Weekend Film Recommendation: Robbery

If you are one of the many admirers of the 1968 American classic Bullitt starring Steve McQueen, you will almost certainly enjoy the British film I’m recommending this week: Robbery. Released the year before Bullitt, it’s a partly fictionalized account of the astonishing 1963 heist of a British mail train by a gang of bold and crafty thieves.

Like many heist films, this one begins with a smaller job that introduces us to the characters and sets up the big score to come. The gang upon which the movie centers is led by criminal mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker). Baker was one of a number of rough-hewn leading men who captivated British audiences in the 1960s. One wonders if we would have ever heard of a similar actor — Sean Connery — had Baker not turned down the offer to play a secret agent named James Bond (Side note: It is nothing less than eerie to see how much an older Baker looks like an older Connery in later projects such as the ITV mystery special Who killed Lamb?). In all his roles, Baker radiates power, even as in this case when his character is intellectual and non-violent. He also did an excellent job producing the film. The production values are first-rate and the film was no doubt good practice for the studio that would go on to make The Italian Job.

The gang escape their first job after a harrowing, thrilling car chase through London, but they don’t spend the money. They need the swag to fund something much bigger that Clifton is planning. The actors playing Clifton’s crew all turn in good performances, as does James Booth as the Police Inspector who doggedly pursues them. We don’t get detailed back stories on any of the characters, but it doesn’t matter because the actors are talented enough to bring them to life and make them distinct.

It was the amazing car chase, much of it shot with handheld cameras by the great Douglas Slocombe, that made Steve McQueen chose Peter Yates as the Director for Bullitt. But that isn’t the only parallel between the two films. Unusually for a director gifted at action films, Yates is comfortable with long silences and seems to encourage his actors to underplay their parts. It creates a distinctive mood that is somewhat melancholy, which fits the many of Yates’ characters who are driven to do things that seem very unlikely to satisfy them in the end.

The bulk of the film is devoted to the painstaking preparations of the gang to pull off the crime of the century, and then the heist itself. As in the actual great train robbery, a number of things go wrong, giving the police a chance to track down the gang and its crafty leader. The resolution of the film is perhaps a bit sudden, and there are a few slow spots, but overall it’s a solid caper film that will please fans of the genre.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Court Jester

Sometimes comedy in the movies gets a bit ahead of current cultural tastes. But the joy of TV re-runs, DVDs and the like is that as audience sensibilities catch up, a film whose wit eluded people at the time of its release can be recognized as a comedy classic.

This has been the fate of several big name comedy films made in the 1950s, including the Truman Capote-scripted Beat the Devil, a dud at the time now regarded as a cult classic. An even better example, and one that should be in every discussion of the greatest comedy scripts in Hollywood history, is 1956’s The Court Jester. A big budget bomb at the time, this film is now deservedly recognized as a complete delight, for laughs, for music, and for a tour-de-force performance by the amazing Danny Kaye.

The chortle-filled script of Co-Producer/Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, like those of Monty Python and The Simpsons much later, piles jokes on top of each other without seeming to mind if many viewers miss some of them. In the typical 1950s comedy film, the dialogue about how “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” would be THE joke of that scene. And, at one level, that would have been fine, because the wordplay by itself is gutbusting. But why not have Danny Kaye’s armor struck by lightning, causing it to magnetize, to throw some physical comedy on top of the verbal jokes? And again, Monty Python style, why have boring credits when you could put a bunch of sight gags and a ridiculous song in there as well?

The film is set in Olde England, where crafty royals, dastardly nobles, and noble craftys all involve themselves in the succession of the king. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Court Jester”

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Claim

Mark Twain said that “A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads”. I suspect that Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category. Admittedly, I think that because my dear mother suggested that I read “The Return of the Native”. After I finished it, I asked her why she recommended such a lousy book and she sheepishly confessed that she’d actually never got round to opening the copy she’d bought 40 years ago in a fit of high-mindedness.

But, whatever you think of Hardy’s “classic” novels, it’s hard to deny that they have resulted in some fine film adaptations. One of these is Michael Winterbottom’s 2000 Western The Claim. Loosely based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, the film tells the story of the Mayor of the town of Kingdom Come (a glum, effective Peter Mullan) whose considerable fortune and power derives from one awful, hidden sin early in his life. Fate comes to call in the form of the woman from his past (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley, in an award-winning performance). Meanwhile, the Mayor must handle his tempestuous mistress (Milla Jovovich, who has sex appeal to burn) and the railroad engineer (Wes Bentley) who will decide whether the new line will run through Kingdom Come or not. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Claim”

Weekend Film Recommendation: It

Most made-for-television movies are disappointing. Most movies based on Stephen King books, likewise. But here’s a nightmare-inducing film that overturns both those rules: It. Ask an adult who saw it many years ago what they remember and you may hear, after a shudder, the half-whispered words “That clown…”.

The plot (including the ending) is a bit inscrutable at times, but it runs something like this: In 1990, in the small town of Derry, Maine, a horrifying clown named Pennywise (A ghoulishly good Tim Curry) is preying on children. One adult resident of the town, Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid, who like the many other experienced adult TV actors in this film is solid throughout), begins to remember that he and his friends were terrorized by Pennywise as children. He contacts each of them, now successful adults, and they too awaken from a strange amnesia. They suddenly recall that as socially rejected kids, self-dubbed “The Loser Club”, they banded together to successfully combat Pennywise. Now they know that Pennywise is but one manifestation of a deeper, darker force which slumbers beneath the town, re-awakening every 30 years to feed again. “It” has returned, and The Loser Club must reunite to save the children of Derry and also conquer the demons that haunt them as adults.

The film is structured in two parts, which were originally shown over two nights on television. In the first, we meet the central characters as children, battling It in 1960. The second part focuses mainly on the adults in 1990. However, this section of the movie cannily injects flashbacks to the 1960 part of the story, which helps hold interest over the 3+ hour running time because the child actors are so compelling and the scenes with Pennywise menacing the children are so chilling.

There are many shocks and screams here, but as with much of King’s best work (e.g., Stand by Me), there are also remarkable insights into the world of children and warm portrayals of life-changing friendships. The small budget shows here and there: Not all the special effects are first-rate and there are no Hollywood mega-stars in view. But the story is gripping enough, the actors appealing and talented enough and the scares plentiful enough to make It one of the best horror films in television history.

And remember: “They all float!”

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Christmas Story

Some mediocre films earn a reputation as “American Classics” entirely because the producers and marketers (or the critics and other members of the chattering class) have so declared them, and the rest of us are cowed into submission. But sometimes a movie attains this status honestly by slowly and steadily building a following because it really deserves one. A Christmas Story very much belongs in the latter, authentic set of American classics. When it was released in 1983, it was shown in less than a thousand theaters and was outgrossed by such unmemorable cinematic products as Porky’s II: The Next Day, Two of a Kind, and High Road to China. But it became more and more popular each year on television (Thank you, Ted Turner) such that you can hardly find anyone today who doesn’t smile at the memory of this warm and funny film.

The great talent behind this movie about a boy’s overwhelming craving for a particular Christmas present is Jean Shepherd, who wrote the script based on his novel “In God we trust. All others pay cash”. He is the film’s never-seen storyteller, narrating recollected events as an adult while 12-year old Peter Billingsley, as his younger self (“Ralphie”), gives one of the best comic performances by a child actor in cinema history. Billingsley’s gestures and expressions coupled with Shepherd’s wry narration make a great comic one-two punch. Daren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are perfect as Ralphie’s very human parents because they are solid actors who also happen to look like real parents (in Hollywood today, the parts would likely have gone to a rap star and a supermodel).

The film charms both because it pokes fun at the silliness of which children are capable (e.g., Ralphie’s rich fantasy life) while also respecting the earnestness of which they are capable (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). It is sweetly nostalgic about childhood without overly romanticizing it. And it holds up very well under repeat viewings, as the countless people who will watch it again this holiday season will attest.

And remember: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”.

Ride the Pink Horse: A Film Noir that’s Hard To Find but Worth the Effort

Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame) earned his place in film noir heaven with Ride the Pink Horse. The disillusioned, rootless ex-GI, is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking private eye vies for the distinction) and Lucky Gagin is the apotheosis of the type.

I wish I knew more of the history of this movie’s production as it might explain why Montgomery made it himself (i.e., directed as well as starred) and why copies of it are so hard to find today. Continue reading “Ride the Pink Horse: A Film Noir that’s Hard To Find but Worth the Effort”

Watching the Godfather: What do Americans Consider Obscene?

I caught Coppola’s classic at a hotel last night, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities.

The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut. Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle full of gunmen, who riddle him with machine gun bullets, as do other assassins who had been hiding in the booth. Gasping and covered in blood, he staggers out of his car to be hit with a sustained volley of machine gun fire that makes his body convulse repeatedly. He then falls dead in a bloody heap, at which point one of the killers walks up to his body and unloads the rest of his ammo into him point blank. The killer then kicks Sonny’s corpse in the head for good measure. Wholesome all-American fun; wish my kids could’ve seen it.

In contrast, another scene was edited for television. Michael and Apollonia Corleone’s wedding night in Sicily is extraordinarily sweet as played sensitively and without dialogue by Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli. Michael and his young bride are alone in the bedroom. She is clearly a virgin, both excited and at the same time frightened. Michael doesn’t rush her. He waits for her to step toward him, and then cradles her face and kisses her gently on the forehead and then…the censors get out their scissors. In the original movie, but not on television, Apollonia’s breasts are briefly visible before the couple embrace and passionately kiss. Sure they just got married in a Catholic Church, sure they love each other, sure the woman is portrayed as a human being and not an object but hey, the sight of breasts might scar the innocent so out it goes.

I have seen the Godfather on television in Spain and in Sweden and in both countries the wedding night scene was uncut, whereas the scene of Sonny’s execution was edited to be shorter and less graphically violent. Apparently people in those countries have a different sense than Americans about what is shocking and obscene and what is not.

The other comparison point that comes to mind is what I have learned from working with combat veterans. Sadly enough, many psychiatric hospitals have former soldiers in them who saw something like what happened to Sonny Corleone and never got over it. In contrast, I have never had a patient tell me “Doc, I’ve got PTSD. Ya gotta hospitalize me — I saw a pair of breasts and I just can’t get them out of my mind”.

The Many Contributions of Sidney Lumet

The tributes to Hollywood legend Sindey Lumet are focusing mainly on “Twelve Angry Men”, “the Verdict” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” all worthy pieces of cinema (“Serpico” is less so, in my opinion). He deserves credit for at least two other things.

First, he largely rescued Sean Connery from Bondage by casting him in meaty dramatic parts as Connery’s interest in Bond was waning. The Hill, The Offence, and The Anderson Tapes remain highly watchable today, and they showed the film world that Connery had a lot more talent than his role as 007 let him exercise.

Second, Lumet made one of the best Holocaust films ever, The Pawnbroker. From slump-shouldered Rod Steiger, Lumet coaxed a performance that is the actor’s best — better even than his more heralded role as Sheriff Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night.” And the classic Lumet claustrophobic New York sets work perfectly to help us feel Sol Nazerman’s agony and his inability to escape the horrors of the war and memory.  Sadly, the film isn’t watched as often as Lumet’s other great movies, probably because it’s simply emotionally harder to experience (The Verdict is also a portrait of overwhelming loneliness but it ultimately treads more gently on the viewer’s spirit because it has an uplifting ending). But it remains one of the high points of Lumet’s distinguished career.