Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day of the Jackal

Fred Zinnemann adapts Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973) in the weekend film recommendation that closes this month’s series of conspiracy-themed movies.

The story opens with a re-telling of the failed attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle by the OAS, a far-right group angered by Algerian independence. In frustration and desperation, the remaining OAS leadership reconvenes in Vienna to devise a new plan to take care of unfinished business. They hire an anonymous hitman, played by Edward Fox, known only by the codename “The Jackal.” The Jackal has the impossible combination of being both irrepressibly suave while also being deliberately forgettable; he can induce cooperation and compliance from anyone he chooses, but he can also fade into obscurity when circumstances demand. His suitability for the job makes him eminently worth the half million dollars he charges the OAS leadership to kill de Gaulle… “considering I’m handing you France,” he nonchalantly persuades them, “I wouldn’t call that expensive.” Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

IVBPolitical paranoia month continues with my recommendation of a film that is at once a sci-fi chiller, a B-movie classic and an utterly unnerving destruction of any ability you may have to trust the people around you. It’s the legendary original adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Made for peanuts in 1956, the film tells the story of a seemingly peaceful small California town where nothing ever happens. In the only starring role of his career, Kevin McCarthy plays town doctor Miles Bennell, who begins encountering a number of patients claiming that their loved ones are no longer who they used to be. They look exactly the same, but something’s not quite right about them. Dr. Bennell offers these worriers the standard reassurances about learning to relax, getting enough shut eye etc. It seems to work at first. The people who were once complaining soon become every bit as pleasant and vacant-looking as the loved ones they were so recently fretting over. Indeed, it is amazing how much better people feel when they just…go…to…sleep.

As strange events compound, Dr. Bennell and the woman he loves (Dana Wynter) realize that a sinister force is rapidly taking over the community and it’s almost impossible to tell who is afflicted and who is not. When they discover the extraterrestrial source of the change in the townspeople, they realize that their own lives are in danger and that it will be hard to convince anyone in the wider world that what they have seen is more than a figment of their imaginations.

My Name is Julia Ross (soon to be recommended here at RBC) is often cited as the prototype of a fine film made on a low budget; this B-movie is another sterling example of cinematic brilliance on the cheap. The only real expenses of consequence were the then ground breaking special effects. The town in which the movie was filmed — Sierra Madre — was used in its natural form; there are no fancy sets. Director Don Siegel went on to significant cinematic fame but the cast are unknowns and character actors who stayed unknowns and character actors. Producer Walter Wenger was an established figure in Hollywood, but his career was almost over when he made this movie. But none of that matters: This is grade A entertainment, loaded with suspense, shocks and solid performances.

IVB2The meaning of the story has been much debated over the years. Some have seen it as a parable about the dangers of Communist infiltration. Others see it as a warning about conformity in the era of McCarthy. I never met Jack Finney, but I know some of his close friends and members of his family. When asked, they describe him as a New Deal liberal and no one’s Red baiter. They don’t think he wrote the story as political allegory but simply as a good story.

You can certainly enjoy this nail-biter as Finney thought of it: A good story. But it also will resonate with you emotionally if ever you have been in a situation where you felt that everyone but you was in on a joke you hadn’t been told or where you felt persecuted for being different. The most disturbing thing about the film is how banal and pleasant the enemies are. Like the worst of the world’s villains, they don’t see themselves as evil. Rather, they think they are doing everyone else a favor by bringing them under their tent.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its reputation as a classic film. Don’t miss it!

p.s. Carolyn Jones who has the second female lead part here, went on to play Morticia on television’s The Addams Family.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Defence of the Realm

defence-of-the-realm-promo-16RBC’s political paranoia movie month jumps the pond this week to recommend a taut British conspiracy tale set on Fleet Street: David Drury’s 1986 thriller Defence of the Realm. The film embodies left-wing paranoia of the Thatcher years, with its deep scepticism of nuclear weapons, the US-British alliance and grey men in dark suits secretly controlling society from their Whitehall back offices and private gentleman’s clubs.

The story begins somewhat obliquely, with two juvenile delinquents fleeing the police until they come to a British airbase used by the American military (Presumably RAF Lakenheath, hint hint). One of them clambers over the fence, triggering an unexplained event that leads to an evacuation. An investigation is announced by Dennis Markham, MP, who is played by RBC favorite Ian Bannen (we have praised his work here, here, here and here). But before Markham can pursue his enquiry, he is forced to resign over a Profumo-esque sex scandal. Coincidence? Brash young investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) begins to pull at the threads of the story, despite the warnings of his cagy if boozy senior colleague (Denholm Elliott). Pretty soon, Nick becomes aware that powerful forces do not want the truth to come out and will do anything to keep it quiet.

The movie’s perspective is pretty bleak and in that sense one could consider it a British cousin of last week’s recommendation The Parallax View. Byrne, with his dark looks and demeanor, is almost a physical expression of the film’s outlook, which is only further enhanced by the moody cinematography and music.

In addition to its suspenseful and exciting moments, this film has two towering virtues. The first is the performance of Elliott, who steals the movie as a wiser, sadder journalist with a core of integrity. It’s as good as anything this fine actor has carried off in his impressive career. The movie’s other principal pleasure is its evocation of a now-vanished Fleet Street culture, with heavy drinking at lunch, late nights at the office, and some peculiar and charming traditions (e.g., the scene where an ink-stained wretch’s retirement is marked by the sound of pounding printing blocks).

defenceThis isn’t a perfect movie. Greta Scacchi, in the sort of role that seemed intended to have critics say “See she’s not just a sex symbol, she can really act!”, is in fact pretty flat as Markham’s assistant and there is zero chemistry between her and Byrne. Also, some viewers may find the film too confusing or downbeat at least some of the time.

That said, Defence of the Realm is a worthy entry into the political paranoia genre that improves with repeated viewing. It will not make you trust your government more, but it will command your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat.

A final trivial note on the film: Prior to the big showdown with nefarious forces, Byrne walks through the same club library in which Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon made a drug deal in prior RBC recommendation, Layer Cake, which is also the room where I wrote that recommendation and this one too.

p.s. As of this writing, this movie is available for free instant video to Amazon Prime subscribers.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Parallax View

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Our month of the cinema of conspiracies and political paranoia continues this week at RBC (Johann kicked it off last week with the disturbing and powerful Conspiracy). The horrifying assassinations of the 1960s generated countless conspiracy theories that continued to rattle about in the 1970s, particularly after Watergate further damaged the public’s faith in once-respected institutions. During this period, Alan J. Pakula was arguably the film maker who most effectively translated the public’s anxieties onto the screen. The two best known of his “paranoia triology” are the Oscar winners Klute and All the President’s Men. This week’s film recommendation is the less commonly recalled but very fine member of the troika: 1974′s unnerving The Parallax View.

The film’s opening sequence, set at the top of Seattle’s space needle, grabs viewers by the throat. What seems a banal political event suddenly turns violent, and through a series of rapid cuts the audience is as disoriented as the terrified characters on screen as they wonder what exactly they just saw. In the ensuing months, many of the witnesses come to premature ends, leading raffish journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) to investigate, against the advice of his hard-headed, fatherly editor (Hume Cronyn, effortlessly at home in his role). Frady discovers that a mysterious corporation is recruiting sociopathic killers, and he goes undercover to investigate them. He seems to be making progress in infiltrating the nefarious cartel, but is he really just walking into the web of a hungry spider who is spinning all the strands?

The Parallax View provides moments of high suspense and also carries off well that essential of paranoia films: The exchanges between the lead character and the trusted friend who thinks the “conspiracy” is all imagined (Nice touch: Cronyn’s office is crammed with memorabilia from his work with the Boy Scouts). The performances are believable throughout, which helps the film survive its more credibility-straining moments.

The late Gordon Willis, one of the most respected cinematographers of the 1970s, gives the film a distinctive look appropriate to its tone. There are many long, lonely shots taken far from the action, along with Willis’ signature fondness for shadows. The opening and closing shots, of government investigatory commissions proclaiming “nothing to see here, move along, there’s no conspiracy” as the camera moves in and out, ultimately arriving at a dark, distorted anamorphic image, are perfect bookends for the film. Combined with the movie’s minimalist use of sound, Willis’ superb work suffuses the movie with a sense of unease.

The film is not without shortcomings. As in some other Pakula films (e.g., Consenting Adults), certain plot elements can’t survive strict logical scrutiny. How is it that second-rate journalist Joe Frady can drive like a NASCAR champion and fight like James Bond? Why doesn’t he ever have deadlines at his newspaper and why, beyond the needs of the script, does his editor keep handing him piles of cash to pursue his story? Another potential weakness: Joe Frady is not that appealing of a person, so if you really don’t like Warren Beatty as a star, you may not feel much sympathy for the protagonist.

Flaws notwithstanding, Parallax View is an effective, disturbing piece of cinema. Its perspective is ultimately gloomy, but that doesn’t diminish its entertainment value or emotional impact one iota. This is a movie that stays with you, like a microphone the CIA has attached to your cell phone.

p.s. For those of you who are not old enough to remember and therefore might find one key scene of this film unbelievable: In the 1970s, you really could board an airplane without a ticket and check luggage onto a flight on which you were not yourself a passenger. Also, there was good service in coach. Really.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Conspiracy

By the winter of 1942, the Russians had repelled German forces after the spectacular failure of Operation Barbarossa. Despite low morale, the Nazi war machine proceeded apace. One enterprising officer in particular, Reinhard Heydrich (then the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office), had engineered the mass extermination of Jews within the territorial control of the German advance in Russia during the autumn of 1941. In recognition of Heydrich’s administrative prowess, he was charged by Göring with submitting a plan for ‘a final solution.’

German resolve to advance the extinction of the Jewish population was by January of 1942 a fait accompli. Nonetheless, Heydrich assembled Nazi political leaders at Wannsee to consolidate power by ensuring administrative compliance from the dozen or so agencies under their control. That conference is dramatized in Frank Pierson’s BBC/HBO production of the events at Wannsee, which kicks off this month’s series of conspiracy-themed movie recommendations at RBC. It’s Conspiracy (2001).

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Prowler

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This week’s film recommendation is an unusual, disturbing film noir that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years: 1951′s The Prowler. Made by left-wing artists who were being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s a dark take on class resentment, sexual repression and the ruthless pursuit of the American dream.

Many film noirs feature cops who are half-witted or on the take, but The Prowler is the only one I know where the central character is both a police officer and a calculating, manipulative psychopath. Van Heflin is mesmerizing as Webb Garwood, a flatfoot who is called to investigate a report of a prowler in a wealthy neighborhood. The call comes from Susan Gilvray, played with vulnerability by Evelyn Keyes (I previously raved about her work in 99 River Street). Webb lusts for Susan immediately, not just physically but also for her and her husband’s obvious status in society.

Susan is both flattered and scared by Webb. Sensing her ambivalence, he pays her several more visits until the lonely and repressed Susan gives in to his advances. Eerily, their liaisons are accompanied by the sound of her husband’s voice, a radio announcer who works at night. Webb now has the wealthy man’s wife that he wanted, but he knows he doesn’t possess her completely, nor does he have access to the money he wants to buy his own place in the world. But if her husband were out of the way, who knows what might be possible?

In terms of establishing character and framing the plot elements, the script of The Prowler is one of the best in noir. The screen credit went to Hugo Butler, but Dalto Trumbo wrote much of the script. He was blacklisted and couldn’t be acknowledged publicly as a screenwriter, but in what was probably an inside joke at the expense of the McCarthyites, he provides the voice of Susan’s husband on the radio (again, uncredited). Anyone who wants to learn how to write strong scripts should watch the scene early in the movie in which Webb and Susan discuss their experiences growing up in Indiana. As Webb explains how he blew his chance to get a college education, the audience understands immediately his smallness as a human being and his entitled rage towards people whom he tells himself have denied him what he deserves.

The film also demonstrates something many producers forget: Characters don’t have to be likable, they just have to be interesting. Neither of the principals are people you’d want as your neighbors, but it’s extremely compelling to follow the tenebrous twists of their relationship.

The direction, by the soon to be blacklisted Joseph Losey (probably best known for the thematically similar The Servant), is unusual and effective. He structures the scenes in play-like fashion, with long takes in just a few key, evocative sets. Those locations each have their own vivid bleakness, especially the ghost town in which the third act occurs. Congratulations are due to Art Director Boris Leven and Set Designer Jacques Mapes for tremendous work on a small budget.

The film suffers slightly from a lull between the first and third acts as well as some plotting improbabilities, but it’s still a bit surprising that it wasn’t more of critical and popular hit upon release. It may have been a bit ahead of what a 1951 U.S. audience wanted to see in a story focused on a police officer. It was however very popular in Europe, where Losey was soon to flee to escape political persecution. Later, the film was reappraised by U.S. film noir devotees and its reputation has deservedly grown.

The Prowler is in public domain, so I am posting here a watchable version that someone seems to have videotaped off television. There is also a remastered version by UCLA’s vaunted restoration team which no doubt looks even better if you can find it.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Abe Lincoln

Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.  It’s hard to spend too much time reflecting on Lincoln; I use the first thing he ever published, comparing two infrastructure projects in a local election campaign, as an example of policy analysis avant la lettre, and he just gets better and better from there. Even David Brooks says he becomes a better man spending quiet time in the Lincoln Memorial.  The second inaugural is one of great works of public discourse; terse, just, humane.  I think French’s portrait nails it: brilliant, menschlich, determined; open hand, closed fist.  Lincoln makes everyone reach a little higher.

I listened the grooves off this wonderful cantata when I was a kid, and I’m pleased to find that someone has posted it here , here, and hereIt was performed live, after fifty years on the shelf, in 2009.

There’s no video; remember how to make your own pictures in your own head? Take a half-hour, just to be sure we don’t forget what a real American is.

 

Weekend Film Recommendation: D.O.A.

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Last week, I recommended The Turning Point, starring Edmond O’Brien and featuring Neville Brand in a small part as a vicious killer. For a change of pace, this week I recommend a film starring Edmond O’Brien, featuring Neville Brand in a somewhat larger part as a vicious killer: 1950′s D.O.A.

D.O.A. has one of best opening premises in the history of film noir. A man stumbles down an impossibly long, shadowy hallway at the police station, followed by a tracking camera. Upon meeting the officer in charge of homicide investigation, he announces that he wants to report a murder: His own. What follows is partly a mystery/action story and partly an existential meditation.

The central character, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien) has a life that screams conventionality. He’s an accountant in a small town with a small town girlfriend (Pamela Brittan) who is nagging him to do the decent thing by marrying her, settling down, and having a conventional family. This is a noir film, so naturally Bigelow wants nothing more than to flee. He goes for a wild weekend in San Francisco, where he ogles sophisticated urban beauties and swills liquor until for an inexplicable reason, someone covertly poisons him with a lethal, slow-acting toxin. After the terminal diagnosis is confirmed, s justly famous film noir sequence commences as Bigelow races madly through the crowded streets until, exhausted, he looks up to heaven and then down to see a little girl’s ball at his feet. He returns the ball to the girl and then sadly stands up, knowing that he will never be carefree as a child again for he is doomed to die, and very soon at that (Nice touch: Look at the particular magazine arrayed next to him in the shot above).

Although Bigelow cannot save his life, he is driven to understand why he will die, and thus spends his final precious days not enjoying what remains, but ruthlessly pursuing his killer. With his death in no doubt, he transforms from a mild-mannered accountant into a fearless, even brutal, angel of vengeance. He doesn’t fear death from the assorted villains he encounters, just the prospect of dying before he can find out why a nobody accountant from a nothing small town was worthy of cold-blooded, calculated murder.

As you would guess, D.O.A. offers much to chew on thematically. It can be enjoyed at one level as an exciting (if overly complicated) crime mystery, but at another level it’s a philosophically engaging take on venerable film noir themes of isolation, futility and the cruelty of fate.

Director Rudolph Maté earned his place in movie heaven as a cinematographer, including in my prior recommendations Vampyr and Gilda. He directed much less often, and that’s a good thing because he didn’t attain the same level of excellence in that role. Here, he allows some of the actors to go over the top too often, and there is also an embarrassingly puerile use of a “Va Va Voom” sound effect when O’Brien sees attractive women that is completely inconsistent with the noir mood.

I would say I wish Maté had been director of photography instead, but that wouldn’t be fair to Ernest Laszlo, who gives the film a stunning look, especially in the street scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The crowded street shots must have been particularly challenging from a technical viewpoint.

DOA10Neville Brand, in a role that helped make his fairly successful if completely typecast career, is admirably scary here as a psychopath, and Luther Adler makes a smooth, cultured but ultimately nasty villain. As mentioned, some of the other performances — including O’Brien’s — are uneven, but all the main actors have their moments.

The basic existential conceit of D.O.A. is not about a man trying to prevent his death; he doesn’t have that power. Rather, it’s all about the desire to know why — why me and why this fate? The best noirs never answer this question, but bathe the audience in the agony of being unable not to ask it nonetheless. D.O.A. is a noble example of this tradition.

D.O.A. is in the public domain, so you can watch it for free on Internet Archive. However, that print looks nowhere near as good as the digitally remastered version, which as of this writing is free for Amazon prime subscribers.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Turning Point

turningIn previous recommendations (The Naked City, He Walked by Night), I highlighted the rising popularity of police procedurals after the war. Recognizing that post-war audiences were gripped by more realistic, torn from the headlines crime stories, Hollywood producers were giddy over the Kefauver Committee’s investigation of organized crime. Many Americans were transfixed by the hearings, both because they provided their first glimpse into the workings of the Mafia and because they were on this new fangled gizmo known as a television. A raft of films followed that were based on the hearings either directly or obliquely (the latter including my first ever weekend film recommendation, Bullitt). Many of the Kefauver films were cheap and unimaginative, but this week’s recommendation is one of the best: 1952′s The Turning Point.

The strong cast features Edmond O’Brien as John Conroy, a special prosecutor appointed to take down a criminal syndicate run by the slimy, brutal Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who poses as a legitimate businessman (O’Brien was last with us in prior recommendation The Web). Conroy’s hard-nosed childhood pal (William Holden), now a crime reporter, comes along for the ride, not because he believes anything will come of the investigation but because he admires his old friend and also, rather guiltily, has eyes for Conroy’s gorgeous, idealistic assistant (Alexis Smith). Meanwhile, John’s father, a beat cop played by reliable veteran character actor Tom Tully, is also in the mix, but what side he’s playing is a subject of mystery.

Warren Duff never became famous as a screenwriter, but he was very good in his niche of tough crime stories. He does a particularly admirable job here creating dramatic face off scenes between each pair of principals. Lionel Lindon’s skilled camerawork makes the film pleasing to the eye (love the long tracking shot with Holden and O’Brien early on) as does William Holden, who looks fabulous in a series of tailored suits that the legendary Edith Head picked for him (I guess ink-stained wretches could afford those kind of threads and fashion advice back then). The broad-shouldered screen icon has real chemistry with his equally toothsome co-star Alexis Smith, who puts spine and depth into her character rather than just being eye candy. She and Duff’s script are particularly good at ripping apart the cynical facade of Holden’s character, which is potent stuff for Holden fans given how often he played this type.

turningpoint3The Turning Point has a few weaknesses. After a gripping first 45 minutes there is a lull in the action at the actual commission hearings, which should have been a highlight of the film, especially with a skilled actor like Ed Begley at center stage. There are also a couple small logical holes and overly worn elements in the plot. As a result, I would not call The Turning Point an all-time classic crime melodrama. But it’s definitely exciting and entertaining, with a cast that is aces right down the line.

As of this writing, The Turning Point is available for free to Amazon Prime subscribers – just don’t mix it up with the 1977 movie about ballet dancers.

p.s. Plug ugly Neville Brand, who made a career out of playing nasty thugs, appears at the end as a hired killer. Both he and O’Brien will be with us again next week so stay tuned.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.