Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)


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By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (9149) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town…

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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.)

A Movie A Day #326: MacArthur (1977, directed by Joseph Sargent)


The year is 1962 and Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck), the legendary general, visits West Point for one last time.  While he meets the graduates and gives his final speech, flashbacks show highlights from MacArthur’s long military career.  He leaves and then returns to Philippines.  He accepts the Japanese surrender and then helps Japan rebuild and recover from the devastation of the war.  He half-heartedly pursues the Presidency and, during the Korean War, gets fired by Harry Truman (Ed Flanders).

MacArthur is a stolid biopic about one America’s most famous and controversial generals.  It was produced by Frank McCarthy, a former general who knew MacArthur and who previously won an Oscar for producing Patton.  McCarthy was obviously hoping that MacArthur was do its subject what Patton did for George Patton and both films follow the same basic pattern. a warts-and-all portrait of a World War II general with all of the action centered around the performance of a bigger-than-life actor in the title role.  Though obviously made for a low budget, MacArthur is a well-made and well-acted movie but it suffers because Douglas MacArthur was just not as interesting a figure as George Patton.  Gregory Peck does a good job subtly suggesting MacArthur’s vanity along with capturing his commitment to his duty but he never gets a scene that’s comparable to George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton.  The main problem with MacArthur, especially when compared to Patton, is that George Patton was a born warrior while Douglas MacArthur was a born administrator and it is always going to be more exciting to watch a general lead his men into battle then to watch him sign executive orders.

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)


And I beheld as Scorsese remade a classic movie and, Lo, there was De Niro, decorated in india ink and speaking in tongues…

In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 horror thriller, Cape Fear.  Both versions deal with the same basic story but each tells it in a very different way.  If the original Cape Fear was straightforward and to the point, Martin Scorsese’s version is so stylized that occasionally, it’s tempting to suspect that Scorsese might be parodying himself.  Zoom shots, negative shots, sweeping camera movements, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is full of all of them.  When a storm rolls in for the film’s operatic finale, the red clouds look as if their on fire.  Hell is coming to North Carolina, the film appears to be announcing.

While the plot largely remains the same, there are a few significant changes to the characters involved:

In the first Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady was an arrogant, swaggering brute.  In the remake, Robert De Niro’s Cady is still an arrogant, swaggering brute but he’s now also an evangelical who is tattooed with bible verses and who speaks in tongues.  Cape Fear‘s approach to Cady’s religion is so over-the-top that it almost makes Stephen King’s approach to religious characters seem subtle and nuanced.  De Niro also speaks in a broad Southern accent.  Occasionally, De Niro gets the accent right but most of the time, he sounds like he’s in a Vermont community theater production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden was a lawyer who caught Max while Max was attacking a woman and who then testified against Max in court.  That’s not the case with the remake’s version of Sam Bowden.  Despite being played by Nick Nolte, the remake’s Sam Bowden is such a wimp that you can’t help but dislike him.  His wife (Jessica Lange) doesn’t trust him.  His teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) resents him and his attempts to control her life.  In this version, Sam didn’t testify against Max in court.  Instead, Sam was Max’s lawyer and withheld evidence that could have secured Max’s acquittal.  What Sam didn’t realize is that Max would spend his time in prison studying the law and that Max would eventually figure out what Sam did.

As in the original film, Max shows up in North Carolina and proceeds to stalk the Bowdens.  Unlike Mitchum, who was all quiet menace, De Niro plays Max as being loud and obnoxious, the type who will sit in a theater, light a cigar, and intentionally laugh at the top of his lungs.  Max knows enough about the law that he knows exactly what he can get away with.  He poisons Sam’s dog.  He rapes Sam’s associate, Lori (played, in a heart-breaking performance, by Ileana Douglas).  In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, he pretends to be the new drama teacher and toys with Sam’s daughter.

With the help of a private eye (Joe Don Baker), Sam tries to get Max out of his life.  Eventually, Sam pretends to be out-of-town, all as part of a ruse to get Max to break into his house so that he can be shot in self-defense.  It’s here that Nolte’s wimpy performance becomes an issue.  It’s impossible not to laugh at the sight of Sam, all hunched down and desperately trying to run from room to room without being spotted through any of the windows.

To a certain extent, I suspect that were meant to see Sam as being a rather pathetic figure.  Scorsese doesn’t really seem to have much sympathy for him or his dysfunctional family.  If anything, the film seems to argue that Sam has been a bad lawyer, a bad husband, and a bad father and Max has been sent as a type of divine retribution.  Only by defeating Max can Sam find forgiveness and hope to have the type of life that Gregory Peck enjoyed in the first movie.

Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an uneasy mishmash of styles.  Is it an art film, a religious allegory, a horror film, or just a generic thriller?  It doesn’t seem to be sure.  Cape Fear‘s a Scorsese film so, of course, it’s always going to be worth watching.  But there are times when the film definitely runs the risk of overdosing on style.  Sometimes, Scorsese seems to be trying too hard to remind everyone that he’s a legitimately great director and ends up getting so invested in the film’s visuals that he runs the risk of losing the story.  De Niro has some scenes in which he is genuinely chilling but then he has other scenes where he is basically just a live action cartoon character.  The same can be said of the film itself.  It’s always watchable.  At times, it’s rather frightening.  But other times, it’s just too cartoonish to be effective.

If anything, this remake proves that sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple.

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


There are two versions of Cape Fear out there.

The one that most people seem to know and which regularly shows up on cable is the 1991 version.  This version was directed by Martin Scorsese and features Oscar-nominated performances from Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis.  This is the version that has De Niro speaking in a broad Southern accent and attacking people while speaking in tongues.  If you’ve ever watched a rerun of an old sitcom and wondered why the laugh track was going wild at the sight of a tattooed prisoner lifting weights in a cell while portentous music boomed in the background, it’s because you were watching a parody of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.

That, however, is not the first version of Cape Fear.

The first version of Cape Fear came out in 1962.  It was a black-and-white film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  In this version, the recently released rapist, Max Cady, is played by Robert Mitchum.  Sam Bowden, the attorney that Cady blames for his incarceration, is played by Gregory Peck.  Whereas the Scorsese version was highly stylized, the original Cape Fear is brutally straight forward.  (While Scorsese’s Cape Fear goes on for over two hours, the original Cape Fear tells its story in a brisk 100 minutes.)  While I think that Scorsese’s Cape Fear has its strong points, the original Cape Fear is superior in almost every way.

The original is certainly far more frightening than the remake.  What the original may lack in stylization, it makes up for in plausibility.  It’s scary because you can imagine everything in the film actually happening.  Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck may both be iconic film stars but they’re also believable as human beings.

For modern audiences, it’s easy to smirk at Peck with his upright image and his sonorous voice but what made Peck a great actor was his ability to make it all seem natural.  Peck never seemed like he was acting like an honest man who always tried to do the right thing.  Instead, he simply was that man.  It’s perhaps significant that Peck played Sam Bowden the same year that he played another honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.  The only real difference between them is that, whereas Atticus was always confident and sure of himself, Sam is frequently helpless.  He knows that Max is stalking him and his family and he’s just as aware that there’s nothing he can do about it.  When Max rapes a woman (Barrie Chase) that he meets at a bar, she refuses to testify against him.  When Sam’s dog turns up dead, everyone knows that Max killed him but there’s no way to prove it.  When Sam hires three men to intimidate Max, Max beats them up and promptly tries to get Sam disbarred.  When Sam finally resorts to plotting Max’s murder, we’re seeing Atticus Finch pushed beyond his limit.

As for Robert Mitchum, his animalistic performance is frightening precisely because it feels very real.  Everyone has known a Max Cady, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.  Max gives a fiercely physical performance, often appearing shirtless and strutting through his scenes with a sexual arrogance that’s both frightening and, at times, far more tempting than anyone would want to admit.  The scenes in which Max attacks Barrie Chase and Polly Bergen (who plays Peck’s wife) are absolutely terrifying but, for me, the most disturbing moments in Cape Fear are the moments when Max is silent.  Even when he’s not speaking, Mitchum allows you to see every depraved thought going through is head.

What’s the scariest moment for me?  When the camera catches Max watching Sam’s teenage daughter (Lori Martin).  It’s not just that I know what’s going on in Mitchum’s mind as he stares at her.  It’s because I know what it’s like to be watched.  It’s a scene that’s unsettling because it makes me consider just how many Max Cadys are out there right now.

The battle between Max and Sam is a fascinating one.  In prison, Max studied enough law to become as knowledgeable about how to manipulate it as Sam.  Under pressure, Sam grows more violent and more willing to circumvent his oath to uphold the same law that Max is now using against him.  It makes for a frightening  film, one that will stick with you long after you watch it.

A Movie A Day #229: Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, directed by Mike Newell)


Amazing Grace and Chuck has a heartfelt message but it ultimately trips over its own good intentions.

Chuck (Joshua Zuelkhe) is a 12 year-old boy who lives in Montana and who is the best little league pitcher in the state.  Because a field trip to a missile silo causes him to have nightmares, Chuck announces that he will not play baseball until the world agrees to nuclear disarmament.  Chuck’s team ends up having to forfeit a game because Chuck refuses to play.  In the real world, this would lead to Chuck enduring 6 years of ridicule and bullying until he was finally old enough to change his name and go to college in a different state.  In the world of the movies, it leads to Chuck becoming a hero.

A basketball player named Amazing Grace (Alex English) reads a news story about Chuck’s protest and he decides to protest as well.  He announces that he will not play basketball until there are no more nuclear missiles.  Before you can say “Colin Kaepernick,” hundreds of other sports stars are following Amazing Grace’s lead.  Of course, if any group of people is well known for their willingness to give up a huge payday for a quixotic and largely symbolic protest, it’s America’s professional athletes.  Amazing Grace and the athletes even move out to Montana, so that they can be closer to Chuck.

Because they do not appreciate his efforts to put all sporting events (and all betting on sporting events) on hold, the Mafia makes plans to assassinate Amazing Grace.  Chuck protests this by taking a vow of silence.  By now, it is hard to keep track of what Chuck is protesting and how.  Is he still trying for world disarmament or has he moved on to getting the Mob out of professional sports?  All the other children of the world follow Chuck’s example, refusing to speak.  In the real world, children taking a vow of silence would lead to parents celebrating in the street but, in the movie, it leads to panic and causes the Soviets to assume they have the upper hand over the west.  The President (Gregory Peck) ruins it all by inviting Chuck to the White House.  When President Peck explains that people are not allowed to shout fire in a crowded movie theater, Chuck breaks his vow of silence to ask, “But what if there’s a fire?”

There are many problems with Amazing Grace and Chuck, including the dumb Mafia subplot that seems like it should be in a different movie and Chuck coming across as being a smug little creep.  Joshua Zuehlke made his film debut as Chuck and, on the basis of his performance, it is not surprising that he has never appeared in another film since.  By the end of the movie, even Gregory Peck is sick of Chuck and his demands.   It’s obviously a heartfelt film, which is probably why actors like Peck, Jamie Lee Curtis, and William L. Petersen all appeared in it despite presumably having a hundred better things to do, but a nuanced look at détente and the arms race, Amazing Grace and Chuck is not.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Roman Holiday (dir by William Wyler)


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The 1953 film Roman Holiday is one that I’ve watched quite a few times.  If you know anything about the film and/or me, you won’t be surprised by that.  I love Audrey Hepburn.  I love Rome.  I love romance.  And I love bittersweet endings.  And Roman Holiday has all four of those!

Speaking of Audrey Hepburn, I’ve shared this picture before but I’m going to share it again:

Audrey Hepburn 1954 Roman HolidayThat is Audrey Hepburn, the morning after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday.  Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s motion picture debut and it continues to hold up as one of the greatest film debuts of all time.  Watching how easily she controls and dominates the screen in Roman Holiday, you would think that she had made over a 100 films previously.

The film tells a simple story, really.  Audrey plays Ann, the crown princess of an unnamed country.  Princess Ann is touring the world.  The press is following her every move.  Her royal handlers are carefully choreographing every event.  Her ever-present bodyguards are always present to make sure that no one gets too close to her.  In public, Ann is the epitome of royal discretion, smiling politely and always being careful to say exactly the right thing.  But, in private, Ann is restless.  Ann knows that she has never been allowed to see the real world and yearns to escape, if just for one night, and live a normal life.  So far, her handlers have managed to keep her under control but then she arrives in Rome and…

…well, who can resist Rome?

Despite having been given a sedative earlier, Ann stays awake long enough to sneak out of her hotel room and see the enchanting Rome night life.  Of course, the sedative does eventually kick in and she ends up falling asleep on a bench.  It’s there that she’s discovered by an American, a cynical reporter named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck).  Not realizing who she is and, instead, assuming she’s just a tourist who has been overwhelmed by Rome, Joe allows her to spend the night at his apartment.

The next morning, Joe finds out who Ann actually is.  Realizing that getting an exclusive interview with Ann could be his ticket to the big time, Joe and his photographer, Irving (Eddie Albert), rush back to Joe’s apartment.  Joe doesn’t tell her that he’s a reporter.  He just offers to take her on a tour of Rome.  Ann, however, wants to experience Rome on her own.

What follows is a wonderful and romantic travelogue of the glory of Rome.  Though Ann does explore on her own for a while, she eventually does meet back up with Joe and Irving.  Whenever I watch Roman Holiday, I always try to put myself in the shoes of someone in 1953, sitting in the audience during the film’s first week of release.  For many of them, this film may have been their first chance to ever see Rome.  (The opening credits of Roman Holiday proudly announce that the entire film was shot on location, properly acknowledging the Rome is as much a star of this film as Hepburn, Peck, and Albert.)  If you’re not already in love with Rome (and I fell in love with the city — and really, the entire country of Italy — the summer after I graduated high school), you will be after watching Roman Holiday.

(If you truly want to have a wonderful double feature, follow-up Roman Holiday with La Dolce Vita.)

The film’s most famous scene occurs at the Mouth of Truth and… well, just watch…

This scene was improvised, on the spot, by Gregory Peck.  Audrey Hepburn’s scream was very much real as Peck didn’t tell her what he was planning on doing.  As great as this scene is, it’s even better after you’ve actually been to Rome and put your own hand in the Mouth of Truth.

It’s a very sweet movie, one that stands as both a tribute to romance but also proof of what pure movie star charisma can accomplish.  It’s not just that Audrey Hepburn gives a great performance as Princess Ann.  It’s that Gregory Peck gives one of his most natural and surprisingly playful performance as well.  It’s that Peck and Hepburn have an amazing chemistry.  By the end of the film, you know that they deserve Rome and Rome deserves them.

And then there’s that ending, that bittersweet ending that always brings tears my mismatched eyes.  It’s a sad (though not depressing) little ending but somehow, it’s also the only ending that would work.

Roman Holiday was nominated for best picture but it lost to From Here To Eternity.

That’s right — Roman Holiday and From Here To Eternity were released one after another.

1953 was a very good year.

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