New eBook: Politics on Film

I am both editor and contributor to the latest CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association) eBook, POLITICS ON FILM. Thes book contains seventeen essays covering politically tinged films dating back to the 1930s and up thru the 1960s. While not a definitive collection, the articles include a wide range of political points of view from the courageous to corruption to satire. Among the movies included in this collection are well known works like The Best Man, All the King’s Men, Duck Soup, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, to more obscure films such as Medium Cool, What Every Woman Knows, and Left, Right and Center.

Contributors: Paul Batters, Annette Bochenek, Marsha Collock, Jocelyn Dunphy, Patricia Gallagher, Amanda Garrett, Rick Gould, Jess Ilse, Marianne L’Abbate, Kevin Maher, Beth Nevarez and Lora Stocker, Patricia Nolan-Hall, Linda J. Sandahl, Patricia Schneider, Nur Soliman and J.O. Watts.

All proceed from the purchase of this eBook from Amazon are donated to the National Film Presevation Foundation. Also available from Smashwords for FREE.

Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 8

Jaws

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Jaws has become more than the prototype of the modern blockbuster. With the pandemic, it has become something of a political statement. Specifically, the Mayor of Amity who insists on keeping the beach open because it’s the 4th of the July weekend, and local businesses will be crushed if the tourists stay away. Hey, it’s just a shark. Never mind that people are dying. Putting that aside the film remains a great thriller/horror story perfect for the summer. Jaws is so perfectly paced that one is always on the edge of your seat, tense even when the scary moments turn out to be false alarms, and just when you start to relax it hits you with the real shocks. Like “Psycho” “Jaws” has become a pop culture icon. There are even bits of dialogue that have become catch phrases (you’re gonna need a bigger boat) which is always a sign that a film has moved on to be more than just a great and entertaining film, but is now embedded into our pop culture.

M*A*S*H

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In January 1970, I was back from Vietnam for about five months or so. A four month stint followed in the states at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and now I was on leave before heading off to Germany to complete my three years of service. While home, I was catching up with family, friends, and movies, lots of movies. It’s well known that director Robert Altman used the Korean War as a metaphor for the then ongoing and unpopular Vietnam War. The film struck a nerve. M*A*S*H was a crass, subversive, and sacrilegious anti-war comedy unlike any other. The film not only mocked military bureaucracy and war but religion takes a bit of a beating too. Like Dr. Strangelove, made some six years earlier, the film laughs at the absurdities of war and the bureaucracy behind it. Egotism, incompetence, and piousness all take a shellacking. The only thing our anti-heroes (Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John) value is proficiency in the operating room. When the chips are down, saving the wounded men from the insanity that engulfs the world is what matters. Sutherland and Gould lead an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, and Robert Duvall among others. While the film has lost some of its shock value over the years it remains a classic.

Lust for Life

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Kirk Douglas made for the perfect Vincent Van Gogh. He managed to dig into the emotional depths of his character and is charismatic enough to make the audience believe him to be the tortured artist. It was this movie, and soon after, Irving Stone’s autobiographical novel, that introduced me to the world of art. Eventually, I made my way to read about other artists, going museums and in the process creating a lifelong love for art. “Lust for Life” is the portrait of the artist as someone who suffers for his art. There is rejection and abuse in every one of his relationships. Douglas, in one of his finest performances, was nominated for an Oscar and deserved to win. Instead, the Academy gave the Best Actor award to Yul Brynner for his overly theatrical performance in The King and I.

The Front

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The Front is a well-intentioned black comedy of an ugly period in American history. The Blacklist ruined many peoples’ lives, destroying careers and livelihood many times without proof or cause. It turned friends and colleagues against each other. Narrow-minded politicians preached hate, and fear listened to by blind narrow-minded followers. The film was written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, two of the artists blacklisted back in the 1950s. Using Woody Allen as the front lightens the dark subject matter yet they still managed to make a film that conveys the dark times and fears the country was facing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It didn’t matter if you were a member or not of the Communist Party or were a member sometime in the past. If you were friends with someone who was or had knowledge of someone with left-wing leaning, once they got you in their headlights, called before the HUAC and forced to testify; name names, or be blacklisted. Allen plays his usual self-centered coward who eventually finds himself in deep water when he is subpoenaed because he acted as a front for a few friends on the blacklist. Is the film an oversimplification of what happened, yes, but it works at the limited level it is presented. And it has a great closing line!!! “The Front” had one other special memory. John Lennon and Yoko were in the audience! I spotted them after the film ended and the audience began filing out. I never saw Lennon in concert but I did go to the movies with him,,, sort of.

Murder Inc.

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 Murder Inc. mixes facts with a fictional love story. The film allegedly tells the true story of the Brooklyn based independent murder for hire crime organization that carried out assassinations for the Mafia and the Jewish Crime Syndicate. Peter Falk plays contract assassin Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a cold hearted killing machine, and he is the best thing in the movie. In real life, and in the film, Reles turned rat after he was marked for a contract himself. Both in the film and in real life, Reles died suspiciously when he was tossed out a window of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel despite being under 24-hour police protection. The on location shoot gives a realistic feel to it all. The rest of the cast includes Stuart Whitman as his rather stiff self, May Britt, Sarah Vaughn, making her film debut, Sylvia Miles, and Morey Amsterdam as what else but a standup comic. But the worse casting is that of TV comedian Henry Morgan as the real life prosecuting attorney Burton Turkus.

Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 7

Scene 7 in the continuing series Movie Watching in Quarantine.

Annie Hallanniehall

It wasn’t the first time Woody and Diane Keaton teamed up on the screen but Annie Hall would solidify their coupling as one of the great screen couples. Neurotic lovers seemingly perfect for each yet destined not to last. What does last is Woody’s second lover in the film, not a person, but the city of New York. In Annie Hall, Allen for the first time puts on screen New York City, or at least his version of New York City, consisting of the Upper East and West Side, movie theaters, bookstores, museums, and restaurants all populated with a closet full of pseudo-intellectuals.
For the first time in his career Woody, while managing to continue the self-deprecating bookish pseudo-intellectual laughs, blends in or rather introduces new colors onto his palette: passion, romance, love, and regret. In “Annie Hall,” Woody gives us the many colors making up the romantic rainbow. Even if you lose in the end, it was great to have had made the trip. With Annie Hall, Woody Allen found his voice.

The 39 Steps

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 Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller speeds along like a shooting star. A moment is not wasted during its tight less than 90 minute running time. Filled with suspense and humor, some risqué for its time, the film is a roller coaster ride that never stops. For the first time, Hitchcock used what would become one of his most famous motifs that of the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. It would surface again in films like The Wrong Man, Saboteur and North by Northwest. Another Hitchcock theme that will appear again and again in his films is the cool blonde; Madeleine Carroll, I believe may be the first in a long line of cool Hitchcock blondes. Spies and secret organizations are another theme that would continue to show up in future works. Of his British period, this ranks for me as his best. The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage and The Man Who Knew Too Much not fare behind.

Point Blank

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Based on a novel (The Hunter) by Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake, John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir Point Blank was a revelation when it first came out in 1967 one of the most stylistic and earliest films, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” released the same year, to reflect the influences of the French New Wave. Boorman uses flashbacks, inter cutting, offbeat camera composition to create the paranoid universe Lee Marvin’s Walker travels in attempting to collect the $93,000 owed him. Though dressed in suits and working out of corporate offices, John Boorman’s underworld characters in Point Blank are as treacherous, backstabbing, and a conniving group of low life’s as gangsters from the days of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. But as slick, as they think they are, they meet their match in Walker a relentless, lifelong criminal, doubled crossed out of his share of money from a robbery and left for dead on Alcatraz Island. More than revenge, Walker wants his damn money.
Don’t bother with the Mel Gibson 1999 remake (Payback). Gibson’s character is less anti-hero and more a crude gorilla dressed up in false modern day movie cool. The film as a whole has no heart or soul. It’s mindless pulp.

Rosemary’s Baby

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 Motherhood can be a joyous thing; the miracle of birth, a child, the result of a bond between two people. Watching the child grow and discover life can be heartwarming and reaffirming. Then again, the idea of a live organism, another person growing inside you, just might be a bit unsettling and disturbing as you watch your body change, and you ask yourself what the child will be like. He/she could turn out to be a bright, upstanding member of the community. Then again, your little precious could turn out to be another Al Capone or Jeffrey Dahmer or even worse. Many films have focused on the dark side of motherhood: Psycho, Mommie Dearest, and The Manchurian Candidate. And then there is Rosemary’s Baby.
We have been conditioned to expect witchcraft to be practiced in places like Salem or it’s like. But, not on the Upper West Side of New York City. Rosemary’s Baby can be watched as just a great horror film, but it can also be read as a mother’s worst nightmare. Betrayed by her husband selling her out for a successful acting career, arranging to have her impregnated by the devil, forcing her to be left in the hands of a demonic doctor and some very devilish neighbors. The terror of rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of abnormal deformed childbirth are also filtered into the storyline. Rosemary becomes isolated, trapped with no family or friends to confide in or help her. Roman Polanski has given us a room full of paranoia with an eerie atmosphere and morbid humor. The acting adds much. The waif-like Mia Farrow makes her look even more vulnerable. John Cassavetes has a perfect demonic look in his eyes. Polanski opens and closes the film with sky-high views of the Bramford apartments where most of the film is shot. The Bramford is of course the famed Dakota Apartments on the Upper West Side, home of many famous people, and sadly most notable for where John Lennon lost his life.

Psycho

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While Psycho may not be as shocking as it was back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic till outshines the Freddy Krugers, Hannibal Lectors, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees that have followed. Though there are deeply disturbing themes running through the film, Hitchcock always makes it feel entertaining. Shot for under 1 million dollars, the director lures the audience in with masterful editing (the famed shower sequence), suspense, thrills, black humor, and a brilliant score by Bernard Herrmann.

Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 6

The Man With Two Brains

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 One year after Steve Martin and Carl Reiner spoofed the P.I. genre in “Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid,” (their third of four collaborations), they reteamed to do a takeoff on Mad Scientist flicks in this delightful though sometimes uneven comedy. Martin through sheer talent pulls out enough laughs to make it worth seeing. Some jokes may slip by if you’re not familiar with films like “Frankenstein” and “Donavan’s Brain.” Kathleen Turner makes for a perfect slinky, devilish siren, in a perfect send up on her previous femme fatale in “Body Heat,” who marries our crazy hero only to soak him for his money.
Martin portrays brain surgeon, Dr. Hfuhruhurr who has perfected a new type of brain surgery, something called the cranial screw-top method. He uses it to save the life of a beautiful young woman (Turner) he hit with his Mercedes. The woman turns out to be a golddigger who seduces every hunk she meets while avoiding to sleep with her new husband. Frustrated, our hero falls in love with the brain of another woman — a brain that has been pickled jarred by another mad scientist (David Warner). Despite some bits falling flat, there are more than enough good ones, though it never rises to the level of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”

                                                                      Tony Rome

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With Tony Rome, Frank Sinatra found the smart ass, wise guy loner role the public always felt the singer/actor was in real life. He’s a bit too old for the role, he was 51, however, that hard, tired face and look surely adds to the aura. So how good, or bad, is Tony Rome? Well, it’s neither. It’s somewhere in that hazy middle ground of shades of gray. One of the film’s obvious failures is the wardrobe choices Sinatra’s Rome wears. He looks like he came out of a 1950’s film complete with fedora and “ring-a-ding” repartee he is given to pontificate. What was rat pack hip in the late 1950s and early ’60s was completely old fashion in the psychedelic world of Purple Haze, Surrealistic Pillows, and Sgt. Pepper in the late ’60s. Worst is the wardrobe he wears when he is on the houseboat where he lives. The Captain’s hat and white slacks are cheesy God awful. That said, Sinatra handles himself well. He’s convincing as the streetwise loner. The plot is a bit convoluted, but then what P.I. film isn’t? Rome is asked by his ex-partner to help get a rich, drunk teen out of a Miami hotel without being seen and keeping the hotel’s name out of it. It sounds like a quick $200 bucks, but of course, it’s not.
The film is lightweight, more like a TV detective show than say The Maltese Falcon. There’s no deep probing into the meaning of life or Rome questioning his own sense of morality. There are no rain-soaked darky lit mean streets that many shamus roam. The setting is Miami and it’s all sunshine and heat. Sinatra is good with the wisecracks; they come quickly and often. There’s a good supporting cast that includes Richard Conte, Jill St. John, Gena Rowlands, and Sue Lyons. There’s also a cameo by the former middleweight/welterweight champion boxer Rocky Graziano, and daughter Nancy Sinatra sings the title song.

 

The Wild Bunch

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THE WILD BUNCH – Both Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released in 1969 take a look at the end of an era: the Wild West. They are two films coming at you from different points of view. Butch Cassidy is a loving, romanticized take on the Wild West featuring two of the most charismatic stars of the era. Butch and the Sundance Kid are outlaws but they are fun-loving and good-humored. It’s an honor, as Woodcock (George Furth) the train employee tells Butch, to be robbed by Butch and his gang. With Butch and Sundance it comes down to that you wouldn’t mind having a beer with these guys. Not so much with The Wild Bunch crew. There is an inherent violent streak in this film whether its kids burning a scorpion, or lawman blatantly gunning down innocent townsfolks while attempting to stop a robbery, outlaws shooting U.S. soldiers, outlaws shooting Mexican soldiers or Mexican soldiers torturing outlaws. They kill for revenge, profit, power, fun, and any other reason. It was a way of life.
The Wild Bunch, like “Bonnie and Clyde” a few years earlier was considered violent and bloody. After more than 50 years of cinematic violence, the shock value had numbed us some but it still holds a grip on the audience. Like Butch and Sundance where the future is seen in the form of a bicycle, here it’s represented by the automobile. The closing final shootout is a violent visually poetic take that closes the book on a way of life. Oh yeah, “The Wild Bunch” is a modern day masterpiece of filmmaking.

Pay or Die

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For three years, 1906-1909, Lt. Giuseppe “Joseph” Petrosino headed what became known as the Italian Squad of the New York Police Dept. As a detective, Petrosino focused on fighting the Italian criminal element in New York’s Little Italy, a group known as La Mano Nera or the BLACK HAND a forerunner to the Mafia. “Pay or Die” is a vivid account of the life and times of Giuseppe Petrosino. Like most film biographies liberties have been taken but the overall story is true, including an extortion attempt on Opera star Enrico Caruso as portrayed in the film. Though filmed on a studio lot, the film reflects an accurate look at immigrant life at the turn of the 20th Century. Italian immigrants were pouring into the United States mostly from the poorer parts of Italy. Many of these families settled in New York, in what became known as Little Italy. The Black Hand preyed on the Italian community extorting money from store owners. If they didn’t pay, storefronts were blown up or worst. The owners brutally murdered. A note would be left with the body, a black hand imprinted on it as a warning to others. The film provides a tough look at the early days of the Italian criminal element in the United States and how they as predators, extorted and terrorized their own people. The film uses the phrases “Mafia” and “Mafioso” at a time when J. Edgar Hoover only just began to admit that the Mafia even existed (maybe he watched this movie). “Pay or Die” was a small B film that came and went into theaters without much fanfare. Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast as Petrosino who comes across as a tough honest cop dedicated to cleaning up the Black Hand out of Little Italy and giving honest Italian immigrants the chance to become part of the American dream.

Marathon Man

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For a time in the 1970s, William Goldman was one of my favorite authors: Magic, Control, Tinsel, and Marathon Man were some of his best sellers. He also was a prolific screenwriter: Harper, No way to Treat a Lady, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Misery, and The Stepford Wives. He also adapted many of his own novels to the screen Including Magic and Marathon Man. Marathon Man is a fast paced, diabolical thriller about former Nazis, smuggled diamonds, a rouge government agent, and a dentist scene that still brings nightmares to me each time I have a dental appointment. John Schlesinger’s film version is not perfect. If plot holes bother you, it could be bothersome, but putting that aside, it’s a thrilling ride. Dustin Hoffman is well cast and Laurence Olivier delivers a frightening performance. After watching this film, you’ll never want to hear your dentist say, “Is it safe?”

Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 5

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

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John Ford’s brilliant western is both a romantic, three-way, love story and a look at the west on the cusp of change. Watching it again I realized how political a movie this is. There are battles between two factions. Those who want to remain a territory and those who want to become a state. It’s a typical rich versus the everyman battle. The future versus the status quo. Even the film’s love story, a triangle between a tenderfoot, a gunslinger, and the woman they love represents a dying western way of life. John Ford blends it all together with this filmmaking classic, his last great western.

 

The Graduate

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Some films are indelibly burned into your psyche for many reasons. It may have to do with the heart of every audience member jumping into their throats the first time the shark comes out of the water in “Jaws,” or the blaring rock sound of The Ronettes great song, “Be My Baby,” on the soundtrack in “Mean Streets,” or the discovery of a little know film called “The Panic in Needle Park” as you watch a then unknown actor named Al Pacino blow you away. There are certain films that are etched into your life and become a brick on the wall that helped build your love for movies. For me “The Graduate” was one of those films. It’s one of the seminal films of the 1960s ushering the “New Hollywood.”

Bananas

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One of the early, funny films that the more mature Woody Allen would dismiss later in his career. That said, this disjointed, sometime hodgepodge of a film remains funny. The jokes come fast, some fall flat, others remain fresh. Of all of Allen’s films “Bananas” is the closest he ever came to the satirical lunacy of the Marx Brothers (think “Duck Soup”). Here Allen’s banana republic of San Marcos meets Freedonia! Look for an unknown Sylvester Stallone stretching himself as an actor playing a subway thug.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

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This is no masterpiece but there is a dark streak of satirical comedy running through the film as it strikes at the ideal the perfect American family trip. Yes, the Griswold’s are on an ill-fated trip across America. Destination? The vacation promise land, Wally World, (think Disney World). It’ a bumpy road but there’s enough fun along the way thanks to Chase, Imogen Coca, and especially Dennis Quaid as the family’s country hick cousin (“I don’t know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper. It does just fine by itself”). There’s a great soundtrack headed by Lindsay Buckingham’s catchy “Holiday Road”.

 

A Kiss Before Dying

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Not wanting to marry his pregnant girlfriend Dorothy (Joanne Woodward) who will be disowned by her over strict and cold-hearted father if he found out, Slick college student, Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) gives her a loving kiss and tosses her off the roof of a seven story building. The police are convinced it was a suicide, but her sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith) does some investigating of her own. Bud meanwhile begins dating Ellen, never bothering to mention he knew or dated Dorothy. Soon Ellen’s life is in danger as Bud’s perfect murder begins to unravel. Based on Ira Levin’s (Rosemary’s Baby) novel this is a dark thriller that will keep the tension building in high gear throughout.

Book Review: The Big Goodbye

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Chinatown is one of the golden apples of 70s cinema. Sam Wasson has written an interesting, if sometimes overly detailed history on the making of the movie. Wasson brings you into the minds of the creators and participants: Robert Towne, Robert Evans, Roman Polanski, John Alonzo, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway. It’s also an intimate portrayal of Los Angeles and the Hollywood of the 1970s. Like the movie,  it’s convoluted at times. But the story is fascinating. It took Towne years to write the screenplay and he didn’t want to give up control. But filmmaking is a collaborative art, and the director, especially a director of Polanski’s caliber, has the final say. Wasson writes that the film’s ending is more Polanski’s doing than Towne.

The Big Goodbye is more than about Chinatown. It’s about the end of a golden era in films. Soon movies like Chinatown, The Conversation,   Marathon Man, The Godfather, and Network would give way to mindless blockbusters. There was more money to be made with trashy, splashy lightweight entertainment, lots more money, and after all, that’s what the business is about. Making money and box office trends, not art.

 

 

Movie Watching in Quarantine – Scene 3

Here is scene 3 in my list of Movies Watched in Quarantine.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

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 With the mood, the ambiance, the Miklos Rozsa’s soundtrack, the perfect deadpan voice-over by Steve Martin, we are transported back to 1946 and those dark rain-filled streets of film noir. Well sorta, after all, that is Steve Martin sitting in the detective chair and it is Carl Reiner in the director’s seat. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is an affectionate, funny, and technically inspired tribute to the murky cinema of gats, dames, and mean darkly lit streets.

 

Murder By Natural Causes

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Written by William Levinson and Richard Link (creators of Colombo) the 1979 Made for TV movie is a clever and devious story filled with one twist after another, and when you think you have it figured out, there’s another twist. A must-see for mystery lovers. I originally saw this on CBS back in 1979. In the late 1990s, I found a used VHS copy at Blockbuster Video and held onto it to this day. Unfortunately, it has never been released on DVD. The film stars Katherine Ross, Hal Holbrook, and Barry Boswick.

 

The Narrow Margin

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One of my all-time favorite Film Noir’s. Running a rapid 71 minutes, the film’s pace is as hi-speed as the rails they are riding. We are back in time when most people still traveled by train. It’s a world filled with sleeping berths, club cars, dining cars, porters, and whistles shrieking in the dark of the night. Most of all, the film has the great Charles McGraw, the unofficial king of B film noir. Whether portraying a cop or a criminal, his gravel like voice and square jaw looks have graced many film noirs. McGraw meets his hardcore match in Marie Windsor. Known as the “Queen of the B’s,” for the countless low budget films she made in her career. Windsor’s off-beat beauty graced a wide variety of films most importantly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Windsor’s 5’9” slinky frame, her coldhearted, seen everything looks make her a perfect femme fatale, and a superb counterpoint to McGraw’s rugged honest cop.

 

Broadway Danny Rose

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Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a fourth rate theatrical agent whose client list is filled with some of oddest acts in show business: a one-legged dancer, a woman who plays musical glasses, a blind Xylophonist and a stuttering ventriloquist. Danny is a good hearted loser who believes in his client’s worth no matter how bad they are. Allen creates a nostalgic world filled with the lower levels of New York’s show business community that he knew well from his early days as a TV writer and standup comedian. Many of the characters have a colorful Damon Runyon like quality to them. Classic Woody!

 

Movie Watching in Quarantine – Scene 2

Here are a few more films I  watched while social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic which is still not under control. Here in Florida it continues to spread. I hope everyone is staying safe. Please wear a mask, it’s not that big a sacrifice. I know you can handle it  Anyway, as I shelter from the storm, here are a few thoughts on some of the films I’ve watched. More to come!

Misery

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Whether you are a musician, writer, actor, artist or any other public figure, you know having fans is an integral part of the experience. Fans follow the artist on social media, fans share experiences and thoughts with each other, and fans are devoted. However, with some fans there comes the point when that devotion takes a turn toward some very dark places; far from the ordinary, toward the bizarre, the maniacal or even worst. Fan is short for fanatic which derives from the Latin adjective fanaticus. The fanatic has lost all perspective of their relationship to the artist. They are overly passionate and unreasonable in their devotion to their idol. Some even feel they know the artist and have a personal relationship where the artist is speaking directly to them. It’s all very delusional, and needless to say, way outside the boundaries of what is considered conventional behavior. Then there is Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).
Misery is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and one of the best adaptations of a King novel. Filled with dark witty humor and a sense of dread that builds throughout. Would have loved to have seen Hitchcock make this film

The Incredible Shrinking Man

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Ignore the silly title this is one of the greatest existential science fiction films ever made. It’s based on Richard Matheson’s novel, The Shrinking Man. On the surface, the film is fun to watch, but it does carry some serious underlying themes. Our Shrinking hero sees his shrinkage as a loss of his masculinity. As he continues to shrink, he feels his manhood and his place as the man of the house are being diminished as well. He is no longer sexually adequate. He also faces a life where everyday objects are now life-threatening. A spider he once would have stepped on is now the size of a prehistoric monster. The pet cat is a predatory beast ready to attack. Small leaks from the basement water heater turn into a major flood for our minuscule hero. He hates being a scientific experiment and a spectacle for the media. He now fights for survival in his own house where everyday objects are now the enemy to his existence. Finally, he must face the biggest question of all. If he continues to shrink, will he eventually even exist?

 

Lost in America

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“Turn on, Tune in, Drop out!” Timothy Leary once proclaimed. Albert Brooks takes it to heart and is born to be wild in this hilarious off-beat comedy, Lost in America is his third feature film as a director and writer (script co-written with, Monica McGowan Johnson). David (Albert Brooks) and Linda (Julie Hagerty) Howard, two materialistic yuppies who have good jobs and a pleasant life in California, but still do not feel fulfilled with their lives. David is expecting a big promotion to Senior Vice-President with the advertising company where he works. However, on the big day, he finds out his boss has other “big” plans for him. A transfer to New York to work on a major new account…and no promotion. David is stunned; His jaw-dropping response is, “a transfer??? I can get that at a bus stop!” He goes on a verbal rampage directed at his boss and is fired. He convinces Linda to quit her job, sell all their assets, buy a Winnebago, and go searching for America just like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper..well almost.

And so they hit the road to the tune of Steppenwolf’s’ Born to Be Wild blasting on the soundtrack. We watch as their new Winnebago heads out on the highway, looking for adventure, in this superb parody of the counterculture hit, Easy Rider.

The free-spirited lifestyle doesn’t work out and the couple comes to realize that dropping out may not be the answer, at least not for them. Two weeks after hitting the road David and Linda make their way to New York with plans and hopes of David begging to get his job back

 

Between the Lines

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I have always had an affinity for newspaper themed films. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole,  Sam Fuller’s Park Row, Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, Richard Brooks’ Deadline U.S.A, and more recently Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight are just some of my favorites. As you can tell from this small list, newspaper reporting can be a heroic endeavor or it can be down and dirty, even scandalous.

A forgotten film in this sub-genre is Between the Lines. With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, as well as the Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, underground newspapers representing the growing and influential youth market of the time were beginning to pop up throughout the country. The heyday of the underground newspaper was between 1965-1973. By 1977, when this film was made the idealism and the paper’s circulation has faded thanks to an apathetic public. The film works best as a document of its times, capturing the shabby conditions, the idealistic anti-establishment attitude of the characters, and finally the realization that it’s all about to change. The cast includes John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsay Crouse, Bruno Kirby, Gwen Welles, Stephen Collins, Michael J. Pollard, and others. One of the highlights is a couple of live performances from Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes.

Movie Watching in Quarantine

As a writer, I stay home and write. That’s the nature of the process, but when I put my photographer’s hat on I am outside. Again, that’s the nature of the process. Covid-19 has put my photography on hold. Sure, I can do indoor photography, but my taste has usually run toward the outdoors.
These days, I’m spending more time inside than out. My writing is at its best in the early hours. Subsequently, to pass the time I read, and I have been watching movies, movies and more movies.
I have been posting on Facebook a few thoughts on most and decided to share a few here.

Cape Fear

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Cape Fear one of the great thrillers from the early 60s. Robert Mitchum’s revenge-seeking crazed Max Cady is one of cinema’s great psychopaths. What makes his performance so effectively terrifying is his laid back style. He’s a relentless, vengeful, monster that would put fear in anyone’s heart. The film is a twisted tale that will keep your nails short due to all the biting you will do while sitting on the edge of your seat. Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his best as is Mitchum’s off-kilter, heavy-lidded, sexually charged, nasty performance.

Carrie

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Brian DePalma’s Carrie is best remembered for the film’s prom night climax: the bucket filled with pig blood dropping on Carrie, the split-screen, the bursting flames of fire, and the deadly revenge filled bloodshed as the highlights in this film. True, it’s one of the most shocking of screen massacres and all-time great sequences in horror. But complementing thasequence is the sequence that comes prior to it. The tense filled scenes beginning with the collection of prom queen ballots to the tracking shot of the bucket’s cord and the fated spilling of blood onto Carrie’s hair and body. That sequence creates a slow, but tense, nail-biting buildup to the final destruction

Three Days Of the Condor

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Paranoia Strikes Deep as Buffalo Springfield once sang. Three Days of the Condor strikes deep into the heart of the CIA. Robert Redford reads books for the agency looking for ideas, plans, secret codes that may be Thembedded. He is not a field agent. So when there is a mass slaughter of his co-workers (with the hits occurring while he is literally out to lunch). Redford calls his superior and wants to be brought in from the cold. One little problem. He finds himself a target not only from the assassins but the Agency itself. Condor is one of the great paranoid thrillers of the day. Sydney Pollack was an efficient filmmaker whose crisp, no nonsense style moves the film along at a sharp pace. There are no fancy shots, and he manages to clearly explain what is sometimes a convoluted tale. Even in quiet, simple scenes like the elevator ride where Redford slowly comes to the realization that Max Van Sydow, his co-rider on the elevator is the enemy Pollack can build up suspense. I did find the love affair that ensues between Redford and Faye Dunaway lacking believability but this is a film I like watching over and over.

The Professionals

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Recently watched Richard Brooks’ classic western, The Professionals, a film that contains one of the great closing lines in cinema. Ralph Bellamy’s arrogant and lying Texas millionaire calls Lee Marvin, one of four men he hired to bring his alleged kidnapped wife back, a bastard. Marvin’s character responds “Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, you’re a self-made man.”

Real Life Authors as Characters on Screen

I recently watched a couple of films that featured real life authors as characters on screen. There was Hammett (Dashiell) about the Pinkerton detective and author of The Maltese Falcon and other crime classics. Not long after, I watched the 1979 movie, Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave as the famed author. This got me wondering about other authors whose story made it to the big screen. Quite a few as it turns out. Here are some I came up with. This is not a complete list so feel free to add!

Agatha Christie made it on film three times so far, with a fourth film in the works. Only one film though made it to the big screen. Vanessa Redgrave starred as Ms. Christie in the 1979 film Agatha. The movie is a fictional take on Ms. Christie’s eleven day disappearance which to this day has never been explained. Dustin Hoffman plays a fictional American reporter on her trail. Read more here.

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In 2018, our British cousins produced an authorized fictional story called Agatha and the Truth of Murder (now available on Netflix). A second MTM, Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar was made by the same folks in 2019. A third film, Agatha and the Midnight Murders recently completed production.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appeared in quite a few MTM productions and TV shows, too many to list. That said, Actors David Warner played  Doyle in Houdini a 1998 MTM, and David Calder portrayed Holmes creator in a 2014 miniseries also called Houdini.

Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed Truman Capote and Catherine Keener played Harper Lee in Capote (2005). One year later came Infamous with Toby Jones as  Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee. Both films focused on the period when Capote, and Lee as his assistant, were researching his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.

Elle Fanning portrayed Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley in Mary Shelley (2017)

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Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles creator, Dashiell Hammett, made it to the big screen with Frederic Forest in the title role. You can read an article I wrote on the author and film Hammett here.

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Poet, novelist and short story writer, the man Time magazine called the “laureate of American lowlife,” Charles Bukowski is portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the 1997 film, Barfly. In the film, written by Bukowski, the author is given the alter-ego named of Hank Chinaski.

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In 2018, Keira Knightly portrayed French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known more simply as Colette.

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James Franco starred as Beat Poet Allan Ginsberg in the 2010 film Howl. Also portrayed in the film are Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi),  Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), Peter Orlovsky (Peter Tveit), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers)

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Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were back in the 1980 film Heart Beat. John Heard and Nick Nolte starred as the authors with Sissy Spacek as Carolyn Cassady.

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