Back when I still had dreams of being a comic book double threat, writer AND artist, I turned out hundreds of pages of art. This is some of my output from the 1970's. Note a strong Tezuka influence on a few of them.
Monday, July 26, 2021
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
Rosalind Russell is a newspaperwoman who's anxious to leave the employ of Cary Grant, her former editor and ex-husband. But Cary is willing to do anything (and I mean ANYTHING) to keep her on the paper and in his life.
Howard Hawk's remake of the popular play and movie THE FRONT PAGE makes the ingenious change of making the principles a divorced couple instead of a pair of contentious men. What ensues is both a hilarious battle of the exes as well as a cynical comic take on journalism that is as true today as it was in 1940.
Terrific comedy set pieces and stand out comedy performances throughout. But the movie also asks some hard questions and the laughs are built upon a solid dramatic framework. To my mind, other than pure farces of the Marx Brothers variety, every great comedy has a plot that would have been just as effective as a straight drama.
Grant turns on his signature charm to such a degree that he makes us forget what a lowdown heel his character actually is. Russell is more than a match for him, keeping up punch-for-punch in one snappy exchange after another. In fact, Russell hired writers on the outside to arm her with comebacks to Grant's frequent off-the-cuff adlibs. Grant caught on early and caught her referencing a cheat sheet and said, "What do you have for us today?"
And she needed the ammunition as all of her scenes were in the style Hawks created, the rapid fire ensemble scenes where everyone is talking over everyone else but we never miss anything that's being said. Those scenes required deft writing and endless rehearsals to get right. They are the dialogue equivalent of an Astaire and Rogers dance routine.
The cast is filled with Columbia stock players with Billy Gilbert a standout as a bewildered civil servant.
BTW, I watched this on a recent Criterion disc. At last, this movie that's been in public domain for decades gets a great restoration. It's never looked or sounded so good as it does now.
THE YAKUZA (1974)
As a favor to a friend, Robert Mitchum returns to Japan and re-opens old wounds while stirring up trouble amongst local gangsters.
This is a fine, maturely presented action flick scripted by Robert Towne and Paul Schrader. Sidney Pollack directs with a sure eye and lots of earnest respect for the genre he's working in.
It's a fine mash-up of film noir sensibilities and the requirements of a good yakuza movie. Mitchum enters a world he thinks he understands only to have the tatami mat pulled out from under him again and again. Takakura Ken, in a role he made his own in a long series of Japanese crime movies, is awesome in the role of a ronin who must bear a world of sorrow on his shoulders.
The climactic battle delivers bigtime with lots of twists and turns. The blocking and pacing show a keen understanding of what makes yakuza and chambara movies click. And it's kind of nice to see a movie where the characters are tough but not superhuman.
Solid performances throughout and the kind of hardboiled, unforgiving story you'd expect form the screenwriters who brought us CHINATOWN and TAXI DRIVER.
RADIN!/ PENNY PINCHER (2016)
Dany Boon is an obsessive-compulsive cheapskate who aggravates everyone he encounters. Even love cannot overcome his manic thriftiness until his life is turned on its head with the arrival of a teenage daughter he didn’t know he had. See, years before, he insisted on using an expired condom and…
Another winner for French comic icon Danny Boon. His portrayal of a series of flawed men with fraying psyches hits comedy gold once again in this grand farce with one awkward moment after another leading to a surprise turnaround in the story that is emotional without being sentimental hogwash. These films are unabashed feel-good comedies and always crafted for laughs without forgetting the need for heart and a cohesive plotline. Not sue if this one is up on Amazon Prime but a few of Boon’s other films are and worth checking out if you’re looking for witty, bright entertainment.
RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958)
Audie Murphy’s on the run from the law. When the marshal pursuing him meets with an accident, Audie takes on the lawman’s identity. The ruse works fine until he’s drafted as the next town’s new sheriff by judge Walter Matthau. That’s gonna put a crimp in Audie’s plans to rob the town’s bank.
Dandy action-suspense film with Murphy playing a heel pushed by circumstances (a needy orphan, a stray mutt and pretty Gia Scala) to turn over a new leaf. Henry Silva is his usual creepy self as the leader of a rival gang out to take down the bank before Audie can. Most remarkable about this movie is Walter Matthau as a shotgun toting judge who rules the town by his own mercurial set of laws. Matthau appears to be having a great time hamming it up as a western character. It’s shame he gave up being in cowboy movies for urban comedies.
A warts-and-all bio-pic of the legendary Army general of WWII. We join George Patton as he takes over command of an armored division in North Africa and follow him as he does as much fighting with the media and politicians as he does with the Nazis.
Francis Ford Coppola’s summation of Patton’s WWII years finds all of the highlights as well as the controversies of this man “born in the wrong century.” The film is, if anything, more relevant today than when released with his depiction of the power of the media to drive events and the craven politicians only too willing to bow to them.
The contradictions of Old Blood and Guts are shown here as well, the man’s love of armed conflict and his military ambitions cast against his deep devotion to the soldiers serving under him even as he pushed them to the limit in Sicily and France.
George C. Scott, a figure almost as rebellious and anachronistic as the man he was playing, fully inhabits his subject to a remarkable degree with an indelible performance. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sometimes grand and sometimes haunting and provides the perfect background for this epic story of triumph and loss.
If I have one quibble it’s the inaccuracy of some of the armored vehicles in the film, particularly on the German side with US issue armor disguised with Wehrmacht symbols and paint jobs. How did a movie like KELLY’S HEROES (which I love) get it so right and this movie so often gets it wrong? Perhaps they should have shot the movie in Eastern Europe instead of Spain.
DEEP COVER (1992)
Lawrence Fishburne is chosen by an ambitious DEA agent to go undercover in the Los Angeles drug trade. But he is soon left to wonder which side he’s on.
A crime thriller as well as a commentary on the corruption on both sides of the law. Fishburne delivers as always, and Jeff Goldblum manages to rise above being miscast as a drug dealer with dreams of empire. Clarence Williams III is given the thankless job of playing the rather heavy-handed moral conscience the film and the scenes between him and Fishburne were better played when Patrick O’Brien and James Cagney were in the roles in another era.
Some of the elements are dated now but it’s still an interesting time capsule of the days when crack was king.
Ni pour, ni contre/NEITHER FOR OR AGAINST (2003)
A young woman working as a stringer for a Paris news station accepts and offer form a gang to tape one of their heists. An accessory to the crime, she must either find her place in the gang in order to prevent them eliminating her as a weak link.
A heist movie with a very different twist and take. Part thriller, part character study. No one explores the amoral world of career criminals like the French, and this is a worthy entry in the genre filled with plenty of surprises and nail-biting suspense. I enjoyed trying to “read” the main character and really enjoyed the reveals as they came.
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965)
Frank Sinatra is shot down and placed in an Italian POW camp where is, upon his arrival, the highest-ranking officer. With the Italian surrender the men make a bid for escape, hi-jacking a train for a daring rush to the Swiss border.
Big budget actioner that was part of a run of WWII adventure thrillers and this one holds up as one of the better efforts. Sinatra leads a mostly British cast in a grand entertainment filled with action and suspense. The studio was so high on this flick they planned a sequel. But Old Blue Eyes suggested a new ending for the movie that quashed that idea.
Sinatra is just fine in the lead as the brash, opinionated Ryan. I’m always surprised at how physical Sinatra was willing to get in roles and this one is no exception. He was no young chicken when he made this one, but he always appears game to minor stunts and such. Trevor Howard bristles and struts as only he can and is a terrific foil for Sinatra. Look for James Brolin in a small role and comic actor Vito Scotti as the put-upon train engineer.
DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995)
Count Dracula leases an English estate and begins pestering local women with nighttime visits.
Leslie Nielson, fully indulging his second career as a comic actor, appears to be having fun as the count. Mel Brooks is on hand for his usual shtick-filler performance as Van Helsing. Amy Yasbeck does a good job in the kind of role Madeline Kahn usually occupied. And Peter MacNicol steals every scene he’s in as the pitiable Renfield.
Every vampire trope is sent up from crosses, to garlic to an inspired mirror sequence.
Neat little thriller with loads of snappy, hard-boiled patter. The exchanges between Payne and goodtime gal Shelley Winters are particularly ripe. And Dan Duryea is here as the bete noire and there’s no one better. Duryea plays the heavy you feel his presence in every scenes, even the ones he’s not in!
BIG JAKE (1971)
A ruthless outlaw gang led by Richard Boone kidnaps John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s grandson. Not a good idea.
A late-entry action western for John Wayne and one senses an attempt to join the swing toward the more mean-spirited genre entries of the period like THE WILD BUNCH or the spaghettis. It even has a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink who penned MAJOR DUNDEE and created Dirty Harry Callahan. But old school director George Sherman is not up to the demands of the story or in tune with the mood required. The set-pieces of light comedy seem misplaced and unwelcome with no effort to make them a more organic part of the story. The action is clumsily staged and flaccid. There’s a very ho-hum approach to the movie’s violence resulting in a muted feeling of suspense in scenes that should have been nail-biters.
The movie only really comes alive in the exchanges between Boone and Wayne with both men obviously relishing their scenes together.
Polizioto Sprint/HIGHWAY RACER (1977)
Thursday, July 15, 2021
CAT BALLOU (1965)
Jane Fonda comes back from boarding school to find her daddy’s ranch under fire from a powerful, land-grabbing robber baron. Her only choice is hiring a gunslinger of her own right out of a dime novel.
This classic comedy western still works. It’s funny, charming, and a true cinema gem quite unlike any other film in in the genre. Most notable is the choice to tell the story using a pair of balladeers to sing narrative codas and provide background. The ingenious idea of having them appear on screen as part of the action is nothing less than inspired. And the songs they sing, written specifically for the movie, are welcome additions to the entertainment rather than the cringe-worthy efforts we so often have to endure in westerns. Add to that that they are performed by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole and you’ve got pure gold.
Like all successful comedies, this one has a solid dramatic storyline from which to draw the laughs. In fact, Jane Fonda (when she was a promising young actor rather than a useful idiot for leftist causes) plays her part straight, making no effort to get laughs. And her performance is all the better for it by giving the story a dramatic core for the comic actors to play off.
Much has been made of Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance as both the drunken Kid Shaleen and the villainous Tim Strawn. And it is a bravura performance with Marvin delivering hilarious extended comic soliloquies. Much of the success comes from the director’s request that Marvin play the role as a tragic, rather than a comic, performance. He asked Marvin to try and make the audience cry rather than laugh and the end result is hysterical.
The rest of the cast is equally effective with Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman getting to deliver some great gag lines. And there’s a lot of Yakima Canut classic stunt work, particularly with Marvin’s wild horsemanship upon one of the most famous horses in movie history. If you watch this, pay close attention to the quite impressive square dance sequence all done in one extended take.
Un bonheur n'arrive jamais seul /HAPPINESS NEVER COMES ALONE (2012)
Gad Elmaleh and Sophie Marceau in a fun romantic comedy. Child-hating Gad falls for Sophie not realizing that she had three kids and a troubled past with a series of ex-husbands. The kind of frothy stuff that they make here with Matthew McConoughey and Kate Hudson with a Gallic twist. Meaning, lots more sex and excused amorality. Fun stuff with a gifted comic cast and the kids are funny without being cute and cloying.
CANYON PASSAGE (1946)
Handsomely mounted technicolor production that deserved better than the second feature programmer status it was deigned for. An additional twenty minutes for more character development would have helped this movie in a big way. An astonishing amount of story happens off screen or is explained away in exposition scenes. While there's lots going on, this lack of development at the beginning makes it hard to invest oneself in what comes after. I also had a problem with Dana Andrews as a rough and tumble man of the west. He simply never looks period enough in these movies. But he gets able support from Susan Hayward, Brian Donleavy, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Hoagy Carmichael and Ward Bond at his most primal.
Complicated (perhaps TOO complicated) con artist/heist thriller done in the French once-over-lightly style. Jean DuJardin leads a cast of liars, tricksters and pigeons in the kind of movie where you learn never to trust what you can see. I'm seriously going to have to watch this one again and soon to catch what I missed the first time around. Great cast with Valeria Golino, Jean Reno and others. This one moves fast at a blink-and-you'll-miss pace. And Caroline Proust cleans up nice. I'm used to seeing her as the overly-obsessed homicide cop who never showers in the excellent series SPIRAL.
COME WHAT MAY (2015)
Effective and suspenseful movie about a rural French village that decides to evacuate before the German invasion of 1940. Well-crafted characters, harrowing action and high stakes in a deliberately paced story that will draw you inexorably into these people's lives. Matthew Rhys is excellent as a British soldier who joins the evacuation after his unit is slaughtered. This movie contain one of the neatest (and most desired) scenes of retribution I've ever seen on film. Epic in scale but highly personal as well. It took real skill to balance the big and small story here.
THE KING'S CHOICE (2016)
Another tale of evacuation before a Nazi invasion. This time it deals with the king of Norway and the choices he made following the betrayal of his country by both weak-willed politicians and ones who outright colluded with Hitler. Ironically, King Haakon, a monarch, is the one who saves Norway's democratic status. A real, grown-up historical drama done to perfection to present an important chapter of the war most Americans were not aware of.
THE OUTPOST (2020)
Currently on Netflix.
A small unit of Americans and Afghan troops are posted at
a forward operating base that is situated on the floor of a valley and ripe for
attack. The soldiers deal with daily attacks and the creeping sense of doom as one
CO after another is targeted and killed by the Taliban.
Based on a true story, this movie makes a real effort to portray the events depicted as realistically as possible to the extent that some of the parts are played by men who were there. As a result, it succeeds in a big way, feeling brutally honest and unblinking in this story of courage, dedication and brotherhood.
The dialogue and action all come across as authentic and the point-of-view of the grunts on the ground is brought to life in a way that is seldom this effective. We’re taken into their daily lives in scenes in well-crafted scenes that inform as well as entertain. Compulsively watchable with a hair-raising, pulse-quickening extended climax that is marvel of action blocking as well as acting. Highly recommended for those who prefer their war movies hew to reality.
THE SECRET WAYS (1961)
Richard Widmark plays a mercenary operative who sneaks into communist Hungary to convince a leading dissident to escape to the free world. Things are complicated by shifting loyalties and, of course, a dame.
Based on an Alistair MacLean novel with all the plot gimmicks you’d expect from one of his stories. Unfortunately, the confounding twists so prevalent in his work are rendered even muddier than usual to the point where the viewer is left uncertain of who’s who and what their motives are. It’s also remarkably free of action until the third act when things pick up. This makes for rough sledding leading to the exciting climax that turns out to be too little too late.
THE SWEENEY PARIS (2015)
Jean Reno leads of squad of cops who are essentially gunfighters. He strongly suspects that a large private bank is being cased for a robbery by a violent gang. But, of course, he meets with resistance from his supervisor. This conflict isn’t helped along by the fact that Reno is bumping uglies with his superior’s wife.
Peculiar attempt to make a more American style cop thriller. I say peculiar as the French have a longer history of making quality policiers than the USA. The first act is a throwback to 80’s action films with flippant heroes, takeaway lines and cartoonish action. But it so settles down as the stakes rise and the drama takes a grim turn. The formal acts of the movie are high-octane action in a more realistic vein with a terrific running gun battle in the streets of Paris that’s a lot closer to HEAT than BAD BOYS.
It’s all worthwhile in the end and worth sticking with.
CHINA SEAS (1935)
Clark Gable is the skipper of a freighter sailing the South China Sea and, boy, does he have problems.
Goodtime gal Jean Harlow’s on board looking to move their relationship to the next level just as Rosalind Russell, an old flame from Gable’s past, books passage with an eye to rekindling their romance. And, unbeknownst to everyone, the ship is sailing into pirate waters!
This movie is a prime example of the kind of high entertainment Hollywood produced with regularity in its heyday. It has romance, suspense, action and humor all served up by a top-drawer ensemble cast and all of it dazzles. Gable is at his easiest, relaxed best in the lead role and Harlow gives as good as she gets. We also have Wallace Beery along as the kind of smarmy louse he played so often. Another highlight is Robert Benchley as a persistently drunken passenger in bits he scripted himself. The balance of the mix is wonderful to behold as the gags all work but so do the set-piece actions scenes. A steam roller loose on the deck during a storm is a horrifying bit of business with high stakes and thrills. The humor and romance scenes do nothing to take away from the dramatic through line of the movie. This is grand, crowd pleasing stuff and movie I’ve watched more times than I can count.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
Epic retelling of the Allied landing on Normandy in 1944. We follow an international ensemble cast through the first day of the invasion of fortress Europe.
An ambitious effort to get across the scale, import and drama of a day that truly changed the world. Rather than trivialize the event by focusing in on the experiences of a small group of soldiers and their troubles and conflicts, this production sought to get across a panoramic view of the greatest amphibious landing in history through a series of loosely connected vignettes. And it succeeds in a big way to impart the events of the day with clarity and suspense and is equally successful in portraying the human angle as we grow familiar with a large cast of characters and follow them through anecdotes that are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes humorous. All of this material was culled from Cornelius Ryan’s exhaustive interviews with the men and women who were witnesses and participants in that day. It helps that Ryan wrote the screenplay based on his bestselling history.
And, of course, there’s the all-star cast featuring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Gert Frobe, Fabian, Bourvil, Sean Connery and dozens of others.
Sunday, July 11, 2021
It’s on Amazon for those of you who’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere.
An army from the future shows up during World Cup finals to warn the planet of an alien invasion that will happen decades in the future. Not only that, but they come to the past to recruit soldiers to fight in the war against the aliens and prevent the extermination of the human race.
Poor Chris Pratt, with this turkey along with PASSENGERS and his JURASSIC PARK entries, seems doomed to play the lead in some of the dumbest movies ever to come out of Hollywood.
This sci-fi actioner is cobbled together from tired ideas strung together in an endless band of cliches, shallow emotional moments and lifeless action scenes. What might have been an interesting framework for an alien invasion shoot ‘em up is poorly presented with very little thought put into making its creaky high concept plot work. This is where movies have come to in the post-modern, post-pandemic, post-woke world. It even manages to blame global warming for the planet’s doom at the hands of carnivorous extraterrestrials.
You’ve all seen this so many times before, right? Act One is sprinkled with lots of characters with oddly specific areas of interest or character traits that you just KNOW, because of those quirks, will show up again in Act Three AND be pivotal to the resolution of the plot. Remember alcoholic crop-duster Randy Quaid in the equally moronic INDEPENDENCE DAY? Or Jeff Goldblum’s Olympic gymnast daughter in JURASSIC PARK: THE LOST WORLD? Only this time out there’s a half dozen of these characters who pop up for a brief moment only as set-ups for their eventual, contrived, re-appearance.
There’re many other examples of totally blinkered thinking to be had here. Like the carnivorous aliens apparent lack of appetite for petite African American women given how many of them form the command core of the future army. Does this make the aliens racist or supporters of racial equity? Or is it just pandering? It’s certainly not diversity as the entire cast is made up of either white or black Americans. Apparently, the alien invaders choose from the Latin and Asian portions of the menu first.
The aliens themselves have nothing really clever, new, or surprising about them. Some producer thought that the more appendages they had the better so there’s lots of limbs they flail about as well as some that fire projectiles at about the same rate as a semi-automatic rifle. I’m surprised they didn’t shoot flame out of their butts or grenades from their nostrils.
And how exactly did a land-based species of predators wrest control of the planet from the human race in only a matter of years despite the fact that every nation is allied against them? This alliance, BTW, entirely falls apart within the span of a week for no other reason than to provide an excuse for our cast of heroes to go rogue in the final act.
Seriously, a species (ours) that used sticks and rocks to become the dominant lifeform on the planet, can’t take care of a horde of galloping beasties with all our vast array of weaponry and total air superiority?
The imponderables arise with a dizzying rapidity as the main conceits of the film are contradicted and violated at every opportunity for the sake of plot development or lame attempts to create dramatic tension. I’ll detail a few here…
The most jaw-droppingly inane aspect of this film is the creation of the story’s main MacGuffin, the creation of a toxin that will kill the hungry critters dead. Of course, the research into finding this superweapon reaches its crux at mankind’s darkest hour. It’s one of Hollywood’s hoariest tropes. “We’ve got to get that serum through!”
What makes this particular plot element an historic low point in cinema history is how later events in the film (like three minutes later) make the creation of the toxin irrelevant. And yet, the MacGuffin is still kept on board as a major plot point. Not only that, but the ticking clock introduced in the second act becomes irrelevant as well. Instead of hours in which to act, the heroes literally have a decade in which to save the human race from extinction and yet ignore this reprieve in order to try and pump some suspense into the tedious, explosion-laden climax the lazy filmmakers have conceived.
And, as an aside, if you did come up with a sure-fire poison to knock off a bajillion deadly monsters crawling all over the planet, would you really administer it in the form of an injection? Wouldn’t an aerosol have been a better delivery system? Was the CDC consulted? Is that what happened? Did Dr, Fauci suggest going door to door?
Also, don’t get me started on how yet another action epic reduces itself to a drama about abandonment issues. I swear, the only emotional component that seems to touch the flinty heart of Hollywood producers always has to do with either divorce or custody issues. How many movies have you seen where the unfairly wronged Good Dad has to redeem himself in the eyes of his children? How often is our studly hero as consumed with making to his son’s soccer game or his daughter’s recital as he is with saving the free world from destruction? It’s as if the entertainment moguls have reduced all human drama to an argument in the car on the way to drop off the kids. “The world is ending, and you still forgot my birthday!”
I could go on, but I won’t.
Anyway, it’s not hard to see why the original studio abandoned this feature and were only too happy to unload it on a streaming service with an odious track record for selecting projects. Honestly, this movie serves as a prime (get it?) example of how Amazon sees its consumers. They believe that we’ll buy anything so long as they can push it to the top of the list hard enough. Well, a turd is a turd no matter how many times they send me emails about it.
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Jean Paul Belmondo heads up a gang of burglars who travel to Greece to steal a fortune in gems from a private home. It all goes as planned except that their getaway is thwarted, and they must spend a week in Athens before the next opportunity. What could spoil a week on the Aegean coast? Crooked cop Omar Sharif who wants his share of the gems.
I saw this in our neighborhood theater when it was released, and it was my first Belmondo film. I enjoyed it so much it sent me on a hunt through the art houses to find more.
A terrific Euro-crime thriller with all the hallmarks, venal cops, car chases, punch-ups, gun battles and the cleverest slapping-a-woman scene in cinema history. (It’s not a true Euro-crime film until a woman is slapped or harmed in some way). As always, JP does his own stunts and makes sure you know it’s him every time. And some of the gags are spectacularly dangerous. It also features what might be Remy Julienne’s longest, and best, extended car chase over and under the streets of Athens.
COPS AND ROBBERS (1973)
Tom and Joe are New York City cops who plan a daring daylight heist of a Wall Street firm during a ticker-tape parade for returning astronauts. Now they’re not only wanted robbers, they’re wondering how to sell the goods on without being murdered by the mob.
Written by Donald E. Westlake from his own novel and, perhaps, the closest we’ll get to true Westlake on film. It’s a seamless mix of comedy and thriller and perfectly captures the crushing ennui of urban life in the 1970s. Cliff Gorman and Joe Bologna inhabit the roles of Tom and Joe as though they were born to play them. The apocalyptic vibe of Fear City is portrayed vividly and provides a kind of bleak undertone that allows us to root for these two lawmen breaking the law to get their own. It also serves to ground the film and make the moments of humor work by contrasting them with the horrors of the street.
I saw this upon release on a double bill with CHARLIE VARRICK. Now THAT was a night at the movies!
Glenn Ford arrives in a cattle town and makes an enemy of everyone he meets when he unloads a trainload of sheep and sets out for the open range. He’s not a man to be denied and uses charm, guile and a lightning-fast gun hand to keep his herd intact.
Part of a string of successful westerns made by Ford through the 50’s and into the 60’s. This one relies on comedy more than most of them and Ford was an adept comic actor who looked to be having the time of his life in this role. While there’s a lot of humor here, it’s also very much an action western with all the fights and shoot-outs an armchair buckaroo could want. Shirley MacLaine is the love interest, playing her tomboy character with an equal mix of credulity and coyness. And Leslie Neilson plays the oily badguy and his scenes with Ford are a lot of fun as the two circle one another in a pissing contest that we know will end poorly for one of them. And Edgar Buchanan chimes in with one of his signature character performances.
THE SPOILERS (1942)
Marlene Dietrich runs the largest saloon in Nome, Alaska and also has her manicured fingers into gold claims that are now threatened by the arrival of Randolph Scott, a new gold commissioner intent on bring law to the Yukon. But is Scott all he seems, or will Dietrich need on again/off again boyfriend John Wayne to look out for her interests?
Richly realized action adventure stuffed with Hollywood gold. Humor, action, suspense and one hell of an extended fistfight between the Duke and Scott at the film’s climax. Dietrich gives a spirited performance (in her own idiosyncratic way) and there’s real heat between her and Wayne that they, rumor has it, shared off screen as well. It’s a gorgeous production all around with some big action scenes with shoot-outs, punch-ups and a pretty spectacular train crash. And it’s fun to watch Wayne share scenes with his mentor Harry Carey who steals each scene he’s in and the Duke lets him.
THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955)
Humphrey Bogart and two other hardened cons break out of the pen and lay low in the suburban home of Frederic March, holding his family hostage until they can make their getaway.
A taut thriller with Bogart turning in another indelible performance as a scheming, amoral and ruthless career criminal. March is a stolid husband and father trapped in a balance between his personal honor and the safety of his family. This one wrings every ounce out of the situation with twists, turns, reversals and multiple chess moves between the two principals. A fine supporting cast with Martha Scott, Arthur Kennedy, Ray Teal, Gig Young, Dewey Martin and ubiquitous child actor Richard Eyer (INVISIBLE BOY, 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD).
On a personal note, I saw this multiple times as a kid on TV and I credit this movie with teaching me the value of low angle shots. Director William Wyler would drop his camera to ground level to mark each dramatic change in the cast’s fortunes and that made a real impression on me.
RUSSIAN RAID (2021)
A corporate oligarch plans a hostile takeover of a rival company. REALLY hostile as he hires a gang of mercenaries to break into the target company’s HQ and beat the daylights out of everyone.
There’s certainly plenty of action. In fact, too much action and too little substance. The fights are well choreographed and brutal, but it all becomes ludicrous as it is revealed that the entire cast is made up of brawling badasses. After a while it grows tiresome and confusing like looking over someone’s shoulder as they play a videogame. I did perk up when they switched from fists to guns and grenades. There are some truly impressive shoot-em-up scenes that are far more realistic than the Popeye and Bluto fights that make up the bulk of the movie’s first acts. If you get a chance, skip to an hour in and enjoy some wild, and believable, gun action.
THE REIVERS (1969)
In 1901 Mississippi, Mitch Vogel is entrusted to look after the family home while the adults travel to a funeral. That includes keeping the family automobile locked away. Only farmhand and car fancier Steve McQueen convinces the boy to take off for Memphis in grandfather’s flivver for a few days of adventure and debauchery.
Though mostly lighthearted fun, the lead character encounters issues that are deeper even than most rite of passage stories deal with. The trip outside of his bucolic small-town existence exposes him to a wider, dangerous and tawdry world than he ever knew existed. All of that grounds the film unapologetically in the reality of the period. There’s high comedy and real drama and it all makes for a well-crafted adaptation of the autobiographical work of William Faulkner.
But what really sets this movie apart and makes it especially relevant in these days of vapid, empty, corporate cookie-cutter entertainment is its inclusion of real stakes for the lead characters. Stealing grandpa’s car was risk enough, but when they lose the car and the only way to get it back by winning a horse race the stakes get cranked higher. That might have bene enough to get us intrigued and keep us interested. Only this story torques it all up higher and higher until the emotional and material consequences seem insurmountable. And the wonderful thing about it all is that, despite our heroes coming out okay in the end, they have left something important behind and the story ends with them left to work ever harder to regain what was lost.
Steve McQueen’s last purely comic role and proof (as if we needed another example) that the King of Cool was also a gifted clown. It also, sadly, has Rupert Crosse’s last performance in a feature. Crosse was a charismatic character who got very few chances to show off his skills before dying at age 45. Here he is the perfectly cast as McQueen’s friend and sometimes foil.
RED SUN (1971)
A ceremonial sword meant as a gift from the emperor of Japan for the president of the United States is stolen by outlaw gang leader Alain Delon but not before Delon leaves partner Charles Bronson behind, mistakenly believing the Bronson is dead. Now Chuck is forced to team with samurai Toshiro Mifune to hunt down Delon’s gang and retrieve the sacred sword.
The casting of three huge international actors is enough to carry this picture on star power alone. The sheer macho of Mifune and Bronson is enough to form an almost visible field of testosterone-fueled energy. There’s lots of bravado and action and all the one upmanship you’d expect but there’s just not a whole lot of story. This really called for an approach more akin to THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Some more complication and grist rather than a “from here to there” kind of story. Still, the gunplay is good, the scenery terrific and Ursula Andress and Capucine are along for the ride.