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!

Playing Catch Up: First Daughter, Ice Girls, Raising The Bar, Walk Like A Man


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.  Unfortunately, over the past two weeks, real life has interfered with my movie reviewing, if not my move watching.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past two weeks!

  • First Daughter
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Forest Whitaker
  • Starring Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, Amerie, Michael Keaton, Margaret Colin, Lela Rochon

Michael Keaton as the President of the United States!?  Now, that’s a great idea.  Michael Keaton plays President Mackenzie.  First Daughter was made long before Birdman so Michael Keaton doesn’t really have a huge part but, whenever he does appear, he is totally believable as a world leader.  You buy the idea that this guy could win an election and that he’d probably be a good (if not necessarily a great) President.  Someone really needs to make another movie where Michael Keaton plays the President.  Maybe President Birdman.  Just don’t give it to Inarritu to direct because he’ll make it too political…

Anyway, the majority of the film is about Katie Holmes as the President’s daughter, Samantha.  Samantha has been accepted to a college in California.  She’s excited because it means that she’ll finally be able to have a life outside of the White House.  The President is concerned because he loves his daughter and he knows that, if she makes any mistakes in California, his political opponents will try to use her against him.  Samantha goes off to college and tries to have a good (but rather chaste) time.  Making that somewhat difficult is her secret service entourage.  Fortunately, Samantha meets a guy (Marc Blucas) who loves her for who she is and not because her father is the President.

It’s all pretty silly and shallow but I have to admit that I get nostalgic whenever I see this movie.  Much like From Justin To Kelly, it’s definitely a film from a more innocent and less angry time.  To date, it’s also the last film to be directed by actor Forest Whitaker.

  • Ice Girls
  • Released in 2016
  • Directed by Damian Lee
  • Starring Michaela du Toit, Lara Daans, Arcadia Kendal, Sheila McCarthy, Taylor Hunsley, Shane Harte, Elvis Stojko

Struggling financially, Kelly (Lara Daans) is forced to move back to her hometown and move in with her sister (Sheila McCarthy).  Until she got married and gave up that part of her life, Kelly was once an up-and-coming figure skater.  Fortunately, her daughter, Mattie (Michaela du Toit), has inherited her mother’s talent.  However, a serious injury shook Mattie’s confidence.  Now, she says she doesn’t want to skate anymore.  Still, she’s willing to accept a job from Mercury (Elvis Stojko) at the local rink and it’s not too long before, under Mercury’s guidance, Mattie is skating once again.  Mattie also befriends another skater, Heather (Taylor Hunsley).  Heather happens to be the daughter of Rose (Natasha Henstridge), who was once in love with Kelly’s father…

It sounds like the set-up of a melodramatic Lifetime movie but actually, Ice Girls is a sweet-natured film about two ice skaters, one who has a mother who is too protective and the other who has a mother who is too driven.  In the end, both of them end up skating for themselves and not their mothers and that’s a good message for the film’s target audience of young skate fans.  The majority of the cast is made up of actual ice skaters, so the skating footage is pretty impressive.  It’s a predictable movie but I enjoyed it when I watched it on Netflix.

  • Raising the Bar
  • Released in 2016
  • Directed by Clay Glen
  • Starring Kelli Berglund, Lili Karamalikis, Tess Fowler, Emily Morris, Peta Shannon

I also watched this one on Netflix, a day after I watched Ice Girls.  (I was in an Olympics sort of mood, even though neither film took place at the Olympics.)  Raising the Bar feels a lot like Ice Girls, except that the ice skaters were now gymnasts and instead of relocating to Toronto, the family in Raising the Bar relocates all the way to Australia.  Once in Australia, Kelly (Kelly Johnson) finds the courage to re-enter gymnastics and ends up competing against her former teammates.

Kelly Johnson gives a good performance in the lead role.  Though it may be predictable, Raising the Bar is an effective and sweet-natured family film.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about watching the film was that I quickly found myself rooting against the American team.  Australia all the way!

  • Walk Like A Man
  • Released 1987
  • Directed by Melvin Frank
  • Starring Howie Mandel, Amy Steel, Cloris Leachman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Stephen Elliott, George DiCenzo, John McLiam, Earl Boen

Oh, what sweet Hell is this?

Okay, I’m going to try to explain what happens in this movie.  You’re not going to believe me.  You’re going to think that I’m just making all of this up.  But I swear to a God … this is an actual movie.

When he was a baby, Boba Shand (Howie Mandel) got separated from his family.  His mother and his father assumed that he was gone forever but what they didn’t know was that Bobo was found and raised by a pack of wild dogs.  For twenty years, Bobo lives as a dog.  Then he’s discovered by Penny (Amy Steel), an animal researcher who tries to teach Bobo how to be a human.  However, as time passes, Penny comes to realize that maybe she’s making a mistake trying to change Bobo.  Bobo is innocent and child-like and obsessed with chasing fire engines.  When he has too much to drink, he runs around on all fours.  And … PENNY’S IN LOVE WITH HIM!

Seriously, she’s in love with a man who thinks he’s a dog.

However, Bobo stands to inherit a fortune and his evil brother (Christopher Lloyd) is planning on having him committed.  Penny has to prove that Bobo is human enough to manage his own affairs while also respecting his desire to continue living like a dog.

I’m serious.  This is a real movie.

Anyway, making things even worse is the performance as Howie Mandel.  Mandel has always been a rather needy performer and the role of a man who thinks he’s a dog only serves to bring out his worst instincts.  Remember when Ben Stiller played Simple Jack in Tropical Thunder?  Well, Mandel’s performance is kinda like that only worse.  At one point, Bobo walks up to a mannequin in a mall and says, “I have to go pee pee.  Come with me,” and I nearly threw a shoe at the TV.  Oh my God, it was so bad.

The main problem with Walk Like A Man is that it wants to have it both ways.  It wants to be a wild comedy about Howie Mandel chasing fire engines but it also makes us want to tear up when Penny explains why Bobo should be allowed to live as a dog.

All in all, it’s a really bad movie.  And yes, it does actually exist.

A Movie A Day #250: Taking Care of Business (1990, directed by Arthur Hiller)


Jimmy Dworski (Jim Belushi) is a convicted car thief who only has a few days left in his criminal sentence but still decides to break out of prison so he can go see the Cubs play in the World Series.  Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin) is an uptight ad executive who needs to learn how to relax and have a good time.  When Spencer loses his organizer, Jimmy finds it.  Before you can say “The prince and the pauper,” Jimmy has access to all of Spencer’s money and the mansion that Spencer is supposed to be staying at over the weekend.  While Spencer tries to survive on the streets and track down his organizer, Jimmy is living it up, spending money, impressing a Japanese businessman (Mako), romancing the boss’s daughter, and taking care of business.

Made in the uncertain period between the end of the culture of 80s materialism and the start of the 90s indie boom, Taking Care of Business is a rip-off of Trading Places that came out six years too late to be effective.  Everything that needs to be known about Jimmy and Spencer is apparentl from the minute that Charles Grodin’s and Jim Belushi’s names appear in the credits.  Grodin was usually the best when it came to playing uptight yuppies but he seems bored in Taking Care of Business.  Belushi mugs through his role, overplaying his character’s blue collar roots.  The movie builds up to a huge confrontation between Belushi and Grodin but it never really delivers, instead devolving into a predictable buddy comedy, complete with a trip to Wrigley Field and an elaborate plan to sneak Belushi back into prison before the warden (Hector Elizondo) discovers that he’s been gone for the weekend.  Taking Care of Business has a few laughs but it’s never as good as the BTO song.

A Movie A Day #209: Assassination (1987, directed by Peter R. Hunt)


Charles Bronson, man.

Long before Clint Eastwood starred in In The Line of Fire, Charles Bronson played an over the hill secret service agent in Assassination.  Having just returned to active service after a six month leave of absence, Jay Killian (Charles Bronson), thinks that he is going to be assigned back to the presidential detail.  Instead, he is given the job that no one wants.  Jay is assigned to protect the first lady, Lara Craig (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife).

Lara is a handful.  Every one tells Killian that she is “even worse than Nancy.”  (This running joke probably played better in 1987.  If Assassination had been released ten years later, Lara would have been described as being “even worse than Hillary.”)  Lara does not like being told what she can and cannot do. When she refuses to follow Killian’s orders not to ride in a convertible, she ends up getting a black eye when a motorcycle crashes and Killian instinctively throws her to the floor.  Lara may not like Killian but when, she is targeted by a notorious terrorist (Erik Stern), she will have to learn to trust him.  Her life depends on it, especially when it becomes clear that the order to have her killed is coming from inside the White House.  It turns out that the President has been impotent for years.  That may not have troubled Lara before but now Killian is showing her that a real man looks like Charles Bronson.  A divorced president will never be reelected.  A widowed president, on the other hand…

Assassination was one of the last films that Bronson made for Cannon.  It’s never as wild as Murphy’s Law, Kinjite, or many of Bronson’s other Cannon films but it is always interesting to watch Bronson acting opposite of Ireland.  Bronson famously did not get along with many people but he loved Ireland and that was something that always came through in the 15 movies that they made together.  Whenever Bronson and Ireland acted opposite each other, Bronson actually seemed to be enjoying himself.  And while it may be subdued when compared to his other Cannon films, Assassination provides just enough scenes of Bronson being Bronson.

Who other than Bronson could tell his much younger girlfriend that, because of her, he might “die of terminal orgasm?”

Who other than Bronson could drive around a motorcycle with machine gun turrets and execute a jump that would put his old co-star Steve McQueen to shame?

Who other than Bronson could use a bazooka to kill one man and then smile about it?

Charles Bronson, man.  No offense to Bruce Willis, who will be trying to step into Bronson’s gigantic shoes with the upcoming Death Wish remake, but nobody did it better than Bronson.

 

Film Review: Cutter’s Way (dir by Ivan Passer)


Yesterday, after it was announced that actor John Heard had been found dead in a Palo Alto hotel room, I lost track of how many people declared that Cutter’s Way, a 1981 film in which Heard co-starred with Jeff Bridges, was one of their favorite movies of all time.  (That includes quite a few people who write for this very site.)  In fact, people were so enthusiastic about Cutter’s Way that I quickly decided that this was a film that I needed to watch for myself.  So, last night, after watching All About Eve on TCM and My Science Project with the Late Night Movie Gang, I curled up on the couch and I watched Cutter’s Way.

Technically, Cutter’s Way is a murder mystery but it’s actually a lot more.  In the grand noir tradition, the mystery is less important than the milieu in which it occurs.  Cutter’s Way takes place in Santa Barbara, California, which the film presents as being a microcosm of America.  It’s place where the rich are extremely rich and the poor are pushed to the side and expected not to complain.  The Santa Barbara of Cutter’s Way is controlled by new money and haunted by old sins.  It’s a world that is perfectly captured, by director Ivan Passer and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, in the film’s haunting opening scene:

John Heard plays Alex Cutter.  Years ago, Cutter served in Vietnam and returned with one less eye, one less arm, and one less leg.  An angry alcoholic, the type who always looks like he’s in desperate need of a shower and a shave, Cutter exists on the fringes of society.  Like many alcoholics, Cutter is a master manipulator.  When he has to, he can turn on the charm.  When the police are called after a drunken Cutter purposefully destroys his neighbor’s car, we suddenly see a totally different Alex Cutter.  He’s polite and apologetic, explaining that he was merely swerving to avoid something in the road and, by the way, he served his country in Vietnam.  As soon as the police leave, the real Cutter comes out.  He gets his bottle and starts to rant about how much the world owes him.  Watching the film, you find yourself understanding why some people might want to push this one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed veteran down a flight of stairs, that’s how obnoxious Alex Cutter can be.

And yet, there are people who love Alex Cutter.  There’s his long-suffering wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn).  Mo lives in squalor with Cutter, taking care of him and putting up with his bitterness.  There’s the local bar owner, who could probably put his kids through college on Cutter’s bar tab.  (He even drives Cutter home in the morning, after everyone else has deserted him.)  And finally, there’s Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges).

Bone is Cutter’s best friend.  Whereas Cutter is perpetually pissed off, Bone is almost always laid back.  Whereas Cutter feels that everything is his business, Bone prefers to remain detached from the world.  Mention is made of Bone being a graduate of the Ivy League but he spends most of his time giving tennis lessons and sleeping with wealthy women.  Bone takes care of Cutter, though their friendship is occasionally hard to figure out.  Why does Bone stick with Cutter despite all of Cutter’s abuse?  Perhaps Bone feels guilty because he avoided being drafted while Cutter lost half of his limbs in Vietnam.  Or maybe it’s because Bone is in love with Mo.

One night, when Bone is leaving a hotel, he sees a man in an alley.  The man appears to be hiding something in a dumpster.  Later, when the body of a woman is found in that same dumpster, Bone realizes that he probably saw the murderer.  Even more so, Bone thinks that the man resembled J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), one of the richest men in Santa Barbara.

Bone, however, isn’t sure that Cord’s the murderer.  Even more so, even if Cord was the murderer, Bone prefers to not get involved.  However, Cutter is sure that Cord’s the killer.  To Cutter, it makes perfect sense.  If men like Cord were willing to send boys to Vietnam and then refuse to take care of them when they returned both physically and mentally maimed by the experience, then why wouldn’t they also think that they could get away with murdering some hitchhiker?

Soon, Cutter has met the dead girl’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry).  Cutter says that his plan is to blackmail Cord.  He badgers the reluctant Bone into working with him.  It quickly becomes obvious, however, that Cutter is after more than money.  He is obsessed with proving that this rich and powerful man is a murderer.  And he’s not going to let anyone stand in his way.  Not even a stuffed animal:

As I said, Cutter’s Way is about much more than just a murder.  It’s a film about class differences, with even the otherwise slick Bone discovering how difficult it is to infiltrate Cord’s wealthy world.  It’s a film about disillusionment, cynicism, and the fleeting promise of happiness.  As angry as Cutter is, he still ultimately possesses the idealism that both Bone and Mo have lost.  He still believes in right and wrong.  While that angry idealism may make Cutter a pain in the ass, it’s also his redeeming feature.  As the youngest of them, Valerie is still an optimist but she is also the least prepared to deal with the sordid reality of the world around her.  Bone and Mo, meanwhile, both appear to have surrendered their belief that the world can be and should be a better place.  Ultimately, Cutter’s Way is a film that forces you to consider what you would do if you were in the same situation.  Cutter’s Way is not a great title, largely because it makes the film sound like a CW western, but it’s an appropriate one.  The entire film is about Cutter’s way of viewing the world and whether or not Bone will follow Cutter or if he’ll continue to refuse to get involved.

(The novel that the film’s based on was called Cutter and Bone.  According to Wikipedia, the title was changed because audiences thought the movie was a comedy about surgeons.)

I have to agree with those who have called Cutter’s Way a great film.  Not only is it gorgeous to look at but it’s one of the best acted films that I’ve ever seen, from the stars all the way down to the most minor of roles.  John Heard dominates the film, giving a performance of almost demonic energy but he’s perfectly matched by Jeff Bridges.  Bridges, back in his incredibly handsome younger days, gives a subtle and powerful performance as a man struggling with his conscience.  In the role of J.J. Cord, Stephen Elliott doesn’t get much screen time but he makes the most of it.  When he first see him, he’s riding a white horse and rather haughtily looking down on the world around him.  When he last see him, he delivers a line of such incredible arrogance that it literally left me stunned.  Though, when compared to Bridges and Heard, their roles are underwritten, both Lisa Eichhorn and Ann Dusenberry more than hold their own, providing able and poignant support.

Cutter’s Way is a great film and one that everyone should watch if they haven’t.

 

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!