The Offence (1972, directed by Sidney Lumet)


After a suspected child molester named Baxter (Ian Bannen) dies while being interrogated in police custody, Detective Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard) head up the internal affairs investigation.  Baxter was beaten to death by Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery), a 20-year veteran of the force who has seen the worst that humanity has to offer.  Did Johnson allow his anger over Baxter’s crimes to get to him or did something else happen during the interrogation?

When Sean Connery agreed to play James Bond for a final time in Diamonds are Forever, he did it under the condition that United Artists agree to back two of Connery’s non-Bond film projects.  UA agreed, though they did insist that neither film cost more than $2,000,000.  One of those projects was an adaptation of Macbeth, which was canceled in the wake of Roman Polansi’s version of the Scottish play.  The other project was The Offense.

Based on a play by John Hopkins, The Offence is the type of movie that probably would have never been made if not for the interest of a big star, like Connery.  The story is downbeat and grim and audiences are essentially asked to spend nearly two hours in the presence of two very unlikable men.  Baxter is an accused child molester while Johnson is a bully who has been driven so mad by the things that he’s seen that he’s not only violent on the job but also on at home.  Director Sidney Lumet directs with a cold and detached style, refusing to provide any sort of relief from the intensity of the film’s interrogations.  The film is set up as an acting showcase for Connery and Bannen, giving both of them a chance to show what they could do with two unpredictable characters.

Unfortunately, not many people got a chance to see their performances.  Even though Connery kept the budget under a million dollars and despite both the film and his performance being critically acclaimed, United Artists barely released The Offence and it took 9 years for the film to make back it’s meager budget.  It didn’t even get released in France until 2007.  Connery, however, often cited The Offence as being one of his best films and said that his performance in the film was his personal favorite.

The movies is too stagey and talky to be entirely successful but Connery was right about his performance.  It’s one of his best and it retains its power to disturb to this day.  Connery often chafed at being typecast as James Bond.  With The Offence, Connery plays a character who is nothing like Bond.  Everything about Johnson is brutal and seedy.  While it’s impossible not to initially sympathize with his anger towards the state of the world, Connery reveals that Johnson’s self-righteous anger is actually a shield for his own dark thoughts and desires.  He’s a bully, an angry man who grows more and more insecure as the film progresses and Baxter continues to see through him.  Connery makes Johnson sympathetic, frightening, pathetic, and dangerous all at the same time.  The Offence is a film that proves that Sean Connery was not only a good Bond but also a great actor.

 

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.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Katharine Hepburn Edition


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

Yesterday was the birthday of one of the most iconic screen legends of all time, the one and only Katharine Hepburn!  In honor of her life, career, and legacy, here are….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Bringing Up Baby (1938, dir by Howard Hawks)

State of the Union (1948, dir by Frank Capra)

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962, dir by Sidney Lumet)

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Lance Henriksen Edition


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

Today, Lance Henriksen is 80 years old!  In honor of this day, here are….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Dog Day Afternoon (1975, dir by Sidney Lumet)

Near Dark (1987, dir by Kathryn Bigelow)

Dead Man (1995, dir by Jim Jarmusch)

Mom and Dad (2017, dir by Brian Taylor)

4 Shots From 4 Paul Newman Films: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, The Verdict, The Hudsucker Proxy


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

95 years ago today, Paul Newman was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  He would go on, of course, to become one of America’s greatest film stars, an acclaimed actor who was active from the mid-part of the 20th century to the beginning of our current century.  He made his film debut in 1954 with The Silver Chalice (and subsequently paid for an ad in which he apologized for his performance in the film, which I think was a bit unnecessary as he wasn’t really that bad in the film) and he made his final onscreen appearance in 2005 in Empire Falls.  (He did, however, subsequently provide the voice of Doc Hudson in Cars, along with narrating a few documentaries.)  Time and again, he proved himself to be one of the best actors around.  According to most report, he was also one of the nicest.  When he died in 2008, the world mourned.

In honor of his cinematic legacy, here are….

4 Shots From 4 Paul Newman Films

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958, dir by Richard Brooks)

Cool Hand Luke (1967, dir by Stuart Rosenberg)

The Verdict (1981, dir by Sidney Lumet)

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, dir by the Coen Brothers)

4 Shots From 4 Films: In Memory of Martin Bregman


Long-time producer Martin Bregman died yesterday at the age of 92.  Bregman, who started out as a talent agent, was well-known for producing several of Al Pacino’s best films.  This edition of 4 Shots From 4 Films is dedicated to his memory.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Serpico (1973, directed by Sideny Lumet)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975, directed by Sidney Lumet)

Scarface (1983, directed by Brian De Palma)

Carlito’s Way (1993, directed by Brian De Palma)

 

 

Bronson’s Revenge: Death Wish (1974, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote “Dirty” Harry Callahan, “I’m all broken up about his rights.”

In 1972, a novel by Brian Garfield was published.  The novel was about a meek New York City accountant named Paul Benjamin.  After Paul’s wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, Paul suffers a nervous breakdown.  A self-described bleeding heart liberal, Paul starts to stalk the streets at night while carrying a gun.  He is hunting muggers.  At first, he just kills the muggers who approach him but soon, he starts to deliberately set traps.  Sinking into insanity, Paul becomes just as dangerous as the men he is hunting.  Garfield later said that the book was inspired by two real-life incidents, one in which his wife’s purse was stolen and another in which his car was vandalized.  Garfield said that his initial response was one of primitive anger.  He wondered what would happen if a man had these rageful thoughts and could not escape them.

The title of that novel was Death Wish.  Though it was never a best seller, it received respectful reviews and Garfield subsequently sold the film rights.  At first, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct and, keeping with Garfield’s portrayal of Paul Benjamin, Jack Lemmon was cast as the unlikely vigilante.

Lumet, ultimately, left the project so that he could concentrate on another film about crime in New York City, Serpico.  When Lumet left, Jack Lemmon also dropped out of the film.  Lumet was replaced by Michael Winner, a director who may not have been as thoughtful as Lumet but who had a solid box office record and a reputation for making tough and gritty action films.

Winner immediately realized that audiences would not be interested in seeing an anti-vigilante film.  Instead of casting an actor with an intellectual image, like Jack Lemmon, Winner instead offered the lead role (now named Paul Kersey and no longer an accountant but an architect) to Charles Bronson.  When Winner told Bronson that the script was about a man who shot muggers, Bronson replied, “I’d like to do that.”

“The script?” Winner asked.

“No, shoot muggers.”

At the time that he was cast, Charles Bronson was 52 years old.  He was the biggest star in the world, except for in America where he was still viewed as being a B-talent at best.  Bronson was known for playing tough, violent men who were not afraid to use violence to accomplish their goals.  (Ironically, in real life, Bronson was as much of an ardent liberal as Paul Kersey was meant to be at the beginning of the movie.)  Among those complaining that Charles Bronson was all wrong for Paul Kersey was Brian Garfield.  However, Bronson accepted the role and the huge box office success of Death Wish finally made him a star in America.

To an extent, Brian Garfield was right.  Charles Bronson was a better actor than he is often given credit for but, in the early scenes of Death Wish, he does seem miscast.  When Paul is first seen frolicking with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii, Bronson seems stiff and awkward.  In New York City, when Paul tells his right-wing colleague (William Redfield) that “my heart does bleed for the less fortunate,” it doesn’t sound natural.  But once Paul finds out that his wife has been murdered and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), has been raped, Paul gets mad and Bronson finally seems comfortable in the role.

In both the book and the original screenplay, both the murder and the rape happened off-screen.  Never a subtle director, Winner instead opted to show them in a brutal and ugly scene designed to get the audience as eager to shoot muggers as Bronson was.  Today, the power of the scene is diluted by the presence of Jeff Goldblum, making his screen debut as a very unlikely street thug.  Everyone has to start somewhere and Goldblum got his start kicking Hope Lange while wearing a hat that made him look like he belonged in an Archie comic.

With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul discovers that no one can help him get justice.  The police have no leads.  His son-in-law (Steven Keats) is a weak and emotional mess.  (As an actor, some of Bronson’s best moments are when Paul makes no effort to hide how much he loathes his son-in-law.)  When a mugger approaches Paul shortly after his wife’s funeral, Paul shocks himself by punching the mugger in the face.

When Paul is sent down to Arizona on business, he meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a land developer who calls New York a “toilet” and who takes Paul to see a wild west show.  Later at a gun club, Paul explains that he was a conscientious objects during the Korean War but he knows how to shoot.  His father was a hunter and Paul grew up around guns.  When Paul returns to New York, Ames gives him a present, a revolver.  Paul is soon using that revolver to bring old west justice to the streets of New York City.

As muggers start to show up dead, the NYPD is outraged that a vigilante is stalking the street.  Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to bring the vigilante in.  But the citizens of New York love the vigilante.  Witnesses refuse to give an accurate description of Paul.  When Paul is wounded, a young patrolman (Christopher Guest, making almost as unlikely a film debut as Jeff Goldblum) conspires to keep Paul’s revolver from being turned over as evidence.

The critics hated Death Wish, with many of them calling it an “immoral” film.  Brian Garfield was so disgusted by how Winner changed his story that he wrote a follow-up novel in which Paul is confronted by an even more dangerous vigilante who claims to have been inspired by him.  Audiences, however, loved it.  Death Wish was one of the top films at the box office and it spawned a whole host of other vigilante films.

Death Wish is a crude movie, without any hint of subtlety and nuance.  It is also brutally effective, as anyone who has ever felt as if they were the victim of a crime can attest.  In a complicated and often unfair world, Kersey’s approach may not be realistic or ideal but it is emotionally cathartic.  Watching Death Wish, it is easy to see why critics hated it and why audiences loved it.

It is also to see why the movie made Bronson a star.  Miscast in the role or not, Bronson exudes a quiet authority and determination that suggests that if anyone could single-handedly clean-up New York City, it’s him.  An underrated actor, Bronson’s best moment comes after he punches his first mugger and he triumphantly reenters his apartment.  After he commits his first killing, Bronson gets another good scene where he is so keyed up that he collapses to the floor and then staggers into the bathroom and throws up.  Garfield may have complained that the Death Wish made his madman into a hero but Bronson’s best moments are the ones the suggest Paul has gone mad.  The real difference between the book and the movie is that the movie portrays madness as a necessary survival skill.

This Friday, a new version of Death Wish will be playing in theaters.  Directed by Eli Roth, this version starts Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Will the new Death Wish be as effective as the original?  Judging from the trailer, I doubt it.  Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson?  I’ll pick Bronson every time.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns in Death Wish II!

A Movie A Day #181: Guilty As Sin (1993, directed by Sidney Lumet)


When wealthy playboy David Greenhill (Don Johnson, doing a one-note Michael Douglas impersonation) is accused of throwing his wife out of a window, there’s only one lawyer who he wants to defend him.  Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) may have just won a huge case but it is obvious that the only reason that David wants her on his team is because she’s sexy as Hell and David has an obsessive streak.  Still, despite the misgivings of her boyfriend (Stephen Lang) and her mentor (Jack Warden), she takes the case, convinced that she is the only attorney smart enough to be able to get David acquitted.

It becomes very obvious that David is not only probably guilty but that he might be a serial killer as well.  Not only does he start to turn up everywhere that Jennifer goes but, protected by attorney/client privilege, he starts to tell her all of his dark secrets.  Jennifer finds herself trapped into defending an obviously guilty client, one who appears to be setting her up to be his next victim.  Even when he fails to pay her for her services, the trial judge refuses to allow Jennifer to quit the case.

Back in the 90s, Guilty As Sin used to frequently show up on late night HBO and Cinemax.  I always watched because I had a crush on Rebecca De Mornay and I bet I was not alone as far as that’s concerned.  Late night cable is where Guilty As Sin belongs, which makes it strange that this weak and implausible movie was directed by Sidney Lumet.  One of the legitimately great American directors, Lumet directed several classic courtroom thrillers over the course of his career.  Guilty As Sin is not one of them.  This is probably the most impersonal film that Lumet ever made.  Other than the presence of Lumet favorite Jack Warden, there is nothing about Guilty As Sin that would lead anyone to think that it had been directed by the same man responsible for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, or Prince of the City.

Fortunately, though Guilty As Sin was one of his Lumet’s last films as a director, it was not his final film.  Released in 2007, Lumet’s final film was a crafty thriller called Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, which showed that, at the age of 83, Lumet was still one of the greats and that Guilty As Sin was just a minor bump in an otherwise brilliant career.

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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