Horror Film Review: Eyes of Laura Mars (dir by Irvin Kershner)


The Eyes of Laura Mars opens with Barbra Streisand singing the theme song, letting us know that we’re about to see one of the most 70s films ever made.

Laura Mars (played by a super intense Faye Dunaway) is a fashion photographer who is known for the way that her work mixes sex with violence.  Some people say that she’s a genius and those people have arranged for the publication of a book of her work.  (The book, naturally, is called The Eyes of Laura Mars.)  Some people think that Laura’s work is going to lead to the downfall of civilization.  And then one person thinks that anyone associated with Laura should die.

And that’s exactly what starts to happen.

Laura has visions of her friends being murdered.  Some people believe that makes her a suspect.  Some people think that she’s just going crazy from the pressure.  John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), the detective assigned to her case, thinks that Laura is a damaged soul, just like him.  Neville and Laura soon find themselves falling in love, which would be more believable if Dunaway and Jones had even the least amount of chemistry.  Watching them kiss is like watching two bricks being smashed together.

There’s plenty of suspects, each one of them more a 70s cliché than the other.  There’s Donald (Rene Auberjonois), Laura’s flamboyant friend.  There’s Michael (Raul Julia), Laura’s sleazy ex-husband who is having an affair with the gallery of the manager that’s showing Laura’s photographs.  And then there’s Laura’s shift-eyed driver, Tommy.  Tommy has a criminal record and carries a switchblade and he always seem to be hiding something but, to be honest, the main reason Tommy might be the murderer is because he’s played by Brad Dourif.

If there’s one huge flaw with the film, it’s that the film never explains why Laura is suddenly having visions.  Obviously, the film is trying to suggest that Laura and the murderer share some sort of psychic connection but why?  (I was hoping the film would reveal that Dunaway had an evil twin or something like that but no.)  The other huge problem that I had is that one of the more likable characters in the film is murdered while dressed as Laura, specifically as a way to distract the killer.  So, that kind of makes that murder all Laura’s fault but no one ever points that out.

Personally, I think this film missed a huge opportunity by not having Andy Warhol play one of the suspects.  I mean, how can you make a movie about a pretentious fashion photographer in the 70s without arranging for a cameo from Andy Warhol?

The other missed opportunity is that the script was written by John Carpenter but he wasn’t invited to direct the movie.  I suppose that makes sense when you consider that Carpenter actually sold his script before he was hired to direct Halloween.  (Both Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars came out in the same year, 1978.)  That said, Carpenter would have directed with more of a sense of humor.  Director Irvin Kershner takes a plodding and humorless approach to the material.  When you’ve got a film featuring Faye Dunaway flaring her nostrils and Tommy Lee Jones talking about how sad his childhood was, you need a director who is going to fully embrace the insanity of it all.

With the glamorous background and the unseen killer, The Eyes of Laura Mars was obviously meant to be an American giallo.  Occasionally, it succeeds but again, it’s hard not to feel that an Italian director would have had a bit more fun with the material.  In the end The Eyes of Laura Mars is an interesting misfire but a misfire nonetheless.

Insomnia File #28: The Arrangement (dir by Elia Kazan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, on Saturday you were having trouble sleeping at three in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1969 film, The Arrangement.

The Arrangement is one of those films where a rich guy gets hit by a sudden case of ennui and, as a result, spends the entire movie acting like a jackass.  However, as often happens in films like this, The Arrangement makes sure that we understand that it’s not the guy’s fault.  Instead, it’s his wife’s fault for not being as much fun as his mistress.

In this case, the guy is an ad executive who goes by the name of Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas).  His original name was Evangelos Arness but he changed his name when he was younger because he apparently didn’t want anyone to know that he came from a Greek family.  When we first meet Eddie, he’s attempting to commit suicide by driving his car into an 18 wheeler.  If he had died, the movie could have ended quickly.  However, since Eddie survived, the audience is now required to spend two hours watching Eddie as he tries to figure out what it all means.

Eddie’s father (Richard Boone) is dying.  His long-suffering wife (Deborah Kerr) just doesn’t understand that Eddie needs more than a big house and a nice pool to feel like a man.  Eddie’s mistress is Gwen (Faye Dunaway), whose new baby may or may not be Eddie’s.  Who could blame Eddie, the film demands to know, for being disillusioned with his comfortable life?

The Arrangement was one of the last films to be directed by Elia Kazan, who was a big deal in the 40s and the 50s and whose goal with The Arrangement was apparently to prove that he should still have been a big deal in the 60s and 70s.  Kazan’s way of doing this is to fill The Arrangement with all types of tricks that were designed to make young filmgoers say, “Man, that Eliza Kazan may be old but he’s one of us!”

Freeze frames?  Kazan’s got them!  Flashback after flashback?  Kazan spreads them all throughout the movie, even when they don’t really have anything to show us.  Scenes where the action is sped up for no identifiable reason?  Just watch Kirk Douglas trot down that hallway!  Rack focus shots?  Zoom shots?  A scene where the young Kirk Douglas argues with the old Kirk Douglas?  Casual nudity that’s still filmed in such a way that it feels oddly reticent, as if the filmmaker was just including it to try to establish his rebel credentials?  The Arrangement has it all!

It also has a lot of close-ups of Kirk Douglas.  In far too many scenes, he’s just sitting around with this blank look on his face and it doesn’t quite work because, as an actor, Douglas has never exactly come across as the type to get trapped in an existential crisis.  We’re supposed to view Kirk as being depressed and conflicted but, in all of his films, Kirk has always come across as someone who hasn’t known a day of insecurity in his entire life.

There are also a few scenes of Kirk just laughing and laughing.  For some reason, movies in the late 60s and early 70s always seemed to feature at least a handful of closeups of people laughing uncontrollably.  I’m not sure why.  (If you want to see the most extreme example of this, check out Getting Straight.)  These scenes are always kind of annoying because there’s only so much time you can spend watching someone laugh at the absurdity of it all before you want them to just close their damn mouth.  Especially when the person in question is a middle-aged man.  I mean, shouldn’t have Kirk figured out that the world is absurd before his 50th birthday?

Anyway, The Arrangement is a pretentious mess.  Of course, most films from the 60s are pretentious.  The problem with The Arrangement is that it’s also boring.  If you’re going to be pretentious, at least have some fun with it, like The Graduate did.  The Arrangement goes on forever and it’s never quite as profound as it seems to think that it is.  I once read a short story that a former friend of mine wrote.  She explained that writing the story had caused her to realize that, the longer you know someone, the more likely your initial impression of that person is going to change.  “You had to write an entire short story to figure that out?” I replied.  (That’s one reason why she’s a former friend.)  But that’s kind of how The Arrangement is.  For all the drama and the technique and the pretension, it has nothing to teach us that we shouldn’t already know.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name

A Movie A Day #130: Doc (1971, directed by Frank Perry)


No, this latest movie a day is not about Lisa and Erin’s cat.

Instead, Doc is yet another retelling of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Most cinematic depictions of that event present Wyatt Earp as being an upright hero, Doc Holliday as being his roguish friend, and the Clantons as being black hat-wearing villains.  Doc takes the opposite approach.  In this one, Wyatt (Harris Yulin) and his brother are sociopaths whose feud with the Clantons comes down to Ike Clanton’s (Mike Whitney) refusal to bow to their authority.  Wyatt is a coward and a physical weakling, who gets beaten up by Ike and is only saved when his friend, Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach), steps forward to protect him.

In this film, Doc is clearly dying from the minute he first appears.  Not only is Doc so thin that his bride actually carries him over the threshold, he is also constantly coughing.  His misery is only relieved by opium, herbs, and the love of Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway), the prostitute that he wins in a poker game at the start of the film.  Doc would rather just spend his remaining days with Katie but, because of his friendship with Wyatt, he is dragged into the Earp/Clanton fight.

Like most revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, Doc is a heavy-handed metaphor for the Vietnam War, with Wyatt Earp serving as an LBJ/Nixon stand-in and Doc Holliday standing in for all the leaders who enabled them.  It sounds interesting and Stacy Keach gives a good performance but Doc is glacially paced and Harris Yulin is thoroughly miscast as Wyatt.  It takes forever to get to the gunfight and the Doc is so determined to be revisionist that it forgets to be interesting.  Doc is an unfortunate misfire.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Bonnie and Clyde (dir by Arthur Penn)


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If you’re ever visiting my former hometown of Denton, Texas, you owe it to yourself to do two things.

Number one, go to Recycled Books and Records.  It’s right across the street from the old courthouse and it’s perhaps the greatest used bookstore in the world.  When I was going to college at UNT, I would spend hours in Recycled Books.  Not only do they have three floors of books but they have some really nice apartments on the fourth floor.  I attended my share of hazily remembered parties in those apartments.

The second thing that you must do is stop by the Campus Theater.  The Camps Theater is located on the other side of the old courthouse and it is a true historical landmark.  (It’s also the home of the Denton Community Theatre.)  When you step inside of the theater, be sure to look for a plaque on the wall.  The plaque will inform you that, in 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde premiered at the Campus Theater.

Bonnie and Clyde not only premiered in Denton but it was also filmed around North Texas.  This was a pragmatic decision, made to minimize studio interference.  Even with that in mind, that’s still the way it should have been because Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are true Texas legends.  In the 1930s, they were young, they robbed banks, and they killed people.  Much like many of the outlaws of the era, they became folk heroes and they died in a hail of bullets.

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In the picture above, Clyde is short, scrawny, and slightly handsome in a class clown sort of way.  Bonnie, meanwhile, is even shorter than Clyde and has the hard look of someone who has never known an easy life.  Both of them have a look that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the small towns that dot the North Texas landscape.  They look like real people.  They don’t look like film stars.

Here’s the movie’s version of Bonnie and Clyde:

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In other words, Bonnie and Clyde is not a documentary.  But that doesn’t matter.  50 years after it was first released Bonnie and Clyde remains a powerful and, even more importantly, extremely entertaining film.  When the film was released, it was controversial for it violence and, having recently rewatched it, I have to say that the violence still makes an impression.  When guns are fired, the shots seem to literally explode in your ear.  When people are torn apart by bullets, they die terrible deaths and the film’s most graphic demises are reserved for its most likable characters.  Towards the end of the film, with the Texas Rangers relentlessly closing in on Bonnie and Clyde, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

What makes the violence all the more disturbing is that it often interrupts scenes that, until the bullets started flying, were often humorous.  A bank robbery starts out as a lark, becomes an exciting chase scene as Bonnie and Clyde attempt to escape, and suddenly turns into an act of shocking of violence when Clyde fire a gun and shoots a man point-blank in the face.  Later, stopping to help an old farmer change a tire leads to a sudden ambush.  Perhaps the film’s outlook is best captured in a scene in which the Barrow gang cheerfully bonds with a hostage until they suddenly find out that he’s an undertaker, a reminder that the promise of death is always present.

“Get him out of here!” Bonnie snaps.

Like many of the great gangster films, Bonnie and Clyde presents its outlaws as being folk heroes.  They may rob banks and occasionally kill people but they look good doing it and they seem like they would be fun to hang out with.  The thing that set Bonnie and Clyde apart from previous gangster films is that it refused to even pretend to condemn its bank robbers.  The cops and the Texas Rangers are all on the side of the banks and the banks are on the side of big business.  Bonnie and Clyde aren’t outlaws.  They’re rebels.  When they rob banks, they’re not just taking money.  They’re standing up to the same establishment that was feared in the 30s, resented in the 60s, and hated today.

Clyde is played by Warren Beatty (who also produced the film) and Bonnie is played by Faye Dunaway and both of them give performances that literally define screen charisma.  You never forget that you’re watching two movie stars but, at the risk of repeating myself, Bonnie and Clyde is not meant to be a documentary.  At times, it almost seems as if Beatty’s Clyde and Dunaway’s Bonnie know that they’re characters in a gangster movie.  They know that they’re doomed because that’s how gangster movies work so, as a result, they’re determined to live as much life as possible before that final reel.  The supporting cast — Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Wilder — are all great but the film is definitely a celebration of Beatty and Dunaway.

Bonnie and Clyde went from premiering at the Campus Theater to a best picture nomination.  However, it lost to In The Heat of the Night.

The Story of Suicide Sal

A Poem by Bonnie Parker

We each of us have a good “alibi”
For being down here in the “joint”;
But few of them really are justified
If you get right down to the point.

You’ve heard of a woman’s “glory”
Being spent on a “downright cur,”
Still you can’t always judge the story
As true, being told by her.

As long as I’ve stayed on this “island,”
And heard “confidence tales” from each “gal,”
Only one seemed interesting and truthful —
The story of “Suicide Sal.”

Now “Sal” was a gal of rare beauty,
Though her features were coarse and tough;
She never once faltered from duty
To play on the “up and up.”

“Sal” told me this tale on the evening
Before she was turned out “free,”
And I’ll do my best to relate it
Just as she told it to me:

I was born on a ranch in Wyoming;
Not treated like Helen of Troy;
I was taught that “rods were rulers”
And “ranked” as a greasy cowboy.”

Then I left my old home for the city
To play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
It holds for a country girl.

There I fell for “the line” of a “henchman,”
A “professional killer” from “Chi”;
I couldn’t help loving him madly;
For him even now I would die.

One year we were desperately happy;
Our “ill gotten gains” we spent free;
I was taught the ways of the “underworld”;
Jack was just like a “god” to me.

I got on the “F.B.A.” payroll
To get the “inside lay” of the “job”;
The bank was “turning big money”!
It looked like a “cinch” for the “mob.”

Eighty grand without even a “rumble” —
Jack was last with the “loot” in the door,
When the “teller” dead-aimed a revolver
From where they forced him to lie on the floor.

I knew I had only a moment —
He would surely get Jack as he ran;
So I “staged” a “big fade out” beside him
And knocked the forty-five out of his hand.

They “rapped me down big” at the station,
And informed me that I’d get the blame
For the “dramatic stunt” pulled on the “teller”
Looked to them too much like a “game.”

The “police” called it a “frame-up,”
Said it was an “inside job,”
But I steadily denied any knowledge
Or dealings with “underworld mobs.”

The “gang” hired a couple of lawyers,
The best “fixers” in any man’s town,
But it takes more than lawyers and money
When Uncle Sam starts “shaking you down.”

I was charged as a “scion of gangland”
And tried for my wages of sin;
The “dirty dozen” found me guilty —
From five to fifty years in the pen.

I took the “rap” like good people,
And never one “squawk” did I make.
Jake “dropped himself” on the promise
That we make a “sensational break.”

Well, to shorten a sad lengthy story,
Five years have gone over my head
Without even so much as a letter–
At first I thought he was dead.

But not long ago I discovered
From a gal in the joint named Lyle,
That Jack and his “moll” had “got over”
And were living in true “gangster style.”

If he had returned to me sometime,
Though he hadn’t a cent to give,
I’d forget all this hell that he’s caused me,
And love him as long as I live.

But there’s no chance of his ever coming,
For he and his moll have no fears
But that I will die in this prison,
Or “flatten” this fifty years.

Tomorrow I’ll be on the “outside”
And I’ll “drop myself” on it today;
I’ll “bump ’em” if they give me the “hotsquat”
On this island out here in the bay…

The iron doors swung wide next morning
For a gruesome woman of waste,
Who at last had a chance to “fix it,”
Murder showed in her cynical face.

Not long ago I read in the paper
That a gal on the East Side got “hot,”
And when the smoke finally retreated
Two of gangdom were found “on the spot.”

It related the colorful story
of a “jilted gangster gal.”
Two days later, a “sub-gun” ended
The story of “Suicide Sal.”

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The Story of Bonnie and Clyde

Another Poem by Bonnie Parker

You’ve read the story of Jesse James
Of how he lived and died;
If you’re still in need
Of something to read,
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang,
I’m sure you all have read
How they rob and steal
And those who squeal
Are usually found dying or dead.

There’s lots of untruths to these write-ups;
They’re not so ruthless as that;
Their nature is raw;
They hate all the law
The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers;
They say they are heartless and mean;
But I say this with pride,
That I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.

But the laws fooled around,
Kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
Till he said to me,
“I’ll never be free,
So I’ll meet a few of them in hell.”

The road was so dimly lighted;
There were no highway signs to guide;
But they made up their minds
If all roads were blind,
They wouldn’t give up till they died.

The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
But it’s fight, man to man,
And do all you can,
For they know they can never be free.

From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
But take it all in all,
Our troubles are small
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas,
And they have no clue or guide;
If they can’t find a fiend,
They just wipe their slate clean
And hand it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There’s two crimes committed in America
Not accredited to the Barrow mob;
They had no hand
In the kidnap demand,
Nor the Kansas City depot job.

A newsboy once said to his buddy;
“I wish old Clyde would get jumped;
In these awful hard times
We’d make a few dimes
If five or six cops would get bumped.”

The police haven’t got the report yet,
But Clyde called me up today;
He said, “Don’t start any fights
We aren’t working nights
We’re joining the NRA.”

From Irving to West Dallas viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide,
Where the women are kin,
And the men are men,
And they won’t “stool” on Bonnie and Clyde.

If they try to act like citizens
And rent them a nice little flat,
About the third night
They’re invited to fight
By a sub-gun’s rat-tat-tat.

They don’t think they’re too tough or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
They’ve been shot at before,
But they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.

Some day they’ll go down together;
And they’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief
To the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

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Embracing the Melodrama #28: The Towering Inferno (dir by John Guillermin)


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I have a weakness for the old, all-star disaster movies of the 1970s.  It could be because those movies remind me of how fragile life really is and encourage me to make the most of every minute.  Or maybe it’s because I have my phobias and, by watching those movies, I can confront my fears without having to deal with a real-life tornado, hurricane, tidal wave, avalanche, or fire.

Or maybe I just have a weakness of glitz, glamour, and melodrama — especially when it involves a huge cast of stars and character actors.  Yes that’s probably the reason right there.

Case in point: the 1974 best picture nominee, The Towering Inferno. 

As is the case with most of the classic disaster films, The Towering Inferno is a long and big movie but it has a very simple plot.  The world’s tallest building — known as the Glass Tower — has been built in San Francisco.  On the night of the grand opening, a fire breaks out, trapping all the rich and famous guests on the 135th floor.  Now, it’s up to the fire department to put out the fire while the trapped guests simply try to survive long enough to be rescued.  Some will live, some will die but one thing is certain — every member of the all-star cast will get at least 15 minutes of screen time and at least one chance to scream in the face of the film’s still effective special effects.

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As for the people trapped by the towering inferno, we don’t really get to know them or their motivations.  (Add to that, once the fire breaks out, everyone pretty much only has one motivation and that’s to not die.)  As a result, we don’t so much react to them as characters as we do to personas of the actors who are playing them.

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For instance, we know that Fire Chief O’Halloran is a fearless badass and a natural leader because he’s played by Steve McQueen.  McQueen brings a certain blue collar arrogance to this role and it’s a lot of fun to watch as he gets progressively more and more annoyed with the rich people that he’s been tasked with rescuing.

We know that architect Doug Roberts is a good guy because he’s played by Paul Newman.  Reportedly, Newman and McQueen were very competitive and, in this movie, we literally get to see them go-head-to-head.  And, as charismatic as Newman is, McQueen pretty much wins the movie.  That’s because there’s never a moment that O’Halloran isn’t in charge.  Doug, meanwhile, spends most of the movie begging everyone else in the tower to exercise the common sense necessary to not die.  (Unfortunately, despite the fact that he looks and sounds just like Paul Newman, nobody in the tower feels like listening to Doug.  If Towering Inferno proves anything, it’s that most people are too stupid to survive a disaster.)

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The tower’s owner, James Duncan, is played by William Holden so we know that Duncan may be a ruthless businessman but that ultimately he’s one of the good guys.  Holden gets one of the best scenes in the film when, after being told that people in the building are catching on fire, he replies, “I think you’re overreacting.”

Roger Simmons is Duncan’s son-in-law and we know that he’s ultimately to blame for the fire because he’s played by Richard Chamberlain.  Roger might as well have a sign on his back that reads “Doomed.”  The same can be said of publicity executive Dan (Robert Wagner) and his girlfriend, Lorrie (Susan Flannery).

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Faye Dunway is Susan.  She is Doug’s fiancée and she really doesn’t do much but she does get to wear a really pretty dress.  The same can be said of Susan Blakely, who plays Roger’s dissatisfied wife, and Jennifer Jones, who plays a recluse.  And good for them because if you’re going to be stuck in an inferno without much to do, you can at least take some comfort in looking good.

Then there’s Fred Astaire, who does not dance in this film.  Instead, he plays a kind-hearted con artist who ends up falling in love with Jennifer Jones.  Fred Astaire received his only Oscar nomination for his brief but likable performance in The Towering Inferno.

And finally, there’s the building’s head of security, Jernigan.  We know that he’s a murderer because he’s played by O.J. Simpson and … oh wait.  Jernigan is actually probably the second nicest guy in the whole film.  The only person nicer than Jernigan is Carlos, the bartender played by Gregory Sierra.

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The real star of the film, of course, is the fire.  In the 40 years since The Towering Inferno was produced, there’s been a lot of advances in CGI and I imagine that if the film was made today, we’d be watching the fire in 3D and it would be so realistic that we’d probably feel the heat in the theater.  That said, the fire effects in The Towering Inferno are still pretty effective.  Now, I have to admit that I have a phobia (and frequent nightmares) about being trapped in a fire so, obviously, this is a film that’s specifically designed to work itself into my subconscious.  But that said, the scenes with various extras thrashing about in the flames are still difficult to watch.  There’s a scene where Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery find themselves trapped in a blazing reception area and it is pure nightmare fuel.

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The Towering Inferno is an undeniably effective disaster film.  At the same time, when one looks at the 1974 Oscar nominees, it’s odd to see The Towering Inferno nominated for best picture along with The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, and The Conversation.  Unlike those three, The Towering Inferno is hardly a great film.

But it is definitely an entertaining one.

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Were the critics right? A Review of Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown


It seems like whenever film bloggers and reviewers are making out a list of the worst films of all time, somebody always mentions Hurry Sundown.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It doesn’t get mentioned as often as Battlefield Earth or Adam Sandler’s latest comedy.  And, when it does get mentioned, it’s done with little of the warmth that’s given to Troll 2, The Room, or Birdemic.  Instead, one gets the impression that Hurry Sundown is a film so bad that even those of us who appreciate bad films would find little to love about it.

But y’all know me.  I’m the type that prefers to judge for herself and I’m also someone who rather enjoys being a contrarian.  There’s a reason why one of my most read posts on this site is entitled 10 Reasons Why I Hated Avatar.  Add to that, Hurry Sundown was directed by Otto Preminger who also directed one of my favorite films of all time, Anatomy of a Murder.  How, I asked myself, could the man who made Anatomy of a Murder possibly also direct one of the worst films of all time?  As a result, every time that I saw someone claiming that Hurry Sundown was one of the worst films of all time, I grew more and more determined to someday see the film and judge for myself.

Well, I finally got my chance this weekend.  Hurry Sundown was on one of my newest favorite channels, The MOVIES! TV Network.  And I proceeded to watch it.  I sat through all four hours of this film (that’s including commercials and, oh my God, was I thankful for the distraction that those commercials provided).  I watched Hurry Sundown and …. wow.  Was it ever bad.

Hurry SundownReleased in 1967, Hurry Sundown was Otto Preminger’s attempt to take a look at race relations in the deep south.  It’s a film full of good, liberal intentions and an apparent lack of knowledge about — well, about everything.  As I watched this slow, almost formless blob of a film, I found myself wondering how the director who gave us Laura and Anatomy of a Murder could have possibly directed a film with a gigantic cast but absolutely no interesting characters.  I wondered how the director who had been willing to challenge the racist assumptions of 1950s Hollywood by directing Carmen Jones could have been responsible for the corny and subtly condescending look at race relations that was Hurry Sundown.

Hurry Sundown takes place in 1946 and is set in rural Georgia.  The war is over, the soldiers are coming home, and nobody in the film can maintain a convincing Southern accent for more than a line or two.  (Seriously — I’ve heard a lot of really bad Southern accents in a lot of really bad films but none of those accents were as bad as what I heard in Hurry Sundown.)  It’s a brand new world but the South is clinging to the old ways of racism and classism.

Preminger slowly (and clumsily) introduces us to the huge cast of characters who populate the slice of Hollywood Georgia.

There’s the sheriff (George Kennedy) who is so stupid that he can be distracted by an offer of fried chicken.  Kennedy actually gives a good comedic performance but his character seems like he belongs in another movie and you have to wonder how civil rights activists in 1967 — many of whom had undoubtedly been arrested and harassed by Southern sheriffs much like this one — reacted to Kenendy’s character being presented as harmless comic relief.

There’s the racist judge (Burgess Meredith) who, much like the sheriff, is presented as being a comedic buffoon as opposed to an actual threat.  The judge uses the n-word in every other sentence, which should be shocking and infuriating but, as a result of Meredith’s over-the-top delivery, instead simply comes across as being gratuitous and tasteless.

Then there’s Henry.  Henry is a businessman who dodged the draft, cheats on his wife, and who has a son who literally spends the entire movie screaming at the top of his lungs.  (Whenever that kid was on-screen, I imagined Preminger standing behind the camera and going, “More!  More!  Scream more!”)  Henry is also a racist, though for some reason he loves jazz and often plays the saxophone.  I kept waiting for someone in the movie to point out to him that jazz was created by black musicians but nobody did.  (If Henry had appeared in Anatomy of a Murder, someone would have.)

Did I mention that Henry is played by Michael Caine?  And did I also mention that Caine is the most cockney-sounding Southerner that I’ve ever heard?  Because he totally is.

Henry’s wife is named Julie and is played by Jane Fonda.  At one point, she suggestively blows on Henry’s saxophone.  One can only imagine how audiences in the 60s reacted to that.  (Actually, they probably didn’t.  They probably just said, “Good thing she’s pretty because she ain’t no musician…”)

Michael Caine and Jane FondaAnyway, Harry wants to buy up some farmland but half of that land is owned by Henry’s poor cousin Rad (John Phillip Law) and Rad doesn’t want to move.  Rad has just returned from fighting in the war and he views Harry as being a cowardly draft dodger.  Rad is married to Lou (Faye Dunaway) and wow, are they ever a boring couple!  Dunaway was under a five-picture contract to Preminger when she made this film and apparently, she had such a terrible time on the set of Hurry Sundown that she sued to get out of ever having to make another movie with Otto.  Dunaway’s misery comes through in every scene.

The other half of the farmland is owned by Reeve (Robert Hooks), a black farmer whose mother (played by Beah Richards) is Julie’s former mammy.  Julie goes down to the farmhouse to convince Reeve to sell and Reeve’s mother responds by having the most (over)dramatic heart attack in the history of cinema.  Saddened by death of his mother, Reeve is definitely not going to sell.  When he’s not chastely romancing the local teacher (played by Diahann Carroll, who appears to have wandered over from a different, far more glamorous movie), Reeve is singing sprituals and working out in the fields.

One of the things that Reeve does not do — no matter how many times he gets called the n-word or is treated unfairly — is get mad.  Rad gets mad.  Julie gets mad.  A liberal white preacher (Frank Converse) gets mad.  But Reeve and the other black characters in the film are never really allowed to get mad or do anything that might make the film’s white audience feel nervous.  Watching a film like Hurry Sundown, you can understand why — in just a few more years — Blaxploitation films would suddenly become so popular.  It was probably the first time that black film characters were actually allowed to not only get angry over the way they were being treated but to fight back, as opposed to reacting in the Hurry Sundown-way of passive acceptance.

Anyway, Rad and Reeve come together to protect their land and Henry and the evil judge conspire to cheat them out of their land and — well, let’s just say that Hurry Sundown is one of those films that has a lot of plot and very little action.  Preminger directs with a stunning lack of pace or grace, the actors deal with a poorly written script by either engaging in histrionics or going catatonic, and Michael Caine’s attempt at a Southern accent will amuse anyone who has ever been south of the Mason-Dixon.

I have to admit that I was really hoping that Hurry Sundown would turn out to be a sordid and tawdry little masterpiece, the type of overheated misfire that you love despite your better instincts.  But, no.  Hurry Sundown is just boring.  The film is such a misfire that it doesn’t even work as a piece of history.  The critics were right.  Hurry Sundown sucks.

Hurry_sundown_moviep

 

 

44 Days of Paranoia #25: Chinatown (dir by Roman Polanski)


Our latest entry into the 44 Days of Paranoia is a dark masterpiece.  Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made.

Chinatown takes place in 1940s Los Angeles.  Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray.  She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair.  Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman (Belinda Palmer) and hands them over to Evelyn.

The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray.  Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.

Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation.  This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston).  Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’s fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend.

As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’s murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past.  Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be.  To say anything else about the plot would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen Chinatown before.

Since I first started reviewing films for this site, one of the things that I’ve discovered is that it’s actually easier to review a bad film than a good film.  It’s easier to be snarky and cynical about the latest film from Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich than it is to explain why a film works.  There’s a famous saying about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it,” and sometimes that’s the way I feel whenever it comes time to try to review a great film.

Consider Chinatown.  At its heart, Chinatown is an homage to the old film noirs of the 40s and 50s.  Now, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many noir homages I’ve seen.  It seems like every director has to make at least one hard-boiled, morally ambiguous detective film.  Chinatown has all of the familiar elements — the hero is a private investigator, Evelyn Mulwray initially appears to be a classic femme fatale, the dialogue is appropriately cynical, and the plot is full of twist and turns.  Even the film’s theme of political conspiracy serves to remind us that most noirs used their detective stories as a way to explore the hidden underbelly of American society.

And yet, with Chinatown, Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans took all of those familiar elements and used them to create one of the greatest films ever made.

Why is Chinatown such a great film?

Some of the credit has to go to Jack Nicholson who, in the role of Jake Gittes, gives perhaps his best performance.  As I mentioned above, Gittes is, in many ways, a stock character but Nicholson brings so much nuance and depth to the role that it doesn’t matter.  Nicholson’s trademark cynicism and sarcasm are both to be found here but he also brings a cocky recklessness to the role.  Gittes is such a charismatic and likable hero and so confident in himself that it makes the film’s ending all the more shocking.

As good as Nicholson is, he’s matched at every turn by John Huston’s Noah Cross.  Noah Cross is one of the most vile characters to ever appear on-screen, which is why Huston’s rather courtly performance is all the more disturbing.  When Gittes confronts Noah about the worst of his many crimes, Cross simply responds that a man is never sure what he’s capable of until he does it.  Huston delivery of the lines leave us with little doubt that Noah believes every word of what he’s just said.

In the end, though, most of the credit has to go to Roman Polanski’s direction and Robert Towne’s script.  Towne’s script provides a genuinely challenging and thought-provoking mystery, while Polanski’s stylish direction keeps the view continually off-balance and unsure of who is telling the truth.  Reportedly, Polanski and Towne had a contentious relationship, with Polanski changing the ending of Towne’s script to make the film much more downbeat.  In the end, Polanski made the right choice.  The film ends the only way that it possibly could.

Or, to quote the famous line: “It’s Chinatown.”

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer