The Hunter and the Hunted!

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

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

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

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NLP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you became a better person because of it!

See you next month!

N.L.P.

Lock Em Up!

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

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

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

Goff: “A blind spot?”

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

Goff: “You’re crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In closing, to quote Andy Dufresne…

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

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

Isn’t it?

N.L.P.

PRETTY…Awful!

Dave Bowman: “Open the pod doors HAL.”

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

Dave Bowman: “What’s the problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Power of the Dog”

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

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

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

 IN A PRETTY… LANDSLIDE!!!

N.L.P.

News Worthy(?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we’ll let them!

N.L.P.

Big Things in Small Packages!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All you have to do is look for it!

 

See you next month!

 

N.L.P.   

 

Tough Girls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget: “I am a total fucking bitch.”

Or…

Bridget: “You still a lawyer, Frank?”

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

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

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

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

Don’t buy her a drink!

N.L.P.

Feet of Clay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is love?”

“Love is the morning and the evening star!”

“Love is the voice of music!”

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

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

I know I am!

 

NLP

 

A Comic Genius!

Louis Mazzini:  “As in an old Italian proverb:  revenge is the dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.”  [Dennis Price, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949)]

For this month’s Blog Post I’m going to do something a little different.  It will pertain to a term that we have all heard of, applied as a label to, and seen exhibited by, a select few in different ways.  That term is “Genius.”  As defined, it can mean:

  • Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability, or…
  • A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.

When you think of the term do you immediately think of individuals like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs, or artistic greats like Rembrandt, Beethoven, and Boxcar Willie… (No, I have not gone off the deep end!  That last one was just to see if you were starting to fall asleep yet!).  Since this Blog delves into film, television, etc. along with the various individuals involved both in front of and behind the camera, who would you categorize as being an artistic genius in the visual arts?  Better yet, how about say, we limit it to just, actors!  Maybe you might say, “Lawrence Olivier.”  Maybe you might say, “Marlon Brando.”  Or maybe you just might say, “Meryl Streep” too!  The names and the opinions on this subject can go on and on.  However, one thing that cannot go, on and on, is my not explicitly saying what this month’s post will be about.  Hence, I will explain what it is in further detail.

This month I am going to talk about a specific actor who is well known to older Farts like myself, and maybe to younger ones too, specifically, for one immensely popular motion picture that he made when he was older.  Unfortunately, this person has been dead for over twenty years now, but honestly, he was a truly great actor who could easily fit into the “Genius” discussion very well.  However, it might not be so well known, even to my fellow contemporaries, that this individual was an incredibly gifted and great comic actor, one who I have always felt was a comic genius who did a series of remarkable comedy performances, one after the other during a select period of time in a number of motion pictures that, unfortunately, have been shown, too infrequently now, if at all.  Why he has not been better remembered for his comedy performances might have been due more to his acclaimed dramatic performances during the middle, and the later portion of his career.  That is what this month’s post will be all about!  I will discuss his comedy films along with his performances in them during a brief eight-year period to make my case, and to hopefully see if you will concur.

Over the years it has been disputed that Oscar winning veteran character actor Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, actually said, while on his deathbed that, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard!”  However, similar words to that effect have been said by other actors throughout the years.  Also, many individuals in the acting profession have readily admitted that comic actors are usually better able to play serious dramatic roles simply because it was actually easier for them to do drama rather than to act in a comedy.  Marlon Brando, for example, desperately wanted to do more comedy roles in his career, but for some of the ones that he actually did do such as, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956) and “Bedtime Story” (1964), his comic acting was seriously panned.  However, as a quick aside, regarding “Bedtime Story,” repeat my mantra: “The Critics are full of Shit!”  Brando gave a hysterical performance and “Story” was a very funny comedy.  See it!  And now, back to the Blog Post!

In any case, before you start screaming, “Who is the actor that I am referring to already?” I will finally tell you.  It is…

Alec Guinness!  

Yep!  Good old Obi-Wan Kenobi for all of you younger folks who watched way too many different versions of “Star Wars,” Alec Guinness!  Guinness made a bunch of great comedies from the period of 1949 all the way up to 1957.  Let’s start with his first really great comedy performance in 1949.  Guinness, who was already a film actor of note due to his prior dramatic performances in two adaptions, both directed by David Lean, of the Charles Dickens Novels’ “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948) had the good fortune at age 34, to finally latch onto an acting role in a film that would make him a star.  Ops!  Did I say a role?  That’s the singular!  I should have used the plural and said, “roles” as in more than one.  How many you ask?  How about nine as in nine different characters both male and female.  The film was the dark Victorian comedy classic, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) which was about Louis D’Ascovne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class and who, after her death, vows to kill all of the family members (who were played by Guinness) ahead of himself in the line of succession to take the title of duke and the dukedom.  Even though Guinness did not have the main role and was only originally supposed to play four roles, he thought that the screenplay was so funny he beseeched Ealing Studios to let him play all eight roles (he ultimately wound up playing nine in all).  Although a number of the roles were brief or short, he still made every one unique and different while capturing the overall dark humor of their demise by the villainous Mazzini.  He took to playing all the different roles very seriously, so much so that quickly transferring from one character to another but keeping in character and not mixing them up was a real challenge.  However, he pulled it off, and the end result was comedy perfection.

His next great comic performance, but this one more of a drama highlighted with comedy and, ultimately, tragedy was the film, “Last Holiday” (1950).  Here Guinness played George Bird, an older, plain, unassuming, lower-class salesman of agricultural implements who, after having a routine physical, is told that he has an incurable illness that will kill him in a matter of weeks.  Being a long-time bachelor with no family or friends, George decides to take his meager savings and enjoy his remaining time at a high-end hotel populated with an affluent crowd.  Sporting a phony refined upper-class accent and acquiring, by chance, two suitcases loaded with a high-end wardrobe from a used clothing store he settles into the hotel with everyone believing him to be a wealthy gentleman.  From that point on, his life completely changes because his unassuming attitude of treating everyone he meets decently attracts everyone to him like a magnet.  Now he has friends, is respected and even has possibilities at romance and business success just from his own decency and new willingness to live life to the fullest.  Unfortunately, fate has other plans for George.  This was Guinness’s first real lead role in a film and he is alternatively amusing and ultimately heartbreaking in the role.  His reactions to the changes in his life are so believable that it’s like you honestly feel these changes right along with him.  By the time the final ironic twist in the film occurs, I dare anyone to not be emotionally moved by Guinness’s touching and gentle performance.  

In 1951, Guinness did two more great comedies for, once again, Ealing Studios and which brought him further international fame.  The first one was the wildly comic “The Lavender Hill Mob.”  In “Mob,” Guinness gave another chameleon-like performance as Henry Holland, a meek looking bespectacled and nerdish middle-aged London bank clerk in charge of gold bullion deliveries for over 20 years.  Holland, who wants to retire in luxury, hatches a plan to steal a load of bullion and have his new friend, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), who owns a nearby foundry, melt the bullion down and make them into Eiffel Tower paperweights for smuggling into France.  Of course, the plan first succeeds but when a few of the paperweights are accidently sold to some schoolchildren, the race is on for the two of them to get the paperweights back before the authorities find out.  Here, Guinness is a pure comic delight wearing a bowler hat along with his meek face lighting up like a little delighted child as his manipulations unfold.  His animated reactions are almost like seeing a cartoon character in human form.  “Mob” earned Guinness his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and it did win writer T.E.B. Clarke the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.  However, for that year he wasn’t finished yet.  Next came his second hit, the satirical science fiction film comedy (Yep, you heard that one right!), “The Man in the White Suit.”

For “Suit” he played Sidney Stratton, a brilliant, young (and even with a full head of hair, too) research chemist obsessed with inventing an everlasting cloth-like fiber.  While working as just a mill worker, he accidentally becomes an unpaid researcher and ultimately succeeds in his goal of inventing an incredibly strong cloth-like material that repels dirt and never wears out.  However, when a suit is quickly made from the material it turns out to be of a brilliant white color because the material cannot absorb dye along with it being slightly luminous because it contains some radioactive elements.  Although Stratton states that it is not something that cannot be solved, he soon has an even bigger problem that may never be solved.  Namely, once the average consumer purchases enough of the new fabric, the entire textile industry will be effectively put out of business.  Now both labor and management team up to try and stop him even going so far as to temporarily kidnap him to force Sidney to sign away the rights to his new textile invention.  Here Guinness’s character is a youthful mix of intelligence, ambition, and naivety with his obsessive enthusiasm making himself blind to the possible real-world effects of his new invention.  Yet he is so down to earth and, at times, awkwardly likeable that you just can’t keep from rooting for him.  His performance is especially helped by the fine Oscar nominated screenplay and by the ever-underrated actress Joan Greenwood who had maybe the smokiest, and sexiest sounding voice of any actress ever alive as Daphine, the Mill owner’s daughter who at first tries to entice Sidney into signing the rights away but, enchanted by his earnestness, becomes both his ally and romantic interest instead.  They have great chemistry together, and their film scenes as a couple are maybe, the best thing in the whole movie.  Here Guinness showed a romantic side that was never displayed before and it helped to make “The Man in the White Suit” a great film.

Three of the four Guinness films that I just profiled here (excluding “Last Holiday”) were under the auspices of Ealing Studios who made great British comedies.  However, Guinness was such a fine actor that he could give great comedy performances even for films that were not made under Ealing.  This was apparent for the next two films that I want to mention.  The first one was for the 1952 film, “The Card” (AKA “The Promoter”).  Guinness played the character of Denry Machin, the son of a poor washerwoman in turn of the century England who, despite what he lacked in wealth and social standing, he more than made up for in ambition, drive, and determination backed by an eternal optimism along with a little conniving guile. The movie charted his rise to wealth and success including ultimately finding love along the way.  This was basically an old fashioned “feel good” cute movie where the humor was more restrained.  However, it was also a film where you could still find yourself smiling right along with the perpetually smiling Denry.  In Denry, Guinness played someone decidedly younger than his current age of 38 back then.  However, despite that, he maybe, never had a more charming or romantic a role with such fine actresses as Valerie Hobson, Glynis Johns, and a young, enchanting Petula Clark playing the ladies beguiled by a man who was literally “A Card”, or namely, someone who was truly regarded as a character, but who was always amusing and never dull.  An altogether lighter, yet subtler fine comedy performance by Guinness.  

The second comedy film that Guinness made outside of Ealing Studios was “The Captain’s Paradise” (1953) which was made the following year.  This one was a straight, satirical, ”sex farce” with Guinness as Captain Henry St. James, the owner and captain of a small passenger ship ferrying individuals to and from Gibraltar and the North African port of Kalique.  Oh, and he is also a bigamist too with his domestic wife Maud (Celia Johnson) and their two children in Gibraltar, and his hot-blooded, passionate wife Nita (Yvonne De Carlo) in Kalique.  Here his character is a far different type of romantic lead than the one he played in “The Card.”  His St. James is someone a little older than Denry, but with a more rakish type of charm then the innocent Denry, and Guinness plays him as someone oozing with Devilish mischief behind the façade of a quiet, sober, early to bed family man with one wife, and as a wild, loud, nightlife loving hedonist with the other.  This role also gave Guinness the opportunity to play someone with two completely different personas, and his over-the-top performance in both roles is a riot.  Some of his facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission.  Although he was not usually known for his physical humor, Guinness had the ability to do it (in real life he was a yoga practitioner), and here, he demonstrated it in hilarious fashion in a wild late night dance number with De Carlo.  In “The Captain’s Paradise”, Guinness is just plain, laugh out loud funny!

The last two Guinness comedy performances that I want to highlight are films with Guinness back, once again, under the umbrella of the Ealing Studios.  The first film was the black comedy classic, “The Ladykillers” (1955).  This one was another different sort of Guinness performance. “Ladykillers” was an ensemble comedy headlined by Guinness playing sinister Professor Marcus, a more than a little mentally cracked criminal semi-mastermind.  Our professor has assembled a gang to execute a sophisticated bank van robbery at London King’s Cross railway station. The professor and the other members of the gang consisting of Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers (in his first major role), rent rooms pretending to be musicians needing a place to practice while actually coordinating their plan for the robbery.  Their plan ultimately succeeds, but there’s just one little problem (I know you are saying…” Not that one little problem thing again!”), the little old landlady (Katie Johnson) later catches them with the van money and wants to tell the police.  From that moment on, all comedy Hell starts to break out!  

For this film, Guinness didn’t have to carry the comedy high jinks all by himself.  Every member of his gang, along with Johnson, had their own comic moments to shine.  Also, Guinness’s character of Professor Marcus was originally written for the great veteran comedy character actor Alastair Sim, but when Sim was not available, Guinness got the role.  Hence, Guinness decided to play the Marcus character in the humorous but sinister style that Sim was well known for even having himself altered by makeup to have a marked resemblance to Sim.  His appearance was of someone with disheveled white hair, oversized teeth, and an almost ghoulish bewildered look all the time.  Despite Guinness being thinner than the hulking Sim, it was an almost perfect impression of the actor. Guinness is hysterical in the role playing the creepy Marcus with a horrible grin and a horrible laugh while doing little physical things like his manic tugging on the scarf around his neck after Johnson steps on it while it is hanging down on the floor showing his growing frustration with all of his carefully laid plans starting to fall apart due to the sweet, befuddled, Johnson.  Guinness, who was always very insecure about his talent, originally thought that he was too old for the part, if you can believe it!  He needn’t have worried.  “The Ladykillers” is a classic!  

The last great Guinness comedy performance during this period was for the Ealing Studios film, “Barnacle Bill” (AKA “All at Sea”) in 1957.  He played Captain William Ambrose, a retired Royal Navy Captain coming from a long line of distinguished naval ancestors, but who, unfortunately, suffers from intense debilitating seasickness which keeps him on land during his naval service just testing different cures for his malady to no avail.  Now, still missing being in charge of something approximating a naval command, he decides to purchase a dilapidated Victorian era amusement pier, fix it up, run its operation like a ship while installing a dance hall, a place to drink, and a sort of refuge for those who would like to be on something approaching a sea cruise but still have the safety of land.  Of course, he soon runs into conflict from the local town council who want to see him fail so they can just condemn the pier and tear it down.  This was a lightweight comedy that Guinness only did as a favor for the Director, and upon its completion, he thought that overall, it wasn’t very good.  However, “Bill” still had many virtues.  First, the screenplay was again written by T.E.B. Clarke, who previously wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for “The Lavender Hill Mob”.  Second, the film gave Guinness the opportunity to play six of his various naval ancestors in a couple of hilarious sequences incorporating everything from being a caveman in a rudimentary sort of boat to his father’s semi-comic demise during the World War I Battle of Jutland.  Third, he played Ambrose in a completely straight, serious manner which made him even funnier in how he constantly has to deal with all of the many problems that arise from being a naval commander of a pier.  Fourth, he had the opportunity to do some great physical comedy, once again, when our strait-laced Captain breaks into some serious boogieing on the dance floor with a much younger babe while maintaining a wild silly grin on his face.  Maybe Guinness didn’t like the film, but his wonderful comic performance still managed to keep the whole Darn thing afloat!     

Well, now at this point, Dear Reader, I am concluding this Blog Post chronicling Alec Guinness’s great comedy film roles.  The reason I’m choosing to do so is because, in 1957 after Guinness also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the great, Best Picture Oscar winner that year, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (and which is on my “Top Ten” Movie List of all time), things seemed to change.  Ealing Studios was bought by the BBC in 1955, and although films under their name like “Bill” were still being made up to 1957, the great comedy writers, directors, and actors like Guinness, moved on to doing different things.  Although Guinness still continued to give other great comedy performances for a few years after in films such as “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958) and “Our Man in Havana” (1959), he increasingly did far more drama than comedy.  It also didn’t help that, in his later years his comedy films were not very good, and his performances in them were nowhere near as memorable.  Maybe his film performances in those films didn’t ignite the same fire and artistic comic creativity he had when he was younger.  Maybe other great comic actors, like Peter Sellers (who idolized Guinness), and could also play multiple characters in films now got the prime comic roles instead of him in the nineteen sixties and the seventies.   Who knows?  All I do know is that, for a brief eight-year period, never has anyone done so many varied and fine comedy performances as Alec Guinness did, and all the while still being a great dramatic actor too!

Whether you want to agree with me or not that Alec Guinness was a “comic genius”, I hope that you will at least agree with me that he was a great actor, period!  

 

NLP

 


Paranoia will Destroy Ya!

Elliot:  “Hello friend.  Hello friend?  That’s lame.  Maybe I should give you a name.  But That’s a slippery slope, you’re only in my head, we have to remember that.  Shit, this actually happened, I’m talking to an imaginary person.  What I’m about to tell you is top secret.  A conspiracy bigger than all of us.  There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world.  I’m talking about the guys no one knows about, the ones that are invisible.  The top 1% of the top 1%, the guys that play God without permission.  And now I think they are following me.” [Rami Malek talking to Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”]

Don’t you feel sometimes that life is just not fair!  Maybe you feel that you are not recognized for the work you do.  Maybe you feel like you never get a fair break!  Maybe you feel like you are constantly harassed or disrespected!  Even worse, maybe you feel that you cannot truly trust anyone or that those around you wish to betray you or to do you harm!  Well, if that’s the case, then Dear Reader maybe you are suffering from a case of Paranoia!  According to Marriam-Webster’s Dictionary, paranoia is defined as:

  • Mental illness characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations or…
  • A tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others!

However, like the old expression that you have either read somewhere or seen on a popular T Shirt or two saying,” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!” maybe, just maybe, you might not be necessarily mentally ill, but actually, right after all!  Paranoia as an essential part of a storyline for films and Network TV or cable has been a popular one for a long time.  This month’s Blog Post will discuss paranoia in these mediums, and how it has been utilized in varied and unusual ways.

Two movies where paranoia was an important part of a storyline are the RKO Pictures films’ “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) and “Cat People” (1942).  The espionage themed “Sparrow” starred John Garfield as Kit, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was brutally tortured by the Nazis for two years for vital information until he was rescued by his lifelong friend Louie.  While recovering in Arizona his convalescence ends when he finds out that Louie, now a NYPD lieutenant, died in a mysterious fall from a Park Avenue high rise apartment window during a party hosted by Kit’s former girlfriend.  Now Kit, still physically and psychologically frail, heads to New York to investigate Louie’s death, and to see if it was tied into their experiences in Spain.  During his investigation, Kit also starts to suspect that the Nazis are still after him.  “Sparrow” was adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes who crafted literary works teaming with paranoia (“In a Lonely Place”, etc.).  Despite undistinguished direction by journeyman director Richard Wallace this movie is note-worthy due to the incredible dark shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca which captures the slow creeping fear and paranoia all around Garfield along with good performances by Patricia Morrison as Kit’s former girlfriend (or maybe not) along with Maureen O’Hara as Kit’s possible new love interest (or maybe not), and Walter Slezak as a wheelchair bound Norwegian intellectual (or also, maybe not) as fellow guests at the party the night Louie died.  While this is not one of Garfield’s more memorable performances, he still is very believable as an unlikely hero who is unsure, mentally fragile, and full of self-doubt.

As a different type of paranoia, the horror film, “Cat People” was the first film made by Producer Val Lewton.  Made for only $150,000 and completed in just 18 days, it starred Simone Simon as Irena, a Serbian-born illustrator in New York City who, when catching the eye of Oliver (Kent Smith) they meet cute, and after a brief romance he asks her to marry him despite her protests and fears.  What protests and fears you may ask?  Oh, nothing much!  Just that she believes that she is descended from the legendary satanic “Cat People” from her region in Serbia and that she can turn into a murderous panther if aroused by passion (I think she means SEX, Oliver).  Well, although that one sure beats the Hell out of being stuck with your intended bride’s “Battle Ax” mother-in-law by a country mile, does our Oliver decide to call off the engagement?  Ah, No!  So of course, they marry, there is no consummation of the marriage, and Oliver starts paying attention to his enticing assistant Alice (Oliver, I think she’s thinking about SEX too, you dumb F**k!).  In the meantime, Irena is being treated by her pompous and lecherous shrink, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who insists that her fears are all just psychological while seeing if Irena might be more interested in being physically, rather than psychoanalytically, probed on Dr. Judd’s couch.  Soon Dr. Judd will discover that he should have invested in some extra medical coverage along with having a spare whip and chair handy for the next time Irena starts getting aroused!

“Cat People” was loaded with all kinds of uneasy moments like when various animals start reacting in terror to Irena’s mere presence when entering a pet store or visiting a zoo.  However, she wasn’t the only one exhibiting paranoia.  Underrated Director, Jacques Tourneur assisted, once again, by Nicholas Musuraca’s great cinematography helped to create a visual atmosphere of increasing unease and dread with Alice, Dr. Judd, and finally, Oliver (It’s about time!) realizing that Irena’s supernatural beliefs are not psychological, but menacingly real.  Amazingly, for Puritanical America at that time, this film slid by the censors despite its veiled hints at a woman’s sexual frigidity, the suppressed sexual yearnings of different individuals like Alice and Oliver, and even possible hints at lesbianism like a scene at a Serbian restaurant where a mysterious semi-androgynous cat-like woman walks over to Irena and addresses her as mova sestra (“my sister”).  This movie, along with other films that Lewton produced, conveyed chills and scares by shadows and darkness which worked like a charm at the box office too.  “Cat People” was a big hit and the largest moneymaker for RKO that year.  Not bad for a film where one of the taglines for it back then was, “A Kiss Could Change Her into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!”  Hmm!  Well, I guess if that kiss was from idiots like Dr. Judd and Oliver, you might have whipped out those old fangs and claws too!   

Another type of movie where paranoia was a popular element was for what was known as a “woman in jeopardy” movie.  One of the best of these was for the movie, “Gaslight” (1944) with Ingrid Bergman giving an Oscar winning performance as a new wife in Victorian London slowly being driven insane with objects disappearing, and accusations from her sinister husband (bug-eyed Charles Boyer) that she was a mentally ill kleptomaniac.  Years later you had another great one with the French film “Les Diabolique” (1955) starring Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret as the brutally treated wife and ex-mistress of the cruel head of a second-rate boarding school near Paris where both women finally decide to team up and kill him while making it look like an accident.  They commit the deed, but complications soon occur when the body is not found, and tell-tale signs start showing up suggesting that he might still be alive and that their lives might be in danger.  This one might have come close to rivaling “Psycho” as being one of the most scary shock movies ever made.

An even more recent one was the SY/FY horror/suspense thriller, “The Invisible Man” (2020), a reimagined, updated version of the famous H.G. Wells novel starring Elisabeth Moss.  For this version Moss played a heroine who escaped her abusive and wealthy boyfriend, a sort of brilliant scientist/optics expert, who was so unstable he supposedly committed suicide shortly after her escape.  However, soon afterwards she starts questioning her own reality, memory, and even her own sanity with items being moved, sounds being heard but nothing seen, and with even physical things starting to happen, to herself and later, to others but never seeing anyone or anything.  Finally, after concluding that her ex is not only alive, but has acquired the ability to become invisible and was now stalking her, she has to take swift action before he completely destroys her life.  Director Leigh Whannell (“Upgrade”) had a great premise and visually directed a film where both the audience and Moss’s character are in a constant state of unease where potential danger can occur at any moment.  Unfortunately, unlike the two previous “woman in jeopardy” movies that I have favorably mentioned, there was only one small problem with this version of “The Invisible Man” … IT STINKS! Moss, usually a fine actress, is absolutely terrible here.  She overacts so badly with her face crazily contorted all the time that all that was missing was a drool cup under her chin.  The plot also has holes big enough to move a supertanker thru.  For example, Moss, while in her attic dumps a can of paint on her invisible ex while he is trying to climb the attic ladder to menace her, yet by the time she climbs down he has already cleaned the paint off so he’s invisible again, or Moss, while with her sister in a crowded restaurant sees her sister killed by Moss’s invisible ex with a floating knife moving through the air past numerous individuals and no one else happens to see it, or… Oh, forget it!  Do I need to say anything more?  Just don’t waste your time watching this Turd!

Fortunately, keeping up with the paranoid SY/FY angle tying in with a feminist viewpoint is the far better British film, “Unearthly Stranger” (1963).  This little black and white movie was only 78 minutes long, and had almost no special effects.  They weren’t needed.  Told in flashback, John Neville (“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”) portrays a scientist exploring the possibility of space travel by mental concentration after his predecessor dies from an explosion in his brain after making a scientific breakthrough.  The following investigation soon focuses on Neville’s new Swiss(?) wife (Gabriella Licudi) who has some disturbing physical characteristics like almost never blinking, sleeping with her eyes wide open, and picking up hot objects with her bare hands (although that sure saves her from ever having to buy a pair of oven mitts!).  These revelations may soon put her husband’s life at risk.  Like “Cat People,” a husband quickly marrying an unusual foreign-born wife but discovering danger soon afterwards was given a SY/FY “Twilight Zone” twist here while invoking an atmosphere of increasing paranoia and fear.  Neville is excellent, and Licudi, an actress who mostly had few roles of notice, is also very fine as an increasingly scared mysterious wife that schoolchildren recoil from upon her approach.  Also, starring a young Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs”), maybe the most interesting aspect of “Unearthly Stranger” is in how women are portrayed.  Here they may appear to have mostly secondary or minor roles, but by the time this movie ends they may be the ones who will ultimately be in control, not the men.  The chilling ending of “Unearthly Stranger” makes that prospect, abundantly, clear!

Network and cable television also had a number of SY/FY shows that evoked paranoia very well.  One of the lesser ones was ABC’s hokey “The Invaders” (1967-68) starring Roy Thinnes as someone who accidently learns of an in-process alien invasion which he tries to thwart by traveling place to place in an attempt to stop their threats despite the fact that no one will believe him, and that the aliens, altered to appear human, disintegrate after dying leaving no trace of their existence.  This show did have some good “who is a human and who is an alien” type of paranoia moments.  However, Executive Producer Quinn Martin, who also produced the immensely popular ABC Network TV show, “The Fugitive”, which ended right around the same time, was looking for another “cash cow” TV hit so he gave the go ahead to have this one made.  Unfortunately, he tried to use the same format of “The Fugitive” for “The Invaders” with Thinnes showing up in different places each week as the hunter, not the hunted, trying to root out those sneaky Aliens!  The show even had the same sort of “fake” omnipotent beginning narration for the opening of every episode like in the “The Fugitive” to try and garnish some cheap sympathy for Thinnes’s character.  It didn’t really work (I guess looking for hulking green aliens wasn’t the same as looking for a one-armed man), and the show was cancelled after the 2nd season.  Now, at the same time Martin was also the Executive Producer for the even more hokey hit ABC Network TV show, “The F.B.I.” (1965-74) with emotionally lifeless Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. portraying J. Edgar Hoover’s wet dream fantasy vision of what an F.B.I. agent should be along with his crime busting F.B.I. agents always driving around in Ford sedans (Guess who the show’s TV sponsor was?).  Hoover was even a series consultant, and his boyfrie…, I mean, second-in-command, Clyde Tolson vetted every episode to ensure that all the actors playing F.B.I. agents, and other participants, had background checks so that no criminals, subversives, or “Commies” could ever be associated with this show.  Hmm!  You’ll notice that the background checks didn’t include “Aliens!”  Maybe Martin should have done a cross-over show with Thinnes discovering that Zimbalist was an alien and that his actual alien leader was “J. Edgar Hoover!”  (After all, Hoover was already used to being in disguise with all of those dresses in his closet!)  

A much better paranoia infused SY/FY TV show made back then was the British TV show, “The Prisoner” (1967) starring Patrick McGoohan.  This 17 episode limited series starred McGoohan as an unnamed Secret Agent who angrily quits his job without a reason but shortly afterwards is subdued and whisked off to “The Village”, a coastal town isolated from the outside world by mountains and sea.  No one is constrained there and everyone dresses the same with each individual assigned a number, rather than a name (his is No. Six).  The village is secured by various high-tech monitoring systems and security forces making escape impossible, and where in each episode you have a new leader (No. Two) of the village trying to get No. Six to reveal the reasons why he resigned (which he will not do) while continually trying to either escape or undermine No. Two’s authority.  This show was an allegory about individuality personified by No. Six vs. the crushing conformity of No. Two and “The Village”.  McGoohan was excellent playing someone trapped in a surreal paranoid nightmare world where no one could be trusted, but where he could still be defiant.  Much later on, two other fine series, where either supernatural or SY/FY paranoia was a major component, were “Outcast” (2016-17), and “Mr. Robot” (2015-19).  “Outcast” was a short-lived horror series about unseen demonic possession in West Virginia with Patrick Fugit starring as an individual recovering from his own possession while also trying to help others affected by the same malady.  “Mr. Robot” was even better starring Rami Malek in his Emmy winning role as a cybersecurity engineer and secret hacker, who struggles with social anxiety, clinical depression, multiple personality disorder, drug abuse, (leprosy, lycanthropy, acne, whatever) resulting in him constantly being in a paranoid and delusional state.  He ultimately becomes a cyber-vigilante for an anarchist group known as “fsociety” trying to destroy one of the largest corporations in the world called, E Corp (AKA Evil Corp) while constantly fighting his own inner demons.  Both shows were excellent in conveying a sense of creeping paranoia where too often you never knew what was actually real or who you could actually trust. 

The last type of movie that I want to mention incorporating paranoia is, what I like to refer to as, “look over your shoulder” conspiracy films.  I will mention one bad one, and then one really great one to conclude this month’s post.  The first one, which actually could have been really great, but fell flat on its face, was the organized crime conspiracy film, “The Brothers Rico” (1957).  Richard Conte starred as Eddie Rico, a former mob accountant now retired who is called back by the syndicate to find his two mobbed up, and now on the run, brothers to convince them not to talk to the authorities.  Based on a story by George Simenon and directed by the underrated “pulp” film director, Phil Karlson, “Rico” was (for about ninety-nine percent of the film’s running time) a terrifically sinister, downbeat, and tragic criminal conspiracy tale with the mob seemingly everywhere watching Eddie in his search, and with Eddie slowly realizing that he, along with his brothers were in a trap with no way out.  “Rico” really could have been a paranoid film classic, but unfortunately, Columbia Pictures proceeded to ruin it.  How?  Why by using that last one percent of the film’s running time to tack on a ridiculously stupid, “Happy Ending!”  If you ever want to imagine something equivalent, try imagining the end of “West Side Story” with Maria holding the dead Tony in her arms and then… her immediately jumping up to sing a rousing repeat rendition of “I Feel Pretty” with all of the remaining gang members dancing around her!  After seeing the end of “The Brothers Rico”, I definitely…

  • Did not feel pretty, oh so pretty
  • But I definitely felt “Very MAAAD!!!”

However, the truly great, paranoid conspiracy film that I want to enthusiastically praise is “The Conversation” (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  It starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a bespectacled and highly respected San Francisco surveillance expert who is personally obsessed (paranoid) about his own privacy.  Behind the multiple locked-door of his almost bare apartment which also includes a burglar alarm, he lives a sort of Spartan existence with no phone (he only uses pay phones) and almost no friends.  Even his sometime girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) knows little about him, and his only other obsession is playing a tenor saxophone along to his jazz records alone in his apartment. He has his own business and his office is enclosed in a chain-link cage in a corner of a much larger warehouse.   Although he believes that he is not responsible for the actual content of whatever information he records or how his clients choose to use it, he is still racked with guilt accentuated by being a devout Catholic from a past assignment that resulted in people being killed. Now his current assignment, bugging the conversations of a young couple in public for his unknown client, starts to lead Caul into fearing that history may repeat itself and that the couple’s lives may now be in jeopardy unless Caul personally gets involved.  His following decisions soon result in himself being followed and possibly being placed under surveillance by someone.  

Director Coppola had a banner year in 1974.  Besides “The Conversation,” he also did “The Godfather Part II” which won him the Oscar for both Best Director and Best Picture even though “The Conversation” was also nominated for Best Picture too.  In all honesty, my own personal opinion was that he should have won both awards for “The Conversation” instead (and he also should have gotten the Best Director Oscar previously for “Godfather Part I” too, but that’s another story).   His semi-documentary directing style for this film along with strong support provided by cinematographer Bill Butler was brilliant.  He is equally matched by Gene Hackman’s towering performance as Caul.  His Caul is a lonely outsider, introverted, and socially awkward with a need to be in control of his own limited little world to feel safe.  His ultimate tragedy is that he not only doesn’t achieve it, but that he also repeats the same mistakes of his past.  It’s one of the finest performances of his career, and how he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, I’ll never know.  Coppola additionally elicited fine supporting performances from John Cazale, a coldly sinister Harrison Ford, and an uncredited Robert Duvall as Caul’s client.  As a film, “The Conversation” is a masterpiece!

This concludes my Blog Post for this month.  So, if you ever feel the need to complain to someone about how you think the world is unjustly treating you, well that is perfectly OK.  However, if you ever feel the need to complain out loud to no one about how you think the world is unjustly treating yourself, and then you start to answer yourself back, well…

 

You might not be Paranoid…

 

But you sure might be CRAZY!!!

 

NLP