Plague It Again Sam!

General Williams:  “There’s something beyond botulinus?”

Dr. Hoffman: “Yes, the second weapon.  Also a virus, airborne.  But self-perpetuating.  Indestructible.  Once released it will multiply at a power beyond our calculations.  It perhaps will never die.  To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly.  “The Satan Bug.”  If I took the flask which contains it and exposed it to the air, everyone here would be dead in three seconds.  California would be a tomb in a few hours.  In a week all life, and I mean all life, would cease in the United States.  In two months, two months at the most, the trapper from Alaska, the peasant from the Yangtze, the Aborigine from Australia are dead.  All dead, because I crushed a flask and exposed a green colored liquid to the air.  Nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug.”

[Dana Andrews to Richard Basehart, “The Satan Bug” (1965)]

I think, Dear Reader, we all know that the past couple of years have not been necessarily so great.  This was due to a lot of factors.  Besides the current turmoil in our own country, the world has been badly rocked by the number of countries turning away from Democracy and moving instead, towards totalitarianism as an answer.  We also have had global environmental problems caused by climate change which threatened our world’s very existence.  Oh, and least I forget, there is the continuing global coronavirus pandemic which has affected our lives, whether we have been vaccinated or not.  However, at this point you might be thinking right about now, “Well other than depressing the Hell out me, what does any of this have to do with your stupid Blog this month?”  Ah, well let us all calm down shall we, and I will explain.  You see, since I just mentioned the coronavirus, this month’s Blog Post will discuss various dramatic scenarios involving pandemics and which, surprisingly, are popular subjects in different ways for films and for television.

As an example, let’s look at the MGM film “Yellow Jack” (1938) which was based on the stage play by Pulitzer and Oscar (“Gone with the Wind”) winning playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard, and famed microbiologist and author Paul de Kruif.  The story, partially based on fact, was how U.S. Army Major Walter Reed (Yep, the guy that the medical center in DC is named after) worked with other Army Medical Corp doctors and Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Finlay to diagnose and treat yellow fever victims both before, during, and after the Spanish American War in Cuba.  Yellow fever (nicknamed “Yellow Jack”) sickened and killed more soldiers during the Spanish American War than anything else, and the film explored the drama of U.S. Army soldiers who volunteered to be infected by mosquitoes carrying the disease to enable doctors to devise a cure.  However, since Reed and Finlay were portrayed by character actors Lewis Stone and Charles Coburn (who looked about as Cuban as a “kumquat”), they had to have the film focus on the solders themselves [Sam Levene, Buddy Ebsen (pre-“Beverly Hillbillies”), etc.] and with Robert Montgomery in the lead role also as one of the volunteers.  The movie captured the general science aspects pretty well along with the conflicts waged by Reed against those who dismissed his scientific conclusions and methods for fighting the disease.  The human element was also provided by those who caught and perished from the disease throughout the film.  Unfortunately, this movie does not hold up well at all.  It includes a dippy cringe-inducing love story between Montgomery (with a bad Irish brogue thicker than a bank vault door) and Virginia Bruce as a nurse, bad over-acting pontificating by just about everyone, and clunky direction by film director George B. Seitz.

Fun Fact:  Perennial “Hack” Director Seitz directed eleven of the sixteen “Andy Hardy” films which were a sort of far worse “Father Knows Best” version of comedy films made in the nineteen thirties and forties starring Mickey Rooney as Andy and Lewis Stone as his even more annoying know it all daddy.  If you have ever actually made the mistake of seeing an Andy Hardy film, you might have wished, like me, that Seitz instead would have made a series of medical films with Rooney as Andy like “Andy Hardy Gets Yellow Jack” or “Andy Hardy Gets Laid” along with it’s sequel, “Andy Hardy Gets V.D.”, etc.  At least, it would have been far more informative and far less sickening!

Moving right along, two much better made movies that I want to highlight, and which were made in the same year were “The Killer that Stalked New York” (1950), and “Panic in the Streets” (1950).  “Killer…” was based on the real-life story of a smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947 which was, fortunately, thwarted in time.  This low budget noir thriller starred Evelyn Keyes as Sheila, just back in New York City from Cuba with a package of illegal diamonds.  Discovering that she is being tailed by U.S. Customs officials, she immediately mails the diamonds to her secretly cheating husband Matt (Charles Korvin) who, unbeknown to her, is planning to double cross her and run away with the diamonds himself.  Soon after, she nearly faints, and after being taken to a local health clinic and misdiagnosed as having a common cold, she leaves to go home, but not before infecting a little girl at the clinic.  Once, the medical authorities determine that the little girl has smallpox, the race is on to find Sheila and stop the outbreak in time.  For a low budget film, “Killer” is really terrific.  It alternates from being just a little suspense crime noir into a epidemic thriller as Sheila starts infecting people left and right who she fleetingly comes into contact with.  Directed by Earl McEvoy in a semi-documentary style, the film is really highlighted by top-notch black and white cinematography from future Oscar winner Joseph F. Biroc (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Towering Inferno”, etc.) capturing both outdoor realism and dark shadows at night with Keyes, like an Avenging Angel, hunting down her cheating husband while growing weaker and weaker before your very eyes.  The film is loaded with veteran character actors like Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Roy Roberts, Carl Benton Reid, etc. along with future stars like Lola Albright, Richard Egan, and Dorothy Malone, etc. in small or secondary roles.  As a thriller, “The Killer that Stalked New York” is a gem!

An even better plague thriller, and with a bigger budget, was “Panic in the Streets.”  “Streets” starred Richard Widmark as Lieutenant Commander “Clint” Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service who jumps into action when a murdered illegal immigrant in New Orleans is found to be infected with pneumonic plague (a version of the bubonic plague).  Fearing an outbreak and with grudging help by, at first, skeptical police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), they hunt for the original source of the infection as well as the individuals (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, etc.) who murdered the immigrant.  Directed by the great Elia Kazan on location in semi-documentary style with fine cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, “Streets” is also an edge of your seat thriller of two men racing against the clock to find all of the individuals infected to contain the outbreak before the news is released to the general public.  Kazan’s cast included some of his fellow actors from the New York stage, local area actors, and a number of individuals with no acting experience at all in various roles.  He also incorporated a Neo-Realist visual approach which was popular in Italy after World War II and it worked very well.  He was greatly helped by Edward Anhalt and his then wife, Edna Anhalt’s Oscar winning screenplay which provided solid character development for his talented cast.  Kazan was always known for eliciting great performances from his actors, and this movie had many along with fine performances by both Widmark and Douglas.  However, maybe the best one of them all was Jack Palance’s scary (both on screen and off) film debut as the murderous killer.

Like all great villains he used his physical size to intimidate and evoke fear.  Yet his character, at times, was surprisingly generous and even helpful in a way.  You just never knew what to expect, which caused you to always be on edge or wary of his presence.  Widmark stated that Palance was the toughest guy he ever met and the only actor he was physically afraid of.  He must have been.  During one scene where Palance clubs Widmark’s character on the head with a gun, Palance deliberately replaced the rubber gun they were originally using for the scene with a real gun and knocked Widmark out cold.  If that wasn’t bad enough, to get into the mood of his character, Palance’s version of “Method” acting was to actually beat on actor, Zero Mostel, who played his flunky underling off-screen which resulted in the now black and blue Mostel after the first week of filming having to go to the hospital.  I think if I had a choice, I’d rather catch the plague than piss off Jack Palance.

The next two pandemic films that I want to praise are also thrillers but more towards the SY/FY category rather than film noir.  The first one was “The Satan Bug” (1965) directed by John Sturges and with a screenplay by, once again, Edward Anhalt (who must have really liked writing about pandemics).  Based on a novel by Pulp thriller writer Alistair MacLean, the movie involves a break-in at a top-secret bioweapon facility in the Southern California desert.  Lee Barrett (George Maharis) a former intelligence agent is tasked by the military to find out what happened and soon enough discovers that a man-made Doomsday virus named The Satan Bug has been stolen by a mysterious unidentifiable insane millionaire named Ainsley who is perfectly willing to use it to destroy all living creatures on the planet unless his demands are met.  From that point on, it another race against the clock (Is there any other kind!) to find the virus before it is released.

John Sturges, who was another good but never great director, could make some terrific male dominated thriller/action films (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, etc.) and in MacLean, he found the perfect hokey thriller writer that he could make chicken salad out of.  Of course, that didn’t mean that Sturges still didn’t make some big directing mistakes with this film.  First, you could figure out who Ainsley was within the first thirty minutes.  Second, despite Anhalt’s screenplay, Sturges direction of his actors (Dana Andrews, Anne Francis, Richard Basehart, along with Maharis) was pretty weak with basically none of them showing any depth or complexity beyond the basic cardboard variety.  Third, there were some gaping plot holes in the storyline which made you just want to say, “What the F**K!!!”  However, despite these flaws, it’s still a pretty good movie.  Actors Frank Sutton and a young Ed Asner (when he still had a little hair on his head) play a great pair of stone-cold psychopathic killers (even if they hardly say anything), and the terrific suspenseful film score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of the finest efforts of his entire career.  As for Sturges, he could really ratchet up the suspense and tension to have your heart pounding.   For example, the best scene in the entire movie is a sequence where Maharis and two agents trapped in a locked garage immediately react when Asner throws a vial of botulinus through their garage window forcing them to break out or die trying.  For that sequence alone, you could just about forgive Sturges for almost anything.  “The Satan Bug” is not a great movie.  However, it is a pretty good movie.

A later and much better, pandemic film was “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) directed by Robert Wise and based on the novel by Michael Crichton.   After a U.S. satellite crashes near a small town in rural New Mexico almost all of the town’s residents die except for a 69-year-old alcoholic man and a six-month-old-infant.  When a military recovery team fails to retrieve the satellite and rescue the survivors, an elite team of scientists (Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne) are tasked to do both while also analyzing the situation at a top-secret underground Nevada facility.  Their fear is that a deadly alien organism is present, and if it ever escapes the facility, an automatic nuclear self-destruct mechanism will be activated to destroy the facility and all infectious areas before the organism can infect an even larger surrounding area.

The success of Crichton’s first book made him an international literary celebrity and led him to write numerous bestselling scientific thrillers for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, just like with author Tom Clancy, both authors could write about scientific or military/techno information very well, but their characterizations of individuals in their novels were inclined to be something that you could more readily find in a kindergarten coloring book.  Fortunately for Crichton, he had Robert Wise directing.  First, Wise cast top actors rather than movie stars for the main roles.  Second, Wise worked with his longtime screenplay collaborator Nelson Gidding to ably flesh out fully developed characters for the scientists as well as numerous secondary characters.  Third, Wise (who could direct any type of film) was also adept at science fiction, and he made one of the greatest of them all with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) along with the still underrated “Star Trek:  The Motion Picture” (1979).  Fourth, Wise, who started off his film career as a sound and film editor (“Citizen Kane”) utilized Stuart Gilmore and John W. Holmes’ great film editing to elicit tension and suspense throughout the film (they were both Oscar nominated).  About the only mistake he made in this film was in choosing the awful Gil Melle to do the nearly unlistenable techno SY/FY film score.  Despite that mistake, “The Andromeda Strain” was my pick for the best picture of that year (Of course, it didn’t win), and it’s still one of the best and most believable pandemic movies ever made!

From the nineteen nineties on up to the present day, more pandemic movies than ever before have been made with varying degrees of success.  For example, you had…

  • “12 Monkeys” (1995): With Bruce Willis as a time traveler going back and forth in time like a ping-pond ball while trying to find the virus or cause of the virus that wiped out most of humanity in his own time.  More boring than exciting but ladies, at least you got the chance to see Brad Pitt’s bare butt in this one!
  • “Outbreak” (1995): With Dustin Hoffman as a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases virologist trying to find a cure for an Ebola-like virus that has caused an outbreak in a small California town while fighting a military plot to use the virus as a future bioweapon.  The first half is pretty good but the second half caves in faster than a sandcastle hit by an ocean wave.
  • “The Happening” (2008): Psychological thriller about an epidemic causing individuals to commit mass suicide and the four individuals who are trying to escape the calamity.  Is it a pandemic film or maybe more like your typical M. Night Shyamalan (“I’ll pull a surprise twist ending to surprise you) kind of film?  Ah, no!  It’s neither!  However, what it really happens to be is a completely boring waste of your time!

Now of course there were other supposedly good film versions of a pandemic like “Contagion” (2011) for example.  I say supposedly, because I didn’t see that particular one so I can’t offer an opinion on it one way or the other.  However, I definitely can offer a favorable opinion on another one which was actually a six-episode television miniseries airing on the National Geographic channel in 2019.  That one was called, “The Hot Zone”, and it was based on the Richard Preston book of the same title.  The series, taking place in 1989, covers the actual story of the potential outbreak of the ebolavirus after it was found in monkeys at a Primate Quarantine Facility in Reston, Va. near Washington, D.C.  It starred Julianna Margulies as real-life U.S. Army veterinary pathologist Nancy Jaax and Topper Grace as real-life Peter Jahrling, a virologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who helped to identify the virus at the Reston facility and then worked with others to both contain, and to determine the deadliness of the virus along with working on ways to develop a cure.  The series has been justly criticized for its accuracy and being overly melodramatic.  However, it was also gripping, suspenseful, and, at times, scary even if it was not totally accurate.  Margulies gives a fine performance as Jaxx and she is ably assisted by Noah Emmerich as her husband and fellow actors’ Liam Cunningham, Robert Sean Leonard, and James D’Arcy.  Despite the controversy, the miniseries got good reviews and it returned for a second go-round last November chronicling the 2001 anthrax attacks.  I guess you just can’t keep a good potential pandemic under control!

Lastly, you just knew that I had to bring up one last kind of pandemic since it has been such a popular one for decades with the general public.  Now which one could I ever be referring to, you may ask?  Why what else but the one that causes those infected to turn into…ZOMBIES!!!  Now before all of you start groaning, I just want to let all of you know that I am not going to start talking about “Dawn of the Dead”, “World War Z”, the ten thousand iterations of “The Walking Dead” or “most” of the other zombie movies.  Heck, I am not even going to talk about Rob Zombie for cripes sake!  However, notice I said “most” of the zombie movies.  I did not say, all of them.  There is one that I did want to mention because it is a dark comedy that is really funny as Hell and, even more surprising, it is a sequel which is even better than the original.  That film is “Zombieland:  Double Tap” (2019).

“Zombieland…” continues the further adventures of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in a post-apocalyptic world populated by, you guessed it…ZOMBIES!  The dynamics of our group consist of Harrelson playing a semi-bright Southern “good old boy” (which is the type of character that he usually plays 90% of the time), his nerdy/socially inept partner Eisenberg (which is the type of character that he usually plays 95% of the time), and who lives by a goofy set of survivor rules that are pasted across the movie screen throughout the film, Stone, who Eisenberg continually lusts after and who is stereotypically tough and stand-offish from Eisenberg, and Breslin as Stone’s little sister and who is also stereotypically rebellious.  Our little family(?) is now residing in the abandoned and weed and vine covered White House with Columbus about to finally propose to Wichita with his little “Hope Diamond” trinket that he has been lugging around.  As for Tallahassee, he has also found his own personal sort of true red neck love with his newly modified Dukes of Hazzard-like presidential limousine which he affectionately calls, “The Beast!”  Needless to say, things do not work out as planned, and soon enough, our mismatched group are off on the open road where new adventures await including new and creatively original comic ways to kill Zombies!  This Zombie fest was directed by Ruben Fleischer (who did the original “Zombieland”) along with fellow returnees’ screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and new writer David Callaham who provide even more over the top silliness than the original.  Also providing able comic support are actors’ Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, and especially, Zoey Deutch who plays the dumbest, and maybe the funniest, Dumb Blond since the heyday of Marilyn Monroe.  If you can stand the gorefest moments, “Zombieland:  Double Tap” is a laugh out loud pandemic riot!

To conclude, I hope that all of you have enjoyed this month’s post!  Stay safe, be well, and be sure to always…

“Carry an extra wooden stake in the trunk of your car!”   

You never know when you might have to use it!


Bombastically Biblical!

Judah Ben-Hur:  Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther:  Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur:  Even then.  And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

[Charlton Heston to Haya Harareet, “Ben-Hur” (1959)]

Well, everyone, once again it’s time for my yearly holiday blog post.  This particular one is something that is always germane for the holidays.  Now just what could that one ever possibly be Dear Reader?  Making holiday fruit cakes for fun and profit?  No, that one would probably fit in better under the category of Horror rather than Holiday.  No, this time we will have a holiday blog post specifically relating to religious movies.  Now that will not necessarily pertain to just movies or Network TV/cable/streaming stuff specifically for Christmas, Chanukah, etc.  It will pertain, mostly, to religious films connected to stories from the Bible.  Hence, I hope that you will not be offended.  However, if you might be, well, as Bette Davis in “All About Eve” once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

All of the way up into the nineteen forties, Hollywood movies about religion focused on uplifting stories of faith.  They were heavily and conservatively Catholic inspired, and quite popular with the general public at that time in America.  For example, you had two films made by Director Leo McCarey which were “Going My Way” (1944) and “The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) both starring Bing Crosby as father O’Malley.  If you like straight uplifting Catholic dogma for the faithfully devout, then these two movies are the mainline drug for you.  They were both big hits, and “Way” even won best picture that year along with both McCarey and Crosby also winning Oscars for Best Director and Actor.  Two other popular ones made then were “The Song of Bernadette” (1943) and “The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944).  “Song…” was a fact-based biographical drama of Bernadette Soubirous (Oscar winner Jennifer Jones), a simple girl in Lourdes who experienced seeing eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 and who would later be made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.  This was actually a very fine film with excellent all around acting by everyone involved and anchored by an amazing performance by Jennifer Jones.  It also was helped by strong direction from the always underrated director Henry King (“Twelve O’Clock High”) along with fine Oscar winning cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, and an Oscar winning film score by Alfred Newman.

Moving right along with the solemn uplifting Catholic religious movie express train crushing anything in its path is “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck in an Oscar nominated star-making role as Father Francis Chisholm.  When the film begins, Chisholm is now an old man whose life is shown in flashback all the way through to the present day as a long serving Catholic priest in China who piously helps everyone whether they be Chinese, Protestant, Atheistic, or fans of “Honey Boo-Boo” reruns.  Our Father Chisholm is so noble and self-sacrificing that he probably never even took a bath because he was too busy perfecting his ability to walk on the top of the water in his own bathtub.  Now before you say, “What the H…” what I’m getting at here is that despite Peck’s earnest performance, half way through this film I was hoping that good old Father Chisholm would at least do something a little more daring like maybe have a nip or two of the Holy Communion wine, crack a smile more than once a decade, or do something really scandalous like dance a Scottish Jig (Sacrilege!) to stop this movie from being so Frigging Dull!  Hollywood religious films during this time were not going to have anything really controversial in them to offend either the Catholic Church or any other organized religious group back then for fear of the mega backlash from said religious organizations, the general public, and the Federal Government which would ultimately affect a Studio’s financial bottom line. 

During this time and moving on up to the present day, another type of religious film was popular and, hence, relatively safe for Hollywood to make.  These were stories taken directly from the Bible, and which I will now further discuss.  Maybe the one director who was regarded as the greatest practitioner of such film making was Director Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was one of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry in America making hugely successful films in both the silent and the sound era.  He was regarded as one of the most commercially successful producer/directors in film history.  DeMille was adept at making all types of epic pictures from Westerns to musicals to comedies to social dramas.  However, like I previously said, his religious films are what most people remember him for even though, out of the seventy films that he directed, only five were religious with three [“King of Kings” (1927), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and two versions of “The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956)] specifically related to the Bible.  All of them were popular commercial hits.  Now it would be nice if I could also say that these movies were artistically well made, with great acting, emotionally powerful dramatic scenes, and written with great depth and meaning.  Well… Are you kidding! 

Other than the epic size of these films along with dozens of other films in other genres that he made throughout his career; they are some of the worst pieces of overblown trite garbage in motion picture history.  If you could take P.T. Barnum, porn movie kingpin Russ Meyer, and the excessively visual but artistically empty film maker Ken Russell, stuff the three of them into a blender, and hit the “ON” button, you’d have C.B. DeMille.  In his films, Roman orgies and female bathtub scenes were standard practice.  Bad acting with ponderous screenplays that could have been better written by kindergarten graduates or the inhabitants of a zoo’s Ape House were laugh-out-loud standard practice.  The promoting of stereotypes with bad actor casting was also widespread standard practice too.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, somewhere in all of these films you always had to hear good old C.B. himself doing some sort of over indulgent, pseudo, self-important God-like narration as if we were all too stupid to comprehend his films otherwise.  If C.B. was around today, he probably would have cast Clint Eastwood and Madonna as the leads for all of his films (although Clint, as Moses, probably would have just pulled out that old 44 Magnum, and blasted the Red Sea apart all by himself).  However, DeMille didn’t care and the public didn’t care either.  His huckster Hollywood biblical films made a mint, and to this day on every Passover and Easter we will all be eternally tormented by “Chucky” Heston belting out the words, “Let My People Go!”  If only we could, Chucky!  If only we could!

After the nineteen forties, more of these biblical extravaganzas were made by other directors and actually, two were made in the nineteen fifties that were really very good.  Maybe this was because the principal characters in these films were based, not on specific characters found in the bible, but from popular novels where Hollywood could craft characters with true dramatic depth and complexity.  Also, because these characters either did not represent a member of the clergy or a famous historical religious personality like Jennifer Jones’ Bernadette Soubirous, it was less likely that Hollywood censors or the general public would cause an uproar.  The first film that I want to praise is “The Robe” (1953) from the bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas.  Fun Fact: “The Robe” was No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for most of 1943, but when the film version of “The Robe” came out in 1953 the novel shot right back up to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for that year too.  The movie starred Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, a military tribune of Rome who, while assigned to Jerusalem in Palestine, is ordered by Pontius Pilate to take charge of the Roman soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus.  He does so and even wins’ Jesus’s “robe” in a dice game.  However, once he puts the robe on to cover himself from the rain, he undergoes intense pain and throws it off.  He later loses the robe, but has such intense and continuing nightmares of the crucifixion that he fears that he will lose his mind.  Ultimately, he will return to Palestine where he will find the robe again and become a disciple of Jesus. 

The Robe” was a big budget release by 20th Century Fox with an all-star cast (Heck, they even had actor Cameron Mitchell as the unseen voice of Jesus).  It was well directed by journeyman Director Henry Koster, and it was the first film by 20th Century Fox to be released in their CinemaScope widescreen process which made its visuals even more arresting on movie theater screens.  The acting by most of the principals, especially Burton, was fine (he was Oscar nominated for his breakout acting performance), and the screenplay (with an assist by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz) was excellent too.  About the only real negatives that I have had for this film over the years were:  (1) Richard Burton’s goofy shake, rattle, and roll looks of pain whenever he puts on or grabs that robe, (2) actor Jay Robinson’s over-rated ham fisted performance as Caligula where it looked like he could chew up the entire CinemaScope movie screen all by himself, and (3) the film score by the usually dependable Alfred Newman which, at times, was so overtly ponderous, and solemn that even the most fervent believer would want to pitch a brick through a stained glass window if they listened to it long enough.

The other fifties’ biblical film that was exceptional, and on my Top Ten greatest movie list of all time, was “Ben-Hur” (1959) originally based on the immensely popular novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace.  Many films (both silent and sound versions) of “Ben-Hur” have been made (including an absolutely abysmal version made as recently as 2016), but this one is the best of them all.  Directed by the great William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the lead (and redeeming himself acting-wise after “The Ten Commandments”), it was the most expensive movie ever made at that time, the second highest grossing film in history (behind a little thing called “Gone with the Wind”), and also winning eleven Oscars (which was also a record at that time too).  Wyler, Heston, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, film composer Miklos Rozsa, and the Picture itself all won well deserved Oscars.  A story of revenge and redemption, Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant is falsely condemned by his former Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) to a living death on a slave galley after an accident almost kills the new governor of Judea.  Chained and being led away to the galley, his life is later saved by Jesus giving him some water after he collapses from thirst (There’s the religious tie-in folks!), and then…Hey, wait a minute!  This is an over three-and-a-half-hour movie!  You think I’m going to spend the next three Blog Posts explaining the entire movie to ya!  No way!  All I will further say about Ben-Hur is that: (1) for the most expensive movie ever made back then, the sea battle between the Roman fleet of sea galleys vs. the fleet of Macedonian pirates where they used toy ships for distance shots of the battle looked about as realistic as something that I did as a 3-year-old in a bathtub with my little toy boats, and (2) after all of these years, the non-CGI chariot race in “Ben-Hur” is still one of the most exciting and greatest action sequences in motion picture history.  William Wyler once said (and maybe also subtly sticking the stiletto in) that, regarding “Ben-Hur”, he wished to outdo Cecil B. DeMille and make a thinking man’s Biblical epic.  Well, boy, did he ever!  C.B. DeMille, who died early in 1959, must have rolled over in his grave when Wyler said that one!

Unfortunately, maybe due to the colossal success of “Ben-Hur,” Hollywood went Biblically Batty in wanting to make the next epic “big hit” religious picture.  You had such winners as:

  • “The Big Fisherman” (1959) with Howard (“They Call the Wind MARIAH”) Keel as the Apostle Peter (and probably wishing he could have sang his dialogue rather than speak it).
  • “Francis of Assisi” (1961) with Bradford Dillman as Francis (the Saint, not the talking mule although it would have been more entertaining if it was the mule).
  • A remake of “King of Kings” (1961) with Jeffrey Hunter looking like a Southern California surfer dude and giving a sock puppet quality performance as Jesus. 

All of these were either box office duds or just plain, mediocre at best.  However, did it stop there?  Of course not!  Hence, you also had:

  • “Barabbas” (1961) with Anthony Quinn doing a biblical warm-up before doing “Zorba the Greek.” Also with Jack Palance as Torvald, the gladiator (AKA “The Bad Guy”) who flicks out his tongue like a snake so often that he probably used it to wipe his own forehead.
  • “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962) with maybe the only thing funnier than watching Stewart Granger trying to play religiously moral Lot might have been watching John Wayne trying to play Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.”  However, health-wise, I’ll bet a lot of people went on a salt free diet after seeing this one.
  • “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) with (Sad) Max von Sydow who originally missed out on playing Jesus in “King of Kings” finally getting his big chance to play Jesus, aaannd he blew it! Oh well, at least he was better than Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus (Of course, Danny DeVito would have been better playing Jesus than Jeffrey Hunter too!).
  • “The Bible: In the Beginning…” (1966) even with Director John Huston doing both the voice of “GOD”, and playing a Doctor Dolittle version of Noah, he couldn’t keep either the Ark or the film from sinking from its own pretentiousness.  However, at least you did get the chance to see Sodom and Gomorrah celestially Nuked once again, so there was some solace in that.  

Most of these religious films also suffered from the “Ben Hur” hangover effect of being overly long.  While “Ben Hur” didn’t originate looonnng biblical films (good old C.B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith could both take some substantial credit for that), more biblical/religious themed films than ever before were released that way after “Ben-Hur.”  For example, “Fisherman” was 180 minutes long, “King of Kings” was 168 minutes long, “The Bible…” was 174 minutes long, and, the worst, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was a mind numbing 260 minutes long (for that one, the movie theaters must have been handing out compression socks and mason jars to their patrons in case they had to take a leak).  Currently, if you want to personally test your own urinary tract endurance, try sitting through any of Director Zack (The Hack) Snyder’s long pseudo-artistic crap film efforts (“Watchmen”, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”, “Army of the Dead”, etc.).  However, if you choose to not do so, you still might want to shower the movie screen with your own unique personal review of Mr. Snyder’s directing efforts!

These biblical films also succumbed to another hangover effect resulting from the prior Best Picture Winner of 1956, “Around the World in 80 Days”: Cameo/Stunt Casting!  Unlike miscasting (Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” for example), “Around the World…”  had all of these big-name stars/celebrities in bit roles (over 40 of them in all).  Although none of these biblical films were that bad, you still had a number of them (Ray Milland as the voice of Satan in “Kings”, Shelly Winters as a “woman that is healed” in “The Greatest Story…”, etc.) that didn’t enrich, but rather distracted from the storyline instead.  After a while, Hollywood finally stopped making so many of these biblical religious epics and moved on to making dramas about the clerical hierarchy itself like Tom Tryon in “The Cardinal” (1963) and Anthony Quinn in “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968) (AKA Zorba the Pope).  With regards to other films about Jesus, even though the previous film versions left much to be desired, one was finally made that was really excellent, and that one wasn’t even a movie but a British-Italian television six-hour mini-series.  That version was “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), directed by Franco Zeffirelli (“Romeo and Juliet”) and with a screenplay by Zeffirelli and Anthony Burgress (“A Clockwork Orange”).  Although originally, either the producers or Zeffirelli himself considered doing some stunt miscasting for the role of Jesus like possibly considering either Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin on the Cross???), they dropped that dumb idea and picked British actor Robert Powell instead.  It was a brilliant casting decision, and Powell gave a mesmerizing performance. 

Zeffirelli conceived of portraying Jesus as more of an ordinary man who was gentle, fragile, and simple in his ways.  However, he also highlighted Powell’s blue eyes by having a thin line of dark blue eyeliner on his upper eye lids, and a thin line of white eyeliner on his lower eye lids which resulted in the piercing blue of his eyes generating a more penetrating stare.  He also had Powell and the other actors playing a younger version of Jesus hardly blink their eyes at all.  Zeffirelli brilliantly used this as a way to create a subconscious visual and surreal mystique about the character as well as having him stand out differently from any other person.  As a part of his portrayal, Powell also went on a near starvation diet for twelve days prior to shooting the crucifixion scenes in order to appear physically emaciated from Jesus’ prior imprisonment and torture.  When Powell, who looked very similar to pictures of Jesus, portrayed scenes of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, it was so powerful the both cast and crew complemented him afterwards on his performance.   However, he wasn’t the only one who was outstanding.  Zeffirelli’s direction, and the performances he elicited from his all-star group of actors like Laurence Olivier, Anne Bancroft, Anthony Quinn (no Zorba redone this time), James Farentino (Emmy nominated), and others were also highly praised.  Unfortunately, this series received few Emmy nominations, and neither Powell for his performance nor Zeffirelli for his direction were even nominated.  Worse, before its initial broadcast, and not even seeing the series’ first, some Protestant fundamentalists led by the religious fanatics’ Bob Jones III (Asshole No. 1), and Dr. Bill Bright (Asshole No. 2) denounced the mini-series as “blasphemy” because they felt Zeffirelli’s conception of Jesus would deny Jesus’ “divine nature”. Hmm?  I wonder if they wanted him instead to be flying through the air, shooting heat rays from his baby blue eyes, and wear a shirt with a big red J… Oh, that’s right!  That one has sort have been done before!  Never mind!  Anyhoo… once the producers added some additional dialogue mentioning Jesus’ future resurrection, and a simulated resurrection scene, the criticism finally started to die down!

To conclude, Hollywood has continued up to this present day to make new film versions/series of stories from the Bible both small and Epic.  Some of the more recent ones have been “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Passion of Christ” (2004), and “Exodus:  Gods and Kings” (2014).  I have not seen any of these more recent interpretations so I do not have an opinion on them one way or the other.  All I’d like to add Dear Reader is that, whatever you choose to believe, and whatever you choose to watch, I sincerely hope that you enjoy it, whether it is by yourself or with your family, friends, and loved ones.  Stay safe, be well, and love one another!

And as for myself, I think I’ll just sing…

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow…

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!


And then, I think I’ll just watch “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” again!  

Happy Holidays Everyone!



Double Trouble!

Howard Silk: [frustrated by his other] “You know, they say it’s so great to meet yourself.  Bullshit!  It’s kind’a like losing your virginity, ya know?  Wait your whole life for it, and then 20 seconds later you’re disappointed.”

[J.K. Simmons to…J.K. Simmons “Counterpart” (2017-19)]

Sometimes I find it surprising that a specific unique genre is constantly utilized for adaption for movies and Network TV/cable/streaming shows.  For example, for crime and mysteries you can have the femme fatale character (too often blond) who entraps someone into their plans which can result in one’s self-destruction or at least put them at great risk to themselves or to others.  Another one, usually found in romantic comedies, can be for an ex-couple (married or otherwise) reconnecting again maybe when one or both are about to get married to someone else, or when they have to interact in some other way (vacation, work, health, some setback, etc.) and find that they are really either still attracted to each other, or they develop a new attraction to each other after the passage of time.  There are literally dozens and dozens of different unique themes that are repeated over and over again (different clothes, same person/type of person wearing them) because they are consistently popular with the general public.  Actors and actresses also repeat these specific types of roles too because (1) they are good at playing them, (2) they are stereotyped into playing these types of roles either by the various studios/networks/media companies, (3) they are too lazy to try anything else, or (4) it’s the only Damn thing that they can play really well.  An example of #4 is John Travolta who is always terrific at playing dumb, stupid, punks but for anything else…Ahhhh, Never Mind!  This month’s Blog Post will discuss one specific type of genre which is not usually discussed at all for either movies or Network TV/cable/streaming/shows.  What is it you ask?  Why, it’s a genre involving Twins or more specifically, Identical Twins!

There are a number of famous works of literature that feature identical twins.  For example, there is Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”  There is also Alexander Pope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda.”  Lastly, there are two by Alexandre Dumas which are “The Corsican Brothers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  Not surprisingly, all of these can also be considered swashbuckling adventure novels/novellas (which is another unique type of genre too).  Every one of these examples have been adapted, while not exactly sticking to the exact storyline, many times for film, theater, and TV.  I have not seen all of the many adaptions (Shocking!  I know!), but I have seen enough of them to have some opinions on which ones are worthwhile.  Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”, which is the historical fiction story of two identical twins born separately in 1547 England (Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Tom Canty, a pauper) who, after switching places have to assume their new roles for real, had some really fine versions of the tale made.  One was a three-part Network TV adaption made in 1962 on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” TV show with actor Sean Scully playing both twins and Guy Williams (who originally played the swashbuckling Zorro for Disney) playing the novel’s equally swashbuckling character of Miles Hendon, a former soldier who protects and helps the young Edward.  While it was made strictly with children in mind, it was still very good, and Williams made a dashing Hendon (before he started acting like a department store manikin as the father on the stupid “Lost in Space” TV show a few years later).

Another one (and maybe the best of them all) was the Warner Brothers Studio version made in 1937 starring actual identical twins Billy and Bobby Mauch in the twin roles and, with maybe the greatest swashbuckling actor of them all, Errol Flynn as Hendon.  Flynn, who was also an underrated actor, is terrific in the role, and the film had additional top-notch assistance provided by Director William Keighley (who would also co-direct Flynn one year later in the even better “Adventures of Robin Hood”), cinematographers’ George Barnes and Sol Polito, film score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and fine acting support by Alan Hale and the always great Claude Rains as the two principal villains.  If you have never seen this version, try to find and watch it sometime (preferably with children).  It’s a classic!

Speaking of another classic involving identical twins, as I’ve previously mentioned, there’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” with enough different versions made to rival “Pauper”.  There was even a whole bunch of comic versions of this story like one film starring Peter Sellers in 1979, a subplot in the 1965 comedy film, “The Great Race” (with Jack Lemon playing the twins), and even, of all things, comedian Don Adams for an episode of his espionage sitcom “Get Smart” playing the dual role.   I even saw a pretty good serious adaption in a 1961 TV version starring a young Christopher Plummer in the title role.  It was stagey with cheap sets, and had more characterization and drama than any action.  Of course, for a little kid like me what did I care.  It was “The Prisoner of Zenda” for Christ Sakes Already!  However, the all-time best one of them all was the 1937 version starring Ronald Colman in the title role and directed by John Cromwell.

For this big budget version, they pulled out all of the stops with great assistance provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe, an Oscar nominated film score by Alfred Newman, and a great supporting cast consisting of Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven, and a scene stealing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as his nemesis, Rupert of Hentzau.  This tale of English gentleman Major Rassendyll (Colman) in 1897 Eastern Europe having to take the place of his double, Rudolph V at his country’s coronation as the new king, and then having to continue the charade when the real king is kidnapped is a slam bang romantic adventure classic highlighted by Colman’s fine portrayal.  Besides having one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever heard by an actor (and which has been endlessly mimicked ever since, even on an animated “George of the Jungle” cartoon show by a talking ape), Colman could actually act.  He was a great romantic lead.  His scenes with Carroll as Flavia, the real king’s intended bride, have real emotional pathos as you see him slowly falling in love with her while desperately trying to (1) maintain his facade, and (2) not to succumb to the temptation to let the real king die so he can have Flavia and the crown for himself.  He is equally good playing the real king, a wastrel who also changes while being held captive showing real courage and defiance even in the face of possible death.  About the only real issue I have ever had with this film is with the action scenes, especially the final sword fight between Colman and Fairbanks, Jr. which is a huge letdown.  Cromwell couldn’t direct any action scene worth a Damn, and they even tried to re-shoot some them with another director to little avail even though they had one of the best in the business in cinematographer Wong Howe.  For action scenes alone, check out another version of “Zenda” made in 1952 with Stewart Granger in the double role.  It’s not as good but, wow, what a sword fight. However, even with Cromwell’s limits as a director, this version of “Zenda” is still the best of them all thanks to Colman’s arresting performance.

Many actors have had the chance to play identical twins in films over the years. However, there has only been one actor who has ever played identical twins in two different films.  Do you have any idea who that might possibly be Dear Reader?  Would you believe…

Bette Davis!

Yep, she did two of them.  Now it would be nice to say that these two were classics too and, in a way, they actually are.  They are both Classic…ally Badddddd!  The first one was “A Stolen Life” (1946) which has the old cliche storyline of her playing the meek/wholesome sister, Kate (who is duller than a butter knife) vs, mean, manipulative/trollop sister, Pat who steals Kate’s new boyfriend Bill (Glenn Ford) and marries him.  Sometime later Kate and Pat go sailing, a sudden storm occurs, Pat drowns, and Kate now assumes Pat ‘s identity so she can win back Bill who now hates the real Pat because she had continually cheated on him (Oh, the horror!).  Will Kate tell him the truth?  Will Bill forgive her?  Will you admit you just wasted two hours of time on this piece of Shit?  Even though Bette Davis has been dead for over 30 years, the remains in her casket could still out act any actress ever trying to play a character like Pat.  However, for her performance as Kate (who probably should have been wearing a “Kick Me!” sticker on her back), that’s another story.  It almost looked like Davis was internally seething throughout the entire movie whenever she was trying to play such a boring and weak character like Kate.  Despite “Life” utilizing ground breaking special effects cinematography to enable Davis to play two different roles in the same scene, “A Stolen Life” was just a TV soap opera before they actually had TV soap operas.  Unfortunately, for her second effort playing identical twins for the 1964 film, “Dead Ringer,” it was even worse!

“Ringer” was an adaption of a fine 1946 Mexican film noir called “La Otra” (AKA “Dead Pigeon”) starring actress Dolores del Rio as identical twins which had been sitting on a Warner Brothers Studio shelf all the way back in 1946.  By the time the nineteen sixties rolled around, whoever thought that it was a good idea to make a movie from a script written back in the forties must have been smoking some serious peyote.  Worse, now Bette Davis must have been smoking some of that same peyote too, if she thought that she could successfully star in this one.  In the early to mid-sixties, a number of older former big nineteen thirties/forties female movie stars (Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Davis, etc.) were making schlock films like this one because there were so few roles for older women (which is still too prevalent even today).  The archaic storyline of two long-time estranged identical twins: (1) rich, evil Margaret who stole her now recently deceased rich husband away from (2) dowdy, downbeat, and financially struggling Edith who ultimately plans to murder and assume Margaret’s identity was lamer than “Chester” from the TV western, Gunsmoke!”  Worse, Davis both in her appearance and in her acting style looked ridiculous because, even though she was 56 years old at the time, she looked more like someone 76 years old trying to act like someone 42 years old (which was del Rio’s age when she was in “La Otra”).  Even worse, Edith’s cop boyfriend was played by mash potato faced Karl Malden who must have been playing older roles since he was two years old. However, even here he still looked younger than Davis.  In keeping with the AARP acting lineup, they must have then emptied the entire Hollywood actor retirement home since the cast included fellow oldsters George Macready, George Chandler, Cyril Delevanti, and Estelle Winwood.  They even had old, former big-time star Paul Henreid directing this mess.  By the time I finished watching “Ringer” I felt like I needed to mainline some Geritol quick or else I’d fall asleep faster than an overstuffed hibernating bear.  Now, of course if any of you ever want to see a good version of “Ringer,” just skip this one and see del Rio in the Mexican “La Otra” instead.    

Network TV shows then also had episodes involving different types of identical twins, and often it was for genres such as S/F, horror, and even espionage.  For examples you had the following:

  • “Star Trek”: “What Little Girls are Made Of” [Season One, Episode 7 (10/20/66)].  While on a distant barren planet Captain Kirk is captured and a duplicate android of himself is made to assume control of his ship.  This excellent episode was written by famed S/F and horror writer Robert Bloch (“Psycho”), and it definitely fits into the S/F and horror realm (and Ted Cassidy of “The Adams Family” plays one Hell of a scary android.)
  • “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”: “The Double Affair” [Season One, Episode 8 (11/17/64)].  Napoleon Solo (never has there ever been a stupider name for a spy) is captured, and his plastic surgery duplicate takes his place to obtain some secret stuff.  Stupid S/F and espionage plot, but it has a good motorcycle chase and fist-fight at the end.  Also, any episode with a young Senta Berger in it can never be too bad!
  •  “The Outer Limits”: “The Duplicate Man” [Season Two, Episode 13 (12/19/64)].  A scientist (Ron Randell) in the future has to create an illegal clone of himself programed to hunt and kill a dangerous, and also illegal, escaped telepathic creature that he had secretly smuggled in to study before it goes on a rampage.  Terrific noir-like adaption of a fine story by famed S/F and horror writer Clifford D. Simak (even though the creature looked more like a shabby Chewbacca with a bird beak!)
  • “The Twilight Zone”: “In his Image” [Season Four, Episode 1 (01/03/63)].  Alan (George Grizzard), with fractured memories of his past and, at times, murderous urges, tries to find out who he really is while taking his recent fiancee to visit his home town.  One of the all-time best episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (an expanded hour version) with a tour de force performance by Grizzard (and no, I’m not going to tell you anything else, Dear Reader).  See it!

Network TV, cable, and other streaming services also had series which had storylines involving identical twins.  One of the earliest ones was the ABC sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-66) with Duke having an identical paternal cousin (also played by Duke with a Scottish accent) due to the fact that their fathers (both played by veteran character actor William Schallert) were also, identical twins.  Sometimes, a visiting third paternal cousin (also Duke) would show up with a Southern accent to cause even more comic(?) mayhem.  Without going into the sheer biological improbability/impossibility of three paternal cousins being exactly identical, this show was typical of the type of crap sitcoms that polluted the television airwaves back then.  Basically, it was just ABC jumping on the Patty Duke bandwagon to pimp her for some cheap ratings since Duke just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Miracle Worker” the year before.  Besides Duke demonstrating that she couldn’t do either a Scottish or a Southern accent very well, it mercifully, was cancelled after three years.

A far better series involving identical twins (actually, a whole container ship load of them) was for the espionage/science fiction Starz Network cable series, “Counterpart” (2017-19). “Counterpart” takes place in Berlin and involves an entryway opening between two parallel Earths with everyone having an identical twin (even with the same name), except their opposite is on the alternative Earth.  The entryway was created after an experiment in 1987 East Germany, but when a major pandemic occurred on the alternative Earth in 1996 resulting in the death of hundreds of millions there, and the virus causing the pandemic was thought to have originated on our Earth, a Cold War situation has existed ever since.  Now the Top-Secret entryway is a major checkpoint portal where both sides strictly enforce who is allowed through each way with associated spies, assassins, officials, and other various individuals passing through constantly.  Even though this might be the only series where we have more identical twins than you know what to do with, this series is focused on the main character of Howard Silk played by the terrific Oscar-winning actor, J.K. Simmons.  On our Earth he is a meek, unassuming, and minor married office worker.  However, on the alternative Earth he is a ruthless, intelligent, and highly dangerous operative estranged from his wife, and needing to reveal his presence to and enlist the aid of his twin on our Earth to stop a rogue faction on his alternative Earth from executing a plan to get revenge on our Earth for causing the pandemic on their world. 

Although “Counterpart” is science fiction, it is also espionage, and it is terrific in conveying this dark shadowy world where lies, subterfuge, double-dealing, and betrayal are as common as in any espionage novel.  The entire cast is excellent, the various storylines are complex and believable, and the series is both suspenseful and constantly surprising.  However, maybe the best thing in “Counterpart” is J.K. Simmons in the pivotal role of Howard Silk.  He is absolutely amazing!  He literally becomes two different and distinct personalities before your very eyes, especially when both twins are together.  Each one is unique, and they butt heads constantly, but it is subtle at times rather than overt.  What’s even more remarkable is when each twin is on the other’s world and has to pretend they are the other one.  You see the slight changes he makes to each character non-verbally, from facial expressions to even body movement to pretend they are the other one, but at the same time, still maintaining some of the same characteristics of their original character.  While watching Simmons performance, all I kept thinking was, “How in the frigging Hell is he doing that?”  This series is a standout in its own right, and it’s a shame that it only lasted two years.  However, for “Counterpart,” J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Howard Silk is someone (or is it two?) who you’ll always remember.

Well, that’s about it for this post.  There are other fine performances by actors portraying identical twins whether it’s Kevin Kline in the political comedy, “Dave” (1993) or Lee Marvin in his Oscar winning performance for the Western comedy “Cat Ballou” (1965).  We’ll always have more of them.  Let’s just hope that they’ll be more “good” ones!


Shrink Rap!

Dr. Alex Brulov: “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love.  After that they make the best patients.” [Michael Chekhov to Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” (1945)]

The psychiatric profession has been a fruitful area for film directors and Network TV to explore for a long time.  It really came into prominence for motion pictures starting in the nineteen forties and later for television in the nineteen sixties.  This was due to a lot of motion picture directors, executives, and actors seeing psychoanalysts themselves, so they were influenced into making films about the subject.  It also might have been due to the horrors of WW II which brought the increased use of psychoanalysis into the forefront of the public conscience.  This leads up to this month’s post where I will discuss the different ways, both good and bad, that the field of psychiatry and psychiatrists have been portrayed in films and on TV all the way up to the present day.

A number of film noirs in the nineteen forties had storylines where mentally unstable individuals committed murder.  This allowed the field of psychiatry to be incorporated into the story to try and explain these individuals’ motivations/actions.  Such films like “The High Wall” (1947) had war veteran Robert Taylor accused of murdering his wife treated by psychiatrist Audrey Totter to help him try to remember what actually happened, or “The Dark Mirror” (1946) with psychiatrist Lew Ayres trying to figure out which identical twin (both played by Olivia de Havilland) was a psychopathic killer, or “Spellbound” (1945) with psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman who, while trying to help amnesiac psychiatrist Gregory Peck, discovers that:  (1) she is in love with him, (2) he is not really a psychiatrist, (3) he might be an insane killer, and (4) he didn’t pay for their dinner (maybe she should have just tried instead!).  All of these films along with others made back then just had to always have the various shrinks falling in love with their patients.  It got so bad that maybe Faberge should have marketed a scent labeled “Psychopathic Aphrodisia” for the public.  You just always had to love those Nut Jobs!

At times you didn’t even need to have a psychiatrist explaining the motivations for a psychopath in these films.  Instead, you now had your lead detective(s) spouting off some psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo about what were the psychological motivations for the maniac they were trying to apprehend.  It was almost like they had a “Psychopath for Dummies” identification book in the lower drawer of their precinct desk right along with their cheap half pint of bourbon, a pack of Camels, and a comic book or two.  Some of these movies back then were “White Heat” (1949), “Follow Me Quietly” (1949), and “Phantom Lady” (1944).  Although “Follow Me Quietly” and “White Heat” (with James Cagney playing the greatest psycho with a Mom complex until Norman Bates came along) were both excellent, “Phantom Lady” was almost laugh out loud awful.  Despite the fine direction by Robert Siodmak (“The Killers”), and incredible cinematography by Woody Bredell (also, “The Killers”), this stupid redundant tale of a loyal secretary (Ella Raines) secretly in love with her unhappily married boss (pretty boy non-actor Allan Curtis), and her efforts to later prove him innocent of his wife’s murder, it was adapted from a story by the always overrated trite noir writer, Cornell Woolrich.  However, maybe the worst thing in the whole movie was the ridiculous performance by Franchot Tone as (Spoiler Alert) the real nut job killer.  Every time he wants to secretly reveal his craziness to the viewing audience, he puts the flat part of his hand over his mouth while spreading his fingers wide open so his Goo-Goo-Googly eyes can bulge out between his fingers.  That might have possibly been the worst ever attempt by someone to look nutty until it was finally topped 47 years later by Anthony Hopkins’ overrated semi-drooling/ham performance as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” Even with Raines (while undercover at a late-night club) gyrating and erotically dancing while simulating in closeup that she was having an orgasm (how did that one get by the censors), you couldn’t keep “Phantom Lady” from inanity!

Too often for movies and Network TV you had psychiatrists portrayed as all-knowing/wise problem solvers of the mind who resolved their patients’ mental problems just in time for the ending credits to appear!  This also wouldn’t change until years later.  For this stereotype you had both good and bad ones with such good ones as:

  1. “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957): True story with good shrink Lee J. Cobb helping to cure tour de force Oscar winner Joanne Woodward’s three-person multiple personality disorder.
  2. “Sybil” (1976): NBC Network film, which was also a true story, with Joanne Woodward now as the good shrink helping to cure mesmerizing Emmy winner Sally Field of her fourteen-person multiple personality disorder.
  3. “The Snake Pit” (1948): Good shrink Leo Genn helping to cure Oscar nominated Olivia de Havilland’s mental illness while also throwing light on how institutionalized patients were mistreated in mental institutions.  This movie is dated but it is still powerful!
  4. “The Mark” (1961): Good shrink Rod Steiger helping former convicted child molester Stuart Whitman (Oscar nominated) to deal with his psychological demons upon his release.
  5. “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977): Semi-biographical story about good shrink Bibi Andersson helping Kathleen Quinlan (should have been Oscar nominated) in dealing with her mental illness.  Despite numerous questionable film changes for the original character’s story, this is still a good film with fine performances.

Of course, you also had some real stinkers with an all-knowing/wise(ass) psychiatrist such as:

  1. “The Dark Past” (1949): Know it all shrink Lee J. Cobb while being held captive by murderous escapee Bill Holden and his gang takes less than an evening to cure of him of his psychological nightmares, his paralyzed hand, his murderous tendencies, and a bad case of dandruff making him into a new man (Of course there is still that little matter of him killing the prison warden earlier!).  No problem!  Cobb will take care of that one too before breakfast!
  2. “Lizzie” (1957): Vaudeville “Three Faces of Eve” rip-off with Eleanor Parker overacting worse than a high school play reject trying to portray someone with a multiple personality disorder.  Also, with Richard (Palladin) Boone in a sleepwalking performance as her shrink!
  3. “Dressed to Kill” (1980): Maybe the worst of them all.  Another Alfred Hitchcock rip-off film by Hack Director Brian De Palma.  This time it’s “Psycho” with cheating Angie Dickinson in the Janet Leigh role, and Michael Caine as her therapist who’s trying to analyze(!!!) her while also  getting in touch with his feminine side (You know, like Lizzie Borden!).

Later on, studios started to make film biographies of famous therapists, and surprisingly, a couple of them were actually quite good.  Two that I want to mention are “Freud” (1962), and “A Dangerous Method” (2011).  “Freud” was a straight biography of the therapist as a young doctor leading up to the development of his analytical concepts regarding dream interpretation, the subconscious, child sexuality, and the Oedipus complex.  It had top notch talent behind it with Montgomery Cliff starring as Freud, Susannah York playing a composite of a number of his patients, a number of other fine English character actors, an original screenplay by playwright Jean Paul-Sartre, fine black and white cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, an Oscar nominated film score by Jerry Goldsmith, and direction by John Huston.  However, despite all of that, it was a very troubled production.  Sartre’s screenplay was too long (it would have resulted in an eight-hour movie), and Mega-Jerk Sartre had his name removed from the film rather than having his “masterpiece” screenplay altered in any way.  Susannah York was also a royal pain in the ass to deal with too, so much so, that she was finally told to quit being a problem “or else”.  And then there was Montgomery Cliff.

Marilyn Monroe once said of Cliff, “He’s the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.” (And folks, that means something if someone as screwed up as Marilyn Monroe says something like that!).  This was Cliff’s next to last film, and besides his dealing with being gay, he was beset with numerous health problems accentuated by his long-time drug and alcohol dependency.  It also didn’t help that Huston, who had a long track record of having sadistic tendencies during prior film productions, was continually abusive to Cliff during filming.  The constant production delays due to both Cliff and Huston’s actions later resulted in Universal-International Studios trying to sue Cliff for the production delay costs.  However, despite all of that, the film was a hit, and not only did the Studio lose the suit, they also had to pay Cliff a serious chunk of money.  My own feelings on the matter are that Cliff, even early in his career, and Huston could both be arrogant royal Assholes, but together they still managed to make a fine film no matter what you think of Freud’s views and concepts.  Huston brilliantly directs “Freud” almost like a film noir mystery of the mind with Cliff as a detective trying to solve why York and others portraying disturbed patients either say or act the way they do. Incorporated into this film are incredible dark black and white dream sequences which are the most riveting ones seen on film since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” was made seventeen years before.  Cliff’s performance is subtle, and both thoughtful and introspective.  For all of his troubles, he was still able to deliver a capable performance with strong assistance provided by John Huston.

“A Dangerous Method” is another film drama about Sigmund Freud.  However, it takes an entirely different approach to psychiatry.  Here it is instead a drama about three eminent therapists: (1) Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), (2) his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who suffers from hysteria and ultimately becomes both his mistress and an eminent therapist in her own right, and (3) Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his interactions with both individuals.  The film was directed by David Cronenberg with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his own play.  At first, I couldn’t see how Cronenberg could ever possibly be able to direct such a high brow film.  He was known for a film genre known as “body horror” which too often were films containing scenes of extreme gore, violence, nudity, and sex (“A History of Violence”, “Eastern Promises”, etc.).  However, in this case, I was wrong.  He elicits fine performances from the three main characters (except whenever Knightley overacts while going into a hysterical fit).  He also expertly incorporated the scenery, costumes, sets, and art direction into the film to beautifully convey the time that these individuals lived.  Cronenberg crafts a movie that really forces you to think about the various opposing views of Jung and Freud along with what originally drew them both together first as friends and colleagues, but later tore them apart as their professional differences, especially pertaining to psychoanalytical concepts, proved unreconcilable.  However, maybe the best part of the movie is his utilization of Hampton’s screenplay.  It is complex, and he does not dumb down the differing concepts found in psychoanalysis for the viewer.  That is what ultimately makes “A Dangerous Method” a great film.

As time went by, another change in film portrayals of the psychiatric profession was in their focus shifting from not just a therapist’s treatment of patients, but also how a therapist was personally affected for better or worse.  Unfortunately, too often this resulted in soap opera storylines that almost came across like Peyton Place on a couch.  For movies you had such winners as “The Cobweb” (1955) with Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Graham, Paul Stewart, Lillian Gish, and others consisting of shrinks and staff at a mental institution more busy drinking, cheating, back stabbing, etc. than actually treating patients.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the grating nail across a blackboard film score by bad film composer Leonard Rosenman was enough to drive anyone batty.  Next up you had the campy and overwrought “The Caretakers” (1963) with Robert Stack (right after he finished playing Elliott Ness) now reduced to cleaning up a psych ward rather than the crime infested Chicago of the nineteen thirties.  However, here he had a nemesis that was even worse than Al Capone…JOAN CRAWFORD!  As the head shrink, he believes in group therapy.  As the head nurse, she believes in strait-jackets, and padded cells (and also maybe the rack and branding irons which was probably how you maintained discipline in your own home!  Right, Joannie!).  By the end of this mess, I was hoping that Ness…I mean, Stack would have just whipped out that old Thompson submachine gun and blasted all of the Pepsi-Cola advertisements that Crawford had deliberately placed in this movie (she was on their board of directors at the time) along with Crawford, to smithereens. Lastly, you had “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1963) with Gregory Peck as the aforementioned “Newman” who is head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at the Colfax Army Air Field military hospital in the Arizona desert treating numerous airmen suffering from various emotional and psychological combat trauma in 1944.  This one, at least, mixed in some comedy with the hard drama (sort of like a much lesser “M*A*S*H”) with Tony Curtis and Larry Storch providing the comedy, and Angie Dickinson (way before she was fricasseed in “Dressed to Kill”) as his head nurse/love interest.  This one wasn’t so bad as much as just being pedestrian/soap opera bland.  It wasn’t till much, much later that something far better came along and that one wasn’t even a film.

Network TV tried a few times to specifically produce a few shows about the psychiatric profession.  However, all of these like “The Eleventh Hour” (1962-64), “Breaking Point” (1963), and “The Hothouse” (1988) were rating failures.  Basically, Network TV too often just incorporated stories relating to the psychiatric profession into their regular TV medical shows every once in a while, from Dr. Kildare/Ben Casey’s time all the way up to “ER” and “House”.  Maybe this was because the public preferred watching their doctors operating on people rather than analyzing them.  Who knows!  Anyway, finally one cable series came along which focused on a therapist not only psychoanalyzing patients, but also focusing on his all too fallible personal life.  That series was “In Treatment” (2008-10) starring Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Paul Weston.

“In Treatment” was an unusual series in that it was originally based on the Israeli series “Be Tipul” (“In Therapy”) which won a ton of awards there.  An American adaption was made using some of the same storylines and even some of the music from the original Israeli series.  HBO Europe reached a deal with other countries mostly in Europe along with a few others in the world to develop their own versions which have continued long after the American version ended in 2010, although a new version has returned this year with Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) as the new therapist.  The format of the original American series consisted of five, thirty-minute episodes shown weekly one per night where Weston, in a separate office at his home, conducted individual sessions with his patient(s).  However, that was only for the first four episodes out of the five.  The fifth episode every week consisted of Weston going to the home of his former friend and colleague Gina (Dianne Wiest) who psychoanalyzed him.

As Weston, Byrne is terrific as is Wiest along with all of the rest of the cast.  He is neither all knowing nor even wise at times.  He makes mistakes, sometimes “big” ones.  He gets too involved in his patients’ lives which causes a strain on his marriage with his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), his children, and his own sense of self.  He can also be an arrogant and temperamental ass as well as acting curt, rude, and judgmental with everyone around him including Gina.  However, he is also a keenly insightful and skilled therapist, an extremely feeling individual, and too often most critical of himself.  In other words, he is a believably real “human being.”  “In Treatment” does have some major flaws.  Some of the angry, nasty, and inappropriate outbursts towards him during some of his sessions I cannot believe any analyst would possibly tolerate for long including his own nasty outbursts at times with Gina.  Also, two patient storylines of (1) Laura (Melissa George) being erotically attracted to him and he to her, and (2) Mia (Hope Davis), an old ex-girlfriend who he accepted as a patient even though it was obvious from the start that she still had major unresolved issues with him after all of these years misdirect the series into ludicrous soap opera territory at times.  However, even with these flaws, “In Treatment” is the only series that shows how therapy sessions actually somewhat work, and how hard it is for even gradual progress to be made if any progress is to be made at all.  For a series about people who mostly sit around talking to each other, “In Treatment” is both suspenseful and illuminating!

Well, that sums up another Blog Post.  I hope that it was interesting and informative for you!  However, if it was not, or if I provoked any anger or annoyance, well…



Poverty Porn!

Ty Ty Walden:  “When a man has a wife like Griselda, I don’t know how he can keep his mind on food all the time.”

Griselda Walden, Ty Ty’s Daughter-in-Law:  “Now, quit your teasin’ Ty Ty.”

Ty Ty Walden:  “If the good Lord seen fit to put a beauty like you in our house, I’m gonna take my fill of lookin’ while I can.”  [Robert Ryan to Tina Louise in “God’s Little Acre!” (1958)]

Rural America, whether it was portrayed in the south, mid-west, or elsewhere has been a popular subject for countless novels, plays, movies or TV shows going all the way back to the founding of this nation.  Since the majority of the population was rural, not urban or suburban until much later in our country’s existence, it was a natural subject for dramatization.  Also, due to job prospects being more limited, agriculture was the principal means for employment even though individuals remained limited economically due to such fickle things as topography, weather, acreage need, etc. which too often resulted in people just barely scraping by or living in dire poverty or…  OK, WAKE UP!  WAKE UP ALREADY!  I figured I’d better do that right now before my pseudo-sociological/economic introduction to this month’s Blog Post puts everyone to sleep (or at least keep you from getting a concussion from dozing off and hitting your head on something).  In a nut shell, this month’s Post will discuss the overabundance of movies, cable, and Network TV shows that explored/misrepresented this part of rural American life which I have not so subtly nick-named, “Poverty Porn.”

From the late nineteen-fifties right on up to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, Network TV was loaded or plagued, like an infestation of locusts, with numerous shows that celebrated (AKA made big ratings/bucks for the TV Networks) rural America.  These shows happened to be sitcoms presenting a rural populace that the Networks wanted to make appear as being naïve but noble but too often devolved into just having them come across as ignorant or dumber than an ice truck salesman trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.  The only saving grace for these shows was that a number of these rural types often interacted with urban dwellers who, despite being better educated and economically advantaged, were made to look even dumber than these so called “lesser” individuals.  My own opinion was that these shows were just plain stupid, simplistic, and loaded with heavy-handed and borderline slapstick humor, so much so, that they just re-enforced crude stereotypes that did a disservice to everyone.  The CBS Network was a pioneer in mass producing these highly rated low I.Q. sitcoms.  They were so prevalent that critics said that CBS should actually mean, the “Country” Broadcasting System, and that instead of originally being called the “Tiffany” Network, a much better moniker should have been the “Hillbilly” Network.  Some of these shows were:

  • “Petticoat Junction” (1963-70): Rural sitcom taking place at the Shady Rest Hotel run by Kate, the owner, her three jailbait daughters located in the community of Hooter…ville (I’m not kidding), and where hilarity ensues.  An old 1890s train called the Hooterville Cannonball also played a predominant role at the beginning of each episode Hooting its whistle while the three daughters just happened to be taking a shower together during the opening credits (Real subtle, CBS!).
  • “Green Acres” (1965-71): When New York City lawyer Eddie Albert wants to leave the rat race and become a rural farmer, his glamorous, semi-beautiful wife, Eva Gabor follows and hilarity ensues.  And where is their farm located?  Why near Hooterville of course.  You know a sitcom is really bad when a pig named Eva … Ops! (wrong pig) I mean, Arnold, has all of the best lines.
  • “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71): Widowed Ozark hillbilly Jed (looking like a scarecrow who got his attire from The Walking Dead”) after discovering oil and becoming a gazillionaire moves his family consisting of sex bomb daughter Elly May, the family imbecile Jethro, and sweet/forgiving devout Confederate/Baptist Bigot Granny (Yeah, and if she was around now would probably have been leading the crowd storming the Capitol Building with a rope in hand looking for the nearest non-Caucasian to lynch).  And where did they all move to?  Why to Beverly Hills, of course where even more hilarity ensues (At least it wasn’t Hooterville this time!).
  • “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-68): Starring Andy Griffith playing Andy Griffith as the sheriff of Mayberry, his 6-year-old son Opie (Ron Howard before he started going bald like at age 8), his deputy Barney (Don Knotts vibrating like a tuning fork), Jim Nabors as Gomer (the village idiot), and where even more and more, hilarity ensues (I think I need a marathon “Halloween” movie fix right about now!).
  • “Mayberry, RFD” (1968-71): With bland Ken Barry taking over after Andy Griffith left the show.  The blandly re-named show follows bland widow city councilman Sam and his bland son Mike’s interactions with the remaining denizens of Mayberry where bland hilarity now ensues (I think I’m starting to fall asleep!).
  • The Real McCoys” (1957-63): This show actually originated on ABC but for its last year it moved to CBS so I’m including it here.  It starred Grandpappy Amos (Walter Brennan) and his grandson and family who move from West Virginia to California to live and work on a farm that they inherited, and how they dealt with others while instilling their sweet, rural family wisdom and humor (which also reflected Brennan’s conservative views). What sort of views you ask?  You know, like when good old Amos uses his divining rod to find a new water source for the farm vs. the recommendation of an actual geologist (AKA science “Bad!”  Ignorant, superstitious folklore “Good!”).  Or how about good old lovable Amos confronting bigotry against hillbillies like themselves from local children (But it’s perfectly OK for you, Walter in real life to be a vehemently hateful anti-Semitic and racist Bigot!  Right, Walter!).  Maybe CBS in their wisdom could have done a crossover episode with Granny and Amos hooking up and going on a first date, fire-bombing places of worship that were not of their same faith.  Oh, what wonderful hilarity would ensue from that!  Right, CBS!

Finally, the Big Three Networks, and especially CBS under executive Robert Wood and programming head Fred Silverman during the 1970-71 time period instituted what was known as the “rural purge” where an entire group of rural themed sitcoms, some still very popular in the ratings, were cancelled along with a number of older game shows (“I’ve Got a Secret”, etc.) and variety shows (“The Ed Sullivan Show”, etc.).  This followed from research showing that these shows drew a less desirable audience, namely older and rural or young boys lacking disposable income for advertisers’ products.  The result was Networks focusing more on developing shows that would be appealing to suburban and urban audiences along with young adults, and who would also have more disposable income to buy advertisers’ products.  CBS would still make shows that appealed to the rural populace like the original “Hee-Haw” (1969-71) and which, after cancellation, was put into syndication from 1971-93, the gentle rural family drama “The Waltons” (1972-81), and “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-85).  However, as an important block of Network programing, rural-oriented TV sitcoms were deader than an Egyptian mummy (or Madonna’s film career!).

Hollywood adapted a large number of books by some noted authors and playwrights into films exploring poor rural life with both good and bad results.  A number of these novels along with their film adaptions ran into censorship problems due, at times, to their tawdry subject matter (real or imagined) which affected the overall quality of their film adaptions.  For writer Erskine Caldwell you had a bad film version of “Tobacco Road” (1941) but a good one for “God’s Little Acre” (1958).  Next, for William Faulkner you had a good adaption of “Intruder in the Dust” (1949), but poor adaptions of “The Sound and the Fury” (1959) and “Sanctuary” (1961).  Then, for John Steinbeck you had good film adaptions of “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), but a poor one for “Tortilla Flat” (1942).  Lastly, for Tennessee Williams you had a good adaption of “This Property is Condemned” (1966) but a God awful one for “Baby Doll” (1956) (Karl Malden overacted so badly he should have been muzzled!).  The list just goes on and on.  Out of all of the ones that I have just mentioned, I’d like to highlight two for praise.  They are not as acclaimed as some of the others but they both deserve better appreciation.  Those two are “God’s Little Acre” and “This Property is Condemned”.

“Acre’s” storyline revolved around widowed farmer Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) the patriarch of his family in the backwoods of Georgia during the Great Depression.  His family consists of three boys (Buck, Shaw, and Jim) and two girls, Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain) the teenage sexual tease, and Rosamund, unhappily married to Will (Aldo Ray) who still lusts after his ex-fiancee Griselda (Tina Louise) who also still has the hots for Will even though she is now married to Ty Ty’s hot-tempered son, Buck (Confused yet?).  Ty Ty has been digging for gold, supposedly, a treasure left by his grandfather for over 15 years while leaving his farm in total disarray.  Will, depressed after losing his job when the nearby textile mill closed, longs to re-open it while erotically reconnecting (and not figuratively either) with Griselda (What a mess!).  When this book was originally published in 1933, the sexual themes were considered so explicit that Caldwell and his publisher were sued for spreading pornography.  Caldwell won!  They lost!  It was also banned in Boston (always a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned) as well as courting controversy due to Caldwell’s desire to focus on the plight of non-unionized textile workers in the Depression era South which back then could be construed as maybe Socialist or Communist or Marxist or, at the very least, not too friendly towards Capitalism in general.  This film courted its own amount of controversy since the screenplay was by blacklisted writer, Ben Maddow who tried to show a form of popular uprising by the laid-off millworkers in trying to re-gain control of their former factory equipment in order to work again.  However, this film was made back in the McCarthy Era fifties when Blacklisting was prevalent so it was really toned down into just showing a bunch of guys showing up with Will in the lead to briefly turn on some textile machines before tragedy strikes.   By now you may be thinking, “And why exactly, do you like this film?”  Well, remember the title of this month’s Blog Post Dear Reader?  For the fifties, besides innuendo, “Acre” reeked with erotic and smarmy sexual tension combined with some really hysterical funny moments which made it all worthwhile.

The still underrated and great Director Anthony Mann could do any sort of picture from film noir (“Raw Deal”) to Classic Westerns (“Winchester 73”) to even historical Epics (“El Cid”).  Here, even though he had to tone down Caldwell’s radical views and maybe Maddow’s as well, he ramped up (as far as possible back then) the sexual aspects of the novel into his film.  Whether it was Fay Spain taking a bath in an outdoor bathtub next to an outdoor handpump and spigot while asking lusting Buddy Hackett (eyeballs almost popping out of his head) to “pump” some more water on her to Tina Louise walking outdoors in the middle of the night wearing an almost painted on negligee covered in sweat to Aldo Ray, bare-chested, also covered in sweat panting almost like a wild animal upon meeting her at night, the sexual tension could make anyone sweat right along with them.  When this film was first released, audiences under 18 years of age were prohibited from seeing it. However, it didn’t stop me from seeing it when it first came out and I was a whole lot younger than 18 too (My older brother took me with him!  He wasn’t 18 either!).  To be honest, back then I liked “Acre” because, for a little innocent kid like me, I didn’t notice the sexual overtones at all.  I just thought the film was really funny.  Some of the advertisements for “Acre” were things like, “See How Poor White Trash Live!” and “Forbidden Love in the Hot Georgia Sun!”  Some of the dialogue was priceless too!  For example:

Ty Ty Walden: (In response to his son wanting a raincoat) “Son, if it starts to rain, you just peel off your clothes and let your skin take care of the rest.  God never made a finer raincoat than a man’s skin, anyhow.”  (No sexual innuendo here at all!  Right!)

Robert Ryan looked like he was having the time of his life overacting in this role.  Although Tina Louise was never much of an actress, she didn’t have to be rather than just acting alluring which she pulled off without a hitch.  Aldo Ray, also a limited actor, could at least elicit a crude form of blunt masculine sexuality here that fit into this movie very well.  There was even a small pivotal role played by a very young Michael Landon playing an albino (Why not!  He played a “Teenage Werewolf” just the year before) who Ty Ty enlists (sort of) in helping him to find that gold.  The scandalous aspects of “Acre” are pretty dated now.  However, the overall acting by everyone as well as the non-subtle comedy in the storyline still make “Acre” enjoyable more so than the overrated and supposedly more scandalous “Baby Doll” made just two years prior.

“This Property Is Condemned” was based on a one act play by Tennessee Williams that took place during the Great Depression in the small fictional town of Dodson, Mississippi.  Natalie Wood starred as Alma Star, the eldest daughter of Hazel who owns a boarding house where local railroad workers rent rooms.  Hazel uses (pimps out) Alma as an attraction for the men so they will rent rooms there while Alma desperately wants to escape this dead-end existence and head to the big city of New Orleans.  A stranger named Owen (Robert Redford) soon arrives there and also rents a room while quickly attracting Alma’s interest since he came from New Orleans.  However, secretly, he is actually a railroad agent hired to lay off a number of employees, some of who are Hazel’s renters, due to cutbacks caused by the Depression.  Conflicts arise as Alma and Owen slowly grow closer and fall in love.  However (This is a Tennessee Williams story, you know!), things ultimately do not work out the way either Alma or Owen had planned.

“Condemned” had a lot of problems being made.  Tennessee Williams hated the adaption and threatened to have his name removed from the credits.  As such there was no finished screenplay when filming began which required constant re-writes causing further delays.  Wood was also having some serious personal problems.  Her prior films were not successful, and she even tried to commit suicide during this film’s production.  She also had difficulties doing some of the scenes.  For a specific scene where her character was supposed to be drunk in a bar, she had to actually get drunk because she just couldn’t perform the scene properly.  For another scene where her character was supposed to be standing in a steel water tank for cattle, she was so scared of being in dark water (a major phobia that she had all of her life) that actor Robert Blake (who was also in the movie) had to dive under the water and, while holding his breath, steady her legs so she could do the scene.  Sadly, when this film was released, it was met with both public and critical indifference resulting in Wood not making another movie for the next three years.  However, “Condemned” has gotten better and better with age.  First, despite its problems, the film had a top-notch production team making it.  Future Oscar-winning Director Sydney Pollack (it was his second film) directed it very well.  Also, despite the screenplay’s issues, the finished version was excellent (even if it didn’t jive with William’s original play).  This might have been due to the fact that it was co-written by a young talented guy by the name of Francis Ford Coppola who would later earn his spurs as a future Oscar winning screenplay writer before graduating into becoming a future Oscar Winning Director.  It was co-produced by the great producer (and later actor) John Houseman and the cinematography was by legendary former Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Second, the acting was excellent too with Redford subtly underplaying his character while managing to show some depth in the role.  The other actors such as Kate Reid as Hazel, Mary Badham as Alma’s younger sister, and Charles Bronson in a sly and sinister performance as Hazel’s (maybe) boyfriend are all good too.  However, the best of them all is Natalie Wood’s great performance as Alma.  Her Alma, like most of playwright William’s female characters, is a tarnished innocent living in a dream-world of her own mind.  Whether it’s taking Owen to show him her late father’s red-headed scarecrow to telling him fanciful stories that Owen knows are not true, her Alma is consistently beautiful aided in no small way by James Wong Howe’s stunning star highlighting cinematography.  However, at the same time, in Alma, Wood gives the absolutely sexiest and most sensual performance of her career.  Her Alma attracts men to her like a magnet and she knows it and she loves it.  She pulls off the difficult dual role of making her Alma both an erotic unattainable dream girl, and a desperately manipulative tramp.  This movie deserved better, and so did Natalie Wood in her too short and, ultimately, tragic life.

Other adaptions of novels highlighting rural life have been made into fine films such as “The Yearling” (1946), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and “Winter’s Bone” (2010).  However, the last two pictures that I want to highlight are more recent.  Those two films are “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020), and “The Devil all the Time” (2020).  “Elegy” was based on the runaway bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, and it starred Amy Adams as Beverly, J.D.’s mother, and Glenn Close as Bonnie (Mamaw), J.D.’s grandmother.  In flashbacks, a grown-up Vance (Gabriel Basso) reflects back to his upbringing as  part of a poor dysfunctional Kentucky family while he currently tries to help his drug/alcohol addicted mother once again while also applying for a job at a prestigious law firm.  Like other films chronicling family substance abuse issues tied into corresponding sociological problems such as poverty, “Elegy” does not paint a pretty picture of it or an exactly original one either.  Also, a movie that shows someone like J.D. being able to overcome such a life to become a success is not exactly original either.  Nor is a movie where ultimately, J.D.’s road to success is due to both his equally flawed Mamaw’s abuse/tough love as well as his own desire to accept responsibility and make something of himself as anything really original either.  What makes this movie work however, is that it tells a simple story very well while presenting a portion of American society, namely rural, honestly, and with believable individuals who are not stereotypes thanks to Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”).  Film critics have not generally approved Howard’s directorial efforts and for “Elegy” they have not been kind either except for praising some of the acting performances.  Why?  You tell me!  Some critics said it perpetuated stereotypes.  Others said it was nothing original.  Others said it was too melodramatic.  Others didn’t like how the movie cherry-picked only certain parts of Vance’s memoir and didn’t tell a full story.  My own personal view is (Repeat my Mantra…), “The Critics Are Full Of Shit!”  About the only real fault I have with this film is that there may be some truth to the film’s cherry-picking premise but, unless you want to have a six-hour movie, I’d like to know how else it could have been done.  Also, as an aside, actress Amy Adams is way overdue in getting an Oscar win, but unfortunately, her performance as Beverly, is too often someone acting like the character but never actually being believable as the character.  That’s a big problem!  Sorry, Amy!  Better luck, next year!  However, as for Glenn Close, another actress that is even longer overdue Oscar-wise, She…Absolutely…Nails…It!  Every time she is in a scene, she completely steals it.  Some of Vance’s family members even started crying when they saw Close’s performance and felt it was almost like Mamaw had come back to life.  She is Mamaw, not trying to act like Mamaw!  If the Academy doesn’t finally give her the Damn Oscar already, I’ll personally be accepting Bounty donations for their heads (excluding a small stipend for my expenses, of course)!

“The Devil all the Time” is a different sort of animal altogether.  Adapted from the novel by Donald Ray Pollack (who also provides the narration for the film), “Devil” is an ensemble drama consisting of a number of interconnected storylines of individuals in and around the rural area of Knockemstiff in southern Ohio encompassing a period from the end of World War II up to the late 1960s.  The film is a portrait of rural poverty, ignorance, violence, psychopathic/deviant behavior, and how backwoods religious beliefs can be misused or distorted to commit or to excuse any sort of abhorrent or criminal act.  The only real connecting thread for all of these various storylines for the film are in how they all ultimately tie in later with the character of Alvin Russell (Tom Holland), a newly orphaned teenager who lives with his grandmother after his widowed father previously committed suicide.  This is a dark and, at times, disturbing film.  It is probably one of the most damning portraits of those professing holiness committing evil that I have ever seen since the movie, “Spotlight” (2015).  Also, some of the twisted and disturbed individuals portrayed in this film almost look like escapees from your typical Rob Zombie film.  Other than that, it’s a fun film for the whole family (If you’re The Adams Family!).  Director Antonio Campos does a masterful job interconnecting all of the various storylines and eliciting incredible realistic performances by the entire cast including Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett (who gave a fine performance in “Hillbilly Elegy” too), Bill Skarsgard, and especially, Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson.  Pattinson has been giving a bunch of great and acclaimed performances for the past few years now (after he quit doing all of those Shitty “Twilight” movies) and his performance as a phony Bible-thumping preacher is one to remember.  However, Tom Holland is the true revelation here as Alvin.  Gone is the boyishly shy nerdy Peter Parker from the Spiderman movies.  His Alvin, while youthfully awkward, is also unexpectedly tough, quick thinking, and a surprisingly formidable adversary against some of the repulsive lowlifes that he is forced to face.  However, his character never loses his humanity, and is so soulful that by the end of “Devil” he is actually quite touching.  It’s a great performance!  Campos’ outstanding direction loaded with religious symbolism captures a gritty side of backwoods life in a way that you won’t soon forget.  This picture has gotten better reviews than “Elegy” but, unfortunately, it still won’t get the full recognition that it deserves.

Whether you want to call “The Devil all the Time”, Poverty Porn or not, I will just call it “The Best Movie of 2020!”

Deal with it!


False Assumptions!

Groot: “I am Groot.”

Peter Quill: “Well, that’s just as fascinating as the first 89 times you told me that.  What is wrong with Giving Tree here?”

Rocket Raccoon: “Well he don’t know talkin’ good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to “I” and “am” and “Groot,” exclusively in that order.”

Peter Quill: “Well I tell you what, that’s gonna wear real thin, real fast, bud.”

[Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper squabbling amongst themselves in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)]

I have to admit to all of you that I have made some mistakes. As a matter of fact, when I first started this Blog, I said in my very first Blog Post that I would make mistakes.  Well, that is only natural.  I could possibly make all kinds of accuracy or grammatical errors and to which I would expect to be justifiably verbally flogged by all of you for my transgressions.  Also, since I am my own proofreader the odds could definitely increase exponentially until, ultimately, I would make such a faux pas.  However, that is not the type of error that I am about to admit to.  You see, there is one type of mistake that I am about to admit to which is something that I, rather than you, would ever notice.  Now what in the world could this possibly be you might be wondering, and what does this have to do with this month’s Blog Post?  Well, let me explain!  You see, it involves “assumption.”  There’s a really old joke that says, “You should never ASS U ME anything, because if you do, you will ultimately…”

  • Make an ASS…
  • Out of U…
  • And out of ME.

This month’s Post will be about mistakes that I have made for movies, directors, certain actors, etc. because I mistakenly made prior assumptions before even seeing something that I made a judgement on, or that I made a judgement about something that I saw a long time ago but when I re-saw it recently, I had to change my prior opinion.  These prior mistakes I am about to apologize for. Hence, now that I have acknowledged my mea culpa, I will begin to make my amends.

My first one pertains to a movie that I saw a few times when I was young many years ago which happened to star my all-time favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart.  As much as I love Bogey, I absolutely hated this particular movie and bad mouthed it so often over the years that I must have sounded like a broken record.  However, as the years have gone by, it had gotten more and more acclaim every year especially for Bogart’s performance.  Hence, last year I finally convinced myself to re-see it again after maybe an over 45-year absence to see what the Heck the critics and the general public were talking about, and that I may have missed previously.  After viewing it, I sat there stunned!  I was dead wrong!  It was a great movie and it was one of Humphrey Bogart’s greatest performances.  So what was the picture you ask?  Why it was…

“In a Lonely Place” (1950)

Bogart played Dixon Steele, a has-been, insecure, and temperamental Hollywood screenwriter prone to outbursts of rage and violence who is suspected of murder after he was last seen with the murder victim shortly before her death.  He sees and later starts to date Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a struggling actress who is a new tenant in his apartment building and they ultimately fall in love.  However, Steele’s constant emotional instability makes her start to question whether he is actually innocent after all, and that his volatility could threaten her own life.  I think my original dislike of this film was due to my youthful ignorance of what the film actually was.  It was a relationship drama and a character study with noir overtones which I never could comprehend when I was younger.  Also, it was distributed by Columbia Pictures and I always had difficulty in watching their earlier films back then because, at times, they seemed cheaply made, and emotionally overwrought.  My understanding and appreciation of nuance and character complexity did not develop until later in my life so this was another strike against “Place”.  It took a second look after so many years to appreciate Bogart’s incredibly complex performance of someone vain, mercurial, smart, sarcastic (which Bogey could do in his sleep), bitter, abusive, scared, cruel, loving, tender, paranoid, etc. and how he could flip from one of these characteristics to another or a combination of them almost instantaneously moment to moment.  Film director Nicholas Ray might have been an overrated director, but he directed this particular film very well, especially with the noir aspects, thanks to fine cinematography by future two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey.  However, I felt that it was Bogart who grabbed both the movie and his character by the throat and made it his own.  His performance here was watching a true master artist at work.  Actress Louise Brooks (“Pandora’s Box”) who knew Bogart said that his character of Dixon Steele was most like who he really was in real life.  I can honestly believe it.  For “In a Lonely Place,” Bogart wasn’t just playing the character of Dixon Steele.  He actually was Dixon Steele!  

Another movie I dismissed without ever seeing it until a couple of years ago was Director Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). This wartime comedy’s storyline was about a meek small-town guy named Woodrow, who was discharged from the Marine Corp due to acute hay fever.  Embarrassed because his deceased father was a hero in World War I and, rather than returning home, he sent letters to his mom saying he was fighting overseas while he was actually working in a San Diego shipyard.  However, when he buys a bunch Marines on leave a round of drinks, one of them (William Demarest) who originally served with his father tries to help him out by having his fellow Marines go with Woodrow back to his home town and say that he served with them and that he just returned stateside with a medical discharge.   From that point on the lies pile up one after the other from the whole town showing up to celebrate him as a hero to everyone even suggesting that he should run for mayor.  Although this plot had a classic screwball comedy premise, I absolutely had no desire to see “Hero” at all.  This was primarily due to a number of factors. 

First, I had a strong dislike of Preston Sturges.  Known as a comedy director, I had previously seen some of his films many years ago (“The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, etc.) and I didn’t think they were funny at all.  Hence, I arbitrarily dismissed the rest of his films like “Hero”.  Second, the character of Woodrow was played by actor Eddie Bracken.  I always regarded Bracken as a second-rate comedy actor who played so many secondary roles in films and on TV that I never could picture him as a lead actor in anything.  Third, tied into that was a supporting cast lacking star power like Ella Raines (a B-movie actress) as his girlfriend, and Demarest whose chief claim to fame was playing Uncle Charley for the future “My Three Sons” Network TV show.  Lastly, if such high-powered actors like Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Veronica Lake were not funny in the previous Sturges comedies that I saw, why would I think “Hero” would be any different.  Well Dear Reader, I was dead wrong!  Both Bracken and Raines gave terrific performances (maybe the best of their careers).  The other character actors were fine too and the pacing of the comic lines were flying so thick and fast by the actors that you could hardly catch your breath before you just started laughing again.  This might have also been due to the terrific script by Sturges (which was Oscar nominated) and his direction which captured the comic timing of the actors to the dialogue perfectly.  Sturges prime skill as a director was in writing great original screenplays [he won the first ever Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty (1940)].  With “Hail the Conquering Hero”, Preston Sturges directed a true comic gem!

Two more recent films I have to mention which also forced me to eat my words.  The first one involved a terrible assumption that I made about a particular director.  That director was Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese, a great director, did a number of terrific and acclaimed movies such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Irishman” (2019), and so many others.  His films, while varied, had a strong propensity for graphic violence, profanity, machoism, criminality along with religious concepts such as guilt and redemption accompanied by the judicious use of rock music.  So, could I have ever in my wildest dreams thought that he was capable of doing an actual children’s film that was good for the whole family?  Hell, NO!  Yet, that is what he actually did when he made the film, “Hugo” (2011).  Once again, I thought that you have got to be kidding me so I completely ignored it for years.  You all do not have to all tell me that…I…Was…Wrong!!!

“Hugo” was based on the 2007 Brian Selznick children’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”.  Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-Year-old orphan who secretly lives in the Gare Montpamasse railway station in 1931 Paris while secretly repairing train station clocks there between stealing food and hiding from the Train Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).  His further adventures involve working for a shopkeeper named Georges (Ben Kingsley) after he is caught stealing, making friends with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and later, George’s wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory).  As the story proceeds you find out more about Georges and Hugo’s desire to repair an automation, a mechanical man that may contain a message from Hugo’s deceased father.  Scorsese decided to make this film after his young daughter gave him Selznick’s book hoping he would later turn it into a film.  She also wanted him to make it as a 3-D film.  He did both (clever kid), and it was the first time he ever made a 3-D film.  The film received universal acclaim and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (more than any other film that year) winning 5 Oscars in all.  Unfortunately, it was not a box office success and it didn’t win either Best Picture or Best Director for Scorsese (which it should have).  After seeing “Hugo” I now have a cardinal rule that I always make regarding Martin Scorsese:  Never, ever, think that he cannot make a great film out of anything.  “Hugo” is a classic!

The second more recent film that I assumed stunk even before I ever saw it was an actual Marvel Studio picture.  Now, I’ll make an honest admission here:  I love Marvel Superhero movies.  I have been a fan of just about all of them since the very beginning as well as being an avid Marvel comic book fan when I was a little kid (even younger than the one in “Hugo”).  However, when the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) movie came out, I literally refused to see it.  Why you may ask?  Well, I quit reading Marvel comics as well as comics in general when I got older so I never read any of the “Guardians…” comic book series when they were first issued.  Hence, I had no frame of reference.  Second, the idea of a guy running around the Galaxies with the moniker of “Star-Lord” while teaming up with a bunch of aliens, one of which was a frigging talking raccoon named, “Rocket” (and does he have a brother raccoon named “Rocky” too?) seemed lame to the extreme!  Tied into that one was my viewing of Marvel’s film version of “Deadpool” (2016) when it first came out.  This was another Marvel comic book series that I had no knowledge of.  Worse, when I saw it, despite it receiving rave reviews, I absolutely hated the movie (and I still do).  Hence, did you honestly think that I wanted to repeat that experience again with “Guardians” too?  Of course not!  Well (Drum roll please…), I was wrong again!  “Guardians” was terrific.  The screenplay was hilarious with the actors mining the comic and dramatic elements perfectly by playing off of each other like a seasoned comedy act while having this swashbuckling adventure across time and space.  Director James Gunn gets a special mention here too.  His direction is smooth, combining both exciting action scenes and quieter dramatic moments.  He also re-wrote the screenplay which gave real depth to all of the film’s characters even those in small roles while heightening the overall humor of the film.  Heck, I even liked the Rocket raccoon character too (Will wonders never cease!).  This was one time that I was perfectly glad to admit I was wrong.

My last two examples of my prior assumptions being thrown awry actually pertain to two actors who I have constantly lambasted over the years for being awful actors (and who I mentioned previously in some of my prior Blog Posts).  However, in both actors’ cases I have to admit to being wrong if I apply another one of my “Syndromes” into the discussion.  This particular syndrome is something that I call, “The Blind Squirrel Finding a Nut Syndrome”.  What this means is that, like a blind squirrel finding a nut every once in a while, even these two limited talents (I’m being kind) managed to actually give a pair of decent performances in something during their long careers.  I will highlight two performances for each actor as a part of penance for my sins.  However, before I continue, I want to qualify what I have just said by adding that “Neither of these two actors will be Sylvester Stallone!”  There are just some things that one can never do!  Now, to continue, the first actor is Glenn Ford.  Ford was always a one note actor who always appeared annoyed, flustered, irritable or generally uncomfortable in any type of role.  His attempts at portraying characters with any depth or complexity was either wooden or unbelievable.  Maybe for a sixties Network TV sitcom like “Dennis the Menace” he would have been perfect playing next door neighbor Mr. Wilson perpetually tormented by “Satan’s Spawn” Dennis!  Otherwise, forget it (or so I thought!).  However, years later I saw him in two things which really made me change my mind. 

The first, was a modern-day Western comedy called, “The Rounders” (1965).  Also starring the always great Henry Fonda, “Rounders” starred the two of them as a pair of old (and not too bright) cowboys who make a meager living breaking wild horses for their frequent employer Jim (Chill Wills) a shrewd businessman who constantly outwits them whenever he can.  One of Jim’s more successful schemes was in getting Ford to accept a roan horse named “Old Fooler” in lieu of their full payment for prior work done.  Sure enough it’s Ford that’s the one “fooled” when it turns out that “Fooler” has a malevolent mind of its own and throws off anyone who tries to ride him.  However, instead of shipping “Fooler” off to the nearest glue factory, Ford decides to take the horse to the local rodeo and bet against the other cowboys being able to ride him and make some easy money.  His plan starts to succeed but, “Old Fooler” (smarter than the two cowboys combined) has other plans.  Ford is hysterical in the role.  He and Fonda work effortlessly off of each other playing a pair of dim bulbs constantly getting into more trouble as they try to get out of this mess.  Ford is funnier the more irritable he gets with the horse and for once, his perpetually frustrated act fits in perfectly with his character.  “The Rounders” is a little film.  However, the laughs along with Ford’s performance are huge! 

The other role where Ford gave a fine performance was for the Network TV Western mini-series, “The Sacketts” (1979) which was based on two novels by famed Western author Louis L’Amour.  Although “The Sacketts” focused on three brothers adventures heading West right after the end of the Civil War, Ford was a standout in the secondary role of Tom Sunday, an older former gunfighter who becomes a mentor to the youngest Sackett, Tyrel, while acting as a ramrod during a cattle drive. His Sunday is world-wise, educated, and desperate for a fresh start out West.  Unfortunately, his dream is later dashed when, while running for election as the town sheriff in Santa Fe against Tyrel’s brother, Orrin, Sunday’s prior checkered past is revealed resulting in him losing the election.  Sunday’s disgrace ultimately leads to tragedy.  Ford is very moving in this role.  He actually showed shades of complexity that I never saw him able to convey before.  His Sunday is someone who cannot escape his past and who becomes bitter, frustrated, angry, and ultimately, vengeful.  Ford conveys the pain and sadness of the man and you can only feel pity and sympathy for him rather than distain.  Out of all of the bad performances that Glenn Ford gave in his career, here is one, at least, that he could be proud of.

The other bad actor that I want to highlight for two fine performances that he gave later in his career is actor, Richard (Gerbil) Gere.  Gere was someone who I have truly despised from the very first time I saw him all the way back in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977).  Over and over, he kept doing the same one-note pretty boy role, always posing whenever he wasn’t speaking (not that he had anything worthwhile to say when he did), always acting like some sort of supercharged sex machine that women were supposed to go gaga for whenever he graced the screen with his mere presence.  Whenever he tried to actually do something different than this tired stereotype, he came across about as lifeless as a Cabbage Patch Doll (Ding-Dong, “Pretty Woman” anyone?).  I once said that there were only three types of “good” Richard (Gerbil) Gere films…

  • One, where he was kicked in the groin!
  • Two, where he was killed in the end!
  • Three, where he was both kicked in the groin, and killed in the end!

However, I was wrong, as these next two examples I can attest to.  The first one was “Chicago” (2002), the black comedy crime musical which won best picture that year, and in which Gere gave a winning performance in the male lead role of sleazy, yet brilliant, criminal defense lawyer, Billy Flynn.  Our Billy appears to have his work cut out for him in having to defend Roxie, a no talent wannabe who shot and killed her lover when she found out that he had no showbiz connections and all he wanted to do was sleep with her.  Gere’s Billy seems to not even break a sweat as he radiates charm, charisma, and ego, mixed in with a hunger for fame and further fortune.  He eyes Roxie like a hungry wolf, but the meal that Roxie can provide for him is as a meal ticket for Billy to achieve all that he wants. Gere was 53 when he did this role and his pretty boy looks were finally starting to fade so it looked like he realized that he had to do some convincing acting to pull this role off. And he actually did!  Instead of trying to act like some older “Sex Machine” A-hole lech, here he just acted like a money grubbing and fame hungry A-hole!  His smiling Billy may be as real as a three-dollar bill but, for once, my eyes stayed transfixed on his performance rather than on my watch which, in the past, was what I did whenever he was on the screen to see how much longer it would be before whatever he was in would, mercifully, end.  His second performance of note was in the ensemble cop drama, “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2009), with Gere playing Eddie Dugan, a burned out beat cop about to retire after 22 years of unremarkable service.  His Eddie is a borderline suicidal alcoholic who is so emotionally shutdown that the only person he can honestly talk to is a prostitute that he hires regularly.  However, like a wounded Phoenix arising from the ashes, he finally has a chance to do something meaningful in his life before it’s done.  Here, Gere is finally stripped from his early career posturing of relying on just his looks alone.  His Eddie looks about as sexy as a snail and more tired than Woody Allen after doing a pull-up.  He convincingly plays his age and it’s a believable physical performance.  Unlike a lot of former A-hole pretty boy non-actors who became really pathetic when they got old (I’m looking at you Ryan O’Neal and Jan-Michael Vincent!) at least for “Brooklyn’s Finest” Gere actually gives a strong performance.

Well, that sums up some of the wrong-headed assumptions that I have made over the years.  I’m only human just like we all are.  So, I’ll try to improve in the future.  However, 

(Just don’t ask me to ever applaud any Sylvester Stallone movies!)



Tommy Udo: “You know what I do to squealers?  I let ‘em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin’ it over. [Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death” (1947)]

Have you ever been in a situation where someone, just by their sheer physical presence alone can make you apprehensive or invoke a feeling of true fear inside yourself?  They do not have to say a word.  They do not even have to make a sudden movement.  Maybe they even give you nothing more than a fleeting glance if they bother to give you any glance at all.  Yet you find your own heart beating faster, your gut tightening up, your breathing constrained, your body starting to sweat, and your eyes starting to look for the nearest exit or something to either hide behind or, at least, to put between the two of you just in case.  That person is truly Dangerous and someone nobody wants to F**k with!  Movies, TV, cable, etc. have always made such individuals an integral part of a storyline.  Criminals, psychopaths, tough guys, mean guys, bad guys, etc. it doesn’t really matter.  The whole idea is to invoke that feeling inside of yourself.  This month’s post will discuss such characters both good guys and bad and the actors who played them.

Sometimes it’s not one individual but two who combined together make for a truly terrifying duo.  As an example, for the underrated pulp movie, “Street Kings” (2008) which is a down and dirty tale of corrupt murderous cops in Los Angeles, a not so corrupt cop named Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) on an elite law enforcement team that bends/breaks rules, investigates the murder of a former partner by two criminals.  However, later when the criminals’ bodies are found and that they were dead before Ludlow’s partner’s murder he has to find out who the actual two killers really were.  After pretending to be a dirty cop and using someone to arrange a night time meeting with the actual two killers (Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan) it all goes south when they recognize Ludlow as a witness to his former partner’s killing, and with Ludlow mistakenly asking who they really are.  One of them (Common) then replies, “Who are we detective?  We straight nightmares.  We the walking, talking exigent circumstances!” … and then an explosive gunfight begins.  Although Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan do not have much screen time, they portray a pair of the scariest coldblooded psychotic killers that I have seen in quite a long time.  Straight nightmares indeed!

Another example of a nightmare duo can also be found in the even better crime film, “One False Move” (1992) directed by Carl Franklin.  This tale involves the hunt for two stone cold killers, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Pluto (Michael Beech) after they, along with Ray’s girlfriend murder six people while stealing a large cache of money and cocaine one night, in L.A. (seems like a popular destination spot for murderous duos).  The movie follows a dual track storyline.  One involves the killers’ murderous journey east to rendezvous in Star City, Arkansas.  The other involves two LAPD Detectives heading to Star City to set up a trap for the two fugitives with the help of the local “good old boy” police chief (Bill Paxton) who seems to know a lot more about the fugitives and the girlfriend than he’s first let on.  Thornton co-wrote the screenplay and it is terrific along with the direction by Franklin.  Ray and Pluto are a mismatched pair.  The hulking ponytailed Ray is not too bright, quick-tempered, and violent.  The quieter and calmer Pluto is an African American who is a former college graduate with an I.Q. of 150.  However, he is also a sadist with an affinity for using a knife to kill anyone at a moment’s notice.  You can feel the tension and suspense build between these two volatile killers, especially, the nearer they approach Star City for a final confrontation with all of the principal parties involved.  For “One False Move,” you won’t forget Ray and Pluto anytime soon!

A dangerous personality can be measured, not necessarily by one’s physical size, but by the sheer presence that they can project towards others.  As a case in point let’s look at the famous crime film, “Kiss of Death” (1947).  “Death” starred Victor Mature as Nick Bianco, a career criminal who is arrested, tried and convicted after a jewelry heist goes wrong.  Refusing to become an informer to obtain a reduced sentence, he changes his tune when his wife commits suicide after being assaulted by a fellow criminal who Nick entrusted to help his wife while Nick was in prison.  Once Nick is released on parole to work undercover for the District Attorney, he is utilized to try and obtain evidence to help convict a dangerous criminal.  It is at this point that you are about to witness one of the greatest first-time screen-acting debuts in the entire history of motion pictures with actor Richard Widmark’s remarkable terrifying portrayal of gangster, Tommy Udo.

Udo is small and lean in appearance, hyper, animated, unpredictable, loud, rude, always wildly grinning, giggling, and extremely and unapologetically dangerous.  A murderous and sadistic psychopath who often wears his clothes one size too large, he is so unstable and explosive that it almost looks like his attire is too small for his personality to be constrained.  Maybe the scariest thing about him is not his outbursts but his ice-cold stare at someone which literally feels like he is walking on your grave.  In real life, Widmark was a big fan of Batman comics so he patterned Udo’s character after Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, even incorporating a Joker deranged cackling laugh.  Amazingly, director Henry Hathaway originally didn’t want to cast Widmark because he thought Widmark looked too intellectual due to his high hairline.  Even after Hathaway was overruled by Darryl F. Zanuck, the Head of 20th Century Fox, Hathaway, a good, but never great director (as well as an Asshole who was also a well-known bully towards actors), made Widmark’s life a living Hell on set until Widmark finally threatened to quit the film and Hathaway backed down.  Widmark’s performance got him his only Oscar nomination for his career (for Best Supporting Actor). However, it made such a lasting impression with the general public that College fraternities formed Tommy Udo fan clubs, and when actor Frank Gorshin played The Riddler on the old “Batman” TV show he even mimicked Udo’s laugh for his character.  Even actual gangsters loved the character.  Supposedly, New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo so idolized the Tommy Udo character that he not only started wearing similar clothes (suits with black shirts and white ties), but he also tried to act even crazier than he already was.  In Gallo’s case it didn’t help him stay alive.  He was gunned down in 1972.

Speaking of memorable dangerous characters, a more recent character was on one of the greatest TV cable series ever.  That series was “The Wire” (2002-08) which chronicled the Baltimore City drug trade and local law enforcement’s efforts against it.  There were many great characters portrayed on this series but maybe the most memorable one of them all was the character of Omar Little personified by actor Michael K. Williams.  His Omar was a notorious and feared stick-up artist who predominantly robbed street-level drug dealers.  He wore a bulletproof vest and was armed with a shotgun and a large caliber handgun which he hid under a long duster.  He was also distinctive for his long facial scar and whistling “A-Hunting We Will Go” whenever he stalked someone.  On the show he was so legendary that whenever the local population either saw him or heard that tune, they ran while announcing his presence.  He was also unusual in that, although he could be a ruthless stone-cold killer, he was also a homosexual with a private tender side who maintained a strict moral code by his refusal to either harm innocent civilians or to even use profanity (usually).  Although he was orphaned at a young age and basically raised by his grandmother, he was exceptionally close to her as well as his other lovers and close associates.  On “The Wire” he survived so long due to his cunning survival instincts, his skill at surveillance, and having an exceptionally high I.Q. which he utilized to constantly outwit and outsmart his opponents.  Williams is absolutely mesmerizing in the role making Omar almost like some sort of modern-day Robin Hood of the “Sherwood” Ghetto except that he robs from the rich drug kingpins and gives to his poor self.  It’s a well-known fact that “The Wire” never won a single Primetime Emmy Award nor even received any major nominations except for two nominations for writing (maybe if it was located in California and involved drug dealing criminals’ surfing in Malibu, the Academy would have showered it with nominations and awards).  This also included the Emmy idiots ignoring Williams unforgettable performance too.  Oh well, Dear Reader, there’s always prior Emmy Award winning shows to savor instead, like “Cagney and Lacy” or “L.A. Law” (Gag!  Barf!!)

The character of Omar could possibly be construed as not so much a bad guy but more akin to an antihero.  Antiheroes can be extremely dangerous too.  Two examples that I want to highlight are for the films “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) and “Sicario” (2015).  “Heroes” takes place on the World War II front lines in 1944 near the German Seigfried Line.  Before a small group of soldiers are sent up to the front line to act as a decoy unit to deceive the German front line in their sector into thinking that there is a much larger Allied force facing them, they are joined by Private John Reese (Steve McQueen) who is as dangerous as they come.  Reese was a former decorated master sergeant (winner of a Distinguished Service Cross) but demoted to private after a court martial for flagrant insubordination.  McQueen’s Reese is morose, sullen, internally tense, maybe suffering from PTSD, and a man of few words.  He is a quintessential and antisocial Lone Wolf who can never fit into civilian life, and McQueen physically plays him in a relaxed almost fatalistic manner until, like a coiled spring, he can burst into violent action in an instant.  In real life McQueen was a serious practitioner of martial arts which probably helped to instill a natural limberness and fluidity in his physical movements almost like a feline.  His Reese is also an outsider in his choice of weapons.  Unlike the other soldiers he carries a butcher’s knife for close in fighting along with an M3 submachine gun (AKA a “Grease Gun) with extra ammo clips taped to its stock and to which he uses for deadly effect in the short violent action scenes ably directed by the great action Director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”).  When you think of the lauded acting performances in Steve McQueen’s career, you never hear much mention of his performance in “Hell is for Heroes” which is a shame.  His character of John Reese is someone you’d never want as an adversary.  However, unlike the classic antihero that McQueen so often played, you’d probably never would really want him as a friend either!

For “Sicario” you have a different kind of dangerous “man of few words” antihero in this tale about U.S. law enforcement actions against the Sonora Mexican Drug Cartel.  FBI special agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and her partner are recommended to join a DOJ and DOD joint task force headed by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to capture a key lieutenant for the Cartel after a previous drug raid against the Cartel resulted in the death of two police officers.  Assisting Graver is the silent and secretive Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) who Graver later refers to as “The Tip of the Spear.”  And boy, is he ever!  As this suspense thriller proceeds, you discover just how lethally sharp, that “Spear” actually is!  Del Toro fought to preserve the mystery of who his character really was by cutting out substantial parts of his dialogue which director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) wholeheartedly agreed with.  His Gillick is a brooding presence emanating potential lethal menace and a cold sardonic attitude.  At times he is quietly in the background but you always feel a need to know exactly where he is at all times.  It’s not because he’s creepy.  It’s because he’s really scary!  As Blunt’s character slowly discovers the real reason for this task force’s mission along with why she was tasked to be a part of it, you also slowly find out more about who Gillick really is, why he is part of this task force, and how “matter of fact” capable he is of doing absolutely any horrific thing to achieve this task force’s real mission even if it means Kate’s possible elimination in the process.  The only sign of any real human feeling that Del Toro conveys in his character is, remarkedly, with just his eyes alone throughout the entire movie.  “Sicario” was justly nominated for a number of Academy awards but Del Toro was unjustly ignored in the Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination category that year (He should have been both nominated and winner of the Award).  As a true Angel of Death with an “Eye for an Eye” view of Justice, his Alejandro Gillick is the stuff of nightmares!

The last two “dangerous” examples that I want to discuss pertain to two actors who have done a series of portrayals of dangerous characters in their long-acting careers.  One specialized in portraying dangerous villains while the other gave some incredible performances of both villains and formidable good guys/antiheroes that you would never want to mess with.  That first person was actor Lee Marvin.  When Marvin won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar in 1965 playing a dual role in the comical Western “Cat Ballou” he became a big-time movie star who, from that point on, did a wide variety of roles for the rest of his life and with very few of them being outright villains.  However, before his Oscar win, he played some truly scary and dangerously evil men, predominately, on television.  Like Steve McQueen, Marvin also had a natural fluidity in his physical body movements which made him equally scary and dangerous whenever he suddenly moved which, at times, made his performances so unpredictable that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of him.  In a previous Post, I mentioned a chilling performance he gave for an episode of “The Dick Powell Theatre” called “Epilogue” (1963) where he played a psychopath who murdered individuals in gruesome ways whenever he thought they escaped Justice.  However, that’s nothing!  Here are three other memorable “dangerous” individuals that he portrayed just in the year of 1962 alone:

  • Bonanza (“The Crucible”): Marvin plays demented and sadistic Peter Kane, a lone prospector of a mine in the desert who psychologically torments and brutalizes Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts) as his own personal slave while trying to drive him to murder.
  • The Virginian (“It Tolls for Thee”): Marvin plays sadistic and loathsome Martin Kalig, who shoots outlaw leader Sharkey in the back to take over his gang to later kidnap Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb) who previously sentenced Kalig to prison for robbery and murder while tormenting Garth every step of the way. Best scene in the entire episode is when Garth fails to convince Kalig’s chief sidekick, Quinn, to turn against Kalig and who instead, slugs Garth off of his horse.  Kalig then rides up to Quinn and says with a big smile on his face, “Feels good to hit a Judge doesn’t it?”  When Quinn nodes his head in agreement Kalig says, “Kind of gives you a nice warm, tingly feeling inside, doesn’t it?” I literally burst out laughing at that one!
  • The Untouchables (“Element of Danger”): My favorite one of them all and the one that he should have won an Emmy for.  Marvin plays quick-thinking, hyper violent “Mad as a Hatter” gangster Victor Rait, who is so out of control that his boss (Victor Jory) decides to have him killed.  Bad career move, Victor!  Marvin is so scene stealing over the top here that you almost flinch while watching him dominate this episode.

To conclude, no one could do the dangerously crazy quite like Lee Marvin!

The other “dangerous” actor that I want to highlight is actor, Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum conveyed a laconic, relaxed manner in his acting style while incorporating a “don’t give a Damn attitude” that made him perfect for playing both villains and heroes/antiheroes.  I will highlight two of each.  Maybe his greatest villainous role was his Oscar worthy performance as the murderously insane bogus Depression era preacher in “Night of the Hunter” (1955).  However, what I want to do is praise two of his other villainous roles where he sent chills down your spine.  The first, was his performance as Max Cady, an intelligent, but brutal, and murderous rapist in the suspense thriller, “Cape Fear” (1962).  Cady initiates a slow reign of increasing terror against Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a happily married lawyer who provided key testimony that originally put Cady in prison after a brutal rape he perpetrated against someone.  Mitchum plays Cady as a stoic, relaxed, and sardonic menace, with a mild Southern drawl, a slight smile on his face and a calculating leer especially at Sam’s wife and young daughter who you just know is in his future plans for revenge.  It’s a very naturalistic performance and his Cady is a monster just slowly waiting for the right moment, like an alligator gliding through the water at night, to strike.  Mitchum’s other great menacing performance was late in life (at age 66) when he starred in the made for TV movie, “Killer in the Family” (1983).  “Killer” is based on the true story of Gary Tison who was serving two consecutive life sentences for murder, and who manipulatively used his three sons to break him and another convict out of an Arizona prison.  Ultimately, during his flight from the law, Tison and his partner conducted a murderous rampage which resulted in disaster for all of those involved.  This downbeat tale with an “In Cold Blood” vibe is anchored by Mitchum’s incredible performance as Tison.  His Tison is a cunning psychopath easily willing to throw his children’s lives away if they serve his purposes even while acting like a loving father to them (like complaining about people leaving trash at a picnic site, or complementing one of his children for his academic achievements, etc.).  Here, Mitchum’s famous stoic manner is what’s really frightening in this movie.  Unlike a Tommy Udo, his Gary Tison acts with no emotional or physical change at all, whether it’s doing something as simple as pumping gas or killing someone who might identify him.  The concept of “Banality of Evil” is a belief that what one is doing is not evil, but rather what they are engaging in is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside.  Mitchum’s Tison is a walking and talking living nightmare of that belief!

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mitchum gave two fine performances as a “dangerous” hero/antihero in the films, “Man with a Gun” (1955) and “Thunder Road” (1958).  In “Gun”, a western, he plays Clint Tollinger, a “town tamer” (AKA a professional gun for hire who cleans up lawless towns).  He takes on that role for the town of Sheridan City even though he originally rode into town to find his estranged wife, now a madam for the town’s brothel.  As a “town tamer” unlike a sheriff, he has no limits and he can enforce justice however he sees fit.  In his case, he soon does so in brutal fashion.  The old storyline of a hired gunfighter coming in to clean up a lawless town but who, as a “cure” may be worse than the “disease”, has been done many times over the years.  However, Mitchum’s character is different by his moral ambiguity.  He may appear to be upright as he walks down the town’s streets with his head constantly on a swivel looking for any sign of trouble.  However, his Tollinger is angry, bitter, and ruthless which, at times, make it hard to differentiate between him as being any different than the outlaws he has to face even when he’s shocked by what he has done.  This is apparent when, later in the movie, his inner rage culminates in a reckless outburst, when after he finds out a shocking secret, he immediately sets fire to a saloon (while having to kill the saloon owner in self defense), and as the townspeople try to put out the fire, he stands against the wall of a nearby building in a state of almost catatonic shock.  Although, “Man with a Gun” is a little film, there is nothing small about Mitchum’s powerful performance.

“Thunder Road” starred Mitchum as Lucas Doolin, a Korean War vet who, after returning home, gets back into the family moonshine running business in Appalachia while being menaced by Federal agents and organized crime muscling in on his family’s territory.  His Doolan is another morally ambiguous but “dangerous” antihero.  His character sees no difference between the mob and the Federal Agents.  Both want to restrict his idea of the freedom to do whatever the Hell he wants, legal or otherwise, and Mitchum is never cooler here with his constant and open defiance.  As some examples:  (1) when he tries to originally see the mob boss but is told that he is not currently around but the boss’s hat was left on a table, he nonchalantly walks over to the table and crushes it, (2) when later he finally meets the mob boss and is arrogantly told something to the effect that the mob is taking over and what are you going to do about it, Doolan calmly and unemotionally cold-cocks the mob boss with a karate chop to the boss’s face and then nonchalantly re-crushes his hat, and (3) when running a load of moonshine at night with a lit cigarette in his mouth while being chased by one of the mob’s henchmen who tries to run him off a cliff, he outmaneuvers the guy onto the cliff side of the road and then, without batting an eyelash, flicks his cigarette out of his open window and into the guy’s face before running him off the cliff to his death.  Mitchum’s character of Lucas Doolan just might be the coolest and most dangerous hero/antihero of them all.

Well, that sums up this month’s Blog Post.  So, if any of you want to act dangerous, you don’t have to act like any of the examples that I have listed here.  All you really have to do is just…



Strange Competition!

Beth Harmon: “You think I’m a prima donna, don’t you?”

Harry Beltik: “It’s chess.  We’re all prima donnas. [Anya Taylor-Joy to Harry Melling, “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020)]

A long time ago while I was working and living in the Washington, DC area I heard of a small church located on one of the secluded back streets in Georgetown where, one Saturday a month, about 4 to 6 mediums were available to, for maybe $10 to $20, spend an hour reading your fortune.  Of course, I just had to scientifically investigate this development (AKA, it sounded weird so of course I had to check it out).  Hence, I had a different medium read my fortune for the next two months.  One was fairly accurate while the other one was so wrong that I almost burst out laughing in her face.  The experience there was sort of like a medium “competition” with the winner being the one who was less wrong than the others (or maybe better able to fool the suckers into coming back again).  I bring this story up because this month’s post will involve competition.  Strange competition!

Now before you mentally say, “What the H…” let me further explain what I’m getting at.  There is sport competition such as baseball, football, basketball, tennis, etc. However, there are also other types of sports competition but not necessarily recognized or even legal.  Anybody ever do ferret-legging (enduring two live ferrets in your trousers tied up at one’s ankles for as long as one can)?  Yow!  Or how about baby tossing where you, Ahhh… never mind.  It seems like you can turn on any TV channel either day or night and see some, usually inane, game show where people are competing against each other either physically (“American Gladiators”), mentally (“Jeopardy”), or allowing themselves to be willingly humiliated (“Let’s Make a Deal”).  Actually, regarding “Deal,” why is it that most of those contestants sort of look like they would fit in just fine with the mob that stormed the Capitol Building recently.  Hmmm!  Maybe that Capitol mob might be participants for a new type of game show entitled, “Let’s Make a Plea Bargain Deal!”  Anyway, movies and TV have explored many different types of strange or unusual competition even if it’s not labeled as such.  I will discuss some of these, both memorable and obscure as well as both popular or those stinking worse than a garbage dump.  Some pertain to sports while others involve an individual/group vs. another individual/group over/for, something.  Now, let’s begin!

Fist-fighting can be a form of physical competition.  Two such films that come to mind are “Hard Times” (1975), and “Donnybrook” (2018).  “Times” starred Charles Bronson as Chaney, a middle aged almost mute hobo arriving in Depression era Louisiana in 1933 who starts earning money fighting competitive illegal bare-knuckle matches against younger opponents once gambling addict/promoter, Speed (James Coburn) becomes his manager.  Unfortunately, Speed’s addiction complicates their relationship until Chaney has to risk his earnings on a fight against a formidable opponent or Speed will be killed.  This was action director Walter Hill’s first picture and it was a pretty good first-time effort.  It had fine location cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop, especially of New Orleans along with excellent art direction and costumes evoking the time period.  It also had fine performances by James Coburn as Speed, and Strother Martin as Poe, an old junkie who is Chaney’s cut man during his fights along with exciting fight sequences under Hill’s direction.  However, “Times” could have even been better if two problems could have ever been resolved. Unfortunately, those two problems were Walter Hill and Charles Bronson.  Hill has had his successes (“48 Hrs.”, “The Long Riders”, etc.), but in all honesty, he never moved beyond being just an average director.  Too often, his action scenes were too loud, disjointed, erratic, and unbelievable although that was not the problem specifically here.  His biggest problem here was in his direction of actors (excluding Coburn and Martin), and which was a problem in all of his later films.  Too often his screen characters were either undeveloped, or had no emotional depth and believability beyond doing the “old” strong silent tough guy routine to hide the fact that they were just posing, not actually acting.  As for Charles Bronson, his problem was something else entirely. 

Bronson certainly looked like and was, an actual physical presence in the role.  However, beyond that, he had about as much emotional weight as a feather.  Bronson was an underrated actor throughout most of his life playing rough, tough, and uneducated individuals who, at times, had surprising emotional depth earlier in his career roles, even if sometimes his characters didn’t or wouldn’t say much.  He was almost always interesting, usually in supporting roles whether he played good guys or bad guys.  Unfortunately, everything changed once he finally became a big-time international movie star after a series of hit foreign films when he was in his late forties.  He copped to a really bad acting style which I have aptly named, “The George Raft Syndrome” (Yes, it’s another one of my syndromes!).  This is a syndrome where an actor, say like George Raft, actually gave some really fine dramatic performances when he was younger [“Souls at Sea” (1937), “If I Had a Million” (1932), “Spawn of the North” (1938), etc.], but when he got older, he changed his acting style to always say very little while trying to just be an unemotional tough guy.  Once Bronson did this, he quit being a real actor and instead just became a caricature doing the same one-note role, over and over again like in “Hard Times”.  If you want to see someone else currently doing this same thing, check out all of the trash movies that Bruce Willis has been doing for the past ten years or more.  The “George Raft Syndrome” is alive and well in Hollywood!

“Donnybrook” is a portrait of desperate individuals trying to escape their dead-end lives in a heartland America crippled by ignorance, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, and crime.  Their means to attain this goal is by entering a winner take all $100,000 grand prize at the Donnybrook, an illegal no-rules bareknuckle mass cage fight with as many individuals that are willing to pay the admission fee to participate in.  The last person standing is the winner no matter how many other participants they have to maim or kill in the process.  You have “Jarhead” Earl (Jamie Bell), an ex-Marine with a junkie wife, two kids, and so desperate that he commits a violent robbery to obtain the fee money.  You also have “Chainsaw” Angus (Frank Grillo), a psychotic and murderous meth dealer/user who needs the money to restart his meth business after his crude lab is destroyed in a fire.  He is accompanied by his sister/accomplice Delia (Margaret Qualley), a suicidal/murderous meth user who is constantly being physically abused by him.  They will all ultimately have a final rendezvous at the Donnybrook.  This is a brutal dark film, grim in its presentation of individuals whether they are participants in this event or spectators watching like the Roman mobs who used to flock to an arena to watch gladiators fight to the death.  The only difference here is that rather than reciting, “We who are about to die, salute you,” they instead, all say the pledge of allegiance to a waving American flag before this bloody game begins.   The acting is excellent all around and Tim Sutton’s direction pulls no punches (no pun intended).  It may be hard to take but, like a slow-motion train wreck, “Donnybrook” is something that you just can’t turn your eyes away from.

Well, now let’s move on to highlight another type of strange, brutal, and ruthless competition in a movie.  This brutal competition is… sheepherding and the movie in question is “Babe” (1995).  OK, I know!  it’s neither brutal nor ruthless.  However, as a movie about a strange type of competition it is definitely delightful and truly heartwarming.  Babe is the name of an orphaned piglet won at a contest by Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), the owner of a rural farm in England who finds that Babe has the ability to sort out the different types of farm hens so he tries to have him do the same thing as a potential herder for his sheep.  Innocent Babe convinces the sheep to allow him to herd them to the consternation of Rex, the lead sheepdog which leads to conflict involving Rex and some of the other farm animals. This conflict ultimately comes to a head when Babe is later entered into a sheepherding competition.  As if you haven’t already figured it out, Babe is a classic children’s movie.  However, more importantly, it is a great movie period!  Usually, films classified as children/family movies are not considered as anything more than artistically lightweight if they are to be even considered at all.  That would be a mistake here.  There have been a few truly great children films that deserved acclaim and were well worth being appreciated by people of all ages.  Some examples are films like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and “Hugo” (2011).  Oh, and Victor Fleming, who directed both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” in the same year and won Oscars for Best Director and Picture for “Wind” got it for the wrong picture.  He should have got it for “Oz” and it should have won Best Picture that year too, G-ddamnit!  (I had to say that!).  George Miller (“Mad Max”) who produced the film (Chris Noonan directed and was nominated for Best Director) waited ten years before bringing the story to the screen because he waited for the special effects CGI technology to be developed so his vision for the film would be just right.  It was a wise decision.  Noonan’s brilliant direction makes it appear that live animals are actually speaking words (no soft nylon thread under any animal’s lips being pulled like in “Mr. Ed”).  Veteran character actor Cromwell also gave a wonderful Oscar nominated performance (can you believe he once played Stretch Cunningham on the original “All in the Family”).  “Babe’s” CGI special visual effects won the picture its only Oscar (out of seven nominations), but despite that, it’s still a timeless and charming classic!

Rodeo riding is another strange/unusual competition that has been highlighted in movies [“The Lusty Men” (1952)] and on Network TV [“The Wide Country” (1962-63)].  However, the one that I’d like to favorably mention is the Network TV show, “Stoney Burke” (1962-63) starring Jack Lord.  “Burke” highlighted the rough and tumble lifestyle of an itinerant competitive rodeo rider always competing for the always elusive National Rodeo Championship “Golden Buckle” accompanied by his fellow band of companions like E.J. (Bruce Dern) and ethically dubious Ves (scene-stealing Warren Oates).  Besides some top-notch actors like Dern and Oates along with great guest stars in various episodes, the show also had top production talent behind it like future Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere (“The Outer Limits”), and Producer/Writer/Director Leslie Stevens (“The Outer Limits”, “The Name of the Game”, etc.).  Lord’s Burke was a principled and honest everyman, but he had a temper and could make foolish or rash decisions that were hurtful or counterproductive.  Numerous episodes highlighted Stoney often being injured from his rodeo competitions, financially broke, used, deceived, and constantly getting into difficult situations frequently caused by Ves’s scheming manipulations.  The show presented a portrait of individuals that were often fallible, yet distinctly very human.  Unfortunately, “Stoney Burke” only lasted one season consisting of thirty-two black and white episodes.  It deserved better.  If you ever get a chance to see it, give it a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised!

Next up, have any of you ever seen a roller derby contest?  They used to have male and female contests on local TV when I was young.  I still have fond memories of a particular roller derby contest where one of the male players when slugged by an opposing player flew over the railing of the roller rink and into the crowd where someone in the crowd immediately ran up to him, stomped him some more and then ran off into the night while being chased by three arena security guards.  It was better than watching Saturday Night Wrestling.  With that cultural memory in mind, I just had to include the roller derby comedy drama film, “Whip It” (2009) into this month’s Blog Post discussion.  Roughly based on the life of Shauna Cross (who also wrote the movie’s screenplay), and her fictional novel, “Derby Girl”, “Whip It” starred Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a moody Texas teenager (aren’t they all) whose former beauty queen mother wants her to continue the family beauty queen tradition.  Preferring a lobotomy with a butter knife rather than carrying on said, family tradition, Bliss finds a different direction in her life after encountering a group of roller derby girls and, after secretly attending a game, decides she wants to try out for a spot on the Hurl Scouts, a perennially unsuccessful roller derby team.  Of course, this being a coming-of-age story, our Bliss wins a spot on the team while discovering that she does have some innate natural skating ability.  Now with her derby moniker, “Babe Ruthless” she’s set to be a part of the team while trying to keep her parents in the dark about her new obsession.

First time director Drew Barrymore does a top-notch job balancing both the comic, as well as the dramatic elements in the film.  She also gets fine support from her talented group of actors.  As Bliss’s parents, Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern (who for once, doesn’t get the S&%T kicked out of him like when he was doing the “Home Alone” movies) are just fine as her likeable parents.  Bliss’s team mates like the always dependable Kristen Wiig as a single mom, old timer Juliette Lewis (at age 36?), and others like singer/actress Eve, and ex-professional stunt woman now turned actress Zoe Bell are excellent too.  Barrymore even had a small role as one of Bliss’s team mates as well as having Jimmy Fallon playing the derby ring announcer (Don’t quit your night job yet, Jimmy!).  However, the weight of the movie is on Ellen Page’s shoulders and she carries it off with style.  If you look up the word, “spunk” in Webster’s Dictionary you’d probably see her picture next to the definition.  She might be typecast playing that type of role all the time but in this film, she is endearing rather than annoying.  Although the roller derby premise is the only original twist to an old tired movie storyline (misfit finding purpose in her life despite her mom’s possible objections) “Whip It” is still worth seeing despite its lightweight elements.

The last two types of strange competition that I’d like to discuss concern two competitive contests that one doesn’t ordinarily think of although one of the two has just recently received great recognition and justified acclaim.  As for the other one, well, hold your noise when I tell you about that one.   Anyway, the better one concerns the competitive sport of Chess.  Surprisingly. there actually have been some excellent films about chess competition.  For examples there was “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) based on the life of child prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin, “Pawn Sacrifice” (2014) a biographical drama of Bobby Fischer’s life starring Tobias Maguire, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) the true story about the 1998 Miami Jackson High School chess team and their Cuban-American teacher Mario Martinez who helped them become the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship starring John Leguizamo as Martinez.  However, there is one story of chess competition that I’d like to particularly praise although it was not a movie but, rather, a limited seven-episode miniseries on Netflix.  That miniseries was “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) written and directed by Scott Frank and starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

“Gambit” was based on the 1983 novel by author Walter Tevis (“The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”, etc.) and it tells the story of Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), an introverted and at first, unexceptional child who is sent to an orphanage at age nine after her mother dies by suicide in a car accident.  Once there she discovers, by accident, the custodian (Bill Camp) playing chess.  Fascinated, she keeps nagging him to teach her which he ultimately does.  From that point on her natural visualization skills enhanced by the tranquilizers handed out daily to the children by the orphanage staff help her to become a formidable chess prodigy who, as she grows up, leads her into playing increasingly difficult competitive tournaments with the ultimate goal of becoming the best chess player in the world.  Unfortunately, her goal, as well as her life might be totally derailed due to her increasingly self-destructive emotional and psychological issues as well as an increasing drug and alcohol dependency.   

There are so many things to praise about “Gambit” that I almost do not know where to begin.  First, the casting and acting is first rate.  Veteran character actor Camp is wonderful as Beth’s gruff teacher.  Acclaimed film director Marielle Heller [“Can You Ever Forgive Me” (2018), “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), etc.] gives a powerful dramatic performance as Beth’s adoptive mom Alma, a depressed, functioning alcoholic who discovers that after her husband leaves them, she and Beth can still survive due to Beth’s chess playing. Her Alma is needy, desperate for excitement, longing to love/be loved by someone, supportive, and, at times, almost reversing roles with Beth being the more mature one than Alma.  Actors Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as both of Beth’s early competitors/mentors and later lovers/close friends are also compelling especially Brodie-Sangster in a swashbuckling confident performance.  However, the entire series is anchored by Taylor-Joy’s towering star-making performance as Beth.  Joy uses her startlingly beautiful otherworldly face as both a mask to hide her pain and emotions, and as a weapon to stare down her opponents and anyone else standing in her way.  Joy, who in real life studied ballet, used her ballet training in her body movements both around and during the chess matches imparting a unique individual physical style to her character.  As her character grows more confident and successful you see her physical appearance remarkedly change in the more fashionable clothes she wears and in how she now moves her body with grace, style, and assertiveness.  It’s an incredible physical transformative performance.    

I’ve sang the praises for writer/director Scott Frank for awhile now and I’m going to do it again for “Gambit”.  This guy just plain writes great screenplays creating multifaceted characters that are believable and real.  He pays great attention to details in his films from getting the period settings of the story right (the fifties and sixties) to ensuring that the chess boards are always set up correctly and that the chess games and positions are realistic.  He enlisted the help of National Master Bruce Pandolfini (who also originally advised author Walter Tevis when he wrote his novel) and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov as consultants.  Best of all, besides his skill in getting great performances from his actors, in “Gambit” his direction, whether it’s of Beth looking up at the ceiling and you see imaginary chess pieces being moved on the ceiling chess board or of the actual chess matches themselves, the competition scenes are exciting and suspenseful.  Four weeks after Gambit’s debut, it became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ever receiving universal acclaim by the viewing public as well as the chess community too.  As a final observation, interest in chess and the purchase of chess sets by the public, especially women, increased exponentially since its showing.  

The last type of strange competition that I want to discuss is definitely something that you do not often see highlighted anywhere (although they did show it a few times on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” a long time ago).  As far as I know, there has only been one movie ever made incorporating this particular type of competition.  Hence, that is the movie that I will now discuss to end this month’s Blog Post.  That sports(?) competition is…

 Arm Wrestling…

And the movie is…

“Over the Top” (1987)

This classic (??) starred Sylvester Stallone (Yeah, you all know how much I love him) as Lincoln Hack… I mean, Hawk (Sorry, I was just thinking about Sylvester’s previous writing and directing efforts), a long-haul trucker who walked out on his wife (Susan Blakely) and child (David Mendenhall) ten years ago.  Well, maybe he walked out because his wife was finally fed up due to the fact that: (1) he couldn’t speak coherent English, (2) he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, and (3) he probably couldn’t even feed himself without help.  Needless, to say, his sickly wife now wants him to pick up their son from military school and drive him to the hospital where she is staying while the two of them bond along the way (You know, like getting drunk on Boone’s Farm and getting into bar fights at cheap strip joint dive bars for example).  Of course, by the time they arrive, wifey dies, sonny blames dad, and sonny runs to wifey’s Gazillionaire grand-dad (Robert Loggia) who does everything possible to keep them apart (Robert, I hope you at least got paid very well for debasing yourself in this film).  Of course, then “Missing Link” Lincoln decides he wants to enter the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas to win the prize money and a new bigger truck (of course) while hoping to win back his son’s love again (also, of course!).

This testosterone turd was the brainchild of schlock Israeli producer, screenwriter, director and former Canon Studio co-head Menahem Golan, maker of somnambulant action films with such noted thespians as Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester (Legend in his own Mind) Stallone usually starring.  Originally, they wanted Don Johnson for the role but Golan wanted a big star so he paid a ton of money to get Stallone instead (Don Johnson should drop down on his knees every night to thank G-d he didn’t act in this mess!).  Sylvester also co-wrote the screenplay which consisted of him saying such howlers as…

  1. “I always wanted to be a milk shake” (Well, he already has the brain of a milk shake so I suppose that’s the next logical step!)
  2. “What I do is I just try to take my hat and I turn it around, and it’s like a switch that goes on. And when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel, I don’t know, I feel like a… like a truck.  Like a machine.” (Other than justifiably comparing himself mentally to an inanimate hunk of metal, maybe next time he should just take that hat and stuff it in his mouth and spare all of us from having to hear him try to speak!)

At the 8th annual Golden Raspberry Awards in 1988 Stallone was nominated for Worst Actor of the year.  Although he’s won that award four times (“Rhinestone”, “Rambo III”, etc.) along with another six times for his other artistic talents (Director, Screenplay, etc.) in other categories which is still an all time Raspberry record, he lost this time to Bill Cosby for “Leonard Part 6” (an inspired choice, if I do say so myself).  However, “Over the Top” was not left out that year at the “Raspberries.”  David Mendenhall won two Raspberries for Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star so there is some justice in the world.  Way to ashcan your career David.  Good job!

To conclude, all I have to further add is that, my job here is done, so until next month Dear Reader I bid thee, Adieu!


Fool Me Once, Shame on You! Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me!

Lonnegan:  “Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly; how does he do it?” 

Hooker:  “He cheats!”

[ Robert Shaw to Robert Redford, “The Sting” (1973)]

Gambling, hustling, grifting, cheating, lying and deceiving.  These are characteristics that can apply to many things.  You can see it in personal relationships.  You can see it in business.  You can see it in politics.  As a matter of fact, on a more basic level, you can see it whenever someone or some group wants to gain an advantage over either someone else or some other group whether it’s legal or not.  For Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House on the Network TV show, “House,” one of his favorite lines as a medical doctor trying to find the cause of a patient’s malady is always summed up by his blunt assessment that “Everybody Lies!”  For gambling that can be especially true.  In motion pictures, gambling is a popular subject that has been utilized over and over again (in cards, pool, horseracing, etc.) where the actions of lying, bluffing and even cheating make for good drama.  This month’s post will cover gambling in the movies showing how it has been utilized in various ways as an essential element for some great films.  So, without further delay, let us begin.   

Gambling was a popular subject in Russian literature, and the authors’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin each wrote a memorable story involving gambling that was later made into a movie.  Dostoyevsky, who was addicted to gambling in real life, wrote the 1866 short novel, “The Gambler” which was adapted into the movie, “The Great Sinner” (1949) starring Gregory Peck.  Peck starred as Fedya, a Russian writer who, while traveling to Paris is attracted to Pauline (Ava Gardner) who is a gambling addict as is her father. Fascinated, Fedya decides to observe the effects of gambling by doing a character study of gambling addicts.  Unfortunately, once he falls in love with Pauline and tries to help her and her father out of their financial predicament by taking up gambling himself, he sets the stage for his own self-destruction.  Although “Sinner” was a big-budget MGM Studio financed film, it was a slow moving and boring big-budget flop which bore little resemblance to the Dostoyevsky novel.  However, for Pushkin, the cinematic adaption of his 1834 short story was far better and made into the similarly named British film, “The Queen of Spades” (1949).

“Spades” tells the story of Captain Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), a Russian officer in St. Petersburg in 1806.  Coming from a poor working-class background, approaching middle age, and spurned by the wealthier officers around him, he discovers that, supposedly, the grandmother (Edith Evans) of one of those officers sold her soul to the Devil in exchange for learning the secret of winning at the card game of Faro.  Obsessed, he stops at nothing to learn her secret.  Unfortunately, like they always say: “Be careful what you wish for!”  In the late forties, the British made a number of good pictures involving the supernatural like “Dead of Night” (1945), “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1949), and this film.  Although “Spades” was made on a shoestring budget, it’s a terrific movie unlike “Sinner”.  Director Thorold Dickinson, came onboard with less than five days’ notice to direct when the production was close to collapse at the personal request of Anton Walbrook and his direction is exceptional.  His use of black and white cinematography is outstanding with darkness and shadows everywhere.  Scenes are also presented at distorted angles which add to the other worldliness of it all while instilling a sense of unease.  It is spooky, and the indoor portions of the film whether in an old bookstore, the grandmother’s house, or the casino itself invoke a feeling of dread.  Walbrook, who may be best known as the cruel and unfeeling Boris Lermontov, the dance company impresario for the film classic, “The Red Shoes” (1948) is even better here.  He has no redeeming social values.  He is scheming and self-serving, an individual who is petty, thin-skinned and brooding, a total manipulative Bastard with a Napoleonic complex.  You may hate him but he is fascinating, and it’s one Hell of a performance.  The ace of spades may be deemed unlucky, but after seeing this film, the Queen of Spades might just trump the ace! 

A number of gambling movies have been made that take place in casinos with mixed results regarding their quality.  You can have “bad” [“Any Number Can Play” (1949)], “average” [“Casino” (1995)], and “good” [“Casino Royale” (2006) and Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond].  However, more often than not, there are far more casino movies about individuals trying to rob them rather than gamble in them.  Actually, some of the best gambling movies have this as a storyline.  Now of course there are some really bad gambling heist movies too like “5 Against the House” (1955) where four college students conspire to rob the Reno, Nevada “Harold’s Club” just for fun (!!!).  Yeah, right!  That’s about as believable as someone wanting to rob Fort Knox because they could use a few gold ingots as door stops in their home.  It also didn’t help that the four (so called) “students” were played by Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kerwin Mathews, and Alvy Moore who, if they were actually students, all looked so old that they must have been flunking courses for over a decade or more.

Another bunch of lousy casino heist-movies were the “Oceans’ Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, etc.” series of movies (2001-07) along with an exclusively all female version, “Ocean’s 8” (2018).  The original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) was at least, sort of fun, as long as you like seeing the old Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr. “Rat Pack” crowd roaming around Las Vegas trying to rob casinos but basically watching the bunch of them joking and kibitzing around.  Unfortunately, the other “Ocean” movies all fall into the same wash, rinse, repeat cycle of leader, Danny Ocean (George Clooney once again, playing George Clooney) getting a heist team together (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, etc.) to either rob a casino(s) or something tied into a casino/(mean) casino owner/rich guy and, after a dozen unexpected twists/setbacks, a final “BIG TWIST” results in all of them being triumphant while mugging into the camera to show off their pretty, capped teeth.  At this point, if any of you reading this last sentence is diabetic, now might be the time to get that shot of insulin (with a Maalox chaser).  The biggest problem with these movies is that the first one was barely tolerable but at least you could watch a bunch of big-name Hollywood stars acting and clowning around together including Julia Roberts (speaking of teeth…).  However, after seeing, basically, the same thing over and over again you’d probably rather prefer flossing your own teeth with some barbed wire instead.  Fortunately, there have been a number of very good gambling casino heist movies which I will now highlight.  Two of them happen to be French and the third, is from Great Britain.

The first, is the French casino heist film, “Bob le flambeur (the Gambler)” (1956) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.  Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a former bank robber/convict who has gone straight for twenty years.  Instead of bank robbing he has reinvented himself by becoming a professional gambler and has done reasonably well during all of those years.  However, when the movie begins, he has gone through a long gambling dry spell leaving him broke and desperate.  So desperate in fact, that when an opportunity arises to plan a heist of a large amount of cash from a nearby casino, he jumps at the chance.  Melville was a top-notch director of French crime films [”Le Doulos” (1962), etc.], and this is one of his best.  He greatly admired American gangster films, and his movies were adept at showing the step by step planning of how criminals perform their various illegal activities with little hesitation or ambiguity.  There is a matter-of-fact professionalism in how individuals’ act in Melville’s portrait of the French underworld both for criminals and for law enforcement.  In this world, the white haired and now middle-aged Bob seems out of place with his relaxed, honorable, and cultured air of sophistication vs. the crude and treacherous individuals that he too often has to associate with.  Like most heist films, there is always something that goes wrong which also ultimately happens in “le flambeur”.  However, when it happens here, it unexpectedly invokes a smile, rather than a frown.  Hopefully, it will do the same for you too!

The next French casino heist film is “Any Number Can Win” (1963).  “Win” stars Jean Gabin as Charles, who, after doing a five year stretch for robbery, immediately starts planning a heist at a gambling casino in Cannes.  He enlists the aid of Francis (Alain Delon), a young petty thief who he met in prison to act as an affluent high-roller to gain needed inside information of the casino before the robbery.  This film was also a fine casino heist film with a fine performance by Gabin and a surprising performance by Delon.  Why surprising, you may ask Dear Reader?  Well I found it surprising because it might be the only film that I ever saw Alain Delon in where he actually did something called… acting!  I have loss count of the number of times this pretty boy asshole has strutted around in movies acting like some sort of French version of Richard Gere where it seemed like he never met a mirror that he didn’t want to stop and take a look at himself in.  Also, like too many French actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, etc.), whenever he was cast in a crime film it always seemed like he wore an oversized trench coat with a fedora pulled down on his head like a little “punk” Humphrey Bogart wannabe.  However, in “Win,” even though he’s still plays a punk, he’s actually a convincing one.  His character’s constant immature actions drive Charles to distraction.  Delon makes dim-bulb Francis someone who likes his character’s affluent act so much (maybe because it helps him to woo a French dancer that he needs information from), that he starts to threaten the actual casino heist itself.  Although he gets his act together and they successfully commit the heist, of course, ultimately things go wrong.  By the end of the movie the look on his face as well as Gabin’s face is priceless!  Maybe the only thing better would have been Gabin slapping Delon’s stupid face and watching him start to cry as the credits start rolling on the screen.  Oh, well, I guess you can’t have everything!   

The last of the casino heist films that I want to praise is different than the other two films as well as other heist films.  This British film is a character study of an individual rather than a film specifically focused on a casino heist.  The film is “Croupier” (1998).  It stars Clive Owen as Jack, an unemployed writer and onetime croupier from South Africa who, to make ends meet, obtains a job as a croupier in a London casino through help from his small-time hustler dad currently living in South Africa. Jack soon discovers that he could use his time working there as source material for writing a novel.  He also finds that he slowly moves from being just a passive observer to a participant seduced by the overall atmosphere of the casino while actively becoming involved in the lives of his fellow casino workers as well as an attractive and mysterious gambler named Jani (Alex Kingston).  The film subtly explores the psychological aspects of working in a casino from an insider’s viewpoint while at the same time explores the personality of Jack.  Owens gives an amazing and understated performance as Jack.  As you hear his voiceovers while he is watching the casino action, he sounds detached and emotionally dead which fits his outwardly cool and stoic appearance to a T.  He is intelligent and clever (even though away from the casino he too often wears a ridiculous hat that makes him look more like a Hassidic Jew than someone working in a casino).  However, as we see him gain more information for writing his book, we also see him cheat on his live-in girlfriend, secretly break casino rules, lie and deceive others, and finally agree to be an accomplice in a casino robbery all in the same controlled and emotionally detached manner.  In the end, the greatest trick that Jack ultimately pulls off is actually one on himself, which he acknowledges in the same cool and detached manner that he started with in the first place.  “Croupier” is a great film.  See it!      

The last type of gambling film that I want to discuss is one where gambling is not the object, but the means to swindle or deceive someone.  The first example is “House of Games” (1987) written and directed by David Mamet.  It stars Lindsey Crouse as Margaret, a psychiatrist who, although a successful novelist, still feels unfulfilled in her life.  For a change, she tries to actively help one of her patients, a gambling addict threatening suicide over a debt owed to Mike (Joe Mantegna), a criminal who owns a pool hall in a rough part of town.  When she confronts Mike later that evening, he is surprisingly smart and charismatic.  He is also willing to forgive the debt if Margaret will agree to do him one simple favor.  That favor is to sit in as just an observer at a card game going on in the back room of his pool hall and while Mike is away, focus on a particular player, watch for his “tell”, and then convey the information back to Mike for his own use.  When she does this, Margaret discovers that she enjoys the excitement of it all and wants to learn more about the world of con men as an information source for a possible future book.  Although at first hesitant, Mike ultimately agrees.  However, as I have said earlier: “Be careful what you wish for!”  “Games” was the first directorial effort by the Pulitzer prize winning playwright (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) Mamet, and he explores the different types of con games perpetrated by Mike and his gang of accomplices.  Unfortunately, as a director, Mamet makes a good playwright.  Basically, he has no real visual style at all and this film, along with his other future directorial efforts have this same problem making “Games,” at times, too static and stagey.  However, Mamet can really write dialogue, especially about low-life characters, and he elicits strong, realistic performances from his fine group of actors.  His then wife, Crouse is excellent as someone looking for excitement and gets more than she bargains for, and Mantegna is equally good as someone sleazy yet charismatic enough that you still want to associate with him despite all of the apparent warning signs.  In “House of Games” the trick is not the game, but whether its “you” being gamed!   

The next example is “The Grifters” (1990) directed by Stephen Frears which focuses on three individuals.  The first is Lilly (Anjelica Huston), a veteran con artist working for a bigtime mob bookmaker by making large cash bets at racetracks to lower the odds for long shots while secretly skimming some money on the side.  The second is Roy (John Cusack), Lilly’s long-time estranged son, a loner who survives by doing two-bit nickel and dime “short” cons.  The third is Myra (Annette Bening), Roy’s slightly older girlfriend who specializes in conning rich businessmen (the “long” con) although she is perfectly willing to do short cons or turn tricks to survive, and who needs a new partner (Roy) for her schemes.  “Grifters’ author, Jim Thompson, was as hardboiled and nihilistic a crime fiction writer as there ever was and “Grifters” was one of his darkest.  All three individuals are as cold-blooded, manipulative, and distrustful as it gets, with a stone where their heart should be.  Frears direction is as hard, cold-blooded, and uncompromising as the characters the movie depicts.  Betrayal, murder, and even an inferred theme of past incest is not abnormal in the world that Lilly, Roy and Myra inhabit.  Frears, Bening, Huston, and the screenplay by acclaimed crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake all received well deserved Oscar nominations.  If you can stand it, “The Grifters” is a hardboiled classic!

As the last of my examples where gambling is not the object, but the means to swindle or deceive someone… and I think you are probably thinking, “Will you finally get to it already…” we have the mega-hit movie, “The Sting” (1973).  This film starred a couple of fellas you might know by the name of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the leads.  It’s a straight comedy/drama, and after the last two examples, I think we need one, “Don’t you?”  Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter in Joliet, Illinois during the Great Depression, who, after pulling off a successful con, unfortunately discovers that his victim was a numbers racket courier for a dangerous crime boss named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).  Hooker barely escapes with his life, but his close friend is killed by Lonnegan’s men.  Vowing revenge, Hooker heads to Chicago looking for Henry Gondorff (Newman), a once great con man now hiding from the FBI.  He convinces the skeptical Gondorff to arrange an even bigger con on Lonnegan.  This will require Hooker to pretend to be a turncoat named Kelly and who is willing to help Lonnegan get revenge on Gondorff for a prior gambling loss. 

Like all great movies of this genre, you have to convincingly keep the viewer both interested and unsure as to how the con will actually succeed when unexpected complications arise.  Whether it’s a crooked cop finding Hooker, the FBI secretly showing up to possibly throw a monkey wrench into the two con men’s plans, or the frustrated Lonnegan sending his best assassin, Salino (who is deliberately unseen to heighten the suspense), to hunt down and kill Hooker, “The Sting” is a prime example of how it can be entertainingly done.  The only real negative I have for this film is the Scott Joplin adapted ragtime music score by the vastly overrated Marvin Hamlisch.  Why is that?  Well, Scott Joplin died around twenty years before the time period for this movie.  Having Joplin’s music popularized here is as ridiculous as having 1940s big band music representing the type of music popular during the nineteen sixties.  Despite that, the movie is great and won well-deserved Oscars for Best Director (George Roy Hill), best original screenplay (David S. Ward), Best Picture, and seven out of a total of ten nominations.  Oh, and even though he didn’t win, legendary Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (“King Solomon’s Mines”, “Ben-Hur”, etc.) did standout work here too!  In conclusion, motion pictures about gambling whether it involves cards (“Rounders” or “The Cincinnati Kid”), pool (“The Hustler”), horseracing (“The Reivers”) or something else will always be a popular subject.  And if you want to disagree, all I have to say is…

“You want to bet me?”


Doctor Heal Thy Self!

I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you; when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn’t miscarry or that their daughter doesn’t bleed to death, who do you think they’re praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, but if you’re looking for God, let me tell you something: I AM GOD!” [Alex Baldwin in “Malice” (1993)]

So there! As you might have surmised from my subtle quote, this month’s post is about the assorted members of the medical profession.  This has been a popular subject in movies and on television shows for ages.  However, how they have been portrayed has definitely changed throughout the years.  The nineteen thirties presented doctors as idealists which was manifested by a series of nine movies starring Lew Ayres as “Dr. Kildare” and which were originally based on a series of stories by pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust (also known as “Max Brand”).  Although they were B films (meaning they were cheaply made and usually with less popular actors) they were extremely popular, and the character of Dr. James Kildare continued to thrive as a radio drama long after movies about the character stopped being made.  However, as many of you who are of my age may remember, “Dr. Kildare” came back as a Network NBC TV show from 1961-66 with Richard Chamberlain becoming a star as a young intern and later “doctor” with Raymond Massey providing able assistance (especially acting wise) as Kildare’s superior/mentor Dr. Gillespie.  Despite the soap opera storylines and the fact that Chamberlain, at this time in his career, was not much of an actor (although he certainly became a fine one years later), this show was wildly popular, and the episodes raised public awareness of various health issues like drug addiction, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, leukemia, and others.

As a youngster I enjoyed this show basically because, at times, it touched on controversial subjects like one episode about a Christian Scientist couple’s husband (Dennis Weaver) having to decide whether to allow his wife to be operated on when she was badly injured in a car crash, or another about a surgeon (Jack Lord) with developing arthritis deciding to secretly use an unproven drug with serious side effects to stop his arthritic pain.  Now, of course, Network censors (you just knew I just had to kick that particular can again) banned anything about venereal disease, the birth control pill or homosexuality so some subjects were still “verboten”.  At the same time, we had dueling doctor shows with ABC’s “Ben Casey” (1961-66) starring Vince Edwards as neurosurgeon “Casey” and Sam Jaffe as Dr. Zorba, his mentor.  Although Jaffe could rival Larry from “The 3 Stooges” with his hairdo, he, like Massey, was terrific on the show.  Unfortunately, Edwards (a bad actor), looked more like a surly bouncer at a cheap roadside dive bar than a neurosurgeon.  However, Jaffe and the storylines on the show held your interest despite Edwards always looking like he’d rather be punching out his patents (including Dr. Zorba) rather than helping them.  

A doctor trying to help individuals despite society, the medical establishment, or the doctor’s own weaknesses, hindering him was also a popular theme.  One such film which highlighted all three of these issues was “The Citadel” (1938) starring Robert Donat and Rosaland Russell and based on the novel by A.J. Cronin. The film followed the life of Andrew Manson (Donat), a young idealistic Scottish doctor who, at first, while trying to treat the poor Welsh coal miners while conducting meaningful research into their aliments, is opposed by both the medical establishment and the workers themselves.  Disheartened, he goes to London where he becomes a cynical member of a clinic catering to the rich where assembly line medicine and borderline quackery abounds.  However, ultimately, after a tragedy, he realizes his mistake and tries to return to his better ideals and beliefs.

Besides being a novelist, A.J. Cronin was a physician in real life and did research into the illnesses effecting miners which he used to good affect in this novel as well as in some of his other novels.  His research was later utilized for the creation of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).  Although time has dated both his novel and this movie, it is still powerful and Donat, ably assisted by a young Rosalind Russell as his wife, gives a subtle, yet powerful performance.  Director King Vidor, a multifaceted director who could do films highlighting contemporary social issues as well as anyone got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Director, and both Donat and the movie itself also received Oscar nominations.  One year later Donat would win his Oscar for Best Actor for “Goodbye Mr. Chips” despite Clark Gable acting in a little thing called “Gone with the Wind”.  Donat, whom Lawrence Oliver once said would have been a greater actor than he, unfortunately, was plagued by chronic asthma as well as other health issues which harmed his career (he only did 20 movies in all) and which also shortened his life.  He died in 1958.  He was only 53 years old!  

Now, let us move on from the sublime to the ridiculous with the medical drama, “Not as a Stranger” (1955).  Based on a bloated near thousand-page novel that topped the best-seller lists for two years, it was about another young idealistic physician’s conflicts with the medical profession while dealing with his own personal weaknesses.  Acclaimed film producer Stanley Kramer (“Champion”, “High Noon”, etc.) chose this novel to make his film directing debut.  Bad move Stanley!  Playing the brilliant, driven, yet sensitive Dr. Lucas Marsh, you’d think that Kramer would have picked someone like Montgomery Clift or a young James Stewart or Henry Fonda type to play the role, wouldn’t you?  His choice:  Robert Mitchum (!!!)  It doesn’t get any better later Dear Reader.  It gets worse!  He then made an even bigger mistake with his choices for the rest of the cast which consisted of Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland, Lee Marvin, Charles Bickford, Gloria Graham, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Myron McCormick.  This bunch might have possibly been the biggest collection of drunks, substance abusers, philanderers, bar room fight starters, troublemakers, and all around Hellraisers in motion picture history, and with maybe, the wildest of them all being Broderick Crawford.  Everyone on set referred to Crawford as the “Brod” except Mitchum who nick-named him “Crawdad” (maybe because, at times, Crawford could get so drunk that he would literally be crawling on the floor).  One famous late-night excursion involved Sinatra, Mitchum, Marvin, Crawford, and Joe DiMaggio (Don’t Ask!) having to break down an apartment door so they asked Crawford if he could do it.  His response: “I can do anything!” and he might have been capable of just about doing anything too!  Between Crawford getting pissed off at Sinatra on set (maybe because Sinatra kept calling Crawford “Lennie” from “Mice and Men”) and, while attacking him, ripping off and partially eating Sinatra’s toupee, to Crawford, during the same set altercation picking up Mitchum like a sack of potatoes and throwing him through a window, is it any wonder that Stanley Kramer summed up his directing experience for his first film as “ten weeks of Hell”. Honestly, a turgid turkey like “Stranger” really shouldn’t have been labeled as a medical drama about physicians at all.  It probably would have been better if it was labeled as a movie about a bunch of lunatics in a Psycho Ward!

Nevertheless, medical dramas broke out like some sort of super-spreader event for the movies and on Network TV in the nineteen sixties.  For the movies you had “The Young Doctors” (1961) (The Dumb Doctors, The Old Doctors…) and then you had “The Interns” (1962), “The New Interns” (1964) (The Newer than New Interns, The Old Interns, The New Podiatrists, The… I’m getting so confused!).  For TV during Casey and Kildare’s time you also had “The Nurses” (1962-64), “The Doctors and the Nurses” (1964-65) (The Doctors and the Nurses, and the Orderlies, and the… Just Kidding) and even… wait for it… a new television version of “THE INTERNS” (1970-71) with, of all people, Broderick Crawford (probably after he finally sobered up) as the chief doctor over a bunch of young interns (I’d wouldn’t trust that guy to hold a cup of coffee steady let alone a scalpel).  However, maybe the final culmination of all of these doctor shows came with ABC’s long running “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (1969-76) starring Robert Young and who, in real life, was also a bad drunk (maybe it was a pre-requisite for playing a doctor on TV or in the movies).  This might also have been the only science fiction doctor show ever made for TV.  Why would I ever say that, Dear Reader?  Well, it was because dear saintly Dr. Welby even made house calls!  If that doesn’t qualify it as being science fiction, then nothing else ever will!  The great Oscar winning writer Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”) hated “Marcus Welby, M.D.” so much that when he wrote his original, Oscar winning screenplay for the dark satirical comedy, “The Hospital” (1971), which ripped the guts out of the medical profession, he named a surgeon in the film (who was an incompetent that cared more about his investments than his patients) Dr. Welbeck as a veiled insult to the TV show.  Members of the American Medical Association probably had wet dreams for years thanks to “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

There were all types of novel and film portrayals of physicians behaving badly or doing experiments that would drastically go wrong.  This was especially prevalent for a film genre like “horror”.  A large number of these types of films were done during the nineteen thirties, maybe, as some sort of offshoot from the grim reality of the Great Depression.  Although some films like “Dracula” (1931) or “The Mummy” (1932) didn’t qualify, some of the ones that definitely did were:

  • “Frankenstein” (1931) – Starring Boris Karloff in a star-making performance as old bolt neck himself, AKA “The Monster” who is pieced together from body parts by good old Dr. Frankie… stein (Colin Clive, another drunk who died from alcoholism in real life).
  • “The Island of Lost Souls” (1932) – Based on the H.G. Wells novel, with Charles Laughton hamming it up while conducting surgical experiments on animals to turn them into semi-humans (some of which are currently roaming around in Congress) with Bela Lugosi as one of them (and looking like one of the GEICO cavemen, except less well-groomed!)
  • “Mad Love” (1935) – With Peter Lorre as bald, brilliant, and Batty surgeon Dr. Gogol who transplants the hands of a dead murderer onto pianist Colin (Dr. Frankie) Clive after his own hands are ruined from an accident resulting in his new hands starting to do strange things (like maybe playing Boogie-woogie Rock and Roll instead of Beethoven?)
  • “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) – The best of them all with Fredric March deservedly winning the Oscar as the Doc with a “real” double life.  Brilliantly directed by Rouben Mamoulian and, for its time, revolutionary cinematic transformation scenes, this is still the best version of “Jekyll and Hyde” ever made [And still the only “horror” movie to ever have someone win an Oscar for Best Actor (and no, “The Joker” doesn’t count!)]

Another one that I want to mention, although it was made in the nineteen forties, was “The Body Snatcher” (1945) which was from a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson (who also wrote Jekyll and Hyde).  “Snatcher” stars Boris Karloff as Mr. Gray, a cab driver and graverobber who provides cadavers to Dr. Wolfe MacFarline (Henry Daniell) a surgeon who needs cadavers for his research and his teaching position at a medical college.  However, he has a darker secret that Gray uses to both blackmail and torment Wolfe.  Namely, that Wolfe’s mentor, Dr. Knox, obtained corpses from the notorious Burke and Hare who murdered individuals and sold the bodies to Knox, and that Wolfe was also involved.  Worse, Gray is also killing people and selling their bodies to him too.  In Mr. Gray, Karloff maybe gave the best performance of his career.   His Mr. Gray is soft-spoken, polite, and with a constant skeleton smile on his face.  Yet he radiates menace constantly, whether it’s by how he towers over Wolfe or his jokingly taunting manner while always reminding Wolfe that “you will never be rid of me.”  The film is another early gem by Director Robert Wise who captures the dark streets and interior shadows of rooms which create an atmosphere of unease, dread, and fear.  Producer Val Lewton (“Cat People”, “Isle of the Dead”, etc.) was a master at generating an atmosphere of chills with what was unseen as being more terrifying than what was actually seen.  “Snatcher” was one of the best of a series of films that Lewton produced for RKO Studios.  Actor Daniell, who usually played villainous roles, had a rare sympathetic role (sort of) as the tormented surgeon Wolfe and the final shocker of an ending is still memorable even after all of these years.  Physicians behaving badly indeed!

Lastly, numerous films and TV shows were made with medical professionals actually crossing the line into illegality.  For Network TV there was NBC’s “Medical Story” (1975) which was an anthology series about issues in the medical field which, at times, touched on doctors breaking rules that endangered patents health.  For British TV there was the far better BBC series, “Bodies” (2004-06) centering on specialist Rob Lake (Max Beesley) who, when starting a new job at the Obstetrics and Gynecology department of a British hospital quickly discovers that his highly respected head consultant is an incompetent surgeon that is being protected by the hospital establishment with potentially deadly consequences for any patient that he sees.  “Bodies”, which was created by Jeb Mercurio (“Line of Duty”), pulls no punches in showing some of the most graphic and borderline gruesome operating scenes ever shown on TV and how everyone involved, even Rob, is complacent to some degree in not only allowing mistakes to be made, but to also cover them up when it suits their purposes.  It’s a Damning portrait of the medical profession with no easy resolutions, and Beesley gives a powerful performance as the ethically conflicted Rob.

For motion pictures, some examples of other medical professionals behaving badly were:

  • “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) abusively running a mental hospital which harms rather than helps patients and her battle of wills with a new patient, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who just won’t bend to her will.
  • “Coma” (1978) with surgical resident Dr. Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) discovering, after a close friend’s death during a routine surgery, that there is a murderous ring of physicians in her hospital killing patients while harvesting their body parts for sale (“Body Snatcher Redux” anyone?).
  • “Side Effects” (2013) where psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) after prescribing an experimental antidepressant drug to a suicidal patient (Rooney Mara) with sleepwalking as a “side effect”, finds that after she commits murder during one of her sleepwalking events, he now has to determine whether it was due to the drug or something else.  

All of these films are fine examples of medical professionals acting badly but there is one that I particularly want to mention in further detail and which, I feel, didn’t get the recognition that it deserved when it was first released.  That film is the psychological thriller, “Malice” (1993).  “Malice” starred Bill Pullman as newlywed Andy Safien, an associate dean at a small New England college near Boston with Nicole Kidman as his wife Tracy, who teaches art to young children and desperately wants children of her own.  Besides having to deal with a serial rapist who is terrorizing the students at his college, Andy also has to put up with Dr. Jed Hill (Alex Baldwin), a former high school classmate who is a brilliant surgeon but new to town after accepting a post at a nearby hospital, and who temporarily rents a room in their home.  Jed’s arrogance, late night carousing, and sexual escapades cause strain for Andy and especially, Tracy, which lead to further complications when Tracy later collapses requiring Ted to perform an emergency operation to save Tracy’s life.  From that point on, the plot twists and red herrings fly so thick and heavy that you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Malice got mixed reviews when it was first released which was a shame maybe due to its complex thriller plot which was hard to pin down as to what sort of film it really was intended to be.  Also, some critics complained that the storyline was farfetched and full of holes.  My own honest (and unbiased) opinion is that, “The critics are full of Shit!”  Underrated director Harold Becker (“Sea of Love”) helmed by a great production team consisting of a top-notch screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, impressive dark color cinematography by Gordon Willis, and another fine music score by the always great Jerry Goldsmith is one reason why this film holds your interest.  Another reason is the cast with people such as Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Gallagher, Josef Sommer and cameos by Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott and a young Gwyneth Paltrow providing strong acting support to the storyline.  However, maybe the best thing about “Malice”, besides the strong dramatic turn by Pullman, are the incredible performances by Kidman and, especially, by Alex Baldwin as Dr. Jed Hill.  Baldwin is alternatively, charming and chilling with a “God Complex” bigger than the universe.  You do not know whether to be amazed or repulsed by his sheer audacity and infallible belief of his own self-importance.  It’s a great performance (And Yeah, he should have been Oscar nominated but wasn’t!).  He may have been a physician behaving badly, but, boy, was he ever an entertaining one!

To conclude, there really is not much of an interest now for films pertaining to the medical profession.  However, for Network TV, there has been a huge renewal of popularity for the genre.  Such fine shows as “St. Elsewhere” (1982-88), “Chicago Hope” (1994-2000), “ER” (1994-09), “House” (2004-12), and maybe, the new NBC medical drama, “Transplant” show that there is still life rather than death in those hospital corridors.  I do not know what the possible future may be for medical dramas in movies and on TV but I’m optimistic that they will continue to be popular.  However, there’s just one thing that I hope never occurs…

That nobody ever gets the bright idea to use CGI to bring back Broderick Crawford as a physician for ANYTHING!!!