A Movie A Day #151: Easy Money (1983, directed by James Signorelli)


Rodney Dangerfield.  He didn’t get no respect but he did smoke a lot of weed.

It’s true.  Rodney first lit up in 1942 when he was a 21 year-old struggling nightclub comic.  According to his widow, the moment meant so much to Rodney that, decades later, he could still remember the room number — 1411, at the Belvedere Hotel in New York City — where he and fellow comedians Bobby Byron and Joe E. Ross smoked that first joint.  That was back when Rodney was performing under the name Jack Roy.  (His was born Jacob Cohen.)  Rodney’s first comedy career went so badly that he quit and spent the next twenty-two years as an aluminum siding salesman until he found the courage to return to the stage.  However, whether he was selling or performing, Rodney never stopped smoking marijuana.  When he was working on his autobiography, he wanted to call it My Lifelong Romance With Marijuana.  His wife convinced him to go with a different title:  It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.

There’s plenty of drugs in Easy Money, which is a problem for baby photographer Monty Capuletti (Rodney, of course).  Monty likes to gamble, drink, and smoke pot, much to the disapproval of his wealthy mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  When she dies, she stipulates in her will that if Monty goes for a year without indulging in any of his vices, he and his family will receive 10 million dollars.  Sounds easy, right?  The only problem is that Monty really likes to eat, drink, gamble, and get high.  His best friend (Joe Pesci) doesn’t think he can do it.  His mother-in-law’s former assistant, Quincy Barlow (Jeffrey Jones), is determined to catch Monty slipping back into his old ways so that he can inherit the money.  Monty’s determined, though, to win the money for his family, especially now that his daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has married the bizarre Julio (Taylor Negron).

The episodic plot is really just an excuse for Rodney to be Rodney, spouting off one liners and making snobs like Quincy look foolish.  Rodney and Joe Pesci were a surprisingly effective comedy team.  The scene where they get stoned and try to drive home without damaging the huge wedding cake in the back of the van is a hundred times funnier than it has any right being.  Even though it is hard to imagine her being, in any way, related to Rodney Dangerfield, Jennifer Jason Leigh is always a welcome presence.  Like many comedies of that era, Easy Money is uneven, with as many jokes failing as succeeding but, for Rodney Dangerfield fans, it is a must see.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: The Sting (dir by George Roy Hill)


Earlier tonight, as a part of their 31 Days of Oscar, TCM aired The Sting, the film that the Academy selected as being the best of 1973.  I just finished watching it and what can I say?  Based on what I’ve seen of the competition (and there were a lot of great films released in 1973), I would not necessarily have picked The Sting for best picture.  However, the movie is still fantastic fun.

The Sting reunited the director (George Roy Hill) and the stars (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and told yet another story of likable criminals living in the past.  However, whereas Butch Cassidy largely satirized the conventions of the traditional Hollywood western, The Sting is feels like a loving homage to the films of 1930s, a combination of a gritty, low-budget gangster film and a big budget musical extravaganza.  The musical comparison may sound strange at first, especially considering that nobody in The Sting randomly breaks out into song.  However, the musical score (which is famously dominated by Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer) is ultimately as much of a character as the roles played by Redford, Newman, and Robert Shaw.  And, for that matter, the film’s “let-pull-off-a-con” plot feels like an illegal version of “let’s-put-on-a-show.”

The film takes place in the 1936 of the cultural imagination, a world dominated by flashy criminals and snappy dialogue.  When con artists Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) inadvertently steal money from a gangster named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Lonnegan has Luther murdered.  Fleeing for his life, Hooker goes to Chicago where he teams up with Luther’s former partner, veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Gondorff used to be one of the great con artists but he is now living in self-imposed obscurity, spending most of his time drinking and trying to avoid the FBI.  Hooker wants to get revenge on Lonnegan by pulling an elaborate con on him.  When Gondorff asks Hooker why, Hooker explains that he can either con Lonnegan or he can kill him and he doesn’t know enough about killing.

The rest of the film deals with Hooker and Gondorff’s plan to con Lonnegan out of a half million dollars.  It’s all very elaborate and complicated and a bit confusing if you don’t pay close enough attention and if you’re ADHD like me.  But it’s also a lot of fun and terrifically entertaining and that’s the important thing.  The Sting is one of those films that shows just how much you can accomplish through the smart use of movie star charisma.  Redford and Newman have such great chemistry and are so much fun to watch that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you always understand what they’re actually doing.

It also helps that, in the great 70s tradition, they’re taking down stuffy establishment types.  Lonnegan may be a gangster but he’s also a highly respected and very wealthy gangster.  When Newman interrupts a poker game, Lonnegan glares at him and tells him that he’ll have to put on a tie before he’s allowed to play.  Lonnegan may operate outside the law but, in many ways, he is the establishment and who doesn’t enjoy seeing the establishment taken down a notch?

As entertaining as The Sting may be and as influential as it undoubtedly is (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films may be a lot more pretentious — which makes sense considering that Soderbergh is one of the most pretentious directors in film history — but they all owe a clear debt to The Sting), it still feels like an unlikely best picture winner.  Consider, for instance, that The Sting not only defeated American Graffiti and The Exorcist but Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as well.  On top of that, when you consider some of the films that were released in 1973 and not nominated — Mean Streets, Badlands, The Candy Snatchers, Day of the Jackal, Don’t Look Now, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Long Goodbye — it’s debatable whether The Sting should have been nominated at all.  That’s not a criticism of The Sting as much as it’s an acknowledgement that 1973 was a very good year in film.

So, maybe The Sting didn’t deserve its Oscar.  But it’s still a wonderfully entertaining film.  And just try to get that music out of your head!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #45: Double Indemnity (dir by Jack Smight)


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Nothing can make you appreciate a classic film more than by watching a really bad remake.  As proof, I would offer up the 1973 made-for-television version of the classic 1944 film Double Indemnity.  The original Double Indemnity is a classic example of film noir, one that remains intriguing and powerful over 70 years since it was first released.  The remake features the exact same plot as Double Indemnity and a few of the original’s scenes are recreated shot-by-shot but it just does not work.

Part of the problem is that the remake is in color.  In fact, since it was made in 1973 and for television, it’s in very bright and somewhat tacky color.  Bright and vibrant doesn’t work for film noir.  You need the shadows and the visual ambiguities that are unique to black-and-white.  If the original Double Indemnity was full of secrets and mysteries, the remake is all on the surface.  There are no secrets to be found in this remake.

That goes for the cast as well.  In the original, Fred MacMurray made Walter Neff into the epitome of the bored, post-war American male.  You watched him with a certain sick fascination, trying to figure out what was going on behind the blandly friendly facade.  In the remake, you know that Richard Crenna is a serpent from the minute he first appears.  If MacMurray’s Walter was motivated by ennui, Crenna’s Walter is just bad and therefore, far less interesting.  Meanwhile, in the role of Phyllis, Samantha Eggar has none of Barbara Stanwyck’s ferocious determination.  Instead, Eggar’s performance is curiously refined (which is another way to say boring).

Probably the most interesting thing about the remake of Double Indemnity is that the role of Keyes is played by Lee J. Cobb.  Cobb actually gives a pretty good performance and, unlike Crenna and Eggar, he’s actually entertaining to watch.  In the original film, Keyes was played by Edward G. Robinson and was roughly around the same age as Walter.  They were contemporaries and friends and that made the original’s ending all the more poignant.  In the remake, Cobb is quite a bit older than Crenna and, as a result, their relationship feels more paternalistic.  It’s almost as if Crenna is the prodigal son who has betrayed his father and who tells his story as a way of begging for forgiveness.

But that’s probably reading too much into the remake!  For the most part, the remake of Double Indemnity is bland and boring.  The best thing about it is that it’ll make you love the original even more.

As for how I ended up watching the remake of Double Indemnity, it was included as an extra on my DVD of the original.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did, really serves to make you appreciate Billy Wilder as a filmmaker.