Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Atlantic City (dir by Louis Malle)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1981 best picture nominee, Atlantic City!)

Welcome to Atlantic City, New Jersey!

It’s a city with a storied past and an uncertain future.  It’s a place where old men on street corners can tell you stories about meeting Bugsy Siegel in the lobby of an old hotel that’s just been demolished.  The decrepit remains of old Atlantic City co-exists next to half-completed luxury casinos and hotels.  It’s a place where business deals are celebrated in the Frank Sinatra Suite and where a woman trying to make a very important phone call might find herself being serenaded by Robert Goulet.

It’s also the home of Lou (Burt Lancaster).  From the minute we first see Lou, it’s obvious that he’s a man past his time.  He walks up and down the worst streets of Atlantic City, dressed in a gray suit and trench coat.  With his white mustache and his coolly professional manner, he looks like he belongs in an old movie and not hanging out in his shabby apartment or drinking in the local bar.  When Lou was younger, he was acquainted with all of the big names: Siegel, Luciano, Costello, Lansky.  Of course, he wasn’t ever much of a mobster.  He used to run numbers.  If pressed, he’ll tell some interesting stories but it’s not difficult to tell that he’s lying.  (At one point, it’s mentioned that Lou’s Mafia nickname was Numbnut.)  Now, Lou is an old man.  Much like a condemned Atlantic City hotel, he’ll soon be due for demolition.  He spends most of his time taking care of Grace (Kate Reid), the widow of a mobster.  When he’s not responding to Grace’s demands, he watches his neighbor, Sally (Susan Sarandon).

Sally is originally from Canada.  She came to America looking for a better life and ended up working as a waitress.  Under the strict tutelage of Joseph (Michel Piccoli), Sally is learning how to be a blackjack dealer.  Someday, she hopes that she’ll be able to move out of her apartment and into a communal house on the beach.  Until then, she works hard every day and then returns to her apartment, little realizing that she’s being watched by Lou.

And then David shows up.

David (played by Canadian character actor Robert Joy) is Sally’s estranged husband.  Sally knows that David can’t be trusted but she reluctantly allows him and his pregnant girlfriend (Hollis McLaren) to stay with her for a few days.  David has stolen a large amount of cocaine from the Philadelphia mob.  David wants to sell it but he quickly discovers that no one in Atlantic City is willing to deal with someone who they don’t know.  Fortunately, for David, he runs into Lou.  Lou, looking for a chance to be a real gangster and also wanting a chance to get closer to Sally, agrees to help David sell the cocaine.  Unfortunately, for David, two hit men from Philadelphia have traced him to Atlantic City and are determined to not only get their cocaine back but to also kill David as well.

It may sound like the set up for a standard crime thriller but Atlantic City is actually a thoughtful meditation on getting older, falling in love, and dealing with the fact that things change.  Lou is a relic of the past, looking for one last chance to make his mark before, like the older buildings on the boardwalk, he’s demolished and forgotten about.  Sally and David are the dreamers, hoping to build a future in America.

Louis Malle directs at a leisurely pace.  Those looking for a hyperkinetic gangster film will be disappointed.  There’s only two acts of violence in Atlantic City and Malle presents both of them in a low-key, matter-of-fact fashion.  Instead, Malle focuses on exploring the lives and dreams of the film’s characters and Burt Lancaster rewards that attention with an absolutely outstanding performance as a dignified man who knows his best days are behind him but who still refuses to give in to defeat.  It’s one of Lancaster’s best performances and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Atlantic City was nominated for best picture but lost to Chariots of Fire.

A Movie A Day #305: Go Tell The Spartans (1978, directed by Ted Post)


One of the best films ever made about Vietnam is also one of the least known.

Go Tell The Spartans takes place in 1964, during the early days of the Vietnam War.  Though the Americans at home may not know just how hopeless the situation is in South Vietnam, Major Barker (Burt Lancaster, in one of his best performances) does.  Barker is a career military man.  He served in World War II and Korea and now he’s ending his career in Vietnam, taking orders from younger superiors who have no idea what they are talking about.  Barker has been ordered to occupy a deserted village, Muc Wa.  Barker knows that occupying Muc Wa will not make any difference but he is in the army and he follows orders.

Barker sends a small group to Muc Wa.  Led by the incompetent Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger), the group also includes a drug-addicted medic (Dennis Howard), a sadistic South Vietnamese interrogator (Evan C. Kim) who claims that every civilian that the men meet is actually VC, a sergeant (Jonathan Goldsmith) who is so burned out that he would rather commit suicide than take command, and Cpl. Courcey (Craig Wasson).  Courcey is a college-educated idealist, who joined the army to do the right thing and is now about to discover how complicated that can be in South Vietnam.  At Muc Wa, the soldiers find a cemetery containing the graves of French soldiers who died defending the hamlet during the First Indochina War.  The inscription as the cemetery reads, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”  

Because the film strives for realism over easy drama, Go Tell The Spartans has never gotten the same attention as some other Vietnam films.  Unlike The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Coming Home, and Born on the 4th of July, Go Tell The Spartans received no Oscar nominations.  It is still a brilliantly acted and powerful anti-war (but never anti-soldier) film.  It starts out as deceptively low-key but the tension quickly builds as the soldier arrive at Muc Wa and discover that their orders are both futile and impossible to carry out.  Vastly outnumbered, the Americans also find themselves dealing with a land and a culture that is so unlike their own that they are often not even sure who they are fighting.  Military discipline, as represented by Lt. Hamilton, is no match for the guerilla tactics of the VC.  By the film’s end, Vietnam is revealed to be a war that not even Burt Lancaster can win.

A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

A Movie A Day #235: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, directed by Robert Aldrich)


In Montana, four men have infiltrated and taken over a top-secret ICBM complex.  Three of the men, Hoxey (William Smith), Garvas (Burt Young), and Powell (Paul Winfield) are considered to be common criminals but their leader is something much different.  Until he was court-martialed and sentenced to a military prison, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was a respected Air Force general.  He even designed the complex that he has now taken over.  Dell calls the White House and makes his demands known: he wants ten million dollars and for the President (Charles Durning) to go on television and read the contents of top secret dossier, one that reveals the real reason behind the war in Vietnam.  Dell also demands that the President surrender himself so that he can be used as a human shield while Dell and his men make their escape.

Until Dell made his demands known, the President did not even know of the dossier’s existence.  His cabinet (made up of distinguished and venerable character actors like Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas) did and some of them are willing to sacrifice the President to keep that information from getting out.

Robert Aldrich specialized in insightful genre films and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a typical example: aggressive, violent, sometimes crass, and unexpectedly intelligent.  At two hours and 30 minutes, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is overlong and Aldrich’s frequent use of split screens is sometimes distracting but Twilight’s Last Gleaming is still a thought-provoking film.  The large cast does a good job, with Lancaster and Durning as clear stand-outs.  I also liked Richard Widmark as a general with his own agenda and, of course, any movie that features Joseph Cotten is good in my book!  Best of all, Twilight’s Last Gleaming‘s theory about the reason why America stayed in Vietnam is entirely credible.

The Vietnam angle may be one of the reasons why Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the biggest flops of Aldrich’s career.  In 1977, audiences had a choice of thrilling to Star Wars, falling in love with Annie Hall, or watching a two and a half hour history lesson about Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, a nation that yearned for escape did just that and Twilight’s Last Gleaming flopped in America but found success in Europe.  Box office success or not, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent political thriller that is ripe for rediscovery.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Scorpio (dir by Michael Winner)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  Having recorded over 150 movies since last January, she understands that this might be an impossible task but she’s going to try anyway!  She recorded the 1973 spy thriller, Scorpio, off of Retroplex way back on January 24th!)

On the surface, Jean Laurier (Alain Delon) would appear to be the perfect man.

He’s handsome.  He looks really good in a suit.  He’s wealthy.  He’s French.  And — get this — he loves cats!  He’s the type of guy who, when he discovers a stray cat in his hotel room, immediately starts to pet it and then gives it a saucer of warm milk.  He and his girlfriend (Gayle Hunnicutt) spend their spare time looking at cats and talking about how cute they are.  At one point, even though he’s just killed a man, Jean pauses when he sees a stray cat watching…

Oh, did I mention that Jean kills people for a living?  Well, he does but I’m sure they’re all bad guys.  Seriously, he’s just so charming (and he really, really loves cats) that you really can’t hold it against him that he’s an independent contract killer.  Add to that, his code name is Scorpio.

I have to admit that the film’s title — Scorpio — is the main reason that I chose to record this movie.  I’m a scorpio myself.  In fact, I’m such a scorpio that if I believed in astrology, I would point to my existence as proof that the stars actually do determine our fate.  Seriously, you don’t want to mess with us scorpios.  We’re scorpions.  We sting.

But anyway, back to the movie.

When Scorpio is busted on a trumped-up narcotics charge (or maybe it was a legitimate narcotics charge, it was kind of hard to keep track), the CIA gives him a choice.  He can either go to prison or he can do a job for them.  Apparently, the CIA believes that Scorpio’s friend and mentor, Cross (Burt Lancaster), is a double agent who has been selling information to the Russians.  They want Cross eliminated.

Scorpio takes the job but it’s not going to be easy.  Cross is a veteran spy.  He has connections all across the world and he’s a ruthless killer, the type who forces a man to swallow a cyanide pill and then says, “You’ve got 30 seconds to live.”  In fact, the only person that Cross seems to care about is his wife (Joanne Linville) but he still doesn’t hesitate to abandon her when he realizes that their house is being watched

Cross taught Scorpio everything that he knows but there’s one lesson that Scorpio is still learning and that is to trust no one.  Is Cross actually a spy or is he being set up?  And, if Cross is being set up, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Scorpio?

Scorpio is probably one of the most cynical films that I’ve ever seen.  If Scorpio was a political protest, it would be full of people carrying cardboard signs reading, “Nothing Matters” and “All Is Darkness.”  Remember that annoying as Hell scene in SPECTRE where James Bond got drunk and demanded to know who a rodent was working for?  Well, imagine the disillusionment of that scene stretched out for two hours.

Fortunately, no one in Scorpio is as whiny as Daniel Craig was in SPECTRE.  In many ways, Scorpio is a triumph of old-fashioned movie star charisma.  Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as the world-weary Cross while Alain Delon makes for a compelling Scorpio.  Both of them are believable killers and the film becomes as much about the competition between Lancaster’s old school Hollywood style of acting and Delon’s more refined (and very French) style of cool as it is about the competition between Scorpio and Cross.

Scorpio‘s a good little spy thriller, more than worth keeping an eye out for.

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Separate Tables (dir by Delbert Mann)


As some of you may know, I have been on a mission for a while now.  My goal is to see and review every single film that has been nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  (Of course, with the 1928 nominee, The Patriot, being a lost film, that may seem like an impossible mission.  No matter!  For me, nothing is impossible.  What Lisa wants, Lisa gets.)  For that reason, I spent part of last night watching the 1958 best picture nominee, Separate Tables, on TCM.

Separate Tables is one of the more forgotten of the best picture nominees but then again, the 50s were not the greatest decade as far as the Academy was concerned.  Consider some of the other films released in 1958: Big Deal on Madonna Street, High School Confidential, Indiscreet, The Last Hurrah, Machine-Gun Kelly, The Fly, The Blob, The Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Some Came Running, Thunder Road, A Touch Of Evil, and Vertigo!  The thing they all have in common is that none of them were nominated for best picture but Separate Tables was.

That’s not to say that Separate Tables was, in any way, a bad film.  Actually, it’s a pretty good film and I’m glad that I watched it.  It’s not bad at all.  However, it is … what’s the right term to use here?  Stately perhaps?  Maybe stagey.  Separate Tables is based on two one-act plays and, though it’s obvious that some effort was made to open up the material, it still feels undeniably stage-bound.  Separate Tables was directed by Delbert Mann, who had previously won an Oscar for his lively direction of Marty.  With Separate Tables, his direction is far less lively.  Watching it, you get the feeling that he was not only straight-jacketed by the theatrical origins of the material but also by the fact that the film was clearly made to win Academy Awards.

So, ignore the direction and pay attention to the performances.  Separate Tables works best as a tribute to good acting.  The film follows the lives of several guests at an English seaside hotel.  Some people are just staying for a few days.  Some people live at the hotel.  John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) is a moody writer, a recovering alcoholic who is planning on asking the hotel’s manager, the level-headed Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), to marry him.  Of course, then his ex-wife, Anne (Rita Hayworth), shows up.  As quickly becomes obvious, John and Anne may hate each other but they also love each other.  Neither one is particularly sympathetic but, in their scenes together, Lancaster and Hayworth do create a fascinating portrait of mutual self-destruction.  Ultimately, you’re left with the impression that both of them are so self-destructive that they belong together, if just to keep from drawing anyone else into their messed up orbit.

And then there’s Major Pollock (David Niven).  David Niven won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Major Pollock and he does give an excellent performance.  Major Pollock is one of those roles that often seems to attract comedic actors looking for a chance to prove their dramatic abilities.  When he first appears, he seems to be a bit of a joke but then, as the film progresses, we learn that he’s actually struggling with his own demons.  In the case of Major Pollock, those demons are more hinted at than defined.  As we learn at the start of the film, Pollock was convicted of “harassing” several “young women” at a movie theater.  Separate Tables does not make clear how young or, for that matter, the exact details of the harassment.  Some residents of the hotel want Major Pollock to be kicked out of the hotel.  Some residents say that it is none of their business and that everyone deserves a second chance.  John Malcolm is in the latter group, though he’s more concerned with his ex-wife than with the scandalous Major (who, to no one’s great surprise, isn’t actually a major and whose war stories have all largely been lies).  Also seeking to defend Major Pollock is the shy Sibyl (Deborah Kerr, playing against type).  Sibyl’s mother (Gladys Cooper) is among those most determined to exile Pollock.

And really, the only reason this plotline works is because of the performances of Niven and Kerr.  As written, it’s way too vague about the exact details of what it was that Pollock did.  We’re just told that he was caught “behaving immorally.”  (According to Wikipedia, Pollock was originally written as being gay but, apparently, that was considered to be too controversial for 1958, hence the mention that Pollock’s crime involved “young women.”)  But Niven gives such a soulful and wounded performance that, much like Sibyl, you want to believe the best about him.  You want to give him a second chance, even though you know he’s going to let you down.  As Major Pollock, David Niven uses his trademark charm to paint a portrait of a man who is painfully aware that he has little to offer beyond charm.

At the same time, I was surprised by how little screen time Niven actually had in Separate Tables.  The majority of the film is taken up with Lancaster and Hayworth.  Niven definitely deserved some consideration for best supporting actor but best actor?  Not in the year that saw Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and James Stewart in Vertigo.

Separate Tables is not a great film, at least not in the way that we might wish that a film nominated for best picture would be.  It’s way too stagey and vague.  But, with all that in mind, it’s still wonderfully acted and always watchable.  It may not be great but it is very, very good.

Separate Tables was nominated for best picture but lost to Gigi.

A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)


cracked rear viewer

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for…

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