Ossie Davis

The Hill (1965, Sidney Lumet)

The Hill is quite a few things–Sidney Lumet doing another stage adaptation, almost in real time, a la Twelve Angry Men, a prison drama, a race drama, a military drama, and an example of a decent Sean Connery performance (not a particularly good one, but a decent one). It’s incredibly contrived–desert British prison camp in World War II, new prison officer comes along the same day Connery arrives along with four other men, who aren’t split up. The guards heckle Ossie Davis for being black, get in to with Connery because he struck a superior officer, and tease the soldier who wants to go home to his wife. The other two new prisoners are just there to hang around. Over the present action of the film, a day and a half, one prisoner dies and the entire power structure gets threatened by all these elements brought conveniently together for a hundred and twenty minutes.

A good deal of the film is deceptively good, until it becomes clear the present action is going to take place in that practical real time. Lumet’s direction is fantastic as well. Starting the film, I thought how it’d be funny if it were Connery cast against leading man-type… unfortunately, it is and the film quickly descends into a common (relatively) innocent prisoner against sadistic prison guard, without doing anything more interesting than setting it in the British army.

All of the performances are quite good (except Michael Redgrave, who spends his screen-time looking confused)–Harry Andrews in particular–but when the film goes off track, fitting so many consequential events into such a short period, it’s impossible for it to recover. The screenwriter (who adapted his own play) doesn’t just have a dumb plot, he has incredibly careless dialogue–one of the men says goodbye to Connery and says something about suggesting they’d known each other for a long time… instead of thirty-eight hours or so.

Ossie Davis is the best in the film; he gets the most interesting action after a while–once the script turns Andrews into a caricature, after almost promising he was going to remain a character throughout–and many of Davis’s scenes are a joy to watch. Because Connery is visibly against type, intentionally against type, he doesn’t really have a character to work with. He needs to remain mysterious, to draw attention to himself for not being a leading man. The result is his performance not being as good as it could have been. He has some real potential in a few scenes, but again, the script’s more concerned with being a momentous condemnation of the British military mindset.

By the end, almost everything interesting has been drained from The Hill. Characters are presented, at the beginning, as being this sort of person or that and then later flipped around to get the film to the necessary conclusion. They don’t change, they aren’t revealed to have been deceiving everyone. They just flip. It’s the filmmakers are deceiving the audience, packaging their film as a social message as opposed to a narrative.

I do appreciate the film is without any musical score, but it’s not a surprise (I noticed at one point there should be one and there wasn’t), as Lumet doesn’t do anything wrong the entire time. Except, of course, not getting a decent rewrite on the script.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Ray Rigby, based on a play by Rigby and R.S. Allen; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Thelma Connell; produced by Kenneth Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sean Connery (Joe Roberts), Harry Andrews (R.S.M. Bert Wilson), Ian Bannen (Harris), Alfred Lynch (George Stevens), Ossie Davis (Jacko King), Roy Kinnear (Monty Bartlett), Jack Watson (Jock McGrath), Ian Hendry (Williams) and Michael Redgrave (M.O.).


Bubba Ho-tep (2002, Don Coscarelli)

I wanted to see Bubba Ho-Tep back when I first read about it because it sounded weird–Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis versus a mummy with Ossie Davis as JFK as his sidekick. The pairing of Davis and Campbell is weird enough–they seem at odds, style-wise, not to mention Davis is actually old while Campbell’s covered in make-up. The mummy aspect is a bit of a joke but also a bit not. It comes down to what’s so surprising about Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s not really a horror movie. It’s about old Elvis Presley in a rest home. For the first twenty minutes, Campbell isn’t even getting out of bed. He just lays there and we get a look at this feeble old man, plagued with regret.

Bubba Ho-Tep is all about Campbell’s performance. It’s great–and it’s a complete surprise, given I never think of Campbell as a particularly clever actor. His Elvis captures a basic apprehensiveness (everyone thinks he’s just an Elvis impersonator who’s confused), an obscene grandiosity (it’s Elvis) and a sincere sadness (Elvis wishing he could see his daughter). I’m not sure if Bubba Ho-Tep takes advantage of the viewer’s knowledge–the daughter stuff is sad because we know it’s Lisa Marie–but it’s exploitative. I can imagine if she saw this film, she’d be incredibly uncomfortable; the line between a fictional representation of a person who died some time ago (but didn’t) and that real person disappears from Campbell’s first second on screen. His performance is wonderful.

As the sidekick, who thinks he’s JFK (Elvis thinks he’s nuts), Ossie Davis is great, but he’s basically Ossie Davis playing a guy who thinks he’s JFK. It’s his scenes with Campbell though, where it really feels like two old men with nothing but regret and a longing to have been better men.

Don Coscarelli’s direction is restrained for the most part (there are some fast cuts to illustrate Elvis’s impaired perception) and his eye for the scenes is great. He creates this world where Campbell can be old Elvis (and there can be a mummy, but the mummy isn’t as important).

Other great things include Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse. She and Campbell’s scenes together are really nice, especially with the mood Coscarelli gives them.

Bubba Ho-Tep‘s probably the only way to tell a story about Elvis Presley alive today and have it be a successful, meaningful story. It’s good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Coscarelli; screenplay by Coscarelli, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale; director of photography, Adam Janiero; edited by Donald Milne and Scott J. Gill; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel Vecchione; produced by Jason R. Savage and Coscarelli; released by American Cinematheque.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis), Ossie Davis (Jack), Ella Joyce (The Nurse), Heidi Marnhout (Callie) and Bob Ivy (Bubba Ho-Tep).


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