Film Review: Coma (dir by Michael Crichton)


Michael Crichton’s 1978 film, Coma, tells the story of strange things happening at a Boston hospital.

Seemingly healthy patients are having complications during routine surgery, complications that leave them brain dead.  Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) thinks that there’s something bigger going on than just routine medical complications.  First, her best friend (Lois Chiles) falls into a coma while undergoing an abortion.  Then, Tom Selleck falls into a coma while having knee surgery.  Dr. Wheeler investigates and discovers that all of the patients were operated on in the same operating room and that all of them were shipped to a mysterious facility after their surgery.

Yep, it sounds like a conspiracy.  However, no one is willing to listen to Dr. Wheeler.  Not her boyfriend (Michael Douglas).  Not Dr. George (Rip Torn), the chief anetheisologist.  Not Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), the chief of surgery.  Dr. Wheeler thinks that it’s all a conspiracy!

And, of course, it is.  As the old saying goes, the only thing that a conspiracy needs to succeed is for people to be remarkably stupid and almost everyone in Coma is remarkably stupid.  Admittedly, some of them are in on the conspiracy but it’s still rather odd how many people apparently don’t see anything strange about healthy people going into a comas and then being shipped to a mystery facility.

Coma is probably best known for the scene where Susan manages to sneak into the mystery facility and she finds herself in a room full of suspended bodies.  Visually, it’s an impressive scene.  It’s truly creepy and it also captures the detached sterility that most people hate about medical facilities.  At the same time, it’s also the only visually striking moment in the entire film.  Every other scene in Coma feels flat.  Whenever I’ve watched this film, I’m always a little bit shocked whenever anyone curses because Coma looks more like an old made-for-TV film than anything you would ever expect to see in a theater.

My point is that Coma is a remarkably boring film.  It has a potentially interesting story but my God, is this movie ever a slog.  It’s pretty easy to guess what’s going on at the institute so there’s not a whole lot of suspense to watching Susan try to figure it all out.  When the truth is revealed, it’s not exactly a shocking moment.  For that matter, you’ll also be able to guess which doctor is actually going to turn out to be the villain.  There’s really no surprises to be found.

Coma was the second feature film to be directed by Michael Crichton.  With the exception of the scenes in the institute, the visual flair that Crichton showed in Westworld is nowhere to be found in Coma.  The film moves at a tortuously slow place.  A part of me suspects that, as a doctor, Crichton related so much to the film’s characters that he didn’t realize how dull they would be for those us who don’t look at a character like Rip Torn’s Dr. George and automatically think, “He’s just like that arrogant bastard I worked under during my residency!”  Call it the Scrubs syndrome.

For some reason, Coma is a film that people often recommend to me.  I don’t know why.  Trying to sit through it nearly put me in a coma.

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express (dir by Sidney Lumet)


There’s been a murder on the Orient Express!

In the middle of the night, a shady American businessman (Richard Widmark) was stabbed to death.  Now, with the train momentarily stalled due to a blizzard, its up to the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), to solve the crime.  With only hours to go before the snow is cleared off the tracks and the case is handed over to the local authorities, Hercule must work with Bianchi (Martin Balsam) and Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris) to figure out who among the all-star cast is a murderer.

Is it the neurotic missionary played by Ingrid Bergman?  Is it the diplomat played by Michael York or his wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset?  Is it the military man played by Sean Connery?  How about Anthony Perkins or John Gielgud?  Maybe it’s Lauren Bacall or could it be Wendy Hiller or Rachel Roberts or even Vanessa Redgrave?  Who could it be and how are they linked to a previous kidnapping, one that led to the murder of an infant and the subsequent death of everyone else in the household?

Well, the obvious answer, of course, is that it had to be Sean Connery, right?  I mean, we’ve all seen From Russia With Love.  We know what that man is capable of doing on a train.  Or what about Dr. No?  Connery shot a man in cold blood in that one and then he smirked about it.  Now, obviously, Connery was playing James Bond in those films but still, from the minute we see him in Murder on the Orient Express, we know that he’s a potential killer.  At the height of his career, Connery had the look of a killer.  A sexy killer, but a killer nonetheless….

Actually, the solution to the mystery is a bit more complicated but you already knew that.  One of the more challenging things about watching the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is that, in all probability, the viewer will already know how the victim came to be dead.  As convoluted as the plot may be, the solution is also famous enough that even those who haven’t seen the 1974 film, the remake, or read Agatha Christie’s original novel will probably already know what Poirot is going to discover.

That was something that director Sidney Lumet obviously understood.  Hence, instead of focusing on the mystery, he focuses on the performers.  His version of Murder on the Orient Express is full of character actors who, along with being talented, were also theatrical in the best possible way.  The film is essentially a series of monologues, with each actor getting a few minutes to show off before Poirot stepped up to explain what had happened.  None of the performances are exactly subtle but it doesn’t matter because everyone appears to be having a good time.  (Finney, in particular, seems to fall in love with his occasionally indecipherable accent.)  Any film that has Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Albert Finney all acting up a storm is going to be entertaining to watch.

Though it’s been a bit overshadowed by the Kenneth Branagh version, the original Murder on the Orient Express holds up well.  I have to admit that Sidney Lumet always seems like he would have been a bit of an odd choice to direct this film.  I mean, just consider that he made this film in-between directing Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.  However, Lumet pulls it off, largely by staying out of the way of his amazing cast and letting them act up a storm.  It looks like it was a fun movie to shoot.  It’s certainly a fun movie to watch, even if we do already know the solution.

Panic In the Streets (1950, directed by Elia Kazan)


The plague has come to New Orleans.

A dead body is found on the New Orleans wharf.  He’s dead because he was shot several times but an autopsy reveals that he would have died anyways because he was suffering from a form of the bubonic plague!  In order to keep the plague from spreading through the city (and also to hopefully save the lives of anyone who has been infected), Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) have to isolate everyone who the man came into contact with.  But first, they’re going to have to discover that man’s identity and also how he came to end up dead on the docks of New Orleans.

What Dr. Reed doesn’t know is that the man was named Kolchak and that he was murdered by a small-time gangster named Blackie (Jack Palance, making his film debut).  Now, Blackie and his associate, Fitch (Zero Mostel) are both infected and are both looking to get out of town.  Of course, if either one of them succeeds in leaving New Orleans, they’ll spread the plague through the entire country.

Largely filmed on location in New Orleans and focusing as much on Dr. Reed as it does on the criminals that he’s pursuing, Panic In The Streets is an effective mix of film noir, medical drama and police procedural.  Seen under normal circumstances, Panic in the Streets is a good thriller.  Seen during a time when the news is dominated by COVID-19 and riots in large cities, Panic in the Streets feels damn near prophetic.

Richard Widmark does a good job playing Dr. Reed, who is portrayed as being a no-nonsense professional.  He’s type of doctor who you want on your side if there’s a plague coming to town.  Not surprisingly, though, the film is stolen by Jack Palance as the smirking Blackie.  This was Palance’s film debut but he already knew how to be the most intimidating man in the room.  Zero Mostel also has some good scenes as Blackie’s associate and his sweaty and fearful performance provides a good contrast to Palance’s more controlled villainy.

One interesting thing about Panic in The Streets is that Dr. Reed and Capt. Warren are actually able to convince a newspaper reporter to delay filing a report about the plague, mostly to avoid a mass panic in the streets.  Though he takes some convincing (and Warren’s methods aren’t exactly Constitutional), the reporter finally agrees to hold off on reporting for four hours.  With the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, that’s not something that could happen today.

Scenes That I Love: Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother To Knock


Marilyn Monroe would have been 94 years old today.

Unfortunately, Marilyn died when she was just 36 years old and also when she was only starting to get a chance to reveal what she was truly capable of as an actress.  It’s a shame, because I would have liked to have seen what type of roles she would have played in her 40s and her 50s.  Would she have eventually become a respected, award-winning character actor or would she have ended up like Bette Davis, doing cameos in films that weren’t particularly worthy of her talents?  Who knows but it’s a shame that the world will never get to find out.

For her birthday, I’m going to share a scene from one of her earlier films, 1952’s Don’t Bother To Knock.  In this film, Marilyn plays an unstable woman who is staying at a hotel.  Her cousin (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) gets her job as a babysitter but is shocked to find out that Marilyn has been trying on her employer’s clothes.  After getting admonished by her cousin and pretending to be sorry, she proceeds to then summon another gust (played by Richard Widmark) over to her room.

It’s a simple scene but it’s wonderfully played by Monroe.  This was one of her first truly dramatic roles and she does a good job with it.

From Don’t Bother To Knock, here is a scene that I love:

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

A Movie A Day #244: Death of a Gunfighter (1969, directed by Allen Smithee)


At the turn of the 20th century, the mayor and the business community of Cottonwood Springs, Texas are determined to bring their small town into the modern era.  The Mayor (Larry Gates) has even purchased one of those newfangled automobiles that have been taking the country by storm.  However, the marshal of Cottonwood Spings, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), is considered to be an embarrassing relic of the past.  Patch has served as marshal for 20 years but now, his old west style of justice is seen as being detrimental to the town’s development.  When Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, the town leaders use it as an excuse to demand Patch’s resignation.  When Patch refuses to quit and points out that he knows all of the secrets of what everyone did before they became respectable, the business community responds by bringing in their own gunfighters to kill the old marshal.

Death of a Gunfighter is historically significant because it was the very first film to ever be credited to Allen Smithee.  The movie was actually started by TV director Robert Totten and, after Widmark demanded that Totten be fired, completed by the legendary Don Siegel.  Since Totten worked for 25 days on the film while Siegel was only on set for 9, Siegel refused to take credit for the film.  When Widmark protested against Totten receiving credit, the Director’s Guild of America compromised by allowing the film to be credited to the fictitious Allen Smithee.

In the years after the release of Death of a Gunfighter, the Allen (or, more often, Alan) Smithee name would be used for films on which the director felt that he had not been allowed to exercise creative control over the final product.  The Smithee credit became associated with bad films like The O.J. Simpson Story and Let’s Get Harry which makes it ironic that Death of a Gunfighter is not bad at all.  It’s an elegiac and intelligent film about the death of the old west and the coming of the modern era.  It also features not only one of Richard Widmark’s best performances but an interracial love story between the marshal and a brothel madame played by Lena Horne.  The supporting cast is full of familiar western actors, with Royal Dano, Harry Carey, Jr., Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, and Kent Smith all making an impression.  Even the great John Saxon has a small role.  Though it may be best known for its “director,” Death of a Gunfighter is a film that will be enjoyed by any good western fan.

A Movie A Day #235: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, directed by Robert Aldrich)


In Montana, four men have infiltrated and taken over a top-secret ICBM complex.  Three of the men, Hoxey (William Smith), Garvas (Burt Young), and Powell (Paul Winfield) are considered to be common criminals but their leader is something much different.  Until he was court-martialed and sentenced to a military prison, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was a respected Air Force general.  He even designed the complex that he has now taken over.  Dell calls the White House and makes his demands known: he wants ten million dollars and for the President (Charles Durning) to go on television and read the contents of top secret dossier, one that reveals the real reason behind the war in Vietnam.  Dell also demands that the President surrender himself so that he can be used as a human shield while Dell and his men make their escape.

Until Dell made his demands known, the President did not even know of the dossier’s existence.  His cabinet (made up of distinguished and venerable character actors like Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas) did and some of them are willing to sacrifice the President to keep that information from getting out.

Robert Aldrich specialized in insightful genre films and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a typical example: aggressive, violent, sometimes crass, and unexpectedly intelligent.  At two hours and 30 minutes, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is overlong and Aldrich’s frequent use of split screens is sometimes distracting but Twilight’s Last Gleaming is still a thought-provoking film.  The large cast does a good job, with Lancaster and Durning as clear stand-outs.  I also liked Richard Widmark as a general with his own agenda and, of course, any movie that features Joseph Cotten is good in my book!  Best of all, Twilight’s Last Gleaming‘s theory about the reason why America stayed in Vietnam is entirely credible.

The Vietnam angle may be one of the reasons why Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the biggest flops of Aldrich’s career.  In 1977, audiences had a choice of thrilling to Star Wars, falling in love with Annie Hall, or watching a two and a half hour history lesson about Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, a nation that yearned for escape did just that and Twilight’s Last Gleaming flopped in America but found success in Europe.  Box office success or not, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent political thriller that is ripe for rediscovery.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Don’t Bother To Knock (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


(I am currently attempting to clean out my DVR.  I recorded the 1952 film Don’t Bother To Knock off of FXM on April 3rd.)

Welcome to the McKinley Hotel in New York City!  The McKinley is a nice place, though it’s no Grand Budapest Hotel.  Presumably, the McKinley was named after the late President William McKinley.  While I’m sure that McKinley would have appreciated the gesture, I don’t know how he would feel about all the melodrama that’s occurring behind closed doors.

For instance, there’s Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, making her screen debut).  Lyn sings in the hotel bar and, though she might seem to be cynical and tough, she actually has a big heart.  In fact, she cares so much about humanity that she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), because he doesn’t seem to have a heart at all.  Of course, she broke up with Jed by sending him a letter.  When Jed checks into the hotel and tracks her down in the bar, he has questions about their breakup and he wants answers that won’t require any reading.  She tells him that he’s not capable of caring about anyone so why should she waste her time on him?  Then she sings a love song because that’s her job.

As for Jed, he’s kind of a jerk in the way that most men tend to be in movies from the 1950s.  He’s an airline pilot who served overseas during World War II and spent a year living in England.  He’s tough and he’s cynical and now, he’s single.  He’s also got a room in a hotel for the night.

And then there’s Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle), who have a function to attend in the hotel ballroom but who don’t have anyone to look after their ten year-old daughter, Bunny (Donna Corcoran).  Fortunately, the hotel’s elevator operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has a niece named Nell (Marilyn Monroe).  Nell is quiet and shy and needs the money.  She’ll be more than willing to babysit!

Of course, the only problem with Nell is that she’s a little unstable.  This becomes obvious when she’s left alone with Bunny and promptly says that, if Bunny isn’t careful, something bad might happen to one of her toys.  Inside the apartment, Nell is impressed by all the pretty things owned by Ruth.  She tries on her jewelry.  She sprays her perfume in the air.  She puts on Nell’s negligee and looks at herself in the mirror.  Eddie is not amused when he discovers what Nell’s been doing.  If she wants all of this stuff, he tells her, she needs to marry someone rich.  That’s not bad advice but the only problem is that Nell is currently single.  She’s been single ever since her boyfriend died in a plane crash.  In fact, Nell was so upset by his death that she even tried to commit suicide afterward.

From his room, Jed has a direct view of Nell trying on Ruth’s clothes.  When he and Nell spot each other, Nell invites him over.  She tells Jed that she’s a guest at the hotel and that Bunny is her daughter.  Jed can immediately tell that there’s something strange about Nell.  Nell, meanwhile, thinks that Jed is her dead boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Bunny is helpless in her room…

Clocking in at a brisk 72 minutes, Don’t Bother To Knock feels less like a movie and more like a one-act play or maybe even an adaptation of an old television production.  (After watching the movie, I was shocked to discover that it was based on neither.)  Seen today, it’s mostly memorable for featuring Marilyn Monroe’s first true starring role.  After appearing in small roles in several films (including All About Eve), Don’t Bother To Knock was not only Marilyn’s shot at stardom but also her first dramatic performance.  Reportedly basing her performance on her troubled mother, Marilyn is sympathetic and almost painfully vulnerable.  Her scenes with Elisha Cook, Jr. are especially charged, full of a subtext that will probably be easier for modern audiences to spot than it was for audiences in 1952.  Marilyn gave an incredibly poignant performance and she is the main reason to watch Don’t Bother To Knock.

Embracing the Melodrama #39: True Colors (dir by Herbert Ross)


True Colors

For the past 9 days, I’ve been posting chronological reviews of 54 of the most (and least) memorable melodramas ever filmed.  I started with a film from 1916 and yesterday, I completed the 80s.  Today, we start in on the 90s with the 1991 political drama True Colors.

True Colors tells the story of two ambitious law students.  Tim Gerritty (James Spader) is a wealthy idealist who wants to work at the Justice Department so he can uncover and prosecute political corruption.  His roommate and eventual best friend is Peter Burton (John Cusack).  Although Peter initially lies about his background, it’s eventually revealed that he comes from a poor family and the result of growing up in poverty has left Peter with an obsessive desire for revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on him.  And how is Peter planning on getting that revenge?  By marrying the daughter of Sen. James Stiles (Richard Widmark) and eventually running for a seat in the U.S. House.  Despite the fact that Tim happens to be in love with Sen. Stiles’s daughter as well, he still supports his friend Peter and even agrees to be his best man.  However, as Peter gets closer and closer to achieving his goals, Tim starts to reconsider their friendship….

There’s a scene about halfway through True Colors, in which Peter Burton attempts to blackmail Sen. Stiles into supporting his political career.  Stiles agrees but then angrily adds, “God help you when the people find out.  They always do, you know.”  I was naturally waiting for Peter to come up with a properly sarcastic response but instead, Peter simply looks down at the ground, properly chastened.  It’s a jarringly false note and, unfortunately, everything that comes after this scene feels equally false.  The film, which starts out as such a strong portrait of what happens with friendship comes into conflict with ambition, ends up turning into a painfully predictable political diatribe, the type of thing that makes the portrait of politics in The Adjustment Bureau seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.  When Tim decided to betray Peter, it should be a moment full of moral ambiguity.  Instead, we’re expected to ignore their long friendship and just be happy that Tim is willing to do the right thing and protect the integrity of the American political process.

And, who knows?  Maybe that’s the way people viewed politics back in the early 90s.  But for audiences today, it all feels really naive and simplistic.

But, if you can manage to look past the film’s weak’s script, you can enjoy the acting.  John Cusack is wonderfully intense as Peter, making the character compelling even when the screenplay lets him down.  Watching him in True Colors is like watching the performance that he should have given in The Butler.  James Spader is sympathetic as Tim and, like Cusack, his performance almost allows him to overcome a script that doesn’t seem to realize that Tim is essentially a self-righteous jerk.  And finally, there’s Mandy Patikin who has a lot of fun playing the local crime boss who sponsors Peter’s career and who, in one memorable (if out-of-place ) scene beats up a shark that’s jumped up on the desk of his yacht.

Much like High Stakes, True Colors is one of those obscure films that occasionally pops up on cable, usually late at night and usually serving as filler between showings of better-known films.  Keep an eye out for it, if just for the chance to enjoy the performances.