the con artist Joseph. Bogart was able to display his comic chops in All Through The Night, however, We're No Angels is more in the vein of The Marx Brothers - just look at the scene in which Joseph successfully cons a customer into buying a suit which is clearly several sizes too small for him. Bogart's facial expressions and body movements accentuate the performance and even the sight of the tough guy cooking in a kitchen wearing a pink apron somehow doesn't degrade his machismo. Likewise, Bogie also delivers one of the funniest lines among the pantheon of great Bogart quotes: "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes."
Basil Rathbone on the other hand, the Hollywood embodiment of villainy portrays an Ebenezer Scrooge type role as Andre Trochard, the business owner who sees no objection to doing labour on Christmas Day nor having no concern for people's humanity, just business. We're No Angels bounces back and forth from zany jokes to more deadpan humour such as the trio's very slow, drawn-out debate on who should tell Andre not to open the box with their pet snake named Adolf in it. The humorous ending in which the three decide to return to prison was likely brought about by the production code forbidding criminals to be portrayed as sympathetic characters thus their redemptive conclusion - an example of finding a clever solution within the confines of censorship.
Love Me Tonight (1932)
Tailor Made Man
Love Me Tonight was produced and directed by the forgotten movie magic maestro Rouben Mamoulian, a name who doesn't make the history books compared to the likes of Orson Welles but who's work during the pre-code era deserve that cliché expression, "ahead of its time" - films which had extensive visual freedom more technical wizardry than you can shake a stick at. No more so than in the musical, comedy Love Me Tonight, the first film in history to use a zoom lens as it does several times throughout the movie (yet it would be decades until this technique would catch on). Not to mention the film's early use of slow-motion during a very dreamlike deer hunt sequence - quite unlike anything else you'll see in a film from the time.
Love Me Tonight opens with the city of Paris coming to life in a visual manner reminiscent of the silent documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; however this is accompanied by a symphony created by everyday sounds from a construction worker hitting the ground with a pike axe to a woman sweeping a pathway. Likewise, the Paris street sets look authentic (with shots reminiscent of Gene Kelly's apartment and neighbourhood from An American In Paris), I would believe it was real-world location but it was a set in the Paramount back lot, which is equalled by the opulence and detail of the chateau seen later on in the film.
Love Me Tonight is an Ernst Lubitsch style romantic comedy focusing on European aristocracy. Our protagonist and his Supreme Frenchness is Maurice Chevalier in the role of well...Maurice - the stereotypical Frenchman who's life revolves around the concept of romance (is there any truth to Hollywood's fantasy of France and Paris in particular?). He is one fine dressed man in his dashing turtle neck and a distinct walk (he is a tailor after all) along with a shade of Groucho Marx aspect to his personality with his witty comebacks to all the bourgeois snobs he encounters.
It was a novelty in 1932 for musical numbers to be so interwoven into the text and pushing the plot along, in particular, the Isn't It Romantic number which cleverly connects future lovers by song as Maurice begins singing it in his Paris tailor shop and it ends up being carried out of the city and across the countryside to a chateau in which Jeanette MacDonald (who feels like she was tailor-made to play nobility) and her magnificent pair of pipes finish it off. Love Me Tonight has no shortage of character actors galore such as the inclusion of the three spinster sisters (a more benevolent version of the three witched from Macbeth) being a very humorous touch, especially when they sound like chickens as they frantically pace. Also take note of MacDonald's reaction to Charles Butterworth falling off ladder and landing on his flute - priceless. The other great addition to Love Me Tonight is an always show-stealing Myrna Loy in a part which helped turn her career around from being typecast as the exotic temptress to performing high comedy as the sex-hungry Countess Valentine. The bored sex fiend spends her time around the chateau sleeping on chairs and furniture, becoming excited when the prospect of a male encounter arises. She gets many of the film's best and not to subtle innuendo-laden lines and even sings for the only time in her career during her few lines in The Son Of A Gun Is Nothing But A Tailor. Currently, the only version of Love Me Tonight known to exist is the censored 1949 re-issue which includes among other potentially suggestive cuts, an omission of Myrna Loy's reprise of "Mimi" due to her wearing of a suggestive nightgown. Why yes I'm outraged that a piece of film history has been erased and in no way does being deprived of seeing a scantily clad Myrna Loy factor into it.
Regardless of what we are left with, it surprises me the Love Me Tonight would even receive a post-code rerelease with every other line of dialogue being a sexual innuendo (not to mention one particularly luring pan of MacDonald in lingerie as the Doctor inspects her). We can always hope one day an uncensored print we surface.
Thirteen Women (1932)
Aeons before the likes of Michael, Jason, Freddy or even Norman there was Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy).Thirteen Women is one of the earliest prototypes of the slasher film (made at a time when most horror movies featured supernatural creatures) in which the half-Hindu, half-Javanese Ursula (even though Georgi is a name of European origin) seeks revenge on her former high school peers due to their racist mistreatment through the use of horoscopes which don't predict a happy or successful future. Whether or not Loy actually enjoyed doing exotic roles such as this during her early career, she remains professional and doesn't phone it in. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and when she gives you that blank stare you know you're done for, not to mention she goes through many a memorable costume change throughout the film's short runtime.
Throughout the picture Ursula has control over her victims, leading them to commit suicide. However, the film does not make it clear if she has supernatural mind control abilities ("I was his brain as I am yours") or simply can just manipulate her victims though psychological means as the film's opening prologue appears to imply: "Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual... ...waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind." Pages 94 and 105 of Applied Psychology by Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.
The extent of the mistreatment towards Ursula is not made clear. In her final monologue at the film's climax, Ursula speaks of she tried to become white and it was almost in her hands when the sorority of girls wouldn't let her "cross the colour line", subsequently followed by the sorority's leader Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) acknowledging their cruel treatment. The film's racial subject matter was frank for the time - this was after all when screen star Merle Oberon was hiding her mixed-race origins from the public.
Thirteen Women is an oddity in the career of Irene Dunne, being her only macabre picture in a filmography of generally light-hearted fare. Laura is the only woman in the sorority who attempts not to act so gullible and take superstitions seriously (not to mention she has one fine Beverly Hills Home). Thirteen Women is an example of a female ensemble film yet oddly all the women in the picture are comprised of divorced and single mums - there are no husbands insight and even the one who is married shoots her hubby at the beginning of the film.
Thirteen Women doesn't disappoint with those to be expected pre-code shocker moments from the circus acrobat accident in the film's beginning to Ursula going as far as to send poisonous chocolate and later a bomb disguised as a birthday present to kill Laura's child. The film's atmosphere is also aided with an exotic score by Max Steiner (topped with plenty of gongs thrown in there for good measure) at a time when most movies seldomly used scored music. Steiner would go onto compose King Kong the following year at RKO and the rest is history.
Thirteen Women's biggest claim to fame is the film being the only on-screen appearance of the elusive Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by hanging herself on the Hollywood sign, shortly before the Thirteen Women was released - ironically the only film she appeared in had suicide as a major theme. According to the book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, Entwistle's role as Mrs Hazel Cousins was central to the first 22 minutes of the film in which she was involved in a lesbian love affair leading to the murder of her jealous husband. In the 59 minute cut of the film, Entwistle is only on screen for a few minutes in which during that time she locks arms with another woman (her love affair?) and later shoots her husband and then screams at what she has just done. Thirteen Women originally ran at 73 minutes however the likely watered-down 59-minute cut is the only version currently known to exist. Perhaps somewhere out there exists a 73 minute print of Thirteen Women, regardless of what we are left with is still an entertaining hour. Perhaps future cult classic status is still in the waiting for Thirteen Women.
Grand Prix (1966)
I Sleep In A Racing Car, Do You?
Grand Prix may be the best Howard Hawks film he didn't make - a loosely plotted film following four Formula 1 drivers with the theme of male bonding. There is even a Hawksian woman in the form of Eva Marie Saint as Louise Frederickson in a role similar to that of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, an onlooker who is taken back by this subculture and the reaction or lack thereof the drivers have to death and injury. The loosely plotted structure avoids the cliché of many sports films in which the drama hinges on whether or not the protagonist or team wins the final bout. Rather Grand Prix is an examination of these stoic modern gladiators and the women who come to reject their men's participation in the sport.
Grand Prix was John Frankenheimer's first picture in colour and while something is lost when compared to his earlier films which are some of the most visually astounding black & white films of the era, Grand Prix is one colourful and eye-popping film. Grand Prix is one of the best examples of a movie which offers such a vibrant slice of exotic, European flavor; complete with beautiful locations, gorgeous women, an exquisite score by Maurice Jarre and the full glitz and glamour of the sport. It plays like a not so cynical tourism commercial complete with early use of film product placement (the first of two Frankenheimer films to make use of the Good Year brand).
The 1960's, when every movie was over three hours long, complete with an overture, intermission and entr'acte. Filmed in Super Panavision for display on a Cinerama screen, Grand Prix was a movie designed for the theatrical experience with its astounding racing sequences - no further proof is required that Frankenheimer is one of the screen's greatest directors of action. During the film's three major race sequences there are no instances of cars being filmed slowly with footage sped up in post production as seen in many older films - no, this is the real deal. Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 racing season with the actual actors in the film performing their own driving (bar Brian Bedford).
The location shots during the film's opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix are a thing of beauty to look at with the winding roads, palm trees and glorious architecture. Combine that with extensive use of shot types and transitions and you have an unforgettable feast for the senses. Right from the Saul Bass opening credits with the extreme use of close-ups and use of checkered frames to the fast-moving ariel footage, POVs, split-screen and quick cuts - Grand Prix is a marvel of editing. In relation to the sound design, just like the sound of galloping horses during the chariot race from Ben-Hur, the sound of Formula 1 engines ramps up the suspense without the aid of music - rather it creates a rhythm of its own. One race in Grand Prix is however scored by Jarre's music in a surprisingly relaxing and dreamlike montage of overlapping footage of F1 cars which the sounds of their engines subtly in the background. I wonder if Grand Prix played an influence on George Lucas for the pod race sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well guess who was a young camera operator on Grand Prix back in 1966?
Among the glamour of Grand Prix, things do u-turn on several instances during the film's bloody and graphic injury scenes of various drivers, not to mention a very upsetting scene involving two young boys who should not have entered the race track as and when they did. With the comparable lack of safety back in 1966, one has to ask does this make the sport more exciting for both the drivers and spectators? There is even one scene in which James Garner is recklessly driving on a country road and no one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.
James Garner headlines Grand Prix as American racer Pete Aron, a bit of jackass but one who has a sympathetic streak to him. Toshiro Mifune makes his Hollywood debut as Japanese automobile magnet Izo Yamura. I've read many reviews complaining that Mifune's English dubbing is on par with a Godzilla film but I beg to ask what copy of the film are they watching? - I can't see any issue with the quality of the dub. Yves Montand however in the role of Jean-Pierre Sarti brings the highest level of gravitas from the film's cast. He questions his participation in the sport and has wanted to quit after witnessing many an accident ("Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely"). In a sign of mutual respect and good sportsmanship, he even stops in the middle of a race when Pete Aron is trying to escape a burning vehicle. Montand's character appears to be a stereotype for French existential angst, a man wearied by the absurdity of his existence. This is backed up by the fact that his name is similar to that of French, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Grand Prix hits its emotional peak with the tragic ending in which Sarti's body comes flying out of a vehicle and only to lie mangled on a tree, all because he drove into a pipe which came loose from another vehicle. The irony of the character who contemplated most on retiring would see such a bloody end and not to mention the emotional breakdown in which Louise Frederickson screams at the press, while her hands are covered in Sarti's blood - it leaves much food for thought. Grand Prix is as much a tribute to Formula 1 as it is a reminder of how dangerous it once was - for better or worse.
Yin & Yang
Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon. A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there's barely a single minute that doesn't leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn't fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? - Money talks.
Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I'm not Chinese so I can't atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film's setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn't come along until the 9th century (also Mulan's family owns a pet dog?). - Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.
Mulan is a classic heroes' journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded "F" word of feminism, I'll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna: "You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo."
Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I'm never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan's journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy - rather it was to preserve her father's and by extension her family's honour. Mulan doesn't want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.
Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn't more suspicious that Mulan's alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan's face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan's balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.
From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film's scope reaches a peak with the film's climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it's a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.
Jerry Goldsmith's East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film's classic Disney "I desire more" ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan's vulnerability. Yet Mulan's greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I'll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters - it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.
The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn't surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film's funniest moments come from Mulan's attempts to act manly - it's not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character's cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan's heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.
The film's villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message ("How many men does it take to deliver a message?" - oh, badass!). He's not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn't interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film's climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.
Mulan's world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan's dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film's heart as the instigator of Mulan's journey ("I know my place! It is time you learned yours!"). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers - the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film's love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has "a girl back home who's not like any other". Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.
"The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all"
The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her ilk of rich, bored socialites use Manhattan as their playground similarly to the wealthy socialites in My Man Godfrey, using the city for bizarre escapades such as sleuthing in the middle of the night and all while still dressing to impress at the same time in The Mad Miss Manton. Stanwyck's enthusiasm alone is infectious and the quick-fire interactions of the girls are one of the film's highlights ("I was never much of an individualist, if the upstairs has to be searched we search it together - why that's communism!"). They even partake in a number of Scooby-Doo like moments, in particular actions reminiscent of the character Shaggy, i.e. making a sandwich in the kitchen when sleuthing in a trespassed apartment. The other memorable addition to the cast is the sarcastic, wisecracking Hattie McDaniel who takes no nonsense from anyone and has a comeback to everything despite her socio-economic status ("Comes a revolution and we'll start being exploited by our help").
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda - one true pair if there ever was one. Their chemistry makes it more believable that Peter Ames (Fonda) with his dorky bow tie would fall head over heels for this spoiled Park Avenue princess who is trying to sue him for a million dollars over an editorial. He is even driven to the point in which he casually imposes marriage on her. Henry Fonda isn't given enough credit for his comic abilities, in particular, the scene in which he fakes his own deathbed in order to extract information from Miss Manton. In one scene Fonda is even seen holding a knife, in the same manner he would years later in 12 Angry Men.
The Mad Miss Manton was one of many films throughout the 1930's which attempted to get a piece of that Thin Man pie. The formula of the 1934 comedy-mystery romp was an effective one and could easily be recreated with low budgets. It doesn't matter that the mystery in The Mad Miss Manton is incomprehensible. The comedy and the atmosphere are what makes the movie, of which the picture succeeds in creating with the high contrast, film noir-like lighting during the sleuthing sequences (especially with the sequence in the subway) even though the film is visibly a low budget production.
Marked Woman (1937)
The Mark of the Squealer
"I think I'll be a big help to your business" says Mary "Dwight" Strauber (Bette Davis) as she foreshadows to Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) the new owner of the clip joint known as Club Intimate. Mary is the alpha female with a mother instinct among her group of friends who all work as nightclub hostesses for Mr Vanning. None of them think highly of the work they do (but state it's still better and more profitable than working in a factory for 12 and a half per week) as they accompany male patrons until the early hours of the morning (also that piece of music which plays 18 minutes into the film during a montage in the nightclub, it sounds similar to Raymond Scott's Powerhouse). The theme of female solidarity runs throughout Marked Woman as the group console over the fear of getting old and are seen walking down the street in unison several times in the film. Mary also attempts to keep her sibling Betty (Jane Bryan) away from the gangster world and on track to a more respectable life. This plot element would be recycled in another Warner gangster picture from the same year, Kid Galahad and also involving the same cast member, Jane Bryan.
Marked Woman gave Humphrey Bogart an early career opportunity to play a hero during this pre-stardom period in his career (of when he could look oddly boyish) in which he was often cast as the villain. Bogart plays David Graham, the young, idealistic lawyer who "can't be bought" and like Elliot Ness and the Untouchables are determined to bring down the cities top crime boss. Despite the disclaimer, at the beginning of Marked Woman which asserts that the story is fictitious, Marked Woman is loosely based on the real-life crime-fighting exploits of Thomas E. Dewey, in particular, his conviction of New York crime boss Lucky Luciano (of whom Eduardo Ciannelli bears a resemblance to) via the testimony of numerous call girls in Luciano's prostitution rings. - I've said it before and I'll say it again, Hollywood makes being a lawyer look like one of the coolest professions ever.
Marked Woman is criminal justice 101. Everyone and their mother know Johnny Vanning commits every crime and murder in the city and they can't do anything about it without any witnesses to come forward and testify in court. Witnesses are either threatened or killed off, politicians are bought out and unscrupulous lawyers take advantage of every technicality in the law. A later Bogart film, The Enforcer (1951) explored similar subject manner but Marked Woman does it in a superior manner. Following the conviction of Vanning, Marked Woman concludes with the group of friends walking down the courthouse steps and into the mist, once again walking in unison as they did throughout the film. The lawyer gets all the praise and attention from the press whereas those who risked the most are forgotten about and walk into the night with no personal gain or future prospects.
Kid Galahad (1937)
Thugs With Dirty Mugs
The plot of Kid Galahad is routine fare in this gangster/sports picture but is executed with the top-notch craftsmanship. With Michael Curtiz directing (complete with one of his trademark shadows) and three cinematic icons carrying the picture, you know you're in safe hands. Kid Galahad is one of the better early attempts to capture boxing in a film, there's no sped-up footage although the fight scenes are quickly edited and the knockout during the titular character's first fight occurs off-screen. It wasn't until Gentleman Jim that cinematic boxing was filmed to a more realistic degree.
Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart would play foes a total of five times, with Bogart getting the short end of the stick in four out of five of these pictures. In these pairings Robinson would play the redemptive character while Bogart would be a plain old scumbag. There's a fun rivalry dynamic with the two as competing boxing managers but along with their other pairings, this is by no means a complex role for Bogart. His part as the not so threateningly named Turkey Morgan is a two-dimensional bad guy but with Bogart, it's no less engaging. Likewise, I much prefer this more endearing and playful Bette Davis to high end, sophisticated melodrama Bette Davis she would go onto to portray starting with Jezebel. I also have to ask where the studio trying to make a sex symbol out of Davis in this film? I can't recall another film in which she exposed this much skin.
Kid Galahad was made three years into the production code and it is interesting to consider how gangster films from this late 30's period would have differed had they been made a few years earlier. The aesthetics are much cleaner than if the movie had come out during the code but more significantly is the film's moral content. Although a gangster picture, Kid Galahad is somewhat of a Middle America morality tale. The film highlights a clear divide between the urban world of the mob and its lavish parties to the innocent and simple world of the countryside. Despite his path in life, Nick (Edward G. Robinson) tries to keep his sister ( a much more wholesome relationship than that featured in Scarface) and mother far away from gangsters (or mugs as he calls them) by housing his mother in the country and sending his sister away to a convent. Even the boy-scout bellhop turned prizefighter (Wayne Morris) desires to become a farmer when he leaves the prizefighting world behind. I suspect much of this stems an effort to disown the gangster lifestyle in favour of a more conservative one to fall in line with the production code.
The Black Watch (1929)
Heart of Darkness
The Black Watch marked John Ford's first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film's dialogue is delivered at a snail's pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film's pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots - a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals - ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.
The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy's novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland ("the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce") sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.
One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani - Goddess to the natives ("others have been sent to take her out but never returned"). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander's line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.
The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn't have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn't referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam's (and Abrahamic religions' as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult's racial undertones raises many questions. I can't deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?
Bad Cops, Bad Cops
Madigan is my kind of cop movie. Everything about it feels so quintessentially classic. All the tropes are there from the officer who doesn't play by the book, police corruption, guys in suits who show off their identification, one-liners galore and all this aided by the aura of cool which film-noir icon Richard Widmark brings to the screen - plus is there a more cop name than Madigan?
Many of the men in Madigan wear suits and fedoras with this being the late 60's and the final days in which it was common for working men to do so; although there is a sense of New Hollywood creeping in with the film's villain appearing in that 1970's mould along with various snippets of once-taboo subject matter. Madigan is also one of the best uses of location in film; I haven't seen another film in which the grit and grime of the New York streets have been captured so vividly in this neo-realistic record of NYC in the late 1960's.
The opening credits of Madigan are a fantastic montage of New York in the early hours of the morning. This should come as no surprise as director Don Siegel had been a montage editor before becoming a director. I could happily have this movie playing in the background just to listen to the music as the score by Don Costa itself is one of the most underrated film scores I've heard; it's so motivating and makes you want to go and kick some ass.
Much of my appreciation of Madigan is due to the film's aesthetics. The film's main plot and many subplots are good if not entirely exception, primarily the tension between Henry Fonda as the commissioner who "likes the book" and spends his day at superficial social events to promote the image of the force and works from behind a desk versus the unethical Madigan trying the catch crooks on the street. Siegel would go on to do better in Dirty Harry three years later but dam does Madigan have some fine aesthetics.
Don Juan (1926)
The OG Playboy
The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be "A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen". Well this self-gratification didn't aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 - not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don't add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can't blame them.
Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore's attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother's infidelity and his father's response to such - there's more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?
In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history's infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.
Among the film's supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan's amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan's residence and reassuring each one that she is "the love of his life". Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There's no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it's great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.
My one major downside to Don Juan is that I'm left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film's money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan's dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It's filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.
Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920's makeup despite its 15th century setting). In the words of John Hammond - "We spared no expense". Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn't do them justice.
The Navigator (1924)
In my estimation, The Navigator is Buster Keaton's funniest film and the finest example of his use of physical space as he treats the film frame as his theatrical stage. Gags such as his "long walk" home or the intimidating painting of director Donald Crisp waving back and forth at the ship window are immaculately timed and staged. Or take my favourite gag in the picture in which Keaton is attacked by a swordfish while deep-sea diving and then proceeds to use it as a sword against another oncoming swordfish. It's such innocent humour and the obviously fake swordfish props plus the fact that he even goes to the effort of bringing down a "Men At Work" sign with him just makes it funnier - It's images like these which tickle my funny bone even thinking about it.
The Navigator was filmed on board the USAT Buford, a former warship which Keaton and his crew had free reign to use during the production of The Navigator, and take advantage of it they did, making the boat a character in itself. With rear projection yet to be a thing in 1924, all the nautical antics are filmed onboard the vessel.
The Navigator was one of the several films in which Keaton plays a spoiled, entitled brat who can't do anything for himself in the role of Rollo Treadway. After Rollo observes a happy, newlywed couple (in an early example of black casting in which race is irrelevant), he proposes to Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire) out of the blue only to be unsurprisingly turned down. A series of mishaps later finds the two alone at sea onboard The Navigator. Betsy is on an equal footing with Rollo, with her character also coming from the same, privileged, sheltered upbringing as Rollo, contributing to the survival of the helpless duo.
The cinematography in The Navigator is some of the finest in the Keaton filmography with its evocative lighting and some gorgeous shots. One such shot and one of the film's blink and you'll miss it gags, in the first scene which features Rollo and Betsy in their sailor costumes, notice how their shadows on the wall emanating from the candles they're holding creates a silhouette of Betsy giving Rollo a kiss on the cheek with his arms around her, even though they're not engaged in any such action. Likewise during the sequence in which Keaton and McGuire are running through the ship in parallel tandem, notice the smile on McGuire's face as she comes close to the camera. One the film's of odder gags however involves a gramophone playing Wilfred Green's Asleep In the Deep. With this being a silent movie, the lyrics appear on screen rather than being audible to the viewer in a gag which would have been better suited to a talkie.
When the seafaring duo approach the island of cannibals, it's the closest a Keaton film actually comes to being scary in a horror sense, with Noble Johnson playing the chief cannibal - always a striking screen presence. This encounter leads to one of the greatest and most suspenseful endings in film history - well in this viewer's most humble of opinions anyway. I don't know if it would work for me if I saw the film the first time now, as when I initially watched The Navigator I was naïve enough in my film-watching experience for it to take me by surprise - and I will never forget it.
The Squall (1929)
Because She's Homeless, She's Homeless
As Hollywood was making its transition from silent pictures to talkies, 1929 is left as a year full of oddities and curios. The Squall is a 100% talking picture and is one of the more watchable talkies from 1929. While watching The Squall or any other talkie from 1929 one must take into account the movie was presumably filmed with a camera in a soundproof box. It's evident the actors in The Squall have been heavily coached by diction experts and instructed to say their line as clearly and enunciated as possible - a scenario which anyone who has watched Singin' In the Rain will be familiar with. Likewise, none of the actors turn their heads when speaking to avoid going off-mike nor at any point do any of the cast simultaneously walk and talk.
So while none of the performances in The Squall bar one certain screen siren are anything to write home about, the production values are surprisingly very high. The Squall was directed by famed Hungarian-British producer and director Alexander Korda. I can only speculate if the director's heritage is the reason why the film takes place in Hungary whereas the play the film is based on is set in Granada, Spain. The sets and costumes are very detailed in this upper, middle-class Hungarian farm from what I assume is around the turn of the century. Complete with grand windmills, herds of animals, farm equipment and some nice miniature work, the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere. Just as significant in an unusual move for films right up until the early 1930s, is the use of a music score throughout the entire picture, suitably a heightened and melodramatic one to accommodate the sound effects of blustering storms.
However, the real reason to watch The Squall and the film's saving grace is the one and only Myrna Loy in the overacting triumph of her long and varied career as the scruffy, barefooted gypsy girl Nubi. The gloriously, melodramatic performance sees this seductress manipulate three men in the same household as she tears the once idyllic Lajos family apart. Particularly pathetic is the son Paul (Carroll Nye), an utter simp who buys jewellery for Nubi from money he stole from his parents. I can watch Myrna Loy in just about anything thus I can easily buy into the destructive charm of Nubi as she over emotes in broken English and always referring to herself in the third person - even in one early scene as Nubi proclaims "no more!", it appears as if Myrna Loy is trying to hold back her laughter. The contrast to the vampish Myrna Loy is the purity and innocence of a wide-eyed Loretta Young as Irma, a mere 16 years old at the time.
It should come as no surprise for a film as melodramatic at The Squall to play big with its use of symbolism and metaphor. The film's opening shot features a Christian cross overlooking the farm and during a dinner the family has near the film's beginning, the grandfather states that squalls are the work of God that he "gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky". Nubi, of whom arrives at the family home during the midst of a storm, takes advantage of the Christian principle of sheltering the poor and homeless only to wreak havoc - an evil spirit if there ever was one.
Spite Marriage (1929)
Buster's Last Gleaming
1929 would see Buster Keaton's last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face - creativity that one would never be seen again.
Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn't hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton's creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster's character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry - why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton's other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.
The playhouse at the centre of the film's first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words "Bosco Stock Company".
Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film's first half from Elmer's poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film's most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll - I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film's synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.
The film's second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It's clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film's silent era to a close.
The Best Man (1964)
With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility
The Best Man can be boiled down to one simple reality; politics is a phoney sham in which image matters over actual policy - I mean who knew right? The Best Man is a look at what goes on behind closed doors away from the pomp and flair of the convention arena. This stands in ironic comparison to the dignified slideshow of all then 36 US presidents over the opening credits.
The Best Man is a film which doesn't hold much appeal beyond the politics geeks like myself, although does offer a lot of insight to sink your political teeth into. Writer Gore Vidal clearly knew his political insight and this really comes through in the writing. Every other line of dialogue brings up thought-provoking talking points of political insight ("No girls in the white house" - did Vidal know something about JFK?) as two presidential candidates fight for the endorsement of a former president (Lee Tracy) in this dirty game of chess.
No party is mentioned in the film although it is more than likely the party featured are the Democrats due Vidal's ties to the party and with the play in which the film was based on being widely recognised as a parallel to the 1960 Democratic convention. Another hint this is the Democratic Party is the southern influence present at the convention (Democrats still dominated the south in the 1960s) from the brief shot of a woman in the convention waving a confederate flag to the former President positively referencing the confederacy.
Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a more conservative democrat running on an anti-communist platform from the days when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans existed. The man wants to lower taxes, increase military spending and is for state's rights. Reportedly the ethically dubious and ruthless character was based on Richard Nixon - he even goes as far blackmailing the former president for the endorsement.
The liberal counterpoint to the conservative and strong-minded Cantwell is the liberal William Russell (Henry Fonda); a candidate tainted by extramarital affairs, a nervous breakdown and a demonstrated inability to take decisive action. It is even hinted that Russell may be an atheist based upon his comment regarding human's animal descent only for one of his advisors to state, "No mention of Darwin, before The Garden of Eden was the world". The Best Man does offer some comic relief however in the form of Ann Southern as Mrs Gamage, a loud-mouthed, feminist type, pestering Russell that he doesn't appeal to the female vote.
Eventually, Russell, against his will blackmails Cantwell with info outing him as a homosexual. The word homosexual is not used as first but it's more than apparent that's the accusation levelled against Cantwell ("What we called when I was a boy, a degenerate"). The film does, however, drop the word homosexual later on, surely one of the earliest films to do so. The Best Man was itself released on an election year and one of several political movies to be essential viewing for anyone running who is for office.
Black Sunday (1977)
Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!
Black Sunday is another addition to the "They couldn't make that nowadays club". Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company - now I can't look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it's highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre - this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.
Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight's Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday's timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston - a poor man's version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.
Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn't get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia's relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife's martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander - a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.
Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.
Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov - an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI's rules ("In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond "). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn't he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question ("The trouble is, Dave, you've come to see both sides of the question"). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed - Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.
The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I've ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase "Edge of your seat" doesn't do it justice. The film's advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.
So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer's previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear's blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp's side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film's poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words "Super Bowl" imprinted on its side.
The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews. Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie's timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it's only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.
The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there's no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.
Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved - in the end, we get a bit of both. It's clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can't help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you're dying to just tell someone about it - Black Sunday is one such film.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Communists, Communists Everywhere!
The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don't portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director's commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.
From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy - a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film's end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 - being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.
Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate sums it up:
There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.
Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn't, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.
Many people don't do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don't really believe the group's core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren't "brainwashed"-they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.
Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who's mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao's China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.
It's Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn't state if the Iselin's are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.
Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it's clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, "not loveable" as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra's love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower - an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.
Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim's bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.
The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase "play a little solitaire" - a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film's climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.
The Conversation (1974)
I Always Feel Like, Somebody's Watching Me
The Conversation revolves around just that, a conversation between a man and a woman which is secretly recorded in San Francisco's Union Square by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his team as a paid job for a private interest. Watching The Conversation decades after the fact, it's surprising to see that such long-range microphones which can record conversations from afar and even in crowded places existed, let alone were commercially available in 1974, while it's also of great interest to watch the process depicted in the film of editing together the audio from different sources without the aid of a computer screen. It goes without saying that in a post 9/11, post Edward Snowden world, The Conversation is more scarily relevant than ever.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the personification of a paranoid man in one of the most effective portrays of a crisis of conscience in film. If you're in the business of spying on people, it's difficult to believe people are not spying on you, even to the point that the man can't even bear one of his neighbours delivering him a present on his birthday. Unlike an Edward Snowden, Harry Caul does not work for the government but the movie hints that he has been hired by them before. Harry's assistant Stan (John Cazale) even speculates the tapes Harry is editing could be for the Justice Department or the Internal Revenue. However, the most "out there" moment in the film comes when Harry's associate Bernie (Allen Garfield) states: "Twelve years ago, I recorded every phone call made by the presidential nominee of a major political party...I'm not saying I elected the President of the United States, but you can draw your own conclusions." Francis Ford Coppola had been writing The Conversation since the late 1960's however it's not determined whether the Watergate scandal had any influence on the film's development, but you can draw your own conclusions.
Perhaps the most unsettling section in The Conversation is the surveillance convention - a convention where the subterranean world of wiretappers come together to showcase their Orwellian recording technology with the pomp and flair expected of any business expo. As Martin Stett (a certain young Harrison Ford) sinisterly sums it up, "It's a convention of wiretappers, ah excuse me, surveillance and security technicians".
Ah yes, let's talk about the young Harrison Ford in the supporting role of Martin Stett. Perhaps I may be biased being a huge Harrison Ford fan but he leaves a huge impression in this small but significant part in which he does have a surprising amount of screen time for this early stage in his career. According to Coppola on the director's commentary track, the character was Ford's own creation. Originally no more than a cameo, the character's role was expanded as much as possible when Ford fleshed it out, turning the character into an implied homosexual with his campy checkered tie and sweater, in an implied relationship with the company director played by Robert Duvall. Martin Stett is like a predecessor to the 1980's yuppie and is one scary looking dude when he lingers in the background - even his voice over the phone is unsettling. I'm unable to discover whether or not more footage of Ford ended up on the cutting room floor. However included on the Blu-ray release of The Conversation is an early screen test from 1972 in which a young and dashing Ford plays the role of Mark, which a part which would eventually be portrayed by Frederic Forrest.
Being a film about sound itself, The Conversation couldn't be a more ideal match for the editing and sound design talents of the great Walter Murch. Like his work in Apocalypse Now, the sound effects are as memorable as the music, particularly that audio distortion noise that repeats during the film's titular conversation. Likewise, the eerie, ragtime-esque music score courtesy of David Shire shows what you can do with just a piano - the ideal accompaniment to the gritty 70's look amongst the film's oppressive yet striking architecture and a slightly drab-looking winter San Francisco (The Conversation is one of those film's set during Christmas which has no bearing on the holiday). Even the camera acts as an eavesdropper with the film's use of voyeuristic shots.
"We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don't get involved any further. We'll be listening to you."
The Last Flight (1931)
The Last Flight is one of the more unique movies to come out of 1930's Hollywood (possibly in part due to the film being directed by German newcomer to Hollywood, William Dieterle). It didn't hold my attention on first viewing with its surprising plotless structure but the odd nature of the movie made me want to give it another try. The Hemingway like Lost Generation film follows a group of Great War veterans leading a shallow and hopeless existence as they spend their nights drinking and partying in Paris while making no attempt to properly readjust to civilian life ("Well there they go, out to face life, and their whole training was in preparation for death") - A tale which would be repeated throughout cinema with various wars.
The film is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters and the listlessness that covers their lives. Along the way, they met a metaphorical representation of their damaged states in the form of Niki (Helen Chandler). The first scene with this character really confused me on first viewing as it sounds like she's saying she is holding a man's "tea" rather than his "teeth". Why the men would get so excited over this? It's not clear if Nikki is a ditsy dame, constantly inebriated or just nuts. She doesn't mind just standing and holding the teeth of a stranger who wants to go out back and fight and even keeps turtles in a hotel bathroom.
I do love the exquisite Paris nightlife circa 1919 as presented in the film with the suits and the drinks, you really get a sense of the all the good (if pathetic on a deeper level) times they have (even if it's never explained how they fund their drinking adventures). Allow me to express my inner grumpy old man when compared to modern nightlife.
Richard Barthelmess gave some of the most memorable performances of the pre-code era, having the ability to convey the look of a damaged man as seen in the role of Cary Lockwood, the most sensible one of the ecliptic group. Likewise, there's also Frink (Walter Byron) and his sexual misconduct ("He is a member of the wandering hands society and has a grouping good time"), in which the men are shockingly tolerant of his behaviour as they call him out and criticise his actions but never expelling him from the group. Even after an attempted rape on a train the men only tell him to apologise and to never get out of line again.
The Last Flight reuses footage at the beginning from Barthelmess' previous war film, The Dawn Patrol; both are based on stories from John Monk Sanders and make for a great double feature. - The Last Flight is a film for a patient viewer but one which holds many nihilistic rewards.