Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Pied Piper (dir by Irving Pichel)


The 1942 Best Picture nominee, The Pied Piper, opens in Eastern France, shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

John Sidney Howard (played by Monty Woolley) is an Englishman on holiday.  He says that he just wants to enjoy some fishing before the entire continent of Europe descends into chaos.  He knows that France is going to be invaded at some point and he even suspects that the country will probably fall to the Nazis.  In his 70s and still mourning the death of his son (who was killed during an air battle over occupied Poland), Mr. Howard just wants to enjoy France one last time.  Despite the fact that the bearded Howard bears a resemblance to a thin Santa Claus, he’s quick to declare his dislike of both children and humanity in general.  He’s a misanthrope, albeit a rather friendly one.

Howard’s plans change when the Nazis invade France sooner than he expected.  With his vacation canceled, Howard just wants to get back to England.  Complicating matters is that a diplomat named Cavanaugh (Lester Matthews) has asks Howard to take his children, Ronnie (Roddy McDowall) and Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner), back to England with him.  Despite his self-declared dislike of children, Howard agrees.  However, it turns out that getting out of France won’t be as easy as Howard assumed.  After their train gets diverted by the Nazis, Howard, Ronnie ,and Sheila are forced to take a bus.  After almost everyone else on the bus is killed in a surprise Nazi attack, Howard and the children are forced to continue on foot and rely on the kindness of a young French woman, Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxer).

Throughout the journey, Howard keeps collecting more and more children.  Everyone wants to get their children to a safe place and Howard soon has a small entourage following him.  Unfortunately, he also has Gestapo Major Diessen (an excellent Otto Preminger) watching him.  How far is Howard willing to go to ensure the safety of the children?

The Pied Piper is an interesting film, in that it starts out as something of a comedy but it then gets progressively darker as events unfold.  At the beginning of the film, it appears that the whole thing is just going to be Howard getting annoyed with the precocious Ronnie and Sheila.  But then that bus is attacked and Howard find himself accompanied by a young boy who has been left in a state of shock by the attack.  When the group is joined by a young Jewish child named Pierre, it’s a reminder that, though the film itself may have been shot on an American soundstage, the stakes and the dangers in occupied Europe were all too real.

The Pied Piper was nominated for Best Picture of the year.  Viewed today, it may seem like an unlikely nominee.  It’s a well-made movie and Monty Woolley gives a good performance as John Sidney Howard.  It’s the type of film that, due to the sincerity of its anti-Nazi message, should bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened cynic but, at the same time, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking or aesthetically unique about it.  Still, from a historical point of view, it’s not a surprise that this competent but conventional film was nominated.  With America having just entered the war, The Pied Piper was a film that captured the national spirit.  Other World War II films nominated in 1942 included 49th Parallel, Wake Island, and the eventual winner, Mrs. Miniver.

In fact, one could argue that The Pied Piper is almost a cousin to Mrs. Miniver.  Both films are not only anti-German but also unapologetically pro-British.  Just as Greer Garson did in Mrs. Miniver, Monty Woolley is meant to be less of an individual and more of a stand-in for Britain itself.  When both Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Howard refused to surrender in the face of German aggression, these movies were proudly proclaiming that the British would never lose hope or surrender either.

Thankfully, the movies were correct.

Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)


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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates…

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Darkness on the Edge of Town: WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (20th Century Fox 1950)


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I recorded WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS way back in June, and haven’t watched it until just recently. It was well worth the wait, for this is one of the finest noirs I’ve seen yet. Director Otto Preminger reunited with the stars of his film LAURA, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, to give us a bleak crime drama that more than holds its own with the best films noir of the era.

Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews) is a proto-Dirty Harry cop, a tough SOB not above laying the smackdown on New York City’s criminal element. Another assault charge leads to Mark being demoted by his superiors. Mark’s got a reason for his brutality tactics, though: his father was a criminal, and he’s psychologically compelled to clean up the corruption in his city.

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He’s particularly got a hair across his ass about gambling czar Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), who was set up in…

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Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)


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I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary…

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Shattered Politics #37: Rosebud (dir by Otto Preminger)


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Before I review the 1975 film Rosebud, allow me to tell you about how I first discovered the existence of this particular film.

The greatest used bookstore in the world is located in Denton, Texas.  It’s called Recycled Books and it is three stories of pure literary goodness!  (Plus, there are apartments on the top floor where I attended some pretty interesting parties but that’s another story….)  When I was attending the University of North Texas, I used to stop by Recycled Books nearly every day.  One day, I happened to be searching the Film and TV section when I came across a beat-up paperback called Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture.

This book, which was written by Theodore Gershuny, told the story of how the previously acclaimed director Otto Preminger attempted to make a film about terrorism.  Starting with the attempts of Preminger’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, to come up with a workable script and then going on to detail how Peter O’Toole came to replace Robert Mitchum as the star of the film and ending with the film’s disastrous release, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture proved to be a fascinating read.

After finishing the book, I simply had to see Rosebud for myself.  Unfortunately, at that time, Rosebud had not yet been released on Blu-ray or DVD.  So, I actually ended up ordering an old VHS copy of it.  The tape that I got was not in the best condition but it played well enough and I can now say that, unlike the majority of people in the world, I’ve actually seen Rosebud!

Which is not to say that Rosebud is any good.  It’s not the disaster that I had been led to expect.  In fact, it probably would have been more fun if it had been a disaster, as opposed to being just a forgettable film from a director who was probably capable of better.  Preminger started his career in the 30s and was considered, at one point, to be quite innovative.  He directed Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, two great films.  Unfortunately, there’s really nothing innovative about his direction of Rosebud.  In Gershuny’s book, Preminger comes across like an intelligent and thoughtful man who was too set in his ways to realize that what was shocking in 1959 was no longer that big of a deal in 1975.  (And, needless to say, it’s even less of a big deal in 2015.)

As for what Rosebud‘s about, it’s about a man named Sloat (Richard Attenborough), a former journalist who now lives in a cave in Israel and dreams of establishing a worldwide terrorist network.  Under Sloat’s direction, terrorists storm a yacht named the Rosebud and take the girls on board hostage.  The girls are wealthy and privileged.  Their fathers are judges, senators, and businessmen.  CIA agent Larry Martin (Peter O’Toole) is tasked with tracking down and rescuing the girls.  If it sounds like an action film — well, it’s not.  This is not a prequel to Taken.  Instead, it’s a very talky film that has a few isolated good moments and performances but otherwise, is fairly forgettable.

That said, the film does have an interesting cast.  Peter O’Toole seems bored by his role (and who can blame him?) but Attenborough briefly livens things up in the role of Sloat.  As for the girls being held hostage, they’re not given much to do.  One of them is played by a young Isabelle Huppert.  Long before she would play Samantha on Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall plays a hostage here.  The English hostage is played by Lalla Ward, who is now married to Richard Dawkins.

And then there’s the girl’s parents, who are played by an odd assortment of character actors.  Raf Vallone, an Italian, plays a Greek.  (His daughter, meanwhile, is played by the French Isabelle Huppert.)  Peter Lawford, looking somewhat dazed, shows up as Lalla Ward’s father.  (One of the sadder scenes in Gershuny’s book deals with Lawford’s attempts to remember his lines.)  And than, in the role of Cattrall’s father, we have a very distinguished looking man named John Lindsay.

John Lindsay was the former mayor of New York City, a man who ran for President in 1972 and, three years later, attempted to launch a new career as an actor.  Rosebud was his both his first and final film.  (Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese attempted to convince Lindsay to play Senator Palatine in Taxi Driver but Lindsay turned the role down.)  Lindsay is not particularly memorable in Rosebud.  It’s not so much that Lindsay gives a bad performance as much as it’s just the fact that he has a very bland screen presence.  That blandness probably served him well as a politician but, as an actor — well, let’s just say that John Lindsay was apparently no Fred Thompson.

And so that’s Rosebud.  It’s a film that, much like Maidstone, you can only appreciate if you know what went on behind the scenes.  I can’t really recommend Rosebud but, if you ever come across a battered old copy of Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture in a used bookstore, be sure to buy it!

Seriously, you will not be sorry.

Shattered Politics #17: Advise & Consent (dir by Otto Preminger)


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In case you hadn’t heard, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has recently announced that she’s retiring in 2016.  For the first time in decades, there’s going to be an open senate seat in California.  There’s been a lot of speculation about who might run for the seat and, for the most part, it’s all been the usual political suspects.  The state’s attorney general is running.  A few congresspeople might run.  Token billionaire Tom Steyer is thinking of getting into the race.

What disappoints me is that, as of right now, it doesn’t look like any celebrities are planning on running.  You know what would have made the Golden Globes perfect?  If George Clooney had announced his candidacy while accepting his Cecil B. DeMille award.  (At the very least, it might have given Amal something to smile about, as opposed to just sitting there with a condescending smirk on her face.  Seriously, what’s up with that?)  But even beyond George Clooney, there’s all sorts of celebrities who could run.  Charlie Sheen lives in California, after all.  Jeff Bridges might not be able to run in Montana but what about California?

I was discussing this with a friend of mine who suggested that Betty White should run because who could vote against Betty White?  Speaking for myself, I could easily vote against Betty White but I do think there would be something appropriate about Betty White serving in the U.S. Senate.  After all, in 1962, she played a senator in Otto Preminger’s political epic, Advice & Consent.

White played Sen. Bessie Adams of Kansas and was only given a few minutes of screen time.  She’s one of many performers to show up in Advise & Consent‘s version of the U.S. Senate.

For instance, Walter Pidgeon plays Sen. Bob Munson, who is the Senate majority leader and, as a result, the closest thing that this sprawling film has to a central character.  His job is to make sure the President’s agenda is pushed through Congress.

And then there’s Peter Lawford, as Sen. Lafe Smith, who always has a different girl leaving his hotel room.  When Advise & Consent was made, Lawford was President Kennedy’s brother-in-law.  Interestingly enough, one of Kennedy’s former girlfriends — actress Gene Tierney — shows up in the film as well, playing Bob Munson’s lover.

George Grizzard plays Sen. Fred Van Ackerman, who is about as evil as you would expect someone named Fred Van Ackerman to be.  Grizzard gives one of the better performances in the film, which just goes to prove that it’s more fun to play an evil character than a good one.

Don Murray is Sen. Brigham Anderson, a senator who is being blackmailed by Van Ackerman’s lackeys.  Despite being happily married to Mabel (Inga Swenson), Anderson is leading a secret life as a gay man.  The scene where Anderson steps into a gay bar may seem incredibly tame today but it was reportedly very controversial back in 1962.

And finally, there’s Sen. Seabright Cooley.  You may be able to guess, just from his overly prosaic name, that Cooley is meant to be a southerner.  That, of course, means that he wears a white suit, is constantly fanning himself, and speaks in lengthy metaphors.  Sen. Cooley is played by Charles Laughton, who overacts to such a degree that I’m surprised that there was any oxygen left over for anyone else.

All of these senators have been tasked with deciding whether or not Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) will be the next secretary of state.  Fonda, not surprisingly, is the epitome of urbane liberalness in the role of Leffingwell.  However, Leffingwell has a secret.  Back in the 1930s, Leffingwell was a communist.  When Sen. Cooley introduces a witness (Burgess Meredith) who can confirm this fact, Leffingwell offers to withdraw as the nominee.  However, the President (Franchot Tone) refuses to allow Leffingwell to do so.  Instead, with the help of Van Ackerman, he tries to pressure Anderson into supporting Leffingwell’s nomination.

This, of course, leads to melodrama and tragedy.

As far as literary adaptations directed by Otto Preminger are concerned, Advise & Consent is better than Hurry Sundown while being nowhere to close to being as good as Anatomy of a Murder.  It’s a film that is occasionally entertaining, often draggy, and, if just because of all the different acting styles to be found in the cast, always interesting to watch.

And, for what it’s worth, Betty White makes for a convincing senator.  So, perhaps the people of California should watch Advise & Consent before voting for Tom Steyer…

Were the critics right? A Review of Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown


It seems like whenever film bloggers and reviewers are making out a list of the worst films of all time, somebody always mentions Hurry Sundown.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It doesn’t get mentioned as often as Battlefield Earth or Adam Sandler’s latest comedy.  And, when it does get mentioned, it’s done with little of the warmth that’s given to Troll 2, The Room, or Birdemic.  Instead, one gets the impression that Hurry Sundown is a film so bad that even those of us who appreciate bad films would find little to love about it.

But y’all know me.  I’m the type that prefers to judge for herself and I’m also someone who rather enjoys being a contrarian.  There’s a reason why one of my most read posts on this site is entitled 10 Reasons Why I Hated Avatar.  Add to that, Hurry Sundown was directed by Otto Preminger who also directed one of my favorite films of all time, Anatomy of a Murder.  How, I asked myself, could the man who made Anatomy of a Murder possibly also direct one of the worst films of all time?  As a result, every time that I saw someone claiming that Hurry Sundown was one of the worst films of all time, I grew more and more determined to someday see the film and judge for myself.

Well, I finally got my chance this weekend.  Hurry Sundown was on one of my newest favorite channels, The MOVIES! TV Network.  And I proceeded to watch it.  I sat through all four hours of this film (that’s including commercials and, oh my God, was I thankful for the distraction that those commercials provided).  I watched Hurry Sundown and …. wow.  Was it ever bad.

Hurry SundownReleased in 1967, Hurry Sundown was Otto Preminger’s attempt to take a look at race relations in the deep south.  It’s a film full of good, liberal intentions and an apparent lack of knowledge about — well, about everything.  As I watched this slow, almost formless blob of a film, I found myself wondering how the director who gave us Laura and Anatomy of a Murder could have possibly directed a film with a gigantic cast but absolutely no interesting characters.  I wondered how the director who had been willing to challenge the racist assumptions of 1950s Hollywood by directing Carmen Jones could have been responsible for the corny and subtly condescending look at race relations that was Hurry Sundown.

Hurry Sundown takes place in 1946 and is set in rural Georgia.  The war is over, the soldiers are coming home, and nobody in the film can maintain a convincing Southern accent for more than a line or two.  (Seriously — I’ve heard a lot of really bad Southern accents in a lot of really bad films but none of those accents were as bad as what I heard in Hurry Sundown.)  It’s a brand new world but the South is clinging to the old ways of racism and classism.

Preminger slowly (and clumsily) introduces us to the huge cast of characters who populate the slice of Hollywood Georgia.

There’s the sheriff (George Kennedy) who is so stupid that he can be distracted by an offer of fried chicken.  Kennedy actually gives a good comedic performance but his character seems like he belongs in another movie and you have to wonder how civil rights activists in 1967 — many of whom had undoubtedly been arrested and harassed by Southern sheriffs much like this one — reacted to Kenendy’s character being presented as harmless comic relief.

There’s the racist judge (Burgess Meredith) who, much like the sheriff, is presented as being a comedic buffoon as opposed to an actual threat.  The judge uses the n-word in every other sentence, which should be shocking and infuriating but, as a result of Meredith’s over-the-top delivery, instead simply comes across as being gratuitous and tasteless.

Then there’s Henry.  Henry is a businessman who dodged the draft, cheats on his wife, and who has a son who literally spends the entire movie screaming at the top of his lungs.  (Whenever that kid was on-screen, I imagined Preminger standing behind the camera and going, “More!  More!  Scream more!”)  Henry is also a racist, though for some reason he loves jazz and often plays the saxophone.  I kept waiting for someone in the movie to point out to him that jazz was created by black musicians but nobody did.  (If Henry had appeared in Anatomy of a Murder, someone would have.)

Did I mention that Henry is played by Michael Caine?  And did I also mention that Caine is the most cockney-sounding Southerner that I’ve ever heard?  Because he totally is.

Henry’s wife is named Julie and is played by Jane Fonda.  At one point, she suggestively blows on Henry’s saxophone.  One can only imagine how audiences in the 60s reacted to that.  (Actually, they probably didn’t.  They probably just said, “Good thing she’s pretty because she ain’t no musician…”)

Michael Caine and Jane FondaAnyway, Harry wants to buy up some farmland but half of that land is owned by Henry’s poor cousin Rad (John Phillip Law) and Rad doesn’t want to move.  Rad has just returned from fighting in the war and he views Harry as being a cowardly draft dodger.  Rad is married to Lou (Faye Dunaway) and wow, are they ever a boring couple!  Dunaway was under a five-picture contract to Preminger when she made this film and apparently, she had such a terrible time on the set of Hurry Sundown that she sued to get out of ever having to make another movie with Otto.  Dunaway’s misery comes through in every scene.

The other half of the farmland is owned by Reeve (Robert Hooks), a black farmer whose mother (played by Beah Richards) is Julie’s former mammy.  Julie goes down to the farmhouse to convince Reeve to sell and Reeve’s mother responds by having the most (over)dramatic heart attack in the history of cinema.  Saddened by death of his mother, Reeve is definitely not going to sell.  When he’s not chastely romancing the local teacher (played by Diahann Carroll, who appears to have wandered over from a different, far more glamorous movie), Reeve is singing sprituals and working out in the fields.

One of the things that Reeve does not do — no matter how many times he gets called the n-word or is treated unfairly — is get mad.  Rad gets mad.  Julie gets mad.  A liberal white preacher (Frank Converse) gets mad.  But Reeve and the other black characters in the film are never really allowed to get mad or do anything that might make the film’s white audience feel nervous.  Watching a film like Hurry Sundown, you can understand why — in just a few more years — Blaxploitation films would suddenly become so popular.  It was probably the first time that black film characters were actually allowed to not only get angry over the way they were being treated but to fight back, as opposed to reacting in the Hurry Sundown-way of passive acceptance.

Anyway, Rad and Reeve come together to protect their land and Henry and the evil judge conspire to cheat them out of their land and — well, let’s just say that Hurry Sundown is one of those films that has a lot of plot and very little action.  Preminger directs with a stunning lack of pace or grace, the actors deal with a poorly written script by either engaging in histrionics or going catatonic, and Michael Caine’s attempt at a Southern accent will amuse anyone who has ever been south of the Mason-Dixon.

I have to admit that I was really hoping that Hurry Sundown would turn out to be a sordid and tawdry little masterpiece, the type of overheated misfire that you love despite your better instincts.  But, no.  Hurry Sundown is just boring.  The film is such a misfire that it doesn’t even work as a piece of history.  The critics were right.  Hurry Sundown sucks.

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Poll: Which Movie Should Lisa Marie Watch on March 20th?


Anyone who knows me knows that sometimes I just can’t help but love being dominated. 

That’s why, on occasion, I’ll give you, our beloved readers, the option of telling me which film to watch and review.  In the past, you’ve commanded me to watch and review Anatomy of a Murder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Logan’s Run

Well, here’s your chance to, once again, tell me what to do.  I’ve randomly selected 12 films from my film collection.  Whichever film gets the most votes will be watched and reviewed by me next Tuesday, March 20th.

Here are the films up for consideration:

1) Black Jesus (1968) — This Italian film stars Woody Strode as an African rebel leader who is captured by his country’s right-wing, American-backed dictatorship. 

2) Capote (2005) — Philip Seymour Hoffman was an Oscar for best actor for playing writer Truman Capote in this film that details how Capote came to write his true crime classic, In Cold Blood.  This film was also nominated for best picture.

3) Chappaqua (1966) — In this underground cult classic, drug addict Conrad Rooks seeks treatment in Switzerland while being haunted by a scornful William S. Burroughs.  This film features cameo from Allen Ginsberg, The Fugs, and just about every other cult figure from 1966.

4) Crazy/Beautiful (2001) — Jay Fernandez and Kirsten Dunst have lots and lots of sex.  This was like one of my favorite movies to catch on cable back when I was in high school. 🙂

5) An Education (2008) — In my favorite movie from 2008, Carey Mulligan is a schoolgirl in 1960s England who has a secret affair with an older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard), who has plenty of secrets of his own.  Co-starring Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, and Dominic Cooper (who is to die for, seriously).

6) Female Vampire (1973) — In this atmospheric and ennui-filled film from the infamous Jesus Franco, a female vampire spends the whole movie wandering around naked and dealing with the lost souls who want to join the ranks of the undead. 

7) Nightmare City (1980) — In this gory and fast-paced film from Umberto Lenzi, an accident at a nuclear plant leads to a bunch of blood-thirsty zombies rampaging through both the city and the countryside.  Hugo Stiglitz plays Dean Miller, zombie exterminator!  Nightmare City is probably most remembered for introducing the concept of the fast zombie and for serving as an obvious inspiration for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

8) The Other Side of Midnight (1977) — Based on a best-selling novel, The Other Side of Midnight tells the story of a poor French girl who becomes a world-famous actress and who ends up sleeping with apparently every wealthy man in the world.  Meanwhile, the man she loves ends up marrying Susan Sarandon.  Eventually, it all ends with both a hurricane and a murder.  Apparently, this film cost a lot of money to make and it was a notorious box office bomb.  It looks kinda fun to me.

9) Peyton Place (1957) — Also based on a best-selling novel, Peyton Place is about love, sex, and scandal in a small town.  Lana Turner is a repressed woman with a past who struggles to keep her daughter from making the same mistakes.  At the time it was made, it was considered to be quite racy and it was even nominated for best picture.  This film is a personal favorite of mine and it’s pretty much set the template for every single film ever shown on Lifetime.

10) Rosebud (1975) — From director Otto Preminger comes this film about what happens when a bunch of rich girls on a yacht are taken hostage by Islamic extremists.  The film’s diverse cast includes Peter O’Toole, Richard Attenborough, Cliff Gorman, former New York Mayor John Lindsay, former Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford, Raf Vallone, Adrienne Corri, Lalla Ward, Isabelle Huppert, and Kim Cattrall.

11) Valley of the Dolls (1967) — Oh my God, I love this movie so much!  Three aspiring actresses move to the big city and soon become hooked on pills and bad relationship decisions. Every time I watch this movie, I spend hours yelling, “I’m Neely O’Hara, bitch!” at the top of my lungs.

12) Zombie Lake (1981) — From my favorite French director, Jean Rollin, comes this extremely low budget film about a bunch of Nazi zombies who keep coming out of the lake and attacking the nearby village.  Some people claim that this is the worst zombie films ever made.  I disagree.

Please vote below for as many or as few of these films as you want to.  The poll will remain open until March 20th and whichever film gets the most votes will be watched and reviewed by me.

Happy voting!

Review: Anatomy of a Murder (Dir. by Otto Preminger)


Last Friday, I randomly selected 10 movies from my DVD library and I asked you, this site’s wonderful readers, to vote on which one of those movies I should watch and then review.  234 votes were cast and the winner (by two votes!) is the 1959 courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder.

First off, a confession of my own.  When I’m not reviewing movies or chattering away on twitter, I work in a law office.  Before anyone panics, I’m not a lawyer, I just hang out with a couple of them.  For the most part, I answer the phone, I schedule appointments, and I keep all the files in alphabetical order.  On a few very rare occasions, I’ve accompanied my boss to court and the thing that has always struck me about real-life courtroom drama is how boring it all really is.  There are no surprise witnesses, no impassioned closing statements, and those all trail rarely, if ever, jump to their feet and start yelling that they’re innocent.  For the most part, real life lawyers are usually just as poorly groomed and bored with their work as the rest of us.  Don’t even get me started on the judges, the majority of whom seem to have judgeships because they weren’t really making the grade as an attorney. 

As a result, it’s rare that I get much out of seeing lawyer-centric movies or tv shows any more.  After seeing the reality of it, I find fictionalized courtroom theatrics to be ludicrous and, for the most part, evidence of a lazy writer.  However, I’m happy to say that last night, I discovered that — no matter how jaded I may now be about the legal process — Anatomy of a Murder is still one of my favorite movies.

Based on a best-selling novel and directed by the notorious Otto Preminger, Anatomy of a Murder tells the story of Paul Beigler (James Stewart), a former district attorney who is now in private practice after having been voted out of office.  Having apparently fallen into a state of ennui, Beigler spends his time drinking with another alcoholic attorney (Arthur O’Connell) and trying to avoid his secretary’s (Eve Arden) attempts to get paid.

However, things change for Beigler when he is hired to defend an army officer named Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara).  Manion has been arrested for murdering a bar own named Barney Quill.  Manion says that he was justified in committing the murder because Quill raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick).  Others claim that Manion is himself just a notoriously violent bully and that the openly flirtatious Laura was having an affair with Quill.  Despite strongly disliking Manion and disturbed by Laura’s own obvious instability, Beigler takes on the case.

Beigler decides to argue that Manion was temporarily insane when he shot Quill and that he was acting on “irresistible impulse.”  As shaky as that line of defense might seem, it’s not helped by the fact that Manion himself is a bit of a brute.  Meanwhile, Beigler finds himself facing not the innefectual D.A. in court but instead a young, ambitious prosecutor from the State Attorney General’s Office, Claude Dancer (played by a young and obviously ambitious George C. Scott).  As the trial begins, small hints start to appear that seem to indicate that there’s a lot more to the murder of Barney Quill than anyone realizes…

Director Otto Preminger is an odd figure in film history.  Up until the early 60s, he was a consistently interesting director who made intelligent, well-acted films that often challenged then-contemporary moral attitudes.  However, once the 60s hit, he became something of a parody of the egotistical, old school, autocratic filmmaker and his films seemed to suffer as a result.  Like many of the film industry’s top directors, he found himself adrift once the 60s and 70s hit.  His decline was so dramatic that, as a result, there’s a tendency to forget that he made some truly great and important films, like Laura, Carmen Jones, The Man With The Golden Arm, and, of course, Anatomy of a Murder.

Anatomy of a Murder represents Preminger at his best.  His own natural tendency towards embracing melodrama and shock are  perfectly balanced with an intelligent script and memorable performances.  Whereas later Preminger films would often come across as little more than big screen soap operas, here he makes the sordid believable and compelling.  Preminger has never gotten much attention as a visual filmmaker but here, he uses black-and-white to perfectly capture the grayness of the both the film’s location and the moral issues that the film raises.  He keeps the camera moving without ever calling attention to it.  As a result, the movie has an almost documentary feel to it.

As previously stated, Preminger gets a lot of help from a truly amazing cast.  At first, it’s somewhat strange to imagine a Golden Age icon like Jimmy Stewart appearing in the same film as a dedicated method actor like Ben Gazzara.  These are two men who represent not only different philosophies of acting but seemingly from two different worlds as well.  However, Preminger uses their differing acting styles to electrifying effect.  One of the joys of the movie is watching and contrasting the old style, “move star” turns of James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and Eve Arden with the more “naturalistic” approaches taken by their younger co-stars, Gazzara, Lee Remick, and especially George C. Scott.  The contrast in style becomes a perfect reflection of the film’s contrast between what is legal and what is correct.  All the actors, as both individuals and as an ensemble, give memorable performances.  When you look at the cast, you realize that any one of their characters could have been the center of the story without the film becoming any less compelling. 

Lee Remick (a notoriously fragile actress who, for years, I knew solely as the poor woman who kept getting attacked by her adopted son in the original Omen) brings out the best in everyone she shares a scene with.  Whether she’s making Stewart blush or breaking down on the witness stand, she dominates every scene as an insecure young woman who forces herself to be happy because otherwise, she’d have to confront the fact that she’s miserable.  (I should admit that I related more than a bit to Remick’s character.  To me, the movie was about her and therefore, about me.) 

She is perhaps at her best towards the end of the film when she is on the witness stand and is cross-examined by George C. Scott.  Starting out as flirtatious and seemingly confident, Remick slowly and believably falls apart as Scott methodically strips away every layer of defense that, until now, she’s spent the entire movie hiding behind.  By the end of the scene, Remick has shown as every layer of pain that has built up in Laura Manion over the years.  For his part, Scott is simply amazing in this scene.  Determined and focused, Scott doesn’t so much cross-examine Remick but seduces her and the audience along with her.  As a result, when he suddenly turns off the charm and lunges in for his final attack, it’s devastating for everyone watching.  (And, as was correctly pointed out to me by a friend while I was watching the film last night, George C. Scott was quite the sexy beast when he was young.)

Lastly, the film’s judge is played by an actual lawyer by the name of Joseph Welch.  Welch wasn’t a great actor but he did make for a great judge.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Preminger film is a few contemporary morals weren’t challenged and, at the time it was released, Anatomy of a Murder was considered to be very daring because of its frank discussion of topics like rape and spousal abuse.  It doesn’t seem quite so daring now but it does seem to be remarkably mature in a way that even most modern movies can’t match.  That being said, the film does occasionally embrace the “she must have been asking for it” male viewpoint but still, it’s a remarkably advanced movie for the 1950s.

One of the wonderful things about watching a 51 year-old film is that it provides a chance to see what was considered to be shocking in the years before you or I was born.  From watching this movie, I’ve discovered that, in the year 1959, “panties” was apparently a taboo phrase.  A good deal of the film’s plot revolves around the panties Lee Remick’s character was wearing the night she was raped and their subsequent disappearance.  At one point, there’s even a scene where Welch, Stewart, and Scott struggle to come up with a less offensive term to use when referring to them in the court.  (Scott suggests employing a term he heard in France.)  Seen 51 years later (in a time when we can not only say “thong” in polite conversation but specifically go out of our way to show off the fact that we’re wearing one), this scene, and the actors’ obvious discomfort whenever they have to say the word “panties”, never fails to amuse me.

Preminger’s other grand challenge to the 50s mainstream was in getting Duke Ellington to compose the film’s jazz soundtrack.  At the risk of being called a heretic by some of my closest friends, I’ve never been a big fan of jazz but it works perfectly here.  Ellington, himself, makes a cameo appearance and wow, is he ever stoned.

In conclusion, allow me to thank the readers of the site for “ordering” me to watch, once again, a truly classic film.  Now, seeing as how close the vote was and that I know, for a fact, that some people voted more than once, I think it would be only fair for me to also rewatch and review the other 9 movies (Lost in Translation, Primer, Hatchet For the Honeymoon, Emanuelle in America, Starcrash, Darling, Sole Survivor, The Sweet House of Horrors, and The Sidewalks of Bangkok) in my poll over the next couple of weeks.  I’m looking forward to each and every one of them (well, almost all of them) and, again, thank you for allowing me to start things off with a great film like Anatomy of a Murder.

My Top Ten Books About The Movies


I love movies and I love books so I guess it would stand to reason that I love books about movies the most of all.  (I also love movies about books but there are far fewer of those, unfortunately.)  Below are my personal favorites.  I’m not necessarily saying that these are the ten greatest film books ever written.  I’m just saying that they’re the ones that I’m always happy to know are waiting for me at home.

10) Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture by Theodore Gershuny — This is one of the great finds of mine my life.  I found this in a used bookstore and I bought it mostly because it only cost a dollar. Only later did I discover that I had found one of the greatest nonfiction books about the shooting of a movie ever written!  Gershuny was present during the filming of a movie called Rosebud in the early 70s.   I’ve never seen Rosebud but, as Gershuny admits, it was a critical disaster that managed to lose a ton of money.  The book provides a fascinating wealth of backstage gossip as well as memorable portraits of director Otto Preminger and actors Robert Mitchum (who was originally cast in the lead role), Peter O’Toole (who took over after Mitchum walked off the set), and Isabelle Huppert.   If nothing else, this book should be read for the scene where O’Toole beats up critic Kenneth Tynan.

9) Suspects by David Thomson — A study of American cinema noir   disguised as a novel, Suspects imagines what would happen if George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life fell in love with Laura from the movie of the same name.  Well, apparently it would lead to Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond having an affair with Chinatown’s Noah Cross and to one of George’s sons, sensitive little Travis, getting a job in New York City as a Taxi Driver.  And that’s just a small sampling of what happens in this glorious mindfuck of a novel.

8 ) Profondo Argento by Alan Jones — Long-time fan Alan Jones examines each of Dario Argento’s films (even Argento’s obscure historical comedy The Five Days of Milan) and proceeds to celebrate and (in many cases) defend Argento’s career.  Jones also interviews and profiles several of Argento’s most frequent collaborators — Daria Nicolodi, Asia and Fiore Argento, Simon Boswell, Claudio Simonetti, Keith Emerson, George Romero, Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi, and many others.  Jones’ sympathetic yet humorous profile of Luigi Cozzi is priceless.

7)  Spaghetti Nightmares by Luca Palmerini — Spaghetti Nightmares is a collection of interviews conducted with such Italian filmmakers as Dario Argento, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, and others.  Among the non-Italians interviewed are Tom Savini (who, as always, comes across as appealingly  unhinged) and David Warbeck.  (Sadly, both Warbeck and Fulci would die shortly after being interviewed.)  What makes this interesting is that, for once, Argento, Fulci, et al. are actually being interviewed by a fellow countryman as opposed to an American accompanied by a translator.  As such, the subsequent interviews turn out to be some of the most revealing on record.

6) Sleazoid Express by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford — Landis and Clifford’s book is both a history and a defense of the old grindhouse theaters of New York City.  Along with describing, in loving and memorable detail, some of New York’s most infamous grindhouses, they also write about some of the more popular movies to play at each theater.  Along the way, they also offer up revealing profiles of such legendary figures as David Hess and Mike and Roberta Findley.  Reading this book truly made me mourn the fact that if I ever did find myself in New York City, I won’t be able to hit the old grindhouse circuit.

5) Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci by Stephen Thrower — Fulci has always been a terribly underrated director and, indeed, it’s easy to understand because, in many ways, he made movies with the specific aim of alienating and outraging his audience.  It requires a brave soul to take Fulci on his own terms and fortunately, Stephen Thrower appears to be one.  Along with the expected chapters on Fulci’s Beyond Trilogy and on Zombi 2, Thrower also devotes a lot of space to Fulci’s lesser known works.  Did you know, for instance, that before he became the godfather of gore, Fulci specialized in making comedies?  Or that he also directed two very popular adaptations of White Fang?  Thrower also examines Fulci’s often forgotten westerns as well as his postapocalyptic sci-fi films.  And, best of all, Thrower offers up a defense of the infamous New York Ripper that, when I read it, actually forced me to consider that oft-maligned film in a new light.  That said, Thrower does admit to being as confused by Manhattan Baby as everyone else.

4) Immoral Tales by Cathal Tohill and Pete Toombs — Tohill and Toombs offer an overview of European “shock” cinema and some of the genre’s better known masters.  The book contains perhaps the best critical examination of the work of Jean Rollin ever written.  The authors also examine the work of Jesus Franco and several others.  This is a great book that reminds us that the Italians aren’t the only ones who can make a great exploitation film.

3) Eaten Alive by Jay Slater — This book offers an overview of the Italian film industry’s legendary cannibal and zombie boom.  Along with reviewing every Italian movie to feature even the slightest hint of cannibalism or the living dead (this is one of the few books on Italian cinema that discusses both Pasolini and Lucio Fulci as equals), Eaten Alive also features some very revealing interviews with such iconic figures as Catriona MacColl, Ian McCullough, and especially Giovanni Lombardo Radice.  Radice, in fact, also contributes a memorable “guest” review of one of the movies featured in the book.  (“What a piece of shit!” the review begins.)  Memorable reviews are also contributed by Troma film founder Lloyd Kaufman who brilliantly (and correctly) argues that Cannibal Holocaust is one of the greatest films ever made and Ramsey Campbell who hilariously destroys Umberto Lenzi’s infamous Nightmare City.

2) The Book of the Dead by Jamie Russell — If, like all good people, you love zombies then you simply must do whatever it takes to own a copy of this book.  Starting with such early masterpieces as White Zombie and I Walked With A Zombie, Russell proceeds to cover every subsequent zombie film up through George Romero’s Land of the Dead.  Russell offers up some of the best commentaries ever written on Romero’s Dead films, Fuci’s Beyond Trilogy, Rollin’s Living Dead Girl, and Spain’s Blind Dead films.   The pièce de résistance, however, is an appendix where Russell describes and reviews literally ever zombie film ever made.

1)  All The Colors Of the Dark by Tim Lucas  — This is it.  This is the Holy Grail of All Film Books.  If you’ve ever asked yourself if any book is worth paying close to 300 dollars, now you have your answer.  This one is.  Tim Lucas offers up the most complete biography of director Mario Bava ever written.  In fact, this may be the most complete biography of any director ever written!  Lucas examines not only Bava’s life but also every single movie that Bava was ever in any way connected to, whether as a director or as a cameraman or as the guy in charge of the special effects.  This is 1,128 pages all devoted to nothing but the movies.  This is the type of book that makes me thankful to be alive and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tim Lucas for writing it.