Film Review: L.A. 2017 (dir by Steven Spielberg)


L.A. 2017 is the Steven Spielberg film about which you’ve probably never heard.

To a certain extent, that’s understandable.  Spielberg was only 24 when, in 1971, he directed L.A. 2017.  It was a film that he directed for television.  In fact, it was only his third directorial assignment.  As opposed to the huge budgets that we tend to associate with a typical Spielberg production, L.A. 2017 was made for about $300,000.  The entire film was shot in about 12 days.  In fact, with a running time of only a scant 69 minutes, L.A. 2017 hardly qualifies as a feature-length film.  L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, making it a true oddity in Spielberg’s filmography.  Despite the fact that Spielberg has credited L.A. 2017 with opening a lot of doors for him, it’s an almost totally forgotten film.

Of course, some of that is because L.A. 2017 really isn’t a film at all.  Instead, it was an episode of a television show called The Name of the Game.  The show was about Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), a magazine publisher, and the reporters who worked for him.  L.A. 2017 was unique in that it was the show’s only excursion into science fiction.  In fact, from everything that I’ve read about the show, it appears that L.A. 2017 was nothing like any of the other episodes of The Name of the Game.  This episode was also unique because Spielberg directed it as if he was making a feature, as opposed to just another installment in a weekly series.  If not for the opening credits (which announce, among other things, that we’re watching a Robert Stack Production), one could easily imagine watching L.A. 2017 in a movie theater, perhaps as a double feature with Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

L.A. 2017 opens with Glenn driving down a mountain road in California.  He’s heading to a pollution summit and, as he drives along, he awkwardly dictates an editorial into a tape recorder.  Glenn worries that society may have already ruined the environment to such an extent that the Earth cannot be saved.  As if to prove his point, Glenn starts to cough as he’s overcome by all of the smog in the air.  His car swerves into a ditch and Glenn is knocked unconscious.

Welcome to the future

When he wakes up, he finds himself being rescued by men wearing wearing protective suits and masks.  The sky is a sickly orange and an ominous wind howls in the background.  Glenn’s rescuers take him to an underground city where he discovers that, somehow, he has traveled through time.  The year is now 2017, which in this film looks a lot like the 70s except that everyone’s now underground and the landline phones are extra bulky.  (Needless to say, watching 1971’s version of 2017 in 2019 is an interesting experience.)  It turns out that the pollution got so bad that the surface of the planet became uninhabitable.  The U.S. is now run by a corporation that is headquartered in Detroit.  (Presumably, the Corporation is a former car company.)  The U.S. is also at war with England, for some reason.  No mention is made about what’s happened to Canada but, if Detroit’s still around, I assume at least some of Canada managed to survive as well.

The …. uh, Future.

Everyone in the future drinks a lot of milk and, when they’re not listening to cheerful announcements, they’re listening to the soothing music that the Corporation provides for them.  Everyone in the future is also very friendly.  We know this because everyone keeps assuring Glenn that he’s surrounded by friends.  In fact, everyone in the future refers to one another by their first name because “it’s friendlier.”  It’s also the law.  It turns out that there’s a lot of laws in the future.  In fact, the underground cities are pretty fascist in the way that they handle things.  There are constant announcements encouraging people to pursue a career in law enforcement and anyone who disagrees with the Corporation ends up in a straight jacket.  Glenn feels that maybe he’s been brought to the future so he can start a new magazine and challenge the status quo.  The Corporation disagrees….

This is what happens when you don’t go underground in the future.

Okay, so there’s nothing subtle about L.A. 2017.  From the villainous corporation to the heavy-handed environmental message, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other sci-fi films.  But the lack of subtlety doesn’t matter, largely because Spielberg directs with so much energy and with such an eye to detail that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the story.  As opposed to the somewhat complacent Spielberg who has recently given us rather bland and safe blockbusters like Lincoln, The BFG, and The Post, the Spielberg who directed L.A. 2017 was young and obviously eager to show off what he could do with even a low budget and that enthusiasm is present in every frame, from the wide-angle shots of Glenn driving his car to the scenes of Glenn looking up at the shadowy executives and scientists who are staring down at him when he’s first brought to the underground city.  As opposed to the sterile vision of so many other future-set films, Spielberg’s future feels as if it’s actually been lived in.  When Glenn finds himself in a new world, it comes across as being a real world as opposed to just a narrative contrivance.

Of course, because L.A. 2017 was just one episode in a weekly series, Glenn couldn’t remain in the future and L.A. 2017 returns Glenn to the present in the most contrived and predictable way possible.  Still, L.A. 2017 remains an entertaining example of what a young and talented director can do when he’s determined to be recognized.  Watching the film, it’s easy to draw a straight line from Spielberg doing L.A. 2017 to doing Duel and then subsequently being hired for Jaws.

Incidentally, Joan Crawford is somewhere in this film.  Crawford worked with Spielberg when he directed her in the pilot for Night Gallery and she was one of his first major supporters in Hollywood.  Apparently, in L.A. 2017, she plays one of the people staring down at Glenn when he’s first brought into the underground city.  I haven’t found her yet but she’s apparently there somewhere.

Unfortunately, L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but it is currently available on YouTube.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

30 Days of Noir #12: The Hitch-Hiker (dir by Ida Lupino)


The intense 1953 film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, begins with news of a murderer at large.

His name is Emmett Myers (William Talman).  He’s the rough-looking man who you might occasionally see standing by the side of the road, asking for a ride with his thumb outstretched.  For me, it only takes one look at Myers’s unfriendly face and his shifty eyes to know that I would never slow down to give him a ride.  However, The Hitch-Hiker takes place in a more innocent era, at a time when everyone wanted to be of help.  Anyone who gives Emmett a ride ends up dead.  He steals their cars and then drives across country, abandoning the car only when he learns that his previous murder has been discovered.  Emmett has hitchhiked from Illinois to Southern California and he’s left a trail of dead bodies behind him.

Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) don’t know who Emmett is.  They’ve missed all of the reports about Emmett’s killing spree.  They haven’t read the newspapers, all of which feature a picture of Emmett on the front page and a warning to never pick him up.  Roy and Gilbert have been too busy getting ready for a long-planned fishing trip in Baja California.  When they see Emmett hitchhiking in Mexico, they pull over and offer him a ride.

Unlike other movie hitchhikers, Emmett doesn’t waste any time before revealing who he is.  As soon as he gets in the car, he pulls a gun and tells the two men that they’re going to drive him deeper into Baja California.  He’s got a boat to catch and he says that all the two men have to do is follow orders.  Of course, both Roy and Gilbert know better.  They know that Emmett’s planning on killing them as soon as they arrive at their destination.  In fact, if Emmett learns that the police are looking for the two men, he’ll kill them sooner.  Roy and Gilbert not only have to keep Emmett from flying off the handle but they also have to keep him from discovering that both of them have been reported as being missing.

As the three men drive across California, Emmett continues to taunt his prisoners.  Repeatedly, he points out that the only reason they’re in this situation is because of their loyalty to each other.  As Emmett explains it, if the two men tried to run in opposite directions, Emmett would probably only be able to kill one of them.  If the two men both attacked him, Emmett would again probably only have time to kill one before the survivor subdued him.  Will Roy and Gilbert remains loyal to each other or will they finally embrace Emmett’s philosophy of every man for himself?

Oh, how you’ll hate Emmett Myers!  As played by William Talman, Emmett is not just a criminal but a bully as well.  The enjoyment that he gets out of taunting Roy and Gilbert will make your skin crawl.  Emmett is hardly the type of witty or charming master criminal who often shows up in movies today.  Instead, The Hitch-Hiker emphasizes that Emmett’s an idiot but, because he has the gun, he has the power.  Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are also well-cast as the two friends who are forced to choose between survival and loyalty.

The Hitch-Hiker was one of the few films to be directed by a woman in the 1950s.  (It’s generally considered to be the only film noir to have been directed by a woman.)  Ida Lupino was not only an actress but also the only female director in the old Hollywood system and she made several hard-hitting films, the majority of which dealt with the type of issues that mainstream Hollywood was still too scared to handle.  With The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino emphasizes not only Emmett’s cruelty but also the bonds of friendship between Emmett’s two hostages.  Visually, she makes the wide open desert appears as menacing and as dangerous as any shadowy city street.  If urban noirs often suggested that threats could be hiding anywhere, The Hitch-Hiker takes the opposite approach.  The threat is in the back seat of the car and there’s literally no place to hide.

The Hitch-Hiker is an intense film that holds up well today.  Watch it below and never again make the mistake of helping out a stranger.

What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Netflix 2018)


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The day has finally arrived. November 2, 2018. I ordered a free trial of Netflix specifically so I could watch the completed version of Orson Welles’ final film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . Welles worked on this project for over a decade, and the footage sat for decades more before finally being restored and re-edited. A film buff’s dream come true – perhaps. There were questions I needed answered. Was there enough salvageable material to make a coherent movie? Does it follow Welles’ vision? Would it live up to the hype? Was it worth the wait?

The answer: OH, HELL YEAH!!

Welles shot over ten hours of film, utilizing different film stocks (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm), switching back and forth from color to classic black and white, to create his movie, which is a documentary about the movie-within-the-movie’s director – a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It took six years (from 1970-76)…

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The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


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When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches…

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Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)


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Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)


As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.