A Movie A Day #340: Eye of the Needle (1981, directed by Richard Marquand)


The time is World War II, shortly before D-Day.  Lucy Rose (Kate Nelligan) lives on an isolated island with her crippled husband, David (Christopher Cazenove), their young son, and a sheep herder named Tom (Alex McCrindle).  Embittered by the accident that left him in a wheelchair, David is abusively violent and emotionally shut off.  One night, during a sudden storm, a man who says his name is Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) turns up on the island.  Henry claims that the storm caught him by surprise and left him stranded.  David doesn’t trust him and it turns out that, for once, David is right.  Faber is actually a semi-legendary German spy, code-named The Needle because his preferred instrument of murder is a stiletto.  Faber has discovered the plans for the Allied Invasion of Normandy.  He’s only on the island because he is waiting for a German u-boat to arrive and take him back to Berlin.  Complicating matters is that a romance has developed between Faber and Lucy.

Based on a novel by Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle is an old-fashioned spy thriller, distinguished by Kate Nelligan’s sensual turn as Lucy and Donald Sutherland giving what might be his career best performance in the role of Henry Faber.  Until he meets Lucy, Faber is a remorseless sociopath who is willing to kill anyone who discovers the truth about his identity.  For the majority of the film, it is left ambiguous whether Faber loves Lucy or if he’s just using her and Sutherland plays the role as if Faber himself is not really sure.  The final confrontation between Faber and Lucy is both suspenseful and exciting and will convince you to never stick your hand through a window unless you’re sure about what’s on the other side.  Eye of the Needle is a World War II thriller that deserves to be better known.

Following the success of this film, Richard Marquand was hired to direct Return of the Jedi.a film that is light years away from the gloomy world portrayed in Eye of the Needle.  He later directed another well-regarded thriller, Jagged Edge, before passing away from a stroke in 1987 at the age of 49.

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A Movie A Day #339: Continental Divide (1981, directed by Michael Apted)


Ernie Souchak (John Belushi) is a reporter in Chicago.  He specializes in stories about municipal corruption and Mafia power plays.  Needless to say, living in Chicago, that keeps him busy.  Literally everyone in the city knows him.  Even the two muggers who try to steal his wallet recognize him and share inside information about which street gang is about to make a big move.  From a modern day vantage point, it seems strange to see everyone so excited about meeting a newspaper columnist but this movie was made in 1981, long before an army of bloggers put journalists like Ernie Souchak out of business.

Souchak’s gotten in trouble with the mob so his editor (Allen Garfield) sends him out of Chicago for his own protection.  Chain-smoking city boy Ernie Souchak finds himself in the Rocky Mountains, assigned to track down and get a story on Dr. Nell Porter (Blair Brown).  Dr. Porter has spent the last few years researching and protecting bald eagles.  She doesn’t like reporters but Souchak wins her over.  Despite being two very different people, Nell and Souchak fall in love.  But can a city boy and a country girl stay together, especially when there are people in Chicago who want Souchak dead?

A strange movie, Continental Divide was meant to be an updated version of the romantic comedies that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn used to make and Blair Brown was even made up to look like a young Hepburn.  It was one of the first films to be produced by Steven Spielberg, who has always been better at picking material as a director than a producer.  It was directed by Michael Apted, a great documentarian who has never shown himself to have much affinity for comedy.  It was written by Lawrence Kasdan, who specialized in homages to classic film genres and who, after this movie, made it a point to direct the majority of his scripts.  And it starred John Belushi, in his only romantic film lead.

Belushi, of course, is the main reason why anyone would want to see this movie.  It was his second-to-last movie, coming out between the popular success of The Blues Brothers and the infamous failure of NeighborsContinental Divide gives Belushi a chance to play a character, instead of just a version of his own wild persona.  The legend has always been that Continental Divide showed the actor that Belushi could have become if not for his tragic death.  The truth is that Belushi frequently looks uncomfortable and it is often evident that he is having to reign back his natural instincts.  Belushi’s best scenes are the ones where Souchak is walking around Chicago and hustling everyone that he meets.  In those scenes, he’s confident and in control and it’s easy to get swept up in his life.  His scenes with Blair Brown, where he has to be sincere and serious, are far more awkward.  Belushi has enough good scenes in Continental Divide to make you regret the performances that we never got but, at the same time, it’s evident that he still had room to grow as an actor.

If Belushi hadn’t died and had instead gone on to make several more movies (and hopefully beat his drug addiction at the same time), Continental Divide would probably be forgotten.  Instead, it now exists as a hint of what could have been.

A Movie A Day #338: Raid on Entebbe (1977, directed by Irvin Kershner)


On June 27th, 1976, four terrorists hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda.  With the blessing of dictator Idi Amin and with the help of a deployment of Ugandan soldiers, the terrorists held all of the Israeli passengers hostage while allowing the non-Jewish passengers to leave.  The terrorists issued the usual set of demands.  The Israelis responded with Operation Thunderbolt, a daring July 4th raid on the airport that led to death of all the terrorists and the rescue of the hostages.  Three hostages were killed in the firefight and a fourth — Dora Bloch — was subsequently murdered in a Ugandan hospital by Idi Amin’s secret police.  Only one commando — Yonatan Netanyahu — was lost during the raid.  His younger brother, Benjamin, would later become Prime Minister of Israel.

Raid on Entebbe, a docudrama about the operation, was originally produced for NBC though it subsequently received an overseas theatrical release as well.  It’s an exciting tribute to the bravery of both the hostages and the commandos who rescued them.  Director Irvin Kershner directs in a documentary fashion and gets good performances from a cast full of familiar faces.  Charles Bronson, James Woods, Peter Finch, Martin Balsam, Stephen Macht, Horst Buchholz, Sylvia Sidney, Allan Arbus, Jack Warden, John Saxon, and Robert Loggia show up as politicians, commandos, terrorists, and hostages and all of them bring a sense of reality and humanity to their roles.

The film’s best performance comes from Yaphet Kotto, who plays Idi Amin as a strutting buffoon, quick to smile but always watching out for himself.  In the film, Amin often pays unannounced visits to the airport, where he lies and tells the hostages that he is doing his best to broker an agreement between the terrorists and Israel.  The hostages are forced to applaud Amin’s empty promises and Amin soaks it all up with a huge grin on his face.  Forest Whitaker may have won the Oscar for Last King of Scotland but, for me, Yaphet Kotto will always be the definitive Idi Amin.

A Movie A Day #337: Colors (1988, directed by Dennis Hopper)


Los Angeles in the 80s.  Beneath the California glamour that the rest of America thinks about when they think about L.A., a war is brewing.  Bloods vs Crips vs the 21st Street Gang.  For those living in the poorest sections of the city, gangs provide everything that mainstream society refuses to provide: money, a chance to belong, a chance to advance.  The only drawback is that you’ll probably die before you turn thirty.  Two cops — veteran Hodges (Robert Duvall) and rookie McGavin (Sean Penn) — spend their days patrolling a potential war zone.  Hodges tries to maintain the peace, encouraging the gangs to stay in their own territory and treat each other with respect.  McGavin is aggressive and cocky, the type of cop who seems to be destined to end up on the evening news.  With only a year to go before his retirement, Hodges tries to teach McGavin how to be a better cop while the gangs continue to target and kill each other.  The cycle continues.

Colors was one of the first and best-known of the “modern gang” films.  It was also Dennis Hopper’s return to directing, 17 years after the notorious, drug-fueled disaster of The Last Movie.  Hopper took an almost documentary approach to Colors, eschewing, for the most part, melodrama and instead focusing on the day-to-day monotony of life in a war zone.  There are parts of Colors that are almost deliberately boring, with Hodges and McGavin driving through L.A. and trying to stop trouble before it happens.  Hopper portrays Hodges and McGavin as being soldiers in a war that can’t be won, combatants in a concrete Vietnam.  Colors is nearly 20 years old but it holds up.  It’s a tough and gritty film that works because of the strong performances of Duvall and Penn.  The legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler vividly captures the harshness of life in the inner city.  Actual gang members served as extras, adding to the film’s authentic, documentary feel.  Among the actors playing gang members, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva, Glenn Plummer, and Courtney Gains all make a definite impression.  In a small but important role, Maria Conchita Alonso stands in for everyone who is not a cop and who is not a gang member but who is still trapped by their endless conflict.

One person who was not impressed by Colors was future director John Singleton.  Boyz ‘n The Hood was largely written as a response to Colors‘s portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles.

A Movie A Day #336: The Bronx Bull (2017, directed by Martin Guigui)


New York in the 1930s.  Jake LaMotta (Morean Aria) is a tough street kid who is pushed into fighting by his abusive father (Paul Sorvino) and who is taught how to box by a sympathetic priest (Ray Wise).  When Jake finally escapes from his Hellish home life, it is so he can pursue a career as a professional boxer.  Ironically, the same violent nature that nearly destroyed him as a youth will now be the key to his future success.

In the late 60s, a middle-aged Jake LaMotta (William Forsythe) testifies before a government panel that is investigating that influence of the Mafia in professional boxing.  LaMotta testifies that, during his professional career, he did take a dive in one of his most famous matches.  LaMotta goes on to pursue an entertainment career which, despite starring in Cauliflower Ears with Jane Russell, never amounts too much.  He drinks too much, fights too much, and gets into arguments with a ghost (Robert Davi).  He also gets married several times, to women played by everyone from Penelope Ann Miller to Alicia Witt.  The movie ends with Jake happily walking down a snowy street and a title card announcing that Jake is now 95 years old and married to his seventh wife.  (The real Jake LaMotta died on September, 9 months after the release of The Bronx Bull.)

The Bronx Bull is a largely pointless movie about the later life of the antisocial boxer who was previously immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  In fact, The Bronx Bull was originally announced and went into production as Raging Bull II.  Then the producers of the original Raging Bull found out, filed a lawsuit, and the film became The Bronx Bull.  Because of the lawsuit, The Bronx Bull could cover every aspect of Jake’s life, except for what was already covered in Raging Bull.  In fact, Scorsese’s film (which undoubtedly had a huge impact on LaMotta’s later life) is not even mentioned in The Bronx Bull.

William Forsythe does what he can with the role but, for the most part, Jake just seems to be a lout with anger issues.  With a cast that includes everyone from Tom Sizemore to Cloris Leachman to Bruce Davison, the movie is full of familiar faces but none of them get too much of a chance to make an impression.  Joe Mantegna comes the closest, playing Jake’s best friend.  The Bronx Bull was not only shot on the cheap but it looks even cheaper, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for 1930s Bronx.  The film’s director, Martin Guigui, occasionally tries to throw in a Scorsesesque camera movement and there are a few black-and-white flashbacks but, for the most part, this is the mockbuster version of Raging Bull.

A Movie A Day #335: Ruby and Oswald (1978, directed by Mel Stuart)


The year is 1963.  The month is November.  The city is Dallas.  The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, is coming to visit and two very different men have very different reactions.  An eccentric and lonely strip club owner, Jack Ruby (Michael Lerner), worries about an anti-Kennedy ad that has just appeared in the Dallas Morning News.  Another loner, a strange man named Lee Harvey Oswald (Frederic Forrest), is busy making plans of his own.  When Kennedy is assassinated, history brings Ruby and Oswald together in a way that a shattered nation will never forget.

This is a curious one.  It was made for television and, according to Wikipedia, its original running time was 180 minutes.  The version that I saw, on VHS, was barely 90 minutes long so obviously, the version I saw was heavily edited.  (In the 70s, it was common for made-for-TV movies to be reedited for both syndication and overseas theatrical release.)  Maybe that explains why Ruby and Oswald felt do disjointed.  In the version I saw, most of the emphasis was put on Jack Ruby running around Dallas and getting on people’s nerves.  Very little time was devoted to Oswald and the film was almost entirely stolen by Lerner. Michael Lerner is a familiar character actor.  You may not know his name but you will definitely recognize his face.  Lerner was convincing and sometimes even sympathetic as the weaselly Ruby.  Ruby and Oswald supported the Warren Commission’s findings, that Oswald killed Kennedy and Ruby shot Oswald out of a sense of loyalty to Jackie Kennedy.  Michael Lerner’s performance was so good that he almost made that theory plausible.

One final note, for fans of WKRP in Cincinnati: Gordon Jump and Richard Sanders, best known as Arthur Carlson and Les Nessman, were both in Ruby and Oswald, though they did not share any scenes together.

A Movie A Day #334: Charley One-Eye (1973, directed by Don Chaffey)


Welcome to the old west, where life is brutal and unpredictable.  Ben (Richard Roundtree) joined the Union Army so he could kill white men.  When his commanding officer caught Ben in bed with his wife, Ben was forced to commit murder and go on the run.  When Ben stumbles across an unnamed Indian (Roy Thinnes) with a bad leg, Ben forces the Indian to accompany him.  Despite Ben being loud, cruel, and mentally unstable, an unlikely friendship develops between Ben and the Indian, cemented by their mutual hatred of the white man.  When they find a deserted church, Ben and the Indian settle in and start to raise chickens.  The Indian’s favorite chicken is a one-eyed bird that he has named Charley.  Meanwhile, the Bounty Hunter (Nigel Davenport), a British racist, retraces their every step.

Richard Roundtree made Charley One-Eye after shooting to fame as John Shaft.  This film was his attempt to show that he was capable of playing more than just the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the ladies.  Ben is a world away from Shaft.  There’s nothing smooth or charming about Ben, who never stop laughing or talking about how much he wants to kill a white man.  (Though the character introduces himself as being named “Ben,” the end credits simply read, “The Black Man … Richard Roundtree.”) The Indian is also half-crazy and given to fits of laughter.  The Bounty Hunter never laughs.  Whenever these three aren’t talking, the sound of buzzing flies is heard.  Death and decay are all around.

Don Chaffey was a British director who best known for films like Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C.  Charley One-Eye was a strange departure for him and he would never make another film like it.  It has elements of the Blaxploitation genre and Spaghetti western fans will recognize Aldo Sambrell in the tiny role of a Mexican bandit.  But it is really neither blaxploitation nor a western.  It’s a slowly paced, sometimes boring character study of two outsiders.  Both Roundtree and Thinnes give good performances, though their characters are sometimes hard-to-take.  The only thing that makes Ben and the Indian tolerable is that their enemies, like the Bounty Hunter, are a hundred times worse.  There is a weird religious subtext running through the entire movie and the ending will leave you wondering whether the director of Jason and the Argonauts was actually calling for armed revolution.  Charley One-Eye is uneven and it goes on for at least thirty minutes too long but it is still an intriguingly strange movie.

One final note: Charley One-Eye was produced by none other than David Frost, the British media personality whose post-presidency interview with Richard Nixon was recreated in Frost/Nixon.