Disorder in the Court!

Mr. Cimoli:  “Say, how much do you think my pelvis is worth?”

“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich:  “By itself, nothing.  So it’s a good thing you came to me.  Before we’re through, we’ll have them begging for mercy.”

Mr. Cimoli:  “Well, who’s “them”?”

“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich:  “That I haven’t figured out yet.”

[Howard McNear to Walter Matthau, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966)]

Many different types of professions have been portrayed from the very beginning for films, television and various streaming services.  Members of the armed forces, law enforcement, and the medical profession are a few that immediately come to mind, and dramas focusing specifically on these professions have been constantly popular with the general public as well as providing box office gold for the major film studios, networks and media services.  Another popular profession dramatized was also one involving lawyers or the various different aspects of the judicial/legal system.  They could cover such things as criminal justice, comedy, horror, mystery, romance, or even legal issues of historical importance for example.  This month’s Blog Post will discuss various types of films and television series about the legal profession.

A number of legal dramatizations based on fact have been done for both film and television.  Two examples, which were both originally done for the theater, were “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “The Andersonville Trial” (1970).  “Wind”, directed by Stanley Kramer, was a dramatization of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial where legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow defended teacher John Scopes, who violated Tennessee’s “Butler Law” forbidding the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded school vs. former U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who represented the state.  This legendary 1955 play, which was also a veiled attack against McCarthyism, starred Spencer Tracy in the Darrow role and Frederic March in the Bryan role (although both characters had different names in the film).   Even though both actors gave powerhouse performances, this picture was, in retrospect, only good, rather than great.  This was due, unfortunately, to Stanley Kramer’s style of direction.  Although Kramer did a number of successful and socially progressive themed pictures (“The Defiant Ones”, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, “Ship of Fools”, etc.), he was too often as subtle as a buffalo stampede through a church!  He could be so heavy-handed in his messaging, that it was all you could do to keep from just yelling at the movie screen, “OK Stan, will you quit pontificating, and just tell the G-d Damn story already.”  It also didn’t help that he miscast Gene Kelly as a stand-in for H.L. Mencken reporting on all of the proceedings.  Kelly might have been a dancing/choreographer colossus, but unfortunately, he also was, a “colossally” bad film actor.  Every time he opened his mouth to say some supposedly cynical smart-ass comment, you just wished that Humphrey Bogart (if he would have still been alive) would have been the one saying that line instead.  Fortunately, a far better historical dramatization, and one that cost a whole lot less, was for “The Andersonville Trial.”

Expertly directed by George C. Scott, who also starred in the original 1959 Broadway production, “Trial” was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by MacKinlay Kantor about the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia where some 13,000 out of 49,000 Union prisoners died due to exposure, malnutrition, and disease.  This was not so much a movie, but more of a filmed stage dramatization with all of the scenes shot indoors with few sets, and with the focus of the drama, almost exclusively on the acting.  To instill even more accuracy, all of the witnesses portrayed in the film were actual witnesses who testified at Wirz’s trial, and in a number of cases, their dialogue was taken almost verbatim from the actual trial transcript.  Oh, and regarding the acting, it’s spectacular!  Scott assembled an all-star cast with William Shatner as real-life Chief JAG Prosecutor Lt. Col. Norton Chipman, Richard Basehart as Wirz, Cameron Mitchell as real-life Major Gen. Lew Wallace, Jack Cassidy (Emmy nominated) as Wirz’s defense counsel, and numerous other fine actors (Buddy Ebsen, Michael Burns, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, etc.) as witnesses testifying during the trial.  Scott even had big time name character actors like Kenneth Tobey, Ian Wolfe, Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr., Bert Freed, etc. in non-speaking roles as members of The Board of Military Judges that would determine Wirz’s fate.  Everyone gives fine performances, even Shatner, if you can exclude some of his more hyper-spastic moments.  Despite its cheaper production costs, and the fact that it was shown as an episode on the PBS’s anthology series Hollywood Television Theatre rather than on any of the major networks, “The Andersonville Trial” still won the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program that year, and a Peabody Award as well.  After all these years, it is still one of the most compelling historical courtroom dramas ever made.  

There have also been other fine historical courtroom dramas made too!  As examples, you had…

  • “Compulsion” (1959):  An adaption of the fictionized novel of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder trial, with Orson Welles giving one of the finest performances of his career as a lawyer (patterned after Clarence Darrow) who defends two young adults (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) charged with murdering a 14-year-old boy.
  • “Breaker Morant” (1980):  Australian picture dramatizing one of the first historical war crimes prosecutions in British military history involving Australian soldiers serving in the British army during the Second Boer War of 1899-02 accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and civilians during the conflict.  Directed by Bruce Beresford and with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown as two of the accused.  Just like for “The Andersonville Trial” the accused defense here also utilized what was later known as the “Nuremberg Defense”, or in other words, “They were just following orders…” It didn’t work!  The soldiers were executed anyway!
  • “In the Name of the Father” (1993):  Irish biographical drama about Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the “Guildford Four”, who was falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings that killed four British soldiers, a civilian, and injured many others.  Conlon was tortured, his father (Pete Postiethwaite) arrested and thrown into prison with him, and when the authorities found proof that they were innocent, they deliberately withheld the evidence instead.  This powerful drama was directed by Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”), and after seeing it, it will make your blood boil!  

OK, Dear Reader, before you ask me whether I am going to keep highlighting controversial and somber real life courtroom dramas that could get you depressed or angry, I will quickly answer that question for you… NOPE!  Moving right along, courtroom dramas were also quite abundant for the category of suspense or mystery/crime films.  Only problem was that too many of them were absolutely terrible.  For example, you had the 1996 legal thriller “Primal Fear” (AKA Edward Norton gives Richard Gere an Acting Lesson) with Gere more interested in mugging for the camera to show off how pretty he is rather than actually trying to believably play Norton’s defense attorney.  Then you had the 1993 film,” The Firm” (AKA Gene Hackman gives Tom Cruise an acting lesson) with Cruise so out of his league next to Hackman, who plays a senior partner in a law firm that is actually controlled by the mob, that you almost felt sorry for him until Cruise flashed his pretty “capped” teeth once too often and you just wished that the mob either “capped” Cruise or at least pulled his teeth out instead.  Maybe the worst one of them all was the 1988 film, “Criminal Law” with Gary Oldman playing another young brash defense attorney defending rich psycho Kevin Bacon, but more concerned with how much of the scenery he could chew up while over acting worse than a used car salesman trying to be sincere.  Despite these losers, there have been some good ones too.  One of the best of them all was the legal thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) directed by Billy Wilder.

Based on a short story by Agatha Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” starred Charles Laughton as senior English barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who, after recovering from a recent heart attack, and despite his nurse’s (Elsa Lanchester) misgivings, decides to take on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who is charged with murder.  The murder victim was a wealthy older widow so enamoured with Vole that he was named as the main beneficiary in her will.  Although strong circumstantial evidence implicates Vole, Roberts believes him innocent, and Vole even has an alibi provided by his older German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich).  Therefore, it comes as a shock to Robarts when, during the trial’s proceedings, Christine is named as a witness for the prosecution and, when called to the stand, she immediately implicates Vole as the murderer.  Now what’s barrister Roberts to do? 

Whatever you may think of Agatha Christie as a writer, she could definitely craft fine mystery stories. However, for this picture it also helped that this adaption had Billy Wilder as the film’s director.  Besides being a great director, Wilder also was skilled in helping to craft great screenplays usually containing a mix of cynicism laced with gallows humor.  The performances of all of the cast are top notch with Power, despite some bad exaggerated moments, fine as a likeable charmer who also might have a hidden dark side.  Wilder even managed to get an actual real performance out of Dietrich as Christine.  Dietrich, vain as always, had plastic surgery done beforehand, wore heavy make-up, and even had “tape lifts attached to the sides of her head to pull her facial skin back to hide her wrinkles so she could still look somewhat younger.  Hell, if botox was around then, she probably would have jumped into a bathtub full of the stuff if it could keep her from looking like Dick Tracy’s “Pruneface.”  After all of that it still didn’t help her come Oscar time.  Laughton, his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Wilder, and the picture itself all got well deserved Oscar nominations while Dietrich was left on the sidelines probably still smearing herself with cold cream.  It also was one of only two adaptions of her works [the other being “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)] that Agatha Christie actually liked.  As a courtroom crime thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” is a gem.   

Television had a number of successful legal dramatic series too.  These series usually fell into two major groups.  The first group involved legal dramas where the focus was on lawyer(s) defending individuals accused of a crime.  The second group consisted of legal dramas where a prosecutor tried to prove someone guilty of a crime before a jury.  For the first group, two popular early television legal dramas were “Perry Mason” (1957-66) and “The Defenders” (1961-65) both on CBS.  “Perry Mason” starred Raymond Burr as the aforementioned Mason, a criminal defense lawyer, and was based on a series of detective novels by author Erle Stanley Gardner.  The show’s episode format consisted of having Mason always defend someone wrongly charged with murder and where, while assisted by his confidential secretary (Barbara Hale) and PI (William Hopper), he always has to square off against aggressive District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman).  Things usually look bleak until Mason always finds some clue which he utilizes to unmask the real killer, usually on the witness stand, and where the killer always confesses to the crime conveniently before the end of every episode.  As a drama exploring complex legal issues, this show was about as complex as a straight line, and the acting, what there was of it, was even broader than Raymond Burr’s waist… line.  And as for how hard it was to actually figure out who the killer was for every episode, well… even Cheetah the chimpanzee could figure that one out!  Maybe the unintentionally funniest thing about this show was that both Burr and Talman during the late nineteen forties and throughout the nineteen fifties were the “go to guys” for playing sleazy, psychopathic, perverted, sadistic, bad guy/killers in role after role after role.  In “Mason” Raymond Burr, for once, actually played a “good guy.” However, for Talman, even though he was now technically a “good guy” too, he still played Burger like a bullying bad guy while always losing to Perry Mason every frigging week and pouting like Marlene Dietrich after a botched face lift.  I always felt that good old District Attorney Burger must have had pictures of the Los Angeles Mayor in the sack with an armadillo.  How else would anyone still want this bum to be the District Attorney!

“The Defenders” however, was an entirely different and far better type of legal drama.  E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed (before he became an acting joke on the “Brady Bunch”) played father-and-son defense attorneys who specialized in legally complex cases, and which was the direct antithesis to the slop found on “Mason.”  The show was not necessarily a crime, mystery or courtroom drama.  Instead, it was an exploration of the law itself, and how it applied to various types of issues where morality and legal ethics could fall into a gray area, and where victory was not always the end result.  Writer Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men”), was the creator of the show, and “The Defenders” helped to highlight a number of controversial issues such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration quotas, “no-knock” searches, the insanity defense, the Hollywood blacklist, custody rights, along with many, many others.  Despite all of that, the show was neither dry nor dull.  However, it was definitely, realistic and thought provoking.  For three years in a row, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series as well as an additional ten Emmys in all.  Never a huge rating success, after it’s third win it was believed that conservative corporate elements in CBS had the show moved from the more popular Saturday night lineup to CBS’s Thursday night ratings graveyard shift where it was subsequently cancelled.  However, it was the harbinger for other future legal dramas that also took on controversial subjects such as ABC’s “Judd, for the Defense” (1967-69) and “The Practice” (1997-2004).

Maybe the biggest and most successful television legal drama show of them all began in 1990, and it was such a long-term success that it led to the creation of additional dramatic series as well as a television film, several video games, and international adaptations of the series.  What was the series you may ask, Dear Reader?  Why it was NBC’s “Law & Order” [(1990-2010) and (2022-present)].  The premise was that after a violent crime (usually murder) was committed, the first half of an episode followed two investigating detectives who ultimately found a suspect that they had arrested.  Then the second half of the episode followed two prosecutors following advice from the District Attorney as to how they should proceed.  It was in how the prosecutors tried to handle each case that the show explored various larger ethical and legal issues where justice was not always so well defined or determinable.  For years this series, filmed on location in New York City and done in a semi-documentary style, was must see TV with whip smart dialogue, believable performances, and sharp sophisticated original stories that, at times, had surprising twists which could change the outcome of a case, and not always favorably.  As much as I originally loved this show, somewhere during its long run I finally noticed a heavy-handed change by the show’s executive producers which made, what I once loved, unwatchable. 

The series was known for utilizing plots for some of their stories from some recognizable recent criminal case which they advertised as being “Ripped from the Headlines”, but the incorporation of elements of an actual legal case into one of “Law & Order’s” episodes was never overt and never heavy handed.  Unfortunately, that changed as years went by.  In its later years and more recently, every episode was now from a highly recognizable real case, but it was so clumsily obvious that any real originality was gone.  Also, the show now was often focused on some of the personal lives of the detectives and prosecutors rather than just sticking to the details of a particular case.  Next, the acting (maybe due to the low quality of the scripts) steadily grew worse with everyone coming across more like caricatures than believable human beings.  Lastly, basically almost all of the cases were resolved with the prosecutors being triumphant.  What was once a great show was now nothing more than a sort of reverse “Perry Mason” with the good old ghost of Hamilton Berger hanging over it, and grinning from ear to ear!  Perhaps the greatest crime in “Law & Order” was for it to still be on the air at all!  

The last subject that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post regarding the legal profession is well… definitely not a drama, but something else entirely, namely, a comedy.  In films you could have one about a fish out of water lawyer played hilariously by Joey Pesci as a newly minted New York City lawyer defending two youths (or is it Youts?) in rural Alabama accused of murder in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992).  Or you could have another one about top-notch divorce attorney George Clooney who has the tables turned on him when he mistakenly becomes romantically involved with marriage-for-money predator Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Cohen Bros. riotous comedy farce, “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003).   Or maybe you might even have a television sitcom about the night shift in a Manhattan municipal court, and all of the strange and whacky individuals accused of various charges along with the equally whacky members of the legal profession presided over by a young unorthodox judge played by Harry Anderson in “Night Court” (1984-92).  All of these would be good examples to discuss further.  However, the last one that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post is the last great film, comedy or otherwise in director Billy Wilder’s storied career (OK! I’ll admit it!  I like him a lot!). That picture is the black comedy classic, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966). 

Jack Lemmon starred as Harry Hinkle, a CBS cameraman who is slightly injured when a Cleveland Browns football player runs into him on the sidelines during a home game.  However, for Harry’s conniving brother-in-law (Walter Matthau), he has other ideas.  He is the scheming lawyer, William H. “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich who smells a possible financial jackpot quicker than a shark smelling blood in the water.  He quickly has Harry pretend to be partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound so he can sue CBS and the Cleveland Browns for a large insurance payout.  His scheme might actually work since new x-rays show the remnants of a compressed vertebra which, unbeknownst to anyone else, resulted from an injury that Harry suffered when he was a child.  However, there are just a few itsy-bitsy problems.  One, Harry only agreed to do it so he could hopefully win back his mercenary ex-wife (Judi West).  Two, the insurance company hired Cleveland’s best private detective Chester Purkey (Cliff Osmond) who is perched in an apartment across from Harry to see if he makes any mistake.  Three, and last, the football player (Ron Rich) that injured Harry is consumed with guilt and trying so hard to be Harry’s unofficial nurse that he is putting his own professional career at risk.  “Cookie” was the first team up of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a motion picture together and they are hysterical.  They both play off of each other effortlessly helped in no small way by the Oscar nominated screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.  However, it’s Walter Matthau who steals the entire film as the consequential sleaze bag fast talking crooked ambulance chasing lawyer, “Whiplash Willie.”  He is never at a loss for words!  He never completely looses control!  And he is so slippery that he is never unable to squeeze out of any trouble that ensues no matter how hopeless things first appear to be.  Matthau justly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, and even “Better Call Saul’s” Jimmy McGill could learn a thing or two from Matthau’s “Whiplash Willie” in “The Fortune Cookie.”  

Well that concludes this month’s Blog Post.  So, if any of you need a special type of lawyer like Saul Goodman or Whiplash Willie, I’m sure that you can find one.  Of course, some of you might have a different view of lawyers which might best be summarized by playwright William Shakespeare’s Henry VI who once said…

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Well, to each, their own I always say!


Family Circus Redux!

Police Officer: “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”

Grace: “In-laws!”

[Samara Weaving, “Ready or Not” (2019)] 

Well as we now approach the end of 2022, this month will be my annual Holiday Blog Post.  It will also officially be four full years since my Blog came into existence.  Since I have not yet had any mobs congregating in front of my home during this time period with torches, ropes, or pitchforks in hand demanding my scalp instead of an autograph, I assume that I have been doing something right during this time.  Of course, it also might have meant that there are so few individuals reading my blog that one would have had more interest in reading the ingredients on a cereal box rather than my monthly pearls of Blog wisdom.  Be that as it may, I still have much more to say about stuff pertaining to film, television, and subjects relating in some way to both.  Therefore, Dear Readers, sit back, relax, and away we go!

A couple of years ago I had a Holiday Blog Post titled “Family Circus” where I discussed various television  and cable shows involving family, not necessarily relating to the holidays but often synonymous with the holidays.  This was because, during the holidays, it was usually thought that families got together with each other to celebrate the festivities, even if various family themed shows had nothing to do with the holidays at all.  A number of these family shows were not necessarily wholesome or sweet, nor were they even shows where individuals were represented as a family by birth.  At times these families could be classified as a group with similar interests or beliefs.  However, when I did that Blog Post, I specifically limited my discussion to television or other cable series while excluding motion pictures entirely.  However, now I am returning to the subject of “family” for this year’s Holiday Blog Post although now I will aim my discussion exclusively to just motion pictures.

Family comedies were a popular subject for motion pictures alternating between quirkiness and general dysfunctionality.  A classic one made during the nineteen thirties was the screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey” (1936).  This story took place in New York City during the Great Depression where a pair of spoiled competing high society sisters (Cornelia and Irene) of a rich and prominent family head to a waterfront dump site where a bunch of the homeless now reside to find a “forgotten man” as part of their scavenger hunt party.  There they find Godfrey (William Powell) who immediately rebuffs the aloof Cornelia, but accepts the same offer from the kinder, and zanier sister Irene (Carole Lombard) who wins the contest.  Once there, Irene pushes her other equally wacky family members to hire Godfrey to be their new butler while secretly having a crush on him.  As Godfrey assumes his role, he starts to affect everyone from the blustering put upon father (Eugene Pallette) to his befuddled wife, Angelica (Alice Brady) to the now vengeful Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and to even their maid and the wife’s protégé/gigolo Carlo (a scene stealing Mischa Auer).  This was one of the funniest films ever made with everyone’s performances outstanding thanks to Gregory La Cava’s brilliant direction.  La Cava was unusual in that he hated most studio executives so he worked as a freelance director for most of his career which unfortunately, limited his film opportunities.  He was also eccentric and openly encouraged his actors to improvise their scenes.  This was on full display in “Godfrey” which had no formal script, just pages of notes.  It didn’t matter.  The film was a huge hit and La Cava along with Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Auer were all nominated for Academy Awards that year, and years later it is still funny as Hell!

Fun Fact:   Hollywood, never learning to leave well enough alone, had someone come up with the semi-bright idea in 1957 to have a new version of “My Man Godfrey” made with David Niven as Godfrey and June Allyson in the Lombard role.  Other than the fact that Niven was a poor man’s Godfrey and Allyson was as convincing as Jim Parsons would have been if he played Tarzan, this version was worse than brushing your teeth with Clorox.

A more recent family related comedy drama was, “This Is Where I Leave You” (2014) starring Jason Bateman.  He played Judd Altman who, when leaving his wife after catching her having an affair with his boss, returns to his home town for his father’s funeral, and to also face his dysfunctional family members. They consist of (1) sister Wendy (Tina Fey) unhappy with her workaholic husband who neglects her while still pining for ex-boyfriend Hoory (Timothy Olyphant) now brain damaged due to a prior accident caused by Wendy, (2) older successful brother Paul (Corey Stall) unable to conceive with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) who was Judd’s ex-girlfriend, (3) youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) an immature feckless and unemployed playboy type with an older girlfriend, and (4) Judd’s mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) who wants all of her children together for the funeral, not because her husband wanted it, but because Hilary wanted to use the situation to announce some earth shattering news about herself.  Despite the deliberate soap opera storyline based on the fine novel and screenplay adaption by Jonathan Tropper, Director Shawn Levy (“Free Guy”) mixes the various serious and comedy dynamics very well which makes all of the film’s characters, not caricatures, but fallibly human.  Although “This is Where Leave You” was nowhere near as funny, nor as successful as “My Man Godfrey”, it was still a fine example of a quirky family that stumbles along while still supporting each other.

Famous Broadway plays involving family were also excellent sources for adaption into motion pictures like “The Little Foxes”, “Life with Father”, and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  However, there was another one that I particularly want to mention.  That one, which was very loosely based on an actual real-life family, was a little musical thing called “The Sound of Music.”  This monster Broadway hit musical has had numerous productions and revivals made since its original Broadway debut in 1959.  However, it was also adapted into an even bigger monster hit Oscar winning motion picture in 1965 while haunting our television screens ever since, especially during the holidays much like Chucky Heston’s “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.”  Directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the storyline (as if any of you have been living in a cave all of your life…) has Maria (Andrews), a young Austrian woman, who in 1938 becomes a governess to the seven children of a retired and widowed naval officer Georg von Trapp (Plummer) in their Austrian villa.  Once there, she changes how the children are taught moving from their father’s strict military discipline into a more loving and kind way which has the children both learning to trust and respect her.  This also softens von Trapp himself and ultimately Maria and von Trapp fall in love, marry, and escape Austria with their children just after the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria that same year.  The end!

Now I’m sure that you all want to know what I actually think of “Music.”  Well… supposedly, this picture was once picked by BBC executives to be broadcast after a nuclear strike, to improve the morale of any survivors.  However, I believe that if this picture was shown after a nuclear strike, it just might have caused the remaining survivors to off themselves instead!  Heck, it might have even encouraged an additional nuclear strike by someone just so no one would ever have to see it again.  If you excluded all of the historical inaccuracies of the story and the big budget excesses of this picture, you were still stuck with all of the smiling faces of Andrews, the children, the numerous supporting characters, and maybe even the surrounding flora and fauna, all looking like victims from the Joker’s laughing gas.  Christopher Plummer absolutely hated this picture.  He called it the most difficult role of his entire career due to his overall dislike of sentiment and working with children, and he was constantly drunk throughout its production.  Originally, both Andrews and Plummer didn’t even want to do their roles because the original Broadway production was so overtly sugary, schmaltzy, and fake.  Wise, who was also the producer, managed to convince both of them to take on their roles while also agreeing, as Andrews said to “Get the sugar out of this show!”  Unfortunately, Wise, who also originally turned down the chance to direct this film not once, but three times because he felt the same way as they did, tried to make some changes but to no avail.  Upon its completion, “Music” was still too stupidly cardboard and still too ridiculously sweet.  However, that’s OK, Dear Reader!  If you can put up with seeing Chucky Heston do his thing in “The Ten Commandments,” you can certainly put up with seeing “The Sound of Music” (unless you are diabetic)!

Another Fun Fact:  When they were filming that spectacular panoramic opening of  “The Sound of Music” (from a helicopter) where Andrews is in the Swiss countryside belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of…” they had to re-shoot that scene over a dozen times due to the helicopter’s downdraft knocking Mary, I mean Maria, I mean Julie on her ass before they finally got it right.  Maybe she should have just sung that those “Hills are alive with the sound of the F*&KING Helicopter” instead!

Families involved in criminality or other illegalities were also ripe for portrayals in film.  Maybe the most famous crime family picture of them all was for the Oscar winning picture, “The Godfather” (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  The storyline for this one (also for those who were still living in that cave…) involved the New York crime family of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his four children, their various underlings, and their opposing crime families all competing for power during the period of 1945 to 1955. Based on the pulp bestseller novel by Mario Puzo, this picture was originally not expected to be a success.  Why?  Well, for a number of reasons.

First, Paramount Pictures did a prior Mafia picture called “The Brotherhood” which bombed at the box office so they were hesitant about doing another gangster picture.  Of course, maybe it bombed because Kirk Douglas (with a shoe polish hair dye job) tried to play an Italian mob boss, but that’s another story.  Hence, Paramount, already in deep financial trouble due to other box office failures, originally wanted to just make a cheap present day gangster picture.  Second, Marlon Brando was box office poison at that time due to his prior box office failures going back over a decade, his disruptive behavior on previous film productions, and maybe, just for being an all-around Mega Asshole in real life.  Third, Coppola originally didn’t want to direct the picture because he felt that the book was sleazy and sensationalistic, but finally relented because he was in debt due to his own past failures as a director.  Fourth, Paramount had troubles with Coppola due to his indecisiveness in finding the right actors for the roles, and his overall difficulty in dealing with such a large production which cost the studio money, enough so that he was in constant risk of being fired.  Five, Paramount had issues with his using cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose visual style underlit scenes so they were always dark to emphasize the shadiness of the family’s criminal activities.  And six, the Mafia was continually trying to either interfere or not have the picture be made at all.  Despite all of this turmoil the movie was a colossal Oscar winning hit motion picture (Yes Dear Reader, this one I definitely liked)!  To ensure that a “family” aspect of the picture was developed among his actors, Coppola even held improvisational rehearsal sessions consisting of having the main cast members sit down in character for a family meal.  By doing this it helped the actors to organically establish each character’s role within the Corleone crime family.  His focus on “family,” even if they were monstrous, was one of the major reasons why “The Godfather” is now regarded as an all-time cinema classic!

Two other films that I want to praise pertaining to families behaving badly are the films “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007) and “Knives Out” (2019).  “Dead” was the last picture that the great film director Sydney Lumet made before he died, but unlike so many other directors whose careers waned with age, for this one, did he ever go out with a Bang (and not one from Vito Corleone either)!  This family saga was basically, a tragic betrayal by the two grown sons of their parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney).  First, you had older son Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drug using and embezzling finance executive whose crimes are about to be revealed during an audit.  Next, you had younger and weaker son Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced father desperately needing money to pay child support and his children’s tuition while also having an affair with Andy’s wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei).  Their plan is to have someone rob their parents’ jewelry store, fence the jewelry, and for Andy to use his share to escape to Brazil where he cannot be extradited.  Unfortunately, their plans end in disaster for everyone involved.

Much like his fellow contemporaries, motion picture directors’ William Wyler and Elia Kazan, Lumet was one of the greatest directors at being able to elicit great performances from his actors while emphasizing that his pictures should always have strong screenplays to enable his performers to shine.  This skill made him well known as being “an actor’s director.”  At a young age, he became an acclaimed off Broadway and economically astute television director in the nineteen fifties before moving onto directing a long list of great motion pictures (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” etc.).  These skills were on full display in his final picture.  All of his cast give incredible performances including those in secondary roles played by such fine character actors as Michael Shannon, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Amy Ryan for example.  He was still innovatively astute too.  Because he hated shooting on film, for this one picture, he used high-definition video or HD which produced a substantially higher image resolution than previous technologies and which made his visual scenes more striking.  Not bad for someone who made this film when he was 82 years old.  As a tragic family drama with Shakespearian overtones, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a motion picture masterpiece!

“Knives Out” is a different kind of family drama (or animal) altogether.  Here, the animals are the various members of the Thrombey family headed by Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a rich mystery novelist who, as the film begins is found dead (probably from being forced to watch “The Sound of Music” again).  At first the police suspect suicide, but famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), soon starts to investigate Harlan’s death.  He quickly discovers that all of the family members had a strained relationship with Harlan, and much to gain from his death.  However, upon the reading of Harlan’s will, to everyone’s shock, his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is the sole beneficiary.  Now everyone is conspiring against her, especially once it is determined that Harlan was murdered, and that evidence points to Marta as the culprit.  Underrated director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) crafted a fun Agatha Christie knock off mystery, and his original screenplay has enough humor in it to keep the picture from being taken too seriously.  He is also helped by an over-the-top performance by Daniel Craig as Blanc.  Johnson wanted the character of Blanc to be an American version of Christie’s “Poirot” and Craig, speaking with an exaggerated southern accent, is outrageous enough to make even Foghorn Leghorn blush.  Is he believable?  Hell no, but he sure looks like he’s having fun.  So does all of the rest of the cast which includes such veterans as Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans among others. However, if we want to talk about someone actually delivering a believable performance, then Ana de Armas wins the prize hands down.  She believably portrays someone slowly gaining the confidence to stand up to all of them while maintaining her own humanity like an oasis in the middle of a desert of venality.  She sparkles, just like “Knives Out” does!

The last film that I want to highlight for this month’s Blog Post involving a rich family behaving badly is another kind of comedy film altogether.  However, this one is the comedy horror picture, “Ready or Not” (2019).  Here, the dysfunctional family is the uber-wealthy Le Domas family who made their fortune by manufacturing various popular board games.  Now Alex (Mark O’Brien), the son of the family patriarch, is getting married to Grace (Samara Weaving) at their colossal family estate, and where she will also meet all of Alex’s family.  Grace, formerly a foster child and raised from humble beginnings, is nervous, but truly loves Alex, and really wants to be part of a loving family.  After the official ceremony, Alex tells Grace that with every new addition to the family, per tradition, she has to join the family to play a game at midnight.  She agrees and while there his father Tony (Henry Czerny) tells Grace that this tradition was begun by his great grandfather who made a deal with a mysterious benefactor named Mr. Le Bail.  Le Bail also provided a special box where one was to pull a card from which showed the specific game that the cardholder was supposed to play.  However, when Grace draws a card from the box and it says, “Hide and Seek,” everyone is silent!  Tony tells Grace that she now has to stay hidden till dawn in order to win so she immediately goes off to hide in the huge mansion.  Unfortunately, what she doesn’t know until later is that, because she got that particular card, the entire family along with their support staff are now going to have to hunt her for real and kill her before dawn.  If they do not, they believe that they will all die instead!  Talk about “Wedding Night Interruptus!”

Yep, this one is an unabashed B Movie with a Quentin Tarantino vibe, only gorier.  It is also a laugh out loud send up of the rich and entitled along with a little bit of Satanic flair thrown in as well.  Amongst all of these family members trying to kill poor Grace and too often, mistakenly offing someone else instead, you need a score card to keep track of all of the mayhem.  I guess the rich can be every bit as klutzy as anyone else when trying to kill someone.  Anyhoo, throughout this increasingly zany murder fest, the one standout performance of the bunch is the one given by Samara Weaving as Grace.  Weaving, who I’ve previous praised before, is terrific playing an awkward person who probably had to grow up on her own, but is now forced, by circumstance, to go into survival mode once again to deal with this multitude of maniacally murderous morons (Try saying that one five times in a row).  From dumping her high heels for tennis shoes, to tearing off the bottom of her wedding gown to move around more easily, and to using anything that she can find as a weapon to defend herself, she is more than up to the task.  This movie was even a critical and popular hit too upon its release.  Will wonders never cease!  Although it may never be classified as high art, “Hide and Seek” is definitely, “highly entertaining!”

Well, Dear Reader, this ends another year of me finding more various strange stuff to comment on for, hopefully, your further amusement.  I hope that you have enjoyed it, and I hope that as the upcoming holidays approach you have a happy, healthy, prosperous, and, most importantly, safe New Year!

Keep smiling!


The Hunter and the Hunted!

High Spade: “We’ve hit a lot of towns, Lin.  What makes you think he’ll be here?

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

High Spade: “We’ve been wrong before.”

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

High Spade: “On account of that?” [High Spade indicates the Winchester ’73 rifle that is the top prize at Dodge City’s Fourth of July shooting competition] 

Lin McAdam: “If he isn’t here already, that gun’ll bring him.”

[Millard Mitchell to James Stewart, “Winchester 73” (1950)]

In the animal kingdom there are two opposing groups consisting of predators and prey.  These same types of groups also exist for aquatic creatures and insects too.  A predator or “hunter” does so in order to continue to exist even killing other weaker predators as a food source.  If they do not consume such food, the predators will ultimately starve, die, and their species will cease to exist.  Of course, other creatures can subsist on a plant-based diet, and do not necessarily have to kill other living creatures in order to survive, hence they will generally be the prey or those “hunted.”  However, for us humans, it is quite different.  While we can hunt other creatures for either food or other reasons, we also have situations where we can hunt each other too.  Now in this case, it is almost never as a food source (unless one is a budding cannibal in disguise).  If an individual or individuals hunt someone or something else, it is done in various ways and for various reasons, isn’t it?  Whether you may realize it or not, this type of activity has been an extremely popular one for numerous television series or motion pictures.  It is a subject that I will explore further for this month’s Blog Post.

A number of films that could easily fit into the above category would be dramas with an individual hunting various dangerous big game and where, sometimes, they could become the hunted instead.  However, these types of actions in films were often more of a side issue than the actual main storyline.  Also, sometimes such films, while possibly entertaining, were either shallow or just weak melodramas.  For example, you had “Track of the Cat” (1954), a weird, pseudo-Western about a ranch in Northern California during a particularly harsh winter being threatened by an unseen panther killing livestock, and the various brothers (Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, and William Hopper) at the ranch trying to hunt and kill the animal.  Unfortunately, the storyline was more concerned with the brothers along with the rest of their family members venting their spleen at one another rather than just offing the frigging Big, Bad, Putty-Cat.  More Eugene O’Neill rip-off than a real Western, this dull, pretentious snore fest was phonier than the never seen Putty Cat’s roaring in the Great Outdoors which sounded louder than some windbag opera singer in a Concert Hall.  If that one wasn’t bad enough, years later you had another winner with “Rampage” (1963).  It starred, once again, Robert Mitchum as a trapper, and Jack Hawkins as a big game hunter (clutching his rifle like someone holding his personal manhood in a vise grip) trying to capture a mixed breed big cat in Malaya for a Berlin Zoo.  Unfortunately, this storyline was more focused on Hawkins’ mistress, Elsa Martinelli, and Mitchum making goo-goo eyes at each other while driving Hawkins into a murderous rage.  Maybe the only thing worth watching here was to see whether Mitchum could keep sucking in his gut for the entire length of the motion picture rather than having his belly fat hang out over his belt buckle.  However, despite these two barking cinematic dogs, there were also some better films involving hunters in the wild too!

The first one, which was based on one of Ernest Hemingway’s most celebrated short stories, was “The Macomber Affair” (1947) directed by Zoltan Korda.  Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck), a professional hunter in British East Africa is hired by Francis Macomber (Robert Preston) and his wife Margaret (Joan Bennett) to hunt big game.  Soon enough you realize that the couple’s marriage is on the rocks and that Francis is mistakenly using the trip as a means for them to rekindle their relationship.  Unfortunately, the opposite occurs when Francis panics during a lion hunt and, after Wilson kills the lion to save him, his wife cruelly debases him further by starting to have an affair with Wilson.   The developing love triangle will ultimately result in tragedy.  All three actors gave solid believable performances thanks to fine direction by Korda and a top-notch adaption of the tale, which stuck almost entirely to the original story.  Preston, an underrated actor who even looked a little bit like a young Hemingway, was especially good playing a man who emotionally loses just about everything, but then starts to later find his own personal redemption even if comes too late.  Despite what you may feel about big game hunting in general and the sometimes over glorification of masculinity, toxic or otherwise, by Hemingway, “The Macomber Affair” was a terrific character driven drama.

Another picture also involving a love triangle, but tied into a tale about the hunt for a man-eating Bengal tiger is the lesser known, but equally powerful British drama, “Harry Black and the Tiger” (1958).  “Black” starred Stewart Granger as Harry Black, a former British Army Colonel who lost his leg during a POW escape in World War II.  Now with an artificial leg and residing in India, he makes a living hunting man-eating tigers for the Indian government.  However, being older, he is starting to doubt that he still has the necessary skills to deal with his new assignment, hunting a particularly dangerous murderous tiger near a tea plantation.  Things are even more complicated when he discovers who manages the tea plantation.  It is Desmond Tanner (Anthony Steel) accompanied by his wife Chris (Barbara Rush) and their young son.  It was due to Tanner’s cowardice during Black’s POW escape that cost him his leg.  Even worse, while recuperating in England and with Tanner still imprisoned, Black had a brief intense affair with Chris.  Now Tanner wants to accompany Black on his hunt to impress his young son while also knowing that there is still a strong attraction between Chris and Black.  Uh-oh!

Although “Black” could have just been another run of the mill stereotypical white hunter romantic adventure tale, it is superior for a number of reasons.  First, was the lush outdoor cinematography by John Wilcox capturing the exotic Indian landscapes.  Second, was the direction by Hugo Fregonese.  He often showed both Black and the tiger from each other’s perspective which made the animal even more terrifying whenever it hunted or zoomed in to suddenly kill someone.  Third, and most important of all, was the fine performance by Stewart Granger.  Granger was almost always more of a star than an actor, one who never really applied himself to working hard at being more than just charmingly tolerable in any film role (and to which Errol Flynn, whom Granger was often compared to, was also justifiably accused of).  Fortunately, whatever trick Director Fregonese used on him, whether it was by additional coaching or a cattle prod… it sure worked.  Granger is terrific in the role!  His Black is world weary, emotionally restrained, and full of self-doubt.  You can see his longing for Chris and she for him too by just a simple gesture or a look on each other’s face.  Rush gives a fine performance here too, and their interactions with each other are touching, not trite.  A strong drama with a mix of some scary and suspenseful moments, “Harry Black and the Tiger” is well worth your attention.

Another type of hunter vs. hunted film involved submarine warfare, especially pertaining to motion pictures about World War II.  German U boats hunting Allied shipping and they, in turn, hunting the U boats themselves were the basis for numerous films like the overrated and melodramatic pictures “U-571” (2000) and “Grayhound” (2020) along with much better ones like “Action in the North Atlantic” (1943), “The Cruel Sea” (1953), “Das Boot” (1981), and its more recent German television adaption (2018 – present).  However, the one that I particularly want to praise is the action sub thriller, “The Enemy Below” (1957), directed by Dick Powell.  “Enemy” starred Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, who has recently taken command of the USS Haynes, a destroyer escort now on patrol in the South Atlantic.  When the Haynes detects a U Boat commanded by the veteran Captain von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), the hunt is on, and a nail-biting battle of wits between the two skippers begins over a 24-hour period.  No CGI was used here.  Actor/Director Dick Powell helped by spectacular big screen Cinemascope color cinematography by Harold Rosson (“The Wizard of Oz”) crafted a suspense thriller between two evenly matched opponents using actual ships, and naval personnel.  They even had a former German U Boat sailor providing technical assistance for this picture too.  Even though the screenplay didn’t really provide much depth to the characters, Mitchum and Jurgens were both still able to give decent performances.  The film portrays two adversaries who have mutual respect towards each other even as they make maneuver after counter maneuver while hoping that one will finally be able to outwit and kill the other.  “The Enemy Below” deservedly won the Oscar that year for Best Special Effects, and it is still one of the best submarine war pictures ever made.

Fun Fact:  Years later a great episode of “Star Trek” used this film’s storyline. So too did the TV show, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” by (1) incorporating scenes from “The Enemy Below” into their own enemy sub hunt episode, and (2) even weirder, it had actor David Hedison, who originally was in “The Enemy Below” in this episode since he was a series regular on “Voyage.”  However, for “Voyage”, that didn’t help it much at all.  Their episode, just like the TV show, still stunk to high heaven!

Westerns were also great in providing interesting storylines involving hunters and their human prey.  For example, you had the television show, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1958-61) with Steve McQueen playing bounty hunter Josh Randall lugging a sawed-off Winchester rifle in his holster and successfully transitioning into a big-time movie star shortly thereafter.  However, it really was in the movies that great Westerns for hunters and the hunted were made.  Usually, these types of pictures revolved around three basic storylines…

  • US Marshals/Sheriffs hunting outlaws or anyone wanted for a crime.
  • Someone seeking revenge as a reason for hunting someone.
  • The US Army hunting Indians or the Indians doing the same to either soldiers or the civilian population.

Some of the good ones were “Winchester 73” (1950), “The Searchers” (1956), and the Coen Bros. version of “True Grit” (2010).  There were also a couple Westerns not as well known, but terrific too like “From Hell to Texas” (1958) and “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972).  Out of all of them, the one that I’d like to especially praise is “Winchester 73.”  It starred James Stewart as Lin McAdam who has a personal score to settle with outlaw Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), and is hunting him relentlessly with his partner “High-Spade” Frankie (Millard Mitchell).  Arriving in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp is the town’s Sheriff, they are forced to hand in their guns due to Earp’s rule against anyone carrying firearms in town which Earp also required Brown to do too.  However, things soon change when both Lin and Brown enter a shooting contest with the prize being a “One of One Thousand” Winchester 1873 rifle.  Lin wins the contest and the rifle, but Brown and his cronies jump Lin in his hotel room, knock him out, steal the rifle, and ride out with Lin and Frankie in hot pursuit.  From that point on the film is one long chaise with that prized Winchester 73 coming into the possession of numerous individuals along the way.

James Stewart was at a career crossroads in 1950.  His previous films in the late nineteen forties were not successful, and he was fearful that he was being typecast because studios believed that he couldn’t do more challenging roles.  “Winchester 73” completely turned his career around, and forced the critics, the major studios and the viewing public to regard him in a new way.  His Lin, while still likeable, was also tougher, harder, meaner, and more suddenly violent if he had to be.  Stewart, who also was the first actor to take a cut of a picture’s profits rather than a straight fee, made three times as much money as he would have if he just got his normal fee because this movie was such a critical and popular box office hit.  It also helped that he was able to have Anthony Mann selected as the director.  Mann, who would go on to direct Stewart in four other acclaimed Westerns as well as in other dramas, crafted one of the finest Westerns ever made, and one of the best films of his entire career.  Mann was never shy about showing violence in his films, but it was never gratuitous or excessive.  He also was a great action director, and in this picture, he had one of the greatest shootouts and all-around action sequences in motion picture history.  It takes place at the end of the picture with Lin and Brown in a final showdown in a box canyon blasting away at each other with their rifles expertly shot by Mann’s great, former Oscar winning cinematographer William Daniels (“Naked City”).  A Western saga of revenge, “Winchester 73” is still one of the best.

Law enforcement hunting suspected criminals was also a popular category under the subject of the hunter and the hunted.  For literature, one of the greatest of them all was French author Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, “Les Miserables”.  The story of Jean Valjean, a former convict hunted by Inspector Emile Javert, has been adapted numerous times for motion pictures, television films/miniseries dramatizations, plays, musicals, etc. and its continued popularity will probably have it being remade till the end of time.  For television, another fine example was ABC’s “The Fugitive” (1963-67) starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, a doctor who is unjustly convicted for the murder of his wife.  Sentenced to death and en route to death row, he escapes after his train derails.  Now on the run, he is hunted mercilessly by Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse) with Kimble, while being hunted, also hunting the one-armed man who actually murdered his wife.  The similarities to “Les Miserables” was definitely intentional even having the law enforcement characters names somewhat similar (Javert and Gerard).  “The Fugitive” was a huge ratings success for ABC and, even though as an actor, David Janssen showed more emotional restraint than a Sphinx, he was still very sympathetic in the role.  The final episode of the series was the most heavily watched TV episode in the history of television by the viewing public at that time.  Years later the storyline was still popular when in 1993, a new critically acclaimed motion picture version of “The Fugitive” was made starring Harrison Ford as Kimble and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard.  I guess you just couldn’t keep an unjustly convicted guy down for too long, could you?

While “The Fugitive” focused your sympathies on someone unjustly accused of committing a crime, what about films or TV series about law enforcement departments actually hunting those who were actually committing crimes you may ask?  Well, there are so many that I couldn’t begin to list them all.  Sometimes the perpetrator was shown right at the very beginning of the story.  However, you also had a number of dramatizations where the criminal was not known and the film or television series had you follow the law enforcement department and their investigators (The Hunters) as they tried to apprehend the unknown criminal (The Hunted).  These types of crime dramas were more commonly referred to as “police procedurals” where they tried to show accurately, the nuts-and-bolts step by step way of how the different areas of law enforcement worked together to catch a criminal.  Numerous series like “Dragnet” (1951-59), “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-99), “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (2000-15), and others constantly inundated us with these stories.  Of course, sometimes police procedurals were also dramatizations of actual criminal cases too.  It is in this sub-group, that I will highlight one final great series before I’ll close this month’s Blog Post.  That series is the British true crime investigative drama, “Manhunt” (2019 and 2021).

“Manhunt” starred Martin Clunes portraying real life Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, and both series were based on Sutton’s memoirs involving two extremely difficult cases in his career.  The three-part first series involved Sutton investigating the brutal murder of a young girl in 2004.  During his investigation he discovers that the perpetrator was an actual serial killer with evidence connecting him to two other previous unsolved murders of young women as well as attacks against other women.  He also finds out that there were mistakes made in the prior investigations which, if the errors didn’t occur, could have resulted in the actual killer’s earlier apprehension.  The four-part second series was even better.  This one was titled, “The Night Stalker” and it was based on Sutton’s review of an ongoing 17-year manhunt for a brutal serial rapist operating in South East London from 1992 to 2009.  This investigation was the largest and most complex rape investigation ever undertaken by the Metropolitan Police of Greater London.  Ultimately, this individual was also found to be an accomplished burglar who specifically targeted the elderly (including men), left next to no DNA or other forensic evidence, and meticulously observed his victims while planning his break ins and assaults.  After some time, Sutton was given more overall authority over the entire investigation while also getting the necessary funding and manpower to enable the police force to ultimately capture the criminal.

Clunes, who has a face that sort of looks like a bulldog, portrays Sutton almost like a tenacious bulldog too.  However, he is also someone capable of thinking out of the box to figure out a way to apprehend this criminal. He is terrific in the role, and so is the non-sensationalist Award winning direction by Mark Evans.  The crimes that these two individuals did were horrific, but you didn’t have to actually see the crimes being perpetrated to feel their impact both on their victims and on the various members of law enforcement who were hunting them.  “Manhunt” also showed how fallible Sutton and his investigators were at times along with all of the politics that he had to deal with. This included such things as how to (1) properly use the manpower and funding, (2) have all of the various law enforcement staff work together in as a team, and (3) deal with higher ups in the police establishment, the numerous news organizations, and the general public.  All too often, police procedural dramas could be so focused on details that the overall drama was lacking or boring.  This was not the case with “Manhunt” which was why it was suspenseful and engrossing rather than banal.  You would never picture Clunes’ Sutton ever pulling out a 44 Magnum and, like Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan say, “Make my Day!”  However, for “Manhunt”, I’d have been more likely to sweat bullets if Sutton, rather than Eastwood’s Callahan were hunting me!

Now, of course, If I were on the Outer Space cargo ship, Nostromo with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley hunting the “Alien,” I’d want Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Bronson, and Stallone along with me.  Hmmm! On second thought, I’ll skip Stallone…

I’d at least want someone able to walk and chew gum at the same time standing next to me!


School Days! School Days! Rotten, Lousy, School Days!

John Keating:  “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world!”

[Robin Williams, “Dead Poets Society” (1989)]

“Academic education” has been generally defined as an education which has learning as its primary purpose.  For most of us, attainment of an education is one of the most important parts of our life.  Whether we did it when we were very young or much later in life, our need or necessity to learn, has been instilled into us as a means or a way to have a successful or more fulfilling life.  However, what sort of learning or wisdom do we or can we ultimately gain to attain such goals?  Numerous novels, plays and various dramatizations focusing on obtaining an education or school life itself have been done for film, television, and cable.  Comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, even SY/FY and fantasy have all been utilized to good effect for a multitude of tales about learning or obtaining wisdom.  It is this subject that this month’s Blog Post will discuss in further detail.

A number of plays, situated in an academic setting, have been adapted into films over the years with varying degrees of success.  One of the earliest ones was from the novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”, an 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes.  “Days” chronicled Hughes experiences in an elite English public school during the 1830s focusing on the aforementioned Tom Brown, a fictional character thinly based on Hughes brother George.  Brown’s efforts in obtaining an education are helped by his friendship with an older classmate named Harry East and by Dr. Thomas Arnold, the actual historical headmaster of the school at that time.  The novel also chronicled Brown’s travails with another classmate, the drunken and bullying Harry Flashman, who becomes Brown’s nemesis.  This novel’s popularity resulted in many screen adaptions with the very first one made in an early 1916 silent film version all the way up to a recent 2005 TV film.

A different type of a play concerning a student who, unlike Tom Brown, causes mayhem to all of those around her was the famous 1934 Lillian Hellman play, “The Children’s Hour.”  “Hour” was set in an all-girls boarding school where a disruptive child named Mary, accuses the two women who run the facility of having a lesbian relationship.  This results in their lives and those of others around them either destroyed or irreparably damaged.  Here, the child was just a secondary character that wasn’t trying to obtain any wisdom at all.  Instead, the focus was firmly on the two women whose lives were permanently altered.  This play was a huge hit and controversial due to its lesbian theme.  It was later adapted into a film version titled “These Three” (1936), and directed by William Wyler.  However, because of the Hays Production Code banning any mention of or subject concerning homosexuality or lesbianism, the movie’s storyline had to be changed.  Now the storyline consisted of just having the child make accusations that one of the two women was having an elicit sexual affair with the other one’s fiancé.  Although this film was a hit, the theme of adultery, which might have been “hot” stuff back in the Puritanical nineteen thirties was, by the standards of today, about as scandalous as an unwanted “good night” kiss on a first date.  The picture also wasn’t helped by Joel McCrea miscast as the fiancé.  McCrea, who was never much of an actor, and more suitable riding a horse and brandishing a six gun, looked about as comfortable playing a suit and tie wearing doctor as rock star Meatloaf would have been if he wore a speedo.  Wyler later had a chance to remake the film, now properly named “The Children’s Hour” in 1961 with the lesbian theme basically intact.  This version starred James Garner as the Doc, Audrey Hepburn as his fiancée, and Shirley MacLaine as Hepburn’s (more than just a friend) co-worker in charge of the school.  MacLaine gave an outstanding performance emanating a strong sexual desire, sometimes by just a look or a slight gesture towards Hepburn that told more than any words could.  Unfortunately, it’s too bad that the same was not also true for Hepburn and Garner’s performances.  Both of them were barely pedestrian in their roles, and this flaw turned “The Children’s Hour” into a soap opera rather than a strong drama.

A number of TV shows had, not just one young adult student acting disruptive, but rather, the entire student class possibly acting disruptive too.  Such shows were social dramas involving teachers striving to motivate students to learn at various interracial inner-city schools where numerous conflicts could arise.  For television you had such fine shows as the CBS drama, “The White Shadow” (1978-81) which starred Ken Howard as a white former professional basketball player who takes a job coaching basketball at an impoverished urban high school with a racially mixed team in South Central Los Angeles.  For ABC you also had the comedy-drama “Room 222” (1969-74) with Lloyd Haynes as an idealistic African-American school teacher in a racially diverse high school also in Los Angeles.  This half hour show was much milder than “Shadow” and didn’t touch on more controversial subjects.  Not to limit such shows to just being situated in Los Angeles, you also had a sitcom like “Welcome back Kotter” (1975-79) which was situated in Brooklyn, New York.  This comedy starred Gabe Kaplan (the aforementioned “Kotter”) in charge of a racially and ethnically diverse remedial class of loafers nicknamed the “Sweathogs”, and with one of them being John Travolta who played a dumb, stupid punk (before moving on up into playing an even bigger dumb, stupid punk in the movies).  Also, not to be ignored was “Fame” (1982-87), which was based on the hit 1980 motion picture of the same name.  This one was a comedy-drama interspersed with music that followed the lives of students and faculty at the fictional NYC High School for the Performing Arts.  It won a number of Emmy Awards and led to numerous concert tours, hit records, a Broadway musical, and even a bad 2009 film remake.

Serious motion pictures about teachers at multi-ethnic inner-city schools trying to help students to learn were popular too.  Unfortunately, too often their quality left a lot to be desired.  Maybe the worst one of them all was the unintentionally laughable, but for its time controversial, hit MGM film, “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955).  “Jungle” starred Glenn Ford as Rick Dadier, a new teacher at an inter-city high school with various students of mixed ethnic backgrounds.  Soon enough his idealism is smashed by the sometimes indifferent and other times open defiance of the students led by Gregory Miller (Sydney Poitier) and Artie West (Vic Morrow), who resist his efforts to motivate them to learn.  Dadier’s resolve is tested by (1) having to break up an attempted rape of a teacher in the school library on his first day there, (2) getting mugged by some of the students in an alley one night, (3) having his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) almost miscarry due to anonymous phone calls and letters suggesting he is having an affair, and (4) worst of all, having to put up with listening to Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” instead of a real film score throughout the entire picture.

To say this movie was dated is putting it mildly.  Supposedly, originally someone had the bright idea to have the beginning of the film start with some Soviet type guy in Russia commenting about American decadence of some sort leading into the Comets blasting out “Rock around the Clock” as the credits started rolling down the screen.  Fortunately, that semi-brilliant idea was canned!  Unfortunately, other things were not!  First, you had a bunch of actors obviously in their twenties playing high school kids.  Second, you had Poitier as the sole African-American in the classroom being one of the class leaders that his predominantly Caucasian classmates follow.  Yeah, and I believe in the “Tooth Fairy” too!  Third, you had a heavy handed, overt, and deliberately sensationalistic portrayal of juvenile delinquent gangs openly terrorizing the entire school along with their staff which probably scared the pants off of the nineteen fifties viewing public.  “Jungle” made it seem like law enforcement was powerless to stop the violence and the chaos.  Gee, maybe they just needed John Wayne charging in with a Marine battalion to put those anarchistic Commie juvenile delinquents in their place!  Fourth, you were inundated with crude stereotypes instead of real believable characters in this movie.  You had your burned-out teacher (Louis Calhern with a wig more fake than a ten-dollar Rolex), your naïve jazz loving math teacher (Richard Kiley) who, of course, quits after getting his jazz records smashed by the juveniles, the needy frightened wife (Francis), the secret musically gifted student (Poitier), and the perpetually sneering gang leader (Morrow) to name a few.  This film was originally banned in Memphis and Atlanta, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy prevented the film from being shown at the Venice Film Festival, and a Senate committee condemned the film saying that “Jungle” would not have beneficial effects on contemporary youth.  So of course, both the movie and Bill Haley and the Comets became a big hit, especially among those supposed masses of delinquent Fifties juveniles.  And as for myself Dear Reader, even though I first saw the picture on TV when I was pretty young, I just thought that “The Blackboard Jungle” was one of the funniest, and most ridiculously campy things that I had ever seen!    

Other inner city school films were also later made like “To Sir, with Love” (1967) with Sydney Poitier now as the teacher instead of the student, “Up the Down Staircase” (1967) with Sandy Dennis, “Stand and Deliver” (1988) with James Edward Olmos in an Academy Award nominated performance as real-life high school math teacher Jaime Escalante, “Dangerous Minds” (1995) with Michelle Pfeiffer as real-life teacher LouAnne Johnson, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) with John Leguizamo who directed and starred as real-life social studies teacher Mario Martinez who led his Miami Jackson High School chess team to a win at the U.S. Chess Federation’s National High School Chess Championships in 1998.  All of these pictures except “Dangerous Minds” (which was really bad with more stereotypes than even “Blackboard Jungle”) had their merits, especially “Stand and Deliver” and “Critical Thinking” (Leguizamo deserved more acclaim both for his performance and for his directing).  However, motion pictures about students learning or developing wisdom, as I previously mentioned, were also a fertile area for stories involving horror or science fiction where maybe the students were just trying to “learn” how to survive!

For example, you had “Carrie” (1976) which was based on the Stephen King novel with Sissy Spacek laying telekinesis waste to her high school prom dance class after receiving an unappreciated pig blood makeover.  Although Piper Laurie’s awful over the top performance as Carrie’s psycho mom could make even Nicolas Cage’s worst bug-eyed drooling performances seem sedate by comparison, the real culprit for how bad this movie really is, was due to the ever-inept directing style of Brian De Palma.  De Palma never had a scene that he couldn’t misdirect, where you could always be sure he would overuse some sort of camera trickery as a distraction so he could throw in as much excessive sex, nudity, graphic violence, blood, and gore as was humanly possible.  Although “Carrie” was a big financial success, it’s the type of garbage that didn’t even deserve to be dumped into a rusted-out Dixie Dumpster.  However, a much better high school horror film was “The Faculty” (1998).  This film was sort of like an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing” YA clone where different members of an Ohio high-school faculty and their students were being infected by a wormlike parasite that would crawl into their earlobe to infect and control their minds (Hmm! Sort of like Fox News!).  When a bunch of the students discover what is going on, they team up to try and find and destroy the creatures’ queen before everyone is infected and the aliens “Take Over the World!!!”  (Yeah, that one again!).  This one was an unabashed campy cult flick, but it was surprisingly suspenseful with some real comic moments thrown in to lighten the horror.  It also had a surprisingly huge top-notch ensemble cast with such veterans as Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie (Yeah, her again, but not as bad!), Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Louis Black, and Jon Stewart slumming along as infected or future infected faculty.  It also had Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Shawn Hatosy, Jordana Brewster, and Clea DuVall as some of the students trying to stop the alien invasion while also trying not to develop any zits in the process.  If you just want to have some fun without needing to learn any wisdom, “The Faculty” is a High-School Horror Hoot! (OK, even I’m groaning at that one).

Comedies were also readily available for movies pertaining to academia where laughter rather than learning took precedence.  Far too often they could just be a mix of gross out humor, nudity, and sex.  However, at other times, they could also be very, very funny.  Some of the good ones were “Animal House” (1978), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), and “Back to School” (1986) for example.  However, one that I especially want to praise, and it’s not even a motion picture at all but a comedy drama television series especially created for Netflix and taking place in England, is “Sex Education” (2019 to present).  This series is an ensemble drama, but with the two main characters consisting of Otis (Asa Butterfield), an awkward teenage son, and his noted sex therapist mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson).  Jean, who is divorced, has no hesitation about talking or encouraging Otis to discuss all aspects of sexuality with her which makes Otis constantly uncomfortable and embarrassed.  What’s even worse is, that as the series begins, Otis is a virgin who struggles in even being able to masturbate.  He goes to a multi-ethnic high school with his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a flamboyant gay teen who keeps his sexual identity hidden from his religious family.  When Otis, who has picked up vast knowledge about sexuality over the years from his mother, helps a student resolve a sexual issue, he is approached by Maeve (Emma Mackey).  She is a beautiful, smart, and outwardly confident but internally troubled student with a false reputation for being promiscuous.  She proposes that the two of them start a little underground sex therapy clinic for the students where Otis helps them with their sexual issues while Maeve handles the financial side of the business along with finding future student patients for Otis.  As Otis conducts his therapy sessions, his status at school improves.  Unfortunately, so does his stress due to his own impotency issues, his necessity to keep his therapy work secret, and his slow growing attraction to Maeve and she to him.

“Sex Education” is hysterical.  Each episode explores some student or faculty member’s sexual issue right from the get go.  Just about nothing, either gay or straight, is off limits or taboo for this show.  However, this series is far more than a cheap titillating sex comedy show with heavy handed humor and card board characterizations.  “Education” is also a well-developed drama which discusses some serious contemporary issues in a thoughtful and intelligent way.  It is extremely well written allowing the entire cast to develop detailed complex characters that are believable and full of true feeling.  This was due to series creator Laurie Dunn, who wanted the show to be an homage to the John Hughes high school films of the 1980s (“The Breakfast Club”, etc.).  Well, my own honest opinion is that “Sex Education’ is better than the John Hughes films due to its honest depiction, not just of sexual issues, but of human relationships in general.  No one on the show is ever always right or ever always wrong.  No one is ever always bad or ever always good either.  And most importantly, no one on the show is so set in their ways that they cannot see an opposing view and even change with time.  This is a comedy drama where you see individuals, both adults and teenagers learning about themselves and gaining wisdom and understanding about life in general.  Each year, “Sex Education” is getting better and better along with every character showing more and more complexity and self-awareness.  That makes it truly special.  It has been a long, long time since I can honestly say that a particular television series is truly touching.  “Sex Education” definitely is!

The last two motion pictures that I want to highlight about teachers striving to help teens to learn, and to grow are serious dramas that have achieved past acclaim, and are both still relevant after all of these years.  They also have another thing in common.  Both films have a great performance by actor Robin Williams.  These two films are “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997).  “Dead Poets” starred Williams as John Keating, a new English teacher at Welton Academy, an all-male elite prep school in Vermont in 1959.  Keating’s teaching methods are unorthodox to say the least. They include everything from having the students stand on the top of their desks to look at life from a different perspective to even having them make up their own distinct way of walking outdoors to encourage each of them to develop his own individuality.  The students enthusiastically take to his new way of teaching and branch out into developing new interests and passions, which Keating defines by the Latin expression of carpe diem meaning, “Seize the day!”  They even discover that Keating, a Welton alumni, was formerly a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society when he was a student there.  The students resurrect the club which basically consists of their sneaking off into the woods to read and recite poetry and verse, including some of their own compositions.  As the year progresses, they each more and more live their lives more fully on their own terms.  Unfortunately, the prep school’s administration is steeped in rigid conformity which is contrary to both Keating’s teaching methods and even the existence of a group like the Dead Poets Society.  This conflict will ultimately result in tragedy.

“Dead Poets” was a huge hit that year thanks to fine direction by Peter Weir and a fine original screenplay by Tom Schulman who won an Oscar.  Weir did not have the picture focus primarily on Williams’ Keating, but rather on the students themselves, and how they were affected by Keating’s teaching.  This does nothing to diminish Williams’ performance which is mostly restrained and thoughtful which was not how Williams was ordinarily thought to be able to do convincingly.  Also fortunate was that the students, played by a young Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and others all gave fine performances too.  Weir, Williams, and the picture itself all received well deserved Academy Award nominations although none of them won.  Interestingly, at that same time, a number of film critics like Siskel and Ebert, Leonard Maitin, John Simon, etc. were dismissive of the film as a whole.  That’s OK!  Like I have said a number of times, always remember my personal mantra… “The Critics are full of S&*T!”  Carpe Diem, Dear Reader!

“Good Will Hunting”, directed very well by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”) tells the tale of Will Hunting (Matt Damon in a star making performance), a wayward young adult with genius level intelligence, especially in mathematics, who works as just a janitor at MIT.  When Will secretly solves a complex mathematical problem left on a blackboard for graduate students and later, after getting into a gang fight where he is arrested, the professor who discovered that Will was the one who solved his problem confronts Will and gives him a choice.  Either Will can go to jail or agree to be released into his personal supervision where Will must study mathematics and also see a psychotherapist.  Will grudgingly agrees and ultimately is referred to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to address anger issues and self-loathing from abuse that he received as a foster child.  “Hunting” is helped by a great Oscar winning screenplay written by Damon and Ben Affleck who also plays his friend Chuckie in the film.  Damon is fantastic as Will, so cynically smart yet so secretly self-hating that he’d rather deliberately sabotage all of his interpersonal relationships because of the fear of failure which would cause him additional emotional pain.  He is equally matched by Williams as Dr. Maguire, restrained, analytical, but capable of pushing Will’s emotional buttons as well as having to take stock of his own issues when Will cruelly pushes Maguire’s emotional buttons right back.  Both individuals learn from each other and the best scenes in the entire movie are their fascinating interactions with each other.  By the time the Academy Awards came around, Robin Williams wasn’t denied this time.  He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. After twenty-five years, “Good Will Hunting” can still touch your heart!

Well, that raps it up for now!  You can have magical schools of learning like those in the various Harry Potter films.  You can also have superhero schools of learning like Professor Charles Xavier and his X Men school for mutants.  Or maybe you can just have something smaller, like a chronicle of a first year Harvard Law School student having to face the formidable Professor Charles W. Kingfield played so expertly by John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”  The choices are almost limitless regarding motion pictures and television shows about places of learning or ways for individuals to learn and to seek wisdom.  Whatever, choices you may have made, Dear Reader in what you have wanted to learn, and what wisdom you may have attained …

I hope you became a better person because of it!

See you next month!


Lock Em Up!

Hilts: “You see the way the goons got those towers placed?”

Goff: (glancing at the towers) “Yeah.”

Hilts: “There’s a blind spot right in the middle.”

Goff: “A blind spot?”

Hilts: “A guy could stand at that wire and not be seen by that tower or that tower.  The one on the end is too far, they’d never see me, especially at night.”

Goff: “You’re crazy.”

Hilts: “You think so?  Well, let’s find out, right now!”

[Steve McQueen to Jud Taylor, “The Great Escape” (1963)]

We all enjoy freedom or at least what we feel is something that can reasonably be called “Freedom.”  Let’s say, you are taking a walk in the woods, and you see some plant growing around or through something in its way rather than be restrained.  No living thing likes to be impeded or imprisoned.  There is also an inherent need for every human being to be physically free, and when an individual is confined or constrained, they will just about do anything to escape or to be free in some other way.  Numerous movies and various television dramas have explored this dynamic in many different, varied, and surprising ways.  It is a subject that this month’s Blog Post will explore in further detail.

Two famous works of literature exploring one’s imprisonment, escape, and ultimate triumph were both written by Alexandre Dumas.  They are “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  “Cristo” told the tale of 19-year-old Edmond Dantes, who, in 1815, is unjustly denounced as a traitor and sentenced to life imprisonment at Chateau d’lf in France.  After being imprisoned for fourteen years, but educated during his imprisonment by a fellow prisoner who also tells him where to find a hidden treasure, he finally escapes and finds said treasure making him fabulously wealthy.  He then proceeds to seek retribution against all of those who framed him.  This popular adventure tale has been adapted so many times for films and television that it defies belief.  It also has been done for numerous theatrical plays and musicals, audio adaptions, animated adaptions, and even video games.  “Mask,” which was based on an actual historical fact that during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, a particular individual sentenced to life imprisonment was forced to wear an iron mask for the rest of his life, was also adapted by Dumas into a rousing adventure tale.  In Dumas tale, this man was supposedly King Louis’s identical twin, Philippe, who was helped by the “Three Musketeers” (Yep, those swashbuckling guys again) to escape and take the King’s throne.  Although not as insanely popular as “Cristo,” it still had a number of popular film and television adaptions made.  Maybe the best versions of both tales were performed by the same actor, Richard Chamberlain, who ably starred in two well received made-for-television film adaptions made in 1975 and 1977.

However, criminals or unjustly convicted individuals incarcerated in prisons were also a surprisingly popular subject for films and television.  An early acclaimed film focusing on the horrors of the Georgia chain gang prison system, and adapted from the memoir by Robert E. Burns, was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  This film starred Paul Muni as veteran James Allen who, when unsuccessful in finding any work while drifting into poverty in the South, is arrested and sentenced to the Georgia chain gang after being tricked into becoming an accomplice in a robbery.  Warner Bros. Studios in the nineteen thirties was the Hollywood standard-bearer in tackling socially relevant issues in the USA, and this hard driving and brutal expose of the chain gang system prevalent in the South caused an uproar.  Both the book and this movie helped to ultimately bring an end to the Georgia chain gang system.  As a film, this downbeat movie was, for it’s time, pretty brutal although the censors never allowed the studio to mention exactly where in the South this story took place.  Hmm!  Maybe it was in Never-never Land!

Anyhoo, upon its release (no pun intended) this film was banned in Georgia, LeRoy and Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Bro. were both barred from entering the state, and a libel suit was filed against the studio by the state of Georgia as well as by two prison wardens.  None of them won a Damn thing!  My own opinion is that, even though this picture is pretty dated, it still has some powerful moments, and Muni’s performance is still gripping.  Although he was justifiably, at times, criticized for overacting, Muni was also a powerful and commanding presence on both the stage and screen.  He was justly Oscar nominated for his performance.  By the film’s end, he has a final scene where he is on the run again and meets his girlfriend to wish her a permanent goodbye on a dark street at night.  She asks, “How do you live?” Then, in a closeup of his desperate and frightened face, he replies, “I steal,” before his face disappears into the darkness! Someone once said, bluntly, of Paul Muni, “That baby can act!”  He sure could Dear Reader.  He sure could!

Of course, most prison movies did not pertain to people wrongly incarcerated.  Fortunately, a number of them were still excellent films about life behind bars and not just films about convicts trying to escape.  For every great prison escape film like “Brute Force” (1947), you also had a fine film like “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) about prison life in general.  Although not as well-known as those two and with a much smaller budget, I especially want to mention “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), an excellent film about prison life, and the equal to those two pictures as well.  “Riot” concerns a prison riot (no surprise there) where a bunch of hardened inmates overpower the guards in their cell block and use them as negotiation pawns to demand changes to their brutal living conditions.  Their leader is Dunn (Neville Brand), who makes his demands to their liberal-minded prison warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) who has also been complaining about these same conditions for years to his higher ups to no avail.  As the negotiations drag on, the tension builds, not helped by a bureaucracy that is intransient to their demands, and by the instability of one of the other inmate leaders, Carnie (Leo Gordon), a violent psychopath nicknamed, “Crazy Mike.” “Riot” was directed by the always underrated Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), a great action/suspense director, who could crank up the tension with the best of them.  Some of the people involved in the making of this film actually had their own personal experiences of life in a penitentiary.  Actor Gordon previously served five years for armed robbery in San Quentin, and producer Walter Wanger previously served a 4-month prison term for shooting (in the groin) his wife’s lover.  This film was shot on location at Folsom State Prison using real inmates and guards in background roles.  Brand and Meyer, usually better known for playing “bad guys” or in supporting roles, gave standout performances in the lead roles.  The issues reflected in “Riot” along with the overall downbeat conclusion of this film have only been repeated over and over again in real life, all the way up to our present day.  Maybe some things will never change!

Speaking of some things that actually do change, but not in a good way, were prison films involving women incarcerated.  There were a few that were made during the pre-code and censorship days, but when the censorship laws were finally relaxed or ultimately eliminated, starting around the end of the nineteen sixties, a virtual tidal wave of “women in prison” films were made for release to the general public.  Besides the fact that around 99% of them were made with a budget less than what you would find in a “piggy bank”, quality-wise, they were all not even good enough to deposit into your local garbage dump.  Of course, although it did provide enough lame excuses to show as much female nudity, violence, and Lesbian sex as was humanly possible for adults and prepubescent teens to enjoy, the general degradation of women was not a factor that anyone making these films seemed to care anything about.  Television, sort of, got into the act too, but it blew up in their faces bigtime when actress Linda Blair, who got an Academy Award nomination at age 14 for the overrated “The Exorcist” (1973), followed that one up with the controversial NBC made-for-television prison drama, “Born Innocent” (1974).  Here, her character, a constant trouble making runaway from an abusive home, is sentenced to a girls’ juvenile detention center where she is later graphically raped by other girls in a shower during her incarceration.  Although TV censorship rules didn’t show any nudity or the extreme violence found often in films, and it was the highest rated TV movie for that year, it caused such an uproar among the general viewing public that it was one of the catalysts for the National Association of Broadcasters creating a family viewing policy since this was definitely an “adult,” rather than a “family” friendly movie.  Funny thing, around 10 years later Linda Blair did do a couple of prison sexploitation films [“Chained Heat” (1983) and “Red Heat” (1985)] where her acting skills were basically relegated into how often she removed her clothes.  Well, at least she did get a Raspberry Award nomination as Worst Actress of the Year for one of them.  For which one, you may ask Dear Reader?  Does it really matter?

Nevertheless, there was one truly great “women in prison” motion picture made years earlier that still holds up very well after all of these years.   That picture is “Caged” (1950) starring Eleanor Parker.  Here she played Marie, a 19-year-old innocent sentenced to prison as an accomplice to her husband in a robbery that went bad.  Now with her husband dead, and herself pregnant, she has to face surviving in a tough prison environment amongst the inmates, and deal with a monstrous and sadistic prison matron named Evelyn (Hope Emerson).  “Caged” was definitely not an exploitation film, but a serious drama about the dehumanization of an individual, and how the prison environment can create worse criminals instead of rehabilitating them.  The screenplay by Virginia Kellogg is terrific, and she even arranged, with the assistance of authorities, to be incarcerated for a while with a false conviction in four different prisons to ensure its accuracy.  “Caged” was also directed very well by John Cromwell (“Of Human Bondage”) who captured the grim, drab existence of prison life, and how it could drain the humanity out of anyone.  Eleanor Parker gives an incredible performance slowly losing her innocence while changing into a hardened future criminal by the film’s end.  Both she, Emerson, and Kellogg all received well deserved Academy Award nominations for their efforts.  If you ever want to see maybe, the one really great film about women incarceration, see “Caged.”

Made-for-television films and cable series were also capable of producing excellent dramas about prison life.  For example, on cable you had HBO’s “Oz” (1997-03) about an experimental unit in a men’s prison which was created by Tom Fontana (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), and who also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes.  You also had Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” (2013-19), based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her experiences in a women’s minimum security federal prison in Danbury, CT. starring Taylor Schilling as Kerman.  Both series were well received and were nominated for multiple awards over the years.  An example of a couple of great award-winning made-for-television prison films were CBS’s “The Glass House” (1972), and especially, ABC’s “The Jericho Mile” (1979).

“Mile” starred Peter Strauss (“Rich Man, Poor man”) as Larry “Rain” Murphy, a loner serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for killing his abusive father.  Nicknamed “Lickety-Split” due to his obsession for running around the prison yard, he doesn’t know how fast he actually is until he attracts the notice of the prison psychologist who has someone time him.  Once they discover how fast he really is, the warden has the state track and field coach (Ed Lauter) bring in a couple of top distance runners to compete against him and who he handily beats.  It’s at this point that the coach, with the warden’s approval, starts to train Murphy to possibly compete in the upcoming Olympic trials.  Unfortunately, conflicts between rival prison gangs along with Murphy’s sole friend, Stiles’ (Richard Lawson) involvement in the gang situation may derail his plans.  “Mile” was an original story by Patrick J. Nolan adapted by Michael Mann (“Miami Vice”, “The Insider”, “Heat”, etc.) who also directed.  This was Mann’s breakthrough film that launched his motion picture directing career, and despite TV network restrictions back then (for language, violence, etc.) it is still terrific.  His direction shows the intensity, fast editing, use of music, and sudden violence that his future films were known for.  He is matched in that intensity by Strauss’s performance as Murphy.  He’s an unrepentant “lifer”, perfectly willing (as they say) “to do the time” rather than submit to society’s need for him to express remorse for his past crime.  Strauss won an Emmy for his performance as did Mann and Nolan for their screenplay.  Whether it’s a prison film, a sports film, an inspirational film, or all of the above, it doesn’t really matter.  All I can say about it is that it’s a Damn fine film!

Prisoner of war movies or films about individuals imprisoned under a dictatorship can also qualify as dramas about incarceration, and many films have also been made under this classification.  Of course, some of them could really be putrid like, for example, “Prisoner of War” (1954) with such noted thespians as Steve Forrest (Dana Andrews less talented younger brother), Dewey Martin (who makes Tab Hunter look good by comparison), and Ronald Reagan (before he decided to make a career change) as POWs (all with perfectly coiffed hair) in North Korea brutally treated by Oskar Homolka (who played more spies and Russian officials than Hugh Hefner had girlfriends).  All I can say about this film is… Boo!  Bad!  Ugo!  Ugo!  Now you also had some really good ones like the French World War I prisoner of war film, “The Grand Illusion” (1937), and the Brazilian “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985), a drama about two prisoners sharing a prison cell during a Brazilian military dictatorship.  However, the one that I really want to praise in this genre is the great World War II prisoner of war escape film, “The Great Escape” (1963).

“Escape” chronicled the true story of one of the largest POW mass escapes in World War II.  Although the names of all of the characters were changed, a number of the individuals portrayed were fictitious or composites of a number of different persons, and most of the incidents (especially by the POWs after they escaped) were also fictitious, it is still, one great movie.  The details of how the escape occurred, how the escape tunnel was built, and how the POW concentration camp looked is extremely accurate.  The film is also great due to terrific direction by John Sturges.  At his best, Sturges was a great action and suspense director, and for an almost three-hour film, it never drags and is almost always engrossing.  He is helped by a great film score by Elmer Bernstein and expert cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp (“West Side Story”) who captures both the beautiful European landscapes while also capturing the claustrophobic conditions the POWs endured while digging their escape tunnel.  Best of all is the acting by his large ensemble cast.  James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, and others in smaller roles all have their moments to shine acting-wise.  And then, there’s Steve McQueen’s performance as Virgil Hilts!  As good as everybody else was, McQueen steals the film.  His Hilts is sardonic, irreverent, subtly insolent, and quietly intense, a loner who escapes so often that after being repeatedly recaptured and placed in solitary confinement (The Cooler) he is nicknamed, “The Cooler King.”  Everyone always remembered him in “Escape” for his wild motorcycle ride across the German countryside where it seemed almost like the entire Third Reich was after him.  However, I prefer to remember him best for his little scene just after his friend Ives is shot dead while trying to escape.  The sudden shock of it on his face and then his quiet non-verbal facial change into intense determination to quit being a loner and join with helping the mass escape attempt is just plain great acting.  “The Great Escape” is a fine film.

Some other more recent prison dramas have been made, ranging from good to bad:

  • The Good: The Clint Eastwood picture, “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) with Clint playing real life con, Frank Norris who engineered an escape with three others in a makeshift raft in 1962 where, to this day, it is believed that they all drowned.  Despite making the inmates, along with Clint’s Norris, a little too likeable, and the prison staff a little too unlikeable, it is directed expertly, once again, by Don Siegel who crafted a great suspense film.
  • The Bad: The Sylvester Stallone turkey, “Escape Plan” (2013) with Sylvester unintentionally laughable as a lawyer(?) turned prison security tester(?)  incarcerated in the world’s most “special super-secret secure” prison (Try saying that one five times).  Watching Stallone try to play some high-tech savvy security expert is sort of like watching an ape trying to put a square peg into a round hole over and over and over again.  Fortunately, I executed my own escape plan when I saw  Sylvester’s film.  It was right through the “Exit” door of the movie theater.

However, the last great prison drama that I want to praise for this month’s Blog Post, and which is based on a Steven King novella, is the film, “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994).  “Shawshank” starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947 for the supposed murder of his wife and her lover and his friendship with “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a fellow long-term lifer who, in voiceover, tells the story of Andy over the next two decades there.  Although this could be considered an escape film, it’s really a relationship drama between these two individuals, their fellow prisoners (James Whitmore, William Sadler, Gil Bellows, etc.) and Andy’s interactions with his sanctimoniously corrupt prison warden, Norton (Bob Gunton), and the warden’s equally corrupt sadistic captain of the guards Hadley (Clancy Brown).  Frank Darabont brilliantly directed this story, also providing a terrific screenplay which allowed every actor’s performance to stand out.  He also utilized Roger Deakins incredible cinematography and Thomas Neuman’s delicate film score to highlight, rather than distract, from the powerful dramatic and emotional scenes.   Maybe the best film scene, of which there were many, is a sequence after Andy obtains a recording of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” from a recent library donation and proceeds to play it (after locking the door) over the prison’s public address system.  No words are spoken but the inmates and even some of the prison staff stop whatever they are doing and just listen as the cinematography sweeps over all of the inmates on the prison grounds while showing the contentment on Andy’s face.  That, Dear Reader, is just plain outright great directing, and this film should have won the Oscar for Best Picture that year.  Unfortunately, “Shawshank” was not a financial success when first released, and despite the fact that it received a number of Academy Award nominations [Best Picture, Screenplay, Music Score, Actor (Freeman), etc.], it won…Nothing!  The greatest insult of all was that Darabont wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.  However, maybe now he is having the last laugh because “The Shawshank Redemption” has only grown, just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, more and more popular, and has received more and more acclaim over the following years.  It is now considered an American classic of hope and of humanity!

In closing, to quote Andy Dufresne…

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

It’s a simple choice for all of us to make!

Isn’t it?



Dave Bowman: “Open the pod doors HAL.”

HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Dave Bowman: “What’s the problem?”

HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”

Dave Bowman: “What are you talking about, HAL?”

HAL: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” 

[Keir Dullea to HAL, “2001, A Space Odyssey” (1968)]

For anyone under forty (or maybe even fifty) you probably never had certain restrictions that the rest of us had when we were your age.  Back then, we didn’t have the variety now available from various streaming services and numerous cable packages.  For example, when I was in that age range, I used to love watching ABC’s “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” documentary specials, NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” nature documentary films and TV show episodes, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, and even, before I knew any better, a little thing called “The American Sportsman” which was also on ABC on Sundays.  Now why would I say, “before I knew any better?”  Well, it was because “The American Sportsman” not only highlighted outdoor recreational activities such as hang gliding, whitewater kayaking, etc., but it also had various celebrities participating in hunting and/or fishing trips which too often devolved into hunting and killing big game.  While I readily admit back then that I thoroughly enjoyed watching some celebrity hunting dangerous big game, after awhile it finally sunk into my thick skull that, other than for food, why were these people killing such non-edible animals like lions, grizzly bears, cape buffalo, elephants, etc. other than it was (1) to show that they could do it, (2), to hang some future trophy on their wall, (3) to get a little extra publicity or money from ABC for themselves, and maybe, (4) for ABC to get big ratings by attracting the hunting community’s viewers while also providing a way for a lot of us non-hunters to sate our own blood lust urges by vicariously feeling like we were actually with William Shatner, Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Redd Fox, Shelly Hack, etc. killing these creatures while safely sitting at home with a beer in hand (Yes, I know, that was an extremely long “run on” sentence).  Perhaps we all had in us our own kind of “dark passenger” like Michael C. Hall’s serial killer Dexter Morgan did after all.

Now, you can avail yourself to such things as the National Geographic Channel, Discovery’s “Animal Planet”, and even “ESPN Classic” which rebroadcast episodes of American Sportsman after having a prior revival of the show titled “The New American Sportsman” on ESPN2 from 2002-2006.  Fine documentaries are still being made too, such as the Oscar winning Netflix original documentary film, “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) since Jacques Cousteau is no longer around.  However, Dear Reader maybe also around now you are probably thinking, “Is that what I am actually going to discuss for this month’s Blog Post?  Wildlife Documentaries?  Really?”  Well, not exactly!

You see, previously, motion pictures had expanded outside of continually being made inside film studios to the Great Outdoors.  Studios found that it could be more financially feasible and profitable to shoot films on location both domestically and overseas rather than to build fake sets at home.  This was especially useful with regards to making big budget epics even after the development of CGI, and a number of great films were made, and continue to be made all the way up to the present day.  Unfortunately, with this development, a new sort of problem arose regarding big budget motion pictures along with some smaller ones as well.  Pictures were now being made by directors more focused on making a picture with pretty artsy-fartsy visuals rather than actually making a movie with any real dramatic or believable depth.  Despite the pretty visuals, such films were actually, “Pretty…Awful!”  It is this development that this month’s Blog Post will discuss.

A great director that definitely wasn’t one of those artsy-fartsy types was British Director David Lean.  His pictures were known for being visually stunning helped by a number of great British cinematographers, so much so, that maybe from the period of 1945 to 1980 they were absolutely the best in the world.  The proof of that was in the number of Oscars that they were either nominated for or won with the help of David Lean.  For example, you had…

  • “Great Expectations” (1946): Oscar winner for best Black-and-White cinematography (Guy Green).
  • “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Jack Hildyard).
  • “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “Doctor Zhivago” (1965): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “A Passage to India” (1984): Oscar nominated for best Cinematography – Color (Ernest Day).

However, these pictures, along with others that he directed, were not just visually stunning.  Most of them, whether good or bad (I’m looking at YOU, “Ryan’s Daughter”), usually had complex storylines with brilliant screenplays that Lean utilized to elicit powerful and memorable performances with only a few “bad” exceptions [like YOU TOO, Christopher Jones (“Ryan’s Daughter”)].  Whether it was the dark English countryside or London slums for his two great Charles Dickens’ adaptions, the wild Irish coastline, or such international locales as the canals of Venice, the jungles of Burma, the deserts in Arabia, the vastness of revolutionary Russia, and the India of the 1920s under British rule, Lean’s films, both large and small were textbook examples of how to show visually brilliant motion pictures, while at the same time, telling complex stories of individuals in a realistic and believable manner.  Unfortunately, just like the movie “Ben-Hur” led to a lot of really bad biblical movies being made afterwards, I believe that Lean’s influence led to a lot of visually stunning, but dramatically empty motion pictures being made ever since.  Even worse, a number of these glorified National Geographic films were highly acclaimed Academy Award winners along with being financially successful too.  However, who started this ball rolling?  There could be many opinions as to who was this first directing culprit.  I definitely have my own choice of who started and popularized this sort of garbage.  I feel that person was Stanley Kubrick!

In previous Blog Posts I had mentioned that Kubrick was one of the most overrated Asshole Film Directors that I have ever seen, but I never explained why.  Well, that is going to change right now.  While he made some fine films earlier in his career like “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “Spartacus” (1960) (maybe due to Kirk Douglas keeping Kubrick’s excessive tendencies in check) along with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), he also made three of the worst visually stunning but dramatically feeble pictures that I have ever seen.  Those three were “2001:  A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), and “The Shining” (1980).

“2001”, supposedly based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke had groundbreaking, for its time, visual and Oscar winning special effects.  What it didn’t have was… anything else.  The screenplay was deliberately almost non-existent with the two main actors (Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea) more lifeless than a speck of dust since he deliberately wanted the film to be a nonverbal experience that didn’t rely on a traditional narrative structure.  And it was!  It was a boring and long (142 minutes originally reduced from 161 minutes) nonverbal experience.  Instead of a music score he just used classical music which had no emotional or dramatic relationship to any scenes just to create some sort of a mood.  Now Dear Reader, does this kind of seem like a documentary with a few human reenactments thrown in?  Well, it sure does to me!  Also, you could tell after “2001’s” release that it was a crock of S**t because Lockwood, Dullea, Kubrick, Clarke, and maybe some drunk on a park bench all had different explanations for what it all possibly meant including the movie’s weird psychedelically incomprehensible ending.  Honestly, if I had to pick one of their explanations, I think I’d take the drunk on the park bench’s version, Monty, for ten bucks!  When “2001” was released, it was not, at first, a financial success, and had numerous people walking out either during or afterwards scratching their heads wondering “What in the ever-loving F**k did I just see!”  Kubrick, like the arrogant and pompous asshole that he was known to be, must have thought that it was beneath himself to actually provide an understandable explanation of what his movie was all about to the viewing public.  However, ultimately, it became a financially successful arthouse film classic especially among loads of stoned out Collage students in the following decades.  It also drew acclaim from a number of nose-up-in-the-air film critics (who also must have been stoned), that thought Kubrick’s non-traditional direction was brilliant rather than having balls the size of a flea to admit that “2001” was just a piece of boring incomprehensible Crap made by a poser artiste!

“Barry Lyndon,” was (very loosely) based on an 1844 novel by William Thackeray that told the story of the rise and ultimate downfall of an Irish rogue.  This 187-minute molasses uphill slog should have had someone like Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine or Albert Finney in the title role since they were all great actors who could personally pull off carrying such a visually epic film.  Kubrick’s choice:  Ryan O’Neal (who makes Christopher Jones look like Lawrence Oliver by comparison).  Despite “Lyndon” winning some Oscars (cinematography, costumes, art direction, etc.), for once, a lot of critics along with some of the general viewing public saw through Kubrick’s cold, lifeless, unemotional directing style which focused more on the pretty visuals, sets, and costumes rather than the actual storyline, and a lot of them were not pleased.  Also, by having O’Neal, who emoted about as convincingly as one of those giant balloons floating in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in the lead, it only demonstrated that Kubrick picked O’Neal for his “pretty boy” face alone, rather than his acting skills, since having a real actor on the screen might distract viewers from focusing on Kubrick’s visually sleep-inducing masterpiece!  “The Shining”, based on the Steven King horror novel, only had more of Kubrick’s same old Shit of using mostly classical music (badly) rather than a real film score, a badly altered adaption of the novel that royally pissed off King, an over reliance on visual technical wizardry like his over use of the Steadicam, an overlong film length (144 minutes), the same cold, lifeless, and detached directing style, and continued miscasting like Shelley Duvall (constantly shrieking worse than a tea kettle lid) and Jack Nicholson [in a warm-up before grossly overacting as the Joker in “Batman” (1989)].  It’s poetic justice that for the “Golden Raspberry Awards” that year, Kubrick was nominated for Worst Director for “The Shining.”  Oh, and as for him being such a total perfectionist control freak, his visually stunning opening panoramic overhead camera shot of a vehicle traveling up a Rocky Mountain Road also happened to include the shadow of the helicopter shooting the scene.  Ops!  Yeah, he’s a cinematic “GENIUS” alright!  When Pigs Fly!

Moving right along, you had other visually stunning but awful as well as overly, long epic films which would have been better served if they just removed all of the actors and showed them on the Travel Channel instead.  Some of these insomnia reducers were:

  • Out of Africa (1985): Despite Meryl Streep giving Robert Redford an acting lesson playing Danish Karen Blixen in 1913 British East Africa, this turgid romantic melodrama was more concerned with helping African tourism by showing as many shots of herds of African wildlife running along the countryside rather than watching Redford, try to play a Brit named Denys Finch Hatton (with an American accent).  My “English Leather” Deodorant Speed Stick was more authentic than his performance, and all the pretty scenery in the world couldn’t save this film from crashing worse than Redford did, not soon enough, in a biplane, by the end of this film.
  • The Mission (1986): It’s the indigenous Indians and Jesuits of the Paraguayan jungle of the 1750s vs. the Spanish forces sent to kill/enslave all of them.  Who will win?  Director Roland Joffe sure doesn’t care!  He would rather show as much of the jungle, rivers, and the towering Iguazu Falls than anything else.  While doing so, he seemed to have forgotten how to explain why all of the Spanish forces were able to climb up the sheer rock face of the Falls while pulling up their cannons, canoes, pianos, refrigerators, bank vault, Mama Cass Elliot, etc. behind them, and that none of the Indians and Jesuits thought to do anything like cutting all of their climbing ropes, or raining arrows, rocks, musket balls, spit balls, naughty words, etc. from the top of the Falls down on them before they reached the top and wiped them all out.  Oh well, I guess they were all too busy praying or watching all the pretty scenery to be bothered!
  • The Last Emperor (1987): Let’s do a film about the last Chinese Emperor Puyi (or is it Pee-Yew?).  And let’s have “legend in his own mind” John Lone (Who?) star.  And let’s have unapologetic Marxist Bernardo Bertolucci, whose greatest claim to fame was making the lovingly photographed Porn/Rape film, “The Last Tango in Paris” direct.  And let’s get it to be the first Western feature film authorized by the People’s Republic of China to be filmed in the “Forbidden City” in Beijing to show off all the pretty visuals.  And let’s allow the Communist Govt. (with Bertolucci’s eager concurrence) complete control over how the film will portray China, under Mao (who was the 2nd greatest mass murderer in history after Joseph Stalin) as being such a wonderful paradise after Puyi was properly tortur… I mean, re-educated.  And let’s just keep looking at all the pretty visuals over and over again, and forget about questioning anything else!
  • Dances With Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner goes native, while filming the vast Western Indian plains over and over, looking sorrowful, speaking the Lakota Sioux language badly, and playing their “great white savior.”  And let’s also not forget that all the Lakota Sioux are always very “good” and all the Caucasians (except Mary McDonnell and Cecil B. De-Costner) are always very “bad.”  Oh, and let’s also keep showing those vast plains, mountains, buffalo, Costner’s profile, etc. even more until you feel a strong urge to run to the nearest skyscraper to either (1) jump off the top of it or, (2) grab Kevin Costner by his flowing “Lassie” length locks of hair and throw him off the top of it instead!

All four of these aforementioned pictures won the Oscar that year for Best Cinematography which they all justly deserved.  Unfortunately, that is the only thing they deserved.  The sad thing is that three of them also won the Oscar for Best Picture along with numerous other Academy Awards.  I guess that it just goes to show that for film critics and the general public at large, “A sucker is born every minute!”

Lastly, I want to mention two other smaller, non-epics, but still “pretty” awful films for special condemnation.  The first one is “Enchanted April” (1991) which was a story of four dissimilar women in 1920s England who decide to leave their drab and gray rainy surroundings and rent a villa for a month in Italy.  Two of them have troubled marriages, another lost her boyfriend in World War I, and the fourth, is elderly and set in her ways.  They all arrive and, almost like magic, their surroundings are so wonderful that the two married women along with their husbands who arrive later all change and become gloriously happy again while the one who lost her love finds new love, and even the elderly one starts to be joyous.  The end!  While watching this film, between trying not to fall asleep and trying not to throw up, I noticed that maybe the two most annoying things about it was first, the inane idea that a trip somewhere sunny would solve everyone’s problems.  If that were the case, the entire psychiatric profession would be put out of business.  Second, the overt and distracting “pretty” visuals of the villa, the flowers, the ocean, and the sunshine where everything sparkled, and which took up so much of the viewing time were utilized to possibly try and hide the fact that this hackneyed and non humorous little film was sort of like having you sink your teeth into a delectable looking chocolate bonbon and discovering that the supposedly sweet filling inside was nothing more than a nugget of “Shit!”  This film made the crap on the Hallmark Channel seem like Oscar Wilde by comparison, but hey, maybe because it’s British, they thought that it was high art!  Right?  Wrong!

The second film turkey was a picture that came out in the past year to great acclaim and which, unfortunately, received twelve Academy Award nominations which were the most nominations for any film in 2021.  What picture was it, Dear Reader?  Why it’s…

“The Power of the Dog”

“Dog” is a psychological western that tells the story of kind hearted George (Jessie Plemons) and his extremely toxic masculine brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), co-owners of a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925.  When, after a cattle drive, Phil insults Rose (Kirsten Dunst), an innkeeper and her lisping effete son, Pete (queerer than a three-dollar bill), George steps in to quietly console her.  Shortly afterwards Rose, a widow, and George immediately marry and Rose and her son move into the brothers’ home, an action that sets the stage for Phil’s increasing hostility towards Rose and Pete.  This film was populated with fine actors and had a good performance by Cumberbatch.  It also had beautiful visuals of mountain ranges, plains, landscapes, trees, rocks, blades of grass, various plant life, streams, etc. heightened by sensitive lighting highlighting the color tones of everything.  If any gardeners or landscapers were in the viewing audience, they’d probably be wetting their pants in joy right about now.  However, there was only one little problem with “Dog” (Dear Reader you are probably now thinking…Uh-Oh, here it comes…) it was a truly awful picture, due to Jane Campion’s gross ineptitude as a film director.

What’s wrong with it?  Let me count the ways!  First, Campion deliberately directs everything slow even the dialogue between the actors in her pretty little scenes.  If you had to take a bathroom break while watching it, don’t worry!  By the time you got back to your seat a character would still be saying the remainder of that same line of dialogue that you were starting to hear when you left to take a leak.  Second, the overt homoerotic overtones emanating from Phil were obvious, but Campion was so heavy handed that she even inserted a non-subtle visual reference to painter Thomas Eakin’s “The Swimming Hole” to make a point about Phil’s sexuality.  However, instead of nude boys frolicking, you now had nude Cow…boys.  As my sister used to elegantly say, “You don’t have to hit me over the head with a bucket of Dog S**t to make your point!”  Well, folks take a good sniff!  Jane Campion just did that to you!  Third, for all of these fine actors, except for Cumberbatch, none of them have any real backstory or depth so their characters are undeveloped and uninteresting.  Fourth, Campion completely neglects to utilize Dog’s film score to either show a character’s emotional changes or to develop tension or suspense.  Five, some of the plot developments are unbelievable or far-fetched.  For example, after George consoles Rose by helping her serve the cowboys their meals in the inn, the next thing you know, they get married.  Talk about a short courtship!  Or Phil, after mercilessly tormenting Pete suddenly changes and starts to strike up a sensitive friendship with him.  Huh???  Six, and last, besides her need to slowly show off all the pretty scenery (if I saw one more distance shot of a long road with a jalopy on it, I’d want to plant an IED on that road and blow that sucker up), her direction was so vague and oblique that by the end of “Dog,” just like for “2001,” I was saying, “What the Hell just happened?”  Sadly, although “Dog” only won one Oscar, it had to be for Campion winning one for Best Director.  Maybe they should have just hired Stevie Wonder to direct instead.  It couldn’t have been much worse!

Usually I like mentioning what my choice for Best Picture of the year is.  However, this is one time that I’m going to do something a little different.  Hence, for 2021, my pick for the Worst Picture of the Year is “The Power of the Dog” …



News Worthy(?)

Chuck Tatum:  “I can handle big news and little news.  And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” [Kirk Douglas, “Ace in the Hole” (1951)]

News and the reporting of the news whether it’s by newspapers, other forms of publications or various media sources like radio, TV, and the internet have been popular subjects for representation in films and on television since the very beginning.  Two major themes have consistently been popular for motion pictures to explore: (1) the crusading reporter(s) investigating or uncovering corruption/illegality and exposing it while possibly risking their own life/livelihood/reputation in the process, and (2) the actual individuals reporting and providing the news in the various newspapers/media outlets and their own corruption, incompetence, or criminality where their focus is not on reporting the facts, but rather shaping opinion or utilizing news reporting for their own personal agenda.  It is this second theme which will be the subject for this month’s Blog Post.

Perhaps the most famous and early successful film showcasing the rough and tumble newspaper industry’s reporters and staff willing to make up, distort, outright lie or do any illegal thing just to grab a lead story over any other competing news outlet was the famous film, “The Front Page” (1931) directed by Lewis Milestone.  Many other versions of this film have been done over the years like “His Girl Friday” (1940), an early CBS television series (1949), a 1974 re-make, as well as others.  This 1931 version was maybe, the very first screwball comedy film ever made, and it was based on the famous 1928 play written by former Chicago reporters and future Oscar winning screenplay writers Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht.  The storyline revolved around two principal characters.  The first one was “Hildy” Johnson (Pat O’Brien), a Chicago newspaper’s star reporter who wants to quit his job, get married, and move with his future new bride to a far better paying job in New York City.  The second one was Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), his manipulative, sleazy, cut throat newspaper editor/boss, who will stop at nothing to keep Hildy there.  Burns’ hook is to have Hildy investigate a sensational murder case with the supposed killer currently on the loose while trying to also sabotage Hildy’s exit plans.  Things change when Hildy stumbles onto the killer, finds out that the facts of the case don’t add up, and decides to hide the guy to get the news scoop.

Since this film was made Pre-Code, you could get away with all kinds of stuff that wouldn’t be allowed if it was made, say, a few years later (nude pictures on walls, a reporter giving the corrupt mayor the “F…You” finger, general crude slang and dialogue, etc).  Like the play, most of the action took place in a press room.  However, Milestone, a great director who had just won his second, Best Directing Oscar the year before (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was at the height of his directing powers.  He used a fluid moving camera style that he was well known for [and which Orson Welles later stole in his direction of some of the scenes for his own great movie about a newspaper tycoon, “Citizen Kane” (1941)] along with some great film editing to keep the action as fast paced as the smart, razor-sharp dialogue from the Hecht and MacArthur screenplay.  Both Menjou (Oscar nominated) and O’Brien fire lines at each other faster than a machine gun while continually trying to get the upper hand over one another.  Seen today, this movie is terribly dated suffering from sound limitations (talkies were only being made for a few years at this time), and exaggerated Silent Movie acting styles that would make even Marcel Marseau blush.  However, it is still sarcastically and cynically funny while skewering politicians, law enforcement, and the newspaper industry itself.

The aforementioned “His Girl Friday”, another screwball comedy, and “Citizen Kane”, a serious drama as well as being one of the greatest movies ever made were two other fine films about the newspaper industry.  I could easily discuss both of them, but am I going to?  Hell no!  Instead, let’s turn to a film category where individuals in the newspaper/publishing business actually commit murder.   Two films with this noir theme are “The Big Clock” (1948), and “Scandal Sheet” (1952).  “Clock” was based on the fine novel by Kenneth Fearing and starred Ray Milland as George Stroud, editor-in-chief of “Crimeways,” a magazine under Janoth Publications run by his tyrannical boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton, sneering like he just smelled a fart).  Janoth has a fetish-like fascination for clocks with his main one being a giant sophisticated monstrosity dominating the lobby of his Publishing Building.  Stroud has perfected a unique investigative system for catching criminals whereby his investigative staff piece together all possible clues or information from a crime and quickly act on the information using major resources to both identify and find the criminal before law enforcement can.  Fortunately, Stroud’s magazine is successful.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop Janoth from firing Stroud when Stroud refuses to postpone a long overdue vacation with his wife.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, soon Stroud’s crime solving system will be utilized by Janoth after he murders his mistress, Pauline, to find a stranger that he briefly saw in shadow leaving her apartment, and to have that person both blamed for the crime and immediately killed, preferably by his mute murderous henchman (lover?) Bill (Henry Morgan).  The only problem…  “That person happens to be Stroud!”  Now Stroud, who Janoth rehires to handle the overall investigation, has to sabotage his own system while trying to (1) find evidence to prove Janoth murdered Pauline, (2) hide from any witnesses who could previously identify him with Pauline, and (3) act quickly when one of the witnesses sees him enter Janoth’s Publishing Building resulting in all of the building’s exits being sealed while having building security sweep the building floor by floor to flush out the stranger (Stroud) for the witness to identify and for Janoth to have killed.

Although author Fearing’s book was unusual in that each chapter offered a different character’s perspective as the story unfolded, this movie was directed as a straight forward suspense thriller in fine style by journeyman director John Farrow.  Farrow’s fine direction contrasted the huge size of the building, its main lobby, and the huge clock itself where you find Milland’s Stroud terrified and hiding in it at the very beginning of the film, to Stroud himself in numerous closeups throughout the film registering his increasing fear, confinement, and desperation almost like a rat in a maze trapped with “No Way Out” (That was deliberate, Folks!  This movie was remade, badly, in 1987 with Kevin Costner).  The acting is terrific with Milland’s increasing panic offset by Laughton’s ice-cold aloof arrogance only showing cracks by an uncontrollable facial twitch whenever he starts to lose control over the situation.  The secondary roles are led by scar-faced George Macready as Janoth’s Iago-like assistant (and also, maybe lover?) Hagen, Henry Morgan’s Bill, and, in a hilarious scene stealing role, Elsa Lanchester as an avant-garde painter who provides laugh out loud comic moments between all of the tension.  Former Chicago journalist, Jonathan Latimer, who specialized in writing hardboiled crime fiction mixed in with screwball comedy wrote the outstanding screenplay as well as including hints of moral rot in all of the characters (including Stroud) which was also hinted at in the original novel.  Although “Clock” is not a film specifically relating to the newspaper industry, it still exposes some of the unsavory individuals involved in reporting the news.

“Scandal Sheet” starred Broderick Crawford as Mark Chapman, the editor of the “New York Express”, a highly successful newspaper that specializes in sleazy sensationalism instead of responsible journalism.  He is assisted by his young ace reporter and protege, Steve McCleary (John Derek), who is every bit as obsessed as Chapman is in covering (exaggerating?) these types of news stories.  However, as this tale unfolds, you soon discover that Chapman has a hidden past.  His real name is Grant, which he changed long ago when he abandoned his wife, Charlotte who, when she discovers him by accident, now threatens to expose his sordid past.  Bad career move, Charlotte!  Unfortunately, after making her death look like an accident, Chapman now has an even bigger problem:  Steve McCleary!  Once Steve figures out that Charlotte was actually murdered, he slowly starts to uncover more and more clues that could ultimately lead back to Chapman.   Although this film has some similarities to “The Big Clock,” it also has some big differences.  First, unlike Milland’s character in “Clock”, the focus is on Crawford, the actual killer.  Second, unlike “Clock,” this film’s slow building suspense was from Crawford’s overall predicament, not from Milland’s character being physically trapped in a publishing building like some sort of animal in a cage.  Third, although actor Henry Morgan was in this film too, instead of playing another sinister henchman like in “Clock,” he just played Derek’s smiling sidekick.  Fourth, you actually had some sympathy for the villain, thanks to a strong performance by Crawford.  Pulpy Director Phil Karlson’s adaption of former newspaper reporter turned pulpy writer/pulpy director Sam Fuller’s early novel crafted an interesting and suspenseful film.  However, it’s nowhere near as good as “Clock” due to two major casting mistakes.  The first was Donna Reed as a disapproving feature writer whose performance here was more wooden than a plug nickel.  Even worse was the second one, “pretty boy” John Derek’s “Clutch Cargo” quality performance as Steve.  Whenever Reed and Derek share a scene, besides them having zero chemistry together, they show about as much enthusiasm in saying their lines as  someone reading a grocery list.  “Scandal Sheet” is only worth your time due to Crawford’s performance and Karlson’s fine direction.

Outright sleaze, yellow journalism, tabloid journalism, sensationalism or anything that treats news reporting in an unprofessional or unethical manner is always a popular subject for films.  Unlike “Scandal Sheet,” one of the greatest ones of them all, and which was also made at around the same time, was the scathing Billy Wilder drama, “Ace in the Hole” (1951).  “Hole” starred Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a former big city reporter from the East Coast now broke and stuck in a small New Mexico town after his car breaks down.  Fired from a number of newspapers due to such improprieties as libel, cheating with his boss’s wife, and general drunkenness, he walks into the office of the local newspaper run by the owner and editor-in-chief Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), and convinces Boot to give him a job even though he openly admits that he will only stay until he writes a headline inducing news story that will catapult him back into the big time again.   Fast forward one year later and he is still waiting to write that big time news story until he stops for gasoline at a local trading post while assigned to cover a nearby small-town’s rattlesnake hunt.  There he discovers that Leo (Richard Benedict), owner of the trading post, is trapped after the collapse of a cliff dwelling while he was searching for Indian artifacts here.  In an instant, Tatum realizes that this is his big break, and he will manipulate the situation any way he can to his advantage.  At first, all goes well but (You just know I’ve got to say it…) Things Do Not Go As Planned!

Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest film directors, and specialized in dark dramas laced with caustic humor (“Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Boulevard”, etc.).  In “Ace in the Hole,” Wilder crafted the darkest and most nihilistic film of his entire career.  As Tatum drags out the rescue efforts more and more to milk the situation for its maximum sensationalistic impact, you see all of the worse traits of humanity in full display.  You have the spectacle of curiosity seekers, vacationers, opportunists, a crooked local sheriff, Leo’s slutty wife (Jan Sterling, a fine actress who played more trampy female roles than JLo had boyfriends), competing news reporters, various rescue workers, and with Tatum at the center of it all, orchestrating everything like a carnival ringmaster (the title of the film was originally renamed, “The Big Carnival” due to low box office returns).  Douglas, who from 1949 to 1956 was Oscar nominated three times for Best Actor, should have been nominated at least three other times with “Hole” being one of them.  When released, this film was uniformly panned by critics and a box office failure.  Now, however, it’s regarded as a cynical masterpiece.  Wilder made other fine films afterward like “Stalag 17”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, and “Some Like It Hot” for example, but he never again made a film as uncompromisingly bleak as “Ace in the Hole.”

The last group of films that I want to discuss for this Blog Post are three more recent ones.  The first is “Absence of Malice” (1981) directed by Sydney Pollack.  “Malice” starred Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher, the son of a deceased criminal now a successful liquor wholesaler whose life is turned upside down by Megan (Sally Field), a newspaper reporter who says he is being investigated in conjunction with the murder of a union official.  In actuality, Megan is being played by an unscrupulous federal prosecutor to get Mike to provide information.  When Mike’s close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon) contacts Megan to tell her that Mike couldn’t have murdered anyone then because he was helping her to obtain an abortion, Megan unprofessionally includes mention of Teresa’s abortion in her rebuttal piece even though Teresa, a devout Catholic, asked her not to mention it.  Megan’s reckless actions ultimately result in disaster.

Newman originally wanted this movie to be a not so veiled direct attack on the New York Post because of its supposed inaccurate caption for a prior photo of Newman in its newspaper.  “Malice”, which was written by former newspaper editor Kurt Leudtke (Oscar nominated), has been used in journalism and public administration courses to illustrate professional errors in reporting such as non-confirmation of sources and having a personal relationship with a source.  My own personal feelings about this movie are that Pollack made a good, but not great, film about irresponsible reporting and how it could ruin peoples’ careers and destroy individuals’ lives.  Unfortunately, it was not as good as it could have been because, once again, Columbia Studios just had to throw in a romantic relationship between the Neuman and Field characters as well as leaving it open ended, when the dramatic “dust” settled so they could possibly have a “happy ending!”  Their efforts to capitalize on their two stars popularity was about as subtle as being hit in the face with a baseball bat, and it diminished the overall film.  However, that wasn’t a problem for the next film that I want to highlight.  That movie is “The Public Eye” (1992).

“Eye” starred Joe Pesci as Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (AKA “The Great Bernzini”), a freelance nineteen forties photojournalist specializing in street photography of crime scenes and emergencies for various New York City tabloids.  Film director Howard Franklin based the character on famed New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig although the storyline was almost pure fiction.  Bernzini, working exclusively at night and with a police radio under his car’s dashboard, constantly races to various crime or disaster scenes to get exclusive photos that he then quickly develops with a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car.  He then sells the photos to the highest paying tabloid before anyone else.  Although he is uncouth, and the sensationalistic photos that he takes and then sells to the sleazy tabloids are borderline tawdry, he has higher aspirations.  He wants to be recognized as a true artist for his photographic work.  This dedication to his profession results in him leading a lonely and solitary life in a small apartment until he comes into contact with Kay (Barbara Hershey), a beautiful wealthy widow who owns a nightclub.  Although he has never had much success in relationships, she shows surprising interest in his work as well as genuine warmth and kindness.  However, when she asks if he could investigate an individual who has been bothering her and he agrees, he gets more than he bargains for along with his growing suspicion that she is using him.

“Eye” is basically a character study of someone who, outwardly, appears to be unattractive and low class, but internally, is a sensitive and feeling individual who is a true artist with a camera and who takes his work very seriously.  Pesci, who won an Oscar just two years before for the film, “Goodfellas” is wonderful in the lead role.  His emotional sensitivity is delicate and touching, especially in his scenes with Hershey, who is also very good.  The romantic element between these two mismatched souls is believable and not forced unlike “Malice”, and it’s the heart and soul of the film.  Unfortunately, this movie was pretty pedestrianly directed by Franklin, and it was not a box office success.  However, it is one of the few films that focused on photojournalism as a news source with great support provided by Pesci’s winning performance.

Another film exploring this type of news reporting, and the last one that I will discuss, is an altogether different type of film than “The Public Eye”.  That film is the dark and disturbing “Nightcrawler” (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Gyllenhaal played Louis Bloom, a skinny petty thief and con man with stringy hair oozing more grease than a truck axle and who, while driving home late one night, sees a car crash and pulls over.  When he sees some guys arrive and start filming the proceedings, he starts asking who are they, and what are they doing.  It turns out they are “stringers” or freelance photojournalists who sell either photos or video footage to various local news stations.  Since they do not receive a regular salary but are paid individually for each photo published or video shown they can basically do whatever they want, legal or otherwise, so long as they can find someone willing to pay for it.  For a street-smart lowlife like Louis, it’s a dream come true.  Soon Louis will become an in-demand stringer who will do anything, from tampering or withholding crime information, to sabotaging rival stringers or to even set someone up to be killed just to make a buck.  Hey, it truly is the American Dream!  Right!!!

Unlike Pesci’s Bernzini, who had some real sensitivity and feelings while regarding his profession as art, Bloom regards his work, and what he is willing to do to achieve success in it as nothing more than a way to make a buck.  He has no inner “self” except for one of “self” interest, and there is no back story about his character at all.  It’s almost as if he appears, like some malevolent force, out of thin air.  Although too often in past film roles Gyllenhaal’s emotional displays have almost been like watching someone stick their finger into a light socket, here, as Bloom, he is phenomenal in the role.  He lost 20 pounds and worked out 8 hours a day to develop a gaunt appearance because he visualized his character as a hungry coyote.  First time writer/director Dan Gilroy (Oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay) originally wanted to make a film based on “Weegee” Fellig, but since one was already done previously with “The Public Eye,” and also once he started learning more about stringers, he decided to make a story about a sort of modern day Weegee, only far more amoral and far more, darker.  In “Nightcrawler,” the only thing more odious than a Louis Bloom, are the news networks and the public at large who crave such sensationalism like a baby craving milk.

Whether it’s “Ace in the Hole” or “Nightcrawler,” there will always be more Chuck Tatums and Louis Blooms out there to sate our appetites…

If we’ll let them!


Big Things in Small Packages!

Nadine: “I don’t wanna take up a ton of your time, but I’m gonna kill myself.  I just thought an adult should know.”

Mr. Bruner: “Wow.  I actually was writing my own suicide note just now.  I have 32 fleeting minutes of happiness during lunch, which has been eaten up again and again by the same especially badly dressed student, and I finally thought I would rather have the dark nothingness.”

[ Hailee Steinfeld to Woody Harrelson, “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016]

In 1955 the film, “Marty” directed by Delbert Mann and starring Ernest Borgnine won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, and Actor along with winning Paddy Chayefsky an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  The movie was a romantic drama that told a simple story about a single, thirtyish butcher in the Bronx still living at home who was fat, unattractive and, like so many individuals living on the lower economic strata, generally lonely and frustrated about his lot in life.  This short 90-minute film was different for a number of reasons.  First, it was Director Mann’s first film and based on Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1953 television play also originally directed by Mann.  Second, for Borgnine, it was his first lead role, since the majority of his previous roles had him playing mostly bad guys with maybe his most memorable one being the terrifying and sadistic “Fatso” Judson in “From Here to Eternity” (1953).  Third, it only cost $340,000 to make and had no other name actors in any of the roles.  Fourth, and last, it was independently produced with United Artists having only distribution rights.  Despite all of these things supposedly against it, it was a huge box office and Academy Award-winning hit!  The success of “Marty” sent shock waves throughout the entire American motion picture industry.  It proved that independently produced and, at times, low-budget productions with lesser-known casts could compete and win acclaim, awards, and achieve box office success.  It also further enhanced United Artists reputation as a place for daring artists and independent productions to be made as well as providing the impetus for a number of the other major film studios to do the same.  In this month’s Blog Post I will discuss this film phenomenon highlighting a number of other little films that received acclaim along with highlighting others that should have, but unfortunately, did not!

After “Marty,” Mann would continue to work on similar types of films with original screenplays also provided by Chayefsky.  A couple, that I want to briefly mention, were “The Bachelor Party” (1957) and “Middle of the Night” (1959).  “Party” was about a young married bookkeeper (Don Murray) who goes out with a bunch of his fellow co-workers to a bachelor party for one of them, and as the evening progresses it showed all of their frustrations with their current lives and relationships.  “Night” was about a widowed and older clothing manufacturer (Frederic March) who takes his much younger receptionist (Kim Novak) to dinner and slowly, a May-December romance develops between the two of them along with the corresponding disapprovals from both individuals’ family members.  These films were intimate relationship dramas which also populated the TV airwaves back then.  My own feelings towards them were that even though these films were well made with fine screenplays, directing, and acting, they all sort of looked the same after a while, and none of them could transcend either their stage or TV play limitations and that included “Marty,” which I never really liked much at all.  Such angst driven fifties big city/suburban melodramas laced with despair were harbingers for other future films like “Interiors” (1978), “The Ice Storm” (1997), “Little Children” (2006), and “Manchester by the Sea” (2016).   However, television in the nineteen fifties was also a fertile proving ground for other fine writers like Rod Sterling, Horton Foote, Reginald Rose, etc., and directors like Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Lumet.  These individuals, along with others back then, would make some different, and better, little films with big impact later on.

Two fine little ones were made in the early nineteen sixties. The first one was “David and Lisa” (1962) directed by Frank Perry.  This film was a drama with romantic overtones about two young adults with serious psychological issues in a high-end psychiatric facility.  David (Keir Dullea) is cold and distant while possibly suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder who reacts violently, whenever he is touched.  Lisa (Janet Margolin) suffers from a split personality with one personality only speaking in rhymes and the other personality not speaking at all while only communicating by either writing or drawing.  David, taken by Lisa’s sheer presence alone, slowly starts to interact with her by also communicating in rhyme and slowly, ever so slowly, they both start to change.  This was an unusual love story that was really quite touching and a big motion picture hit even though it was a fanciful and false representation of mental illness and corresponding psychiatric care.  Director Perry was never either a good or even much of a success as a director.  However, this was the one real time that he struck gold.  Helped by a fine screenplay by his then wife, Eleanor Perry (both of them were Academy Award nominated), he elicited a pair of fine performances from both Dullea and Margolin (it was her first film role) in believingly showing two mismatched souls slowly changing before your very eyes.  Despite the fact that “David and Lisa” was made with less money than what you could find in a piggy bank, the viewing audience loved it… and so did I. 

The other one that I want to praise was “Lilies of the Field” (1963) directed by Ralph Nelson.  This picture starred Sydney Poitier as Homer Smith, an African American itinerant laborer traveling from job to job through the American southwest in his station wagon which is also where he resides.  While stopping solely to get some water for his overheated radiator, he discovers that the nearby building is a convent occupied by five Catholic nuns mostly German and with only one, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), speaking the most English.  Although the nuns exist on a bare subsistence level and have almost no money, Mother Maria believes that Homer was sent by God to, at first, fix their roof, and second, to build them a chapel.  Only problem is that (1) Homer, at first, doesn’t know that they have no money, and (2) once he finds out what they really want, he definitely doesn’t want to build their “frigging” chapel.  Now Dear Reader, unless you have also been living in monastic seclusion all your life so as to have never seen this movie, it is a light as a feather comedy drama.  And it’s wonderful!  

Director Nelson, who previously directed another great little film, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) is even better here.  Although this film only had a budget of around $247,000 or less, was filmed on location in Arizona in only fourteen days, had no art director, and was so cash strapped that Nelson had to even put up his own house as collateral, he actually did have some aces up his sleeve.  First, he had as his cinematographer former Oscar winner Ernest Haller who previously won his Oscar for a “little” movie called “Gone with the Wind” (1939).  Second, he had future Oscar winning composer Jerry Goldsmith’s delightfully folkish film score which matched the overall lightness of the picture.  Third, he had a great Academy Award nominated screenplay by James Poe which was both humorous and ultimately, touching.  And lastly, he had two fine performances: (1) Skala’s Academy Award nominated performance, and (2) Poitier’s Oscar winning performance for Best Actor. 

Poitier, who took a smaller salary and a percentage of the profits so that this film could be made, also made history by becoming the first African American actor to ever win an Oscar in a leading role.  Supposedly, Poitier felt that the reason the Academy gave him his Oscar was because they were treating him as a token African-American and not, as someone who actually deserved the Academy Award.  Whatever his feelings were, he shouldn’t have been concerned.  As far as I’m concerned, he definitely deserved it.  He showed a light comic touch that he had never previously revealed as an actor before.  Also, as Homer Smith (or “Schmidt” as Mother Maria calls him), Poitier created a character who, while exasperated at times by Mother Maria’s not so subtle manipulations, still demanded that she treat him, not as just an instrument of God in building her chapel, but as “the actual individual” who built his chapel.  This aspect of his character along with Homer’s initial stubborn refusal from anyone to physically help him build the chapel until he is finally overwhelmed by everyone helping him in various ways, make Poitier’s portrayal fascinating.  Great performance!  Great film!

Now there were other fine little films made, just in the nineteen sixties alone, that I could also talk about such as “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964), “The Pawnbroker” (1964), and “A Patch of Blue” (1965) for example.  However, at the beginning of this Blog Post, I mentioned that I was going to discuss other fine little films that should have received more acclaim but mostly did not.  Since these pictures are more recent, I want to discuss a number of them.  The first two that I want to highlight are “Genius” (2016) and “Indignation” (2016).  Both pictures were directed by individuals who were not known for film directing and concern subjects that one might not necessarily consider as being film worthy.  For example, “Genius,” was the film directing debut of Michael Grandage, who was better known for his British theatre productions. “Genius” is a biographical drama about Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), the famed literary editor of the publishing house, Scribner’s and his relationship with writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law).  As a historical footnote, Perkins was probably the greatest literary editor that ever lived.  It was through his efforts in both discovering and helping writers to streamline and better develop their novels, while at the same time, act as an advocate for their works to be published, that they ultimately found success and lasting fame.  What authors you may ask?  How about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others.  Although Law gave the showier performance, Firth as Perkins, gave a more subtle and thoughtful performance of someone who was cajoling, and persuasive, almost like a father confessor, while helping to guide the temperamental, self-serving, and self-destructive Wolfe into creating his great literary masterpieces.  Grandage’s fine direction portrayed, in painstaking detail, the slow process of what a great literary editor actually does, and how this unique person helped so many great authors to achieve the success they did.  Unfortunately, this film was not a success either critically or financially which was a shame.  By the end of this picture, maybe the actual “genius” in “Genius” was the lesser-known Maxwell Perkins, himself!       

“Indignation” was also the film directing debut of James Schamus who was better known as a top film screenplay writer and producer.  Based on a novel by Phillip Roth, it starred Logan Leman as Marcus, a young Jewish soldier currently fighting in the Korean War who reflects back to how he ultimately wound up there.  You quickly find out that he previously won a scholarship to a small elite private Christian College in Ohio where the studious and introverted Marcus meets and starts to date Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful, freethinking, and sexually adventuresome student who is emotionally and psychologically fragile, and as alienated from her immediate surroundings as Marcus.  Marcus soon draws the attention of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) when he requests a change to a single room because of his annoying roommates.  It is in this film’s one on one discussions between these two men that the reason for this film’s name is made crystal clear.  “Indignation” is about Marcus’s confrontations against the conformity prevalent in the nineteen fifties personified by the self-righteous, subtly antisemitic, and offensive bullying of Caudwell.  Caudwell’s slow show of interest in this student soon devolves into his questioning, on a personal level, everything about Marcus from things like how he originally filled out his school application, why he resents going to mandatory chapel attendance, why he flees disagreement rather than just working things out with others, and even more.  Much, much later, things will come to a head when, after Marcus arranges a meeting with the Dean after discovering that Olivia has mysteriously left the college and his wanting to find out why, he is outraged by Caudwell’s manner along with the Dean’s s not so subtle questioning of whether or not Marcus previously raped and impregnated Olivia.  Marcus’s open defiance to conformity, and the personal choices he makes because of it, will ultimately provide the answers as to why he was now a soldier in Korea.   

“Indignation” is a terrific picture thanks to Schamus who also wrote the screenplay as well as being the producer too.  He slowly lets the scenes build between the various individuals by letting the dialogue carry the action.  Yet the scenes do not feel stagey but are instead, engrossing thanks to fine restrained cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt.  The slow burning confrontations between Caudwell and Marcus (who more than holds his own against the Caudwell) are worth the price of admission.  Yet, the scenes between Marcus and Olivia are also both awkwardly touching, and ultimately, sad.  Letts, Leman, and Gadon shine in their roles, and this is one little picture, that did receive critical acclaim and even some box office success.  It still should have received a whole lot more.               

Subjects such as alcohol and drug addiction, or physical and sexual abuse have been found to be popular, and at times, controversial storylines for films.  Some good ones were “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989), and “The Woodsman” (2004) for example.  However, two little films about these subjects which deserved more acclaim along with the actress who starred in both of them were “Smashed” (2012) and “All About Nina” (2018) both starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  In “Smashed” Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher who loves her job and also loves her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul).  Unfortunately, they both also love alcohol, way too much.  They are alcoholics, and Kate’s addiction, like for so many addicts, is causing her life to spin out of control.  Fortunately, she decides to start getting clean and sober.  Unfortunately, Charlie does not!  Now her effort to attain sobriety is at risk.  “Smashed” was a true independently produced little 81-minute movie.  It only had a budget of $500,000 financed by independent investors and filmed in only 19 days.  As an addiction movie it was not, other than the fact that the main character was a young adult trying to get sober, anything original.  “Flight,” a big budget movie about addiction starring Denzel Washington released that same year got far more recognition than this movie.  The only thing is that “Smashed” is a far better picture due to the fine acting by Aaron Paul and an incredible standout performance by Winstead.  Her character of Kate is very natural and believable.  It’s an ordinary story about an ordinary person who is scared, awkward, funny, embarrassed, hesitantly brave, and, in a matter-of-fact way, slowly persevering whenever she has a setback.  It’s a very realistic and honest portrayal, and one where she should have been nominated for an Academy Award (but she wasn’t).  Unfortunately, her performance, while critically praised, didn’t help the film at the box office either.  It didn’t even make back its original production cost.

For the dark comedy drama, “All About Nina”, Winstead had an even more difficult role.  Here she starred as Nina Geld, an “in your face” standup comic whose raw unfiltered performances have given her a cult status following in cheap comedy clubs.  However, her performances act as a buffer in hiding hidden traumas from her past while also making her personal life a disaster, especially with regards to developing and maintaining stable relationships.  Escaping from an abusive relationship in New York City by heading to LA, she might have a change in her fortunes by (1) having an audition for a producer (Beau Bridges) to include her in his one-hour comedy special, and (2) possibly starting a new relationship with an actual “too good to be true” stable guy named Rafe (Common). That is, unless her self-destructive side doesn’t sabotage everything first.  In “Nina,” Winstead’s standup comedy scenes are hysterical combining explosive raunchiness with insightful humor.  Both on stage and off she combines laughter and sorrow together to make her portrayal unpredictable and original.  Late in the film with her life possibly becoming irreparably untethered, she does a serious confessional about her past to her comedy club audience that is emotionally and heartbreakingly, spellbinding.  Unfortunately, this little movie was neither promoted nor distributed very well despite praise, once again, for Winstead’s performance, and as a result, its box office returns were abysmal.  However, despite the scattershot directing debut by Eva Vives, an unconvincing performance by Common, and a weak and possibly rushed film ending, “All About Nina” could easily have been renamed, “All About Mary Elizabeth Winstead” because she just completely takes over the entire movie all by herself.  If you can find it, see it!

Lastly, in closing, since I just reviewed a little dark comedy film, I’ll highlight one other little comedy film.  However, for this one, it won’t be so dark this time.  That movie is the coming-of-age comedy drama, “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016).  Now I will admit that this one isn’t quite like the other “little” films that I previously mentioned.  First, it had a much larger budget ($9 million).  Second, it also did very well at the box office ($19.4 million).  However, it did have a couple of factors that could put it into the “little” film category.  One, it was Kelly Fremon Craig’s directing debut (and who also wrote the screenplay), and two, it had lower tier stars like Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in the two main roles.  Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a seventeen-year-old high school junior who, as the film begins, walks into the empty classroom of her teacher Mr. Bruner (Harrelson) and tells him that she is going to kill herself and that she wants him to listen to her.  Thus begins her tale which goes all the way back to when she was age seven becoming best friends with her current girlfriend Krista all the way up to when her father died of a heart attack when she was age thirteen, and onward up to the present day and her continually butting heads with her mother and her popular older brother Darian.  Feeling alienated and totally frustrated after having a falling out with Krista and emotionally acting out with everyone, lucky (???) Mr. Bruner is her natural choice to hear her continual venting (AKA whining!). 

Usually, coming of age stories, whether big budget or small, are pretty stupid and inane.  Too often, these types of movies have bad acting, bad screenplays, bad storylines, and/or uninteresting characters with, when all else fails, copping out by just throwing in a dump truck load of either gross out humor or some teenage nudity/sex (“Porky’s” anyone!) to keep the viewer interested.  “Seventeen,” refreshingly, does none of that.  The characters are well developed and the storyline, while not original, still holds your interest.  Craig’s direction strikes a nice balance mixing dramatic elements in with the comedy.  And the screenplay is terrific.  It is laugh out loud funny while capturing the general quirkiness of all of the characters even if they are not always, complimentary.  Best of all are the performances of Harrelson and Steinfeld.  Harrelson is droll and deadpan funny as Bruner, and you never know if he is either disinterested or just feigning annoyance with Nadine.  Steinfeld, outstanding in the lead role, is great with her various exasperating outbursts, at times, so outrageous that you can see her face change halfway through one of them almost as if she is just starting to realize that what she just said, did, or is about to do is plain ridiculous and really embarrassing.  Both of them should have been Academy Award nominated (they weren’t).  However, whether you want to classify “The Edge of Seventeen” as either a “little film” or not, you should at least classify it as a great film comedy!

Well, this closes yet another Blog Post.  I hope that you will check out some of the little movies that I just mentioned here.  Happy or sad!  Mundane or interesting!  Little films, like their much larger counterparts, can provide something for everyone.

All you have to do is look for it!


See you next month!




Tough Girls!

Bridget Gregory:  “You’re my designated fuck!”

Mike Swale:  “Designated fuck?  Do they make cards for that?  What if I want to be more than your designated fuck?”

Bridget Gregory:  “Then I’ll designate someone else!”

[Linda Fiorentino to Peter Berg, “The Last Seduction” (1994)]

It’s always interesting to see how women have been portrayed in various dramatic roles over the decades in film and on television.  As society’s views of women have changed so have their characters.  This has allowed actresses to have more opportunities to choose far more varied and challenging acting roles.  In the past, women have been shown to be emotionally, mentally, and psychologically tough.  However, now those characteristics have been reinterpreted for women in new and original ways along with even showing women acting physically tough in roles previously reserved solely for men.  This change in how women have been portrayed will be what this month’s blog post will further discuss and which I have titled, “Tough Girls.”

In early films, women were portrayed in a more subservient way and definitely shown as being more fragile.  The only “tough girl” roles for women back then almost always seemed to be either someone devious and manipulative or a fallen woman (AKA prostitute or madam).  Usually, these characters either suffered a bad end, were redeemed to be what the 1930s viewing public would consider a decent person again, or self-sacrificed themselves to help/save someone else.  An example of this was the film “Rain” (1932) based on a short story by Somerset Maugham, about a prostitute (Joan Crawford) and the attempts of a missionary (Walter Huston) to “save her soul” while temporarily stranded on a South Seas Island.  Despite fine direction by Lewis Milestone and a role seemingly tailor made for Crawford, this movie was a flop.  Even worse was its remake, “Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953), a 3-D musical (I’m not kidding!) starring Rita Hayworth, and which was quickly changed into a regular flat screen print only two weeks after its release maybe because Columbia Studios were worried that, anatomically speaking, the censors wouldn’t approve of how Hayworth would have “projected out” to the 3-D eyeglass wearing public.  High art it was not!  High camp it definitely was!  Another one was “Marked Woman” (1937) with Bette Davis as one of a bunch of bargirls (AKA prostitutes) at a NYC nightclub owned and run by bigtime gangster Eduardo Ciannelli (who played more bad guy and Italian gangster roles than Imelda Marcos had shoes), and who constantly mistreats them all.  When Bette suffers a personal tragedy and turns on the guy, he enacts revenge on her (Guess why the movie has the name it does!). However, she still self-sacrificingly leads the girls into testifying against him and ultimately, triumphs.  Despite the “dated” corniness of it all, Davis’s “tough girl” performance, met the Hollywood stereotype of a fallen woman redeemed by self-sacrifice for others while also keeping the censors off of Warner Bros. Studios back.  This now leads into focusing on Bette Davis as, maybe, the standard bearer for tough girl women roles everywhere.

Davis became a big-time star with her breakout performance in “Of Human Bondage” (1934) which was based on the famous Somerset Maugham novel (Yeah, him again).  Here she played Mildred, a crude cockney waitress who is disdainful towards Phillip (Leslie Howard), an intellectual and a medical student with a club-foot who is obsessively in love with her.  This pre-code drama shocked the viewing public then by showing a woman that was unashamedly cruel, manipulative, selfish, and uncaring who uses Phillip, along with others, over and over until she ultimately dies from syphilis after becoming a prostitute.  Davis was famously ignored come Oscar time by not even being nominated that year, but she sure patented her “tough girl” persona from that time on.  She was also ably assisted later in her career by director William Wyler who directed her in the following “tough girl” roles:

  1. “Jezebel” (1938):  Davis, in an Oscar winning performance, played a vain, selfish, deceitful, and head strong Southern belle causing turmoil all around but by the film’s end redeems herself by risking her own life in caring for her former fiance incapacitated during a yellow fever epidemic.
  2. “The Letter” (1940):  Davis played Leslie, the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaya, who kills her secret lover and then claims self-defense while manipulating and lying to everyone around her.  This Somerset Maugham short story (I know!  I know!  Him again!) was altered due to the censors demanding that she had to be punished in the end.  Despite that, Davis was so ice-cold cunning in the role that she couldn’t top this “tough girl” performance until…  
  3. “The Little Foxes” (1941):  Here Davis played Regina, the only female sibling in a fading aristocratic family at the turn of the century deep South, stuck in a loveless marriage to a sickly husband, and with no legal right, as a female, to any of her family’s fortune.  Here Davis played her character as someone even more cold blooded, conniving, and emotionally dead than ever before.  It was almost as if she assumed the persona of a mob boss dismissively saying, “It’s just business…” before ordering the elimination of any family member who stood in her way.  As Regina, Davis sends shivers down your spine.  

While she would continue to do other types of tough girl performances in her career, other actresses would also give fine performances too.  As examples, for Barbara Stanwyck you had “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), for Olivia de Havilland you had “The Dark Mirror” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949), and for Jane Greer you had Greer giving maybe, the coldest and most manipulative “tough girl” performance of them all during this time with “Out of the Past” (1947).  Here she played Kathie, the girlfriend of Whit (Kurt Douglas), a big-time criminal who hires P.I. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) to find her after she shot and then stole $40,000 from him.  Jeff ultimately does, but not before Kathie and Jeff become romantically involved.  From that point on, it’s one double cross after another with Greer’s Kathie coolly playing both sides against the middle without skipping a beat.  Greer gave the performance of her career in crafting a character who, while not overtly sexual, was subtly sultry, quietly smart, and always calm and controlled while oozing psychopathic menace.  In “Out of the Past,” Greer’s Kathie is summed up best when Mitchum’s new girlfriend Ann, later says, “She can’t be all bad.  No one is.”, and he responds, “Well, she comes the closest!”  She sure does Dear Reader!  She sure does!    

During the early nineteen fifties, tough girl roles were briefly being created for women in Westerns.  Unfortunately, these films were absolutely terrible.  First, you had “Westward the Women” (1951) with Buck Wyatt (a snarling Robert Taylor) as a wagon master hired to bring 138 women in Conestoga wagons from Chicago to California for marriage to the lonely men of a small town.  The movie records their journey there when, after most of the men hired to escort the women quit suddenly after a disagreement, the women assume the rest of their duties to continue the trip.  Well, after surviving such catastrophes as (1) a stampede, (2) an Indian attack, (3) a flood, (4) a volcanic eruption, (5) a flying saucer attack, and (6) no hair dryers, the survivors reach their destination and Buck even changes his manly attitude towards women doing guy stuff.  The End!  Then you had “Rancho Notorious” (1952) with Marlene Dietrich as Altar, the owner of a horse ranch that is a hideout for outlaws and which is the destination for Arthur Kennedy seeking revenge for the murder of his fiancée.  Dietrich, who was never much of an actress, looked more “rough” than “tough” here since she was too old for the role.  Also, since she couldn’t get away with her looks anymore, she now had to rely on her acting.  Oh Boy!!!  About the only thing worse than her lame attempts at acting “tough” was the repetitively bad droning ballad with its lyrics being used as narration throughout the entire film.  By the time this fiasco was over, I wished that Kennedy would have just shot the Damned ballad singer instead. 

Lastly, you had maybe the worst “tough girl” Western of them all, with Joan Crawford’s cringe inducing performance in “Johnny Guitar” (1954).  Here she played Vienna, a saloon owner hated by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) because maybe, just maybe, she originally stole Emma’s sometime boyfriend or maybe, just maybe, she was attracted to Vienna herself!  That’s right folks!  You now had your first pseudo-Lesbian Western with such manly men as Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, Sterling Hayden, and even Ian MacDonald (who played the Big Bad Guy in “High Noon”) no match for the testosterone emanating from these two cross-dressing Babes circling each other like a pair of bikini clad blonds in a mud pit reaching for six-shooters instead of each other’s hair!  Well Dear Reader, after you’ve finished cleaning yourself up after spitting out whatever you’ve been trying to drink, let me tell you more about Crawford’s tough girl (??) performance.  If erupting into hysterics is supposed to be her version of being “tough,” well then, she gets the booby prize!  Between her Vienna acting overtly subdued and indifferent to everyone, but then suddenly turning almost like a light switch being flipped on into being curt, rude, and defiant while batting her big fake eyelashes like a pair of giant fly swatters at anyone she sees, I almost defy you to not wish that you were wearing some Depends as a safety precaution.  Oh, and as for her being a romantic attraction for anyone in this film, Crawford is about as enticing as a bottle of Maalox.  However, this film did have some rewards.  As an additional artistic side benefit, you got the chance to see Sterling Hayden (as the aforementioned “Johnny G.”) strumming some fake guitar strings and sounding like a howling basset hound while trying to sing!  To conclude, this motion picture basically put an end to any further efforts in providing any serious lead acting roles for women in Westerns for the nineteen fifties.  

Up to this point I have been showing the difficulties for women in having believable roles in portraying fully developed tough girl characters.  However, that has changed for today where there are more roles available than ever before.  Two areas where that is especially true are for action films and SY/FY superhero films/series with a number of women now being major action stars.  Some examples are Jessica Chastain [“Ava” (2020) and the “The 355” (2022)], Sigourney Weaver [“Aliens” (1986)], Mary Elizabeth Whitehead [“The Thing” (2011), “Birds of Prey” (2020), and “Kate” (2021)], Scarlett Johansson [“Lucy (2014), “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), and “Black Widow” (2021)], and maybe the biggest one of them all, Charlize Theron [“Aeon Flux” (2005), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), “Atomic Blond” (2017), and “The Old Guard” (2020)] along with so many others.  Some of the ones that I just mentioned may have had bad/weak performances.  Some of them may have been lousy films or box office failures.  Some of them may have even reinforced female stereotypes too.  However, a number of them like Weaver in “Aliens” or Theron in “Atomic Blond” also had terrific performances showing characters with believable depth and complexity along with mental and physical toughness

Now, of course you did not have to have women just being action stars to be every bit as tough as men in other roles.  For example, in film, you had Sigourney Weaver as naturalist Dian Fossey for “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), Meryl Streep as the fashion magazine editor from Hell in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), and Charlize Theron as journalist and political commentator Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell” (2019).  For cable series you also had two good ones that I want to mention.  The first one was the Emmy winning British law enforcement series, “Prime Suspect” (1991-96, 2003, and 2006) starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, an officer in the Metropolitan Police.  Her no-nonsense character constantly fought against sexism in the workplace while proving herself to her fellow colleagues and also, in later years, dealing with such hot button issues like child sexual abuse, institutional racism, and prostitution.  Mirren is terrific in the role, but despite her toughness in handling various crises on the job as well as dealing with her doubting male peers, she also showed the toil that such work had on her character’s personal life with difficulties in maintaining stable relationships, having an unexpected pregnancy terminated, and dealing with her own alcoholism.  Mirren won two Emmy Awards for the role and she deserved it.  The other series I wanted to mention was the legal drama, “Damages” (2007, 2009-12) starring Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, a high stakes litigator for her own law firm.  Her character is ruthless, brilliant, manipulative, and willingly corrupt if it serves her purposes.  Due to the physical abuse that she suffered, while young, from her father, an honest judge in public but a sadist in private, her character has an all-consuming hatred of individuals in positions of power who abuse or torment others.  Close, who could give Bette Davis a good run for the money, is mesmerizing.  She won two Emmy Awards, and the show itself won numerous Emmy Awards too.  Close’s Patty is one “tough girl” that isn’t made of shoe leather.  She’s made of Titanium Steel!   

Despite what happened in the nineteen fifties, “tough girl” Westerns now have also greatly changed for the better, and there are two that I want to highlight.  The first one is the film, “The Quick and the Dead” (1995), a revisionist Western starring Sharon Stone as “The Lady,” who rides into the Western town of Redemption ruled by the ruthless outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman).  Herod is hosting a fast-draw elimination tournament for anyone brave enough to enter with the final winner/survivor, the recipient of a large cash prize.  The Lady enters the event and as the various faceoffs and other various characters (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Keith David, etc.) along with their accompanying stories unfold you also slowly find out the real reason for The Lady’s entry into the event.  Stone, who was popular with the viewing public at this point in time, had the good fortune to not only sign on for this homage to Spaghetti Westerns with a woman in the lead role, but also signed on as the co-producer which allowed her to choose the film’s director.  Her pick was Sam Raimi who, while his direction was over the top and visually excessive, still managed to not totally be a distraction from the main storyline.  She also was instrumental in getting both Crowe and DiCaprio, who were not big-name actors at this time, cast for this film even personally paying DiCaprio’s salary so he could be a part of the cast.  Her performance, while not complex, is adequate and manages to hold your interest.  Her gunslinger character riding into town on a mission (while channeling her inner Clint Eastwood), is believable, more so than Joan Crawford any day of the week.  If you are not taking anything too seriously, Stone’s tough girl performance is a fun ride.  

Even better was the Netflix Western miniseries “Godless” (2017) written and directed by Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”).  Here, the storyline involves a young fast-draw shooting outlaw, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) on the run from his former murderous outlaw gang led by his father figure leader, Frank Griffin (Emmy winner Jeff Daniels) who will destroy anyone in his quest to hunt down and kill Roy.  Roy will ultimately end up in the town of LaBelle where, due to a mining accident which killed most of the men, is now run almost exclusively by women.  Previously, Griffin had already completely razed another town that briefly hid Roy killing every man, woman and child.  Soon enough, he will do the same to La Belle unless Roy, the town’s former sheriff (Scott McNairy), and the women stop him.  Unlike “Westward the Women,” these women are already used to running a town by themselves, and a number of them already know how to handle a gun.  Also, the series, thanks to Scott’s fine screenplay and direction, fully fleshes out believable and complex characters with detailed backstories for everyone including Griffin and the outlaws.  There are various terrific “tough girl” characters both in small and large roles with the two major female roles anchored by Michelle Dockery and Emmy winner, Merritt Wever.  Dockery plays Alice, a tough, single mom ranch owner who gives Roy early safety.  Wever plays Mary Agnes, the widow of the former town mayor and who is also smart, tough, independent, and able to use a gun.  Oh, and did I fail to mention that she is also now openly gay and secretly carrying on a romance with a former prostitute who is now the town teacher?  This is one Western with a Lesbian element that is believable, not trite!  As one of the best Western series that I have seen in years, “Godless” is must see viewing.    

Lastly, recent films for neo-noirs, especially neo-noirs with femme fatales, have really changed incorporating a different kind of “tough girl” interpretation than most of those that were made, not just in the late nineteen forties, but also, prior to the nineteen eighties.  Films like “Body Heat” (1981) started the ball rolling, but the last motion picture that I want to highlight and praise is the movie, “The Last Seduction” (1994) directed by the underrated John Dahl (“Red Rock West”).  “Seduction” starred Linda Fiorentino as Bridget, on the run after stealing $700,000 from her husband Clay after she masterminded a drug deal that he later executed.  Temporarily hiding out in Beston, a small town near Buffalo while having Frank (J.T. Walsh), her sleazy lawyer, start divorce proceedings, she has a one-night stand with Mike (Peter Berg).  Shortly after, as cover, she takes a job at an insurance company where Mike also works while figuring out how to finally get rid of her husband and maybe, using a dimwit like Mike to help her.

Florentino’s modern femme fatale is way different than all the other tough girls in noir films.  First, she is unabashedly evil while not showing any remorse or sensitivity from the very beginning all the way up to the very end.  Second, she’s a brunette, not a stereotypical noir blond.  Third, she aggressively and without hesitation initiates sex whenever and wherever she chooses without any care or concern.  Fourth, (Spoiler Alert) her character gets away with her schemes!  No retribution!  No comeuppance of any kind!  What’s more, watching Fiorentino’s scene stealing performance, you don’t really care.  Her Bridget is a psychopath of the first order, unemotional unless she’s putting on an act, and always in control of any situation, especially around men.  The really funny thing is that they all know what type of person she is, but it doesn’t really faze them at all.  This is reflected in the hardboiled and hysterical dialogue from the great original screenplay by Steve Barancik:

Mike: “I’m trying to figure out whether you’re a total fucking bitch or not.”

Bridget: “I am a total fucking bitch.”


Bridget: “You still a lawyer, Frank?”

Frank: “Yeah.  You still a self-serving bitch?”

Unfortunately, Fiorentino’s incredible and acclaimed performance was denied an Academy Award nomination that year because it came out on HBO before it was released to theaters.  However, you’ll never look at another film noir with a tough girl femme fatale in quite the same way after seeing, “The Last Seduction.”

Well, that sums up this month’s Blog Post for my analysis of the evolution of “tough girl” roles for women.  So Dear Reader, the next time you are in a bar, and a woman like Bridget comes into the bar, but the bartender ignores her and, like Bridget, she says,

“Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?”

Don’t buy her a drink!


Feet of Clay!

Father Brendan Flynn: “You have no right to act on your own!  You have taken vows, obedience being one!  You answer to us!  You have no right to step outside the church!”

Sister Aloysius Beauvier: “I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done, ’till the door should shut behind me!  I will do what needs to be done, though I’m damned to Hell!  You should understand that, or you will mistake me.” [Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Meryl Streep “Doubt” (2008)]

In 1960 the film, “Elmer Gantry”, based on the controversial 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel, was released to the general public to critical acclaim and new controversy.  A novel about a drunken womanizing Hellfire spewing huckster preacher caused such consternation in 1927 that it was not only banned in certain parts of the country, but also had people actually threatening to lynch Lewis.  Hence, you just knew that once a film adaption was finally made, it would raise a new fire storm even though the Hays Office censors in 1960 eliminated certain elements of the novel like, for example, the fact that Gantry was formerly an ordained minister since the censorship code was against any negative portrayal of priests.  Of course, the movie was still banned from being shown in certain parts of the country or restricted to only being shown to adults, and even had an opening written statement before the film was shown containing the following sentence:

“Due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”

However, that didn’t keep all impressionable children from seeing this film.  I ought to know, Dear Reader, since I was one of those little impressionable kids who risked having my little mind permanently corrupted when I saw, “Elmer Gantry” with my parents when it first came out.

We saw it one night as part of a double feature (remember those days everyone, when you could actually see two films for the price of one).  It was a truly memorable night for little nine-year-old me.  Why, you may ask?  Well, it was due to two things.  First, the movie preceding “Elmer Gantry” was, of all things, the original “Ocean’s 11” heist film with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr./etc. “Rat Pack” gang robbing Las Vegas casinos.  I guess some smart theater owner weirdly thought “Gantry” was the perfect film companion piece for Franky and the boys’ high jinks in Vegas!  However, since I saw it in my hometown of Baltimore, Md. which was also, at one point, the home of other illustrious and strange residents such as Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken and John Waters, maybe it wasn’t too weird after all.  The second thing that made that night memorable was what actually happened in the row where my parents and myself were sitting that fateful night during the first few minutes of “Gantry”.  If any of you have seen this film and remember, it’s Christmas Eve and traveling salesman Gantry (Oscar winner Burt Lancaster, giving maybe, the finest performance of his career) is drunk in a bar with a bunch of fellow drunk salesmen where his charismatic, and jokingly lewd storytelling veers into extoling the virtues and bravery of Jesus Christ with Gantry turning to a picture of an all-American quarterback on a wall and exclaiming, “You think that quarterback’s hot stuff?  Jesus would have made the best little all-American quarterback in the history of football!”  It was at that moment that two priests, who just so happened to be sitting in our row, hopped up faster than jack in the box and ran to the nearest theater EXIT door almost as if they were being chased by Satan itself!  It was at that moment that all my little corrupted soul could possibly think of was, “Wow!  Will you look at that!”  Then I immediately turned my attention back to watching “Elmer Gantry,” which I thoroughly enjoyed for the rest of the evening.  However, at this point you are probably thinking that, other than getting a better understanding of my warped psychological personality, when was I going to say what this month’s blog post was all about?  Well, this month I am going to discuss movies and television series that portray priests, nuns, and other types of members or so-called members of faith in a less than favorable light, which is far more frequent than you may at first think.

Before “Gantry”, there were only a few films that fit into this category.  One of the all-time best was “Night of the Hunter” (1955) with Robert Mitchum giving maybe, the finest performance of his career as a murderous psychopathic bogus preacher in the Depression Era South hunting two little children carrying ten thousand dollars in stolen money.  Unappreciated then, this movie is now an all-time classic and one that I have praised previously.  However, you also had colossal duds like “The Left Hand of God” (1955) made the same year with a miscast Humphrey Bogart playing a fake Catholic Priest in war torn China on the run from Chinese warlord Lee J. Cobb (???).  Between Bogart looking like he’d rather be whipping out a gun rather than a bible at someone, and Cobb, who for once was not wearing his toupee and made to look Chinese with the worst “Yellow Face” makeup job since Katharine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” this fiasco was not only stupid, but even worse, it was boring!  However, one much better made film which was also recently re-made in 2020 as a limited three-part mini-series was the terrific British film, “Black Narcissus” (1947).

“Narcissus” starred Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, appointed Sister Superior to lead a mission of Anglican nuns to set up a school and hospital in a princely state in the Indian Himalayas and supported by the local ruler there.  Located in a dilapidated palace high up in the mountains where the ruler’s father formerly kept his harem, she is ordered to succeed where a previous order of monks failed.  The nuns are assisted by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the ruler’s British agent, who Clodagh constantly butts’ heads with due to his subtle insolence combined with an open sarcasm at their efforts.  As time passes, the nuns, especially Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Jane Bryan) who also might be mentally unstable, slowly find themselves developing a growing erotic attraction to Mr. Dean.  Even worse, the efforts of the nuns to achieve their goals becomes increasingly difficult due to their isolation, the exotic environment, and their overall cultural differences with the general populace.  In the end, their efforts result in tragedy!

“Narcissus” was chock full of sexual eroticism, repressed desire, and tension which was conveyed mostly by suggestion alone.  Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger assisted by the brilliant Oscar winning cinematography of Jack Cardiff crafted a movie so visually stunning that it almost beggars’ belief.  The art direction also won an Oscar with the white habits of the nuns contrasted against the bright colors of the exotic clothing of the inhabitants which instilled an overall other-worldliness.  Cardiff was influenced by great painters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio for this picture, and he utilized their various color palettes to create some striking visual scenes under Powell’s outstanding direction.  This was fortunate since Powell’s direction of his actors left something to be desired.   Bryan’s Sister Ruth looked and acted more nervous than Wile E. Coyote before getting flattened by a truck, and actress May Hallatt as Angu, the palace caretaker, came across more like an over the top, circus clown rather than an Indian native.  As for the rest of the cast, they almost seemed forced into doing most of their acting non-verbally because Pressburger’s screenplay was so weak.  Despite all that, this movie still works.  Kerr is fine as someone slowly being stirred, not so much by faith, but by desire.  However, maybe the best performance of them all is by Farrar.  He generates real sexual heat with Kerr and also Bryan, so much so, that Director Powell cast Farrar and Bryan again two years later for his underrated film, “The Small Back Room” (1949) where both were even hotter together.  Of course, the U.S. Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned this film and, since they had great sway back then, the British film studio removed any hint that these nuns were possibly Catholic rather than Anglican.  They also removed flashbacks of Sister Clodagh’s life prior to becoming a nun where it was mildly hinted that she may have actually had SEX with someone before marriage (Shocking!).  Once these changes were made, the ban was finally removed.  

Since we are now on the theme of “nuns behaving badly,” an even better example of it was for the more recent underrated movie, “Novitiate” (2017).  This movie starred Margaret Qualley as Cathleen, a young girl from a dysfunctional family in rural Tennessee who decides to enter a covenant to become a nun.  It is run by Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo), who has not left the covenant grounds for 40 years and is a strict and stern believer of the old ways of the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately, Cathleen enters the covenant just when Vatican II (1962-65) is underway which will send shock waves and change forever how the Catholic Church will function, and be perceived by others including Cathleen.  During Cathleen’s single-minded pursuit to become a nun she finds her beliefs changing on an emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical, and sexual level while the Reverend Mother continually refuses to adapt to these changes or to diminish, at times, her brutal treatment of Cathleen and the nineteen other members in Cathleen’s group.  Qualley is excellent as a young girl who moves from being someone extremely devout to discovering such (unholy?) things as masturbation, a Lesbian sexual experience with another novice, the self-harming of herself by extreme self-fasting leading to her physical collapse and hospitalization, and ultimately, even questioning what her role in the Catholic Church really should be.  Leo (who should have been Oscar-nominated) is even better as someone who feels a personal hierarchical betrayal by the church, due to the advent of Vatican II and, though openly defiant, ultimately turns into a sad and pitiful human being watching her cloistered little world being torn apart.  “Novitiate” has been criticized for its accuracy in how individuals in a covenant are actually treated, and there is probably some truth with that.  However, it is also a fact that after Vatican II, some 90,000 nuns left the Catholic church.  “Novitiate” is a fine film!

Now, just so I do not forget other faiths with its members behaving badly, let’s take a look at two other examples, one being a movie and the other a limited Netflix series which was based on a true story.  The movie is “Disobedience” (2017) which takes place in an Orthodox Jewish congregation in North London.  Ronit (Rachel Weisz) the long-time estranged daughter of the rabbi of the congregation returns home when she hears that her father has died suddenly.  Arriving unexpectedly at the home of her childhood friend, David (Alessandro Nivola), she is invited by him to stay there for her father’s funeral.  However, she then discovers that David is now married to Esti (Rachel McAdams) another childhood friend of Ronit.  Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that the reason for Ronit’s estrangement from her father was due to him discovering Ronit and Esti had a Lesbian sexual relationship.  Afterwards, he also had his daughter banished from their religious community (although he did not reveal the reasons why).  Esti, unhappy due to her following Ronit’s father’s advice to marry David, was the one who originally notified Ronit of his death, and also because she wanted to see Ronit again.  Now she wants to rekindle their relationship and leave David.  The only problem:  She is now pregnant with David’s child (Oy Vey!).  Both of the Rachels’ (Weisz and McAdams) along with Nivola give top notch realistic and believable performances helped from the fine direction provided by award winning Director, Sebastian Lelio (“A Fantastic Woman”).  Lelio capably tells a story of individuals who are not so much behaving badly, but rather rebelling against an insular and rigid Orthodox Jewish culture that is resistant to change. 

The other example, also taking a similar perspective, was the fact-based Netflix series’ “Unorthodox” (2020).  Here you had Esty (Emmy nominated Shira Haas), a 19-year-old unhappily married woman living in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic community of Williamsburg, New York City.  Originally abandoned by her birth mother, newly pregnant, and feeling entirely suffocated by the cultural restrictions placed on her in such a closed community, she flees with virtually next to nothing to Berlin to find her relocated mother while rejecting all of her prior beliefs.  Unfortunately, her husband, by order of their rabbi, heads to Berlin with his cousin to try and bring her back (Double Oy Vey!).  This was also not a portrait of an individual behaving badly, but rather how other members in a strict religious community were unable to accept others who were not willing to conform to their rigid views of how one should live with them.  The best parts of “Unorthodox” are in how the general culture of the Hasidic community is portrayed, and not the factually inaccurate portrayal of Esty’s life once she arrives in Berlin.  Both “Disobedience” and “Unorthodox” portray this Orthodox culture very well!       

 Now, moving onto something entirely different, lets’ turn to those in the religious community doing unfaithful things for stuff like horror and conspiracies!  For example, you had such winners (??) as:  

  1. “The Nun” (2018): Psycho Demon (Is there any other kind?) in the guise of a nun terrorizes members of the clergy in Romania.  Unless you are Dracula, the only thing this movie is good for is to use as an excuse to exclude Romania from your future vacation travel itinerary.
  2. “30 Coins” (2020): Spanish supernatural horror series with an ex-convict/exorcist priest (I guess the Catholic Church lowered their quality control standards here), a Playboy Centerfold-looking veterinarian, and a muscle-bound hunk dimwit mayor fighting various multi-tentacled and orthodontically challenged creatures in a small Spanish village tied into a conspiracy linked to THE VATICAN ITSELF! (Yeah, that one again!).  All you need to know about the artistic quality of Spanish TV is that this Dreck was nominated for “Best Drama Series” that year!
  3. “The Da Vinci Code” (2006): The cash cow granddaddy of all Vatican conspiracy films.  With Tom Hanks (channeling his inner “Indiana Jones”) hunting for the Holy Grail, the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, and a good cup of expresso while being opposed by a secret cabal within the Opus Dei.  Other than attracting the attention of fervent Catholics, general Catholic haters, and various pissed off members of the Vatican, all this movie proved was that, as a director, Ron Howard wasn’t even good enough to carry Steven Spielberg’s jockstrap!  

However, there is one movie in this genre that I want to praise, in a guilty pleasure sort of way, which is the Korean horror movie, “Thirst” (2009).  Directed by Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), it starred Song Kang-ho as a dedicated Catholic priest, who is not only in love with his friend’s wife, but also, after volunteering for an experiment to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus, is turned into a vampire instead when the experiment fails.  If that isn’t bad enough, later on his friend’s wife (Kim Ok-bin) manipulates him into killing his friend who he falsely believed was abusing her.  From that point on, as the bodies start piling up, their perverse relationship starts rising up (in more ways than one).  About halfway through viewing this film I suddenly realized and blurted out, “Holy Hell!  This is Therese Raquin!  This is Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin!”  For those of you who do not know Zola, the famous French journalist and novelist (and a major figure in the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus), he also wrote some of the most erotically perverse and brutal portraits of individuals in his novels that have ever been imagined.  In Zola, Chan-wook found the perfect writer to adapt for his equally perverse vampire film while also incorporating a hardy douse of gallows humor into the process.  Both Kang-ho and Ok-bin give excellent performances alternating between the erotic and the terrifying.  In “Thirst,” never has a priest acted in a more uniquely unholy light.

Lastly, there were a number of more recent fine films involving members of the faith acting badly.  For example, you had “The Apostle” (1997) written, directed, and starring Robert Duvall in an Oscar nominated performance as Pentecostal preacher Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey who, though devout, is a drinker, a womanizer, and ultimately a murderer when he kills the lover of his adulterous wife after being removed from his leadership position in his church.  After escaping and assuming a new identity, Sonny is still driven by his strong faith and the need to work and help others even while acknowledging his faults.  Duvall’s great portrait of a religious man’s duality between good and evil is what makes “The Apostle” a great film. 

Another great film in this category was “Doubt” (2008), written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning stage play.   The film starred Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, a strict, old school, traditional nun and principal (and also maybe the psychic twin of Melissa Leo’s Mother Marie) at an inner-city Catholic school in 1964.  She is already at odds with popular liberal Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is open to the changes brought by Vatican II, and who feels that the church, on a secular level, should connect with their parishioners more while also connecting with their parishioners’ children by listening to their views.  Unfortunately, maybe Father Flynn is doing more than just listening once Sister Aloysius obtains information that appears to suggest that Father Flynn maybe is having an improper relationship with a student.  Shanley directs this film very well assisted by Roger Deakin’s fine subdued cinematography.  However, the real meat of the movie is in the performances and Shanley, a great playwright, draws incredible Oscar nominated performances from both Streep and Hoffman along with Viola Davis and Amy Adams in supporting roles.  Watching Hoffman and Streep square off against each other is almost like watching two heavy weight acting title contenders landing verbal haymakers against each other to see who will be the last one standing.  In their case, I think I would fairly call this one a draw, but with the viewing audience as the real winner!

To conclude, I could keep mentioning any number of other fine movies like “Spotlight” (2015) or television series like “The Young Pope” (2016) which have individuals of faith with their own personal Feet of Clay fatal flaw(s) causing harm.  However, I think I’ll just close this by reflecting back to that little kid who loved “Elmer Gantry” then, and now, as a senior citizen, loves it still, while thinking of Elmer with that big S**t eating grin on his face saying…

“And what is love?”

“Love is the morning and the evening star!”

“Love is the voice of music!”

“So Sing!  Sing out the Lord’s love!”           

And then, I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you are smiling or not! 

I know I am!