Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(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 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man (dir by Martin Ritt)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while.  She recorded this 1962 literary adaptation off of FXM on January 30th!)

Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man is one of those films that you just know was made specifically to win Oscars.  It’s a big prestige production, complete with a historical setting, an epic scope and big, all-star cast.  That most of those stars appear in relatively small roles was undoubtedly meant to evidence of the film’s importance.

“Look!” the film seems to shout at times, “This is such an important film that even Paul Newman was willing to stop by for a day’s work!”

The film is based on ten short stories by Ernest Hemingway and, loosely, A Farewell to Arms.  The stories all dealt with the early life of Nick Adams, who was a literary stand-in for Hemingway.  Since the Nick Adams stories were autobiographical (and, for that matter, so was A Farewell to Arms), the film can also be viewed as biopic.  Richard Beymer (who, a year earlier, had starred in West Side Story and who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) may be playing Nick Adams but the film leaves little doubt that he was actually meant to be playing Ernest Hemingway.

The film opens with Nick hunting with his father, Dr. Harold Adams (Arthur Kennedy).  He is present when his father travels to an Indian camp and helps to deliver a baby.  He respects his father but Nick wants to see the world and the film follows him as he explores America, working odd jobs and meeting colorful characters along the way.  Paul Newman shows up as a punch-drunk boxer and proceeds to overact to such an extent that he reminded me of Eric Roberts appearing in a Lifetime film.  Nick meets rich men, poor men, and everything in between.  He works as a journalist.  He works as a porter.  Eventually, when World War I breaks out, Nick enlists in the Italian army and the film turns into the 100th adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

And really, I think it would have been an enjoyable film if it had been directed by someone like Otto Preminger, George Stevens, or maybe even Elia Kazan.  These are directors who would have embraced both the pulpy potential of the Nick Adams stories and the soapy melodrama of the war scenes.  A showman like Preminger would have had no fear of going totally and completely over the top and that’s the approach that this material needed.  Instead, Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man was directed, in a painfully earnest style, by Martin Ritt.  Ritt tries to imitate Hemingway’s famously understated style with his understated direction but, cinematically, it’s just not very interesting.  Ritt portrays everything very seriously and very literally and, in the end, his direction is more than a little dull.

Sadly, the same can be said for Richard Beymer’s performance in the lead role.  Beymer comes across as being the nice guy who everyone says you should marry because he’ll be able to get a good and stable job and he’ll probably never go to jail.  Two months ago, when I watched and reviewed Twin Peaks, I really loved Beymer’s performance as Ben Horne.  He just seemed to be having so much fun being bad.  Unfortunately, in Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man, he never seemed to be having any fun at all.  No wonder he temporarily put his film career on hold so that he could fully devote himself to working as a civil rights activist.

In the end, this is a movie that’s a lot more fun to look at than to actually watch.  Visually, the film is frequently quite pretty in an early 1960s prestige movie so sort of way.  And there are some good performances.  Eli Wallach, Ricardo Montalban, Susan Strasberg, Arthur Kennedy — there’s a whole host of performers doing memorable supporting work.  Unfortunately, even with all that in mind, this well-intentioned film largely falls flat.

A Movie A Day #147: Crazy Joe (1974, directed by Carlo Lizzani)


Crazy Joe (Peter Boyle) is a gangster with a chip on his shoulder and a self-taught intellectual who can (misquote) Sartre and Camus with the best of them.  Sick of being taken for granted, Joe and his brother, Richie (Rip Torn), attempt to challenge the Mafia establishment.  The mob sets Joe up and gets him sent to prison.  While doing time, Joe befriends a Harlem gangster named Willy (Fred Williamson).  Refusing to associate with the other Italian prisoners, Joe allies himself with the black inmates and even helps to start a riot over the prison’s inhumane conditions.  When he is released, Joe hits the streets of New York with a vengeance, now backed up by Willy and his criminal organization.

Crazy Joe is based on the life of Joey Gallo, who was briefly a New York celebrity, hobnobbing with actors like Jerry Orbach and writers like Norman Mailer before he was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam Shop in Little Italy.  Though the names were changed to protect the guilty, Eli Wallach plays Vito Genovese, Charles Cioffi plays Joe Columbo, and Luther Adler is Joe Profaci.  Fred Williamson’s character is based on the infamous Nicky Barnes.

Crazy Joe is a good and violent mix of the gangster, prison, and blaxploitation genres.  Despite wearing an unfortunate toupee, Peter Boyle is great at putting the crazy in Crazy Joe and Fred Williamson ups the coolness factor of any movie he appears in.  Keep an eye out for Henry Winkler, giving a very un-Fonzie performance as Joe’s right-hand man.

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)


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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile…

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It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)


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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is 

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Shattered Politics #87: The Ghost Writer (dir by Roman Polanski)


GhostwriterlargeIn the 2010 film The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays a character known as the Ghost. We never actually learn the name of his character and that’s perhaps appropriate.  The Ghost has made his living by being anonymous.  He’s a ghost writer.  He’s the guy who is hired to help inarticulate and occasionally illiterate celebrities write best-selling biographies.

The Ghost has been given a new assignment.  He is to ghost write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).  Despite the fact that Adam is one of the most famous men in the world, the Ghost is not initially enthusiastic about working with him.

First off, there’s the fact that Adam and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), are currently hiding out in America because America is one of the few countries that will not extradite him to be prosecuted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court.  It seems that Adam (much like Tony Blair) is a controversial figure because of some of the actions he may have authorized as a part of the war on terror.  Not only does the Ghost have political objections to working with Adam but he has to leave his London home and go to Massachusetts in order to do so.

Secondly, there’s the fact that, once the Ghost arrives in America, he discovers that — for such a controversial figure — Adam is actually rather boring and seems to have very little knowledge about anything that he did while he was prime minister.  Instead, he seems to be more interested in spending time with his mistress (Kim Cattrall, giving the film’s one bad performance).  Ruth seems to be the political (and smart) one in the marriage.

And finally, there’s the fact that the Ghost is actually the second writer to have worked with Adam.  The previous writer mysteriously drowned.  While that death was ruled to be an accident, the Ghost comes to suspect that it was murder and that the motive is hidden in the first writer’s manuscript…

The Ghost Writer is a favorite of mine, a smart and witty political thriller that features great performances from Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, and Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan especially seems to be having a lot of fun sending up his dashing, James Bond image.  Roman Polanski directs at a fast pace and maintains a perfect atmosphere of growing paranoia throughout the entire film. In the end, The Ghost Writer proudly continues the tradition of such superior paranoia films as The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and the Parallax View.

Incidentally, I have a theory that Adam Lang was also the unseen Prime Minister who was featured in Into the Loop.  Watching The Ghost Writer, it’s hard not to feel that Adam really feel apart without Malcolm around to help him out.