A Herman Wouk Double Feature: The Winds of War (1983, directed by Dan Curtis) and War and Remembrance (1988, directed by Dan Curtis)


When the great American novelist Herman Wouk passed away earlier this month at the age of 103, he left behind a rich and varied literary legacy.  From 1947, the year that his first novel was published to 2016, the year that he published his memoirs, Wouk wrote about religion, history, science, and even the movies.  However, Wouk will probably always be best remembered for the three novels that he wrote about World War II.

Based on his own Naval service during World War II, The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951 and was later adapted into both a successful stage play and an Oscar-nominated film.  It also won Wouk a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a major American writer.  Nearly 20 years later, Wouk would return to the history of the Second World War with two of his greatest literary works, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  (Originally, Wouk was only planning on writing one book about the entire war but when it took him nearly a thousand pages to reach Pearl Harbor, he decided to split the story in two.)  Beginning in 1939 and proceeding all the way through to the end of the war, the two books followed two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows, as they watched the world descend into war. Along the way, the book’s fictional characters rub shoulders with historical characters like Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and even Stalin.  Carefully researched and meticulously detailed, the books were both critically acclaimed and popular with readers and, despite some soapy elements, they both hold up well today.

Given their success, it’s not a surprise that both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were adapted for television.  Today, HBO would probably give the books the Game of Thrones treatment, with 8 seasons of war, tragedy, romance, and Emmys.  However, this was the 1980s.  This was the age of of the big-budget, all-star cast network miniseries.  Wouk’s epic history of World War II was coming to prime time.

With a total running times of 15 hours, The Winds of War originally aired over seven evenings in 1983.  Produced and directed for ABC by Dan Curtis, The Winds of War had a 962-page script, a 200-day shooting schedule, 285 speaking parts, and a then-record budget of $35,000,000.  It also had Robert Mitchum, starring as Victor “Pug” Henry, an ambitious naval officer who somehow always managed to be in the right place to witness almost all of the events leading up to America’s entry into World War II.  Jan-Michael Vincent played Pug’s son, Byron, while John Houseman took on the pivotal role Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish scholar though whose eyes the home audience would witness the rise of fascism in Europe.  Terribly miscast as Natalie, Aaron’s niece and Byron’s lover, was 44 year-old Ali MacGraw.  Among those playing historical figures were Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Howard Lang as Churchill, and Gunter Meisner as Hitler.

I recently watched The Winds of War on DVD and, despite some glaring flaws that I’ll get to later, it holds up well as both a history of World War II and a tribute to those who battled Hitler’s evil.  Like Wouk’s novels, the miniseries does a good job of breaking down not only how Hitler came to power but also why the rest of the world was often in denial about what was happening.  Watching the entire miniseries in one setting can be overwhelming.  It’s a big production and it is also unmistakably a product of a time when the major networks didn’t have to worry about competition from cable.  It takes its time but, in the end, you’re glad that it did.  All of the little details can get exhausting but they’re important to understanding just how Hitler was able to catch the world off-guard.

Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw in The Winds of War

The miniseries does suffer due to the miscasting of some key roles.  Both Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw were far too old for their roles.  Vincent was 38 and MacGraw was 44 when they were cast as naive and idealistic lovers trying to find themselves in Europe.  It’s perhaps less of a problem for Vincent, who had yet to lose his looks to alcoholism and who looked enough like Robert Mitchum that he could pass as Mitchum’s son.  But MacGraw is simply terrible in her role, flatly delivering her lines and looking more like Vincent’s mother than his lover.  It’s particularly jarring when she mockingly calls diplomat Leslie Sloat “Old Sloat,” because Sloat was played by David Dukes, who was six years younger than MacGraw.

67 year-old Robert Mitchum was also much too old to play an ambitious junior officer, one whose main goal in life is still to ultimately become an admiral.  When he ends up having an affair with a younger British journalist played by 30ish Victoria Tennant, the difference in their ages is even more pronounced than in Wouk’s novel.  (Pug was in his 40s in The Winds of War.)  However, Mitchum overcomes his miscasting by virtue of his natural gravitas.  With his weary presence and authoritative voice, Mitchum simply is Pug.

A ratings hit and a multiple Emmy nominee, The Winds of War was followed up five years later by War and Remembrance.  Like its predecessor, War and Remembrance set records.  The script ran 1,492 pages and featured 356 speaking parts.  The production employed 44,000 extras and filming took nearly two years, from January of 1986 to September of 1987.  With a budget of $104 million, it was the most expensive television production to date.  The final miniseries had a 30-hour running time, which was divided over 12 nights.  War and Remembrance not only made history because of its cost and length but also as the first major production to be allowed to film on location at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  For many members of the generation born after the end of World War II, War and Remembrance would serve as their first introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Dan Curtis returned and with him came Robert Mitchum, now in his 70s and still playing a junior naval officer.  David Dukes once again played the hapless diplomat, Leslie Sloat.  Ralph Bellamy also returned as FDR as did Victoria Tennant as Mitchum’s lover, Polly Bergen as Mitchum’s wife, and Peter Graves as Bergen’s lover.  However, they were the exception.  The majority of the original cast was replaced for the sequel, in most cases for the better.  With John Houseman too ill to reprise his role, John Gielgud took over the role of Aaron Jastrow while Hart Bochner replaced the famously troubled Jan-Michael Vincent.  Robert Hardy took over the role of Churchill while Hitler was recast with Steven Berkoff.  Best of all, Jane Seymour replaced Ali MacGraw in the role of Natalie and gave the best performance of her career.  Other characters were played by a mix of up-and-comers to tv veterans, with the cast eventually including everyone from Barry Bostwick and Sharon Stone to E.G. Marshall and Ian McShane.

Jane Seymour and John Gielgud

With a stronger cast and (ironically, considering the running length) a more focused storyline, War and Remembrance is superior to The Winds of War in every way.  That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, of course.  The scenes featuring Barry Bostwick as a submarine commander feel as if they go on forever and Robert Mitchum still seems like he should be preparing for retirement instead of angling for a promotion.  But none of that matters when the miniseries focuses on Aaron and Natalie Jastrow and their struggle to survive life in the Theresienstadt Ghetto and eventually Auschwitz.  At the time that War and Remembrance was initially broadcast, the concentration camp scenes were considered to be highly controversial and many viewers complained that they were so disturbing that they should not have been aired during prime time.  (This was four years before Schindler’s List.)  Seen today, those scenes are the most important part of the film.  Not only do they show why the war had to be fought but they also demand that the world never allow such a thing to happen again.

Though it was considered by a rating disappointment when compared to its predecessor, War and Remembrance was still a multiple-Emmy nominee.  Controversially, it defeated Lonesome Dove for Best Miniseries.  Both Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been released on DVD and, like the books that inspired them, they both hold up well.  They pay tribute to not only those who fought the Nazis but also to the humanistic vision of Herman Wouk.

Herman Wouk (1915-2019)

Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)


cracked rear viewer

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every…

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A Movie A Day #174: St. Ives (1976, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) is a former cop-turned-writer who desperately needs money.  Abner Procane (John Houseman) is a wealthy and cultured burglar who needs someone to serve as a go-between.  Five of Procane’s ledgers have been stolen.  The thieves are demanding a ransom and Procane believes that St. Ives is just the man to deliver the money.  But every time that St. Ives tries to deliver the money, another person ends up getting murdered and St. Ives ends up looking more and more like a suspect.  Who is the murderer?  Is it Janet (Jacqueline Bisset), the seductive woman who lives in Procane’s mansion?  Is it Procane’s eccentric psychiatrist (Maximillian Schell)?  Could it be the two cops (Harry Guardino and Harris Yulin) who somehow show up at every murder scene?  Only Ray St. Ives can solve the case!

Charles Bronson is best remembered for playing men of few words, the type who never hesitated to pull the trigger and do what they had to do.  St. Ives was one of the few films in which Bronson got to play a cerebral character.  Ray St. Ives may get into his share of fights but he spends most of the film examining clues and trying to solve a mystery.  The mystery itself is not as important as the quirky people who St. Ives meets while solving it.  St. Ives has a great, only in the 70s type of cast.  Along with those already mentioned, keep an eye out for Robert Englund, Jeff Goldblum, Dana Elcar, Dick O’Neill, Daniel J. Travanti, Micheal Lerner, and Elisha Cook, Jr.  It’s definitely different from the stereotypical Charles Bronson film, which is why it is also one of my favorites of his films.  As this film shows, Bronson was an underrated actor.  In St. Ives, Bronson proves that, not only could he have played Mike Hammer, he could have played Philip Marlowe a well.

St. Ives is historically significant because it was the first Bronson film to be directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson would go on to direct the majority of the films Bronson made for Cannon in 1980s, eventually even taking over the Death Wish franchise from Michael Winner.

Horror Film Review: Ghost Story (dir by John Irvin)


ghoststory

A Fred Astaire horror movie!?

Yes, indeed.  Ghost Story is a horror movie and it does indeed star Fred Astaire.  However, Fred doesn’t dance or anything like that in Ghost Story.  This movie was made in 1981 and Fred was 82 years old when he appeared in it.  Fred still gave an energetic and likable performance and, in fact, his performance is one of the few things that really does work in Ghost Story.

Fred Astaire isn’t the only veteran of Hollywood’s Golden Age to appear in Ghost Story.  Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. all appear in the movie as well.  They play four lifelong friends, wealthy men who have formed an informal little club called The Chowder Society.  They gather one a week and tell ghost stories.  Myself, I’m wondering why these four intelligent and accomplished men (one is a lawyer, another a doctor, another a politician, and another is Fred Astaire) couldn’t come up with a better name than Chowder Society.

(But I guess that’s something that people do up north.  Harvard has something called the Hasty Pudding Club, which just sounds amazingly annoying.)

Unfortunately, the members of the Chowder Society have a deep, dark secret.  Way back in the 1930s, the boys listening to too much jazz and they all ended up lusting after the mysterious and beautiful Eva Galli (Alice Krige).  As Astaire explains it, “We killed her, the Chowder Society.”

(Of course, there’s more to the story.  It was more manslaughter than murder but either way, it was pretty much the fault of the Chowder Society.)

And now, decades later, a woman named Alma (Alica Krige, again) has mysteriously appeared.  When she sleeps with David (Craig Wasson), the son of a member of the Chowder Society, David falls out of a window and ends up splattered on the ground below.  David’s twin brother, Don (also played by Craig Wasson), returns to their childhood home and attempts to make peace with his estranged father.

However, now the member of the Chowder Society are starting to die.  One falls off a bridge.  Another has a heart attack in the middle of the night.  Fred Astaire thinks that Eva has come back for revenge.  John Houseman is a little more skeptical…

I pretty much went into Ghost Story with next to no knowledge concerning what the film was about.  I thought the plot desription sounded intriguing.  As a classic film lover, I appreciated that Ghost Story was not only Fred Astaire’s final film but the final film of Douglas and Fairbanks as well.  Before he deleted his account, I had some pleasant interactions with Craig Wasson on Facebook.   I was really hoping that Ghost Story would be a horror classic.

Bleh.

Considering all the talent involved, Ghost Story should have been great but instead, it just fell flat.  Alice Krige is properly enigmatic as both Alma and Galli and really, the entire cast does a pretty good job.  But, with the exception of exactly three scenes, the film itself is never that scary.  (Two of those scary scenes involve a decaying corpse and it’s not that hard to make decay scary.  The other is a fairly intense nightmare sequence.)  Largely due to John Irvin’s detached direction, you never really feel any type of connection with the characters.  I mean, obviously, you don’t want to see the star of Top Hat die a terrible death but that has more to do with the eternal charm of Fred Astaire than anything that happens in Ghost Story.

Add to that, Ghost Story‘s special effects have aged terribly.  There are two scenes in which we watch different characters fall to their death and both times, you can see that little green outline that always used to appear whenever one image was super imposed on another.  It makes it a little hard to take the movie seriously.

Sadly, Ghost Story did not live up to my expectations.  At least Fred Astaire was good…

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #80: Bright Lights, Big City (dir by James Bridges)


Bright_Lights_Big_CityThe 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character.  In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash.  Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!

Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker.  Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.

And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care.  Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke.  Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him.  Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line.  Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash.  He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad.  As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.

Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash.  You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film.  No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through.  Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film.  From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up.  When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”

Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable.  There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz).  And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic.  Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe.  Megan has the patience of a saint.

There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine.  (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.)  But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.

44 Days of Paranoia #8: Three Days of the Condor (dir by Sydney Pollack)


3DaysofTheCondor

When I first decided that I wanted to do the 44 Days of Paranoia, I went on Facebook and I asked my movie-loving friends to name some of their favorite conspiracy-themed films.  As the replies came flooding in, one thing that I quickly noticed was that a lot of them were naming films that had been made in the 1970s.

Usually, when I think about the 70s, I tend to assume that everyone in Texas was smoking weed in a high school parking lot, everyone in New York was snorting cocaine in Studio 54, and everyone in America was dancing nonstop.  And, to be honest, that doesn’t sound too bad to me.  If the 70s were just ten years straight of Dazed and Confused and Saturday Night Fever, then I would be the first one to hook up with anyone who could build a time machine.

However, the 70s were apparently also a very paranoid time.  When one looks over the most acclaimed and best-remembered films of the 70s, one is struck by the feeling that nobody trusted anyone and all official institutions were suspect.

Case in point: 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.

Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a mild-mannered guy who works for the American Literary Historical Society in New York City.  The Society, however, is a CIA front and Turner’s job is to read cheap spy novels and analyze them to see if any real intelligence leaks might be found between the lines.  As the film opens, Turner arrives late for work.  He jokes with the chain-smoking secretary, shares a few curt words with his superior Martin, and flirts with fellow researcher Janice.  Then, Joe goes to lunch and, while he’s gone, Max Von Sydow shows up with a bunch of killers and guns down everyone else at the safe house.

Max Von Sydow's courtly killer

Max Von Sydow’s courtly killer

The scene in which Von Sydow calmly kills all of Joe’s co-workers is one of the most disturbing that I’ve ever seen.  As directed by Sydney Pollack, the film’s violence comes in short, brutal bursts that are all the more nightmarish for lacking any of the flashy choreography that we, as viewers, have been conditioned to expect whenever we’re confronted by violent death on-screen.  Pollack also makes good use of Von Sydow’s kindly eyes and courtly manner, letting us know that, for him, murder is just a job.  Even though we’ve only spent a few minutes with Joe’s co-workers, we’ve still grown to like them and that makes Von Sydow’s matter-of-fact attitude all the more disturbing.

(It’s been a few days since I saw the film and I have to admit that I’m still haunted by the close-up of the burning cigarette still held in the dead secretary’s hand or the way that Martin’s toupee falls off his head after he’s shot.  Small as these details may seem, they stick in the mind and create a sickening feeling of life interrupted.)

When Joe returns from lunch, he finds all of his co-workers dead.  Fleeing the safe house, Joe calls the New York regional director of the CIA, Higgins (Cliff Robertson).  Higgins arranges for Joe to meet up with another agent and to be taken to safety.  However, when Joe arrives for the meeting, the other agent attempts to kill him.

Realizing now that the CIA specifically hit its own safe house and is now looking to kill him, Joe ends up kidnapping Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), a neurotic photographer, and forcing her to hide him while he desperately tries to figure out why he’s been targeted.

Thanks largely to Sydney Pollack’s thoughtful direction, Three Days of the Condor is an excellent, exciting, and thought-provoking thriller and, despite having been released close to 40 years ago, it features one major plot that’s probably even more relevant today than when the film was first released.  Redford and Dunaway both give excellent performances but the film really belongs to Max Von Sydow’s menacing and charming assassin.  Most of today’s “action” filmmakers could learn a lot from watching Three Days of the Condor.

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