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.
Les anges gardiens/GUARDIAN ANGELS (1995)
Gerard Depardieu is a former gangster who agrees to travel to Hong Kong as a favor to a dying friend. He’s to smuggle a young Chinese boy and millions in bearer bonds back to France. To this end, he enlists the help of a Catholic priest played by Christian Clavier.
This movie is seriously nuts. I mean CRAY-zee. It begins like a bloody Hong Kong action flick before morphing into a chase comedy with heavy elements of farce. And THEN, fifty-five minutes into its running time a supernatural element is introduced as Depardieu’s guardian angel (played by Depardieu in a schoolboy uniform and fright wig) shows up to plague his conscience. But somehow, against all odds, it all still works thanks to the most frenetic pacing I’ve ever seen in a film along with a gaggle of over-the-top comic performances and some seriously violent action sequences. Being populated with some astonishingly beautiful women doesn’t hurt either. In the film, Depardieu owns a Paris nightclub that features really wacky naughty dance routines. The one with a full-sized sea lion made my jaw drop.
11 HARROWHOUSE (1974)
Charles Grodin gets taken in a scam involving a one hundred carat diamond. To get himself out of trouble with a statistic underworld figure, he must plan and execute a robbery on a London gem merchant’s impregnable safe.
A slick, sophisticated heist flick with Grodin and co-star Candace Bergen playing it once over lightly throughout. They have a brittle chemistry that really works due to their contrasts. Bergen is breezy and carefree while Grodin plays his patented repressed cynic, and the match is perfection. The lead-up story is fun and the robbery sequence and its fallout make for a lot of suspenseful moments. Based on a novel by Gerald Browne, the screenplay got some serious tweaking in an alternate cut in which Grodin convinced the studio to let him write and perform narration throughout. I’ve seen both versions of the film and the one with Grodin’s stream of consciousness off-screen asides is far superior.
Director Aram Avakian was also at the helm of one of my other favorite heist flicks, COPS AND ROBBERS, adapted from a Donald Westlake novel.
Dany Boon is travelling to his daughter’s wedding in Corfu when his trip is interrupted by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. To make matter worse, Valérie Bonneton, his ex-wife, is one the same plane. The two decide to pool their resources to travel by car across Europe to reach the wedding in time. Soon, the animosities of their former marriage emerge to put them at odds.
Another well-crafted comedy produced by Dany Boon, France’s most successful movie comic. Boon is perfectly matched in the physical comedy category by the rubber-faced Bonneton. The two have a real chemistry even when they’re battling. Especially when they’re battling. A kind of more frantic PLANES, TRAINS and AUTOMOBILES as the trials and setbacks and felonies of their odyssey mount up and tensions rise that threaten to demolish both their lives. Fun, silly, escapist fare by a master of the farce.
A US general with plans for the D-Day invasion is captured by the Germans and held in a mountaintop castle facing interrogation and torture. A commando raid is put into action to rescue the general but is hampered by enemies from within.
Specially written by Alistair Maclean as a starring vehicle for Richard Burton, this flick has all the hallmarks of a MacLean actioner. Plenty of intrigue, dead bodies, explosions, chases, thrills and betrayals. Deliberately plotted with some great suspense moments. Burton is too old for the role but goes at it doggedly if not entirely sober. Clint Eastwood is his co-star and one sense the disdainful sneer fixed on his face is not acting. Eastwood hated making this flick which features his highest body count ever.
Still, it’s a grand adventure throughout and the kind of straight-up war action flick they don’t make any more in H’wood.
THE HOT ROCK (1972)
Recently released criminal mastermind Robert Redford is pulled into leading a crew to steal a valuable diamond to settle a dispute between warring African tribes. Unfortunately, stealing it once will not be enough.
William Goldman does a terrific job of adapting Donald E. Westlake's first John Dortmunder novel to the big screen. An instant classic caper comedy, Goldman keeps what is essential form the novel. He retains the brittle relationship between Dortmunder and his frequent partner-in-crime Andy Kelp (played to perfection by George Segal) and adds a frisson of tension by making Kelp Dortmunder's brother-in-law. Goldman also keeps other of the novel's best elements, the backroom bar meetings at the Amsterdam, the banter between the members of the crew, and the wonderfully realized scenes with Stan Murch, the gang's getaway driver as embodied by Ron Liebman with Charlotte Rae cast as the character only ever known as "Murch's mom" in the novels.
But chief among this movie's many high points is the performance of Robert Redford. With his matinee idol looks, Redford would have been my last choice to play the put-upon everyman Dortmunder. The actor I always envisioned in this part is James Cromwell. But Redford totally gets what's required of him to pull this off and shows a real affection for the character he's play as presented in Westlake's prose. His body, language, even his posture, puts across the fatalistic, born-to-lose, "why me?" personality of John Dortmunder.
Funny, fast-paced, suspenseful and loaded to the brim with one solid performance after another. Zero Mostel, Moses Gunn and Paul Sands are all in top form and Christopher Guest appears in a blink-and-you-miss-him scene in which he delivers one of the movie's best laugh lines.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)
Clint Eastwood is on the run from former associates who mistakenly believe that he screwed them over in a bank heist they pulled together. While on the lam he encounters free spirit Jeff Bridges who convinces him that the only way out of his troubles is to repeat the same heist again.
On a heist flick kick this week and this one is a classic. Part bromance, part road picture and part crime story, this movie takes its time getting where it's going but you won't mind a bit. Clint and Jeff have a real chemistry here but, as my wife pointed out, who WOULDN'T have chemistry with any character played by Jeff Bridges?
It's a very 70's movie in all the best ways. It's earthy and oddly paced and takes time out for poetry as well as scenery. And my favorite scene is an improv bit where Bridges uses a hand covered in raccoon feces to get Eastwood to break character and elicits from him a VERY Clint-like real world rejoinder.
It's funny, suspenseful and touching (though without sentiment) and George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis play a pair of indelible lowlifes.
THE REAL McCOY (1993)
Kim Basinger is a professional bank robber out on parole after a six year jolt. She's forced to try and pull the same the job that put her away by the very man who ratted her out the first time.
A pretty neat heist flick with some clever ideas and unforeseen twists. There's a buddy bond between Basinger and co-star Val Kilmer that, refreshingly, never turns romantic. And Terence Stamp is on hand playing his brand of smooth sleazebag with Jo-juh drawl.
The only drawback in this flick is Basinger. She does a fine job in the role but, ultimately is just too damned attractive to be believable as an ex-con and heist artist.
DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939)
Newlyweds Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert set out for the wilderness in the early days of the Revolution. They are soon caught up in the events of the war with their lives and livelihood at stake when the Iroquois go on the warpath at the urging of the redcoats.
What a year for movies 1939 was! And this is juts another fine example of the kind of quality entertainment Hollywood was capable of in their golden era. John Ford brings his talents to bear on this story and the results are magnificent. Ford was a keen storyteller who knew how to balance the epic elements of a tale like this with the more personal aspects of the characters involved.
An earnest effort to remain historically accurate to the period elevates this to a true period drama rather than a simple action picture. The cast is great with Colbert and Edna May Oliver standouts as the kind of tough-as-nails women who help bring civilization to the frontier.
A recent restoration from a technicolor master prints really brings this grand feature new life. Some of the shots, using natural sunlight, or the lack of it, are stunning.
THE SWORDSMAN (2020)
The former bodyguard of the king goes into hiding to protect the king's daughter from foreign invaders and enemies within the court. Years later, as he is losing his eyesight, the swordsman is called upon once more to save the princess from a terrible fate.
Badass Korean actioner that remembers to have a story and plenty of heart. The action is terrific and eschews the more frenetic methods of most recent swordfight flicks. The core situation moves from bad to worse to unthinkable as all as the stakes rise higher and higher as do the stacks of bodies. Excellent performances throughout and an ensemble cast of characters that you learn to care about. Oh, and some truly despicable bad guys. The villains in K-dramas seem to break into two groups; a-holes from China or a-holes from Japan depending on the period.
LIBELED LADY (1936)
When a big city newspaper mistakenly reports a scandal involving spoiled heiress Myrna Loy a five million dollar libel suit ensues. To save the paper, editor Spencer Tracy hires legal sharpie William Powell to compromise Loy in order to embarrass her into canceling her legal action. But to make the gag work, Powell must marry Tracy's fiancé Jean Harlow. Get all that? You will.
This one belongs on anyone's list of the best Hollywood screwball comedies. It has a wonderful premise that pays off over and over again as the four personalities clash and compromise then clash again. It's a seamless romantic comedy as well with all the "will they or won't they?" aspects required of an effective cinema love rack. Loads of sparkling dialogue and exchanges and William Powell gets to show off his abilities as a physical comic with a hysterical scene of him ineptly pretending to be an expert fly fisher. Four of the biggest star of their era in a movie worthy of them all.
HANG 'EM HIGH (1968)
Clint Eastwood is falsely accused of rustling and strung up by a lynch mob. They really should have stuck around to make sure he was dead. Clint survives to take on a marshal badge so he can hunt the vigilantes down under the cover of the law.
This standard fare western actually improves with age. It's kind of a snapshot of the shifting morals of the late 60's and the start (along with THE WILD BUNCH and others released the same year) of the trend toward "mean" westerns that would dominate the genre into the 70's.
It's action packed and often suspenseful and notable for being packed with great character actors and contract players with Bruce Dern, Bob Steele, Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, L.Q. Jones and a busload more including the actress who used to play Howard Sprague's girlfriend on Mayberry RFD as a prostitute!
This is the first film made under Clint's Malpaso banner and he appears to have had a lot of control over the production. He hired Ted Post to direct. Post was his most frequent director on the Rawhide TV series and Clint, famously, did a lot of overtime on that show learning filmmaking from all involved including set designers, cameramen, wranglers and stuntmen. Proof of his eagerness to learn everyone's job is in the series itself. In the series' second unit footage Clint's character, Rowdy Yates, is the only main cast member seen roping strays and bulldogging herds along with the stunt riders. I imagine he hired Post to direct as a payback for mentoring him. This was Post's first theatrical feature.
THUNDER IN THE EAST (1952)
Alan Ladd is a gunrunner offering a planeload of machine guns and ammo to a beleaguered raj along the northwest frontier. But local bureaucrat Charles Boyer abhors violence and won't let Ladd do business even as the bandit tribes close in.
A script by Jo Swerling that provides Ladd with some great snarky tough guy lines as well as building a believable romance between him and co-star Deborah Kerr. Solid direction by Charles Vidor who torques up the tension as the situation quickly slides from bad to worse over the course of the picture and Ladd evolves from heel to hero.
This movie is probably most famous for its closing scene, a daring choice at the time for what is, essentially, a studio programmer.
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996)
Currently free on Amazon Prime.
Rail workers in Tsavo are being plagued by a pair of male lions who seem intent on stopping construction of a vital bridge. Val Kilmer is sent to sort things out but soon realizes he's over his head and must call upon the talents of professional hunter Michael Douglas.
This is big African adventure stuff based on the true story of the lions of Tsavo and, as the movie claims, even the most incredible parts of this story actually happened. A solid script by William Goldman and sure direction by Stephen Hopkins make this one a rewatchable classic. Add to that one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores and you have yourself a fine movie night.
The ensemble cast is excellent and Kilmer does himself credit by playing an Irishman without resorting to a faux brogue. The lion sequences use old school process shots as well as trained lions and are all the more effective for it. Part horror movie and part safari adventure. I only wonder what took Hollywood so long. What a flick this would have made for someone like Errol Flynn!
Mains armées/ARMED HANDS (2012)
A national police officer is on the trail of a massive smuggling operation involving military ordnance stolen by a Serbian mob. These guns are finding their way into France to spark a crime wave. He enlisted the aid of his daughter, a Parisian narcotics detective.
This is an excellent policier with some unforeseen twists, rapid pace and plenty of action including gunfights and foot and car chases. The movie remarkably free of exposition. We learn a lot of what's going on by inference or casual asides. That's invisible writing, mon frère. And it's one of the aspects of this thriller that keeps it consistently engaging.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
Danny and Peachy, soldiers of fortune and scoundrels of the first order, take off through the Hindu Kush for the back of beyond with the idea of making themselves kings. Or, more to the point, as rich as kings.
This John Huston adaptation of the classic Rudyard Kipling story was twenty years in the realizing, Originally written to be cast with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Huston found more and suitable replacements in Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
This is adventure on a grand scale, deliberately paced and shot in a way that we share Danny and Peachy's sense of discovery as they explore a part of the world no westerner has ever seen.
The pair are obviously having the time of their lives, though Connery looks a bit rattled in the extras over the eight foot fall he has to take at the film's climax.
Much of the supporting cast was derived from Moroccan locals including the high priest who was over 100 years old at the time of filming.
A simply terrific story, wonderful performances and plenty of humor, suspense and action.
RIO BRAVO (1959)
John Wayne arrests the brother of a powerful rancher and all hell breaks loose.
Despite what a certain comic book artist I know will tell you, RIO BRAVO is easily in the top five of great American westerns. I know that many feel that EL DORADO (a near-remake of this film) is superior. And while the later film is excellent in its own right, RIO BRAVO stands taller.
This was made by Howard Hawks after a five year hiatus from filmmaking. He returned to the US from a long stay in Europe to find that television had taken over as America's entertainment medium of choice. He realized that he'd need to change how he worked to concentrate on drawing audiences to theaters to watch his films. What he determined was that Americans were being exposed, thanks to their obsessive TV watching, to more live and filmed story content than ever before. It would take more than story to bring them from their homes to buy tickets. So he and old H'wood hands Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett worked to fashion a movie that emphasized experience over plot.
The result is a classic Hawks "hang-out" flick. Thank you to whoever gifted me with that accurate descriptor for so much of Hawks' work. We spend a few days with the Duke, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan as they deal with one challenge after another to their authority and the peace of the town they guard.
There's laughs and romance and suspense along the way and it all seems to just "happen" without contrivance or hurry, growing out of the relationship between these men of common cause. The dialogue is, as always ion a Hawks feature, witty, sharp and delivered in a casual manner that makes it seem like improv. More impressive are the scenes without dialogue. The opening sequence in which we learn all we need to know about the two main characters even though not a word is spoken between them. The scene where Dean Martin convinces us, with a change in his facial expression alone and the simple gesture that follows that his courage is restored.
And, yes, Ricky Nelson is not a very good actor. But anyone who was watching TV at the time knew that this was the charm of he and his brother Dave. They were family members drafted into acting and there was always a degree of wry amusement behind their eyes at being seen as TV stars. That quality always made them the funniest characters on their parents' show, delivering their gag lines as if they were outsiders commenting on the absurdity of it all. The writers of the show learned to lean into that. That same wary delight is what makes Nelson's performance work here.
This is Hawks' last great film and is top drawer in every respect. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.
FRENCH CONNECTION 2 (1975)
Popeye Doyle pursues Frog One to Marseilles only to be used as bait by the French police. But Popeye never knows how to leave well enough alone.
That rarest of cinema rarities, the worthy sequel.
While not the equal of the 1971 original, the movie does not make the mistake of so many follow-up films. It is not in any way a near-remake of the first film It's an excellent police thriller of its own and stands up well on its own merits.
The tone, look and pacing of the Friedkin film are perfectly matched by director John Frankenheimer. The writing is sharp and the action solid. But the key to all of this is hackman's stellar performance, in particular the scenes where he must go cold turkey after three weeks as a heroin addict, a condition forced on him by abductors. Hackman is never better than when taking on a character as complex as this and then telling us a story from that character's point of view. His vain attempt to explain who Whitey Ford is heartbreaking and breathtaking at the same time. Ever want to see an actor 1000% committed to a role? Hackman's always that.
THE VIKINGS (1958)
Viking Kirk Douglas and slave Tony Curtis are half-brothers and even their daddy, Ernest Borgnine, doesn't know their relation. With the capture of princess Janet Leigh the tensions between the two half-siblings reach a fever pitch resulting in treachery, intrigue and war.
It's hard to estimate the impact this movie had on me as a little boy watching it on the Sunday Night Movie all those years ago. This grand Hollywood entertainment, produced by Douglas, still holds up just fine. The full-on gusto performances of the entire cast, an intelligent script. location filming shot by Jack Cardiff and an unusual attention to period accuracy make this superior entertainment.
Douglas is at the top of his form as the vile but heroic Einar. Curtis, never at his best in period roles, is very effective as the slave Erik. And Janet Leigh manages to be more than an ornamentation in a very strong performance as the always-in-jeopardy Morgana. But it's Borgnine, as Ragnar, who owns this movie. Even through a wooly beard, we can read his every thought and feel his rages, sorrows and joys. And he has one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema history.
And, despite its age and all that has come since, that vertigo-inducing sword fight atop the castle keep is just as effective today as it was when the film was released.
Jake Gyllenhaal is an opportunistic grifter who changes from selling stolen recyclables to video journalism. Already a sociopath, his deep dive into turning other people's tragedy into money and power turns him into an unfeeling monster willing to do anything to get the footage he needs.
I generally stay away from movies with a journalist as the protagonist unless I know he's going to be portrayed as a total scumbag. ACE IN THE HOLE comes immediately to mind. No problem here. Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom is a monster in human guise. But, as is the point of this story, he is a welcome monster in the cutthroat world of journalism. The movie is dark and seedy and will give you the serious creeps. It's also fast-paced and fascinating and Gyllenhaal scores another amazing performance.
Another flick heartily recommended to me by Mike Baron. Keep 'em coming!
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