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,

NLP

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!!!)

NLP

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!

NLP

 

 

 

Sidekicks!

Sidney Falco:  “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” [Tony Curtis to Burt Lancaster in “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957)]

Earlier this year I did a post entitled “Teamwork” which discussed famous acting, and acting and directing collaborations that produced terrific motion pictures containing memorable performances.  However, I didn’t discuss another type of collaboration then which specifically applied to just actors.   Numerous movies, plays, TV shows, etc. often had a major star, whether male or female, with a fellow actor partnering around.  That fellow actor was never an equal star or as popular as the major star, but they were an important part of whether a film or a TV show was successful or not.  That person was usually a supporting actor but they were, at times, also known as a “Sidekick” which is what this month’s post will further discuss.

The actual definition of a sidekick, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is:

“A person closely associated with another as a subordinate or partner.”

A number of TV sidekicks were staples in our lives when we were young.  There were Westerns with the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion (AKA “Sidekick”) Tonto (Jay Silverheels).  There was the Batman TV show with Batman’s ward/companion/sidekick/flunky being Robin.  There were even two sidekicks in one of the most successful TV comedy shows of all time in “I Love Lucy” with the Ricardo’s next door neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) acting as their two co-conspirators in the many zany high jinks that Lucy and Ricky always got into.

Certain sidekicks were also famous in literature, and they made the transition into representation for plays and for films, TV, and other forms of media very well.  An early example was in a series of five novels by author James Fenimore Cooper called, “The Leatherstocking Tales”.  These novels took place in central New York during the middle to late eighteenth century with the most famous of the bunch being “The Last of the Mohicans” originally published in 1826.  These novels revolved around a frontiersman named Natty Bumppo (no, that is not the name of a lead singer in a rock and roll band) and Chingachgook (Gesundheit!) a Mohican Chief and their adventures during this timespan.  Chingachgook was an early sidekick and an important one in all but one of the novels.  I’d like to say that “Mohicans”, the most famous of the novels, was a good book.  I’d also like to say that I’m 6’4″, young, and with a full head of hair too!  However, neither statement would be true.   The only thing reading “Mohicans” was good for was as a cure for insomnia.  However, it has been made numerous times in movies, on TV, and even on radio and as an opera.  The best adaption of the novel is the 1992 film directed by Michael Mann with Daniel Day-Lewis as Bumppo and also starring Russell Means as a very convincing Chingachgook.

Another famous literary pairing with an unforgettable sidekick was Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson.  Watson was not only Holmes’s sidekick, but he was also the unofficial chronicler of their cases together as well as Holmes’s biographer.  There are so many versions of Holmes and Watson in various forms of media that one doesn’t know where to begin.  However, maybe the best two portrayals of Watson are by  Nigel Bruce and James Mason.   Bruce, who starred with Basil Rathbone as Holmes was nothing at all like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation of Watson.  Bruce’s Watson was intellectually dimmer and more often played for comic relief purposes.  However, Bruce did do one thing which made his Watson endearing to generations of fans:  He was loveable!  For their films together, they made a popular pairing and played the roles in fourteen movies and even did an additional series on the radio.  However, a far better interpretation of the character of Watson was by Mason when he co-starred in the movie, “Murder by Decree” (1979) directed by Bob Clark.

Of all of the versions of Watson portrayed in the movies and on TV, Mason’s version was the best that I have ever seen.  This original story basically was Holmes and Watson vs. Jack the Ripper (sort of) which occurred around the same time as the literary characters’ existence.  Holmes was played by Christopher Plummer who gave an adequate but unexceptional performance, but Mason’s Watson was a revelation.  Originally, Mason was the last actor cast for a role in the film, and Clark even had to travel to Spain to convince the actor to do this film.  He only agreed to do Watson if he could portray the character more along the lines of how he was portrayed in literature.  He wanted to play him as a serious, intelligent, level-headed professional whose scientific and medical background as a doctor helps Holmes in his investigation of the various murders.  Other actors previously playing Watson had also tried to portray the character this way.  However, Mason is the only one that I have ever seen that absolutely nailed the character like no one else.  Unfortunately, his performance was ignored because, basically, despite all of the acting talent in this film, it’s really not that good.  Bob Clark was a mediocre B-movie director with no real sense of style or skill.  The movie drags and looks like a cheaply made suspense episode of any bad TV show.  Nevertheless, Mason’s performance was so great it was almost like a rose growing out of a pile of dung!

Too often “sidekicks” are just used for laugh purposes rather than providing any further support to a major character.  However, different literary characters that were comic could also be reinterpreted successfully into something else entirely.   What am I trying to say, you may ask?  Well let me introduce you to the Shakespearian character of Sir John Falstaff made famous in the plays, “Henry IV (Part I)” and “Henry IV (Part II)” and how his character was re-imagined to great effect in the recent movie, “The King” (2019) directed by David Michod.  Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who was a much older sidekick to Henry IV, was a fat, vain, cowardly, comical, and drunken slob of a knight who constantly got himself along with Henry into trouble.  However, in “The King” where Falstaff is played by actor, Joel Edgerton, his character is vastly different.  This movie, which is not historically accurate and based rather loosely on Shakespeare’s plays, is actually pretty terrific.  I could go into further detail of why it is so good but I’ll just focus instead on Edgerton’s performance as Falstaff.  Edgerton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michod, came up with the idea of doing a more contemporary period adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry plays and it showed in his new interpretation of Falstaff.  He is still, fat, old, and a drunkard.  However, he is also wise, psychologically astute, even brave along with being a brilliant strategist.  It’s a character with depth that holds your interest.  Unfortunately, his performance, along with the entire cast and the film itself was, as they say, “Damned with faint praise” by the critics and some of the public probably due to the fact that it didn’t follow either actual historical fact or offended certain stuck-up Shakespeare junkies.  However, what a great “sidekick” this version of Falstaff really is and what a great movie it actually is!  See it!  You might be pleasantly surprised!

As I’ve said previously, too often “sidekicks” were utilized as the comic relief to the main star of a movie.  They could be dumb!  They could be funny!  They could even be irascible!  However, the most important thing they had to be was ever loyal, brave, and especially, likeable.  I can think of two veteran character actors who were almost always the perfect sidekick in just about any movie they appeared in.  Both were likeable on the screen or on TV.  However, behind the scenes, only one was likeable in real life.  The first, who was likeable both on screen and off was George “Gabby” Hayes.

For anyone over forty, you remember him don’t you?  He almost always was in a Western and he almost always was the loyal “sidekick” to a Western star.  He was, short, dressed so shabby that he looked like he bathed once in a decade and had a mound of whiskers that made his face look like a scrub brush.  He usually was scruffy, animated, cantankerous, and woman-hating (they must have interfered with manly men doing manly things no doubt!)  He was immensely popular as a Western sidekick to many cowboy stars.  He was a sidekick to William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd (22 times), Roy Rodgers (44 times), Gene Autry (7 times), Wild Bill Elliott (14 times), Randolph Scott (6 times) and, of course, John Wayne (15 times).  After the last movie he did in 1950, he even had a later successful TV Western show named, “THE GABBY HAYES SHOW” which was basically for kids or anyone with the general IQ of a kumquat.  He retired shortly after that show ended (probably with enough money to buy the Australian continent).  Funny thing, in real life he hated Westerns (maybe because he was an unofficial member of the John Travolta Syndrome Club) and he didn’t even learn how to ride a horse until he was around 50 years old.  In real life he was intelligent, well read as well as well-groomed (AKA he bathed regularly), articulate, serious, and highly philosophical.  In other words, he was the exact opposite of the characters that he played on film.  He was married once, successfully, and passed away in 1969 at age 83.

Now the second veteran character actor who was the perfect “sidekick” was also memorable in Westerns.  However, beyond that, the similarities end.  He played a number of different and varied film roles very well.  He was so fine an actor that he was Oscar nominated numerous times.  He even later went into television where he had a long running and successful TV show.  However, what many people may also not know is that for a long time, he held the record for the most Oscar wins by an actor in winning three best Supporting Actor Oscars out of four times being nominated.  To this day, he might even be considered the finest character actor in film history.  Unfortunately, what even less people may know is that, in real life, away from the camera, this person was an awful individual regarding his personal beliefs and views.  That person was actor Walter Brennan!

Brennan, who got into movies in the mid-1920s was perfect for playing older characters.  He was lean and wiry, balding, and had a high pitched voice due to exposure to poison gas which ruined his vocal cords while serving in World War I.  He was also helped when during the mid-1930s he was taking part in a fight scene when an actor accidently kicked him in the face knocking out most of his front teeth.  Between his voice, doing roles without wearing dentures, and his own innate overall skill as an actor, he could convincingly act like someone 40 years older.  Shortly after his accident his acting career really took off and he won three Oscars in a span of 5 years for “Come and Get It” (1936), “Kentucky” (1938), and “The Westerner” (1940).  To this day he is the only actor to ever win three Best Supporting Actor Oscars along with holding the record of winning three Oscars in the shortest period of time.  He was only nominated one more time but perhaps should have been nominated two additional times for “My Darling Clementine” (1946) and “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955).  In his later years he gained new success with his TV role on the sitcom, “The Real McCoys” (1957-63).  He played Grandpa Amos McCoy, part of a West Virginia Family that moves to California after they inherited a farm there.  Brennan even was a recording star becoming the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit at the time in 1963.  He was married, successfully, for 54 years, had three children, and passed away in 1974 at age 80.  As I have said, he was the perfect sidekick in just about any role.  However, there was just one little thing that kind of spoiled this portrait that I have just painted!  Away from the movie and TV screens, he was a vocal and unrepentant Bigot!

Despite the impression that Brennan was either Southern or Country folk, he was actually from Massachusetts, studied engineering, and originally made a fortune in real estate before the market collapsed in the 1920s and he turned to acting.  In his later years he was an active member of the John Birch Society even making a record for them raising the fears of a Communist takeover.  It was actually sold in record stores as a “comedy” album (How F#$ked up was that!).  He was against the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon (thought he was too liberal), thought John Wayne might be a Communist, supported George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, had a bunker on his Los Angeles estate fully outfitted with firearms and survival supplies while awaiting the Russian invasion, actively celebrated the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (supposedly danced a little jig upon learning of King’s death), stated that the civil rights movement and the riots in places like Watts (CA) and Newark (NJ), etc., were the result of perfectly content “negroes” being stirred up by a handful of troublemakers and Communist agitators with an anti-American agenda (sound familiar?), and openly made racist and anti-semitic remarks to name a few of his more charming quirks.  All I can say is that anyone who thinks that Richard Nixon was too liberal and John Wayne was a Communist must also think that Adolph Hitler was a pacifist, because he didn’t kill as many people as Joseph Stalin.  I think that if Brennan were alive today, he’d probably be sitting on his front porch with a tattoo of QAnon on his forearm while either checking the InfoWars website or reading a copy of the Epoch Times.

Anyway, before I end this post I’d like to discuss two pictures with a great sidekick who’s performance is so strong that he almost steals the entire picture.  The first picture is a dark portrait of warped individuals in a dark New York City who will use anyone and do anything to either get ahead or reap retribution on their enemies.  In this case the sidekick to the main star is different in that both individuals play psychologically sick characters who thrive in the toxic atmosphere around them and where they have a symbiotic relationship in using each other to attain their warped ends.  The movie is “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and the two people are Burt Lancaster as ruthless New York City gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as his press agent Sidney Falco, maybe the slimiest “sidekick” in motion picture history.

The plot revolves around Hunsecker using Falco to help break up his emotionally fragile kid sister’s romance with a young jazz musician.  As Falco, Tony Curtis gives the performance of his career.  Curtis wanted desperately to break-out from continually doing vapid pretty boy leading roles and show that he could actually act and in this movie, does he ever.  Lancaster and Curtis previously worked well together the prior year for the movie, “Trapeze”, which was a hit, and it was hoped that they would have similar results with this film.  Curtis’s Falco is fascinating.  He is fawning to Hunsecker almost like a lap dog [“Tell me sir, when he (Falco) dies, do you think he’ll go to the dog and cat heaven?”].  He is also a treacherous sycophant easily willing to be a doormat while smoldering like a snake ready to strike back (“Every dog will have his day!”).  His pathetic need to be appreciated while alternatively striving shamelessly to do anything to be a successful (“I am tasting my favorite new perfume – success!”) would be almost pitiful if he wasn’t so cavalierly willing to do almost any dirty or criminal thing to succeed.  Curtis actually has more scenes and spoken lines than Lancaster and the screenplay is incredible thanks to both Ernest Lehman’s adaption of his own novella and assistance by the great Clifford Odets, who completely re-wrote the screenplay after Lehman became ill.  There are so many great things to say about this movie that I could spend an entire post just discussing it alone.  The sad thing is, once again, this movie was a box office flop and Curtis’s and Lancaster’s performances, which completely shocked both actors’ fans, would not be appreciated until decades later along with the film itself.  If you have never seen this movie and now decide to see it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself mentally thinking, “How low can he go?”  Pretty low folks!  Pretty low!

The last great movie “sidekick” I want to discuss is based on an actual historical Western character.  He has been immortalized numerous times on both TV and in the movies and some of the many portrayals of him have also been very good.  However, the absolutely best portrayal of this character, as well as it also being the best performance of this actor’s career was Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday in the movie, “Tombstone” (1993), directed by Kurt Russell who also played the lead role of Wyatt Earp (although George P. Cosmatos was given directing credit).

Originally, Willem Dafoe was selected for the Doc Holiday role.  However, when Buena Vista, a film division of Walt Disney studios, refused to distribute the film if he was cast, due to his prior role in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), out went Defoe and in came Kilmer.  Kilmer portrays Holiday in a resigned/fatalistic manner.  He is an alcoholic who is dying from consumption but is living life on his on terms (“There’s no normal life, Wyatt, it’s just life.”).  He is an educated and cultured individual but with a wicked sardonic wit which he puts to good effect in smoothly demeaning the various ignorant outlaws that he comes into contact with (“Maybe poker’s just not your game Ike. I know! Let’s have a spelling contest!”).  Kilmer has the best lines in the entire movie and he uses them to great effect to steal just about every scene he is in.  He also incorporated additional touches such as practicing for a long time on his quick-draw speed to make him a credible fast draw gunman, and speaking with a Southern Aristocratic accent since Holiday was originally from Georgia.

The portrayal of the historic “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, which in this film is the most accurate version that I have ever seen, is instigated when everyone has their guns drawn but have not fired yet and it appears that maybe everyone is starting to calm down a bit.  However, a sudden closeup of Kilmer’s face reveals Holiday mockingly winking his eye at Billy Clanton’s frightened face in closeup.  Suddenly, in closeup, you see Clanton’s face change into anger and the next thing you know the gunfight begins.  Kilmer completely improvised that scene and it is one of the highlights of the film.  It was also Val Kilmer’s idea to whistle while the Earps and Holiday marched down the main street leading to their confrontation at the O.K. Corral.  Lastly, Kilmer during his deathbed scene, laid on a bed of ice, so that he would shake and show the final stage of his illness claiming his life.  These additional touches aided by Kilmer’s outstanding performance makes him a sidekick that you’ll never forget!

Oh, and it’s also a pretty Damn good movie too (he said with a wink and a smile)!

NLP

 

 

 

The Youngins are Coming! The Youngins are Coming!

Osito:  “Nightmares let you know you’re not a psycho.  ‘Cause when that Dark Shit comes… And you let it come and you let it go.  That’s when you know you’re a soldier.  That’s when you prove what you’re made of… and for awhile…you’re going to wake up every day thinking…”

“I’m a Killer, I’m a Killer.”  

“And one day… you’re going to wake up, and… you’re going to think about breakfast.”

“And life goes on!” 

[Atkins Estimond to Shane Harper “Hightown” (2020)]

You know, I always find it interesting when I see actor that I’ve never seen before give a performance that is so special it almost makes me shake my head in disbelief.  After that, I always know what’s going to happen the next time I see that actor in something else.  What is it?  Why it’s something we all hope when we see something special.  We hope  that this same actor will do it again.  Now too often that doesn’t happen, but it still doesn’t lessen the original performance you saw which made such a strong impression to begin with.  A lot of times it might not even be a particular performance but something about an actor’s persona which makes you wind up asking yourself, “Who is this guy/gal,” while you find that you cannot take your eyes off of them.  Two actors I always remember in that way are Rami Malek and Jay Hernandez.  Malek I first noticed when he was in the Emmy winning World War II mini-series, “The Pacific” (2010) and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.  Ever since that moment, I started to follow his career and I wasn’t disappointed when his talent came out like gangbusters with him winning an Emmy for best actor for “Mr. Robot” (2015) and a later Oscar for Best Actor for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018).  Hernandez made the same impression when he exploded (figuratively and literally) onto the screen for his performance as tormented and tattooed anti-hero El Diablo in “Suicide Squad” (2016).  Although he has been in a lot of stuff, both on Network TV and in the movies, he has not had anywhere near the success of Malek.  However, he is currently the lead on the popular “Magnum P.I.” reboot which is currently going into its third season, and is still, someone I always keep an eye on.

Not to exclude women, two others who made that sort of impression to me were Kirsten Dunst when she starred (when she was just 12 years old) as a child vampire opposite  Tom Cruise in “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in the aforementioned “Suicide Squad”.  At the very least, both of them should have been Supporting Actress Oscar Nominated (And they both should have won, Damnit!).  Since that time both of them have had very successful careers with Dunst giving standout performances on both TV and in film while Robbie has hit the heights by winning Oscar nominations for “I, Tonya” (2017) and “Bombshell” (2019).

Now, I have gotten a little sidetracked once again from stating what this month’s Blog post will be all about.  So to clarify, what I really want to do this month is to point out for praise actors who may not be the most well known, but have given a performance (usually in a secondary role) or in a series of performances so eye-catching that they should be more readily known to everyone.  All of these actors have already done a lot of stuff for film, TV, and even the theater.  Every single one of them is fabulous.  Also, except in one case, all of them are still not over forty.  Now that I have laid out the ground rules, let me introduce you to the first one, actress Justine Lupe as Holly Gibney in the TV series, “Mr. Mercedes” (2017-20).

“Mr. Mercedes” is based on a trilogy of Steven King novels with retired detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) hunting a serial killer who previously killed a bunch of people with a stolen Mercedes at a job fair.  During his hunt for the killer, he befriends Holly, who is the younger cousin of Janey who has hired Bill to help find the killer whose prior actions resulted in Holly’s other cousin, Olivia, committing suicide.  In Holly, King created one of his most memorable literary characters.  His Holly is on the autism spectrum, suffers from OCD, and has difficulty in understanding and processing her emotions.  Justine Lupe absolutely grabs this role and runs away with it.  Her Holly is very insecure, at times afraid, and generally awkward around people in general.  At first glance, it almost seems like she is going to vibrate and completely shatter into a million pieces before your very eyes.  However, her Holly is also smart, observant, refreshingly unfiltered, focused, doggedly determined, very trustworthy, and exceedingly brave despite her psychological issues.  Holly ultimately becomes not only Bill Hodges partner, but also his voice of reason.  Of course, Lupe was never nominated by the idiots at the Emmys, but every time she is in a scene (and stealing it from everybody else), you mentally want to give her a smile and a hug.

The next person I want to highlight is actress Annaleigh Ashford on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex” (2013-16).  “Sex” explored the research and personal relationship between William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) who pioneered human sexuality research starting in the 1950s and moving on into the 1960s along with the numerous individuals involved in their lives.  Ashford has had a long career on stage and on Broadway where she starred in musicals as well as sung professionally on different labels.  She was a Tony Award winner for a revival of “You Can’t Take It with You” (2014-15) and has done numerous roles in film and on TV.  On “Sex”, she plays Betty DiMello, a young, hard as nails prostitute who introduces Masters and Johnson to some of her other co-workers to provide data for their research with later episodes having her quit her prior life and become Masters and Johnson’s office manager.  Her Betty doesn’t take lip from anyone especially from Masters who, despite his superior education, is repeatedly put in his place by her and, at times, it is a comical delight to see.  Betty, who is gay, desperately wants to have children, and as the series progresses she is even willing to marry someone for that reason alone despite her wanting to be with the real love of her life, Helen (Sarah Silverman).  The resulting choices she makes are heart-breaking.  Ashford balances this character with a combination of humor and sadness that makes her always unique and interesting.  Of course, she was never nominated for an Emmy either.  Fun fact:  In season four Ashford in real life was visibly pregnant so they used CGI and judicious placement of objects to hide how she really looked.  Betty might have not been able to have children, but Ashford definitely did!

Speaking of being ignored, next on the list is actor Tom Pelphrey from one of my favorite TV shows, “Ozark”.  Pelphrey appeared in season three as Ben Davis, Wendy Byrde’s (Laura Linney) deeply troubled bi-polar brother whose actions put all of them at risk.  Pelphrey previously has been on TV, in film, and on stage.  He even did daytime soap operas winning Emmys for his role on “The Guiding Light”.  I first took notice of him when he became a regular on the Cinemax series “Banshee” as a multiple tattooed ex-Neo Nazi trying to forget his past by becoming a sheriff’s deputy for the series’ lead.  However, for “Ozark”, his performance as Ben Davis was electrifying!  As Davis he can be dangerous, gentle, fragile, angry, child-like, fearless, disturbed, funny, clever, romantic, and sad in an instant.  He also is the only one out of everyone on Ozark who sees and recklessly tells everyone who and what sort of person they really are which throws the entire place into turmoil.  His scenes with the great Julie Garner as Ruth, who falls in love with him, are both tender and heartbreaking.

If you want to see something special just check out the first five minutes of Season 3, Episode 9 where Ben is in the back seat of a cab and being driven somewhere.  For most of that time sequence the camera is either in closeup on his face or cutting to quick scenes of what he is seeing outside while the cab is in motion.  All of that time he is talking or you are hearing his mental thoughts while the camera is on his face and while he is talking to the faceless cab driver who never responds.  He is in the midst of a full blown bi-polar meltdown babbling on and on, sad one moment, upbeat the next, relating how his mind is not working, but then instantaneously mentioning that he is having a good day talking on and on like some sort of sad human emotional roller coaster mentally about to crash.  For the Emmy nominations this year, both Julie Garner and Laura Linney were deservedly nominated once again but Pelphrey, of course, was ignored.  Funny thing, some of Linney and Garner’s  most powerful acting scenes were when they were interacting with Pelphrey.  I noticed!  If you happen to see Season 3 of “Ozark”, I hope you’ll notice too!

Moving right along, the next actor I want to mention is on the new Starz crime drama “Hightown” (2020).  The show follows an alcohol/drug abusing and gay National Marine Fisheries agent (Monica Raymund) in Provincetown, Mass. who tries to unofficially assist the local drug enforcement authorities after finding a local girl’s dead body.  She was previously executed from orders given by a local incarcerated drug kingpin, Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco) to his acting Lieutenant Osito (Atkins Estimond).  Honestly, “Hightown” is neither good or bad but just an OK crime show.  However, what is not “just OK” but really “great” is the terrific performance by Atkins Estimond as Osito.  Estimond has been acting since High School and he has previously been on numerous TV shows and in movies usually playing comic or laid back roles.  However, his Osito is a major dramatic switch that stretches his acting muscles considerably.  Estimond, a huge man of Haitian decent, is scary as the smart, murderous criminal Osito.  He moves slowly and talks calmly but he uses a glaring stare and his overall bulk as an intimidating weapon.  Yet, despite being a stone-cold killer, he is strangely sensitive to his soldier in training Junior (who he has a soft spot for), and later, out of character, he surprisingly even risks his own life by going against Cuevas in order to protect Junior.  This side of him makes you actually kind of want to root for him to survive despite everything.  To be able to elicit sympathy for a character as brutal as Osito takes real acting, and in that regard, Estimond definitely delivers.

Next, actress Melissa Rauch is well known to Network TV fans as Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, one of the regular cast members of the popular CBS sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-19).  After starting her career by doing standup comedy, Rauch has branched out into doing quirky comedy roles for TV and films.  Her one recent role that really stands out for me is the character of Bethany in the film, “Ode to Joy” (2019).  “Ode” is a romantic comedy drama about Charlie (Martin Freedman), a librarian living in Brooklyn who suffers from narcolepsy with a symptom of cataplexy which causes him to faint whenever he experiences strong emotions especially joy.  This causes him to avoid dating Francesca (Morena Baccarin) who he really loves and instead, start to date Bethany, Francesca’s co-worker who is bland and safe because he isn’t really attracted to her at all.  However, once Rauch’s Bethany enters the picture, she immediately proceeds to steal almost the entire rest of the movie.

Bethany is quirky pi-squared into eternity.  She is wide-eyed and enthusiastic about the most mundane things (Yarn-making anyone?).  She is frank and unpredictable (or maybe unpredictably frank?) but comes across grounded and real.  Every time she randomly says something odd, it’s not only hysterical, but more importantly, it’s believable.  When during one of their dating excursions she comes across a cello, picks it up, and starts to play it while singing a rousing impromptu version of the Cranberries’ “Zombie”, I was wondering whether Charlie might pass out just from being surprised by the complete sheer audacity of it all.  However, she is also touching when she finally decides to break up with Charlie when she realizes that she wants more in a relationship than Charlie can provide, not because of his affliction, but because he really loves Francesca.  Pertaining to actors, there’s an old saying that goes, “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard!”  Seeing Melissa Rauch’s brilliant performance, she makes comic acting seem almost effortless!

The last person that I want to highlight is a little different than the others.  First, he is the only one from all of the actors that I have listed that is over 40.  Second, I want to praise not one, but a series of performances that he has done over the past number of years.  Three, he is not even American.  He is well known for being able to adapt so many different accents that he can easily be able to fit into any number of different roles.  He also can disappear into roles so completely, or be on the periphery of scenes with bigger or more well established stars that you do not even notice him until you check the actor credit listings at the end of a TV show, film, or even music videos (Yep, he’s done them too) and say, “Holy Hell, That was so and so!  How did I miss him or not recognize him?”  You might have briefly spotted him in the Emmy Award winning series, “Band of Brothers” (2001).  You also might have seen him in a couple of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films as the character, Scrum.  I first took notice of him when he played the frighteningly scary psychopathic gangster, Baby Face Nelson, in the Johnny Depp film, “Public Enemies” (2009).  Did I also mention that he played Al Capone in the HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-14), or in the John le Carre’s film version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), or in “Rocket Man” (2019), or Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) or as Jacob Marley in the most recent version of “A Christmas Carol” (2019), and is now in the new Tom Hanks film, “Grayhound” (2020)?  Is your head spinning yet?  Well let me introduce you to one of the best, and busiest character actors in all of show business, Englishman, Stephen Graham!

The 47 year old, 5’6″ tall, bullet-headed Graham might be short, but he projects an imposing presence that makes him seem like he’s a lot larger.  When he had a small role in “Gangs of New York” (Yes, he was in that one too!) they used to call him ‘Little Joe Pesci’ on the set, maybe because he could be so animated.  Speaking of small roles, he is one of those actors that doesn’t believe there are small roles which is why he has been in both large and small parts throughout his long acting career which started when he was just ten years old.  When he played Baby Face Nelson (who in real life was so crazy that even John Dillinger was wary of him) Graham played him with an over the top flourish of a huge smile on his face which only increased the more violent he got.  As Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire” he is threatening to those around him but also comical when he tries to do the same thing to his little son who is misbehaving at home.  His Capone also shows a tender family side to that same son, who is partially deaf, and to a brother who has an increasing drug problem.  Whether its playing a Texan [“Texas Killing Fields” (2011)];  a short-tempered, bald, tattooed, white nationalist ultimately seeking redemption [“This is England” (2006) and its sequels]; or even a Jamaican gangster (in real life Graham is of mixed race origin) in “Yardie” (2018), you can always expect the unexpected when you see Graham in something!

To close, this prior paragraph sort of brings back to mind an old MGM movie I once saw called, “The Good Earth” (1937) based on the Pearl S. Buck novel of Chinese farmers trying to survive in pre-World War I China.  The book and the movie are really dated now and all of the actors (Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, etc.) are ridiculously made up to look Asian.  Hollywood back then was so biased against any actor in a major film role not being Caucasian that they’d just rather make up someone Caucasian to look foreign rather than hire actual ethnic actors.  However, they did use ethnic actors in secondary roles and one of them was a fine Chinese/Hawaiian actor named Richard Loo.  Funny thing, not only were the Hollywood big wigs mega-bigoted back then, but they were also stupid because they really thought all Chinese actually looked alike so to save a buck they had Richard Loo play not one, but three different minor (and uncredited) secondary roles in the same film (I’m not making this up).  Maybe if Stephen Graham was around back then, they would have probably just had him play all of the minor secondary roles all by himself.

Just saying…

NLP

 

 

To the Rescue!

“Here I Come to Save the Daaaaay!”

[Mighty Mouse from the TV Show “Mighty Mouse Playhouse” (1955-1967)] 

The Unexpected!  We have all experienced this at different points in our lives.  No matter what we may do, we never can plan for all eventualities in our lives (Coronavirus anyone?)  When something goes wrong, we can either think fast, act fast, and try to overcome the problem or we cannot, and then we just have to give up.  Making movies is no exception to this rule either.  Also, TV, cable shows, theater productions all had and will continue to have to deal with the unexpected at some point in time too.  However, what about those instances when someone actually succeeded in overcoming the unexpected?  That is what this month’s post will discuss for the movies.  However, first let me tell you about a famous film production that was basically cancelled due to the unexpected!

In 1937 British production started on the movie, “I Claudius” (1937) to be directed by Josef Von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton.  The movie was to be based on the two famous fictional historical novels by author Robert Graves on the Roman Emperor Claudius.  If you want to find out more about its troubled production, check out the BBC documentary, “The Epic that Never Was” (1965).  It goes into detail of the quarrels Laughton and Sternberg had over Laughton’s interpretation of Claudius.  Ultimately, the production was shelved when leading lady Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident suffering a concussion and facial cuts (although some say it provided the studio an insurance way out to just end the whole thing).  My own opinion is that Sternberg and Laughton could both be royal assholes to deal with, but honestly, the few scenes showing Laughton portraying Claudius were absolutely mesmerizing.  We will never know for sure what could have been!

OK, now I’ll stop going off on a tangent and focus on this post’s actual topic.  The computer-animated comedy film “Shrek” (2001), based on a fairy tale picture book, was a monster hit which won the first ever Oscar for best animated feature, had three additional sequels made, and helped establish DreamWorks Animation as a major rival to Pixar in feature film computer animation.  So what might have happened if the thing was cancelled due to the death of the person voicing the principal animated character of Shrek?  Well that was a real possibility when comic actor Chris Farley, who had completed almost all of the dialogue for Shrek, died of a drug overdose at age 33.  Fortunately, DreamWorks decided to re-cast the voice role with Mike Myers as the new voice of Shrek.  After doing a script re-write to adapt Myer’s personality to the character and later, after eliminating a recording of Shrek’s dialogue by Myers to enable him to redo the character’s voice with a Scottish accent (at an additional cost of 4 million), the new character of Shrek was reborn and the future success of the movie was assured.

Of course it is easier to just replace someone doing a voice in an animated film than an actual actor doing a role in a motion picture.  This was the unexpected problem that occurred during the making of the Oscar winning movie, “The Apartment” (1960).  Director Billy Wilder’s comedy drama about a lower level drone of an office worker (Jack Lemmon) allowing his shabby apartment to be used by upper managers for trysts so he could get ahead had originally had actor Paul Douglas slated to play the critical role of Jeff D. Sheldrake, Lemmon’s boss and one of the managers who was using his apartment.  The only problem, Douglas died of a heart attack two days before Wilder was going to start shooting his role.  Besides being a great director, Billy Wilder had real guts in tackling films that were controversial like “The Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard”, and “Ace In the Hole”.  He also took real risks in casting actors that were not normally thought to have the ability to tackle some of the tough, complex roles in his films like Ray Milland, William Holden, and now Fred MacMurray as Paul Douglas’s replacement for “The Apartment”.

Certain actors can fall into a category that I have actually named for a particular actor.  I have called this category the “John Travolta Syndrome”.  It stands for an actor who can only play one type of role really well.  Otherwise, they are completely worthless as an actor.  John Travolta could only play one type of role really well:  A dumb, stupid, Punk!  He did it when he was on the TV show, “Welcome Back, Cotter”, and he did it when he starred in “Carrie”, “Saturday Night Fever”, and “Pulp Fiction”.  Can you think of anything else that he ever did where he actually could do something like, Ahhhhhh, ACT?  I can’t!  As for Fred MacMurray, he was a charter member of the John Travolta Syndrome Club.

MacMurray, who always had a face that looked like a happy basset hound without the drooping ears, really wasn’t much of an actor.  However, when it came to doing a really serious role which required real acting skills, he could portray one type of character  really well:  A weak, two-faced, and duplicitous, Bastard!  Wilder directed him brilliantly that way in his great 1944 film noir classic, “Double Indemnity” (and to which MacMurray even originally told him, “Playing a serious role required acting and I can’t do it!”).  Well, at least he was honest!  However, Wilder saw something that MacMurray couldn’t and he got MacMurray to give a terrific performance.  MacMurray later played that type of role very well once again in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).  For “Apartment”, Wilder tapped into MacMurray playing that character one last time, despite MacMurray’s misgivings (he’d just signed a long term contract with Disney to do a bunch of their dippy family movies along with him grabbing the lead in the brain dead “My Three Sons” TV sitcom).  His re-casting paid off big time with “The Apartment” winning five Oscars along with Best Picture and Director for Wilder.

Sometimes, a last minute unexpected change on the production side of a picture can help a film to be successful too.  I can think of two examples where this occurred.  The first was for the big budget Epic action adventure World War II film, “The Guns of Navarone” (1961).  Producer and adapted screenplay writer Carl Forman picked Alexander Mackendrick to direct, and everything was set to go when Forman abruptly fired Mackendrick one week before the start of filming due to the always popular excuse:  Creative Differences.  Fortunately, British Director J. Lee Thompson was brought in to direct after a recommendation to Foreman by star Gregory Peck.  Thompson directed the film very well and the resulting  movie was a smash hit.  It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Director) winning an Oscar for Best Special Effects (which it deserved).

The second example was for the neo-Noir film, “Chinatown” (1974) directed by Roman Polanski.  Polanski could be a great director, but he was also a psychologically F#@ked up individual who, besides being an angry, manipulative, and abusive bully, was also a monstrous child molesting sexual predator (other than that, the perfect boyfriend to bring home to meet your mom and dad).  He got into constant arguments with his actors and screenplay writer Robert Towne even later changing Towne’s ending for the movie because he wanted to make it darker (which in my opinion, turned a “great” movie into just a “good” movie).  Fortunately, Producer Robert Evans stepped in to try and do some sort of damage control by making two last minute production changes which helped to possibly keep this movie from being a disaster.

The first change, was that he rescinded Polanski’s offer to have William A. Fraker as the movie’s cinematographer since (1) Polanski never even discussed it with Evans first before hiring Fraker, and (2) because Fraker, who previously shot Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, would possibly provide Polanski too much power over the entire film’s production and make it even more difficult for Evans to control Polanski’s worst instincts.  Cinematographer Stanley Cortez was briefly hired next but then fired shortly after production started due to disagreements with Polanski (Surprise!  Surprise!) and because he was too time-consuming.  Finally, Polanski had to find a new cinematographer in just a few days so he hired John A. Alonzo which met with Evans approval and who did a great job in shooting the film.  The second change was Evans rejecting music composer Phillip Lambro’s original film score for the movie after it was royally panned by test audiences.  Instead, Lambro was replaced by renowned film composer, Jerry Goldsmith who then had only ten days to create an original new film score for the entire picture.  Goldsmith came to the rescue by creating a widely praised and later Oscar nominated film score along with Alonzo’s fine cinematography also being Oscar nominated.  The movie was a success and nominated for eleven Oscars although winning just one for Towne’s altered screenplay.  To this day I only wish that Evans could have also forced that little toad, Polanski, to shove his change to the movie’s ending up his arrogant ass and just shoot the original ending in Towne’s screenplay (supposedly, Polanski and Jack Nicholson teamed up to force Evans to cede).  Maybe if he did, “Chinatown” would have won a lot more than just one lone Oscar.

The last two “unexpected” changes to movies that I want to discuss both involve actors.  The first was for the movie, “All the Money in the World” (2017) which was based on the true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in Italy by the Mafia and the refusal of his grandfather, multi-billionaire J. Paul Getty, to pay their ransom demands.  Ridley Scott directed, and principal photography was completed August 2017 with a release date set for December 22, 2017.  Unfortunately, the “unexpected” flaw in the production was the explosion of numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations against actor Kevin Spacey, who played J. Paul Getty, in late October 2017 making the film a potential disaster to release.  Fortunately, in this case Sony Pictures and the film’s production team figured out a plan to save the film.  They decided to replace Kevin Spacey and reshoot all of his scenes in the movie with actor Christopher Plummer.  On November 8, 2017 it was announced, and Plummer came onboard to begin work.  Now Plummer may not have looked like Mighty Mouse, but in this case, he sure saved the day!

Fortunately, for everyone, Plummer was already familiar with the script since he was originally considered for the role before Spacey was picked.  He also did not have to have special makeup applications since at the time of the actual kidnapping, Getty was 80 years old which was closer to Plummer’s actual age of 88.  Lastly, they were able to get the rest of the cast back to do the reshoots which totaled twenty-two scenes in all.  Plummer had only two weeks to memorize his lines.  The reshoots started November 20th and were all completed by November 29th.  The reshoots bumped up the cost an additional 10 million but the film’s opening was only moved back to December 25th!  Even better, the movie got good reviews, made a little profit, and, best of all, Plummer’s yeoman effort was recognized with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year.  He also became the oldest nominee in that category in Academy Award history.  Although he didn’t win, sometimes in other ways, the Good Guys actually do win!

The last “unexpected” change to a movie that I want to discuss is not for an actor being replaced, it’s when an actor actually, dies!  This actually happened during the making of the movie, “Solomon and Sheba” (1959).  This overblown biblical Epic (Biblical stuff was all the rage back then!) originally was supposed to star Tyrone Power as Solomon and Gina Lollobrigida as Sheba.  Two thirds of the movie had already been shot during 1958 when, on November 15th, disaster struck.  While Tyrone Power was being filmed doing a dueling scene multiple times with the movie’s principal Bad Guy, George Sanders (and a close personal friend of Power) Power had to stop the scene when he couldn’t continue and complained of pain in his left arm.  He was helped to his dressing room and shortly afterwards, died from a massive heart attack.  He was 44.  Now what do you do?  Well, the next person that came to the rescue happened to be actor, Yul Brynner!

Brynner originally turned down the role (Power did too before he reconsidered and accepted the part) but now Brynner was willing to do it.  Major battle scenes were already shot and all they had to do was insert Brynner into a few close action shots so they didn’t have to be reshot.   The love scenes still had to be shot although, I’m sure that Brynner had no problems doing that (Would you if you were a guy?  I mean, come on, it is Gina Lollobrigida for cripes sake!).  All in all, it took an additional 10 weeks to do the reshoots and additional scenes at an estimated cost of 6 million.  It was finally released October 27, 1959.  While the movie was a box office success, critically speaking, it really was pretty bad.  Besides the wooden acting, even the climatic sword fight between Sanders and Brynner was boring.  How can you make a 1950s movie sword fight Boring?  It made some of the worst movie lists of the year (and also of all time).  What was also sad was, from my having seen some of the scenes of Tyrone Power’s performance as Solomon, he truly was compelling in the role and far better than Brynner.  It’s a shame that in his last role, he could have given one of the best performances of his career.  Unfortunately, it was never meant to be.

As for Brynner, at least you had a chance to see him with a full head of hair (Or maybe a toupee. Who knows?) and a beard.  He sort of looked like a Biblical Terrace Stamp as General Zod from Superman II.  Hmmmm?  If he was around then maybe they could have had Christopher Reeve as an Angel fly into the battle sequences and…

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On Solid Ground (Part Three)!

“Head ’em up! Move ’em out!” [Eric Fleming on the TV Show “Rawhide” (1959-1965)]

We now come to the last of my three posts involving the act of transportation for TV and for the movies.  Since I’ve already covered air and sea, the only one left is Land.  Of course, there are many ways to travel on land.  One of the most popular means is by train and actually the very first American action movie ever made was by train.  That film (I’m sure you all will not remember it) was “The Great Train Robbery” (1903).  Like most movies made back then, it was very short, in that it was only twelve minutes long.  It also was very simplistic (Hey, how complex could it be if the movie was only twelve minutes long).  The plot consisted of a bunch of outlaws stopping a train, robbing the assorted passengers while killing a bunch of people.  Then the local authorities are notified, give chase, catch up to the outlaws, and kill them all.  The End!  Needless to say, for its time the movie was a blockbuster hit.  It also incorporated such innovations as on-location shooting, frequent camera movement, and a split screen showing two different actions going on at the same time.  Of course, looking at it now is about as artistically entertaining as watching someone feed a loaf of stale bread to a bunch of ducks in a pond.  However, back then, break out the Oscars everyone (except the Oscars weren’t invented yet!)

Travel by train has covered all types of movies from romance [“Brief Encounter” (1945)], to comedy [“Some Like It Hot” (1959)], to mystery [“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)], to action [“Runaway Train” (1985)] , to war films [“The Train” (1964)], to suspense [“The Narrow Margin” (1952)], to horror [“Terror Train” (1980)], and to westerns [“How the West was Won” (1962)] for example.  “Wait a minute!” some of you might be saying at my Western choice.  “That wasn’t a movie exclusively involving a train!”  This is true, but what a train traveling sequence it had.

“How the West…” was an epic Western movie shot in Cinerama which was a wide screen three camera synchronized process which projected an image onto a curved screen.  Not too many feature length films were ever made using this process due to the difficulty in shooting it, and the need for having special theaters with large curved screens to truly enjoy the process which ultimately was too cost prohibitive.  The movie followed the four generational Rawlings family traveling and settling across the vast United States during the period of  1839-1889 and how they were a part of HOW THE WEST WAS… (you get the massage!)  It had an all star cast along with six art directors, five separate story sections, four cinematographers, three film directors, two film composers, and a Partridge in a Pear Tr… (Ah, never mind!)  There were many things to like and dislike about this movie.  I liked it, but then I’m also the biggest sucker in the world for a Western.  However, I’d like to mention the final story’s section which involved a train robbery by a gang of outlaws (almost 60 years after the movie, “The Great Train Robbery”).

Arizona U.S. marshal Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard, bland as always) runs into an old enemy, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach, chewing the acting scenery worse than a plague of locusts), who makes veiled threats against Zeb and his family over Zeb’s prior killing of Gant’s brother.  Instead of waiting for Gant to strike first Zeb enlists fellow marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) and his deputy in setting up a trap for Gant and his gang by hiding in the front passenger car on a train loaded with a large gold shipment hoping that they will try to rob the train.  They sure do and that’s when you start to witness maybe, the greatest western train robbery shootout in film history.

Henry Hathaway directed this section of the film and he has you on the edge of your seats.  From the large outlaw gang riding on their horses and leaping onto the rear of the train, to the train barreling through trees laid across the train tracks like they were match sticks, to Zeb and Ramsey blasting the outlaws as they try to enter their passenger car, to numerous outlaws being shot off logs on top of a flatbed train car by the lawmen, to Zeb hanging on for dear life to loose logs on the flatbed train car that detaches from the main train while being shot at by Gant, to Zeb having a clear shot at Gant, and to finally having the detached group of the train cars in the rear jumping their tracks sending humans and assorted stuff flying everywhere what more is there to be said (I think just writing this sentence took more than twelve minutes)!  Well, there is one thing that I could still say, “Hey, how were the outlaws going to ride away with the Gold if they left their horses behind?  Uber???”

A number of movies and TV shows involving transportation on land can consist, basically, of either “running from” or “heading towards” someone or something.  On TV, for “running from” there was the classic TV show, “The Fugitive” (1963-67) with David Jansen starring as Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly convicted of murder running from being recaptured as well as the later movie version made in 1993 starring Harrison Ford.  Both were huge hits.  There was also the made for TV cult movie, “Duel” (1971) starring Dennis Weaver as a lone driver on a business trip across the Mojave Desert running from a menacing truck driver using his vehicle as a weapon to terrorize and threaten his life.  It was one of the first things that a young 24 year old kid director by the name of Steven Spielberg did and in which he received critical acclaim.

For movies, there were films like “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Bullitt” (1968) with Steve McQueen although technically, he was only “being followed” not “running from” first before he turned the tables and became the chaser, and not the chase(e)!   Two other fine “running from” movies both directed by George Miller were “The Road Warrior” (1981) along with it’s even better re-make, “Mad Max:  Fury Road” (2015).  The S/F storyline concerns Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a psychologically damaged ex-cop who roams a post-apocalyptic Australian desert wasteland trying to survive while being chased (running from?) by different groups he encounters.  Hardy is terrific in the role, and he is equally matched by Charlize Theron as Furiosa, an underling for a psychopathic tyrant, Immortal Joe, and who teams up with Max after double crossing Joe by helping his five wives escape his control.  What then ensues is one long chase for the rest of the movie.

Miller’s direction was unusual in many ways.  One, only twenty percent of the effects in the film were CGI created.  Otherwise, the rest were all practical effects which included stunts, make-up, and sets.  Two, the movie was shot in sequence, namely, in order from beginning to end.  Three, before the film’s original screenplay was created, a storyboard (a graphic organizer of illustrations of images shown in sequence to pre-visualize a motion picture) was created by five artists which consisted of 3,500 individual panels.   Four, Hardy’s character was almost mute (he only had 52 lines in the entire film) and almost feral with Hardy slowly regaining bits of his humanity as the film proceeds.  Miller also wanted the movie to be in the form of a modern western and it succeeds brilliantly.  Miller received a well deserved Best Director Oscar nomination and the movie was nominated for an additional 9 Oscars winning 6 in all.  Not too bad for someone running from something!

There were also memorable transportation on land movies and TV shows about individuals heading towards something.  Two classic Western TV shows “Wagon Train” (1957-65), and “Rawhide” (1959-65) explored people heading west for either (1) a new life or (2) to get paid after delivering a herd of cattle.  Movies explored this also in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) about the Joad family headed by Henry Fonda heading west to California to work as migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression of the 1930s or “The Pride and the Passion” (1957) about a British Naval Officer (Cary Grant) helping a Spanish guerrilla army led by Frank Sinatra (As a Spaniard?  Si!) during the Napoleonic war in Spain to move a giant cannon over 1,000 km. to blast through the walls of the French held city of Avila.  Then you had others like “Taras Bulba” (1962) about the Cossacks led by Yul Brynner marching against the Polish Empire to take back their Ukrainian homeland or “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) with Peter O’Toole leading Arabian desert tribes against Turkish forces during World War I.  While all of these epic films are memorable in different ways I’d like to mention another film that, while much smaller, is easily a fine example of someone heading towards something, not once, not twice, but three times!  That movie is the German film, “Run Lola Run” (1998).

“Lola” was directed by Tom Tykwer and starred Franka Potente as Lola, the girlfriend of Manni, a bagman responsible for delivering 100,000 marks to his criminal boss.  Unfortunately, he lost the money and now Lola has just 20 minutes to somehow, obtain 100,000 marks and get the money to Manni or his boss will kill him.  So what does Lola do???  She…

RUUUNNNSSS!!!

Tykwer’s film is a portrait of fate and how random chance occurrences and actions can completely alter what happens next in one’s life.  This is wonderfully realized in three different alternative scenarios with Lola running here and running there, bumping into or interacting with different individuals, some inconsequential while others being individuals of major importance.  All the while, Tykwer’s fast paced camera work and film editing is almost as fast paced as Lola’s running (Potente must have ran two marathons while making this film).  Tykwer also includes some additional fun touches like throwing animated sequences into the action along with having swiftly edited montages of what happens to different individuals when Lola has momentary interactions with them while racing along (and their different outcomes in each of the three vastly different scenarios).  By the time the movie ends (after a briskly paced 80 minutes), you almost feel like your head is spinning and you psychologically ran as much as Lola.  However, perhaps in your case, I’ll bet you have a smile on your face too!

Since our Lola was racing against the clock, it’s appropriate that the last group of movies that I want to discuss involving transportation on land are movies that actually involve racing, either on foot or by other means.  A couple of these movies are comedies.  The first, “The Great Race” (1965), was a slapstick turn of the century auto race comedy inspired, very loosely, on two international auto races in 1907 and 1908.  It starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and was the most expensive comedy made at that time.  Other than the fact that it had the largest pie fight ever made (4,000 pies in all) and that it took over five days to film, the movie stunk (worse than the set that the pie fight was filmed in after it was left half-cleaned over the weekend).  The movie was about as sophisticated as a wrecking ball in a monastery, and it was a precursor to overblown big budget comedy disasters like “Ishtar” (1987).  The other comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”  (1963) made two years earlier was somewhat better.  It was also a race, mostly on land, by a group of strangers to find the stolen $350,000 of a dying crook.  Director Stanley Kramer helmed this heavy-handed comedy Epic (it was originally 210 minutes long and also filmed in Cinerama) and all that was missing were audience breaks for the patrons to receive blood transfusions.  It had just about every comedian in existence in the film with the lone serious actor of the bunch, Spencer Tracy, almost acting like a comedic traffic cop trying to keep order.  The movie was successful although it barely made a profit which “The Great Race” couldn’t claim.  It was even nominated for a number of Oscars, and there were times when it was actually even funny (you had to have a few laughs for something 210 minutes long).  However, after its conclusion, one just might want to watch a marathon of Igmar Bergman movies to mentally unwind.

Fortunately, there were other serious racing movies that were far better like “The Black Stallion” (1979) and “Seabiscuit” (2003) about horse racing, “Chariots of Fire” (1981) about two British runners competing at the 1924 Olympics, “Breaking Away” (1979) about competitive bicycle racing, and the last film I will discuss, “Ford vs. Ferrari” (2019).  This movie chronicles the efforts by a team of Ford car engineers and designers led by racecar driver/designer Carroll Selby (Matt Damon) and racecar driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to develop a racecar capable of beating the dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

This movie was vastly different than other racecar movies previously made in that it explored other areas rather than just the racing aspects alone.  It studied the overall history of how the competition (feud) started between the CEO Henry Ford II and the founder of Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari and how Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) created the Ford racing division to take on Ferrari.  It also explores the manipulative methods that Selby, Miles, and Iacocca had to use to develop the Ford GT40 against corporate interference to enable Ford to ultimately challenge Ferrari’s dominance.  It also was a character study of the professional side of Shelby (his private life was left out) and both the professional and the personal side of Miles along with his strong relationship with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and their son.  Lastly, it’s a study of Selby and Miles relationship with each other and how even their differences (Miles could be extremely difficult to deal with) were offset by a deep and abiding respect and love for each other.

Director James Mangold directs these various film aspects brilliantly.  He also elicits terrific performances from the entire cast.  He is probably the only director who has directed a movie about car racing to successfully show, on a basic level, how racing cars are designed and developed along with how the various mechanics, and other support staff provide assistance both before and during a race (and it’s interesting, not boring).  Most of all, when there are actual racing scenes they are heart pounding exciting.  “Ford vs. Ferrari” has some of the best racing car action scenes since “Grand Prix”(1966) and, whether it is CGI or not, they are well worth viewing.  “Ford vs. Ferrari” won a well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture (although both Damon and especially, Bale along with Mangold were ignored).

This concludes my three part discussion about transportation in the movies.  I hope that you enjoyed my pontifications on this subject.  For air, sea, and land there are numerous good film selections to be made and I hope that my comments help you into making good choices for viewing while also avoiding possible turkeys.  And if nothing else, always remember, never watch anything with the title “Snakes on a…”

Plane,

Train,

Submarine,

Grayhound Bus,

Roman Trireme, etc.

(Even if it’s less than 12 minutes long!)

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Anchors Away! (Part Two)

“You are now prisoners of Captain Vallo and his scurvy crew!” [Burt Lancaster as Captain Vallo in “The Crimson Pirate” (1952)]

As mentioned in my previous post, I was going to have three different posts discussing a particular form of “transportation” in the movies.  This second post will discuss transportation in water for the movies and for television.  Water transportation, whether over or under the sea; on rivers, lakes or oceans; or during modern or ancient times is a common element for many different types of films.  Numerous films and TV shows were made of individuals involved with water in war and in commerce.  It was also utilized for such varied subjects as exploration, espionage, science fiction, disaster, comedy, romance, and even psychological character studies.  With so many variables, it would seem almost impossible to categorize such a large variety of films and TV in a coherent way.  So of course, I’m going to do it anyway.  Therefore, “Hoist the Yardarm, Matey ” (Whatever the Hell that means…) here we go!

You may think that commerce or stories about individuals working on water would be a boring subject for the movies.  Well, wrong, Moose Breath!  Several classics from literature were made into films which explored work at sea such as Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” (1938) and Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1956).  Films like “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949), “Reap the Wild Wind” (1942), and “Wake of the Red Witch” (1948) further explored this theme.  However, there are two movies that I particularly want to praise.  They are “The Sea Wolf” (1941) and “A Perfect Storm” (2000).

“Wolf” was based on the classic Jack London novel and it has been made many times but this version is still the best.  The story takes place in 1904 and concerns two individuals (Alexander Knox and Ida Lupino) rescued after their harbor ferry is struck by another vessel and sunk.  Unfortunately, their rescue vessel is actually a seal-hunting sailing ship manned by a sadistic and deliberately cruel skipper named Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) with a crew consisting of the worst elements of society who, instead of returning them to shore, keep them both as additional members of the crew.  From that point on the movie is a psychological character study with an adventure backdrop consisting of Larsen, who is actually quite educated and intelligent vs. the cultured but soft spoken Humphrey van Weyden (Knox), a successful writer and their philosophical battle of wills over the nature of humanity.

This powerful film was directed by the always great Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and his direction of the entire cast, as well as the film itself, is exceptional.  However, despite the equally imposing cast of fine actors like Lupino, Knox, John Garfield, Barry Fitzgerald, and others, none of them can stand up to Robinson’s incredible dominating performance as Larsen.  It’s the finest performance of his career and how he didn’t win an Oscar (he was never nominated for any role) was an outrage.  Curtiz’s direction aided by the dark forboding fogbound cinematography of Sol Polito (they did 11 films together) and Robert Rossen’s fine screenplay make this movie must see viewing!

“A Perfect Storm” was based on the non-fiction true story of the doomed fishing crew of the Andrea Gail which sank with no survivors after being caught in a storm caused by Hurricane Grace in 1991.  The all star cast starred George Clooney as the doomed skipper along with Mark Wahlberg, John Hawkes, John C. Reilly and others as his fellow crew members along with Diane Lane, Karen Allen, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and others involved in different roles tied into the tragedy.  This movie, while it was big hit, only received mixed reviews by critics so it might have been dismissed except for one thing:  The critics are full of S&*t!  It’s a fine movie!

Wolfgang (Yep, it’s another Wolf everyone!) Petersen directed and he did a terrific job both at the visual and at the intimate level.  Visually, the various action scenes in the film along with the storm itself are breathtaking (it was Oscar nominated for best special effects).  However, Petersen also shows the human side of the individuals involved.  He portrays each character’s distinct personality along with their overall economic desperation and how that can lead one to make fatal choices, not just about one’s livelihood, but about one’s life itself.  Ultimately, you can both understand and sympathize with these individuals while at the same time shake your head as to why they took such a risk, and failed.

TV shows could also explore work and adventure on the water in shows like “Sea Hunt” (1958-61) and “The Aquanauts” (1961) about scuba divers, “Riverboat” (1959-61) about adventures on a riverboat in the 1830s, and “Waterfront” (1954-55) about a harbor tug boat captain (OK! This one I will admit is boring!).  However, there is one TV show I particularly want to praise which is “Adventures in Paradise” (1959-62).  “Paradise” starred Gardiner McKay as Adam Troy, captain of the schooner Tiki III who sailed the South Pacific carrying either cargo or passengers while having various adventures on a weekly basis.  McKay at the time was age 27, 6’5″, 200 pounds. and, to quote the immortal words of actress Tuesday Weld when asked what she thought of McKay replied, “I HATE him!”  When asked why, she replied, “I hate anyone who’s prettier than I am!”  And folks, he was!  He really was!

McKay was almost the perfect choice for the role.  He was an accomplished sailor in real life and, even if he wasn’t much of an actor (although he might have improved had he stayed in the business), he had a real screen presence and a likeability that was appealing to both men and, especially, women.  “Paradise” was helped by having top-notch guest star acting talent throughout the show’s run along with having both established and up and coming film directors doing different episodes.  It was one of the highest rated TV shows during its run and it was popular even though the show was filmed in black and white, not color.  Sadly, for both TV and film fans, “Paradise” was McKay’s last TV series.  A few years later he quit acting for good and, in an example of art imitating life, went into other areas of art like photography, sculpture, and writing (both novels and plays to critical acclaim) while having adventures all around the world.  He married late in life, successfully, had two children and passed away in 2001 at age 69.  He might have been, to coin a phrase, “A life well lived!”

Next up, numerous movies were made covering adventures on various seas both before, and during the “Age of Sail” (1571-1872).  A couple of films which took place before the age of sail were the Viking adventure dramas’ “The Vikings” (1958), a terrific action adventure film with Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine hamming it up while stealing every scene, and “The Long Ships” (1964), with skinny, clean shaven, and short haired Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn running around as Vikings (???).  This last one looked like an unintentional Monty Python comedy sketch!  However, there were other films that took place during the Age of Sail that didn’t have such problems.  They almost always had two elements which made them successful:  (1) they were swashbuckling adventures based on novels by (bad) author Rafael Sabatini;  and (2) they almost always involved, Pirates!  These large scale sea going action spectaculars like “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Black Swan” (1942), “The Sea Hawk” (1940), and the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) were all big hits.  However, maybe the best of the bunch, and a pretty good lampooning of the genre as well was “The Crimson Pirate” (1952).

“Pirate” starred Burt Lancaster as Captain Vallo a Caribbean buccaneer ably assisted by his mute lieutenant Ojo (Nick Cravat) who, after capturing a frigate of the King’s navy, strikes a bargain with the King’s special envoy onboard to capture a rebel leader on a nearby island for a large reward.  Of course, whenever you make a bargain with the principal “bad guy” at the beginning of any film you should know that it is not a particularly good idea.  From that point on we are off and running with more double and triple crosses, acrobatic swordplay and action sequences, and more mugging for the camera by both Cravat and Lancaster who must have had a case of lockjaw from how much grinning he did throughout the entire picture.

For anyone who didn’t already know, Lancaster and Cravat were long-time close friends who, before either became actors, were top notch acrobats and trapeze artists that performed in the circus.  Lancaster and Cravat did nine movies together and because Cravat had a thick Brooklyn accent he played a mute (which maybe Tony Curtis should have done when he co-starred with Douglas in “The Vikings”).  For “Pirate” they both did their own stunts and they are a sight to behold.  They look like they are moving at a different speed than anyone else and the outrageous storyline is no barrier to the overall fun.  They are ably assisted by director Robert Siodmak who originally gave Lancaster his big break in the role that made him a star in the noir classic, “The Killers” (1946).  Here Siodmak directs in a fast, semi-sloppy, frantic style which fits the silliness to a T.  If you are looking for seriousness and historical accuracy, well, this ain’t the place to find it.  However, if you are looking for the most childish fun you may ever have watching a film, this is it!

During the “Age of Sail” another popular subject for films were different stories about British warfare against the French.  Good movies like “Billy Budd” (1962), “Damn the Defiant” (1962), and “Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World” (2003) all popularized this specific type of seafaring action adventure.  However, if I have to pick just one to recommend above all the rest, well then I’d have to select “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951).  Author C.S. Forester’s popular series of novels were perfect for dramatization [a later series of “Hornblower” TV movies starring Ioan Gruffudd were also dramatized to popular acclaim (1998-2003)].  However, this movie is terrific in its own right.   Originally, for Hornblower, a number of actors such as Errol Flynn (too much of a burned out troublemaker) and Burt Lancaster [With a British accent (???), Yeah, right!] were considered and dropped.  Briefly, even Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were considered for the film (now that would have been a great team-up) but it never materialized.  Ultimately, Gregory Peck got the role with Virginia Mayo as his love interest.

C.S. Forester adapted three of his books for the film and Raoul Walsh directed.  Unfortunately, there were problems with Walsh’s direction.  According to Peck, Walsh seemed to lack interest in directing acting scenes involving dialogue and it showed in the performances of nearly everyone in the film.  Peck, while certainly looking the part, comes across as somewhat wooden in his performance and Mayo, while pretty, shows little dramatic range here.  However, if there was one thing that Walsh could always do really well was exciting action scenes.  Here it really shows in battle sequences when Hornblower’s smaller outgunned ship takes on a much bigger adversary and later on when his ship sails into an enemy harbor to attack a group of French ships.  Walsh is also ably assisted with spectacular cinematography by the great Guy Green and this film, despite Walsh’s fumbling with the actors, was a big hit and is still regarded highly to this day.

The last group of films that I want to discuss regarding transportation across water are, well not necessarily across on top of the water but rather, underwater!  You have numerous genres of films concerning transportation underwater such as:

(1)  Science Fiction:

  •  “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) with Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre and winning Oscars for art direction and special effects, (and you’ll never look at eating calamari the same way after seeing this film).
  •  “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961) with Walter Pidgeon and Peter Lorre (he must really like being underwater) along with a later successful TV series (1964-68) which I used to call “Voyage to the Bottom of the RATINGS” (because it was cheap, stupid, and generally awful).
  •  “Waterworld” (1995) with Dennis Hopper and fake merman Kevin Costner and the most expensive bad movie ever made at the time (the budget sunk, and Costner’s acting stunk!).
  •  “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) with Stephen Boyd and Raquel (the Mannequin) Welch and also winning Oscars for art direction and special effects (and it is kind of underwater)!

(2)  Espionage:

  •  “Thunderball” (1965) with Sean Connery and (does it matter) and winner of the Oscar for best special effects.  One of the best and most successful “Bond” films of all time (even though it looked like his toupee was about to come off underwater).
  •  “Ice Station Zebra” (1968) with Rock Hudson (Bad), Patrick McGoohan (Good), and Jim Brown (What the F*&k) on a rescue mission to the North Pole.  Best film scene is when the surfaced sub sends a rescue team on a dangerous trek to the Arctic station in a blinding ice storm.  Otherwise, skip the rest and just read the book.
  •  “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) with Sean Connery and Alex Baldwin (before he got old and fat) assisting Connery to defect with his Russian sub.  Actually this is a top notch suspense film.
  •  “Crimson Tide” (1995) with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington on opposite sides of a mutiny onboard their sub over an order to fire their missiles at Russia.  Despite the movie’s title sounding like the name of an updated brand of laundry detergent, this is also a really good movie too!

(3)  World War II:

  •  “The Frogmen” (1951) with U.S. frogmen fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.  With Richard Widmark.
  •  “The Silent Enemy” (1958) with British frogmen fighting Italian forces in the Mediterranean.  With Laurence Harvey.
  •  “Destination Tokyo” (1943) with Cary Grant fighting to maintain his suntan while leading his sub into Tokyo harbor on a spy mission.
  •  “Operation Petticoat” (1959) with Cary Grant fighting to not only save his suntan, but to also transport 5 female pinup nurses and his “pink” (!!!) submarine to safety (Yes folks, this one is actually a comedy!).
  •  “The Enemy Below” (1957) with Robert Mitchum vs. Curt Jurgens as a U.S. destroyer Captain vs. a German U-boat Captain hunting each other in the Atlantic.  Terrific action suspense film and Oscar winner for best special effects.
  •  “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958) with Clark Gable vs Burt Lancaster in a battle of wills (and scowls) onboard a sub with (Ahab) Gable obsessed in hunting the Japanese destroyer that sank his former sub.  This is another terrific film anchored by two powerhouse performances (even if they both hated each other’s guts during filming).

As you can see, the list of films involving transportation underwater is almost as numerous as those films on top of the water.  Anyway, I hope that you all enjoyed this post and I also hope that you can all keep your heads above water during these trying times.

(OK!  OK! I know it was a cheesy pun but Hey, it did fit this post!)

NLP

 

Up, Up, and Away! (Part One)

“Look Up in the Sky!”

“It’s a Bird!”

“It’s a Plane!”

“It’s SUPERMAN!”

(Various nobodies speaking at the beginning of the TV show, “Adventures of Superman”)

Transportation!  The going from one location to another for some purpose.  A very simple action which is sometimes caused by complex reasons is what I will be discussing for the next three upcoming posts.  This first post will discuss aviation which has been used in many different ways going back to the beginning of motion pictures.  All the way back in 1902, French director Georges Melies made the short silent film, “A Trip to the Moon” which, although it was only 9 to 18 minutes long, was an international success and was very loosely based on a pair of Jules Verne novels which chronicled a trip to the moon.  It is mostly remembered now for the memorable scene where a (toy) spaceship hits the Man in the Moon’s eye (which looks like something in a schlockmeister Ed Wood film).

Since travel in the air was so new back then, films involving flight that had major success were for things like World War I war films.  The very first Oscar winning Best Picture was for the movie, “Wings” (1927) directed by William A. Wellman.  It was a straight romantic action movie (the two guys in love with the same girl story) with a little thing called WWI getting in the way.  It was memorable for the realistic air combat sequences which were brilliantly directed by the underrated and great Wellman who had actual air combat experience in WWI.  From that point on, numerous WWI air combat films broke out like “Hell’s Angels” (1930), “The Dawn Patrol” (1930), and “The Eagle and the Hawk” (1933).

With each war came new combat aviation films.  WWII had movies like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944), “A Guy Named Joe” (1943), and “God Is My Co-Pilot” (1945) for example.  However, after the war years films involving air combat started to explore the human cost of warfare rather than just jingoistic portrayals during the war years in films like “Command Decision” (1948) and, maybe, the best of them all, “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949).

“High” starred Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage who takes over a demoralized air command and improves their morale and performance while the dangerous strain of command and air combat slowly wears him down just like it did his predecessor.  Except for the beginning and the very end of the film there is no music score.  Also, all of the air combat scenes were from actual black and white combat footage shot from both Allied and Luftwaffe cameras to heighten realism.  This film has been cited by veterans of the heavy bomber campaign and by others in the military as the only Hollywood film to accurately capture their combat experiences.  It was also widely used in both the military and civilian worlds to teach the principles of leadership and was required viewing for all of the U.S. service academies and various other U.S. training facilities/schools for years afterwards.  The movie is anchored by Gregory Peck’s towering Oscar nominated performance and the fine direction by Henry King (who also should have been Oscar nominated).  I have said for years that this movie was one of the three greatest movies of WWII that was made during the nineteen forties and that from the period of 1945 to 1950 Gregory Peck and John Garfield were the two finest working actors in America.

With the following decades aviation war films fluctuated between more patriotic  Korean and Vietnam war films like “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954), “The Hunters” (1958) and “Flight of the Intruder” (1991) for example before devolving into more pure jingoistic far right pap like “Firefox” (1982) (AKA “Dirty Harry” in a cockpit) or “Top Gun” (1986) (AKA “Risky Business” at Mach 6).  However, other movies about aviation covered more sophisticated and character driven storylines (and they didn’t even have to be war films either).

One such popular aviation movie storyline is when either an airplane or a commercial airliner with a number of various individuals onboard is thrown into crisis when potential or actual in-flight disaster strikes.  Films like “Five Came Back” (1939), “Island in the Sky” (1953), and “Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) explored these different types of dilemmas.  However, one in particular was the granddaddy of them all and it pioneered all future airplane and overall disaster movies ever since.  That movie, which was a huge box-office hit, was “The High and the Mighty” (1954).  John Wayne, cast against type, had the lead (Spencer Tracy had previously turned it down) as a former captain now a veteran first officer on a DC-4 flight from Honolulu to San Francisco when an engine problem occurs that could mean the plane’s destruction.  What made this movie special was, not just the technical side of aviation and the people involved, but rather the exploring of individual passengers’ storylines along with the overall suspense of the situation itself.  Although the movie is dated now, it still holds up reasonably well thanks to the fine direction by, once again, director William A. Wellman who knew how to direct movies about aviation better than anyone.  As I mentioned, “Mighty” was basically the template for all future aviation disaster themed films such as “Zero Hour!” (1957), “The Crowded Sky” (1960), “Airport” (1970), along with other non-aviation disaster themed films.  Fun fact:  Robert Stack, who gave a fine performance as the captain in “Mighty”, years later lampooned himself as the captain in the satirical disaster aviation picture, “Airplane!” (1980).

Another category of aviation films were character driven studies of individuals under pressure who worked in aviation or did research or investigation of aviation issues.  The comedy drama, “Pushing Tin” (1999) explored the competition between two air traffic comptrollers (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) while highlighting the extreme stress of the job itself.  The drama, “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) had James Stewart as an eccentric researcher who, while analyzing the reason for an aviation crash in Canada, theorizes that it was due to metal fatigue after a certain number of flight hours (an actual undiagnosed early issue with commercial jet aviation).  When later traveling on a similar type of airliner he takes drastic action after discovering that his plane passed the same number of flight hours that caused the other airliner to crash.  A more recent film, “Flight” (2012) had Denzel Washington as an airline pilot with serious substance abuse issues who, after his airliner suffers an in-flight mechanical failure, makes a miraculous crash landing which saves almost all of the passengers but later exposes his personal problems for critical review.  All of these films are pretty good but one I particularly want to mention, even though it was a critical and a box office failure, is the movie, “Fate is the Hunter” (1964).

“Fate” starred Glenn Ford as airline executive Sam McBane who is tasked with investigating a fatal airline crash that occurred shortly after take off killing everyone onboard except for an airline stewardess (Susanne Pleshette) at the very beginning of the film.  Early suspicion centers on airline pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor), a larger than life playboy type who was a close long-time friend of McBane and was seen in a bar possibly drinking an hour before the flight.  The investigation involves flashbacks to different moments in Savage’s life with both McBane as well as others who reminisce about their experiences with Savage.  As more information is uncovered, a slow portrait unfolds of a man that McBane never completely knew and of how he affected others over his lifetime.

“Fate” had a lot of problems.  Author Ernest K. Gann was a fine writer, especially for books about aviation (he wrote “Island in the Sky” and “The High and the Mighty”).  He was so angry about his novel’s adaption (justifiably so) that he demanded that his name be removed from the credits.  Although the movie had an all star cast, no one other than Taylor (in flashback) and Ford had substantial screen time.  Also, Glenn Ford was a bad choice for the lead role (they originally wanted Charlton Heston).  Ford always had very little dramatic range as an actor other than too often looking either frustrated, perplexed or generally pissed off.  In “Fate” he sort of acts like someone with a bad case of jock itch.  Lastly, Director Ralph Nelson was known for small intimate character driven dramas (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”, “Lilies of the Field”, etc.) not anything involving large scale action or a large cast.  So why do I want to (sort of) praise this movie?  Well let me explain.

Despite Nelson’s inadequacies as a Director, he definitely could elicit (except for Ford) fine performances from his fellow actors like Wally Cox, Dorothy Malone, Nancy Kwan, Mark Stevens, Susanne Pleshette, and especially, Rod Taylor.  Taylor never became a major film star but he could actually act and in Jack Savage he gave the performance of his career.  With each flashback, you learn more and more about this man and what makes him tick.  He reveals a quiet contemplative inner self to others as a really decent, brave, and supportive human being behind the outward façade.  That is ultimately the heart and soul of the film.  The mystery of why the plane crashed is a good one and when it is solved, it puts an end to the story of someone who touched a number of different individuals’ lives all for the better.  With “Fate is the Hunter,” if look past the outer façade, you just might find an unexpected gem.

Lastly, commercial aviation could also be utilized for action, crime, horror, terrorism, and even humor (unintentional or otherwise) in films.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that many of these films were any good.  For example, some of these winners (not) were dogs like:

(1) “Turbulence” (1997) with Ray Liotta as a psycho rapist killer (bet he has a great Tinder profile) on an airliner terrorizing lone flight attendant Lauren Holly after almost everyone is killed.

(2) “Passenger 57” (1992) with Wesley Snipes as a retired U.S. Secret Service Agent (of course) on a airliner also carrying a captured psycho international terrorist (of course) escaping custody in flight due to his gang of terrorists on board freeing him (of course) which requires Snipes to save the day (also, of course)!  As an aside, I especially like how Snipes has a final fist fight with the terrorist while there is a gapping hole in the fuselage with people being sucked out and neither Snipes nor the terrorist is either sucked out or pass out from cabin decompression.  However, you may wish that you passed out if you made the mistake of watching this piece of dreck.

(3) “Snakes on a Plane” (2006) with Samuel (Anything for a Buck) Jackson as an F.B.I. agent escorting a murder witness on an airliner to testify at a trial in L.A. when (Surprise!  Surprise!) a whole butch of poisonous snakes are let loose in flight to kill everyone and crash the plane (Oh, the Horror)!  Now if they only would have changed the storyline to the snakes being released on a flight of passengers going to a Chevy Chase Film Festival, I would have paid good money to see that!

(4)  “Flight of the Living Dead” (2007) with basically, nobody except maybe ex-Dinner Theatre rejects, starring as assorted victims/zombies/food, etc. fighting to survive when a zombie outbreak occurs on a trans-Atlantic flight (Boy, TSA Pre-Check sure blew that one)!

However, there have been a few really good ones too.  Two that I want to mention are “Executive Decision” (1996) and “Non-Stop” (2014).  “Executive Decision” stars Kurt Russell as David Grant, a U.S. Army Intelligence consultant who is tasked to be a part of a military Special Ops team led by Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (Steve Seagal) to retake a hijacked trans-Atlantic flight heading to Washington D.C.  The terrorist group onboard is believed to have a highly toxic nerve agent bomb which will be detonated over U.S. airspace causing mass casualties.  The team will be transported to the airliner by a smaller experimental aircraft which will attach itself secretively under the airliner letting the Ops team have access into the airliner to overpower the terrorists.

I have said many times that the absolutely toughest movie to make really well is an “action” movie.  Too often the action is unbelievable or stupid;  the characters are undeveloped or cardboard usually due to a weak script;  the plot is unbelievable;  there is no real suspense;  and the overall acting and direction is awful.  “Decision” is a rare exception.  First time Director Stuart Baird does not focus on the action as much as on the “suspense” and it works marvelously.  When there is action, it is exciting, believable, and not overdone.  While the feasibility of an aircraft attaching itself to another airliner seems farfetched, Baird’s direction is so smooth that it doesn’t seem to matter.  The plot is exciting with numerous unexpected twists which ratchet up the suspense even more.  The script is tight, well developed, and provides rare depth into the characters.  Russell is believable as an out of his depth civilian who uses his brain rather than brawn to help the team.  Other actors such as John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, David Suchet, and others give fine performances too.  Most surprising of all, somehow Baird got an actual performance out of Steve Seagal who was only in the movie briefly before he flies off (literally) from the scene.  Anytime someone can get an actual performance out of an obnoxious, no talent jerk like Steve Seagal (even though he was nominated for a Razzie Award for his performance) I have to tip my cap to that person.  Mr. Baird, you done good!

“Non-Stop” stars Liam Neeson as Bill Marks, an alcoholic U.S. Air Marshall on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York City to London.  While in flight he receives a text message on his secure phone supposedly by someone onboard threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specific bank account.  Marks breaks protocol by making contact with a second Air Marshall onboard, the airliner Captain and, ultimately, a TSA agent by his cell phone explaining the threat.  Ultimately, Marks discovers through TSA that the bank account is registered under Marks own name and now he is their prime suspect (talk about having a lousy day at the office…).

Liam Neeson has had a mid-life career resurrection ever since he did the movie “Taken” (2008) which was a colossal hit.  Ever since, he has played a series of middle-aged tough guys which have either ranged from awful (“Taken 2”, “Taken 3” and “The Commuter”), to OK (“A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “Cold Pursuit”), to very good like “Unknown” (2011), “The Grey” (2012), “Run All Night” (2015), and, of course, both “Taken” and “Non-Stop”.  Neeson has the unique ability to always make his characters sympathetic with an everyman quality about them while at the same time projecting an air of toughness mixed with vulnerability.  In “Non-Stop” all of these traits are at play which helps to mask a storyline that’s, let’s be real, just a little bit far-fetched (I’m being kind).  He is helped by Director Jaume Collet-Serra who also directed him to good affect in “Unknown” and “Run All Night”.  Collet-Serra’s direction keeps the movie moving right along while keeping the focus on Neeson at all times.  In so doing you almost do not notice the gaps of logic in the storyline or the almost criminal non-development of characters in the film played by such fine actors as Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, and Lupita Nyong’o.  The suspense and action scenes in the film are excellent too with maybe the greatest closed door airplane lavatory fistfight between two men in motion picture history (of course it also might be the only one too)!  If you like a pulpy good action suspense movie with some good acting by the lead, then just stop and see “Non-Stop” (You know I just had to say that, don’t you)!

NLP

 

 

 

The Big Bad!

Verbal:  “Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.”  [Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects” (1995)] 

Villains!  Evil Doers!  Bad Guys!  Monsters!  These are staples in all forms of art especially for movies and TV.  An antagonist must be confronted for good to triumph.  Whether it be Godzilla doing his version of Urban Renewal with his radioactive Bad Breath French frying Tokyo or Meryl Streep as The Boss From Hell slicing her subordinates throats with a tongue sharper than a razor blade in “The Devil Wears Prada”, Evil is to be feared.  This month’s post will discuss bad guys (or gals).  However, it will not go into just the general category of bad guys.  I will discuss a sort of sub-category of bad guys.  That category is something that I have labeled “The Big Bad”.

This type of so called “bad guy” is someone (or something!!) that you do not actually see for most of a film or Cable or TV show but you know about or see their effect or presence beforehand which elicits foreboding, fear, unease, and terror along with general all around suspense until they finally make their presence known.  Such villains are in horror films, monster films, crime films of every shape and size, and other types of films  but, I feel, that some of the best ones are those where you do not really see this object of evil until very late but their exploits are already so pronounced previously that when they finally do appear, you are already dreading what they are about to do next.

One of the best examples of this is the unseen criminal mastermind whose previous misdeeds set the story in motion.  Two of the better ones (and on an international level) are the films “Cornered” (1945) and “To the Ends of the Earth” (1948) which both starred Dick Powell.  Dick Powell was originally a 1930s star in boyish, musical, romantic comedies where he sang and danced.  However, by 1944 he wanted to completely change his career.  He just turned 40, his boyish good looks were gone, the sappy musicals that he did were passe, and he just went through his second divorce.  He wanted to take on serious dramatic roles so he pushed to do tough guy film noirs along with other types of hard drama.  And he succeeded in a big way when he played Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in the Noir classic, “Murder My Sweet” (1944) which was a big hit.  From that point on, his new career took off and with that change he made “Cornered” a year later.

“Cornered” has Powell as Lawrence Gerard, an ex-Canadian RAF fighter pilot hunting Jarnac, the man who ordered the execution of his 20 day old bride who was a member of the French Resistance and who he married shortly after he was shot down in Vichy France.  Jarnac, a French collaborator, managed to keep his identity secret from everyone while committing numerous crimes with the Nazi occupiers.  Gerard chases his quarry all the way to Buenos Aires where more twists and double dealing ensue.  The mysterious Jarnac is never shown until the very end and his ties to a secretive world wide Fascist organization makes the paranoia and suspense all encompassing.  Powell’s earnest performance, the fine screenplay with an uncredited assist by the great Ben Hecht, fine direction by Edward Dmytryk (who previously directed Powell in “Murder My Sweet”), and a brief powerful performance by (the actor playing Jarnac) make this movie well worth watching (you didn’t think I’m going to reveal who he was, do you?).

“To the Ends of the Earth” has Powell as a US Narcotics Agent who goes on the hunt for the head of an international narcotics ring after a freighter suspected of smuggling drugs escapes into international waters.  This thriller takes Powell almost completely around the world where he works with numerous international law enforcement officials as they confront different members of the drug ring who almost always commit suicide rather than be captured for fear of the retribution they might receive from their powerful ring leader.  Once again, you never discover who the drug kingpin really is until the very end of the film.  Crime movies in the late 40s liked to use real locations and be directed in a semi documentary style to heighten authenticity while also obtaining the cooperation of different law enforcement organizations at times.  Unfortunately, in this particular film’s case it had a tendency to reduce the suspense and drag down the overall action.  It also didn’t help that the Director was Robert Stevenson of future “Absent-Minded Professor” and “Mary Poppins” fame.  Despite his inadequacies the film is still enjoyable in a pulpy way and the big reveal at the end (although a little ridiculous) still doesn’t totally spoil the fun.  However, maybe Powell could have saved time by just following Fred MacMurray in his flying jalopy and Mary Poppins flying through the air when they were acting as drug mules for the drug kingpin instead of running all the F*&k around the world.

Two other more recent crime films with an evil mastermind that you never truly discover who their real identity is until the very end are “The Usual Suspects” (1995) and “Slow Burn” (2005).  “Suspects”, the more successful of the two films, is a re-telling by one of two survivors of a massacre of 27 people during a fire on a freighter docked at the Port of Los Angeles.  That survivor “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) recounts through flash back and narration to a U.S. Customs Investigator (Chazz Palminteri) how it happened, how his fellow bunch of four criminals, now deceased, came to be involved; and how they were basically threatened by a mysterious, terrifying, and unidentifiable international criminal mastermind named Keyser Soze (who they unwittingly stole from) into destroying the ship’s cargo of drugs which was owned by a competing criminal organization.  Soze is not seen but Kint’s recollections of tales of Soze’s frightening brutality and evil permeates the entire film.  When one of his four criminal partners flees and is immediately mysteriously killed along with others later on suffering the same fate you feel like there is nowhere that you can escape or hide from this almost supernatural monster.  The complex original screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and a spectacular performance by Spacey won both of them Oscars and made the name Keyser Soze synonymous with pure evil.

“Slow Burn” revolves around an investigation by big city DA and potential mayoral candidate Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) of his assistant DA and sometime lover Nora (Jolene Blalock) after she confesses to killing an attacker named Isaac (Mekhi Phifer) in self-defense while he was assaulting her.  However, when an associate of Isaac tells Ford that she is lying and when Ford discovers evidence that she may be tied in with a mysterious unidentifiable gang leader named Danny who has a criminal empire across eleven cities, Ford starts to worry that his mayoral chances, along with his life may be at risk.  This film version of a mysterious criminal mastermind in charge is a little different in that, along with the unreliable narration and flashbacks to prior events, the actual identity of the criminal mastermind may not even be who is actually pulling the strings.  This movie was panned by critics, performed poorly, and had production problems which delayed its release for 4 years.  However, the complex storyline anchored by fine performances by Liotta, Blalock, Phifer, and others along with the surprise reveal(s) at the end make this film worth seeing despite some overall problems in logic.

Another type of Big Bad is the ever dependable, always reliable, and ever popular serial killer.  This stereotype has been around forever and is always popular with the movie going audiences.  From “Scream” and other slasher movies to adaptions of Agatha Christie novels like “And Then There Was None,” the mysterious disturbed killer who is killing a number of people until they are vanquished in the end is always a treat if done well.  Some of the better earlier film versions of this genre were “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Follow Me Quietly” (1949) where our psycho was either killing disabled women, or just people who were considered generally worthless or immoral.  More recently, we have had good versions of this sort of film.  One of the best (even if it was borderline gruesome) was “Seven” (1995).

“Seven” starred Morgan Freeman as soon to retire Detective William Somerset who is partnered with David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young idealistic detective new to the city.  They are hunting an unknown John Doe serial killer who is inspired by the “seven deadly sins” and who murders individuals in graphic and horrific ways to mimic a specific one of the sins.  Director David Fincher with expert assistance by cinematographer Darius Khondji directs the film in a distorted way which captures brilliantly the distorted and disturbed world that a diseased mind would inhabit.  The city where the story takes place is dirty, dark, depressing and perpetually raining.  The killer (I won’t mention who it is either) is every bit as terrifying as the carnage he has previously wrought even if he seems calm, unemotional, and unthreatening in manner.  Although this Big Bad appears a little earlier before our eyes then at the very end of the movie (around 90 minutes in) he takes over the movie from that point on and never let’s it go.  If you do not mind a dark film with a downbeat ending, then “Seven” is a great movie.

Sometimes, a Big Bad does not even have to be human.  Two prime examples are the movies, “The Thing” (1951) and “Curse of the Demon” (1957).  “The Thing” was based on a S/F novella written by John W. Campbell, Jr. and the film version was about a group of Air Force crew and Arctic scientists forced into a fight for survival against an escaped alien life form from a destroyed flying saucer while they are trapped at a remote Arctic research outpost during a major snowstorm.  The novella really wasn’t very good and the Alien was originally a shape shifter that could take on the identities of the living things that it killed.  Because of budget constraints they decided that the Alien would just be a huge humanoid plantlike being and because the make-up was unable to hold up to close scrutiny no close-ups of the creature were shown.  This resulted in the creature never being actually seen except in darkness and shadow (and for a brief moment when a door is opened earlier in the film).  In the final confrontation at the end of the film you finally get to see the creature (in semi-darkness) and it turns out to be acted by James Arness  (Yep, Marshall Dillon as a Giant Carrot).  The film is great fun and still much better than its remakes made many years later.  It definitely is still scary and is also a favorite of the skeleton crew at the South Pole Telescope station to this day (I’m not kidding)!

“Curse of the Demon” starred Dana Andrews as John Holden, a psychologist arriving in Britain to attend a symposium denouncing witchcraft and Satanism as a fraud belief, and especially, by the practitioners of a cult led by a Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis).  Unfortunately, before his arrival the head of the symposium is shown being killed by a monstrous Demon after failing to have Karswell stop the imminent attack.  Now Holden is the new head of the symposium and the next target for elimination.

“Demon” had a checkered history from the very beginning.  Screenwriter Charles Bennett owned the rights to the story but sold them to hack producer Hal Chester.  Then Director Jacques Tourneur was brought in to direct.  Tourneur had a great track record of directing a number of low budget black and white horror films for RKO Studios such as “Cat People” (1942) and “The Leopard Man” (1943).  He used darkness, shadows, and the power of suggestion in the viewer’s mind to induce fear, unease, and terror while showing almost no actual violence at all or even the actual thing that was causing such concern.  Tourneur, Bennett, and Andrews all had big problems with Chester and Andrews finally threatened to walk out if Chester kept meddling with the film.  Unfortunately, Chester made one change that seriously harmed the movie.  He immediately showed the monster at the very beginning.

Originally Bennett and now Tourneur wanted to leave it as a question as to whether the Demon actually existed or not.  At the very least Tourneur wanted to not show the monster till the very end while slowly ratcheting up the psychological suspense, fear, and dread as time is slowly running out for Holden to save himself.  He was still able to develop this unseen “Big Bad” through the rest of the film until it was re-revealed to terrifying affect at the very end even though it was seen at the movie’s beginning.  He is helped by fine performances by Andrews as the skeptic who is slowly convinced that the supernatural is actually real and, especially, by MacGinnis as someone who seems to be a placid, almost jovial, intellectual gentleman who dotes on children and his kindly mother while really hiding his own monstrous intentions.  As the years have gone by, this movie has gotten better and better with age even with it’s poor beginning.

My last example of a “Big Bad” and one of the greatest films ever made was for a Western.  You do not see the “Big Bad” outlaw until near the end.  Evidence is shown everywhere of how this outlaw and his gang had, in the past, affected everyone in this town that he terrorized.  His opponent, a US Marshall and a team of Deputies, ultimately captured and brought him to justice where he was tried and convicted.  Unfortunately, the verdict was overturned.  Now he is coming back for revenge and this time the Marshall does not have his Deputies available or anyone else to help him.  And he is coming in on the train with his gang waiting for him at the train station in a little over an hour.  Does this ring any bells Dear Reader?

Yeah, you and everybody knows that the picture is “High Noon”!

There are so many things great about this film that I do not know where to begin.  However, one of the many great things is how the film is basically shot in almost real time (which wasn’t the intention originally) which ramped up the tension and suspense due to spectacular direction by Fred Zinnemann.  Oscar winner Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane wore little or no make-up on his face to help show his fear over the upcoming showdown along with the rejection of all of his supposed friends to help him.  Cooper also was unwell at the time due to a bad back and a bleeding ulcer which added to his look of discomfort and unease.  The constant editing of the pendulum of a wall clock with time running out until the Noon day train’s arrival to close-ups of the faces of everyone from the different town people showing fear, shame, concern or anticipation mixed in with either the faces of outlaw Frank Miller’s gang or Kane’s wife or Kane’s former girlfriend just ratchets up the tension even more.  “Noon” won additional well earned Oscars for film editing (Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad) and music score (Dimitri Tiomkin) and it should have won many other awards (but that’s another story).  However, if I have to have one real quible with this great film it’s with what this Blog post is all about:  “The Big Bad” here is a Big Letdown!

Outlaw Frank Miller was played by actor Ian MacDonald.  MacDonald was a veteran character actor who usually played cops, criminals, cowboys, outlaws, and assorted bit roles (Fun fact:  Both MacDonald and Cooper were originally from Montana).  However, his portrayal of Miller was a disappointment.  As Frank Miller, he definitely had the physical presence along with a sneering pot marked face that could definitely show menace.  However, from the entire buildup of the Miller character in the movie up till when you finally see him you were expecting so much more.  The townspeople are terrified of Miller.  Someone previously mentioned that Miller is “crazy” and one of the few people that want to help Kane is an old drunk with an eye-patch (a previous souvenir from “crazy” Frank Miller maybe?).  At noon, Miller exits the train and Zinnemann shoots the scene from Miller’s back so you do not yet see his face.  You can surmise that he is intelligent because he is unarmed, disguised almost like a businessman or a “dude”, and from how his gang members originally traveling from different geographic locations meet up just outside of the town and immediately ride a short distance to it’s train station to await Miller’s imminent arrival (he planned it very well).    When he exits the train his gang rushes up to greet him where he then takes off his dude coat and puts on his guns which his gang held for him.  At that moment both Kane’s wife and Kane’s former lover (who was also once Miller’s former lover too) arrive at the train to leave town which is when Miller looks up at them and you can see his full face for the first time.

It is cold and lifeless with a slight sneer.  Beyond that, there is nothing else.  Miller’s character never radiates insanity, or explosive anger or unpredictablity, or really much of anything.  Supposedly, other actors originally proposed to play Miller were Walter Brennan or Ward Bond.  Bond had the physical size to be threatening but couldn’t convey the psychotic side while Brennan could convey the psychotic side but he was not physically large enough to be as threatening.  Over all of these years I’ve wished that when you see Miller’s face for the first time you could have seen Lee Marvin, or Robert Ryan or Jack Palance.  I guess some people were born to be bad guys while other people were naturally born to be the “BIG BAD GUY!”

NLP