Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)


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(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t…

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A Movie A Day #278: The Power (1968, directed by Byron Haskin)


Who is Adam Hart?

That is the mystery that Professors Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) and Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette) have to solve.  Someone is using psychic powers to kill their co-workers in a research laboratory.  The police think that Tanner is guilty but Tanner knows that one of his colleagues is actually a super human named Adam Hart.  Hart is planning on using his super powers to control the world and, because Tanner is the only person who has proof of his existence, Hart is methodically framing Tanner for every murder that he commits.

The Power is underrated by entertaining movie, a mix of mystery and science fiction with a pop art twist.  It was also one of the first attempts to portray telekinesis on film.  Similar films, like Scanners, may be better known but all of them are directly descended from The Power.  George Hamilton may seem like an unlikely research scientist but he and Suzanne Pleshette are a good team and The Power makes good use of Pleshette’s way with a one liner.  Also keep an eye out for familiar faces like Arthur O’Connell, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Rennie, Gary Merrill, Yvonne DeCarlo, Vaughn Taylor, Aldo Ray, and even Forrest J. Ackerman as a hotel clerk.

 

A Movie A Day #154: The Day They Hanged Kid Curry (1971, directed by Barry Shear)


Welcome to the Old West.  Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy) are two of the most wanted outlaws in the country, two cousins who may have robbed trains but who also never shot anyone.  After being promised a pardon if they can stay out of trouble for a year, Heyes and Curry have been living under the names Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones.

During a trip to San Francisco to visit his old friend, a con artist named Silky O’Sullivan (Walter Brennan), Heyes is told that Kid Curry is currently on trial in Colorado.  When Heyes goes to the trial, he discovers that the accused (Robert Morse) is an imposter and that the real Kid Curry is watching the trial from the back of the courtroom.  It turns out that the man of trial is just an attention seeker , someone who is so desperate for fame that he is willing to be hanged to get it.  At first, Curry thinks this is a great thing.  After the imposter hangs, everyone will believe that Curry is dead and they’ll stop searching for him.  Heyes, however, disagrees, especially after the imposter starts to implicated Heyes in crimes that he didn’t commit.

Obviously inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alias Smith and Jones was one of the last of the classic TV westerns.  Though I originally assumed that it was the show’s pilot, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry was actually the first episode of the second season.  With commercials, it ran 90 minutes.  Because of its extended running time, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry was not included in Alias Smith and Jones‘s standard rerun package.  Instead, it was edited to remove the show’s usual opening credits and it was then sold as a motion picture, despite the fact that it is very obviously a television show.

As long as no one is expecting anything more than an extended television episode, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry is okay.  I have never been a big Alias Smith and Jones fan but this episode’s plotline, with Robert Morse confessing to crimes he didn’t commit just so he can have a taste of fame before he dies, feels prescient of today’s culture.  For classic western fans, the main reason to watch will be the chance to see a parade of familiar faces: Slim Pickens, Henry Jones, Paul Fix, and Vaughn Taylor all have roles.  Most important is familiar Western character actor and four-time Oscar winner, Walter Brennan, as Silky O’Sullivan.  This was one of Brennan’s final performance and the wily old veteran never loses his dignity, even when he’s pretending to be Kid Curry’s grandmother.

As for Alias Smith and Jones, it was a modest success until Pete Duel shot himself halfway through the second season.  Rather than retire the character of Hannibal Heyes, the show’s producers replaced Pete Duel with another actor, Roger Davis.  One day after Duel’s suicide, Davis being fitted for costumes.  This move was not popular with the show’s fanbase and Alias Smith and Jones was canceled a year later, though it lived on for years in reruns.

A Movie A Day #83: Shattered: If Your Kid’s On Drugs (1986, directed by Burr Smidt)


Shattered: If Your Kid’s On Drugs is a typical anti-drug video from the 1980s.  The story is familiar after school special material.  Kim (Megan Follows) and Rick (Rick Segall) are upper middle class kids who live in the suburbs.  Rick is a track star.  Kim is at the top of her class.  That all changes when they start hanging out with the local drug dealer (Dermot Mulroney), who gets Rick hooked on marijuana and Kim hooked on cocaine.  Kim gets an F on her report card.  Rick can no longer jump the hurdles.  Eventually, their parents stop drinking and taking valium long enough to force them into rehab.  The message is that tough love is the only solution.

The only thing that makes Shattered: If Your Kid’s On Drugs noteworthy is the strange and unexpected presence of Burt Reynolds and Judd Nelson, playing themselves and commenting on the action.  The first scene in the video is Burt and Judd driving their pickup truck through the suburbs, talking about how nice it is.  “Lot of nice restaurants,” Burt says.  “Are you going to buy me lunch?” Judd asks.  “Lot of nice restaurants,” Burt replies.  “This town is the American Dream,” Judd says.  “Or the American nightmare,” Burt adds.  When Kim and Rick are getting high in Dermot Mulroney’s chartreuse microbus, Burt and Judd sit on a picket fence and shoot the crap.  Burt can’t understand why teens would use drugs and Judd reminds him that it has been a while since he was a teenager. Rumor has it that both Burt and Judd appeared in this video to fulfill court-ordered community service.

Everything works out in the end.  If you have any doubt, just look at Burt giving us a thumbs up before the final credits roll.

A Movie A Day #27: Tribes (1970, directed by Joseph Sargent)


Adrian (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a free-spirited hippie who has just been drafted into the Marine Corps.  As soon as he arrives at the boot camp, his long hair get shaved off and he immediately starts to get under the skin of Sgt. DePayster (Earl Holliman).  While Adrian scored higher than anyone else in the platoon on his aptitude tests, he is also a pacifist who refuses to shoot a gun and teaches all of the other draftees how to meditate.  DePayster wants to put Adrian in the Motivational Platoon, a disciplinary unit where Adrian probably would not survive.  Trying to protect Adrian while also trying to turn him into a killing machine is his drill instructor, Sgt. Drake (Darren McGavin).

Tribes has never been released on DVD/Blu-ray but it can be watched on YouTube.  Not surprisingly, for a movie that was made for television in 1970, there are some parts of the film that have not aged well.  I doubt a real drill instructor, even one who secretly draws pictures and admires Adrian’s rebellious spirit, would have put up with Private Adrian for as long as Drake does in this movie.  Again because of its television origins, the language has been cleaned up.  You won’t mistake this one for Full Metal Jacket.  On the plus side, Earl Holliman gives a good performances as the hardass sergeant and Jan-Michael Vincent shows why he was expected to be such a big star before he ended up becoming one of Hollywood’s greatest cautionary tales.  Best of all is Darren McGavin, who is even better as the tough but fair Sgt. Drake than he was in his two best known roles, the father in A Christmas Story and reporter Carl Kolchak.

Tribes was a huge rating success when it aired, leading to it getting a limited theatrical release.  In Europe, it was retitled The Soldier Who Declared Peace.

Wanted! For doing his own thing!

Wanted! For doing his thing!

 

 

A Movie A Day #7: Sharky’s Machine (1981, directed by Burt Reynolds)


220px-sharkys_machine_ver3After a drug bust goes wrong, Atlanta police detective Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds, who also directed) is transferred from narcotics to the vice squad, the least desirable assignment in the Atlanta police department.  Despite all of his honors and commendations, Sharky finds himself reduced to busting hookers with Papa (Brian Keith) and Arch (Bernie Casey).  But then Sharky discovers evidence of a prostitution ring being run by Victor D’Anton (Vittorio Gassman), one that services the wealthiest and most powerful men in Georgia.

Working with Papa, Arch, and a burned-out bugging expert named Nosh (Richard Libertini), Sharky begins a surveillance of Domino (Rachel Ward), one of Victor’s girls.  As the days turns into weeks, Sharky falls in love with Domino, who doesn’t even know that she’s being watched.  Sharky also discovers that Domino is sleeping with Hotckins (Earl Holliman), who is about to be elected governor of Georgia.  At the same time, a heroin-addicted assassin named Billy Score (Henry Silva) is assassinating anyone who could reveal Victor’s crimes.

There are two great sequences in Sharky’s Machine.  One is the opening credits scene, in which a bearded Burt Reynolds walks through the roughest parts of Atlanta while Randy Crawford sings Street Life.  This scene lets everyone know from the start that this is not another Burt Reynolds good ol’ boy comedy.  The other is a cat-and-mouse chase through an Atlanta skyscraper, as Sharky and his partners try to track down Billy Score, who is so doped up on painkillers that he barely flinches whenever he’s shot.  Billy Score is one of the most frightening movie villains of all time, seemingly indestructible and capable of moving like a ghost.

henry-silvaWith the exception of maybe Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine is Burt Reynolds’s darkest movie.  There are moments of humor and appearances by the usual members of the Burt Reynolds stock company, like John Fiedler and Charles Durning.  But overall, this is one dark movie.   Likable characters die.  Sharky cries and loses two fingers when they are graphically chopped off by the bad guys.  A woman’s face is literally blown off.  Even when Sharky starts to talk about his childhood, a sentimental moment the occurred in almost every Burt Reynolds film, Domino tells him that she doesn’t care.

In other words, this ain’t The Cannonball Run.

Burt Reynolds’s first cut of Sharky’s Machine reportedly ran for 140 minutes.  Twenty minutes were cut before it was released into theaters and, as a result, Sharky’s Machine sometimes seems to be rough around the edges.  (One important supporting character is killed off-screen and if you don’t pay close attention to the dialogue, you might never know what happened to him.)  Still, this violent film noir, which Reynolds once called “Dirty Harry in Atlanta,” is one of Burt’s best.

sharky-machine

Embracing The Melodrama #12: Giant (dir by George Stevens)


Giant

Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama by taking a look at the 1956 best picture nominee, Giant.

Giant is a film about my home state of Texas.  Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) goes to Maryland to buy a horse and ends up returning to Texas with a bride, socialite Lesley Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor).  At first, Lesley struggles to adapt to the harsh and hot Texas landscape.  Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) takes an instant dislike to Lesley and Bick is annoyed by Lesley’s concern over the living conditions of the Mexicans that work on Bick’s ranch.  It sometimes seems like the only person who appreciates Lesley is Jett Rink (James Dean), an ambitious ranch hand who secretly loves her and who is planning on becoming a rich man.  That’s exactly what happens when oil is found on the land around Bick’s ranch.  While Bick stubbornly clings to the past, oilman Jett represents both the future of Texas and the nation.  Meanwhile, Bick and Lesley’s son (played by a very young Dennis Hopper) challenges his father’s casual bigotry when he falls in love with a Mexican girl.

Taylor and Hudson

Giant is appropriately named because it is a huge film.  Clocking in at 201 minutes, Giant tells a story that spans several decades and features a big cast that is full of familiar faces, all struggling for their chance to somehow stand out from everyone else around them.  Even the film’s wonderful panoramic shots of the empty Texas landscape only serve to remind us of how big the entire film is.  To a certain extent, the size of Giant‘s production is to be understood.  In the 1950s, Hollywood was having to compete with television and they did this by trying to make every film into a major event.  You watch a movie like Giant and you practically hear the old Hollywood moguls shouting at America, “See!?  You can’t get that on your precious TV, can you!?”

For those of us watching Giant today, the length is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a curse because the movie really is too damn long.  The opening scenes drag and many of them really do feel superfluous.  It’s hard not to feel that the real story doesn’t really start until about 90 minutes into the movie.  And once the story really does get started,  there’s still way too much of it for it all to be crammed into one sitting.  Oddly enough, you end up feeling as if this extremely long film is still not telling you everything that you need to know.  If Giant were made today, it would probably be a two-part movie on either HBO or Lifetime and it would definitely feature a lot more sex.

However, to be honest, one of the reasons that I did enjoy Giant was because it was as big as it was.  I mean, the film is about Texas so of course it should be a little excessive!  Everything’s bigger in Texas and that includes our movies.  Add to that, Giant may be too long but it uses that length to deals with issues that are still relevant today — oil, immigration, and racial prejudice.  Rock Hudson may not have been a great actor but he is at least convincing as he transitions from bigotry to tolerance.

But really, when it comes to Giant, most people are only interested in James Dean.  And they definitely should be because Dean gives a great and compelling performance here.  Dean brings all of the emotional intensity of the method to material that one would not naturally associate with method acting and the end result is amazing to watch.  Giant was released after Dean had been killed in that infamous car wreck.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in a theater in 1956 and to see this compelling and charismatic actor towering above the world on the big screen while aware, all the time, that his life had already been cut short and he would never been seen in another film.

James Dean

Even better, Dean’s new style of acting clashes perfectly with Hudson’s old style of acting, making the conflict between Bick and Jett feel all the more real and intense.  Much as Bick represents old Texas and Jett represents the new Texas, Hudon and Dean represented the two sides of Hollywood: the celebrity and the artist.  Needless to say, Dean wins the battle but, surprisingly, Hudson occasionally manages to hold his own.

I can’t necessarily say that Giant is an essential film.  A lot of people are going to be bored by the excessive length.  But if you’re a fan of James Dean or if you’re from Texas, Giant is a film that you need to see at least once.

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