So Long at the Fair (1950)   2 comments

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Vicky Barton (Jean Simmons) and her brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) arrive in Paris on the eve of the 1889 World’s Fair.  They’re traveling through, but Vicky, excited about her first trip to Paris, convinces Johnny to spend the next day in the city and take her to the fair.  That night, the siblings dine in Montmartre and see a show at the Moulin Rouge.

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“I’m having so much fun! I hope I don’t disappear.”

The next morning, Vicky waits for her brother to pick her up for breakfast.  When he’s late, Vicky visits the hotel desk to get Johnny’s room key and check on him.  Not only do they not have his key, but the proprietor tells Vicky no such room exists and Johnny was never there.

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“I’m looking for my oh hello.”

Frantic, Vicky searches for Johnny and tries desperately to prove he was with her.  The more she insists her story is true, the more people think she’s crazy.  With no money, no friends, and no proof, how will Vicky find her brother?

SO LONG AT THE FAIR follows the main ideas originated in Anselma Heine’s story “Die Erscheinung” (“The Apparition”), in the Richard Oswald-directed silent anthology film EERIE TALES (1919).  The concept appears again in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES in 1938.  Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 story THE WHEEL SPINS, THE LADY VANISHES adds Fascists and spies to the already tense tale of a young woman who meets the elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) on a train and then can’t prove she was ever there.  In that film, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) finally convinces Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) she’s not a nut and the two fight fear, indifference, and bad guys to find their friend.  Hitchcock recycled the story again for his ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS television series in 1955 in the episode INTO THIN AIR starring his daughter Patricia.  That show involves a daughter searching for her missing mother and gives Alexander Woollcott story credit.  The stories mostly feature young women in the lead roles who spend the majority of the stories trying to prove to pretty much everyone that they’re not insane and “Oh, could you please look for my brother/friend/mom?”

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“Have you met Dad?”

SO LONG AT THE FAIR differs from the other manifestations of this idea in its presentation.  The Jean Simmons version was a Gainsborough Pictures production which means lavish sets, period costumes, and pearl-clutching drama.  Costume drama is not usually my favorite film genre, but SO LONG AT THE FAIR is a good film with some genuinely tense moments.  That probably has a lot to do with the cast and director.

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This means no vampires.

Jean Simmons carries the film well.  She’s a sweet and innocent girl in peril, but she’s smart and strong enough to stand up for herself and find her brother.  She could easily have gone all limp and useless, but the story and the actress are stronger and that makes it more fun to watch.  Along with Simmons, the cast includes a few other up-and-coming British actors who acquit themselves well and look lovely too.  Honor Blackman has a small part as does the wonderful Andre Morel and the gorgeous Dirk Bogarde.  Bogarde has a nice supporting role as a well-heeled artist living in Paris who helps Simmons in her brother quest.  Bogarde is young and handsome and terrifically appealing in this film.  He and Simmons look good together.  Did I mention Dirk Bogarde is incredibly attractive?  Oh all right.  I’ll stop.  He is though.

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See?

Another reason SO LONG AT THE FAIR WORKS as more than a vehicle for young stars is the direction by the talented Terence Fisher.  Fisher directed a boatload of noir, thriller, and horror films for Hammer Film Productions from the 1950s through the 1970s and his ability in those genres transforms SO LONG AT THE FAIR from the usual Gainsborough melodrama to a more thrilling mystery and makes the heroine’s situation that much more frightening.

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When in doubt, ask some nuns.

Unlike BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965) and other GASLIGHT-type films, we know Vicky’s brother exists.  We’ve seen him.  The question is will we and Vicky ever see him again?

I wrote this piece for the British Invaders Blogathon presented by Terence Towles Canote and his site A Shroud of Thoughts

Thanks for the inspiration, Terence!

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#Horror (2015)   Leave a comment

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Six 12-year-old girls we hate gather at a friend’s house in Greenwich, Connecticut for a sleepover.  One by one, they separate and a slasher preys on them.  I don’t often wish for the deaths of middle schoolers and their parents, but in the case of #HORROR, I’ll make an exception.

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“We’re awful.”

As the girls bully and browbeat each other, we like them even less.  I started out hating them so you can imagine how I felt after an hour and a half.  They’re so nasty.  They say things like “You look like a fat tranny.” and “Your mom slept with Hitler.” and “Kill yourself.”  It’s super fun.

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Fun.

The girls peel off from the group, as girls do in slasher films.  It doesn’t go well for them.

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“Do I get a goody bag?”

The # part?  Oh, you see, when the girls post horrid pictures of each other online and tag them with cruel epithets, the film changes.  Weird, cartoony images, emojis, and goofy phrases appear onscreen like a bad digital pinball game.  The colorful, puffy typeface lets you know you’re watching quality.  No, really.  It looks as though the filmmakers watched SPRINGBREAKERS fifty-seven times in a row and decided to reproduce that film’s crappy, repetitive mantra graphically.  It’s like a widescreen version of Candy Crush, but with cruelty.  After thirty seconds, my eyes started bleeding.

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Subtle.

So, horrible girls die, but not too horribly.  I mean, I have seen bad films redeem themselves with terrific kills.  This isn’t one of those films.  There’s screaming and cameraman-tripped-on-his-shoelace cam and blood, but who cares?  The kids are awful and there’s a hinted-at backstory no one sees fit to tell us and a whole lot of bad parenting.  Also, there’s terrible art.  The party/killing spree all happens at a huge, modern house in the Connecticut woods.  If that sounds idyllic, think again.  As the girls die, their screams echo through the sterile rooms, bounce off the crappy art, and fade to nothing somewhere near the vodka Mom pours on her cornflakes.

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“Why is the yolk pulsating?”

I forgot to mention the parents in this Bataan Death March of a movie.  There are real actors in this.  Chloë Sevigny, Timothy Hutton, and Natasha Lyonne all show up.  Lyonne has about twelve seconds of screen time, but Hutton has eons to chew the scenery and Sevigny looks a little dazed.  She does play an alcoholic though.  I must say, I liked her part the best.  I love the idea of a selfish mom leaving six 12-year-olds in her home alone, pouring a vodka tonic, and drinking it on the way to her AA meeting.  Ballsy.

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“I think my scarf knows what I’m thinking.”

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the ending.  The point is that it ends and that’s a good thing.

A couple points:

Early in the film, Chloë Sevigny chats with a friend in her house.  An assistant, Molly, has a few lines.  Later, Sevigny goes out, leaving the girls alone.  Where the hell is Molly?  She never comes back and no one mentions her again.  She’s a plot device to show how rude Sevigny is to her servant, but they didn’t bother to give her an exit.  Oops!  I forgot one of my characters again!

Timothy Hutton, Chloë Sevigny, and Natasha Lyonne can act.  Hutton has a Oscar and a gang of nominations.  Sevigny has some critics’ awards and an Oscar nom.  Lyonne has won critics’ awards and an Emmy nomination.  What are they doing in this certified wedge of Gouda?  Did they lose a bet?  Are there pictures somewhere of them kicking midgets or something?  I can’t think of any other reason for them to be in this mess.  That mystery will stay with me longer than the film.  Do yourself a favor.  Watch ROAD HOUSE.  It’s probably still on Netflix.

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1/5 Duckfaces.

 

 

Multiple Maniacs (1970)   6 comments

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Question: How do you know you’re watching a John Waters film?
Answer: When the film opens with a carnival barker luring unsuspecting victims into a tent full of fetishists so he can rob them, you’re in a John Waters film.

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Mr. David hawks the Cavalcade of Perversions.

Yup.  Lady Divine (Divine) and her cohorts put cigarettes out on each other, sniff a topless woman’s armpits and eat vomit.  Then, when the square suburbanites can take no more, Divine brandishes a revolver, robs the crowd, and shoots any dissenters, cackling all the while.

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“Say what again.”

After the robbery, the gang flees and we discover that Mr. David (David Lochary), the barker and lover of Lady Divine, has fallen for another woman.  David keeps the affair a secret because Lady Divine threatens to tell the police he was in on the Tate murders.  It IS 1970.  Lady Divine, gets word of David’s betrayal and vows to kill him.

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Edith Massey drops a dime on Mr. David.

On her way to commit murder, two lowlifes accost her and drag her into an alley.  Dazed from the attack, Lady Divine runs into a toddler dressed as the Pope who leads her to a church.  Lady Divine prays for guidance.  As she kneels in prayer, she meets Mink Stole who clearly has eyes for her.  It’s a John Waters film so the two women have sex in a pew using a rosary.  Now Lady Divine has an accomplice.  The two lovers head to Lady Divine’s apartment to snuff Mr. David.

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Lady Divine walks with a tiny Pope.

Mr. David and his oversexed lover await the pair in Lady Divine’s apartment where they’ve accidentally killed Divine’s ever-topless daughter.  Now there’s no turning back.  There’s a nutty bloodbath with one survivor.  As Lady Divine lies on the sofa surrounded by the bodies of her enemies and crowing about crimes to come, a huge lobster crawls into her living room and rapes her.  I never thought I’d write that sentence.  Anyway, stuff, like a crucifixion, happens after that, but who cares?  A giant lobster rapes Divine.  Needless to say, the scene catches you off guard.

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“Quick! Get the drawn butter!”

John Waters wrote, directed, produced, and shot MULTIPLE MANIACS in his native Baltimore.  During his introduction to the film at the Provincetown International Film Festival in June of 2016, he said he filmed the Cavalcade of Perversion on his parents’ front lawn.  Waters cast friends Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Pat Moran, David Lochary, and Divine in lead roles.  Friendship trumped acting ability, but that’s not important.  This is not so much a film as a happening.  It is also, as film critic J. Hoberman notes, John Waters most overtly Catholic film.  Janus/Criterion just restored the film and it looks great.  It’s also weirdly entertaining.  Everyone is crazily over the top and the whole film is a riot.  I watched MULTIPLE MANIACS for the first time in a full theatre with John Waters in attendance and the place went nuts.  It’s vile, disgusting, and fun to watch.

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Rating: 4 Lobsters

Elephant Walk vs. The Naked Jungle: Who’d Win in a Bar Fight?   4 comments

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Paramount released ELEPHANT WALK and THE NAKED JUNGLE within a month of one another in 1954.  They often appeared in theatres on a double bill.  If you see them both, you might think you’ve seen the same film twice.  Both center around a rich plantation owner living in a foreign country with a beautiful wife and major psychological issues.  Both leads have flawed marriages.  Both battle wild animals on rampages.  In ELEPHANT WALK, the creatures in questions are, you guessed it, groundhogs.  OK.  I can’t get anything past you.  They’re elephants.  In THE NAKED JUNGLE, the enemies are ants.  Naked ants.  They’re referred to as the Marabunta, which, as you know, mean friendsh…no.  It means naked army ant.  Paramount made both films partially on location.  ELEPHANT WALK takes place in British Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.  They filmed in both Ceylon and Hollywood.  THE NAKED JUNGLE is set in Brazil, but Florida served as a stand-in for the Amazon jungle.  Even the structures of the two films are similar.

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Edith Head did herself proud in both films.

In ELEPHANT WALK, John Wiley (Peter Finch) runs a sprawling tea plantation in British Ceylon.  The plantation, Elephant Walk, got its name because John’s father, Tom, built it on the elephants’ traditional path to the river.  After a whirlwind romance in England, John marries Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor) and brings her back to the family bungalow to begin her duties as the lady of the house.  In THE NAKED JUNGLE, Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) writes long, lonely letters from Brazil to his brother in New Orleans.  His brother meets Joanna (Eleanor Parker) and introduces Christopher and Joanna by mail.  The two correspond and eventually marry by proxy.  Joanna travels to the jungle to be Christopher’s wife and run his home.

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Soon after taking up residence at Elephant Walk, Ruth notices subtle changes in her new husband.  Charming and loving in England and on their honeymoon, John becomes distant, gruff, and even brutal in Ceylon.  The oppressive atmosphere of Elephant Walk, along with the influence of John’s long dead father, old Tom Wiley, turn John iron-fisted and cruel.  In THE NAKED JUNGLE, immediately after her arrival in Brazil, Joanna sees differences between Christopher’s letters and his demeanor.  Intelligent and gentle during their correspondence, Christopher becomes insulting and downright nasty in person.

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This is what John Wiley does instead of hanging out with Liz Taylor.

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Leiningen’s sort of an ass.

John Wiley’s main issue is the Governor.  John’s father and the builder of Elephant Walk has been dead for years, but still manages to run the show.  His rules, attitudes, and methods for running the plantation and his house haven’t changed despite his death.  They still celebrate his birthday each year with a big party. They even present gifts to the guests around Tom Wiley’s elaborate, marble crypt, conveniently located on the lawn just steps from the house.  Handy.  The combination of the ever present Tom Wiley, her husband’s hostility, and the middle-aged frat boy mentality of most of the plantation workers drives Ruth away.  She plans to leave with the sympathetic and cultured Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), John’s foreman.

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“I hope she picks me.”

Christopher Leiningen’s problem in THE NAKED JUNGLE is sex and his need to be the first to sleep with his new wife.  Joanna, a widow, fulfills all Christopher’s requirements.  She has manners, refinement, and beauty.  She even plays the piano.  The fact of her first marriage, however, drives him crazy.  You see, Christopher has no sexual experience and he can’t stand the thought that his wife does.  He won’t touch her and plans to send her back to the states.

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“I’m sending you back.”

Naturally, Ruth can’t leave Elephant Walk.  On her way to the boat for England, everyone gets cholera.  Ruth has to stay to boil linens and burn things.  The cholera epidemic strikes at the same time as a major drought so besides the stacks of dead bodies and the quarantine and all, they’re also running out of water and the elephants get antsy.  Get it?  Antsy?  Anyway, thirsty and fed up, the elephants stampede and John races to save Ruth.

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“I’m coming, Ruth!”

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the Marabunta start crawling their way through the jungle toward Christopher’s ranch and civilization in general.  You see, every twenty-seven years, army ants charge through the Amazon eating everything they see.  So the calendar strikes 27 and the ants come-a-runnin’.  Christopher and Joanna have to curtail their trip to the boat to take her back to New Orleans to fight them some ants.

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“Hold it right there, you damned, dirty ants!”

Will John Wiley rescue Ruth from elephants?  Will he see the error of his ways and start his marriage again without his dead dad’s interference?  Will he return the ugly elephant necklace he makes Ruth wear?

Will Christopher beat the ants?  Will he decide to love Joanna despite her horrid promiscuity?  Will William Conrad stop speaking with that ridiculous mystery accent?

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“I’m not sure where I’m from.”

I’ll never tell.

ELEPHANT WALK did better at the box office than THE NAKED JUNGLE and it’s a better film in general.  Peter Finch does a terrific job as the anguished John Wiley, who embraces his imperious father’s memory even as he fights its hold over him.  He’s great when he’s angry and truly contrite while asking for forgiveness.  Elizabeth Taylor’s Ruth looks spectacular in the gorgeous Edith Head gowns and dresses she wears.  She’s a beautiful and sympathetic character who’s torn between her love for her husband and her fear for him and herself in this unhealthy atmosphere.  Dana Andrews is convincing as John’s overseer who falls for Ruth and tries to help her escape.  Abraham Sofaer plays Appuhamy, the efficient head servant at Elephant Walk whose loyalty to the old master tries Ruth’s patience.  His restraint gives the character integrity and allows us to see the change in him as he finally accepts Ruth.  Direction by William Dieterle along with the Franz Waxman score and the actual location shooting gives this film polish and the A-list actors deliver fine performances.

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Abraham Sofaer as Appuhamy

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Abraham Sofaer (in back) as Incacha.

THE NAKED JUNGLE is a less solid film than ELEPHANT WALK.  Heston does a decent job as the immature Christopher.  Deep down he’s a poet who hides his soft side and thinks he HAS to object to his wife’s non-virgin status.  As I said, Heston does a decent job, but he lacks the subtlety his character needs.  Eleanor Parker wears the Edith Head costumes brilliantly and plays the put upon wife well, but she’s far too melodramatic.  She’s more subtle than Lana Turner, but that doesn’t take much.  William Conrad plays his part well, but they saddled him with a goofy accent which detracts from his performance.  Conrad played the Heston role in the radio version of the Carl Stephenson story.  I guess they wanted to throw him a bone.  Guess who plays the faithful servant/overseer?  Yup.  Abraham Sofaer.  This time he’s Brazilian.  Ernest Laszlo and George Pal did the photography and production and Byron Haskin directed.

 

All in all, ELEPHANT WALK and the NAKED JUNGLE will both fulfill your animals running amok needs.  There’s great footage of elephants stampeding throughout ELEPHANT WALK and the scene where they wreck Wiley’s mansion is spectacular.  If you’re into that disease thing, the film also has cholera!

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George Pal produced THE NAKED JUNGLE and the ant effects are decent.  Scenes with ants overtaking grown men are pretty cool even if they’re unbelievable.

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“So many ants.”

Where THE NAKED JUNGLE fails is that ants keep killing people you don’t particularly care about.  A disaster film has to allow us to learn something about its victims before flinging them off cliffs.  If it doesn’t, it’s just some random SyFy film like ANTOPUS VS LOBSTELEPHANT.  To sum up, ELEPHANT WALK is a terrific film with realistic performances that looks wonderful.  THE NAKED JUNGLE is a pretty good film with lots of ants, which is a plus, and a so-so story.  Watch them both and tell me what you think.

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I wrote this piece for the Nature’s Fury Blogathon hosted by the always fascinating Barry of Cinematic Catharsis  He’s a nice guy who runs a terrific film blog.  Please check it out.

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His Kind of Woman (1951)   2 comments

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Until you watch HIS KIND OF WOMAN, you might not realize Vincent Price is the star.  You might believe the credits and think you’re watching a Robert Mitchum/Jane Russell vehicle full of mobsters who crack wise and a beauty who sings a little.

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“Is that a gun in your pocket?”

After all, up to this point, Vincent Price spent a lot of time in costume dramas or as the guy who didn’t get the girl.  Gene Tierney threw him over for Dana Andrews in LAURA even after she was dead and she dumped him again the next year for Cornel Wilde in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.  I’m not sure Hollywood knew what to do with the erudite actor.  Handsome, articulate, and athletic, Vincent looked the part of the leading man, but had more to give.  You might say he was too smart for his own good.

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“Snatch this revolver from my hand, Grasshopper.”

Male ingenue parts don’t show off your sense of humor much so studios plugged him into the role of the witty, yet evil count.  A few films, like SHOCK (1946) allowed him to show more range, but it wasn’t until Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe phase in the 1960s that Vincent was really allowed to shine.  The exception to that is HIS KIND OF WOMAN.  Vincent Price sinks his teeth into the Mark Cardigan role.

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“This is going to be fun.”

Don’t get me wrong.  Mitchum and Russell steam up your glasses in this film, but what brings me back to John Farrow’s 1951 crime thriller again and again is the wonderfully over-the-top performance by Vincent Price as Mark Cardigan, the biggest movie star who ever swashed a buckle.

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“Did you close the garage?”

Cardigan travels from Hollywood to gorgeous, mid-century Morro’s Lodge in Baja California, Mexico to hunt and fish and woo his mistress, Lenore Brent (Jane Russell).  His sporting ways do little to impress Lenore; she starts warming up to Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum).  He’s in sunny Mexico for a mysterious, dangerous reason, which becomes clearer and uglier as the story progresses and we get to know the dastardly Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr).  Nick’s a mobster deported by the U.S. government who wants to get back into the states.  How does a famous and recognizable hoodlum get past customs, and where does the Nazi doctor fit in?  Nick plans to use Dan—and I don’t mean he wants to borrow Dan’s passport.  Dan, a teetotaler, still manages to intoxicate Lenore and the two begin a sexy little romance.  I’ll admit: it’s fun to watch.  Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell have terrific chemistry.  That said, I still can’t watch this film without wishing it had more Vincent.

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“My GODZILLA was the best! Say it!”

As Mark Cardigan, Vincent, full of boyish charm, tries to get his friend excited about hunting with him, but encounters only sarcasm.  He has all this fancy hunting and fishing gear, but no one wants to play.  He’s sure Dan will be a sport, but he has mind on other things.

Mark Cardigan: “What about tomorrow morning?
Dan Milner: “All right, what about it?”
Mark Cardigan: “The hunting. I’ve got all the equipment you need. How about me rootin’ you out about five.”
Dan Milner: “Five?”
Lenore Brent: “He shoots them as they crawl out of bed.”

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“Wanna kill some stuff?”

Despite their best efforts, neither Lenore nor Dan can dampen Mark’s enthusiasm and off he goes to his favorite blind quoting Shakespeare.  It’s that bigger-than-life, booming attitude that makes me smile every time I watch HIS KIND OF WOMAN.  A combination of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ronald Coleman, Mark Cardigan has all the conceit of a matinee idol with some intelligence and a little humility to balance it out.  Mark mentions the danger ahead of them and Dan promises that if his friend dies in battle, he’ll be sure to give him a big sendoff.

Dan: “Well, if you do get killed, I’ll make sure you get a first-rate funeral in Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.”
Mark: “I’ve already had it.  My last picture died there.”

The interplay between Mark and the other characters continues throughout the film.  Actually, he doesn’t need anyone to play off.  He spends a good portion of the film soliloquizing.  What separates this film from others depicting actors forced to face reality is how Mark handles it.  He accepts the challenge and the risk gleefully as if he thinks he’s still on stage 6. On his way to fight the gangsters, Mark arms himself and then stops to don a black cape.  Fabulous!  History abounds with films about self-absorbed actors blurring the line between fantasy and reality, but this is more fun than profound.  Part of the reason may be that when Mark looks deeply into his soul, he likes what he sees there.  His long-winded speeches about battles and heroes aren’t just for show.  Deep down he wants to believe every word and surprises even himself when the bullets start flying.  It’s thrilling and joyous and fun.

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“It’s 14 against 2.”
“We’ll take ’em.”
“How do you know?
“Bad guys can’t shoot.”
“Oh right.”

HIS KIND OF WOMAN has a romance with great chemistry, a twisted bad guy with a taste for torture, a Nazi, and a brilliant, but bored actor dying to prove himself to himself.

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Nazi

I can’t picture another actor who could do the part justice as well as Vincent Price.  He has the energy, athleticism, timing, and eloquence to pull it off.  Who else could wax poetic while trussing a duck?

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OK. Maybe this guy.

Without delving too deeply into plot summation, I’ll say HIS KIND OF WOMAN packs a lot into two hours.  There’s a love story, a mobster attempting to foil immigration, a CASABLANCA-like sub-plot with Jim Backus sitting in for Claude Rains, and a Nazi.  As Joe Bob Briggs says, “…too much plot getting in the way of the story.”  Fortunately, the writers, Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard along with the talented cast can handle it.  I think this film’s success lies in the philosophy expressed by Jim Backus’ stockbroker when discussing movies in general.   “People don’t go to movies to see how miserable the world is.  They go there to eat popcorn and be happy.”  Preston Sturges couldn’t have said it so well.

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That jacket.

Absence of Malice (1981)   2 comments

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Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) has a problem. A year into his strike force’s investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of Joey Diaz, a popular Miami union leader, Rosen has no leads. To shake things up, he decides to pressure local liquor wholesaler Michael Colin Gallagher (Paul Newman) into telling the feds what he knows. The trouble is, Gallagher doesn’t know anything. Gallagher’s deceased bootlegger father and his uncle, Malderone (Luther Adler) have mob ties, but not Gallagher. He’s an honest businessman. That doesn’t stop Rosen from leaking a story naming Gallagher as a suspect in the Diaz case to Megan Carter (Sally Field). Carter, a reporter for the Miami Standard newspaper, writes the story and her paper publishes it on page one.

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Then, it begins. The accusation slowly begins to destroy Gallagher’s life. His workers strike. His customers cancel their accounts. The IRS dissects his finances. His business falters.

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“Why no Ziggy this week?”

Gallagher asks Carter where she got her information, but she won’t reveal her source. The newspaper staff stonewalls him and he gets no answers from the feds. Frustrated, he continues to dig into the matter and keep his business afloat until a tragedy forces him to act. When the controversy hurts his close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon), Gallagher gets angry. He’s a smart man so he exacts a thinking man’s revenge.

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Director, Sydney Pollack and writer Kurt Luedtke get the plot humming along nicely, then it stalls. You’re sucked in from the beginning and then Sally Field shows up and puts the brakes on. In this strong ensemble, she’s miscast. I can’t buy her hard-boiled reporter any more than I can buy her romance with Paul Newman.

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“You say the nun FLEW?”

They have no chemistry and her jaded journalist has no credibility. I wonder if their romance was an afterthought added by producers to appeal to a wider audience. Anyway, the rest of the cast works a treat. Newman does a fine job as a gruff good guy who gets screwed and fights back. We like him. We’re outraged when he’s attacked and cheer him on when he reacts. Melinda Dillon is absolutely brilliant. Her voice, carriage, and even the way she holds a cigarette tell her story.

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It’s a beautiful and poignant performance. She deserves her Oscar nomination. Then there’s Bob Balaban. He does weasely like no one else. Rosen, his self-righteous, arrogant federal prosecutor, worms his way onto your bad side and his quirky elastic band wringing is inspired.

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“It’s my ball and if I can’t pitch I’m going home.”

I can’t think of this film without picturing Rosen’s odd little habit. Luther Adler as Gallagher’s mobster uncle is a lot of fun too. He clearly enjoys his role. I saved the best for last. Wilford Brimley as Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells makes this movie. He has about eight minutes of screen time, but commands your attention for every second of it. His straightforward and logical approach to the case along with his homespun manner and way of speaking renew your faith in the justice system. Wells doesn’t listen to any excuses or rationalizations. In this world of half-truths and shades of gray, he’s a black and white breath of fresh air.

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“Dammit. This courthouse has no Quaker Oats.”

The idea that a federal agency can rip an honest man’s life apart on a whim is scary. Add in a little sloppy journalism and it’s a nightmare. ABSENCE OF MALICE exposes the ‘ends justify the means’ mentality in our judicial system. It also shows the press’ desire to get to print first despite little proof a story even exists. Absence of malice, by the way, refers to the public figure doctrine in law. To win a libel suit, the plaintiff must prove the defendant knows the statement is false, but prints it anyway with reckless disregard to the truth. Without that proof, the plaintiff is powerless.

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The fine acting, relevant topic, and fleshed-out characters make ABSENCE OF MALICE an entertaining and thoughtful film. I recommend it.

Thief (1981)   4 comments

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne

Frank (James Caan) works alone.  He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves.  They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept.  They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value.  It’s a tidy operation.  Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses.  Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts.  It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.

caan

All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections.  At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him.  Frank likes running the show.  Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate.  The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more.  Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people.  For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky.  When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.

pro
“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”  Oops, wrong show.

The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre.  Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on.  LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does.  In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn.  In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”.  He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob.  Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side.  THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms.  Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.

out1
Sean on Jupiter

Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character.  Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter.  As odd as it sounds, he’s honest.  As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him.  When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable.  He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times.  In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.”  James Caan revels in this role.

jam
“Quit calling me Sonny.”

Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film.  The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT.  More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free.  THIEF looks great too.  Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.

th

Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities.  When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him.  He knows he’s free.

fire

This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.  Here’s the link.  THIEF  The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre.  If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film.  It’s a lovely place.

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