News Worthy(?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we’ll let them!


Big Things in Small Packages!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All you have to do is look for it!


See you next month!




Tough Girls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget: “I am a total fucking bitch.”


Bridget: “You still a lawyer, Frank?”

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

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

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

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

Don’t buy her a drink!


Feet of Clay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is love?”

“Love is the morning and the evening star!”

“Love is the voice of music!”

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

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

I know I am!




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!  




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!!!



Plague It Again Sam!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You never know when you might have to use it!


Bombastically Biblical!

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

Esther:  Even then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!


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

Happy Holidays Everyone!



Double Trouble!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bette Davis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shrink Rap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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