Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sounder (dir by Martin Ritt)


The 1972 film Sounder follows the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers living in 1930s Louisiana.

When we first see Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) and his young son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), they’re hunting.  Accompanying them is their loyal dog, Sounder.  As they hunt, two things become very obvious.  Number one, David Lee is a good father who is doing his best to provide for his family under the most difficult circumstances possible.  Number two, the family is desperately poor.  When Nathan finally gives in to temptation and steals a ham to feed his family, the local Sheriff (James Best) shows up at the farmhouse the next day and arrests him.  Nathan is taken away to prison and one of the deputies even shoots Sounder.

Fortunately, Sounder survives and so do the Morgans.  Under the stern but loving leadership of their mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), the Morgan children manage to bring in the season’s crops.  Unfortunately, having to work out in the fields doesn’t leave much time for David Lee to get an education.  When he does go to school, he and the other students listen as a middle-aged, white teacher reads to them from Huckleberry FInn.

After the wounded Sounder finally returns to the Morgan family and recovers from his wounds, David Lee decides that he wants to go to the prison and see his father.  Unfortunately, the sheriff refuses to even tell the family where Nathan has been incarcerated.  None of the white authority figures in town care that the Morgans are struggling or that they’ve managed to bring in the crops themselves.  None of them cares or seems to even understand that David Lee is missing his father.  The sheriff presents himself as being a reasonable man and is never heard to the use the n-word.  Instead, he and every other white person in town refers to David Lee as being “boy,” diminishing everything that he’s done since his father was arrested.

David Lee finally figures out the location of a prison that might (or might not) currently be housing his father.  It’s several miles away.  Accompanied by Sounder, David Lee sets out to make the long journey to the prison.  Along the way, he discovers another school and a far more empathetic teacher named Camille (Janet MacLachlan).  David Lee is forced to make a decision that will effect not only his future but also the future of his family.

Sounder is a heartfelt film.  It’s a film that’s less interested in telling a story with a traditional beginning and end as opposed to just sharing scenes of everyday life.  In this case, it’s the life of family that manages to survive despite it often seeming as if the entire world is arrayed against them.  The film was based on a book that pretty much centered around the dog.  The movie, on the other hand, is more about the family and, despite the fact that the film is still named after him, the dog is pretty much superfluous to the plot.  That said, Sounder still plays an important role because, just as Sounder survives being shot at and remains loyal to the people that he loves, the Morgans survive whatever adversity is tossed at them.  Watching the film, the viewer is very much aware that life is never going to be easy for the Morgans but, at the same time, it’s impossible not take some comfort in the fact that they have each other.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both give strong performances as the resilient Nathan Lee and Rebecca and the entire film is the type of movie that’ll inspire tears even as it inspires happiness.

At the Oscars, Sounder was nominated for Best Picture, where it provided a gentle contrast to the other nominees, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and The Godfather.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, making 1972 the first year in which black performers were nominated in both of the lead categories.  (It was also the first year in which more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress as Tyson ended up competing with Lady Sings The Blues‘s Diana Ross.)  In the end, Tyson lost to Cabaret‘s Liza Minnelli while Winfield lost to The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando.  And, of course, The Godfather also went on to deservedly win the award for Best Picture.

Embracing the Melodrama Part III #1: No Down Payment (dir by Martin Ritt)


Back in 2014 and 2015, I did a series of reviews that I called Embracing the Melodrama, in which I reviewed some of the best (and worst) melodramas ever made.  All together, I reviewed 186 films as a part of Embracing the Melodrama, everything from Sunrise to Reefer Madness to The Towering Inferno to Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  I had so much fun doing it that I’ve decided to do it again.

No, don’t worry.  I’m not going to attempt to review 186 films this time.  Instead, for Embracing The Melodrama Part III, I am going to limit myself to reviewing 8 films.  I’ll be posting one Embracing the Melodrama review a day, from now until next Sunday.

Let’s kick things off with 1957’s No Down Payment, a film about life in … THE SUBURBS!

(cue dramatic music)

The suburbs!

Is there any place in America that’s more dramatic?  Is it any wonder that, since the early 50s, films have regularly been using the suburbs as an example of everything that’s apparently wrong with America?  Every year sees at least one major film about how terrible life is in the suburbs.  Last year, for instance, George Clooney directed a film called Suburbicon, which was regularly cited as a possible Oscar contender before it was released and everyone was reminded of the fact that George Clooney is a terrible director.  That said, I can understand why filmmakers continue to be drawn to the suburbs.  Secret affairs.  Dangerous drugs.  Duplicitous children.  Fractured families.  Barbecuing alcoholics.  Undercover occultists.  You can find them all in the suburbs!

No Down Payment opens with David (Jeffrey Hunter) and Jean Martin (Patricia Owens) driving down a California highway and looking at the billboards that dot the landscape.  Every billboard advertises a new community, inviting people to make a new and better life away from the crowded city.  David and Jean smile, amused by how blatant all of the ads are.  That’s when they see the billboard that’s advertising their new home:

Sunrise Hill Estates

A Better Place For Better Living

Soon, David and Jean are moving into their new home and meeting their new neighbors.  It turns out that most of the houses in Sunrise Hill Estates are available for “no down payment” and the majority of the residents are struggling financially.  Though David may look at all of his neighbors and say, “Looks like everybody here is living a wonderful life,” the truth is something far different.

(If David’s line sound a bit too on the nose and obvious, that’s because almost all of the dialogue in No Down Payment was too on the nose and obvious.  As a side note, “on the nose” is an extremely strange expression.)

David’s neighbors include:

Herm Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife, Betty (Barbara Rush).  Herm owns an appliance store and sits on the town council.  Herm is gruff but likable.  He’s the leader of his neighborhood and he welcomes the Martins with a backyard party.  Herm’s employee, Iko (Aki Aleong), wants to move to Sunrise Hill but no one is willing to give him a reference because he’s not white.

Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife, Leola (Joanne Woodward).  We know that Troy is going to be trouble because he’s played by Cameron Mitchell.  We know that we’re going to like Leola because she’s played by Joanne Woodward.  Troy’s an auto mechanic and a veteran.  He wants to be appointed the chief of police but the town is reluctant to hire him because he doesn’t have a college education.  Leola wants to have a child but Troy says that they can’t even think about that until he has a good job.

And then there’s Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife, Isabelle (Sheree North).  Jerry is a used car salesman and he’s also a drunk.  Jerry spends most of the movie hitting on other women and embarrassing Isabelle.  Jerry has no impulse control and, as a result, he’s heavily in debt.  His only hope is that he can convince a family to buy an expensive car that they really don’t need.  When last I checked, that’s what a used car salesman is supposed to do.

The film deals with a lot of issues — prejudice, sexism, economic insecurity — that are still relevant today.  Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit slow and what was shocking in the 50s seems rather jejune today.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that, as with many films of the 50s, all of the interesting stuff is happening off-screen.  That said, the film has an interesting cast.  Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens are a bit dull as the Martins but then you’ve got their neighbors!  Any film that features Cameron Mitchell glowering can’t be all bad but the best performance comes from Tony Randall, who is memorably sleazy and desperate as Jerry Flagg.  For a fun experiment, watch this film right before watching Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with 1961’s Common Law Wife!

Hiding in Plain Sight: THE FRONT (Columbia 1976)


cracked rear viewer

When a film gets labeled as a “comedy-drama”, chances are good you’re in for an uneven film. Such is the case with THE FRONT, Martin Ritt’s 1976 movie about the 1950’s blacklist. There are plenty of things to like about the movie, especially in the performances, but the somewhat heavy-handed script by Walter Bernstein results in an undeniably mixed bag.

Woody Allen  stars as Howard Prince, a lowly cashier perpetually up to his glasses in gambling debts, whose childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is a blacklisted TV writer. Miller asks Howard to “front” for him, putting his name on Miller’s scripts so the networks will buy them, in return for a 10% commission. Soon the network clamors for more of Howard’s “work”, and he begins fronting for two other blacklisted writers. Although Woody didn’t write or direct THE FRONT, he’s still basically playing his nebbishy ‘Woody’ persona, but with…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man (dir by Martin Ritt)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while.  She recorded this 1962 literary adaptation off of FXM on January 30th!)

Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man is one of those films that you just know was made specifically to win Oscars.  It’s a big prestige production, complete with a historical setting, an epic scope and big, all-star cast.  That most of those stars appear in relatively small roles was undoubtedly meant to evidence of the film’s importance.

“Look!” the film seems to shout at times, “This is such an important film that even Paul Newman was willing to stop by for a day’s work!”

The film is based on ten short stories by Ernest Hemingway and, loosely, A Farewell to Arms.  The stories all dealt with the early life of Nick Adams, who was a literary stand-in for Hemingway.  Since the Nick Adams stories were autobiographical (and, for that matter, so was A Farewell to Arms), the film can also be viewed as biopic.  Richard Beymer (who, a year earlier, had starred in West Side Story and who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) may be playing Nick Adams but the film leaves little doubt that he was actually meant to be playing Ernest Hemingway.

The film opens with Nick hunting with his father, Dr. Harold Adams (Arthur Kennedy).  He is present when his father travels to an Indian camp and helps to deliver a baby.  He respects his father but Nick wants to see the world and the film follows him as he explores America, working odd jobs and meeting colorful characters along the way.  Paul Newman shows up as a punch-drunk boxer and proceeds to overact to such an extent that he reminded me of Eric Roberts appearing in a Lifetime film.  Nick meets rich men, poor men, and everything in between.  He works as a journalist.  He works as a porter.  Eventually, when World War I breaks out, Nick enlists in the Italian army and the film turns into the 100th adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

And really, I think it would have been an enjoyable film if it had been directed by someone like Otto Preminger, George Stevens, or maybe even Elia Kazan.  These are directors who would have embraced both the pulpy potential of the Nick Adams stories and the soapy melodrama of the war scenes.  A showman like Preminger would have had no fear of going totally and completely over the top and that’s the approach that this material needed.  Instead, Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man was directed, in a painfully earnest style, by Martin Ritt.  Ritt tries to imitate Hemingway’s famously understated style with his understated direction but, cinematically, it’s just not very interesting.  Ritt portrays everything very seriously and very literally and, in the end, his direction is more than a little dull.

Sadly, the same can be said for Richard Beymer’s performance in the lead role.  Beymer comes across as being the nice guy who everyone says you should marry because he’ll be able to get a good and stable job and he’ll probably never go to jail.  Two months ago, when I watched and reviewed Twin Peaks, I really loved Beymer’s performance as Ben Horne.  He just seemed to be having so much fun being bad.  Unfortunately, in Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man, he never seemed to be having any fun at all.  No wonder he temporarily put his film career on hold so that he could fully devote himself to working as a civil rights activist.

In the end, this is a movie that’s a lot more fun to look at than to actually watch.  Visually, the film is frequently quite pretty in an early 1960s prestige movie so sort of way.  And there are some good performances.  Eli Wallach, Ricardo Montalban, Susan Strasberg, Arthur Kennedy — there’s a whole host of performers doing memorable supporting work.  Unfortunately, even with all that in mind, this well-intentioned film largely falls flat.

A Movie A Day #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

The Movie That Nearly Killed The Godfather: The Brotherhood (1968, directed by Martin Ritt)


Brotherhood_1968Once upon a time, Paramount Pictures released a movie about an Italian-American organized crime family.

It was a self-styled epic that used the Mafia as a metaphor for both business and politics.  The movie mixed scenes of violent death with family and community ceremonies.   The main mafioso was played by a famous actor who was a big box office draw in the 1950s and another character, a war hero who was initially reluctant to get involved in the family business, was played by an up-and-coming young actor.   The majority of the movie took place in New York but there were several scenes that were set in Sicily.

It may sound like The Godfather but actually, it was The Brotherhood, a film that flopped so badly that Paramount executives nearly passed on the chance to make a movie out of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel.  According to Peter Biskind’s The Godfather Companion, Francis Ford Coppola frequently cited The Brotherhood as being exactly the type of movie that he did not want to make while he was directing The Godfather.

Kirk Douglas, who both produced and starred, plays Frank Ginetta.  Frank, an old-fashioned and honorable mobster, is hiding out in Sicily with his wife, Ida (Irene Pappas).  Frank knows that a rival gangster, Jim Egan (Murray Hamilton), has put a price on his head.  When Frank’s brother, Vinnie (Alex Cord), shows up in Palermo, Frank is overjoyed at first.  But Ida reminds him, “They’re going to send someone.”

Most of the film is taken up with flashback to Frank and Vinnie’s old life in New York.  When Vinnie returns from serving in the army, he marries Emma Bertolo (Susan Strasberg), the daughter of Don Bertolo (Luther Adler who, as a stage actor and director, served as an early mentor to the future Don Corleone, Marlon Brando).  Frank grew up idolizing their Sicilian father and, at first, he is happy when Vinnie announces that he wants to enter the “family business.”  But then Vinnie starts to side with non-Sicilian gangsters like Egan and Sol Levin (Alan Hewitt).

The scenes in Sicily work the best, with Frank unsure as to whether or not Vinnie has arrived to visit or to murder him.  But the scenes in New York are such a mess that it took me a while to realize that they were even supposed to be flashbacks.  It is hard to keep track of how much time has passed from scene to scene and Alex Cord and Kirk Douglas are two of the most unlikely brothers imaginable.

The main problem with The Brotherhood is that it is impossible to watch it without thinking about The Godfather.  The Brotherhood has much in common with The Godfather but it has none of its authenticity and does not come close to matching its epic scale.  Kirk Douglas tries his best and puts a lot of effort into talking with his hands but he is miscast from the moment he first appears.  Robert Evans once said that he chose Coppola to direct The Godfather because he wanted to “smell the pasta.”  The Brotherhood was directed by Martin Ritt and you never smell the pasta.

The Brotherhood is an interesting footnote in the history of The Godfather but ultimately, it’s an offer you can refuse.

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee For Labor Day: Norma Rae (directed by Martin Ritt)


Earlier, in honor of Labor Day, I reviewed one of the most anti-labor union films ever made, the 1954 Oscar winner On The Waterfront.  In the interest of fairness, it only seems right to now take a look at one of the most pro-union films ever made, the 1979 best picture nominee Norma Rae.

Norma Rae takes place in one of those small Southern towns that is defined by just one industry.  In this case, almost everyone in town works for minimum wage at the local textile mill.  Conditions are terrible, with the employees working long and brutal shifts in a hot and poorly ventilated factory.  The overwhelming roar of the machines have left the majority of the workers deaf to reality, both figuratively and literally.  The mill is run by the usual collection of slow-talking, tie-wearing rednecks who always seem to show up in movies like this.

One day, a union organizer from New York shows up in town.  Brash and cocky, Ruben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) is determined to unionize the mill but, at first, he struggles.  Nobody wants to risk their job by being seen with him and his Yankee manners rub many of the townspeople the wrong way.

Eventually, Ruben does find one ally.  Norma Rae (Sally Field) has worked at the mill her entire life.  She’s tough and determined but she’s also regularly shunned because of her past.  A widow who has three children (“She’s had a child out of wedlock!” a judgmental union organizer tells Ruben in a near panic), Norma channels her frustration into drinking too much and having an affair with a married (and abusive) salesman.

Two things happen that give Norma Rae a new purpose in life.  First off, she meets and marries the well-meaning but chauvinistic Sonny (Beau Bridges).  Secondly, she helps Ruben in his efforts to unionize the plant, even at the risk of going to jail and losing her job.   With the mill’s management spreading untrue rumors about Norma’s relationship with Ruben, her dedication to the union soon starts to threaten her marriage to Sonny.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Norma Rae.  In many ways, Ruben is an annoying character.  He’s so brash and so smugly out-of-place that I actually found it difficult to consider any of the points that he was making.  I suppose that was partly intentional.  Ruben can’t accomplish anything until he gets Norma Rae on his side.  But, at the same time, there was something very condescending about Ruben as a character.  Much like the villainous rednecks in charge of the mill, Ruben felt like a stock character.  He was Super Yankee, bravely venturing below the Mason-Dixon Line to bring the truth to all of us stupid Southerners.  Whenever Ruben smirked and started to complain about how dumb everyone else was, I was reminded of why I never wanted much to do with the whole Occupy Movement.

As well, Norma Rae is one of those films that technically takes place in the South but it’s the South of the Northern imagination.  The accents were inconsistent and the dialogue often tried way too hard to sound “authentic.”  Ultimately, Norma Rae lacked the artistry necessary to disguise its more heavy-handed moments.

And yet, I still liked Norma Rae.  It had nothing to do with the film’s political message and everything to do with the character of Norma Rae.  Sally Field gives such a good performance as Norma, making her both strong and vulnerable.  The film’s best moments are the ones where Norma stands up for herself and does what she feels is right, despite the opposition from the mill’s management, Sonny, and her father (Pat Hingle).  Towards the end of the film, there’s a simply incredible scene where Norma finally tells her children about her past and, at that moment, Norma Rae reveals itself to be a great and heartfelt tribute to the strength and resilience of women everywhere.  At that moment, Norma’s strength reminded me of the greatest woman that I’ve ever known, my mom.  It made me appreciate the struggles that my mom went through as she raised four strong-willed daughters on her own, while working crappy jobs and dealing with a society that is always threatened by and cruelly judges a woman who refuses to settle.  Personally, I think Norma could have done better than Sonny and that Ruben should have been called out for constantly talking to down to her but what’s important, in the end, is that Norma never stopped standing up for what she believed.  By the end of the film, Norma is standing in for every woman who has ever been underestimated or judged or told that her opinions didn’t matter.  Norma is standing up for all of us.

Sally Field won an Oscar for her role in Norma Rae.  Off the top of my head, I have no idea who she defeated for the award.  (Yes, I know that I could just look it up on wikipedia but that’s not the point.)  But, regardless of her competition, it’s an honor that she definitely deserved.

Norma Rae

4 Shots From 4 Films: Salt of the Earth, The Molly Maguires, F.I.S.T., Made in Dagenham


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films.  As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

Since it’s Labor Day, this edition of 4 Shorts From 4 Films has a theme!  All four of these shots come from films about labor!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth (1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman)

The Molly Maguires (1970, directed by Martin Ritt)

The Molly Maguires (1970, directed by Martin Ritt)

F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)

F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)

Made in Dagenham (2010, directed by Nigel Cole)

Made in Dagenham (2010, directed by Nigel Cole)