30 Days of Noir #24: Fourteen Hours (dir by Henry Hathaway)


As a genre, film noir has always been associated with crime: murder, brutish gangsters, seductive femme fatales, and occasionally a cynical private detective doing the right thing almost despite himself.  However, not all film noirs are about criminals.  Some are just about desperate characters who have found themselves on the fringes, living in a shadow-filled world that appears to be monstrously indifferent to all human suffering.

That’s certainly the case with the 1951 noir, 14 Hours.  The film centers around Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart, who previously played a murderer in another classic noir, He Walked By Night).  Robert isn’t a gangster.  He’s not a private detective.  He doesn’t carry a gun and he doesn’t provide any sort of hard-boiled narration.  In fact, for the majority of the film, Robert is defined by less who he is and more by what he’s doing.  Robert Cosick, having earlier checked into a room on the 15th floor of a New York hotel, has climbed out of a window and is now standing on a ledge.  Robert says that he’s going to jump.

What has driven Robert Cosik to consider such an extreme action?  The film never settles on any one reason, though it gives us several clues.  When his father (Robert Keith) and his mother (Agnes Moorehead) show up at the scene, they immediately start bickering about old family dramas.  When Robert’s ex-fiancee (Barbara Bel Geddes) begs him to step in from the ledge, he listens a bit more to her than he did to his parents but he still refuses to come in from the ledge.

But perhaps the real reason that Robert Cosick is out on that ledge can be found in the film’s shadowy visuals.  Directed in a semi-documentary fashion by Henry Hathaway and featuring harsh, black-and-white cinematography that’s credited to Joe MacDonald, Fourteen Hours emphasizes the indifference of the city.  From the menacing landscape of concrete buildings to the crowds gathering below the ledge to see if Robert lives or dies,  New York City is as much as a character in this film as Robert, his family, or the cop (played by Paul Douglas) who finds himself trying to talk Robert into reentering his hotel room.  When night falls, the city may light up but it does nothing to alleviate the shadows that seem to be wrapping themselves around Robert.  For the fourteen hours that Robert is on that ledge, he may be the center of the world but the film leaves little doubt that New York City will continue to exist in all of its glory and its horror regardless of how Robert’s drama plays out.  Whether he lives or dies, Robert appears to be destined to be forgotten.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the cops trying to talk Robert into getting back in the hotel room, it shows us the reactions of the people who see him standing out on that ledge.  (If this film were made today, everyone would be holding up their phones and uploading Robert’s plight to social media.)  Some people are moved by Robert’s struggle.  For instance, a young woman played by Grace Kelly (in her film debut) reaches a decision on whether or not to get a divorce based on what she sees happening on the ledge.  Two office workers (played by Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget) even strike up a romance as they wait to see what will happen.  Some people view Robert as being a madman.  Others see him as being a victim.  And then there’s the many others who view him as being either a minor distraction or a piece of entertainment.  For them, it’s less important why Robert’s on the ledge or even who Robert is.  What’s important to them is how the story is going to end.

It’s not a particularly happy film but it’s made watchable by Hathaway’s intelligent direction and the performances of Paul Douglas and Richard Basehart.  With its theme of instant fame and hollow indifference, it’s a film that remains as relevant today as when it was initially released.

A Movie A Day #127: Brass Target (1978, directed by John Hough)


Everything’s a conspiracy!

At least, that is the claim made by Brass Target, a twisty and unnecessarily complicated thriller that argues that General George S. Patton (played here by George Kennedy, who is even more blustery than usual in the role) did not, as widely believed, die as the result of a car accident but was actually killed by an assassin using rubber bullets.  Why was Patton targeted for assassination?  Was he targeted by Nazis angered by Germany’s defeat or maybe Russians who knew that Patton had argued in favor of invading the Soviet Union towards the end of the war?  Would you believe it was all because Patton was investigating the theft of Nazi gold and his subordinates, the flamboyantly gay Colonel Donald Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Rogers’s always worried lover, Colonel Walter Gilchrist (Edward Herrmann), were fearful that he was getting too close to discovering the truth?

John Cassevetes, who hopefully used part of his paycheck to fund either The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, or Gloria, plays Joe De Lucca, the burned out OSS colonel who is assigned to track down the Nazi gold but who really just wants to go back home to New York.  Patrick McGoohan, sporting an accent that is supposed to be American, plays De Lucca’s former friend and colleague, Colonel Mike McCauley, who now lives in a German castle.  Max von Sydow is the assassin, who also has a day job as the chairman of a refugee relocation committee.  Sophia Loren plays Mara, a Polish war refugee who, by pure coincidence, has slept with not just De Lucca but almost everyone involved with the conspiracy.  Bruce Davison is the young colonel who acts as Du Lucca’s supervisor.  Even Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by the very British Lee Montague) is featured as a minor part of the conspiracy.

That is an impressive cast for a less than impressive movie.  Brass Target never provides a convincing reason as to why the conspirators would decide that killing Patton was their only option and, once the conspiracy gets underway and the movie starts to follow around Von Sydow for some Day of the Jackal/Black Sunday-style preparation scenes, the search for the Nazi gold is forgotten.  For some reason, though, I have a soft spot for this frequently ridiculous movie.  There are enough weird moments and details, like Vaughn’s twitchy performance, McGoohan’s accent, the way Kennedy blusters about the Russians being rude to him, and glamorous Sophia Loren’s miscasting, that Brass Target is always watchable even if it is never exactly good.

A Movie A Day #33: Two-Minute Warning (1976, directed by Larry Peerce)


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For the longest time, I thought that Two-Minute Warning was a movie about a gang of art thieves who attempt to pull off a heist by hiring a sniper to shoot at empty seats at the Super Bowl.  As planned by a master criminal known as The Professor (Rossano Brazzi), the sniper will cause a riot and the police will be too busy trying to restore order to notice the robbery being committed at an art gallery that happens to be right next to the stadium.

I believed that because that was the version of Two-Minute Warning that would sometimes show up on television.  Whenever I saw the movie, I always through it was a strange plan, one that had too many obvious flaws for any halfway competent criminal mastermind to ignore them.  What if the sniper was captured before he got a chance to start shooting?  What if a riot didn’t break out?  The sniper spent the movie aiming at empty seats but, considering how many people were in the stadium, it was likely that he would accidentally shoot someone.  Were the paintings really worth the risk of a murder charge?

Even stranger was that Two-Minute Warning was not only a heist film but it was also a 1970s disaster film.  Spread out throughout the stadium were familiar character actors like Jack Klugman, John Cassevetes, David Janssen, Martin Balsam, Gena Rowlands, Walter Pidgeon, and Beau Bridges.  It seemed strange that, once the shots were fired and Brazzi’s men broke into the gallery, all of those familiar faces vanished.  When it comes to disaster movies, it is an ironclad rule that at least one B-list celebrity has to die.  It seemed strange that Two-Minute Warning, with all those characters, would feature a sniper shooting at only empty seats.  For that matter, why would there be empty seats at the Super Bowl?

That wasn’t the strangest thing about Two-Minute Warning, though.  The strangest thing was that Charlton Heston was in the film, playing a police captain.  In most of his scenes, he had dark hair.  But, in the scenes in which he talked about the art gallery, Heston’s hair was suddenly light brown.

Recently, I watched Two-Minute Warning on DVD and I was shocked to discover that the movie on the DVD had very little in common with the movie that I had seen on TV.  For instance, the television version started with the crooks discussing their plan to rob the gallery.  The DVD version opened with the sniper shooting at a couple in the park.  In the DVD version, there was no art heist.   The sniper had no motive and no personality.  He was just a random nut who opened fire on the Super Bowl.  And,  in the DVD version, he did not shoot at empty seats.  Several of the characters who survived in the version that I saw on TV did not survive in the version that I saw on DVD.

What happened?

The theatrical version of Two-Minute Warning was exactly what I saw on the DVD.  A nameless sniper opens fire and kills several people at the Super Bowl.  In 1978, when NBC purchased the television broadcast rights for Two-Minute Warning, they worried that it was too violent and too disturbing.  There was concern that, if the film was broadcast as it originally was, people would actually think there was a risk of some nut with a gun opening fire at a crowded event.  (In 1978, that was apparently considered to be implausible.)  So, 40 minutes of new footage was shot.  Charlton Heston even returned to film three new scenes, which explains his changing hair color.  The new version of Two-Minute Warning not only gave the sniper a motive (albeit one that did not make much sense) but it also took out all of the violent death scenes.

Having seen both versions of Two-Minute Warning, neither one is very good, though the theatrical version is at least more suspenseful than the television version.  (It turns out that it was better to give the sniper no motive than to saddle him with a completely implausible one.)  But, even in the theatrical version, the potential victims are too one-dimensional to really care about.  Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Two-Minute Warning is that, at one time, an art heist was considered more plausible than a mass shooting.

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Horror Film Review: Rosemary’s Baby (dir by Roman Polanski)


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“This is no dream!  This is really happening!”

— Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Yes, Rosemary, it is.

The classic 1968 horror movie Rosemary’s Baby is probably best remembered for a lengthy and wonderfully surreal “dream” sequence in which naive newlywed Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is raped by the Devil while a bunch of naked old people stand around her and chant.  At one point, she sees her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), saying that she’s awake and that she knows what’s going on.  Their neighbor, Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), tells him that Rosemary can’t hear anything and that it’s like she’s dead and then snaps at him, “Now, sing!”  It’s a great sequence, one of the greatest of Roman Polanski’s career, a perfect blending of horror and dark comedy.

For me, the most interesting part of that dream sequence comes at the start.  Rosemary envisions herself naked on a boat and, as she tries to cover herself, who is sitting next to her?  None other than John F. Kennedy!  Suddenly, Rosemary is wearing a bikini and she’s relaxing out on the deck with a glamorous group of people who I assume were meant to be Kennedy relatives.  As the boat leaves the dock, Rosemary sees that her friend and protector, Hutch (Maurice Evans), is standing on the dock.

“Isn’t Hutch coming with us?” Rosemary asks.

“Catholics only,” John F. Kennedy hisses in that famous accent, “I’m afraid we are bound by these prejudices.”

“I understand,” a dazed Rosemary replies.

And it’s a wonderful little moment, though I have to wonder if I’d react as strong if my own background wasn’t Irish Catholic.  But still, there’s something so wonderfully subversive about a bunch of elderly Satanists pretending to be the Kennedys.

And really, Rosemary’s Baby is a wonderfully subversive film.  I imagine it was even more subversive when it was first released back in 1968.  It’s been ripped off and imitated so many times that it has undoubtedly lost some of its impact.  (That’s one reason why I wish I had a time machine, so I could go back in the past and see it was truly like to see a classic film for the first time.)  But still, 47 years after it was initially released, Rosemary’s Baby is still a surprisingly effective horror film.

The film opens with newlyweds Rosemary and Guy moving into the Bramford, an exclusive New York apartment building.  Guy is an actor who, despite having appeared in two off-Broadway shows (one of which was entitled Nobody Likes An Albatross and really, that is so true) and a few motorcycle commercials, is still waiting for his big break.  There are hints that, before she married Guy, Rosemary had a very active and interesting life (when we briefly meet her old friends, they all seem to be a lot more exciting than boring old Guy) but, when we meet her, Rosemary appears to have happily settled into a life of domesticity.

Life at the Bramford is strange.  For one thing, Guy and Rosemary appear to be the only young people living in the entire building.  (There is a young woman named Terry but she ends up jumping out of a window.)  The Woodhouses befriend elderly Minnie Castevet and her husband, Roman (Sidney Blackmer.)  Roman claims to have traveled all over the world and embarrasses the Catholic Rosemary by criticizing the Pope.  Minnie, meanwhile, is the noisiest person in the world.  Guy makes fun of both of them and, yet, he still decides to spend his free time with Roman.

One day, Guy gets a role that he had previously lost.  Why?  Because another actor is struck by a sudden case of blindness.  Shortly afterward, Rosemary has her “dream.”  She wakes up and discovers that her body is covered with red scratches.  Guy claims that he had sex with her while she was asleep and promises to cut his fingernails.

Soon, Rosemary is pregnant but the Castevets insist that she use their doctor, the firm and sinister Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy, who just 8 year earlier had played FDR in Sunrise at Campobello).  Rosemary knows that something is wrong with the baby but she can’t get anyone to listen to her.  It all leads to one of the best and most iconic endings in the history of horror cinema.

Rosemary’s Baby is a classic of fear and paranoia and it holds up surprisingly well.  See it this October, whether you’re Catholic or not.

(However, do not see the needless 2014 remake.  Seriously, what the Hell was up with that?)

(By the way, is anyone else amazed that I made it through this entire review without making a single joke about either Ronan Farrow or Mia’s lame Sharknado live tweet?  I am shocked.)

 

Film Review: Capone (1975, directed by Steve Carver)


capone-poster-1Over the course of his legendary career, filmmaker Roger Corman produced two films about the life of Al Capone.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which starred Jason Robards as the famous Chicago mobster and featured Jack Nicholson in a two-line role, is the one that everyone remembers.  The other one was simply titled Capone and starred Ben Gazzara.

Capone opens in 1918, with Al Capone as a cunning young criminal who cons his way into the trust of Chicago racketeers Johnny Torio (Harry Guardino) and Frankie Yale (John Cassavetes, appearing in two scenes and probably using his salary to produce The Killing of a Chinese Bookie).  The tough and streetwise Capone works his way up, becoming Torio’s right-hand man before eventually betraying his boss and taking over the Chicago rackets himself.  Al rules Chicago with an iron fist and has an affair with a flapper named Iris (Susan Blakely).  After killing nearly all of his enemies, Al is taken down on a tax evasion charge and, after contracting syphilis, he ends up a pathetic and lonely man, sitting by his pool and ranting about his enemies.

Despite being one of the few movies to depict Al’s final days, Capone makes little effort to be historically accurate.  Instead, it’s a gangster film in the tradition of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and both versions of Scarface, complete with nudity, tough talk, and plenty of tommy gun action.  (Since this is a Roger Corman film, Capone also features Dick Miller and footage that was lifted directly from St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.)  There is nothing surprising about Capone but it’s still entertaining.

Al Capone has been played by everyone from Rod Steiger to Robert De Niro to F. Murray Abraham.  Ben Gazzara may not have been the most subtle Capone but he was one of the most watchable.  Gazzara played Al Capone like a snarling animal, always ready to bite anyone who gets too close.  My favorite Gazzara moments come at the end of the film, when a syphilitic Capone bugs his eyes and starts to rave about Bolsheviks.

Today, Capone is best remembered for featuring Sylvester Stallone in the role of Frank Nitti, Al’s right-hand man and eventual successor.  One year later, Rocky would turn Stallone into a superstar and his days of working for Roger Corman would be over.

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44 Days of Paranoia #39: The Fury (dir by Brian DePalma)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at one of the silliest films ever made, Brian DePalma’s 1978 horror/thriller hybrid The Fury.

The Fury opens on a beach in Israel.  CIA veteran Peter (Kirk Douglas, who grimaces up a storm) is hanging out with his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) and his friend and colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes).  Two things quickly become apparent.

First off, Robin has psychic powers.  We know this because Peter is obsessed with protecting him from being captured by a shadowy government agency that wants to use his power as a weapon.

And secondly, Ben is evil.  We know that Ben’s evil because he’s played by John Cassavetes.  As one of the first truly independent filmmakers, Cassavetes would often raise the money to make his fiercely individualistic films by playing villains in bad B-movies, like this one.

Ben, in fact, is so evil that he’s arranged for terrorists to attack the beach.  After Peter is apparently killed in a ludicrously violent gunfight, Ben takes off with Robin.

However, Peter is not dead!  Somehow, despite the fact that both the beach and the ocean were pretty much blown up with him on it, Peter survived and now, he’s looking for his son.  Peter makes his way to Chicago where he calls up his girlfriend, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), and says things like, “I want your body, baby.”

Hester, meanwhile, works at the Paragon Clinic, which is run by Dr. James McKeever (Charles Durning) who, himself, is secretly working for Ben.  The Paragon Clinic is a front to try to discover other teenage psychics and to turn them into weapons as well.  The newest patient is Gillian (Amy Irving), a teenage girl who might be able to help Peter track down his son.

Of course, what Peter doesn’t take into account is that, in his absence, Robin has turned into a power-mad sociopath who spends his time doing things like killing tourists at amusing parks…

Wow, that’s a lot of plot, isn’t it?  And, with all of that, I haven’t even gotten into what happens during the second half of the film!

The Fury is an enjoyably silly film, an awkward attempt to combine DePalma’s previous film, Carrie, with a paranoia-fueled political thriller.  There’s a certain charm to a film that takes itself so seriously and yet, at the same time, manages to be totally over-the-top and ludicrous.

For example, just consider the performances of the high-powered cast and the fact that none of the actors appear to be acting in the same film.  Playing a character who is a bit of a hero by default (because, seriously, how stupid did he have to be to not realize that Ben was evil to begin with), Kirk Douglas grimaces so manfully that Peter’s stupidity almost starts to feel like a satiric comment on hyper-masculinity.  John Cassavetes, on the other hand, is so disdainful of the film that he actually rolls his eyes while delivering some of his more melodramatic lines.  Meanwhile, Carrie Snodgress is forced to say things like, “Here comes the Pony Express!” and Charles Durning brings the full weight of his talent to deliver lines like, “If you’re having your monthlies, I don’t want you near the patient.”

And finally, there’s Amy Irving.  In DePalma’s Carrie, Irving played Sue Snell, the sole survivor of a psychic rampage.  In The Fury, Irving gets to play the psychic and she gives such a dramatic and emotional performance that you almost get the idea that she was trying to challenge Sissy Spacek.  “This is how you play a psychic, Sissy!” she seems to be shouting.  Of course, the big difference is that Carrie was actually a good film whereas The Fury is a bad film that happens to be watchable.

Finally, no review of The Fury is complete without talking about Brian DePalma’s direction.  To put it lightly, Brian DePalma directs the Hell out of The Fury and the effect is something like what an episode of Agents of SHIELD would look like if directed by Martin Scorsese.  The entire film is a collection of tracking shots, zoom lenses, and sweeping overhead shots with the camera only stopping long enough to linger over scenes of violence and spilled blood.  In perhaps the film’s most ludicrous scene, Amy Irving runs away from the clinic in slow motion while the orchestral score plays out on the soundtrack.  We get close-ups of Irving’s face and close-ups of the faces of her pursuers.  One character gets shot multiple times but we don’t hear the gunshots.  Instead, we only hear the music and watch as the character overacts and dies in slow motion.  It’s almost as if DePalma was trying to win a bet by achieving the most counter-productive use of slow motion in film history.

Ultimately, The Fury is so thoroughly silly and over-the-top that it simply has to be seen.

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
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal
  38. Z