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.

Review: A Bridge Too Far (dir. by Sir Richard Attenborough)

1977 a bridge too far

“Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far” — Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning

With the recent passing of Sir Richard Attenborough I decided to bring up one of the films which first brought his name to my attention. I was quite the young lad when I first saw Attenborough’s epic war film A Bridge Too Far. I would say that it was one of my earlier memories of watching a film with my father who was a major fan of war films. One could say that I got my appreciation and love for the genre from him.

A Bridge Too Far was adapted from the Cornelius Ryan book of the same name which depicted from start to finish the disastrous World War II battle known as Operation Market Garden. The film states that the Allied landings at Normandy, France in the summer of 1944 had the German forces reeling and on the verge of collapse. With Eisenhower having to choose between competing plans to chase Hitler’s forces right into Berlin from his two best generals in George S. Patton and Bernard Montgomery, the film already lays down something that’s become synonymous with military disasters throughout history. Political expediency and pressure on Eisenhower led to an operation that was never attempted in military history and one which required every aspect of the operation to go according to plan for it to work. As the film would show this was not meant to be.

The film begins with the operation’s early days as Allied commanders rush to put Montgomery’s plan to drop 35,000 paratroopers behind German lines in occupied-Netherlands in order to capture and hold key bridges until Allied armored forces arrived to reinforce them. It’s a daring plan that the Attenborough films with a obvious confidence and enthusiasm, but also one that already showed some nagging doubts from field commanders who would be in the thick of the fighting if intelligence reports were inaccurate. One could almost say that Attenborough was making the film a sort of anti-war message which was a rarity when it came to Hollywood and and film industry depicting the events of World War II at the time.

While the film does explore that very anti-war theme throughout it’s really a by-product of how the battle itself unfolds and shown to the viewers that might give one such an idea. Yet, in the end A Bridge Too Far was a much more complicated film to just be labeled as an anti-war film. Yes, the battle itself was a disaster for the Allied forces of American, British and Polish soldiers involved, but despite the political bumbling and military arrogance of those who command from behind a desk, the film actually does a great job of showing that bond soldiers earn when confronted with the horrors of battle.

Attenborough and producer Joseph E. Levine pulls together an all-star cast for the film with names such as Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Robert Redford, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier just to name a few. Films such as A Bridge Too Far rarely get made anymore in this day and age. The cast itself is part of the reason why the film still holds up to scrutiny decades after it’s release. While all-star casts such as this seemed to have been common place before the 1980’s it still looked like a daunting task for Attenborough to manage so many Hollywood stars and veteran British actors. Every character from Hopkin’s Col. Frost, Connery’s Gen. Urquhart and Redford’s Maj. Cook get to shine in their sections of the film as their individual stories about the battle all tie-in together to show just how complicated the events that they were filming truly turned out to be.

At times, one almost could feel overwhelmed by the amount of recognizable names and faces that come across the screen, yet Attenborough and producer Levine were able to juggle not just the logistics of the film’s screenplay, but the egos and reputation of the very stars who would become the backbone of the film.I think in a lesser filmmaker A Bridge Too Far could easily have turned into the very Operation Market Garden it was trying to depict.

It’s a film that never celebrates the concept of war itself, but actually shows that war remains a bloody and chaotic affair that relies not just on planning and execution but on the whims of lady luck. While Attenborough’s film never reached the sort of iconic status that another Cornelius Ryan adapted film has attained in The Longest Day, it does remain the more powerful of the two as it doesn’t just explore the historical event as a sort of academic exercise, but as an exploration of that old military adage of “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.

So, in the end I recommend that those looking to watch and experience the earlier directorial works of Sir Richard Attenborough should check out A Bridge Too Far. It remains to this day one of his more underappreciated films especially when compared to his later more acclaimed films like Gandhi, Chaplin and Shadowlands.

Film Review: Judgment At Nuremberg (dir by Stanley Kramer)

I previously posted a review of the 1967 best picture nominee Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that was somewhat critical of Stanley Kramer as a filmmaker.  In retrospect, I feel like I may have been a bit too dismissive of Stanley Kramer.  When one looks over the list of every film that has ever been nominated for best picture, one comes across the name Stanley Kramer (as a producer, a director, or both) far too many times to just blindly dismiss him for the sin of being old-fashioned.  While Kramer made his share of well-intentioned misfires like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, he was also responsible for some films that remain important and watchable today.  Judgment at Nuremberg is one of those films.

Judgment at Nuremberg opens in 1947, with one car being driven through the ruins of Nuremberg, Germany.  Inside the car is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), a judge from Maine who has been appointed chief of a military tribunal that will be passing judgment on four German judges who are accused of crimes against humanity for their legal rulings during the Nazi regime.  As Haywood quickly learns,  many people don’t feel that the Nazi judges should be held as accountable for their actions as men like Hitler, Goebbles, and Goering should have been.  It’s up to Haywood to determine whether the accused were simply doing their job or if they had a responsibility to defy the laws that they had sworn to uphold.

Judgment at Nuremberg almost feels like two films.  The first film is a courtroom drama, where the Nazi judges (the main one of which is played by Burt Lancaster) are prosecuted by the fiery Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and defended by the idealistic Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell).  While Lawson approaches the case and regards the defendants with righteous anger, Rolfe takes a more cerebral approach to defending the undefensible.  Rolfe argues that the judges were following the laws of Germany and that if the tribunal finds them guilty than it will be finding the entire nation of Germany guilty.  (In a rather clever twist, director Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann initially make the German defense attorney a far more likable character than the American prosecutor.)  During the trial, we also hear heart-wrenching testimony from two people (played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland) who were victimized by the Nazi regime and the judges who gave legal legitimacy to the regime’s crimes.

The second film deals with Haywood adjusting to working in Germany and trying to understand how the Nazis could have come to power in the first place.   Haywood asks several Germans to tell him about life under the Nazis and every time, he is met with bland excuses.  (“We were not political,” he is told more than once.)  The film’s strongest scenes are the ones where Haywood simply walks alone through the ruins of Nuremberg.  Spencer Tracy was a uniquely American actor and, much as he did in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Tracy here stood in for every American who was struggling to make sense of a changing world.

In his book Pictures At A Revolution, Mark Harris correctly points out that Stanley Kramer started out as a producer and, even after he started directing, he still approached filmmaking like a producer.  While that approach led to many uninspiring films, it was also the right approach for Judgment at Nuremberg.  Perhaps realizing that Judgment at Nuremberg was a long and talky movie about a disturbing subject manner, Kramer made the very producer-like decision to fill Judgment at Nuremberg with recognizable faces.  While this approach has proven disastrous for many films, it works quite well in Judgment at Nuremberg.

This is one of the most perfectly cast films of all time, with all of the actors bringing both their characters and the issues that they’re confronting to vivid life.  As the main defendant, Burt Lancaster brings a combination of intelligence and self-loathing to his role, playing him in such a way to reveal that even he can’t believe the evil he upheld as a judge.  Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is perfectly cast as a world-weary man who is simply trying to figure out what justice means in the post-war world.  Maximilian Schell plays his role with so much passion that it’s impossible not to listen to him even when you despise the argument he’s making.  Marlene Dietrich has an extended cameo where she plays the widow of Nazi general who befriends Judge Haywood but still refuses to admit that she knew anything about what Adolf Hitler was doing.  Even William Shatner shows up, playing a small role as Haywood’s chief military aide and yes, he does deliver his lines in that Shatner way of his.

First released in 1962, Judgment at Nuremberg won Oscars for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Abby Mann) and was nominated for 9 more: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Supporting Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Garland), Best Black-and-White Art Direction, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Black-and-White Costume Design, and Best Film Editing. While it’s hard to argue with the victory of West Side Story in that year’s Oscar race, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a watchable and thought-provoking film.