Cleaning Out The DVR: Night Watch (dir by Brian G. Hutton)

I recorded 1973’s Night Watch off of TCM on March 17th!

There’s a tendency, among critics, to dismiss almost every film that Elizabeth Taylor made after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Sure, Reflections In A Golden Eye has its defenders but, otherwise, Taylor’s later films are often viewed as being overproduced and self-indulgent with Taylor giving uncertain, occasionally histrionic performances.

Those criticisms aren’t entirely unjustified.  Some of it may have been due to her own notoriously poor health and her troubled marriage to Richard Burton.  Even more of it was probably due to Taylor’s struggle to remain relevant as a middle-aged actress working in the 1970s.  I have to admit that I’m strangely fascinated by the latter half of Taylor’s film career, just because it does feature so many bizarre films and strange performances.  Taylor was always a good actress but, in her later films, it was hard not to get feeling that her stardom was her own worst enemy.  Taylor was often cast specifically because of her notoriety and she often seemed to work with directors who weren’t willing to reign her in whenever she started to go overboard.

That, however, doesn’t mean that every film that she made in the 70s was a bad one.

Take Night Watch, for instance.  Yesterday, as I watched Night Watch, I asked myself, “How is it that I’ve never seen or even heard of this film before!?”

Because seriously, Night Watch was really good.

Liz plays Ellen Wheeler, an apparently unstable woman living in the UK.  She’s haunted by the night that her first husband was killed in a car crash, along with his mistress.  Ellen has remarried but she worries that her new husband, John (Laurence Harvey), might be cheating on her with her best friend, Sarah (Billie Whitelaw).  It turns out that she has good reason to be worried because that’s exactly what John is doing!  It’s not that John doesn’t love Ellen.  It’s just that he doesn’t know how to deal with her constant nightmares and delusions.

For instance, Ellen is convinced that she’s witnessed a murder!  She says that, in the abandoned house next door, she saw a man with a slit throat.  Later, she claims that she saw a woman murdered over there as well.  When the police investigate, they find no one in the house.  But Ellen swears she saw something.  She even suspects that her neighbor, Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang), may have buried the bodies in his garden.

(Mr. Appleby is not amused by the suggestion.)

Is Ellen going crazy or did she really see something?  I bet you think you already know the answer.  I know that I did.  But then Night Watch ends with a twist that is shockingly effective and unexpected.  For once, I didn’t know how the movie was going to end and now, a day later, I’m still thinking about those final scenes.

Night Watch has its flaws.  With the exception of when he played Col. Travis in The Alamo, Laurence Harvey was never a particularly sympathetic actor and he comes across as his usual cold self in Night Watch.  And, as good as Taylor is, there are still a few moments where she does go a bit overboard.  During the first half of the film, you have to make your way through a lot of yelling to get to the good part.

But that good part is so good that it’s worth it!  Night Watch is a genuinely atmospheric and surprising film, one that catches you off guard and one in which the tension does not relent until the final credit has rolled across the screen.  Ellen’s nightmares are especially well-realized and the film’s final moments are both frightening and surprisingly graphic.  This is a film that sticks with you.

If you haven’t seen it yet, keep a watch for it!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #36: WUSA (dir by Stuart Rosenberg)

wusaI recently saw the 1970 film WUSA on Movies TV.  After I watched it, I looked Joanne Woodward up on Wikipedia specifically to see where she was born.  I was surprised to discover that she was born and raised in Georgia and that she attended college in Louisiana.

Why was I so shocked?  Because WUSA was set in New Orleans and it featured Joanne Woodward speaking in one of the most worst Southern accents that I had ever heard.  A little over an hour into the film, Woodward’s character says, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  And while “What’s all the rhu…” sounds properly Southern, the “…barb” was pronounced with the type of harshly unpleasant overemphasis on “ar” that has given away many Northern actors trying to sound Southern.  Hence, I was shocked to discover that Joanne Woodward actually was Southern.

That said, her pronunciation of the word rhubarb pretty much summed up every problem that I had with WUSA.  Actually, the real problem was that she said “rhubarb” in the first place.  It came across as being the type of thing that a Northerner who has never actually been down South would think was regularly uttered down here.  And I will admit that WUSA was made 16 years before I was born and so, it’s entirely possible that maybe — way back then — people down South regularly did use the word rhubarb.  But, for some reason, I doubt it.  I know plenty of old Southern people and I’ve never heard a single one of them say anything about rhubarb.

As for WUSA, it’s a long and slow film.  A drifter named Reinhardt (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and, with the help of an old friend who is now pretending to be a priest (Laurence Harvey), Reinhardt gets a job as an announcer at a right-wing radio station.  He reads extremist editorials that he doesn’t agree with and whenever anyone challenges him, he explains that he’s just doing his job and nothing matters anyway.

Reinhardt also gets himself an apartment and spends most of his time smoking weed with long-haired musician types, the exact same people that WUSA regularly denounces as being a threat to the American way.  Living in the same complex is Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a former prostitute who has a scar on her face and who says stuff like, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  She falls in love with Reinhardt but finds it difficult to ignore what he does for a living.

Meanwhile, Geraldine has another admirer.  Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is an idealistic and neurotic social worker who is regularly frustrated by his efforts to do good in the world.  Reinhardt makes fun of him.  The local crime boss (Moses Gunn) manipulates him.  And WUSA infuriates him.  When Rainey realizes that WUSA is a part of a plot to elect an extremist governor, Rainey dresses up like a priest and starts carrying around a rifle.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been assigned to serve as emcee at a huge patriotic rally.  With Geraldine watching from the audience and Rainey wandering around the rafters with his rifle, Reinhardt is finally forced to take a stand about the people that he works for.

Or maybe he isn’t.

To be honest, WUSA is such a mess of a film that, even after the end credits roll, it’s difficult to figure out whether Reinhardt took a stand or not.

Anyway, WUSA is not a lost masterpiece and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The film’s too long, there’s too many scenes of characters repeating the same thing over and over again, and neither Newman nor Woodward are particularly memorable.  (You know a movie is boring when even Paul Newman seems like a dullard.)  On the plus side, Anthony Perkins gives such a good performance that I didn’t once think about the Psycho shower scene while watching him.

As boring as WUSA is, I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been rediscovered.  Considering that it’s about a right-wing radio station, I’m surprised that there haven’t been hundreds of pretentious think pieces trying to make the connection between WUSA and Fox News.  But, honestly, even if those think pieces were out there, it probably wouldn’t do much for WUSA‘s repuation.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Paul Newman called it, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.”  Paul Newman’s opinion aside, WUSA is pretty dire.

Horror on TV: Night Gallery 2.22 “The Caterpillar/Little Girl Lost”


For tonight’s televised horror, we have an episode of Night Gallery that was originally broadcast on March 1st, 1972. This episode tells two stories, one about government manipulation and then another about an earwig. The one about the earwig features a great performance from Laurence Harvey, who was dying of cancer while shooting this episode and who stopped taking his painkillers so that he could better portray his character’s suffering. Along with Harvey’s performance, The Caterpillar also features an absolutely perfect ending.


Embracing the Melodrama #21: Darling (dir by John Schlesinger)


Julie Christie

In my previous post, I talked about Ship of Fools, a film that was nominated for best picture of 1965.  As I pointed out in that post, when watched today, it’s difficult to imagine Ship of Fools as being worthy of that honor.  However, there was another melodrama nominated for best picture in 1965.  It not only clearly deserved that nomination but it probably should have won as well.  That movie is a personal favorite of mine, the brilliant British film, Darling.

In Darling, the beautiful and glamorous Diana Scott (played, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Julie Christie) tells us her life story, with the events on screen occasionally standing in contrast to the tone of her narration.  We learn how Diana went from being a somewhat successful model to being one of the most famous women in the world, a woman whose life is lived and obsessed over in three separate countries.

In England, Diana leaves her first husband for  Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde), a writer who also abandons his family so that he can be with Diana.  They live in a dreary apartment and, over the course of one brilliant montage, we watch as Diana becomes increasingly disillusioned by Robert’s secluded lifestyle and Robert grows progressively annoyed with Diana’s hyperactivity.  Even being chosen to be the face of a world hunger charity organization fails to relieve Diana’s boredom.  (It does, however, give the film a chance to include a sharply satiric scene in which a bunch of rich white people socialize underneath pictures of starving African children.)   Diana soon starts to find excuses to leave the apartment and pursue an affair with the hedonistic advertising executive Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey).  In one of the film’s best scenes, Schlesinger shows us how long Diana and Miles have spent in a hotel room by focusing his camera not on the two of them but instead on the expiring parking meter outside.

Julie Christie in Darling

In France, Diana and Miles take part in wild parties that involve lots of cross-dressing, stripping, mind games, and predatory members of the social and media elite.  Diana is initially uneasy with this group of friends and it’s obvious that they have little respect for her.  However, that starts to change when Diana takes advantage of one of the party games to mock Miles for being unable to truly love anyone but himself.  Despite this, Miles still arranges for the disillusioned Diana to be selected as “The Happiness Girl” for the advertising campaign for a chocolate company.

In Italy, Diana’s best friend is Malcolm (Roland Curram) who is both her photographer and, as a gay man, is one of the few people in her life that Diana feels that she can trust.  It’s also in Italy that Diana meets a charming nobleman named Prince Cesare (Jose Luis de Vilallonga), who offers Diana a chance to become none other than Princess Diana, on the condition that Diana convert to Catholicism and that she help raise his nine children, the oldest of whom is the same age as Diana.

To be honest, it’s difficult for me to provide a rational or balanced review of Darling because I simply love this film so much!  I love it for the glamour, I love it for the melodrama, and I especially love it for its sharply satiric (and still very relevant) look at what it means to be famous for merely living.  I suppose that it would only be natural to compare Darling to the world’s current obsession with the Khardashians but that’s not really fair to Darling.  The Khardashians may be the natural end result of a world that obsesses over Diana Scott but, as played by Julie Christie, Diana Scott is everything — intelligent, witty, interesting, and, if not quite sympathetic, at least compelling — that a Khardashian could never hope to be.

In 1965, the Sound of Music won the award for best picture of the year but Darling is truly the movie that still has something to say about the way that we’re living today.


44 Days of Paranoia #40: The Manchurian Candidate (dir by John Frankenheimer)

With only five entries left in the 44 Days of Paranoia, now seems like the perfect time to look at one of the best conspiracy films ever made.  First released in 1962, this film is not only one of the most influential thrillers ever made but it’s also a fiercely sardonic political satire that remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.  It was also remade in 2004 and, while we’ll get to the remake, today we’re focusing on the original.

I’m speaking, of course, of the John Frankenheimer-directed classic, The Manchurian Candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate tells the story of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey).  The son of the wealthy and ambitious Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and the stepson of the moronic Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), Raymond is also a decorated war hero who has been credited with saving an entire platoon during the Korean War.  When asked about Shaw, all of the members of the platoon respond with: “”Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

Of course, that’s not true.  It only takes a few minutes of screen time for the audience to realize that Raymond Shaw is none of those things.  Instead, he’s a rather depressed loner who is full of resentment towards his mother and his stepfather.  Shaw is so socially awkward that even he is shocked when he manages to successfully tell a joke.  (“I just told a joke, didn’t I?” Shaw says in amazement.)

While Shaw pursues a career as a journalist, the fellow members of his platoon — including Maj. Marco (Frank Sinatra) — start to have disturbing nightmares, in which they find themselves observing a genteel garden show, during which Raymond is ordered to strangle one soldier and shoot another one in the head.  Marco comes to suspect that the platoon may have been captured and brainwashed with communists.  With the backing of Army Intelligence, Marco starts to investigate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Iselin has come to national prominence by claiming to have information about a communist conspiracy deep within the U.S. government.  As becomes obvious in some of the film’s best scenes, Iselin is less concerned with fighting communists and more focused on keeping Raymond’s mother happy.  Eleanor has decided that her husband is going to be the next President and her brainwashed son is going to help make it happen.

I think sometimes we tend to assume that, up until 1967, all movies were safe and predictable.  The Manchurian Candidate, however, proves that is simply not true.  In fact, with its cynical view of politics and its cast of fragile and damaged characters, The Manchurian Candidate is one of the most subversive films ever made.  Rejecting the boring partisanship that typifies most politically themed films, The Manchurian Candidate presents us with a world where both the left and the right are equally corrupt and ultimately equally meaningless.  It’s a political satire that transcends ideology and that’s certainly something of which America could use more.

It’s also an amazingly entertaining film.  George Axelrod’s screenplay is full of wonderfully snarky moments while John Frankenheimer’s directs with an appreciation for both absurdity and melodrama.  Angela Lansbury is both hilarious and chilling as one of the worst maternal figures to ever appear in the movies and she more than deserved the Oscar nomination that she received for this film.  However, the entire film is brilliantly acted.  Laurence Harvey is both sympathetic and off-putting as Raymond while Frank Sinatra (who previously appeared in another entry of the 44 Days of Paranoia, Suddenly) brings a wonderful blue-collar humanity to the role of Marco.  Janet Leigh has a small role as Marco’s lover and the scene where they first meet on a train and have a charmingly nonsensical conversation is wonderfully odd and romantic.  Finally, James Gregory gives a hilarious performance as the type of stupid but bombastic politician who will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched C-Span.

If you’ve never seen the original Manchurian Candidate, drop everything you’re doing and go watch it now.

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
  39. The Fury