18 Days of Paranoia #18: Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir by Rudolph Cartier)


Well, here we are at the end of both March and the 18 days of paranoia.  We started things off with a review of The Flight That Disappeared and now, we end things with a look at the 1954 BBC production of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Orewllian” is a term that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, largely by people who the real George Orwell probably would have viewed rather dismissively.  Ever since the election of Donald Trump, for instance, it’s become rather common for certain people of twitter to say that “Orwell was right” or that we’re living in an “Orwellian nightmare.”  I remember after Trump’s press secretary blatantly lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, there was even a commercial that featured Zachary Quinto giving a hilariously overwrought reading of the final passage of George Orwell’s 1984.  “He …. LOVED …. BIG …. BROTHER!” Quinto declared while staring grimly at the camera.

Interestingly enough, many of the same people who complain about Trump’s lies being Orwellian never used the term during the previous 8 years, when we were being constantly told that a permanent recession was actually a sign of a strong economy and that if people liked their doctor, they could keep them.  The fact of the matter is that, for a lot of people, “Orwellian” is just a term that they use whenever a politician from the other side does something that they dislike.  It makes you wonder how many of them have actually read 1984 because, if they had, they would surely know that — if we truly were living in the world depicted in Orwell’s novel — no one would be allowed to acknowledge it and, in fact, Orwell and his books would have vanished down the memory hole.  Just the act of saying that we’re living in 1984 without getting sent to a reeducation camp is proof that we’re not (or, at least, we’re not just yet).

That’s not to say that 1984 isn’t an important work of literature.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most important books ever written, which is why it does it such a disservice to glibly toss around the term Orwellian.  Even if we aren’t living in Orwell’s world right now, it’s probably easier than ever to imagine a scenario where we eventually could.  The Coronavirus pandemic, for example, is just the sort of thing that could lead to the people accepting the idea that the government is meant to be a Big Brother and that those who disagree deserve to be reported for the good of the people.  It’s easy to imagine a future where people believe that history started with the Coranavirus and that everything that happened before the pandemic was just a hazy rumor, like Europe before the Renaissance.  As such, even if the term Orwellian is overused, 1984 is still a book that needs to be read and understood.

There have been several film adaptations of 1984, some of which are better than others.  My personal favorite is the 1985 film, which was directed by Michael Radford and which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton.  Running a close second, however, would be the version that was made for the BBC in 1954.

This version sticks closely to Orwell’s novel, though it downplays the book’s sexual themes.  (This is not surprising considering that this version was made for 1950s television.)  Though it condensed Orwell’s story, it hits all of the important points.  Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) is a member of the Outer Party who works at the Ministry of Truth and who lives a rather drab existence in London, “the chief city of Airstrip One.”  He is a citizen of Oceania, which has always been at war with Eurasia.  Winston lives under a system of government called Ingsoc and every day, he spends two minutes hating a mysterious figure named Goldstein.  All around him are posters of Big Brother, watching him and judging.

On the outside, Winston is a loyal party man but on the inside, he has questions and doubts.  How can he not when he works for the Ministry of Truth?  His job is to change history to reflect whatever the current version of it may be.  Some of his co-workers, like Symes (Donald Pleaseance), are openly cynical about what they do.  Others, like O’Brien (an imposing Andre Morell), seem as if they might be sympathetic to Winston’s doubts but Winston cannot be sure.  Meanwhile, Winston has found himself obsessed with Julia (Yvonne Mitchell), who is a member of the Anti-Sex League but who might have doubts of her own.  (Then again, she could also be a member of the Thought Police.)

When Winston is finally arrested for being a thoughtcriminal, it leads to a harrowing interrogation where he learns that truth doesn’t matter, the numbers add up to whatever the party says that they add up to, and that no one is strong enough to survive the ordeal of Room 101.

The BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four was, for the most part, a live performance with a few filmed scenes inserted into the action.  Still, the fact that the majority of the actors were delivering their lines lives brings a certain immediacy to the film.  Everyone seem nervous and edgy.  In real life, that could have been due to the fear that they would miss a line but it also feels appropriate for people who spend every day of their life being watched and judged by Big Brother.  The entire production does an excellent job of creating a world where every minute is suffused in an atmosphere of dread and fear.  From the minute we first see him, Winston seems to know that he’s doomed.  The fact that Big Brother would rather torture and brainwash him rather than just make him disappear just makes things worse.

The production is full of actors — like Cushing, Morrell, and Pleasence — who would go on to become leading figures in the British horror industry and all of them do an excellent job bringing Orwell’s horror to life.  Peter Cushing, with his mix of intelligent features and neurotic screen presence, makes for the perfect Winston Smith and Andre Morrell is just as perfectly cast as the fearsome O’Brien.  The scene in which Winston is forced to confront Room 101 is still a harrowing one and this film perfectly nails the novel’s famous ending, doing so in a low-key manner that’s far more effective than the overwrought approach that other adaptations have brought to the final scene.

Nineteen Eighty-Four can currently be viewed on Prime.  The print is a bit grainy but that only adds to the film’s power.  It comes to us like a hazy vision of the future.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story
  16. Lost Girls
  17. Walk East On Beacon!

18 Days of Paranoia #17: Walk East On Beacon! (dir by Alfred L. Werker)


From 1952 comes Walk East On Beacon, a mix of spy thriller and film noir that highlights the efforts of the FBI to expose and take down a communist sleeper cell working right in the United States of America!  (Cue the dramatic music.)

One need only check out the opening credits to see what type of film Walk East On Beacon is going to be.  We’re told early on that the film was “suggested” by a Reader’s Digest article that was written by none other than the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. The title of that article was “The Crime of the Century: The Case of A-Bomb Spies” and it dealt with the FBI investigation that led to the arrest, conviction, and controversial execution of two Russian spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  I haven’t read the article but judging by the fact that it was written by Hoover and published in Reader’s Digest, I think it’s fairly safe to guess that it wasn’t particularly concerned with things like protecting the First Amendment, civil rights, or the freedom to hold any ideological belief regardless of how unpopular it may be with the general public.  (Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that most historians now agree that, despite what many on the Left claimed over the decades, the Rosenbergs were indeed guilty of being spies and they played a very central role in the Russians discovering the secret to making atomic bombs.)

In the film, George Murphy plays an FBI agent named Jim Belden.  According to J. Hoberman’s book, An Army of Phantoms, the FBI specifically requested that Murphy be cast in the lead role because Murphy was an outspoken anti-communist.  (Murphy would also later be elected to the U.S. Senate.)  Project Falcon, a super-secret U.S. program, has been infiltrated by spies and Belden has been assigned to track down and capture their ringleader.  He does this by using a number of techniques that were probably considered pretty high tech back in 1952, stuff like hidden cameras and secret microphones.  He even brings in a group of lip readers to watch silent footage of two possible spies speaking so that they can tell him what the spies are talking about.  You don’t have to worry about a thing with Jim Belden on the case!

As for the members of the spy ring, they’re a mixed bunch.  Some of them are just bad people who have betrayed their country just because it’s the evil thing to do.  Others are people who idealistically joined the Communist Party years ago because they wanted to help their fellow man and, instead, they’ve now found themselves forced to spy against their country.  Prof. Albert Kafer (Finlay Currie) doesn’t want to betray America but he’s been told that his son will be executed if he doesn’t cooperate.  Kafer goes to the FBI.

As you can probably guess, this is not a particularly subtle film.  The communists are all evil and the FBI is doing its best to protect the loyal citizens of America and, if you’re going to question the legality or the ethics of their methods …. well, why don’t you just move to Russia and tell Stalin about it, okay!?  Interestingly enough, the film is shot like a film noir, with an emphasis on shadows and dark streets and desperate men trying to escape their fate.  But it has none of the moral ambiguity that one usually expects to find in a film noir.  Instead, it presents a thoroughly black-and-white view of the world.  All of the communists are either neurotic or cruelly evil while the FBI is professional, bland, and rather humorless.  There’s really only one moment — where a blackmailed spy admits to his wife that he’s been trapped into betraying his country — where the film seems to come to life.  Otherwise, this is a rather dry film, one that even comes with officious voice over narration.

While the film may not work as a thriller, it is somewhat fascinating as a historical document.  The film was shot on location in Boston and, while I realize this may just be the history nerd in me talking, it’s still somewhat interesting to see what an major American city looked like in 1952.  (It looks remarkably clean.)  As well, the film really delves into the minutia of stuff that today seems mundane but which probably took audiences by surprise in 1952, stuff like wiretapping, drop points, and how even a condolence card could be used to send a secret message.  If nothing else, the film’s portrait of a world where anyone — from a cab driver to an atomic scientist — could be a spy certainly provides a interesting snapshot of 1950s paranoia.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story
  16. Lost Girls

18 Days of Paranoia #16: Lost Girls (dir by Liz Garbus)


Lost Girls tells the true and infuriating story of Mari Gilbert and her search for her oldest daughter, Shannan.

Mari Gilbert is a single mother who is works as a waitress and struggles to give her children the best life that she can.  She’s still haunted by a decision that she made years ago to temporarily put her three daughters into foster care.  Though she eventually reclaimed two of her daughters, her eldest — Shannan — has basically been on her own since she was sixteen.  Shannan, who is now 24, visits her mother and her sisters on a semi-regular basis.  Despite the fact that Shannan claims that she’s just a waitress (like her mother), Shannan always seems to have a lot of money on her.  Mari has her suspicions about what Shannan’s doing to make that money but she keeps them to herself.

Then, one day in May, Shannan disappears.  Mari can’t get the police to take her seriously when she says her oldest daughter has vanished.  They say that Shannan left on her own and will probably return at some point.  They dismiss Mari’s concerns, telling her that her daughter was a prostitute and therefore, by their logic, unreliable.  Even when Mari gets strange phone calls from a doctor who lives in a gated community in Long Island, the police refuse to take her seriously.

However, Mari then discovers that Shannan called 911 the night that she disappeared.  Despite the fact that Shannan sounded panicked, the police waited an hour before responding to her call and, by the time they arrived, Shannan had disappeared.  It’s only when Mari goes to the media that the police actually start to search the area of Long Island where Shannan disappeared.  The police discover the bodies of several sex workers, all murdered by the same unknown killer.

However, they still don’t find Shannan’s body.  Though Mari and her daughter, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie), are convinced that Shannan is one of the killer’s victims, the police continue to insist that Shannan probably just ran off on her own.  In fact, the local police commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) finds himself being pressured to do something about Mari because her now constant presence on TV is making the entire community look bad.

Meanwhile, Mari finds herself caught up in a personal feud between two men who live in the gated community, an amateur investigator (Kevin Corrigan) and a shady doctor (Reed Birney) who has a history of making inappropriate phone calls….

Lost Girls is an interesting but frustrating film.  Some of that is because the story on which the film is based did not have a happy ending.  The Long Island serial killer has never been identified or captured.  The most obvious suspect was never charged with anything and subsequently moved down to Florida.  Mari never got justice for Shannan and, sadly, was eventually murdered by her youngest daughter.  (The murder is acknowledged via a title card but it is not actually depicted in the film.)  As a result, the film itself doesn’t really offer up any of the payoff that you would normally expect to get after devoting 90 minutes of your life to it.  It’s frustrating but, at the same time, its understandable.

Amy Ryan gives a great performance as Mari.  That shouldn’t shock anyone.  She makes you feel Mari’s pain, fury, and guilt.  To its credit, the film does shy away from the fact that Mari often looked the other way when it came to how exactly Shannan was making the money that she regularly sent back to her family and Amy Ryan perfectly captures Mari’s struggle to not only get justice for her daughter but also to forgive herself.  Unfortunately, the film is a bit less convincing when it deals with the police and the suspects.  The film, for instance, can’t seem to decide whether or not Gabriel Byrne’s character is indifferent, incompetent, or just overwhelmed by a bad situation.  By that same token, the doctor and his neighbor both seem oddly underwritten and underplayed.  Obviously, the film can’t just come out and accuse a real, living person of murder (especially when that person hasn’t been charged with anything) but it still makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

Where Lost Girls succeeds is at creating a properly ominous atmosphere.  Every scene seems to be filled with dread and, from the minute that Mari starts her investigation, you feel nervous for her.  She’s taking a true journey into the heart of darkness.  The film leaves you angry that the police refused to search for Shannan.  Sex workers are regularly preyed upon and, because of what they do for a living, society often looks the other way.  That’s how you end up with killers like The Green River Killer and the Long Island serial killer.  They don’t get away with their crimes because they’re clever.  They get away with it because, far too often, society refuses to care about their victims.  Lost Girls is an imperfect film but its heart is in the right place and its message is an important one.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story

18 Days of Paranoia #15: Marie (dir by Roger Donaldson)


The 1985 film, Marie, tells a true story.

(In fact, the film’s official title is Marie: A True Story, just in case there was any doubt.)

The film opens in Tennessee, in the early 70s.  Marie Ragghianati (Sissy Spacek) has left her alcoholic and abusive husband and is now living with her mother and trying to raise three children, one of whom is chronically ill, on her own.  Though she manages to win a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, she quickly discovers that having a degree does not necessarily translate into getting a job.  However, while Marie was a student, she became acquainted with Eddie Sisk (Jeff Daniels), a seemingly friendly lawyer who now has a job as the counsel for the newly elected governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton (Don Hood).  Marie goes to see Eddie and she soon finds herself working in the governor’s office.

With Eddie’s support, Marie rises up through the ranks.  Of course, he does get a little bit annoyed whenever Marie asks him why the governor is so eager to offer clemency to certain criminals.  At first, Eddie claims that it’s because the governor is against the death penalty and he doesn’t want to send anyone to die in “Old Sparky.”  Later, Eddie claims that it’s because the state has been ordered to do something about prison overcrowding.  And finally, Eddie admits that, on occasion, it’s done as a political favor.  It appears that some of the children of Tennessee’s wealthiest families have a really bad habit of getting arrested for some very serious crimes.

Eventually, there’s an opening on the state parole board and Eddie recommends that Marie be appointed the board’s new chairperson.  As Eddie explains it, the governor wants to put a Democrat on the board and he wants to appoint a woman.  (Despite the governor’s insistence that he wants to bring more women into state government, the film makes it clear that the Blanton administration was essentially a boys club.)  Marie agrees and soon, she’s making over a hundred dollars a day!  (That was apparently an unusual thing in the 70s.)

No sooner has Marie moved into her new position than she is informed that some of the governor’s aides have been selling pardons.  When Marie goes to Eddie about the situation, his charming facade disappears as he gets angry with her and accuses her of trying to ruin his career.  When rumors get out that she may have gone to the FBI, Marie becomes a pariah.  The governor demands her resignation, which she refuses to give.  She finds herself being followed by strange cars and harassed by the police.  (At one point, she is arrested for drunk driving despite being sober.)  Meanwhile, people start to show up dead.

When Blanton fires Marie on trumped-up corruption charges, she decides to take the governor to court.  Fortunately, Marie is friendly with a lawyer named Fred Thompson.  The future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate plays himself in this film and he gives such an authoritative performance that he went on to have a busy career as a character actor whenever he wasn’t running for or serving in office.

Marie is a strangely disjointed film.  On the one hand, you’ve got Sissy Spacek, Fred Thompson, and Jeff Daniels all giving excellent performances and you’ve also got an inspiring true story.  On the other hand, the film attempts to combine so many different genres that it sometimes feels as if you’re watching multiple films at once.  The film starts out as the story of a single mom trying to restart her life and then it becomes a workplace drama as Marie has to deal with gossip about her relationship with Eddie and hostile co-workers like fellow board member Charles Traughber (Morgan Freeman, in a small role that would probably be forgettable if it was filled by anyone other than Morgan Freeman).  Then it becomes a courtroom drama, with Fred Thompson cross-examining witnesses and giving final arguments.  Meanwhile, at the same time, it’s also a political thriller in which two men are brutally murdered before they can testify against the governor.  And then finally, it’s also a crime drama as detectives try to track down a career criminal who has friends in the governor’s office.  It’s a film of many good parts but those parts don’t always seem to easily fit together and the end result is somewhat awkward whole.

(Interestingly enough, some of the film’s moments that seem as if they’re most likely to be fictionalized are actually based on fact.  For instance, two men who could have brought down Blanton were mysteriously murdered at the same time that Marie was suing the state.)

In the end, Marie doesn’t really come together but it has a good cast and a good lesson: Never trust a politician.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization

18 Days of Paranoia #14: The Organization (dir by Don Medford)


Sidney Poitier played Detective Virgil Tibbs for the third and final time in the 1970 film, The Organization.

This time, Virgil is investigating a murder at an office building in San Francisco.  It’s a very odd murder, in that an executive was shot, a security guard was bludgeoned, and even though it looks like there was a robbery taking place, nothing appears to have actually been stolen.  Since neither the company nor the executive were believed to be involved in anything shady, Virgil finds himself perplexed as to why any of this has happened at all.

Fortunately, the local urban revolutionaries are here to help!  They contact Virgil and Virgil reluctantly agrees to meet with the group, which is made up of the usual collection of angry 1970s activists — i.e., a dissident preacher, a reformed drug dealer, a guy who won’t stop yelling, and a woman who is obviously going to be killed before the movie is over.  The revolutionaries explain that they were the ones who broke into the office but they also say that they didn’t kill anyone.  Instead, they broke into the office because they wanted the police to investigate the break-in and discover that the company was a front for a bunch of drug dealers.  “The Organization” is flooding poor and minority neighborhoods with heroin and the revolutionaries want to stop them.  In fact, the revolutionaries have stolen four million dollars worth of heroin.  Now, they want Virgil to help them.

Even though Virgil is sympathetic to the revolutionaries, he’s still a cop and he can’t get directly involved with illegal activities.  Instead, he agrees to not arrest the revolutionaries and to continue his investigation, in the hope of bringing down the Organization.  It’s not going to be easy, of course.  There’s evidence that the Organization may even have agents inside the San Francisco police department.

As far as the Virgil Tibbs movies are concerned, The Organization is slightly better than They Call Me Mister Tibbs! but it’s nowhere near as good as the one that started it all, In The Heat of the Night.  Probably the biggest flaw with The Organization is that Virgil has to share the spotlight with the revolutionaries.  With the exception of Raul Julia (who plays a former drug dealer named Juan), none of the revolutionaries are particularly memorable characters and their plan for taking down The Organization is so unnecessarily convoluted that it’s hard to believe that Virgil would go along with it.

On the plus side, The Organization works fairly well as a conspiracy thriller.  It does manage to create a consistent atmosphere of unease and mistrust.  This is one of those films where people are constantly getting shot by unseen gunmen mere minutes after getting arrested and the fact that even cool and in-control Virgil Tibbs can’t save them does a lot towards creating a nice sense of paranoia.  The films end on perhaps the most downbeat note of all of the Virgil Tibbs movies, suggesting that, in the end, everything we’ve just watched was for nothing.


Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs

 

18 Days of Paranoia #13: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1970 police procedural, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, opens with a murder in San Francisco.

A prostitute has been found dead in a sleazy apartment building and, according to witnesses, she was visited, shortly before her death, by the Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau).  Rev. Sharpe is a prominent civic leader, an outspoken liberal who is a friend of the civil rights movement.  Sharpe is currently at the forefront of a campaign to pass a city referendum that will add a “mini city hall” to every neighborhood and will help to fight against the gentrification of San Francisco.  If Sharpe’s guilty, it will mean the death of the referendum.

Despite the fact that there’s a ton of evidence piling up against him and he kind of comes across as being a little bit creepy (he is, after all, played by Martin Landau), Rev. Sharpe insists that he’s innocent.  Yes, he’s been visiting prostitutes but he’s not a client.  No, of course not!  Instead, Sharpe explains that he’s simply counseling them and praying for their souls.  In fact, as far as Sharpe is concerned, this whole thing is just an attempt by the establishment to discredit his efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.

Heading up the investigation is a friend and supporter of Sharpe’s, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).  That may seem like a good thing for Sharpe, except for the fact that Tibbs is an honest cop and he’s not the type to let friendship stand in the way of doing a thorough investigation.  Tibbs admits that he supports Sharpe’s campaign and he wants the reverend to be innocent.  But Tibbs is all about justice.  Whether it’s teaching his son an important lesson about smoking or tracking down a potential serial killer, Virgil Tibbs is always going to do the right thing.

There are other suspects, all of whom are played by suitably sinister character actors.  Anthony Zerbe plays a criminal who lived near the prostitute.  Ed Asner plays her landlord, who may have also been her pimp.  Is Sharpe being set up by the powers that be or is Tibbs going to have to arrest a man whom he admires?

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was the second film in which Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs.  The first time he played the role was in 1967, when he co-starred with Rod Steiger in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night.  In that film, Poitier was a Philadelphia cop in the deep south who had to work with a redneck sheriff.  In They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Virgil is now working in San Francisco and he has to work the case on his own.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is a far more conventional film than In The Heat of the Night.  Whereas In The Heat of the Night had a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could just as easily have taken place in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.  With the exception of some slight profanity, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! feels more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual feature film.  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that there’s no real surprises to be found within the film.  You’ll guess who the murderer is within the first 10 minutes of the film and you’ll probably even guess how the movie will eventually end.

On the plus side, just as he did in In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier brings a lot of natural authority to the role of Virgil Tibbs.  He’s actually allowed to show a sense of humor in this film, which is something that the character (understandably) couldn’t do while he was surrounded by bigots and rednecks during his previous adventure.  Virgil gets a few family scenes, where we watch him interact with his wife and his children.  The scenes feel out of place but, at the same time, Poitier plays them well.

With Sharpe attempting to get his referendum passed and the possibility that riots could break out if Sharpe is indeed guilty of murder, there’s a slight political subtext to They Call Me Mister Tibbs!  Sharpe’s argument that he was being set up by the establishment undoubtedly carried a lot of weight in 1970.  Still, this is ultimately a shallow (if adequately entertaining) film that, for the most part, is only made memorable by Poitier’s commanding performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller

18 Days of Paranoia #12: Best Seller (dir by John Flynn)


The 1987 film, Best Seller, tells the story of two men, both equally capable of violence but with two very different moral codes.

Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is a cop who also writes true crime.  In the early 70s, he was the one of several cops who were attacked by a group of gunmen who were all wearing Richard Nixon masks.  Though he was shot, Meechum survived and he even managed to stab one his assailants.  15 years later, Meechum is still haunted by the incident.  Meechum is a brawler who doesn’t have much time for nonsense but he also has a strong moral code (or so he thinks).

Cleve (James Woods) talks fast and always seems like he’s a little bit nervous.  He has a quick smile and a joke for almost every occasion.  He’s also a professional assassin, a sociopath who is very interested in Dennis.  Cleve has spent the majority of his life working for a powerful businessman named David Madlock (Paul Shenar) but he’s recently been laid off.  Cleve wants revenge and he thinks that Dennis can help him get it.

Together …. THEY FIGHT CRIME!

Well, actually, they kind of do.  Madlock’s done a lot of illegal stuff and Cleve and Dennis are exposing him, his crooked corporation, and all of his powerful connections.  However, what Cleve really wants is for Dennis to write a best seller about his life.  Cleve wants Dennis to write his story and most importantly, he wants Dennis to make him the hero.  Dennis is still a cop and says that once all this is over, he’s going to have to arrest Cleve.  Of course, eventually, he discovers that Cleve was the man who shot him 15 years earlier.  At that point, Dennis says that he’s going to have to kill Cleve once all of this is over.

As a crime thriller, Best Seller hits all of the expected beats.  As soon as we find out that Dennis is a widower and that he has a teenage daughter, we know that she’s eventually going to be taken prisoner by the bad guys.  For that matter, we can also guess that there will be a few scenes where Cleve insists that Dennis is just like him.  When Cleve starts telling people that Dennis is his brother, it’s a fun scene because it’s well-acted by both Woods and Dennehy but it’s not exactly surprising.

But no matter!  Though the the overall plot may be predictable, there’s enough clever little twists and details that the film holds your interest.  For instance, there’s an extended sequence where Dennis insists that Cleve introduce him to his family.  For the next few minutes, the film stops being an action thriller and instead becomes a bit of a domestic comedy as Dennis meets Cleve’s friendly family, none of whom are aware that Cleve is a ruthless killer.  The stuff with Cleve’s family doesn’t move the plot forward but your happy it’s there because 1) James Woods gives a great performance in those scenes and 2) it suggests that the film (which was written by Larry Cohen and directed by John Flynn, who was previously responsible for the brilliant Rolling Thunder) has more on its mind than just shooting people.

The main reason why Best Seller works so well is because the two leads are perfectly cast.  Brian Dennehy was born to play tough cops while James Woods gives one of his best performances as the unstable but likable Cleve.  I’ve actually had people get made at me for saying that James Woods is a good actor, simply because they disagree with his politics.  But, when it comes to art and talent, I don’t care about anyone’s politics.  (I mean, if I only watched movies starring people whose politics where approved by Film Twitter, I would end up spending the entire pandemic watching romantic comedies starring Alec Baldwin and Rosie O’Donnell and why should I suffer like that?)  James Woods is a good actor and he’s great in Best Seller.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed