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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Strange Competition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Arm Wrestling…

And the movie is…

“Over the Top” (1987)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Hooker:  “He cheats!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to bet me?”


Doctor Heal Thy Self!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


POW! Right on the Kisser!

Charlie Davis: (yelling to Shorty) Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!

Anna Davis:  I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.

Charlie Davis: You need MONEY to buy a gun!

[John Garfield to Anne Revere “Body and Soul” (1947)]

Boxing is a popular subject in motion pictures as much as breathing is an element in our actual lives. Sometimes, a good old-fashioned boxing match can be an emotional high and an audience pleaser. It can also be a painful, horrible, brutal, and difficult to view experience which can have the exact opposite effect for the viewer. However, boxing matches as a specific form of visual violence have never been anything that movie or television censors really concerned themselves with. In the past, censors were more likely to be interested in curbing such truly awful stuff from our sensitive eyes like swearing (Golly-Gee!), SEX (Oh, the horror), nudity, bigotry, or anything questioning any flaws in our current system of government along with anything questioning or mocking religion for example.  Speaking of mocking religion, maybe the greatest movie I ever saw unintentionally mocking religion (and also on my Top Ten Worst Movie List of all time) has to be C.B. DeMille’s God-Awful “The Ten Commandments” (1956). After watching Charlton “Chucky” Heston as Moses vs. Yul “Mr. Clean” Brynner as Pharaoh Rameses (Hmmm? I wonder what brand of latex rubbers he uses…) I felt a strong urge to start practicing Paganism instead! However, once again, I am getting off track so let me steer this month’s post back to what I will actually be discussing this month. Namely, I will be discussing for the art of self-defense what British sportswriter Pierce Egan in 1813 called the ‘sweet science’ or basically, boxing in films!

Numerous boxing films have been made throughout the entire history of motion pictures. Such films were also prime vehicles for actors to be both nominated and winning Oscars. Some early examples were “The Patent Leather Kid” (1927) with Richard Barthelmess nominated for Best Actor and “The Champ” (1931) with Wallace Berry winning the Oscar for Best Actor. A number of other boxing films were made during the 1930’s but maybe the two best were “Kid Galahad” (1937) and “Golden Boy” (1939) even though those two were not exactly exceptional either. “Golden Boy” was based on the Clifford Odets’ stage hit and starred a young William Holden as Italian Joe Bonaparte, who becomes a prize fighter due to financial need despite his original intent of wanting to be a violinist co-starring Barbara Stanwyck as his love interest. “Galahad” starred Edward G. Robinson as Nick Donati, a boxing promoter who finds, by accident, a naive young farmer turned hotel bellhop (Wayne Morris) who he develops into a possible heavyweight title contender. The movie also starred Humphrey Bogart (in his salad days) as a gangster, and Bette Davis in a throw away role as Nick’s big city girlfriend. Neither star distinguished themselves here and the movie as seen today does not hold up well either. Unfortunately, “Golden Boy”, just like “Galahad”, is also really dated too. The boxing scenes like other boxing scenes in movies of the thirties are not very good, and Holden is about as Italian as Micky Rooney’s Japanese “Mr. Yunioshi” (a walking and talking ethnic slur) in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. It was not until the late nineteen forties that things really started to change.

However, before I continue any further, here is another useless but interesting…

Fun Fact: Although Wayne Morris was just an average actor, he wasn’t average as an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. In actuality, he served with distinction in the Pacific Campaign. After becoming a Navy flier in 1942, he flew 57 aerial sorties in the Pacific shooting down seven Japanese Zeros, sinking an escort vessel and a flak gunboat and helping to sink a submarine, damage a heavy cruiser, and damage a mine layer. For his actions he won four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two air Medals. After returning to acting at the end of the war, he later gave the one great performance of his career acting against type as the weak, cowardly Lieutenant Roget in Stanley Kubrick’s great World War I anti-war film, “Paths of Glory” (1957). Although in “Glory” he may have played a coward, in real life, Wayne Morris was a real, World War II hero! And now, back to the Blog Post!

Three boxing movies made in the late forties were exceptional examples of this genre and they still hold up very well today along with each being much more than just a simplistic boxing film. These films were “Body and Soul” (1947), “Champion” (1949) and “The Set-Up” (1949). “Soul” starred John Garfield as Charley Davis, a current middleweight boxing champion who, as the movie begins, is estranged from both his mother and girlfriend and is taking a quick nap in his dressing room before meeting a dangerous challenger for his title. At that point the movie, in flashback, reveals the origins of Charley’s upbringing in poverty, his father’s early death, his decision to be a fighter, and his boxing triumphs culminating in his winning the championship. However, at the same time it also shows how his pursuit of the almighty dollar changes him, so much so, that he turns his back on everyone who once either loved him or cared about him while allowing himself to be constantly used over and over again by others who don’t really care about him at all.

When I first saw this film many years ago I didn’t like it much at all because I couldn’t believe how anyone could be so dense as to not see how they were constantly being used and really treated and how those that cared about him suffered and even died because of his actions/non-actions. Also, the boxing storyline of the young challenger losing his moral compass during his climb to a championship was redundant even then (see “Golden Boy” for example). However, ultimately, I realized I was dead wrong! My opinion changed when at long last, I finally understood why Charley acted the way he did throughout the entire movie:  It was because Charley was Not The Sharpest Pencil in the Box… AKA He Stupid! Once I realized that fact, it also changed the entire way I viewed the rest of the film.

I now noticed other things that stood out here which were different than other previous boxing films. One, was from the Oscar nominated screenplay by Abraham Polonsky (who would later be blacklisted along with Director Robert Rossen for being Communists) which took jabs at capitalism itself inferring that it was a system which promoted material wealth above all else even if it corrupted an individual in his attainment of it. Two, was Charley’s friendship with the former African American champion he defeated, Ben (Canada Lee) which might have been a first for a boxing film. Three, was the incredible film editing which won an Oscar and the spectacular Oscar nominated black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe (he should have won). “Soul” had some of the most exciting boxing scenes ever filmed thanks to Howe, on roller skates, holding a hand-held camera, skating around the fighters during the fight sequences. Four, and last, was the powerful and raw Oscar nominated performance by Garfield (it was his only one for Best Actor). Garfield had an intensity in his performances that was spellbinding. From 1945 till his death in 1952, his performances in such films as “Pride of the Marines” (1945), “The “Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), “Force of Evil” (1948), and “The Breaking Point” (1950) were some of the best by any actor ever seen. When at the end of “Body and Soul” where he is bloody and losing his final fight to his mobbed-up opponent that he finally realizes that he has had enough, and in a raw almost animal rage says, “I’m going to Kill Him! I’m going to KILL HIM!”… and then proceeds to just about do exactly that, I dare you to not want to jump up and scream, “YEAH!!!” even if you’ve seen this film a dozen times (which, by the way, I have, and which, by the way, I did!).

“Champion” starred Kirk Douglas (in his star making performance) as Midge Kelly who, after hitch-hiking across the country to California to start a new life with his brother (Arthur Kennedy), finds that they are swindled out of a share in a restaurant. Desperate, Midge takes up an offer by a boxing trainer named Haley (Paul Stewart) to come to his gym and start to really train to become a professional fighter. As he develops, Midge starts the slow methodical climb up the ranks to get a chance to fight for the championship. Although at first it seemed similar to “Body and Soul”, (it even started with him having a flashback to his beginnings just before his championship defense) “Champion” told a far different tale about boxing than “Soul”. Midge is not an innocent ready to be corrupted. Here, from the get go, he’s already corrupted and ruthlessly willing to use anyone to achieve success including his own brother. His cruelty is also profound in his openly callow treatment of women. It’s a dark character study and Douglas grabs the part by the throat and never lets it go. Maybe the only thing darker than the storyline was Douglas’s facial scowl throughout the entire picture, whether in the ring or out, which could scare even Frankenstein! Douglas, who in real life was a serious iron pumper and gym rat, got into incredible shape for the role and there is a sequence in the film of him working out that makes you want to just say, “Wow!” The boxing sequences by Oscar nominated cinematographer Franz Planer were also outstanding. They are some of the most brutal boxing scenes ever filmed and were probably not surpassed until the movie, “Raging Bull” was made. Although the movie was made on a shoe string and shot in just 23 days it was nominated for six Oscars winning just one also for best film editing (same as “Body and Soul”) and with one of the nominations going to Douglas as Best Actor.

“The Set-Up” was an entirely different movie than the prior two boxing films. Unlike the others, it was only 72 minutes long and shot in real time taking place during one dark night. Also released in the same year as “Champion”, it starred Robert Ryan as “Stoker” Thompson, an aged, past his prime boxer in the fictional two-bit town of Paradise City about to fight a late-night undercard against a much younger and much better fighter. Stoker never came close to being a champion of anything and he has lost his past number of fights. Living in near poverty with his long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter), he hopes that if he wins, he can just use the meager winnings to maybe buy a cigar stand, or invest in another boxer, or even to box a little more. It’s almost a sure thing that he’ll probably lose this one badly so his manager doesn’t even bother to mention to him that he’s already arranged with a mobster for Stoker to take a “dive” so the mobster’s fighter will win. Why bother! Stoker doesn’t stand a chance, does he? Right? Wrong!

Two-time Oscar winning Best Director, Robert Wise directed this early gem of a film. Wise started his career as a film editor (he edited both “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Andersons”) and this film is a master class using editing to not only capture the ring action, but also other individuals in the crowd or outside the arena or back to Totter (a fine actress), silently walking the streets nearby while either tearing up her fight ticket rather than see Stoker fight or to watch children on the street play at boxing with a couple of puppets until she realizes what that possibly foretells for her husband. Wise is ably assisted by future Oscar winning cinematographer Milton Krasner whose black and white cinematography captures a seedy and poverty-stricken urban neighborhood full of despair and potential menace. However, above all, the film is anchored by the towering performance of Ryan as Stoker.

In real life, Ryan, who graduated from Dartmouth College, was the heavyweight collegiate boxing champion there for four years in a row and it shows in the film’s boxing sequences. His fine portrayal of Stoker is natural and realistic. Stoker is a common man, not necessarily smart, but honest, tough, resilient, with integrity, and still able to have hope despite everything. The sad thing is, this film was ignored and never got nominated or won anything at the Oscars that year unlike “Champion”. Howard Hughes, the head of RKO, which produced “The Set-Up” previously filed a lawsuit for plagiarism against “Champion’s” production company, United Artists, for similarities between the two films. Ultimately, Hughes won his lawsuit, but it was alleged that United Artists retaliated by ensuring that “The Set-Up” would be snubbed come Oscar time. Also, speaking of being snubbed, Robert Ryan was all too often, snubbed too! He was only nominated once for best supporting actor [“Crossfire” (1947)] and this film, along with his performances in “On Dangerous Ground” (1951), “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), and his other supporting roles [“Lonelyhearts” (1958), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), etc.] were not recognized the way they should have been. If you want to see a great performance in a great movie (whether you like boxing or not), see “The Set-Up”!

There has also been a number of great films made where ex-boxers played a critical role in a movie’s storyline. Some of these films were:

  • “The Killers” (1946): Insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien investigates the murder of ex-boxer “Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster) who’s mysterious doom-laden backstory is slowly revealed via flashback. Oscar nominee for Best Picture.
  • “The Quiet Man” (1952): Romantic comedy drama of ex-boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returning to Ireland to buy his family’s former home where he romances and weds Mary (Maureen O’Hara) while having to deal with her bullying brute of a brother Will (Victor McLaglen) culminating in the longest comic slobber-knocker brawl across the entire Irish countryside in film history. Oscar nominee for Best Picture.
  • “From Here to Eternity” (1953): Ex-boxer and career solder Montgomery Cliff, after transferring to Schofield Barracks on Oahu, is harassed by his Captain and the Captain’s subordinates when he refuses to box on the Captain’s regimental team (and there’s slightly more than just this going on in the picture). Oscar winner, Best Picture.
  • “On the Waterfront” (1954): Washed up ex-boxer now longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) working under a mob-connected waterfront union boss has a crisis of conscience when he fails in love with the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of a man whose death, Terry was partially responsible for. Also, Oscar winner, Best Picture.

Another type of boxing film that was popular with the general public were dramatizations of famous historical fighters. Two early ones were “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) which chronicled the hard scrabble life of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano with Paul Newman giving a winning performance in the role, and “Monkey on My Back” (1957) starring Cameron Mitchell as 1930’s fighter Barney Ross who became a world champion in three different weight divisions, a decorated veteran of World War II, and also overcame a serious drug addiction. Good story but cheaply made, poorly directed, and Mitchell was no Paul Newman! Pass! Other better film dramatizations were “Ali” (2001) with Will Smith as Muhammad Ali covering a ten year period of Ali’s life (1964-74) from his winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston to recapturing the title after beating George Foreman, and “The Fighter” (2010) with Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward who ultimately won the welterweight title despite having to deal with his dysfunctional family’s influence consisting of his mother (Melessa Leo) and his former championship contender half-brother (Christian Bale) now a near hopeless crack addict. There have been and will continue to be other movie biographies of famous fighters made, but perhaps the all-time best one is Martin Scorsese’s film about the life of fighter Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull” (1980), starring Robert De Niro who won the Oscar for Best Actor.

De Niro was so obsessed to play LaMotta that he tried for years to convince Scorsese to direct a film version of his life. Despite the fact that Scorsese didn’t (and still doesn’t) like boxing, he was finally convinced to do the film. De Niro, in preparing for the role, got into incredible boxing shape for the film (he did as many as a thousand rounds) and, with the help of LaMotta actually training him, De Niro even entered three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches (winning twice). LaMotta also felt that De Niro could have had the ability to be a serious contender if he continued. Scorsese had Oscar nominated cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot the film in black and white for period authenticity and also because he didn’t want to depict all of the blood in a color picture. He also had the boxing scenes filmed after months of carefully choreographed movements with a single camera in the ring. He was inspired by some of Wong Howe’s previous work in “Body and Soul” and it showed by how exciting, and also how brutal the scenes really were. To show the physical ravages of time on the older Jake LaMotta, De Niro famously gained an additional sixty pounds which startled Scorsese so much that he feared for De Niro’s health (Talk about suffering for one’s art!).

However, although “Raging Bull” was “technically” classified as a boxing film, barely ten minutes of the entire movie’s length was devoted to boxing. This movie was really a character study of a man with deep-rooted misogyny, jealousy and rage in both his public and private life who almost destroys everything around him including himself. Scorsese brilliantly presents LaMotta as both a despicable human being and, at times, a likeable one sometimes both at the same time. Supposedly, when LaMotta first saw the movie it made him realize for the first time just how awful he really was. His aggression and explosions into verbal and physical violence against his wife, Vickie (supporting Oscar nominated actress Cathy Moriarty), his own brother, Joey (supporting Oscar nominated actor Joe Pesci) along with others culminate by the end of the movie with an older LaMotta formerly incarcerated in prison, now obese, broke, alone, and reduced to doing a one night stage show reciting Brando’s lines from “On the Waterfront”… “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody… instead of a bum, which is what I am.” If you can stand it, “Raging Bull” is a classic!

To close, the last film I want to highlight is based on the combining of three short stories by deceased former boxing cut man and writer F.X. Toole from his book, “Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner” (OK, I’ve read the book and loved it so I’m giving it a plug here! Deal with it!). This boxing film is also different, in that the boxer is female (Ladies, I didn’t want to exclude you!). The movie is “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Hilary Swank. Swank stars as “Maggie” Fitzgerald, a poor waitress who wants Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an old trainer who owns a boxing gym, to train her to be a fighter. Dismissive at first, Dunn changes his mind after seeing her work out tirelessly day after day at his gym and later, after being set up in her first fight by another manager to lose to a much better fighter, Frankie jumps in to coach her mid-bout to an unexpected upset win. From that point on, Frankie becomes her manager (and substitute father figure) as she begins a relentless climb up the boxing ladder to attain a chance at a welterweight championship match.  

“Baby” is not your typical stereotypical boxing movie of a young challenger fighting their way to a championship and not just because the main character is a female rather than a male.  For one thing, Maggie is not young, and for the other thing, “Baby” takes an unexpected turn midway through the film which swings it into a completely different and heart-wrenching direction.  I intensely dislike Clint Eastwood as a person, but I’ll give him his due both as an actor, and especially, as a director.  As an actor, Eastwood has a limited emotional range and is more of a star than an actor.  However, he knows it, unlike too many actors, and he doesn’t try to do something that he is completely unsuited for (Could you see Clint doing Shakespeare?  There are not enough drugs to ever convince me of that!).  As a director, he has done some terrific and varied movies and it’s no surprise that he has been nominated for Best Director four times and has won it twice with “Baby” being his second, Best Director Oscar as well as being his second, Best Picture Oscar.  Maybe one of the best things that he does really well as a director is in selecting the right actor for the right role which is a talent all by itself.  No better example is this film with his casting of both Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris, Dunn’s long-time gym assistant, and especially, Hilary Swank as Maggie and who both won Oscars for their performances.  Swank, like De Niro, had a relentless work ethic and worked out five hours a day to gain 19 pounds of muscle for the role.  She also deeply identified with the role since Swank had an upbringing similar to the character, and it showed in her giving Maggie a combination of grit, dogged determination, and pathos.  It’s a great performance and she definitely deserved her Oscar.  “Baby” just might be the saddest boxing film ever made, but, like some of the others that I’ve previously mentioned, it’s one of the best!

So, to conclude, if after seeing these films, and if you ever get into a situation where you think you can fight your way out of it, my best advice to you is…



Cheat to Lose!

Matty:  “I’m a married woman.”

Ned:  “Meaning what?”

Matty:  “Meaning I’m not looking for company.”

Ned:  “Then you should have said I’m a happily married woman.”

[Kathleen Turner to William Hurt “Body Heat” (1981)] 

Infidelity! A subject that is a popular one in every form of art. Whether it was just thought to have occurred in William Shakespeare’s “Othello” or actually did occur in Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, cheating is as popular as apple pie (Although I’m a pecan pie fan, myself!). For theater, films, television, even opera, this subject never grows old. Hopefully, at least, it won’t grow old right now because that is what this month’s post will discuss. However, before I begin I want to make one qualifier: I am not going to discuss infidelity in opera! I’d rather see Maria Carey acting in “Glitter” first (Well, maybe I might not actually go that far!).

As a subject, Infidelity is not so serious that it can never be portrayed as a comedy. Perhaps the greatest director of sophisticated film comedies concerning infidelity was director Ernest Lubitsch. His urbane comedy style was unique and special consisting of witty dialogue and a cultured laissez-faire attitude among his film characters while incorporating a European flair. Some examples are the comedies “Design for Living” (1933) with Miriam Hopkins not being able to decide between two suitors (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) so the three of them decide to cohabitate where cheating soon ensues, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938) with seven times married businessman Gary Cooper marrying Claudette Colbert who immediately keeps him distant to ensure that he will remain interested in her even if she has to fake adultery, and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) with the lead “ham” actor (Jack Benny) of a Polish theater trope trying to arrange his company’s escape from Poland after the Nazis invade while dealing with his wife’s (Carol Lombard) constant infatuations with a young Polish airman (Robert Stack). These films along with additional classic romantic comedies like “Trouble in Paradise” (1932) and “Ninotchka” (1939) made Lubitsch films as unique and as special as watching an Alfred Hitchcock film. Sadly, Lubitsch, who suffered from poor health, died in 1947 at the age of 55. Upon leaving Lubitsch’s funeral, famed director Billy Wilder, who helped write the screenplays for “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and “Ninotchka” said to famed director William Wyler “No more Lubitsch.” Wyler immediately responded “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.” Infidelity or not, Lubitsch was one of a kind!

Two other fine comedy films that include different aspects of infidelity are “The Captain’s Paradise” (1953) and “Who Was That Lady” (1960). “Paradise” starred Alec Guinness as Captain Henry St. James who, as the film begins, is being escorted by a platoon of soldiers to a fort to be executed. As the shots of his firing squad ring out the movie flashes back to how his predicament started. What unfolds is that St. James, who is the owner and captain of a small passenger ship that ferries individuals to and from Gibraltar and the North African port of Kalique, is a bigamist with his domesticated English wife Maud (Celia Johnson) and their two children in Gibraltar, and with his hot-blooded, passionate, and nightlife loving wife Nita (Yvonne De Carlo) in Kalique. As time goes by (I know you are about to say, “Here he goes again…”) complications ensue!

“Paradise’s” screenplay by Alec Coppel (who also would later write the screenplay for “Vertigo”) was nominated for an Oscar and it is a delight. Both Johnson and De Carlo give some of the best performances of their career. However, once again, the movie is anchored by the wonderful comic performance of Guinness. As a character actor, Guinness was well known for having the great ability to completely disappear into various different roles and make them his own. When he previously starred in the dark film comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), he even played nine different characters (both male and female) consisting of an entire aristocratic family who were each being eliminated one by one by a scoundrel who wanted to obtain a dukedom. In “Paradise” he had it easier because he only had to play two different roles: (1) a quiet, sober, early to bed family man with Maud, and (2) a wild, loud, nightlife loving bon vivant with the exuberant Nita. The film was a hit but it caused such controversy because of the way that it celebrated bigamy and infidelity that it was originally refused approval by the U.S. Production Code for distribution until additional scenes and dialogue were added to meet the Neanderthal U.S. censors approval. Even with these changes, when it was released in the states it was still a hit. If you ever get a chance to see it, whether it is edited or not, definitely see it. You won’t be disappointed!

“Who Was That Lady” was a slapstick sex farce about infidelity which starred Tony Curtis as David, a straight-laced Columbia University Assistant Chemistry Professor who, when caught by his wife, Ann (Janet Leigh, Curtis’s actual real wife at the time) being kissed by one of his female students, she runs off to start divorce proceedings. Distraught, he seeks help from his close friend, Michael (Dean Martin), a TV mystery writer to help him win his wife back. Michael’s great idea: David is actually an F.B.I. secret agent and the girl that he kissed was a Russian spy. Surprisingly, the ruse actually works, so much so, that Ann even actively encourages David to continue his secret agent work with his fellow agent Michael. This allows womanizing Michael to actively involve David in his never ending sexual antics by having them later pick up the two blond wannabe actress Coogle sisters. Since the sisters are played by sex bomb actresses’ Barbara Nichols and Jo Lansing, they probably should have been more aptly named the “OGLE” Sisters. Needless to say, by then, you have the F.B.I., the CIA, and actual Russian KGB agents getting involved in this mess with David’s deceptions sinking faster than the Titanic attached to the Great Pyramid of Giza as an anchor.

Whatever your opinion may be of Tony Curtis and Dean Martin as serious dramatic actors, one thing you cannot deny is that both could do light comedy roles very well. This was their only movie together and they are hysterical. They play off of each other effortlessly and it’s truly a wonder why no one ever thought of teaming them up together in another comedy ever again. They are equally matched by Janet Leigh who jumps full comic throttle into the overall silliness of the film along with able assistance provided by James Whitmore expertly underplaying as an ulcer induced FBI agent along with Larry (“F Troop”) Storch as a frantic KGB agent. If you are going to make a light weight sex farce about infidelity, the one thing that you have to be sure of is that it will really be funny. In “Lady”, the laughs keep rolling on one after the other from the beginning till the very end.

On a more serious note, infidelity in films was something that, too often, was a subject where the cheating individuals involved had to face punishment or retribution for their actions. It was also a prime subject that was perfect for representation or misrepresentation in numerous and varied film noirs. The stereotypical sultry femme fatale luring a married man into trysts as well as criminality or the handsome cad using and then discarding a married woman after she served his cruel intentions was always popular among the general public even if, too often, it was simplistic or fanciful. Also, all too often it involved murder as a means to an end. However, better dramatizations involving infidelity had protagonists both morally/ethically flawed with right and wrong not so clearly defined. This type of noir infidelity fell into a subset of noir entitled “roman noir”. Writer James M. Cain wrote two fine examples of this theme which were made into the top notch films “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946).

Three other fine “roman noir” films involving infidelity were “Deception” (1946) with Bette Davis driven to murder when her ex-lover, Claude Rains (who completely steals the entire picture), threatens to tell her husband, thought originally dead, of their past affair; or “The Fallen Idol” (1948) with the young son (Bobby Henrey) of a French diplomat at the London Embassy mistakenly trying to protect his idol, his father’s butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), when he mistakenly thinks Baines killed his shrewish wife after she discovered his affair with a younger woman (Michele Morgan); and lastly, “Pitfall” (1948) with married insurance adjuster Dick Powell unwittingly drawn into an affair with unlucky Lizabeth Scott and with both individuals soon menaced by a creepy detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who wants Scott at any cost. With regards to “Pitfall”, this might be the most honest film about adultery that I have ever seen with career best performances by both Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell and a special tip of the hat to Director Andre de Toth and the great (and uncredited) writer William Bowers who wrote the terrific screenplay. Fun fact: Bower’s screenplay violated the Hays (censorship) Code because the adulterer was not sufficiently punished (you know, like having him boiled in oil). De Toth personally met with two senior Hays Code jerks that he selected with care and revealed to them that he knew that they were both married and both had mistresses. After that, amazingly, the problems with the Hays Code bunch mysteriously disappeared! Hmmm!

Moving right along, some directors can do noteworthy films depicting infidelity. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are any good. As a case in point, let’s look at Director Adrian Lyne. Lyne falls, once again, into the directing category of “style over substance” in that he hides his lack of depth in all of his films with a gaudy visual style accompanied by an eardrum splitting pop/rock music score hoping that the viewing public will, like a little baby reaching for a bright shiny object, not notice that his films are pure trite crap. Some of his output consists of garbage like “Flashdance” (1983) which probably should have been called Trashdance, and “9 1/2 Weeks” (1986) with sexual and sadomasochistic scenes so boring that doing one’s income taxes would be more titillating.

However, least I forget, regarding infidelity, Lyne did three other real winners. The first, and his most critically successful film, was “Fatal Attraction” (1987) with married lawyer Michael Douglas who, after illicitly canoodling with editor Glenn Close, discovers: (1) she’s Bat S*#t Crazy, (2) she doesn’t want to quit canoodling with Mikey, (3) she’s pregnant too, (4) she really doesn’t like bunnies, and (5) SHE’S BAT S*#T CRAZY MIKEY! When this movie first came out, a number of critics labeled it, “Psycho for Yuppies!” which is a direct insult to all self respecting psychopaths everywhere. His next artistic effort was “Indecent Proposal” (1993) where the only two reasons for wasting your time watching this fantasy about a Gazillionaire willing to give a husband one million bucks to sleep with hubby’s wife for one night was: (1) To see who gave the worst performance, Robert Redford or Demi Moore, and (2) Whether Woody Harrelson’s toupee would fall off. Lyne’s last infidelity classic was “Unfaithful” (2002) where in this one, in a switch, you now had wife Diane Lane as the cheater and husband Richard Gere as the cheatee. Supposedly, an early draft of this film’s screenplay was for the couple to have marital problems due to a dysfunctional sexual relationship as a justification for the wife having an affair. It’s too bad they didn’t use this storyline instead. By having Richard (Gerbil) Gere around, anyone would have had a dysfunctional sexual relationship by always having to worry about someone who was attracted to both men, women, and small animals. Anyway, other than Lyne using infidelity as an excuse to inject some cheap soft core pornography into all of his films, these are movies to just flat out avoid.

However, Woody Allen, a far better director, did a couple of really excellent serious movies about infidelity. Those two movies were “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), and “Match Point” (2005). “Crimes” consists of two storylines: (1) a humorous one, starring Allen as a documentary film maker in a failing marriage who has to make a documentary celebrating his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a successful but obnoxious TV producer whom Allen despises, and (2) a serious one, starring Martin Landau as Judah, a married ophthalmologist in an affair with a flight attendant (Anjelina Huston) who threatens exposing the affair to his wife along with some of Landau’s shady financial dealings once she realizes that he will not leave his wife. Although the movie was a critical, not a financial success, it is an excellent picture that captures a difficult balancing act of two different types of storylines, comedy and hard drama both involving infidelity. Both characters, Allen and Landau, self-rationalize their actions regarding infidelity in different ways. With Landau, he utilizes his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) to help him get rid of his problem and is ultimately happy and finally at ease with what he has done. With Allen, even though he never actually succeeds at infidelity, he ultimately finds himself left depressed, alone, and burdened with thoughts of his “crimes and misdemeanors”. Neither one can ever see who they really are. One is a criminal and the other is a failure with a false belief in his own superiority.

“Match Point” stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris, a retired tennis pro working as an instructor at a high-end club in London who becomes friendly with Tom (Matthew Goode), a rich pupil, and whose sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) starts to date Chris upon meeting him. Their dating becomes serious and he is slowly accepted into their family where marriage and his future career are being considered. The only problem, Chris is seriously attracted to Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom’s struggling actress fiancee who is also attracted to Chris. After Chris marries Chloe and Tom breaks up with Nola, they connect again and begin an affair. Unfortunately, like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” when Nola gets pregnant she wants Chris to leave Chloe or she’ll reveal their affair destroying his marriage and a chance for a better life. Also, just like in “Crimes” Chris decides to take murderous action to solve his problem. However, Chris is a far different character than Judah in “Crimes”, and “Match Point” is a far different picture too.

Besides one being in America and the other in England, “Match Point” is a dead serious drama about infidelity with no comic overtones at all. Meyers’ Chris is a social climber originally from a poor background who tries to fit in with the rich and cultured world of Tom and Chloe even affecting an interest in opera and Strindberg. However, his murderous self-rationalizations are closer to author Patricia Highsmith’s classic sociopathic character of Tom Ripley in that: (1) he’s a brooding loner, (2) shows little guilt about his actions, and (3) while realizing what he is doing is wrong, he still considers his own interests superior to those around him, even if he has to kill innocents to achieve it. It’s a Damning portrait of a shallow and immoral opportunist aided by sheer luck rather than his own cleverness and Meyers (an underrated actor), is excellent in the role. This was Woody Allen’s favorite film, and it was a critical and box office success too. In “Match Point,” never has infidelity gone wrong been so murderously portrayed.

Another movie with the theme of infidelity leading to murder, and one that I definitely want to discuss is the terrific neo-noir film “Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Hurt plays Ned Racine, a two-bit cheap, libido-enthused, sleazy Florida lawyer who is not only lacking in scruples but also lacking in competency. One night at an outdoor concert he meets Matty Walker (Turner) and is immediately sexually attracted to her but quickly rebuffed (“You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”) when he tries his pickup lines on her. Turns out that she’s the wife of a rich, and possibly crooked businessman constantly out of town which allows her to prowl around at night whether to go to an outdoor concert or hang out at a local cocktail lounge near her home. Thinking with his loins rather than his brain, Ned shows up a few nights later at the lounge and after more weak bantering he manages to follow her home where they begin a torrid sexual affair. Deep into the affair Matty then tells Ned that actually she wants to divorce her husband but unfortunately, she signed a prenuptial agreement that would give her next to nothing and she wishes he was dead. At that point, Ned suggests they go to the nearest church to confess their sins and… (If you believe that, I’ve got some Lysol throat lozenges to sell you!)

First time director Lawrence Kasdan wrote the wonderful hard-boiled screenplay which packs a sardonic punch. His direction was also greatly influenced by the movie, “Double Indemnity” and to which “Body Heat” was a direct homage (He even tried to hire famed composer, Miklos Rozsa, who did the original score for “Indemnity”, to do “Body Heat” but Rozsa turned him down). However, “Body Heat” is much, much better than a blatant ripoff of “Double Indemnity”. Although both Ned and Matty are actively plotting murder and Ned appears to be the leader, you never lose sight of the fact that Matty is way smarter than Ned and is subtly manipulating him. This was Kathleen Turner’s first film role, and it’s a star-making breakout of a performance. She radiates a dangerous, erotic sexuality and her sex scenes with William Hurt could melt the Polar Ice Cap (and folks, this was before climate change.) Kasdan’s direction is exceptional too in presenting a portrait of two amoral individuals during a hot and sweaty heat wave where murderous intentions can easily be put into motion. However, for all of the praise that I am heaping on this film, maybe the thing I should mention most is the terrific performance of William Hurt as Ned.

There are a handful of great male actors like Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, James Stewart, Robert De Niro, etc. who can convey great inner complexity and emotional turmoil without saying a word. It’s a real skill that only the very best can do convincingly. William Hurt is also one of them and at the time of his acting in this film he just might have been the finest actor of his generation. As the film moves along you see him, without saying a word, slowly, bit by bit, realize that his perfect murder plan is falling apart along with his slow recognition that, bit by bit, his partner in crime, Matty, might be setting him up for his own downfall. Whether it’s his jumpy flinch when he hears a jail door slam shut (It tolls for thee?) or the shocked look on his face when he sees the driver in a car near him dressed up as a professional clown in makeup (Maybe Ned’s one too, just without the makeup!), he’s so constantly surprising that you can’t take your eyes off of him. By the end of the film, the resignation on Hurt’s face when he finally discovers, after looking through an old high school yearbook, who Matty Walker really was is more powerful than anything he could have ever actually have said.

The last example of infidelity that I want to highlight is a classic and acclaimed episode of the successful and long running Network TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-62). Each of the show’s 267 episodes were only 25 minutes long and only 17 of them were actually directed by Hitchcock although he always appeared at the beginning and end of every episode to provide a bit of gallows humor to the proceedings. The Emmy nominated episode about infidelity that he directed is “Lamb to the Slaughter” (Season 3, Episode 28, April 13, 1958) starring Barbara Bel Geddes and based on a short story by famed writer Roald Dahl.

Spoiler Alert: I am going to tell the whole storyline now so if you have never seen this episode and do not want me to spoil it for you, stop here right now (I won’t be hurt but if any of you feel like you have hurt my feelings, well I always accept cash… Oh, that’s right, I already tried that in last month’s Post!)

Pregnant and happily married housewife Mary (Geddes) is waiting for her police husband to arrive home before making dinner. Unfortunately for her, he arrives home and acts cold, distant, and after a few drinks announces that he is leaving her for someone else and turns his back to her to look in the phone book for a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately for him, Mary, in shock, takes a large frozen leg of lamb that she just took out of the freezer to cook and bashes him on the back of the head with it, killing him instantly. Still partially in shock but now thinking more clearly she puts the leg of lamb in the oven to slowly cook, goes out to buy some groceries with a noticeable smile on her face, and when she returns drops the groceries on the floor, upsets some of the home furnishings, and with tears in her eyes, calls the police to report that she just came home and found her husband murdered. The police arrive and immediately analyze the crime scene. They secretly know that her husband was a known philanderer and that the disheveled furnishings in the home were staged to make it look like an intruder broke in and killed him with a heavy blunt instrument but they cannot find a murder weapon on the premises. Then, one of the detectives notices the leg of lamb in the oven and Mary offers to serve it to the detectives since it’s past dinner time and she was just going to throw it out anyway. As the detectives sit around the dinner table consuming the meal, Hitchcock films Bel Geddes sitting alone in a chair against a wall showing no emotion with the camera slowly moving closer to her face as you hear one of the detectives exclaim, “Basically, I think it’s (the murder weapon) here on the premises. Well, for all we know it might be under our very noses.” At that moment, Bel Geddes starts to smile and giggle! The end!

Two years later for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” he would film a similar ending with Anthony Perkins sitting alone against a wall and with a little smile say,

“Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”

So dear readers, if any of you now, or in the future, want to cheat on someone and dinner is about to be prepared, just make sure that the choice is “PASTA!”


Dumpster Diving!

“Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on what kind of genitals they have.” [Anne Carlisle in “Liquid Sky” (1982)]

Garbage!  Trash!  Junk!  Refuse!  Rubbish!  We all know what it is, and we all get rid of loads of it all the time.  I’ll bet at times you even wonder, “How did I ever accumulate so much crap?”  How do we, as a society, create so much waste that it seems like we have trash dump sites with piles of garbage so high that they could compete with the Great Pyramids of Egypt in height alone.  However, can’t we say the same thing with regards to  movies and other versions of media too?  For everything that’s worth viewing, doesn’t it seem like there is so much trash out there that it’s like you are fighting off an elephant stampede with a fly swatter just to try and find something worth spending your time and money on?

Now, Dear Reader, I have tried to impart my pearls of wisdom to you so you will not be so frustrated in this eternal quest.  I also hope that you appreciate my efforts on your behalf.  Of course, it also would be nice if you could show your appreciation for my efforts with a small financial token sent in my direction too (I also accept cash or money orders… however, no firstborn children please!)  Unfortunately, I think we all know that the only thing I might receive from you might be something more likely to be found in one of those trash heaps or possibly even something more extravagantly fragrant dispatched by airborne delivery, instead, at my head!  Be that as it may, where is all of my babbling leading to for the Blog Post this month?  Well let me explain!  There are certain movies and other forms of media that are so outrageously bad or ridiculous that they are worth seeing just for the laughs alone, unintentional or not!  A more blunt way of putting it is, “Something so bad, it’s good!”   This is true in all forms of art whether it be visual, musical, or even, literary.  They even have names for these types of works such as “Kitsch” or “Camp”.  The Merriam-Webster definition of the word, “Camp” for instance is:

Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing or a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture. 

However, most of the time, this stuff is just pure CRAP!!!  Nevertheless, this month’s Post will discuss the exceptions, rather than the rule.  In other words, I will highlight those “trash” movies, etc. that were actually pretty enjoyable and well worth viewing  just for the outrageous fun aspect alone.  However, first I will discuss a truly bad trash item.  Then I will discuss a good “trash” item that you just might find worth your time.  None of the things that I will praise here will ever be thought of as high art, but they just might be, at least, amusing.  We will see.  Now, to first get the ball rolling, let me begin by telling you about a popular TV show that can be fitted into the category of “stupid trash” rather than amusing!  That TV show is “BATMAN!”

When ABC’s  “Batman” (1966-68) debuted it was a huge ratings hit.  Unlike the far better later transformation of the Batman character into the lone psychologically tormented “Dark Knight” in future comic books and movie lore, this version [with a spastic Robin (Burt Ward) hopping around like someone with a live ferret stuck in his shorts] was played for simplistic morality and heavy handed intentional humor.  As Batman, bad actor Adam West, had the role of his dreams.  Even though he was so wooden in the role that “Pinocchio” could have out acted him, he milked it for most of the rest of his life on TV, in movies, on animated series voice work, and at different public events.  Despite the fact that before it came on the air, it received the lowest audience test score for a show in ABC Network history, it became so popular that everybody wanted to be a guest villain or at least have a cameo role on it.  Even Spencer Tracy said he’d play the Penguin if he could kill Batman on the show (God Help Us!!!).  For all I know, if Tracy didn’t die in 1967 ABC might have even considered it.  Despite the fact that the show was almost painful to watch due to the non-existent acting, cheap sets, kindergarten storylines, and non-funny attempts at humor, it lasted for three long years before the public finally had enough of this trash and ABC cancelled it.

However, a much better example of something that is 100% pure trash, but also an  unintentionally funny little gem is the noir film, “Wicked Woman” (1953).  “Wicked” starred Beverly Michaels (Who?) as Billie Nash, a drifter with the worst bleach blond dye job in film history, wearing high heels and a white (virginal) summer dress while strutting around on the screen with male leering eyes following her everywhere. The plot, what there was of one, was that after Billie finds a room in a cheap boarding house with lusting next door neighbor, Charlie (Percy Helton) eyeing her every move, she gets a waitressing job in a cheap bar with handsome, muscular owner, Matt (Richard Egan) married to an alcoholic, shrewish wife.  Needless to say, Billie eyes Matt and Matt eyes Billie’s as….sets(!!!).  They both then set out to swindle the wife’s half ownership of the bar away so they can sell off the place and skip off to Mexico together.  Of course (I know you are telling me, “Please! Please!  Don’t say IT again…”), things do not go as planned!

In the nineteen fifties a whole truckload of films were made with wanton females (almost always blond) tempting men to their doom.  There was a habitual conga line of actresses like Cleo Moore, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Carol Ohmart, Karen Steele, and, of course, Michaels who didn’t have to worry about being cast, on the couch or otherwise, to find work in these classics.  The thing that makes this movie work is that everyone is playing it so straight and taking it so seriously that it makes it even funnier the more outrageous it gets.  As an actor, Richard Egan made a good Army judo instructor which is what he did in the service during WW II.  He basically used one facial expression to convey various emotions throughout the entire movie and none of them were even remotely believable.  However, maybe the best of the bunch was Helton, as Charlie.

Helton had a long career as a character actor playing various small parts or secondary roles, at times, of a more humorous nature due to his looks and a breathy and raspy falsetto voice.  He was bald, short, and hunched over.  He kind of looked like a cross between a Christmas Gnome without the pointy hat and beard and Peter Lorre’s Dad.  In “Wicked,” between his skulking around Billie while being used by her until he turns the tables on her it almost looks like the two of them are about to break out into a Punch and Judy puppet club-fest!  Fun fact:  this was Helton’s favorite performance and he even hung a three-sheet poster of the film in his home.  As for the 5’9″ Michaels, she had a life that turned out rather more subdued.  Two years after “Wicked Woman” she married the film’s co-writer and director, Russell Rouse who maybe used this movie as a warm up since he would later win a best screenplay Oscar for the Doris Day comedy, “Pillow Talk” (1959).  She retired from acting in 1956.  They had two children and stayed married for 32 years until his death in 1987.  Michaels continued to live a quiet life until she also passed away in 2007.  Not too wicked after all, don’t you think!

Since I just mentioned a good trash film noir how about we now move onto discussing a ridiculously awful trash film noir.  The movie in question:  “The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950).  The plot consists of a veteran police detective who, while having a secret affair with a shallow rich socialite who is getting divorced, has to act to protect her when she kills her estranged spouse sort-of by accident (Yeah, that one again!).  Now there is nothing wrong with doing an old noir standard storyline for a film.  Its popular since its has been done so many times.  However, this version departs from just dull redundancy and instead, sky rockets into ludicrous trash category all by itself.  Why does it, you may ask?  Well, it’s because the two lead roles are played by Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt!

You haven’t lived until you see the two of them romantically pawing each other (Ugh!  Yuck!).  It seems like Cobb (this was the only romantic role he ever did) wears his trench coat and hat 50% of the time just to hide the fact that:  (1) he’s shaped more like a football middle linebacker than a leading man, and (2) to keep you from noticing that he’s wearing a toupee!  As for “Father Knows Best” Jane Wyatt, she looks more like she’d rather be wearing an apron to go make a cake rather than wearing a fashion gown to go to a high society event.  Hell, she isn’t even a “Blond” (sacrilege for a 1950s movie femme fatale)!  While watching this mess, I subconsciously found myself with my mouth wide-open and stunned.  The movie is also not helped by the bland screenplay and direction nor the bland performance by actor John Dall as Cobb’s brother who figures out the plot.  The movie even had one of the most boring manhunts in film history at the abandoned ruins of an old fort under the Golden Gate Bridge.  By the time it nears the end, Cobb looks more like he’d rather be having a beer at the local VFW than supposedly lamenting his wrongheaded life choices.

Trash movies can also be found in Science Fiction with both good and bad results and with money not always being a critical factor as to its quality.  Case in point:  the punk S/F film, “Liquid Sky” (1982).  This film, which was only made with a budget of about $500,000 was a truly whacked out dark comedy portrait of a drugged out bisexual, promiscuous, sometime model, Margaret (Anne Carlisle), who lives with her drug dealing girlfriend while constantly being abused, both verbally and sexually by the crowd she hangs out with.  One night a small alien spaceship occupied by a bunch of small aliens (Special Effects courtesy Hasbro) lands on the rooftop of their penthouse apartment and observes her activity.  Soon enough they discover that when Margaret has sex while high (basically all of the time) her partners when achieving orgasm release endorphins that are better than heroin that the aliens can suck out of these victims while causing them to immediately die and vanish.  Margaret is spared because she doesn’t have an orgasm (maybe they should have renamed this film, “Alien Sex Junkies from Space”).  Once Margaret discovers that she has this power, she sets out to take revenge on all of those who had previously abused her.

This film was made by a partial Russian production team, that consisted mainly of producer/writer/director Slava Tsukerman and cinematographer Yuri Neyman.  It was a foreigner’s fever dream of how they viewed New York City’s punk/drug scene and the strange thing is that this film’s whacky premise actually works.  Yuri’s cinematography is impressive with strong lighting, color, contrast, composition, and movement to convey individuals with jagged emotions and even more jagged mental states.  Slava’s foul mouthed screenplay is hilarious and you are rooting your head off as Margaret keeps eliminating the various jerks in her life.  Anne Carlisle is terrific in the role and, even though it seems like every other word she utters is an obscenity, you feel real sympathy for her despite the fact that she is almost as unsympathetic as everyone else.  She even played her movie nemesis Jimmy, who would later become one of her victims (talk about F*&king yourself!).  “Liquid Sky” was the most successful independent movie of 1983 and Tsukerman in 2014 even wanted to make a sequel with Carlisle returning as Margaret.  However, nothing yet, so stay tuned (anyone have a spare $500,000 around?).

As I previously said, having a lot of money to throw at a conceptual S/F trash movie does not make it any better.  All it makes is an even bigger and more expensive piece of CRAP!  As an example, lets look at the worst one made in the past 25 years:  “Mars Attacks” (1996).  This movie, directed by Tim Burton was supposed to be a big budget homage to the numerous aliens invading earth B movies made popular in the 1950s and to which Burton wanted to pay homage to.  It boasted a large A list of top notch ensemble acting talent (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Sylvia Sydney, etc.) and a combined budget of 100 million dollars to play with.  Once that factor was resolved, they were ready to begin.  Unfortunately, there was just one little problem that was never really resolved.  That little problem was:  EVERYTHING! 

The first, and maybe the biggest mistake of all was why would anyone agree to do this movie in the first place.  Who in their right mind would think that the public would actually want to see a big budget movie incorporating the cheap and tacky visual styles of 1950s S/F B-movies (aliens with big brainy heads wearing glass helmets, flying saucer spaceships, etc.)?  These movies were made cheap in the 1950s because S/F movies back then were looked down upon by studios and they had to cut financial corners to be made at all.  This did not completely change until the first Star Wars movie was made in 1977.  Next, why would you make such a movie if you were trying to do a parody of 1950s S/F movies but incorporate some serious graphic violence (enough that they had to do some serious editing and re-writes in order to not have this movie R rated)?  Lastly, whether this was a parody or a serious film, how can you have this type of acting talent in one film and the only person who actually gives a really fine performance was, of all people, Jim Brown (Yes, NFL running back Jim Brown)?  When Jim Brown gives your best performance in a movie with all of these great actors, well, that’s when all the studio executives involved in this production need to dust off their job resumes and look into new career opportunities in the fast food service industry.  And while we are busy swinging the executioner’s axe, lets also take a couple of good Louisville Slugger swings at director Tim Burton’s neck too!

As a director, Burton is the classic case of being one of style over substance.  While he has actually done some good adult stuff (“Sweeney Todd”…, “Big Fish”) and some good films more for children (“Corpse Bride”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) this film is his Titanic (the actual disaster, not the movie).  Burton, along with his original screenplay writer, envisioned this movie as similar to “Dr. Strangelove” in that “both films had a similar story but with different tones.”  That’s kind of like saying Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great tap dancer except for the wheelchair.  On release, the movie was a mega box office bomb and definitely, a shining example of a truly expensive bad trash film!

Now Dear reader, I could continue to further list good trash and bad trash movies but then this post would run ad infinitum, so I will finish up my post by listing one last really good trash movie and call it a day.  That movie is a comedy horror movie that actually has some unexpected and touching moments which make it a surprising little gem.  The movie’s name:  “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002).  “Bubba” is based on the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella by award winning mystery and horror author Joe R. Lansdale.  It takes place in a nursing home in East Texas and revolves around an elderly resident named Sebastian (Bruce Campbell) who thinks he is Elvis Presley, and who supposedly switched places with an Elvis impersonator that was the Elvis who died in 1977 because Sebastian/Elvis was tired of the fame.  Unfortunately, while trying to make a little money impersonating himself as Elvis he loses all documentation in a propane explosion proving that he is actually Elvis and, to make matters worse, after injuring his hip during a performance he lapses into a coma from an infection and doesn’t wake up until 20 years later.  Now old, impotent, and semi-incapacitated, he has no friends except for a fellow resident, a black man named Jack (Ossie Davis), who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy (Is this whacky enough yet?).  Well, next thing you know Sebastian and Jack have to take action when fellow nursing home residents start getting killed by a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy (named Bubba Ho-Tep by Sebastian) that feeds on the souls of the residents and which was originally stolen and then subsequently lost during a severe storm near their nursing home (Yep!  This now can officially be classified as, “Very Whacky!”).

Schlockmeister writer, co-producer and director Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm I, II, III… etc.”) had a total operating budget of a little over $500,000 (Hmmm!  Where have we heard this one before?) and 30 days to shoot the whole Damn thing.  Most of the film was also shot in an abandoned veterans’ hospital outside of L.A. to save costs.  Upon completion only 32 prints were made to be circulated around to various film festivals to gain publicity.  So by now you are probably thinking, “Why do I think what I just described is worth anything more than a good warm bucket of piss?”  Well, surprisingly, a couple of good reasons!  The first was a fine adaption of Lansdale’s story which highlights a mix of comedy, the bizarre, and companionship between two mismatched friends which Lansdale also did very well in his Hap and Leonard series of novels and subsequent TV series (2016-18).  Second, two fine performances by veteran actors Ossie Davis and especially, Bruce Campbell.

Campbell has been a B movie acting standard bearer for decades on TV and in the movies while also finding work as a voice actor, producer, director, and writer (Hell, he was even hawking his autobiography, “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor” during a book tour to promote this film).  Oh, did I forget to mention that he is an ordained minister too!  For all I know, he probably also sells aluminum siding and life insurance policies on the side.  Nevertheless, he can actually act and in “Bubba Ho-Tep” he gives a fine performance.  His Elvis is sad, lonely, introspective and frustrated by how his life has turned out.  He muses about how the aged, like himself, are forgotten and ignored by a society that increasingly favors the immediate and the young.  The cheap horror aspects of the film are easily forgettable, but it’s his performance along with his interactions with Davis that make this movie worthwhile.  Just like “Liquid Sky”, for years they have been trying to make either a sequel or a prequel to this film and in 2018 a limited issue comic book series supervised by Lansdale was even issued which explored Elvis’s further adventures.  However, as of now, that’s all we have!

Instead of wasting 100 million on “Mars Attacks,” you’d think a smart studio could have instead taken a million from the budget and funnel it to the folks that made “Liquid Sky” and ‘Bubba Ho-Tep” wouldn’t you?  It sure could have produced something that was a lot more trashy fun for a lot less cost!  But maybe, I’m just whistling in the wind after all!

You tell me!


Family Circus!

Bart:  “Dad, I can’t believe you’re risking my life to save your own.”

Homer:  “Son, you’ll understand one day, when you have Kids.”

(Who Else but “The Simpsons”)

Well, we now come to that time of the year when the Holidays approach and we can celebrate it with my annual Holiday Blog Post.  Of course, last year I discussed movies and TV about the Holiday season.  However, I used that subject already so do you honestly think that I’m going to repeat myself this year?  Nooooooooo!  This year, I’m going to discuss for Network TV and Cable something that is especially meaningful this time of the year but which is also apropos throughout the entirety of the year.  And what might that subject possibly be?  Why none other than…FAMILY!  Now I am not going to discuss Cable or Network TV shows about families getting together during the holidays either.  Nor, am I going to discuss what we have in the past labeled as just “family movies” on TV.  You know, stuff that you would ordinarily find on the Hallmark and Disney Channels involving family and which can also include animated movies and TV shows.  Nor am I going to just discuss on Network TV or Cable shows what we think of as a “traditional” family.  Family can also mean for example:

  • an association of people who share common beliefs or activities
  • a social unit composed of those living together in the same dwelling
  • a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation

So with these parameters now defined, here we go!

It might not at first seem apparent, but there are many different types of TV shows about family.  On Network TV you always could find comedy shows about family.  Some examples back in the fifties and sixties were “Father Knows Best” (1954-60), “Leave It to Beaver” (1957-63), and, my favorite, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-66).  These shows reaffirmed the wholesome ideal of what America thought was a family, namely, mom was the homemaker, father was the wage earner who was all wise (even if he was sometimes a bumbler) and the children were always getting into impish trouble which the parents had to extricate them from while imparting their wisdom to them.  Of course, they were also all Caucasian, never had any substance abuse problems, psychological problems, family abuse problems, real criminal problems, and there was no such thing as prejudice shown someone as an actual problem either.  Of course, during the fifties and into the sixties Network TV Censorship was so severe that none of this stuff could ever be used as episode storylines.  Also, bad actions always had to be punished for good to triumph in order to maintain the stability of what we thought of as family and home.  It was Eisenhower America at it’s finest!  Growing up watching this American brainwashing technique, especially, with Ozzie and Harriet, I always had a few random thoughts:

  • What “Adventures” could a show called “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” ever actually have?:  (1) Rolling out of bed?  (2) Taking out the garbage?  (3) Harriet accidently putting Ex-Lax instead of chocolate chips in her batch of cookies?  (4) David or Ricky mistakenly picking up Ozzie’s copy of “Playboy” rather than “Boys’ Life” while sitting on the bathroom can?
  • Why would anybody ever be or want to ever be called Oswald (AKA Ozzie)?  He should have just used the name Oswald from the very beginning and removed all doubt about the matter so you always knew who would be the last guy picked for a team sport and the first guy always picked on at lunchtime.
  • What was Ozzie’s actual job/profession?:  (1) Lawyer?  (2) Bandleader?  (3) Vagrant?  (4) Raincoat wearer hanging around schoolyards?  (5) Russian deep-cover spy teaching Ricky how to sing Rock and Roll to subvert American children’s minds?

Comedy Network TV sitcoms about family really started to change in the nineteen seventies due to the influence of Norman Lear who ensured that they touched on modern political and social issues while constantly fighting the Network Censors every step of the way.  In case you might have forgot, he was responsible for “All in the Family” (1971-79), “Sanford and Son” (1972-77), “Maude” (1972-78), “Good Times” (1974-79), “The Jeffersons” (1975-85), “One Day at a Time” (1975-84), and others.  These shows were notable for being shot on videotape rather than film and in front of a live audience.  Also, a couple of them (“All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son”) were adaptions from English comedy shows and to which other later comedy shows like “The Office” (2005-13), which was a family workplace comedy, also did.  Workplace comedies, which were also a form of family, just in a workplace setting, were becoming popular too.  You had successful shows like “Barney Miller” (1975-82) about cops, “Night Court” (1984-92) about the night shift in a Manhattan municipal court, and “Taxi” (1978-83) about cab drivers congregating in the cab company’s fleet garage for example.

For Network TV, other types of family dramas were popular too.  The American public has always had a fascination with the lives of the rich and famous.  Hence, two of the most popular shows at one time were “Dallas” (1978-91) on CBS about the rich, feuding oil and cattle raising Ewing family and the competing “Dynasty” (1981-89) on ABC about the wealthy Carrington family and all of their squabbling amongst themselves (Hey, everybody!  Why can’t we all just get along?).  Basically these shows were just badly acted soap operas (which is what any soap opera actually is) with a larger TV budget.  The only thing they were good for was helping a lot of old former Hollywood stars or semi-stars to continue to find work while improving other lesser known actors’ careers.  In all honesty, I have only seen one episode of “Dallas”.  That episode (I hate to admit it) was the famous “Who Shot JR” episode to see if I could actually figure out who did it.  After watching less than 5 minutes, I thought I figured out who did it but couldn’t believe it was who I thought it was because it was so stupid, simplistic, and easy.  I thought that the CBS Network would never think that the general public was that absolutely stupid and dumb so it had to be someone else.  Hence, I hung around and watched the entire episode.  Big mistake!  It turned out that I was the dummy because it was exactly who I thought it was (Spoiler Alert:  It was Mary Crosby, Bing’s real life daughter).  At that moment in time I finally realized that the main reason why TV shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” were so wildly popular with the general public was due to the fact that mankind truly was descended from Apes!

Fortunately, a number of successful Network dramas were also made that actually focused on families of more modest means and which also were more realistic and believable.  Maybe the pioneer for these shows was with the premiere of “The Waltons” (1972-81).  The Waltons was about the life of a rural Virginia family between 1933-46 and how they survived and changed throughout the years.  It starred Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as the parents, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as the grandparents, and the parents’ seven children with the oldest, John-Boy (Richard Thomas), reminiscing at the beginning and end of each episode through a middle-aged adult voiceover by Earl Hammer, the creator of the show and whose actual life was reflected in Thomas’s character.  This show came into existence after a successful TV movie called “The Homecoming:  A Christmas Story” (1971), based on the same family, received critical acclaim.  Over the years it won a number of Emmys and was a bellwether for wholesome family oriented shows.  It also spawned six additional movie sequels years after the show’s cancellation.  It helped to bring about more realistic portrayals of families with their assorted trials and tribulations reflecting social and political changes in society and which was reflected in other critically acclaimed and successful family shows such as “Family” (1976-80), “Thirtysomething”(1987-91), and the more recent, “This Is Us” (2016- present).  Now, if you are waiting for me to tear these shows down, well, you’re going to be waiting a long time.  Can they be maudlin or boring?  Sure they can!  Can they be far-fetched or unlikely or stupid?  Sure they can!  Can they be really corny or reach for cheap sympathy?  Sure they can!  Can they be all of the above?  You better believe it!  However, they can also be believable, touching, thoughtful, interesting, well written and acted, and have us look at our perceptions of life with each other in a new or different way.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, with the advent of Cable, “family” shows were not hindered by censorship so they could be portrayed in a far more dysfunctional and, at times, unsettling way.  One of the biggest and longest dark comedy drama hits was the series “Shameless” (2011- present) on Showtime.  “Shameless” stars William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher, a hopeless alcoholic single father of six children left to basically raise themselves with all of them living in poverty and how his alcoholism and their overall family dysfunction affects them all.  It was adapted from a similar British series and it is the longest-running original scripted series in Showtime’s history.  Another dysfunctional family drama was the series “Kingdom” (2014-17) starring Frank Grillo as Alvey Kulina, a retired mixed martial arts (MMA) champion now running his own gym helping people work out while training MMA fighters in Venice beach, Ca. along with his girlfriend Lisa (Kiele Sanchez).  He has two sons (one with drug and alcohol problems and the other, gay) but both have potential talent as MMA fighters even though their relationships are strained with him.  The gym is in such dire financial shape that Alvey has to gamble convincing Ryan (Lisa’s ex-fiance), who used to be a great fighter to have Alvey train him to fight again.  The only problem, Ryan is out on parole after spending five years in prison after maiming his father (What a mess!).  This series is a profane, violent, and testosterone fueled saga of a blue collar family at odds with each other who try to co-exist and survive.  The acting is outstanding and the show captures a wild side of life that few know about in a compelling and interesting way.

Two acclaimed and even darker dramas involving serious dysfunctional families involved in crime are “Breaking Bad” (2008-13) and “Ozark” (2017- present).  In “Bad”, chemistry teacher Walter White (Byran Cranston), who supposedly gets into the drug trade by secretly cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after discovering that he has cancer, actually has a healthy loving family in the beginning.  His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) who has cerebral palsy, both love and respect him even if their lives are financially difficult.  As the series progresses you slowly see Walter self-rationalize his slow decent into evil and as he changes, so does his family with regards to him and to themselves.  By the end of the series, Skyler and Walter, Jr. are both emotionally estranged from him with Skyler debasing herself by condoning and even helping Walter, at times, in his schemes and with Walter, Jr. losing all trust and respect for his father.  Worse, Walter finally admits to Skyler that he really didn’t do it for his family after all but that, “I did it for me.  I liked it.  I was good at it.  And… I was really… I was alive.”  And when Skyler asks why it felt so good he says, “Because it’s illegal.”  He cannot even self-rationalize his crimes to himself anymore!

In “Ozark”, the family dysfunction is even more pronounced from the very beginning.  The family consists of financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) a former public relations political campaign operative, and their two children, Charlotte and Jonah.  Marty and his partner money launder money for a dangerous Mexican drug cartel but, when the cartel discovers that Marty’s partner was skimming cartel money, he is killed and, to save himself and his family’s lives, Marty convinces the cartel that he can set up an even bigger money laundering operation in the Ozarks region in central Missouri once they move there.  The Byrde family is already ethically and morally compromised.  Marty has been committing numerous long-time criminal acts and Wendy, who is so emotionally estranged from Marty that she is having an affair, becomes his willing accomplice once her plans to escape with the kids and any money she can grab is ruined when her lover is killed as a warning if they do not keep their family together.  Both children, who were originally unaware of their parents secrets, ultimately become a part of the overall family schemes in order to just try and stay alive.  The show is violent, suspenseful, and continually surprising with the family dynamics fascinating and ultimately, the heart and soul of the show.  Throughout the entire series so far, Marty and Wendy alternate actively helping and hindering each other while advancing their own agendas which can put each other’s life at risk.  Both have their own goals and no real moral compass.  Wendy basically, “Wants it All” while Marty wants (1) to only launder money when it’s safe and (2) to be thanked and appreciated for his laundering efforts for the cartel.  Both children are also corrupted with Jonah having a knack for setting up bogus laundering accounts to hide cartel money and Charlotte pretending to befriend the daughter of Helen, a cartel representative while actually reporting back to Helen.  In “Ozark,” this family unit can turn on each another in a moment’s notice!

Lastly, family shows portraying dysfunctional family relationships do not have to be either grim or serious dramas with comic overtones.  They can also be just plain outrageously silly and fun.  I can think of two examples.  The first one was “Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-06) starring Jane Kaczmarek and Brian Cranston (before turning “Bad”) as the working-class parents of Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) and his five sibling brothers.  Malcolm is a middle child with a genius IQ and a photographic memory but, like too many children, he is insecure, immature, and destructive (like his other brothers) and he has to put up with their constant everyday antics.  His siblings are also intelligent but in different ways which makes all of them a chaotic mess along with their constant abuse of Malcolm and with each other (and to which Malcolm is a more than just willing participant with them too).  All of this turmoil drives their parents to distraction although they too have their issues.  Cranston is goofy, immature, and indecisive while Kaczmarek is wildly hotheaded and stubborn while constantly trying to reign in the kids destructive antics which makes the entire family’s interactions even more manic and hysterical.  This sitcom was unusual in that, at times Malcolm broke the fourth wall by both narrating in voice-over and talking directly to the audience on camera almost as if asking for our help.  It won a number of Emmys, and was a welcome alternative to the usual dysfunctional family scenario.  The entire regular cast is terrific, with a special shoutout to veteran actress Cloris Leachman as Kaczmarek’s one-legged (Don’t ask!) mother Ida who hates her daughter while being alternatively hated by just about everyone else.  This youngster (she’s still with us at age 94) is an absolute riot.  The one thing you have to say about “Malcolm in the Middle” is that it definitely puts the “Fun” into dys-FUN-ction!

The other show that I want to mention is the long running and still great, “The Simpsons” (1989- present) which is the longest running American sitcom in history as well as having a successful feature film (with more to come), a video game, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  And before I forget, it is an animated sitcom everyone.  The series is a satirical depiction of a dysfunctional working-class Middle American family in the fictional town of Springfield and it slams just about everything from American culture and society to the general human condition as a whole.  The family consists of Homer and Marge as the parents and their three children: (1) Bart, the ten year old troublemaker, (2) Lisa, the eight year old activist, and (3) Maggie, the baby who never speaks while always sucking on a pacifier.  Homer, a lazy, fat, beer-drinking doofus works as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant while Marge is your stereotypical housewife.  The family never ages but there is a floating timeline between episodes made during the same year which helped in making a satire of current events. 

Names are intentional for the show.  Matt Groening, the creator and co-executive producer, named the fictional town, Springfield because there were so many places named Springfield that it could be anywhere along with it also being the name of the fictional town where “Father Knows Best” originally took place (and this sitcom is definitely not that).  “Simpsons” was synonymous for “simpleton”, and Bart was an anagram for “brat”.  You had to constantly pay attention to every episode because the writers would often name things (air conditioner store:  “It Blows”,  gun shop:  “BloodBath and Beyond”, etc.) that probably drove the censors crazy in trying to keep the show from crossing too far over the line for Network TV.  There was always something going on in the background which, at times, happened so fast that you might miss it with a blink of the eye.  There were also continual running gags like Bart making anonymous prank calls to Moe the bartender (Bart to Moe:  “Is an Al Coholic there?”).  Numerous celebrities played guest roles on “The Simpsons” and sometimes they even played themselves, and not necessarily in a flattering way.  Time magazine picked “The Simpsons” as the century’s best television series.  And, to return to the family aspect of the show, how many Network TV or Cable dysfunctional families do you know of have a set of commemorative postage stamps for each family member?  Well, in 2009 the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of five stamps along with a set of five picture post cards with each family member on a different stamp/picture post card.  As a family (dysfunctional or otherwise), “The Simpsons” are one of a kind!

Well, that’s about it for another year my friends!  I hope that you have enjoyed my continued blabberings this year, and I hope that you’ll hang around for more of the same next year.  This has been some year and I hope that we never have another one this bad.  For all of you I only hope and sincerely wish that you have continued good health and good fortune for the upcoming year.

Stay safe everyone and…

Happy Holidays,


Spy vs. Spy (Part II)!

Alex Leamas:  “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” 

[Richard Burton to Claire Bloom in “The Spy who Came in From the Cold” (1965)] 

Well, I’m back and it’s time to discuss the subject of espionage in the movies.  Of course this was a popular genre for both silent movies and talkies.  One way early Hollywood used espionage in films was as romance dramas to highlight their popular female stars.  For example, you had “Dishonored” (1931) starring Marlene Dietrich as Agent X-27 (AKA Mata Hari) competing with “Mata Hari” (1931) starring Greta Garbo as…Guess Who!  The dueling Matas’ were good box office even though in real life Mata (not even her real name) was really nothing more than an ugly looking hooker who was originally an exotic dancer (AKA “stripper”) before becoming a low level spy.  The success of these films was also helped due to the fact that both of these movies were made pre-Code,  which was before movies had to follow a Censorship Code.  What this basically meant was that maybe you’d get a slight chance to see more of Greta and Marlene than just their eyelashes for the cost of a ticket.

Director Alfred Hitchcock also made his mark in the mid-nineteen thirties with suspense/thriller films involving espionage such as “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Secret Agent” (1936), “Sabotage” (1936), and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) with this last one paving his way to relocating to America when the offers from Hollywood started coming in.   Out of all of the ones that I just mentioned, maybe the best one is “The 39 Steps”.  “Steps” starred Robert Donat as Canadian Richard Hannay, on the run when he is falsely accused of killing a British counter-espionage agent which requires him to try and stop a spy ring attempting to steal British military secrets.   The movie was loosely based on the action packed John Buchan novel, one of a series of five novels Buchan wrote with Hannay as the main character.  Donat is terrific in the role (he could match Cary Grant shot for shot as a charming man of action) and he is equally matched by Madeleine Carroll (a very underrated actress) as his unwelcome ally, Pamela who is tough, smart, feisty, beautiful, and totally disbelieving of Hannay’s innocence until she is handcuffed to him while they are pursued and finally changes her tune.  Oh, and of course, she is also Blond!

Hitchcock was a master of films putting innocent people either on the run (“Saboteur”, “North by Northwest”), under extreme pressure (“I Confess”, “Strangers on a Train”) and even not so innocent people in danger when they least expect it (“Psycho”) while also never skimping on the comic aspects of a situation.  Once he settled in Hollywood, Hitchcock once again repeated his innocent under pressure theme with his film, “Foreign Correspondent” (1940) with Joel McCrea as a clumsy raw reporter dealing with foreign spies and intrigue while on assignment in Europe.  This also leads me into discussing the next part of espionage in the movies:  World War II.

Various movies touched on this subject throughout the War.  Humphrey Bogart did two rip snorting fun ones:  (1) “All Through the Night” (1942) with Bogey playing a good hearted big shot Runyonesque New York City gambler nick-named “Gloves” taking on Nazi spies [Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt (before playing Major Strasser in Casablanca)], and (2) “Across the Pacific” (1942) with Bogey as former court-marshalled ex-Captain Rick Leland on a Japanese freighter heading to the Panama Canal actually working undercover to get close to a Japanese sympathizer (Sidney Greenstreet, smoothly malevolent as always) while romancing fellow passenger Mary Astor (less mysterious but more fun than when she was in “The Maltese Falcon”).  Well, other than the fact that that last sentence might be the longest one that I have ever written for a Blog post, both pictures were more humorous than realistic examples of wartime espionage.  However, things started to change when another type of espionage movie came out toward the end of the war years.  That type consisted of espionage films done in a semi-documentary style.  These types of films were more realistic, filmed outdoors and sometime on location, and could be utilized for other types of films like crime or film noir for example.  However, pertaining to espionage, two of the best examples that were made back then were two movies made by 20th Century Fox and directed by Henry Hathaway.  Those two were “The House on 92nd Street” (1945) and “13 Rue Madeleine” (1946).

“House..” starred Lloyd Nolan as lead FBI Agent George Briggs who is running a counter-espionage operation in New York City involving his double-agent (William Eythe) infiltrating a major Nazi spy ring operating in the area.  This drama was loosely based on the real life story of the FBI destruction of the Duquesne Spy Ring in 1941 which was the largest espionage spy case conviction in United States history, and which basically ended serious Nazi espionage efforts in America.  Despite the propagandistic tone of the film, the over glamorizing of the FBI’s efforts, the drab over-underacting by almost everyone in the movie, and even an annoying introduction by J. Edgar Hoover (maybe it would have been better if he just wore one of his dresses instead of a suit) along with a (false) assertion that the spy ring was after American Atomic Bomb secrets, this movie is still suspenseful and holds your interest (and this might be the 2nd longest sentence that I ever wrote for a Blog post).  Nolan gives a dependable performance and actress Signe Hasso (another fine, underrated actress) is outstanding as one of the cold, ruthless, Nazi spies.  Fun Fact:  Hasso would reprise this type of a character once again (but just as a criminal, not a spy) on a “Streets of San Francisco” TV episode in 1974.

“13 Rue..” starred James Cagney as Bob Sharkey, an OSS spy chief who trains American espionage candidates in the art of enemy infiltration.  When he is alerted that one of his students, Bill O’Connell (Richard Conte) is actually a top Nazi agent they decide to run a counter-espionage mission in Europe by giving him false information on the location of the upcoming Allied Invasion of Europe.  Unfortunately, the plan fails, Conte escapes back to Occupied France, and now Sharkey has to parachute into France to alert the Resistance before Conte can identify all of his fellow agents.  Although the film has some really bad miscasting:  (1) Conte as a German Nazi (Bad!) and (2) E.G. Marshall as a Frenchman (Really, Really, Bad), the movie is still great due to a terrific performance by Cagney.  In real life, Cagney was a top-notch Judo practitioner and he used his expertise to do some realistic fighting sequences in the film.  Cagney could just about do any acting style.  He could be hyper, or subdued or even naturalistic which fit perfectly into this type of film.  He, along with the tight, suspenseful, storyline ably directed by Hathaway make this movie a must see espionage thriller.

When the nineteen fifties rolled around, espionage films pertaining to World War II were more adult and honest in profiling the moral dilemmas and psychological damage of actions one made if you were involved in espionage.  They even highlighted a more jaded view of the profession by profiling individuals willing to commit treason, not for any belief or cause, but just for something as simple as money.  Two such films showing these aspects were “Orders to Kill” (1958) and “Five Fingers” (1952).  “Orders to Kill”, directed by Anthony Asquith, starred Paul Massie as Gene Summers, a young American bomber pilot selected to go on an espionage mission in Occupied France to kill a suspected French double-agent.  He’s picked because he speaks fluent French and even once lived in that particular French area before the war.  He thinks it will be easy enough and after being quickly trained in how to act undercover and how to kill someone quietly he is dropped into enemy territory.  However, reality soon hits him right between the eyes.  He has never killed anyone face to face.  He also, by accident, meets in public his target, a friendly and gentle family man who actually saves Gene from possible questioning and capture by German troops.  Now Gene has real doubts about his mission and wonders not only whether this man is really a traitor but also that if he is, can he actually still kill him!  Anthony Asquith directed all sorts of movies in a long career going back into the silent film era.  He did movies from such noted playwrights as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Terrance Rattigan as well as films about ordinary individuals put under unimaginable tension such as in his later film, “Two Living, One Dead” (1961).  In “Orders” there are no easy answers, and Massie, an actor who never got the roles he deserved, gives an emotionally shattering performance as Gene.

For “Five Fingers” you focus on an entirely different type of espionage character.  James Mason stars as Ulysses Diello, a valet to the British ambassador to Turkey and who was also one of the greatest Axis spies in World War II.  This movie, by two time Best Director Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz, smoothly ratchets up the tension and suspense while painting a portrait of a highly intelligent man motivated by a need for respect and luxury which can only be sated by money and being regarded as an equal by a vain, beautiful, aristocratic Countess (Danielle Darrieux) now destitute, that he enlists in his schemes.  Mason was a true master at playing smoothly sinister sophisticated scoundrels (Dare ya to say that ten times in a row!) but who could also convey true fear and potential panic with just his facial expressions alone.  It’s a great performance.  The screenplay, by Mankiewicz and prior Oscar winning and future blacklisted writer Michael Wilson is superb (both Mankiewicz and Wilson were Oscar nominated once again for this film).  Oh, and it also has a great twist ending!

As well as World War II espionage movies were made in the fifties, that is how oppositely bad they were in their portrayal of Cold War espionage.  These particular films were  pretty awful because, just like for TV,  McCarthyism, blacklisting, brainwashing along with the overall Red hysteria back then made these espionage representations pretty heavy handed or just outright stupid.  Some of these dogs (with their fleas included) were:

  1.  “The Woman on Pier 13″/”I Married a Communist” (1949):  With Robert Ryan as a shipping executive blackmailed into doing a Communist cell’s bidding (Maybe because he drinks fluoridated water and was once a Beatnik who played the bongos?)
  2.  “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951):  With Frank Lovejoy infiltrating the Communist Party for nine years while working in a Pittsburgh steel mill [Must have literally been a “HOT” bed for Communist activity there (I know that one was bad but I just had to say it!)]
  3. “Big Jim McLain” (1952):  With Big Jerk John Wayne as an investigator for those sweet, understanding, and kind members of the House Un-American Activities Committee rooting out Communists in Hawaii (You know, all the people on the beach wearing “red” swim trunks and surfing with “red” surfboards!)
  4. “My Son John” (1952):  My all-time favorite Commie film with Robert Walker as John, a condescending and sneering intellectual who is found to be a Red when his devout Catholic mother (Helen Hayes) and American Legion father (Dean Jagger with a toupee, not bald, like those Commies) discover his secret.  I guess, if you’re a condescending and sneering intellectual it’s a tell-tale sign that you’re a Commie (Just like William F. Buckl…. Ah, never mind!).  But, But, they’re everywhere!  Everywhere!  Is there no HOPE?  Yeah, there is!  This piece of S*&T is only 122 minutes long and you’ll either be sound asleep or dead from laughing yourself to death!

Hollywood kind of portrayed Communists back then as some sort of murderous organized crime ring and all that was missing was one of them saying, “Youse better join the Party, Comrade or we’ll rub ya out!”  However, once again, once the nineteen-sixties came around, things began to change.  This was brought about due to two major changes in how espionage was portrayed.  The first change was something that I’ve called:

The Many Faces of James Bond and all of his Imitators!

The release of the first James Bond film, “Dr. No” (1962) started a string of 24 movies made for the series so far and, currently, it’s the longest continually running film series of all time both for espionage and for anything else.  These films cover (in case you have been living in a cave all of your life) the adventures of a British Secret Service MI6 Agent code named 007 (the double zero code giving him a “license to kill” authority over anyone).  In the films he was suave, tough, sophisticated, a mega-seducer of women, and continually dealt with all manner of evildoers especially those associated with a terrorist organization with the acronym of SPECTRE.  Sean Connery, still the best of the bunch,  became a super-star from playing the role and since then, five other actors have played Bond (I’m excluding anyone from the G-d awful 1967 version of Casino Royale).  These other Bonds along with their movies ranged from bad to good with the current Bond, Daniel Craig, being the best of the bunch, and Roger Moore, being the absolutely worst.  Seeing Moore try to act is sort of like watching someone try to teach a block of ice how to Smile:  Neither can ever physically be done!

Most of these films never really explored much in the way of how actual espionage operations worked.  Maybe the closest of the Connery “Bond” films to do so was “From Russia With Love” (1963), and for Craig’s “Bond” films it was “Casino Royale” (2006).  They also happened to be two of the best films in the entire series.  Nevertheless, the success of the Bond films led to numerous imitators with some of the worst ones done in America.  One such imitation was the Matt Helm series which was based on a series of novels about a U.S. government counter espionage agent whose main job was to kill or eliminate enemy agents.  Unfortunately, the four Helm films that were made were deliberately done as parodies of the Bond films and, other than using the Helm books’ titles, they had no relation to their film adaptions at all.  Worse, they had Dean Martin playing Helm.  Martin could do a little acting (“Some Came Running” might be his best performance) but here all he does is play Dean Martin.  He looks like he just stopped by during a break from the “Dean Martin Show” and all that’s missing was him having a cocktail glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Another bad imitation was the two picture secret agent film series “Our Man Flint” (1966) and “In Like Flint” (1967) starring James Coburn.  This was another parody of the Bond films and it was so over the top and deliberately ridiculous that you either had to just go with it or look for the nearest exit in the movie theater after the first two minutes.  However, Coburn was the best thing in the movie.  He was a far better actor than Martin ever was and you could tell that he was, at least, actually having fun.  Whether anyone else watching this mess was having fun, well, I plead the Fifth (unless Martin drank it first).  The British were also not adverse to doing garbage like this too.  Their Bond imitation was a stupid three picture series about Secret Agent Charles Vine starring Tom Adams (Who?) with the first in the series called (I’m Not Kidding…) “The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World” (1965).  These movies had all the quality of the kind of stuff that you’d find in the “discard” bin at your local “Dollar Store” and Adams, along with all of the rest of the cast, looked like they developed their acting skills from working on the “Home Shopping Network.”  The really sad thing is that these imitations actually made money which showed how crazy the public was for anything involving James Bond.  However, during this time a backlash against these type of films occurred and that was when, finally, some really good films about espionage were finally being made which has continued up to the present day.  This second change was something that I have called:

John le Carre and his Disciples!

Before he became a full time novelist, John le Carre worked full time for British MI5 and MI6 for a number of years.  His career officially ended in 1964 with the betrayal of a number of British spies’ cover by the traitor, Kim Philby.  However, the year before, le Carre’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was published which hit the literary world like a bomb shell and which really changed the way espionage was ever viewed again.  The film version was made a year later in 1965 with Richard Burton starring as Alex Leamas, a middle-aged, burnt out, alcoholic British espionage official recruited, one last time, to go on a mission to eliminate an East German espionage official that escaped capture by the British once before.  This was to be accomplished by Leamas pretending to have left the Agency in disgrace, and to ultimately defect to East Germany to provide false information to incriminate the official.  Director Martin Ritt (“Hud,” “Norma Rae”) accurately captures the drab, cold, world of espionage.  This is a world populated by ordinary, flawed, and unheroic individuals who live a life of moral ambiguity where lies and deceit are a way of life.   Ritt’s film is helped by the fine black and white cinematography of Oswald Morris and an exceptional screenplay by former Oscar winner Paul Dehn who also did the the screenplay for the aforementioned “Orders to Kill” along with “The Deadly Affair” (1967) with another outstanding performance by James Mason.  However, in Leamas, Richard Burton gives one of the finest performances of his career.  He doesn’t seem to act the role as much as live it.  He truly conveys someone past his prime, a tragic and cynical figure that can be used and discarded by others without even a second thought.  le Carre regarded James Bond as nothing more than a international gangster rather than a spy.  After viewing “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, you can believe that this is how espionage really works.

After the success of this film other le Carre films were done very well like the aforementioned “The Deadly Affair” (1967), “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), and “A Most Wanted Man” (2014).  Also, other fine espionage films were made from other good writers of espionage like Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File (1965) with Michael Caine as a former British sergeant with a criminal past now with British security who’s involved in espionage and intrigue in London.  Two novels by espionage/thriller writer Frederick Forsyth were turned into solid movies too:  (1) “The Fourth Protocol” (1987) with Michael Caine starring, once again, as an MI5 Agent hunting Russian KGB spies who are planning to build and explode a nuclear bomb in England, and (2) “Day of the Jackal” (1973) starring Edward Fox as “The Jackal” a British assassin hired by the militant French underground terrorist organization OAS to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle.  David Ignatius, a fine reporter and espionage novelist also had one of his novels made into the excellent thriller, “Body of Lies” (2008) starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a veteran CIA case officer hunting a Middle East terrorist while at odds with his boss and the head of Jordanian Intelligence.  All of these examples from le Carre’s disciples, demonstrate that modern espionage films of today are a step above from those made in the far distant past.

Espionage films latest thing now is to incorporate technology as a major element in their storylines.  It was an important factor in “Body of Lies” and has shown up in other more recent films like “Spy Game” (2001), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and “Eye in the Sky” (2015).  However, sometimes there is still room for a good larger than life espionage action thriller even if it’s a little light on the espionage.  Two of the more recent ones (and I’m not talking James Bond here either) are “True Lies” (1994) and “The Bourne Identity” (2002).  “Lies” is an almost perfect mix of action and comedy with just enough seriousness to not be dismissed as a parody.  With Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead and the great action director James Cameron at the helm, how can you go wrong.  As for “Bourne”, although I disliked the rest of the Bourne films after the first one, this first effort directed by Doug Liman hits the top of the action/thriller meter with Matt Damon never better as an amnesiac who is just trying to find out who he is while trying to stay alive.   Anyway, this concludes my discussion of espionage in the movies.  I think I’ve listed enough good choices for you to choose for your viewing pleasure.  And, if by chance you just want to see something that spoofs spy movies, well…

There’s always “Austin Powers!” (He ducks!!!)


Spy vs. Spy (Part I)!

“Not Every Conspiracy is a Theory”

[Slogan for the TV Series “Rubicon” (2010)]

The agent hunts his quarry who is usually operating in darkness and shadow.  He must not let this asset get away.  The agent knows that the asset may have alternative routes nearby for quick escape.  If the asset escapes the agent, further secrets may be revealed  to other assets that will put the agent at risk of mission failure.  Worse, the asset may even cause further damage to the surrounding areas if not stopped.  What can the agent do?  Well, there are two options that he can choose.  Option One:  He can just press on and hope that he can counter any of his opponent’s counter measures while foiling the asset’s evil intentions.  Or Option Two:

He can just admit that it’s time to just call Orkin or Terminix to help him get rid of that Damn bug problem in his house…

Oh, Hi everyone!  I almost forgot!  It’s that time of the month for my next Blog Post!  Well, this month’s topic is espionage in the movies and on TV.  However, there are so many choices that I’ve decided to do it in two parts.  The first part will discuss espionage for TV, and Cable.  The next part will focus just on espionage in the movies.  To begin, TV shows in the 1950s regarding this subject were pretty limited.  The few espionage shows during that time fell into two groups:  (1) shows with a lone agent or diplomatic courier going to some exotic locale on some mission or (2) hunting Communist agents (AKA RUSSIANS!!!) in the good old patriotic USA.  For the first group you had such classics (?) as “Dangerous Assignment” (1951-52) with suave sophisticated Brian Donlevy (!!!) sent all over the world doing missions involving international intrigue disguised as a debonair foreign correspondent or “Passport to Danger” (1954-58) with suave diplomatic courier Cesar Romero (!!!) delivering messages to America’s Allies.  Regarding Donlevy, he looked about as suave and debonair as a truck driver, and Romero looked like the only message he could deliver to anyone was in how to dance the rumba!  For the second group you had “I Led 3 Lives” (1953-56) with Richard Carlson based on a book about an advertising executive who infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party on behalf of the FBI.  I’ll bet you never knew that Don (Jon Hamm) Draper on “Mad Men” was actually working with the FBI to root out Communists on Madison Avenue did you?  This type of slop was the norm during the McCarthy era blacklisting days of network TV.  However, once the 1960s rolled in, things finally started to change.

James Bond became popular when the first Bond film, “Doctor No” (1962) made it to the big screen.  In America, three TV shows later capitalized on this.  The first and most obvious one was “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (1964-68) on NBC which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as agents for said organization fighting a never ending battle against a terror organization called THRUSH (no I am not going to explain either acronym).  This type of espionage was strictly ridiculous (just like James Bond) but it was a hit with audiences and even had a later spin-off series called, “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (which was a flop).  Actually, except for the first year of the show, “The Man…” was not very good either.  However, that first year was terrific due to Producer Sam Rolfe and Executive Producer Norman Felton who were both co-creators of the show.   It combined tongue in cheek humor, use of various gadgets, and action and adventure which was fun and not too unbearably outlandish.  Unfortunately, it fell apart after the first year when Rolfe left the show, and Felton made a critical error by trying to emanate the early success of the “Batman” TV show on ABC.  What did he do?  He moved the direction of the show more towards self-parody and slapstick and it sunk right to the bottom of the toilet bowl (which is where Batman never left to begin with) and it never recovered.

The other two hit espionage shows then that I want to quickly mention were also popular but for different reasons.  They were “I-Spy” (1965-68) and “Mission Impossible” (1966-73).  “I-Spy” starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of agents using the cover of a tennis pro and his trainer to go on missions around the world.  It was a hit, not because it went into much espionage detail but rather because it was actually shot on location in color, was more realistic, focused on the buddy-buddy relationship between the two leads, and broke ground with Cosby becoming the first African American actor in a lead role.  “Mission…” told the exploits of a team of secret government agents known as the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) where they were assigned a mission that required the team to be made up of agents having special skills that could be utilized to accomplish their mission.  It was popular, won numerous Emmy Awards, and lasted a long time with numerous actors leaving the show and being replaced by others and not slowing down the show’s long running success at all.  Unfortunately, “Mission…” along with the aforementioned “I-Spy” and “U.N.C.L.E.” were pretty clunky TV shows which really didn’t address the complexities of espionage, had weak storylines and cardboard characterization, and were not even very accurate at all.  As for the tape recording burning up after you hear the recorded message, well, I think they’d be out of luck if they’d try to deliver messages that way today.  Only one other show back then touched on espionage in a realistic way, and it helped to lead into more adult portrayals of espionage on TV for years to come.  That show was “Secret Agent” (1964-68).

The British always seemed to do spy/espionage shows better than America even up to this present day.  Maybe it helped that they had great writers that actually were in the secret service and whose works or ideas could be adapted to the genre very well like Graham Greene, John le Carre, and even Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth (although they were never considered great writers) along with other fine writers like Len Deighton and John Buchan for example.  They could even spoof the genre better with their show, “The Avengers” (1964-69) starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as a pair of amusing and fanciful secret agents.

“Secret Agent” starred Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a British secret agent who worked alone on missions all around the world.  The hour show was resurrected from an earlier half hour show called “Danger Man” (1960-62) which allowed for better storylines and character development.  “Agent” was the antithesis of James Bond in that it was realistic, with Drake portrayed as a cool professional who used his wits and his brain while having a dry scene of humor but who was still human and could make mistakes.  McGoohan, an intense actor, was terrific in the role, and he imparted his character with a strong moral core which had Drake, at times question the actions of his superiors.  In real life McGoohan was a strong Catholic and a dedicated family man so he had his character almost never use firearms (although Drake was a capable shot), and he refused to have Drake outright seduce or romance any females as a part of his assignment although he could be charming, witty, and flirtatious at times.  Drake handled trouble with his fists and the show’s action sequences were always top notch.  The scripts were equally well written and very complex.  I always felt that there was so much story per episode that I wondered how they could ever fit it all into a one hour time slot which was rare for a TV show.  It was a huge hit in England and could have continued longer but McGoohan quit the show to star in his own passion project, “The Prisoner” the following year.  Fun fact:  McGoohan was twice offered the role of James Bond but turned it down cold (it went against his Catholic views) but he recommended his friend, Sean Connery for the role.  And the rest, as they say, was history!

After the sixties, espionage shows finally started to come of age all the way up to the present day with even some good ones developed in the United States like “Alias” (2001-06) and “24” (2001-10).  Also, adaptions of novels by John le Carre and Len Deighton were made into terrific mini-series.  For le Carre there were outstanding adaptions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1979) and its sequel, “Smiley’s People” (1982) with a terrific performance by the always great Alec Guinness as counter espionage head George Smiley, and much later fine adaptions of “The Night Manager” (2016) and “The Little Drummer Girl” (2018) on AMC Network.  For Deighton it was “Game, Set, and Match” (1988), an adaption of three of his series of books about espionage agent Bernard Samson hunting moles in British Intelligence with a fine performance by veteran actor Ian Holm (even though Deighton hated it because Holm was miscast for the role).  Despite that, it was still very good.

Of course there were still stupid espionage shows around like “Strike Back” (2011-20) about a small special ops British/American team habitually hunting terrorists where basically each episode consisted of more explosions than July 4th on the Mall in D.C., more people killed than the battle of Antietam, and, at least, for the first four years, just about every good looking female in each episode stripping down to have sex with someone.   However, what did you expect?  After all, the show was co-produced by Skin… I mean, Cinemax (so you know it just had to be a quality effort, right?)  You also had overrated spy shows like “The Americans” (2013-18) and “Homeland” (2011-20).  Why overrated you may ask?  Well, for “The Americans” deep cover Russian spies do not actively carry out assassinations, commit sabotage, develop assets, etc.  They are supposed to just collect information!  As for “Homeland” besides the far-fetched gaps in logic and unbelievable storylines, do you honestly believe that the CIA would allow someone bipolar (Claire Danes) to not only be a field agent, but still continue to be an agent at all after bedding and assisting a suspected terrorist (Damian Lewis) to escape along with continually breaking rules and protocol more frequently than kids in a kindergarten class?

However, good espionage dramas did not even have to take place in our present day nor just be British or American.  Two such examples I want to mention are “Turn:  Washington’s Spies” (2014-17) and “Fauda” (2015 – present).  “Turn” was based on the book,  “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”.  It starred Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, a poor farmer who was one of the actual individuals recruited into the spy ring and who ultimately became their top spy.  Bell portrays Woodhull as an ordinary man who is not especially brave or even too smart but he is fast thinking and adaptable when under pressure.  It’s a very realistic and believable performance and Bell is wonderful in the main role.  He is helped by a strong cast of actors who are not necessarily well known but play their historical roles very well.  It lasted four seasons and got better every year which was a rarity for a TV show.

“Fauda” which means “Chaos” in Hebrew, is an Israeli TV show about an elite Israeli terrorist undercover unit that hunts terrorists in occupied Palestinian territories.  It stars Lior Raz as Doron an ex member of the unit who re-joins the unit to hunt a dangerous terrorist who was originally thought dead.  Raz was co-creator of the show and he actually served in Israel’s undercover unit in the Palestinian territories which helped him in developing this show.  Fun Fact:  Raz also lived in the United States for awhile, and was hired by a security contracting firm as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s personal bodyguard (and he’s scarier looking than Arnold ever was in “The Terminator”).  Raz’s Doran is short tempered, violent, foolishly risk taking, maybe suffering from PTSD, and possibly unstable.  Despite that, he can also invoke sympathy despite all of his faults.  Raz gives a complex and credible performance.  Doran and all the members of his team along with civilians on both sides and the terrorists themselves show the physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological toll that is felt from their constant wars with each other.  This show has been, justifiably, criticized for it’s inaccuracies in presenting Palestinian society and storylines that are highly suspect in accuracy and believability.  However, the suspense, acting, spy craft, and especially, action are very good.  It’s worth seeing and three seasons in, it’s still going strong.

The last three espionage shows that I want to praise are sort of oddities.  One was a show that lasted only 3 seasons with an ending clouded by a real life mystery.  The second was a show that only lasted one season and deserved a better fate.  The third has only been on one year but has already received the highest viewing audience in this country’s history.  Curious Dear Reader?  Well let me begin with telling you about a British espionage series called “Sandbaggers” (1978-80).

This espionage drama starred Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, head of Director of Operations (D-Ops) of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6).  “Sandbaggers” doesn’t focus too much on portrayal of actual operations in the field but rather on Headquarters conflicts between different Departments and individuals along with other countries Agency heads and their associates.  This was highly unusual for an espionage drama but it was interesting and amazingly accurate.  That was due to Ian Mackintosh, the creator of the series, who was a Scottish former naval officer turned television writer.  He portrays how this type of work affects individuals’ personal and professional lives and how ruthless and self-serving these people really are which is expressly epitomized by the character of Burnside.  Marsden’s Burnside just might be the most cold blooded, ruthless, self-serving, misogynous, and deceitful Bastard in all of TV espionage history.  He destroys lives all around him both in the field, at Headquarters and elsewhere, and too often it is all for nothing.  About the only other writer to ever show this level of nihilistic bleakness of the espionage profession was John le Carre.  The series only lasted three seasons and consisted of just twenty episodes.  It could have lasted more seasons but it ended abruptly with the mysterious death of Ian Mackintosh in 1979.

The show supposedly ran into problems due to its authenticity of how the British intelligence service actually worked which led to speculation as to whether Mackintosh once worked for or was even still working for SIS.  For the drama’s second season one episode was even vetoed from being made because it would have revealed sensitive information that would have violated Britain’s Official Secrets Act.  On July 1979, Mackintosh and three others were declared lost at sea after their single-engine aircraft supposedly disappeared over the Pacific Ocean near Alaska after a radio call for help.  To add to the mystery, the aircraft supposedly stopped at an abandoned USAF base earlier and later crashed in the one small area not covered by either U.S. or Soviet radar.  He was only 38 years old.  Since Mackintosh wrote all of the episodes but only completed four of the seven episodes for the 3rd season, other writers had to be brought in to write the final three episodes.  After that was done, the show’s producers realized that no one could write the episodes as well as Mackintosh so the series was abruptly canceled.  To this day, no one has ever found any additional information as to what really happened!

The next espionage series I want to praise is the conspiracy thriller, “Rubicon” (2010) on AMC Network.  Rubicon starred James Badge Dale as Will Travers, leader of a team of analysts working for the American Policy Institute (API), an international intelligence think tank located in New York City.  His expertise is pattern recognition and when he recognizes one in the crossword puzzles of several U.S. newspapers, all published the same day, he brings it to the attention of his boss who promptly dismisses his concerns.  However, when shortly afterward his boss mysteriously dies in a commuter train accident, Will assumes his former boss’s position and slowly starts to suspect that (1) he might have actually uncovered a clue to a potential conspiracy that might threaten National Security, (2) his boss’s death might not be an accident, and (3) API might actually be a part of the conspiracy.  “Rubicon” was created by Jason Horwitch and it was conceived along the lines of 1970s paranoid/conspiracy films like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation”.  The show was unusual in that it is a slow moving thinking man’s thriller where one gets to know the different individuals on a personal level while having to pay close attention to a word or a gesture that might have meaning later on.  Like “Sandbaggers” much of the drama involves interaction between individuals inside drab office spaces eliciting a slow feeling of unease and paranoia.

The show only lasted one season which might have been due to it’s slow pace which forced the viewer to pay close attention as things slowly developed.  However, AMC also had great success with another little slow moving drama by the name of “Mad Men” which only won the Emmy for Best Outstanding Drama four years in a row so it’s puzzling why they pulled the plug on “Rubicon” so soon.  It also didn’t help that Horwitch left the series after the first two episodes due to, once again….. Creative Differences!  After his departure the series shifted even more into workplace dynamics rather than the conspiracy aspects which might have slowed it down even more.  However, even with this change, it still works!  The scripts are excellent and Dale, an underrated actor, plays an ordinary individual trust into a situation that he ever so slowly feels may risk his life.  He is ably assisted by a terrific supporting cast consisting of Annie Parisse, Miranda Richardson, Arliss Howard, and Michael Cristofer (probably using this role as a tune-up for “Mr. Robot”) as the head of API.  As for Horwitch, check out another fine espionage show called “Berlin Station” (2016-19) where he was the Executive Producer and show runner.  Maybe you just can’t keep a good conspiracy theorist down!

The last espionage series that I want to comment on and praise has only been on for one year but it has already achieved the highest ever viewing figures for a new BBC drama in the multichannel era for Britain (Yep, it’s another British show folks!).  That show is the critically acclaimed “Bodyguard” (2018).  It stars Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) as David Budd, a Scottish Afghanistan war veteran suffering from PTSD who is estranged from his wife.  He is now working as a Principal Protection Officer (PPO) and assigned to protect an ambitious and controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) whose politics he despises and who a lot of people may want to harm.  As Budd assumes his duties they unexpectedly find themselves growing closer to each other resulting in an assignation.  Ultimately, the subsequent fallout from the affair may put Budd’s career, his emotional stability, and his life at risk.

“Bodyguard” was created and written by Jed Mercurio who has a long track record in creating complex heart pounding and suspenseful procedurals like his terrific long-running “Line of Duty” series (2012-19).  This show is every bit as twisty with the suspense nerve wracking.  The first 20 minutes of the very first episode has you on the edge of your seat and the series takes off from there (that episode along with the show itself were nominated for Emmys).  Even though this drama isn’t exactly espionage, it is a thriller touching on national security so, as far as I’m concerned, that’s close enough.  The show is anchored by the outstanding performance of Madden as Budd (Hey, Emmys are you blind?  He deserved one too!)  His Budd convincingly runs the gamut of human emotions from serious professional to someone emotionally fragile and afraid.  Supposedly, this series was only to be for one season but now there are rumors that there may be a second season.  One can only hope that is true.  Also, another rumor making the rounds is that Madden might be a new contender to become the next James Bond whenever Daniel Craig finally turns in his shoulder holster.  That is something that I wouldn’t be against at all.  Now that I have told you that bit of news, I will now bring this post to a close until next month when we move onto espionage in the movies!

In the meantime, keep your wrap around shades in a drawer until then!