United Artists

Still of the Night (1982, Robert Benton)

At the end of Still of the Night, the film puts aside the “whodunit” to give second-billed Meryl Streep—who’s playing the femme fatale part but not at all as a femme fatale—a lengthy monologue. It’s all one take, Streep just acting the heck out of this mediocre thriller monologue. It doesn’t make the film worthwhile, but it does make one wonder if it’s what writer and director Benton had in mind the whole time. Was he just setting up this moment in the preceding eighty minutes.

Because he’s definitely setting up the third act, which has lead Roy Scheider walking through the real location of a former patient’s dream. And it all being for a mediocre Streep monologue… well, it'd be something. Otherwise, Still of the Night is anti-something. And when you find out it’s a Hitchcock homage… you wonder what Benton liked about Hitchcock. Outside a blonde Streep and fifty-something Scheider’s only friend being mom Jessica Tandy. Streep’s thirty-three or so, but seems younger. Maybe because she’s introduced as Josef Sommer’s mistress and, even though Sommer’s not even fifty, he seems older. He seems like a dirty old man… because he is a dirty old man. But emphasis on the old.

Scheider’s a psychiatrist, Sommer’s his patient, who works at a New York auction house. Streep works at the auction house for Sommer and he always has affairs with his subordinates; his wife gets a lot of mention in the first act, with Streep bringing a watch Sommer left at her apartment to Scheider’s office so Scheider can return it to the wife, Sommer complaining Scheider never wants to hear about Streep, just about his bad marriage. Lots in the first act. Nowhere else.

I forgot to mention: Sommer’s dead. The picture opens with his dead body. He’s in a lot of flashback though, as Scheider reviews their old sessions and Still flashes back either to Sommer describing the events in the session or the described events themselves. Always beautifully edited; Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some lovely cutting. Sommer’s an elitist auction house snob and a poor quality human being. His description of “seducing” Streep made me wonder if anyone involved with the film in 1982 had ever thought of pairing “enthusiastic” with “consent” or if the concept would melt their minds (at the time).

Joe Grifasi, who’s thirty-eight in the film but somehow looks like he’s seventeen going on fifty-three, is the investigating detective. Scheider doesn’t give him any information about Sommer, even though he’s dead. Maybe because Sommer told him Streep killed someone once and got away with it and would she do it again. Also Sommer can’t shut up about how much he thinks Scheider would be into Streep.

It’s very, very strange. But also a lot more engaging than anything in the second half. Sommer’s a major creep, but he’s a major creep with a pulse (wokka wokka). When Tandy’s not around to liven things up, everyone seems on the verge of a nap. Scheider’s recently divorced, living in an almost empty apartment, focusing on his work; we know he’s a good guy because his first scene establishes he’s going to see a laid off white collar guy even if the guy can’t pay him. Scheider’s… not really believable as a psychiatrist successful enough to have an office even in eighties New York. Tandy’s a psychiatrist too and they get together and talk shop a couple times throughout the film. After they go over the dream sequence, which would still be somewhat creepy even if Benton didn’t… objectify a seven year-old girl, Tandy tells Scheider to call the cops but he won’t because of Streep. He’s got for the hots for her now. Their first kiss is rather uncomfortable because we’ve just seen Scheider getting all this intel on her mental state and then taking advantage of it. His unprofessional behavior is somehow even worse than the perceived age difference (Streep appearing younger, Scheider appearing possibly even older). When he complains in the third act about how he could lose his license… it’s like, yeah, Doc, you probably should.

While the first half build-up is—with qualifications—solid, the second act and its two big action sequences don’t play. Benton doesn’t have much music in the film. John Kander has a single piece they play three or four times, a very romantic piece; has nothing to do with the film or its tone. So there’s no music in the action sequences, just the gorgeous sound design. Sound design, editing, they’re where Still of the Night excels. Everything else has problems.

But having this muted vérité-style just draws attention to how absurd the action plays out. Scheider gentle stalking Streep through Central Park; great sequence, beautiful direction on it too, but it doesn’t work because Benton’s got things too firmly set in reality. Néstor Almendros’s photography plays into that footing too. Almendros does a throughly competent job in the film but in entirely the wrong style. It’s flat, plain, boring. Benton doesn’t showcase New York very much, not even the Central Park thing (which helps on this sequence), but Almendros also lights it without any personality. The lighting is off from the first scene.

The film is off from the opening titles. Lighting first scene. At some point in the film, almost everything becomes off in some way or another. Except the sound, the editing, and Jessica Tandy. Tandy’s awesome.

Maybe the reason everyone looks so dejectedly constipated in the film—save Tandy—is because they all felt it not working but no one said anything. They just made the movie and it really didn’t work, which a ninety-three minute runtime for the first picture Benton directed after winning… Best Director would certainly suggest.

Great sound though. If the third act weren’t so disappointing, I could see Still being worth it for the sound.

That Streep monologue you could just watch in a clip.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on a story by David Newman and Benton; director of photography, Néstor Almendros; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by John Kander; production designer, Mel Bourne; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by United Artists.

Starring Roy Scheider (Sam Rice), Meryl Streep (Brooke Reynolds), Jessica Tandy (Grace Rice), Joe Grifasi (Joseph Vitucci), Sara Botsford (Gail Phillip), Frederikke Borge (Heather Wilson), and Josef Sommer (George Bynum).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



It Happened Tomorrow (1944, René Clair)

At first blush—with the way too obvious exception of Jack Oakie—It Happened Tomorrow seemingly has all the parts needed for success. Seemingly. Dick Powell’s an affable lead; only the role requires no heavy-lifting, which is problematic considering he spends much of the film in one mortal danger or another. Linda Darnell’s an appealing love interest; only she gets less than squat to do in the film. Director Clair does really well with some of the sequences; only other ones he doesn’t. Powell and Darnell are at least consistent—he’s consistently affable and his role consistently requires very little, she’s consistently appealing and she consistently gets treated like scenery. Sometimes inanimate scenery. Clair’s frustratingly back and forth.

Tomorrow has some really saccharine bookends, which Clair and co-screenwriter Dudley Nichols sort of bungle. It goes on way too long, it’s never as cute as Clair seems to think, and it’s just there to manipulate audience expectation. The film then settles into the flashback setting—the late nineteenth century (as embodied by studio backlot) newspaperman Powell has just gotten his big promotion to reporter. He’s written his requisite 500 obituaries, it’s time for the front page. Only he’s nervous about it (and completely blotto); kindly newspaper archivist John Philliber talks fancifully about how if only Powell had tomorrow’s paper, he’d know what he was going to do. Powell doesn’t think much of it and goes out for more drinking, ending up at Oakie and Darnell’s magic show.

It’s love at first sight for Powell and Darnell (well, Powell anyway). Oakie’s her protective uncle, who starts the film with a bad Italian accent, which later disappears without any comment because apparently he’s not actually Italian. It never gets mentioned but it’s also not like you could tell if Oakie was doing a bad sincere Italian accent or a bad insincere one. His performance is abysmal. It must have played different in 1944 because Clair lets him crowd everyone out of his scenes with these protracted deliveries. They never amount to anything. The main plot is Powell and the future newspapers Philliber (who’s not good) ends up giving him, but the ostensible main subplot about Powell and Darnell becomes Powell and Oakie. Once Darnell gets some potential, the film dumps her back into the set dressing category.

At least guys aren’t just ogling her then.

Everyone’s ignoring her. I’m not even sure she’s in some of the shots she’s supposedly in. At one point she doesn’t get to participate in Powell trying to get rich quick because nineteenth century sexism but it’s a movie about magical newspapers so why can’t Clair and Nichols let her into the betting room?

Because there’s not enough room. Because Oakie’s already pushing Powell out.

The first half or so Tomorrow is okay build-up; the second half is constant disappointment.

Edward Brophy has a small part as the betting guy and you wish you could hug him. The film doesn’t have very many wholly successful performances, big parts or small. For example, Edgar Kennedy ought to be great as the police inspector who knows something’s up with Powell and his fortuneteller reporting-style, but it’s—again—a lousy part.

There are a couple great moments in the film. Powell and Darnell’s first date, where they get distracted by their chemistry. And when Darnell’s got to wear one of Powell’s suits. There’s some promise in that scene. Shame Darnell gets downgraded right after it.

The scene where she protests she won’t be treated like anyone’s property then somehow gets treated even worse is foreboding, but even it doesn’t foretell the excessive use of Oakie in the second half.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Helene Fraenkel, Dudley Nichols, and Clair, based on a play by Lord Dunsany and a story by Hugh Wedlock Jr. and Howard Snyder; directors of photography, Eugen Schüfftan and Archie Stout; edited by Fred Pressburger; music by Robert Stolz; produced by Arnold Pressburger; released by United Artists.

Starring Dick Powell (Lawrence Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia), Jack Oakie (Cigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson), and George Cleveland (Mr. Gordon).


This post is part of the Made in 1944 Blogathon hosted by Robin of Pop Culture Reverie.

Run Silent Run Deep (1958, Robert Wise)

Run Silent Run Deep runs a little short. Just when the film has the most potential does it sort of shrug and finish up real quick. There’s a third act reveal and it’s a good one, but it’s not good enough the movie can end on it. Especially not after it’s just had such a strong second act.

Burt Lancaster has just had a big character development moment, there’s just been an awesome special effects sequence, it’s right when Run Silent Run Deep has its most potential. The film’s never bad, though it occasionally feels a little claustrophobic, narratively speaking, but it’s been on this “can’t believe no one calls him Ahab” arc with Clark Gable for about an hour. The second act shake-up comes at just the right moment and sets up a great third arc. And the third arc is not great. It’s perfunctory, inventively so, but perfunctory. The finale lacks any impact. The big action finale doesn’t have much action, certainly not of the level in the second act set piece; Lancaster’s arc ends up going nowhere. He really had just been support for Gable the whole time.

So, Run Deep takes place during World War II. It opens with sub commander Gable’s sub getting sunk; he survives, along with some other guys but not everyone. A year later, he’s pushing pencils and playing “Battleship” with new sidekick Jack Warden. All of a sudden Warden lets it slip three other ships have gone down just where Gable’s did. A man possessed he storms over to the brass, demands a ship, gets one, which pauses executive officer Lancaster’s promotion to captain. His captain… died on their previous mission? It doesn’t come up.

Once onboard it soon becomes clear Gable’s going to hunt down Japanese ship sinking all the U.S. submarines. Run Deep teaches the sound moral, “you’ve got to be willing to die to kill.” For a brief few minutes, the film’s about the inherent righteousness of Ahab-ing. Gable’s got Lancaster convinced—though Lancaster doesn’t want to admit it. The crew doesn’t get that perk of command, however, so they’re ready to mutiny.

Lancaster and Gable are great together because they don’t like one another but Gable’s exploiting Lancaster’s ability. It’s kind of awesome, even when it’s just to kill time with montage sequences. Run Deep impresses with its special effects. The other stuff? It doesn’t worry too much. The submarine set is fine; not great. The editing—supervised by George Boemler—is awesome. The editing makes Run Deep until that end of the second act uptick.

Gable’s good. Warden’s good. Lancaster’s almost great. He’s great for a while, then his character arc falls out from under him. Worse, the third act is set to be where Gable finally gets some great material and never does. It’s a bummer. It needs to go longer. And there are places where it could’ve, but it really could have used a better action set piece in the third act than the second. If the dramatics were stronger, it’d be fine. But the dramatics aren’t stronger.

Nice supporting cast, particularly Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in a totally straight part), and Joe Maross.

Decent Franz Waxman score. Solid Russell Harlan photography. The composite shots don’t really impress but Harlan does fine with the submarine suspense stuff and it’s more important.

Wise’s direction is fine. He does really well with the action. He does better with the supporting cast than his stars, which is a problem. But there’s already that too short script. So fine.

But Run Silent Run Deep ought to be better than fine. It wastes Lancaster and Gable separately and it wastes them together.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Edward L. Beach; director of photography, Russell Harlan; editorial supervisor, George Boemler; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Harold Hecht; released by United Artists.

Starring Clark Gable (Cmdr. Richardson), Burt Lancaster (Lt. Bledsoe), Jack Warden (Yeoman 1st Class Mueller), Brad Dexter (Ens. Cartwright), Don Rickles (Quartermaster 1st Class Ruby), Nick Cravat (Russo), Mary LaRoche (Laura Richardson), and Joe Maross (Chief Kohler).



High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is a film all about courage and cowardice, so it’s appropriate the film starts with the most courageous thing it’s ever going to do and it does a few. It commits to its theme song. Not a piece of music from Dimitri Tiomkin, but a country song (written by Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Tex Ritter). It’s about the movie. It’s the story of the movie, sans specifics, from the perspective of the protagonist.

And High Noon uses the song throughout when lead Gary Cooper is walking around alone. Only the character in the song is nothing like the character in the movie so it creates this disconnect. The song lionizes, Cooper humanizes. Fits sort of perfectly in with the Western hero, which the film comments on rather quietly. High Noon is an intentional metaphor for the HUAC witch hunt. It’s all about Cooper needing help from his neighbors and his neighbors chosing their own self-interest, with a lot of excuses.

In those excuses, screenwriter Carl Foreman comes up with a great deal of transcendant material. Noon becomes not just about a person’s cowardice in HUAC, but about a community’s cowardice in general. There’s a lot of little stuff in High Noon–the film’s not even ninety minutes and it often refuses exposition–and there’s the steady theme about how greed and racism fuel self-interest. The racism comes in with Katy Jurado, who plays a Mexican businesswoman. She gets one of the four plot lines. Well, she sort of shares it with Grace Kelly but Jurado gets the better character.

Let me back up.

The film opens with the song and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef is by himself, waiting, playing with his gun or something. Just being creepy and ominous. As the song plays, the lyrics soon confirm the ominous. But Van Cleef does it on his own. Along with Zinnemann’s stark composition. The settings aren’t neccesarily stark, but Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby shoot the film with completely empty skies. It’s bright and unforgiving, intensely examining its characters.

Cooper is marshal in a developing frontier town. Thanks to him, decent women can walk the streets during the day. Not sure about night time. After Van Cleef joins up with two other villainous types–Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke–they ride into town and passed the justice of the peace where Cooper is getting married to Kelly. The song has already let us know what’s going to happen in the movie and introduced at least two characters–Cooper and wife Kelly–so the actual introduction to Cooper and Kelly is… not strange, but startling. It’s a long song. It takes Van Cleef and pals a while to get through the opening titles and into town.

The three bad guys are going to the train station to meet another bad guy. That bad guy is the one who’s going to come after Cooper. He just got out parolled from prison (“up north,” where the bleeding hearts free killers) and so he’s on his way home to kill Cooper. Or so everyone assumes.

And so the good townsfolk put Cooper and Kelly on their wagon and send them out of town. They were leaving anyway. Cooper just resigned as marshal. In addition to being half his age, Kelly’s a Quaker. No more gunfights for Cooper.

Only then Cooper decides he can’t run. So he turns back, confident the good townsfolk will help him. They’re all neighbors and friends.

The first friend to turn Cooper down is judge Otto Kruger, who hightails it. Then there’s Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell, and Lon Chaney Jr. They’re all good friends with Cooper, but none of them will help. See, the town doesn’t have enough deputies and the only other active one, Lloyd Bridges, picks that day to finally lose it.

See, Bridges is jealous of Cooper and wishes he could be Cooper but resents Cooper for his envy. Bridges wants to be the next marshal, Cooper thinks he’s too immature. Of course, Bridges has already proven his manhood by shacking up with Jurado, who had a romance with Cooper a year before. Pre-Kelly. Jurado’s aware of Bridges’s personality flaws, but apparently finds him amusing. It’s in Jurado’s performance. She has a patience with Bridges.

So Bridges isn’t going to help Cooper. Bridges has a fantastic character arc in the film. Probably the best. It culminates in a great fist fight where Zinnemann and editor Elmo Williams show off. High Noon’s fist fight is better than its gun fight, because Zinnemann’s got a reason not to glamorize the gun fight but the fist fight is fair game.

The story lines are Cooper, Bridges, Jurado and Kelly, and Van Cleef and friends. Everyone except the bad guys intersect throughout the film, which is fairly real time and has Cooper trying to find people to help him before the bad guy arrives at, well, High Noon.

And there’s the song to accompany Cooper when he’s out alone. Until it’s not there anymore. The film picks just the right time to eighty-six the song and let Cooper’s performance take over. And it’s no different in how it handles Cooper, other than the song being gone. He’d been doing this performance the whole film. The film just decides it’s time to stop talking about Cooper and instead be about him.

And the other story lines. Though the bad guys’ waiting for the train one is pragmatic and Bridges’s masculinity one is truncated (and very nicely echoed through a lot of the rest of the town, definitely in the bar scenes), the one with Kelly and Jurado gets a lot of attention. It’s the film’s main subplot, specifically Jurado. She connects to all the characters, eventually.

Cooper’s great. A lot of his part is reactive and the film never gets too interior–Cooper’s experiencing a lot of fear, anger, and disappointment. He ought to be seething, but he doesn’t get to seethe because he’s got to be the guy in the song. The song haunts him. And hounds him.

Kelly and Jurado are good. While Kelly will break down in front of Cooper, she won’t in front of anyone else. Jurado doesn’t break down in front of anyone. So when they finally get together, Kelly and Jurado are adversarial. Only Foreman’s script has much higher ambition for the characters. It gives Jurado a great arc in the film too. Cooper and Kelly end up with the least impressive character development arcs in the picture. They still have perfectly good arcs, Foreman just concentrated on Jurado and Bridges. Because Cooper and Kelly’s arc is tied and very complicated. She doesn’t just object because he’s outnumbered and she’s a Quaker. There are things going on. With Cooper too. Their arc builds–is surface, is subtext–it even echoes.

Foreman’s script is really, really good throughout and especially on that arc.

Bridges is fantastic. Mitchell, Chaney, Morgan. They’re all good. They’re kind of cameo parts though. Kruger’s fine. He’s a lot better being a weasel than not, however.

High Noon’s great. Zinnemann, Foreman, Cooper, producer Stanley Kramer. They make something singular. And not just because they get away with that song.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a magazine story by John W. Cunningham; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Elmo Williams; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramírez), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller), Robert J. Wilke (Jim Pierce), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Martin Howe), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), and Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick).



Champion (1949, Mark Robson)

Champion is a boxing picture. It ends with a big fight, as boxing pictures are wont to do. However, as the fight starts and the film cuts between all the people Kirk Douglas’s Champion has wrong, the film isn’t asking the viewer to root for the protagonist. Douglas is a bad guy. The entire third act is about how Douglas is a bad guy. He’s an even worse guy than the film’s been establishing for almost the entire runtime.

Except it’s a boxing picture. And, at some point during that big, final fight, without the film even doing anything to make Douglas sympathetic, he gets to be the hero again. He gets to be the champion. It’s one of the film’s most successful moments, thanks to director Robson, photographer Franz Planer, editor Harry W. Gerstad, and Douglas.

Unfortunately, it can’t save the film, which meanders through most of the third act after a disappointing second. Robson and screenwriter Carl Foreman are able to keep up some energy as Douglas fights his way to the top–after romancing, marrying, and abandoning Ruth Roman–but eventually it runs out of steam. There’s a hint at a love triangle between Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, and Lola Albright. Instead, there are some decent scenes to avoid having to pursue that storyline. Almost everything in the second half of the film seems like a contrivance to position the film. Nothing Douglas does has any weight or even consequence.

Some of the problem are the players in the second half. Arthur Kennedy is his brother. Kennedy, walking with a cane, is the weaker one. He spends some time as Douglas’s conscience, but as the film goes on, gets less and less to do. Foreman’s script is interested in tearing away Douglas’s conscience–maybe even Douglas’s humanity; it just does so with some thin characters. Maxwell’s just a groupie, even though she shows business acumen. Albright’s the wife of Douglas’s manager (Luis Van Rooten in a thankless cuckold role); she starts with some depth, but then loses it due to Douglas’s animal magnetism.

And Douglas is fantastic, even when it’s obvious his ego’s in the way. He gets a monologue at the end, which Robson doesn’t know how to integrate into the rest of the film, though he and Planer do a fine enough job shooting it. Great editing again from Gerstad, who also gets to do a couple fantastic montage sequences. But Douglas is a despicable (and worse), utterly compelling protagonist. During the final fight, as it becomes clear he’s going to get the sympathy, warranted or not, requested or not, I actually resented the film a little. It’s so effectively made, it knowingly overrides the script’s intention.

Then Douglas has his well-acted but utterly misplaced monologue and all the problems of the third act catch up during the lull and it goes out on a forced note.

Fine support from Kennedy, Roman, and Albright. Maxwell just doesn’t get enough to do. Paul Stewart is great as Douglas’s trainer; Robson even lets him move the present action along three years with a voiceover in the montage sequence. It’s great stuff.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music gets to be a little much at time, but it’s always accompanying technical success so it gets a pass for the most part. Maybe if the theme weren’t so cloying.

Champion’s superbly acted, superbly made. It’s just not superbly written. Something–Douglas’s ego, Foreman’s plotting–got in the way.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner; director of photography, Franz Planer; edited by Harry W. Gerstad; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Midge Kelly), Arthur Kennedy (Connie Kelly), Paul Stewart (Tommy Haley), Ruth Roman (Emma Bryce), Marilyn Maxwell (Grace Diamond), Lola Albright (Palmer Harris), Luis Van Rooten (Jerry Harris), Harry Shannon (Lew Bryce), John Daheim (Johnny Dunne) and Esther Howard (Mrs. Kelly).



Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)

Paths of Glory takes place over four days, runs just under ninety minutes and has thirteen or so significant characters. It’s hard to identify the most significant character–Kirk Douglas’s protagonist the viewer’s way into the film, but he’s not the most significant.

The film opens with George Macready (who, along with Wayne Morris, is my vote for most significant character) and Adolphe Menjou. The film then moves on Morris’s story (with Ralph Meeker); Douglas shows up in this period too. At no point is the film’s second half, a court martial trial, forecast. Director Kubrick and co-screenwriters Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson pace the film brilliantly–everything is immediate. In the penultimate scene, when Menjou proposes to Douglas the idea of the opposite, it confounds Douglas and reveals the cognitive disconnect to the viewer.

Then Kubrick gives the viewer–and Douglas–some hope for the human race in the last scene. He handles it carefully–he and editor Eva Kroll cut Glory sublimely. There’s never a wasted moment, but Kubrick never gives the sense of being too precise or reductive. He just balances it all.

Great photography from Georg Krause.

In the lead, Douglas is fantastic. He gets a big trial scene, but his quiet seething scenes are even better. His often cautious reactions to Macready and Menjou are phenomenal. And they’re both great. Macready more, just because he gets the most to do in the film.

It’s a perfect film. Every moment is spectacular, quiet or loud.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb; director of photography, Georg Krause; edited by Eva Kroll; music by Gerald Fried; produced by James B. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), Christiane Kubrick (German Singer), Peter Capell (Chief Judge of Court-Martial), Emile Meyer (Father Dupree), Bert Freed (Sgt. Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Pvt. Lejeune) and Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol).


Last Embrace (1979, Jonathan Demme)

Last Embrace goes a long way in showing what’s wrong with Hitchcock homages. Most of Last Embrace isn’t even a real Hitchcock homage–it’s a Niagara homage and Niagara was Henry Hathaway–but Embrace is supposed to be Hitchcock, down to Miklos Rozsa’s score (but he never did any Hitchcock). So it’s kind of a second-hand Hitchcock homage, a homage to Hitchcock homages, only without being funny about it. Last Embrace shows why location shooting and accurate film stock (versus Technicolor) miss the majority of the point to the Hitchcock film. Oh, geez, I just remembered the last two references (I forgot the earlier ones, because the Niagara realization threw me). Psycho and Suspicion.

The problem with the bad Hitchcock homage is Demme, but the problem with the film overall is the screenplay. The film’s missing its denouement, sure, but it fails to tell its two stories–one, of a secret agent who has a breakdown and, two, of a man who’s on a mysterious hit list for something he doesn’t know he did. Last Embrace is from a novel and I’m sure the novel went deeper in to some of the particulars, but for the film to ignore the first plot once the second one takes over (much more entertaining, thanks to a wonderful Sam Levene). It’s a pointless ninety-seven minutes and not even an amusing experience.

Some of the acting is fantastic. Since Roy Scheider doesn’t have much to do–and he’s Cary Grant from Suspicion for the last fifteen minutes–his performance is best in pieces. Demme shoots New York beautifully and Scheider works great in New York, so it works out more often than not. Like I said above, Levene is a wonderful presence in the film and it’s impossible to imagine it without him. Janet Margolin, who I remember from nothing, is absolutely fantastic in the film. She really holds it together until Levene shows up. John Glover is–strangely–bad and annoying as an annoying professor, which is too bad.

The film runs ninety-seven minutes, but I doubt there’s a superior hundred and ten minute version out there. Demme tries to go for style above substance (or story) and when the best thing about your style is transitional shots of New York City… well, the movie’s in definite trouble. But most of the fault–there not being a main character, just someone who has different reactions to different people and different situations–falls on the script (and seeing screenwriter Shaber’s credits, Last Embrace is a singular achievement).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Demme; screenplay by David Shaber, based on a novel by Murray Teigh Bloom; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barry Malkin; music by Miklos Rosza; produced by Michael Taylor and Dan Wigutow; released by United Artists.

Starring Roy Scheider (Harry Hannan), Janet Margolin (Ellie Fabian), John Glover (Richard Peabody), Sam Levene (Sam Urdell), Charles Napier (Dave Quittle), Christopher Walken (Eckart), Jacqueline Brookes (Dr. Coopersmith), David Margulies (Rabbi Josh Drexel), Andrew Duncan (Bernie Meckler) and Marcia Rodd (Adrian).


Thieves Like Us (1974, Robert Altman)

Altman never does a film half-assed. Either it’s great or it’s shit. How one of his films can be shit is varied, but the shitty ones are always just plain… shitty. There’s no formula to figuring out how an Altman film is going to be–usually, if Altman thinks it’s shit, it’s good (M*A*S*H, The Player). Thieves Like Us is small, the big cast doesn’t occupy the running time. The main characters really are the main characters. I’ve been dreading Thieves for a few weeks now and I’m sorry I did. I probably should have checked the screenwriters. I would have felt better. Calder Willingham wrote Little Big Man, The Graduate, and Paths of Glory. I don’t know how you can get safer than him….

It’s not just the writing or the direction–Altman really likes setting a film in the 1930s, it lets him use radio programs instead of a score. That method seems very Altman-like. The cast, as they used to be in Altman films, is impeccable. Keith Carradine means little to me except his 1990s schlock work and Shelley Duvall has always just meant bad. Their romance holds the film together and it’s a wonderful little gem of a movie romance. You enjoy watching them fall in love. John Schuck and Bert Remsen are the other titular thieves and both are excellent. A pre-Cuckoo’s Nest Louise Fletcher shows up… It’s just a fantastic cast, great acting.

Of course, Thieves Like Us is not available on DVD in the US. I rented it from Nicheflix. It’s another title waiting for the rock stars at Sony to decide what to do with it (however, if they cancelled special editions of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, how high a priority is Thieves going to be?). It’s no fair, of course, since there should be at least six good Altman films available on DVD and I doubt there are….

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Calder Willingham, Joan Tewkesbury and Altman, based on the novel by Edward Anderson; director of photography, Jean Bouffety; edited by Lou Lombardo; produced by Jerry Bick; distributed by United Artists.

Starring Keith Carradine (Bowie), Shelley Duvall (Keechie), John Schuck (Chicamaw), Bert Remsen (T-Dub), Louise Fletcher (Mattie), Ann Latham (Lula) and Tom Skerritt (Dee Mobley).


The Man in the Iron Mask (1998, Randall Wallace)

Now here’s an interesting Stop Button pick. (It was the fiancée’s choice, actually). Most of what I know about Wallace’s 1998 adaptation. It knocked Titanic out of the top spot in the weekend box office… That’s it. And the preview was bad, playing up DiCaprio as… a bad guy?

The bad king and the good twin present a difficulty to turning the novel into a film (I have no idea what Dumas did, but I’ve only read The Three Musketeers and I was fifteen). The ideal, of course, would to do something similar to what Boyle did in World’s End. Wallace doesn’t do that, however. This film is also interesting because it’s from the writer of Braveheart, before he became the writer of Pearl Harbor. Oddly, for all the (undeserved) shit Pearl gets, no one ever points the finger at Wallace.

Watching Man in the Iron Mask, it’s obvious MGM didn’t do anything to it in light of DiCaprio’s Titanic success. He’s barely in the damn thing and he ranges from inoffensively bad to decent, or maybe I just got used to him as the film moved along. I cared about the character (the good twin, of course), which means he accomplished something.

But, really, besides the first and third acts, it’s all the Musketeers’ show. Played by Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Gérard Depardieu, one almost thinks Wallace intended it that way (given that DiCaprio’s most commercial venture to this point was probably The Quick and the Dead). All three are excellent and Gabriel Byrne has a few nice moments as D’Artagnan (but he’s not one of the original Musketeers, which I do remember from Dumas’ novel, which was the perception of the three through his eyes).

The Man in the Iron Mask offers no depth in the end. There are some nice moments about growing old, I suppose, but no more than something like Space Cowboys. Instead of a message, instead of any solidity, Wallace offers us the Three (Four) Musketeers kicking ass. Wallace got a really naive composer for the film, so the music sounds like the Salkind productions from the 1970s… hmm, maybe that was the point.

It’s fun to watch. Irons and Malkovich hover on hamming, but never take it up fully, and it was nice to see them resisting it in this one. Mostly, however, the film reassured me that the Salkind films might be all right, as I was planning on watching them soon.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Randall Wallace; screenplay by Wallace, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by William Hoy; music by Nick Glennie-Smith; production designer, Anthony Pratt; produced by Wallace and Russell Smith; released by United Artists.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (King Louis XIV/ Philippe), Jeremy Irons (Aramis), John Malkovich (Athos), Gerard Depardieu (Porthos), Gabriel Byrne (D’Artagnan), Anne Parillaud (Queen Anne), Judith Godrèche (Christine) and Peter Sarsgaard (Raoul).


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