An Offer You Can’t Refuse #17: Murder, Inc. (dir by Stuart Rosenberg and Burt Balaban)


We all know the famous line from The Godfather.  “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Of course, everyone also knows that “It’s not personal.  It’s strictly business.”  There’s another line that’s almost as famous: “One lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”  That line comes from Mario Puzo’s novel.  It’s never actually used in the film though it’s certainly present as a theme.

The idea of organized crime essentially being a huge corporation is hardly a new one.  In fact, it’s become a bit of a cliche.  Nearly every gangster film ever made has featured at least one scene where someone specifically compares their illegal activities to the day-to-day business of politicians and CEOs.  However, just because it’s a familiar analogy, that doesn’t make it any less important.  It’s hard not to think of organized crime as being big business when you consider that, in the 30s and the 40s, the mafia’s assassination squad was actually known as Murder, Inc.

Murder, Inc. was formed in Brooklyn, in the 30s.  It was founded and initially led by a man named Lepke Buchalter.  Lepke was a gangster but, because he was Jewish, he couldn’t actually become a made man.  However, he used that to his advantage when he created Murder, Inc.  The organization was largely made up of non-Italians who couldn’t actually become official members of the Mob.  The major mafia families would hire Murder, Inc. to carry out hits because they knew that, since none of the members were made men, they wouldn’t be able to implicate any of the families if they were caught by the police.

It was a good idea and Lepke and his band of killers made a lot of money.  Of course, eventually, the police did catch on.  A member of the organization by the name Abe Reles was eventually arrested and agreed to be a rat.  Lepke went to the electric chair.  Reles ended up falling out of a window.  Did he jump or was he thrown?  It depends on who you ask.

19 years after Reles plunged from that window and 16 years after Lepke was executed, their story was told in the 1960 film, Murder, Inc.  Lepke was played by David J. Stewart while Reles was played by Peter Falk.  The film is told in a documentary style, complete with a narrator who delivers his lines in a rat-a-tat-tat style.  We follow Reles as he goes to work with Lepke and as he harasses a singer (Stuart Whitman) and his wife (May Britt), forcing them help him carry out a murder and then allowing them to live in a luxury apartment on the condition that they also let Lepke hide out there.  (It’s probably not a surprise that a professional killer wouldn’t turn out to be the best houseguest.)  Eventually, a crusading DA (Henry Morgan) and an honest cop (Simon Oakland) take it upon themselves to take down Murder, Inc.

To be honest, there’s not a whole lot that’s surprising about this film but it’s still an entertaining B-movie.  The black-and-white cinematography and the on-location filming give the film an authentically gritty feel.  The action moves quickly and there’s enough tough talk and violent deaths to keep most gangster aficionados happy.  The best thing about the film is, without a doubt, Peter Falk’s portrayal of Abe Reles.  Falk is magnetically evil in the role, playing Reles as a man without a soul.  Even when Reles finally cooperates with the police, the film leaves no doubt that he’s only doing it to try to save himself.  Falk plays Reles like a tough guy who secretly knows that his days are numbered but who has convinced himself that, as long as he keeps sneering and threatening people, the rest of the world will never figure out that he’s been doomed all the time.  The more people he kills, the higher Reles moves up in the corporation and the more he tries to take on the look of a respectable member of society.  But, no mater how hard he tries, Reles always remains just another violent thug.  Falk was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his performance in this film, though he ultimately lost the award to Spartacus‘s Peter Ustinov.

Murder, Inc. may be a low-budget, B-movie but it’s also a classic of gangster cinema.  It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me

 

Film Review: Cold Turkey (dir by Norman Lear)


The 1971 satire, Cold Turkey, is the film that boldly explores just how much into the ground one joke can driven.

It’s a film that imagines what would happen if a big tobacco company decided to try to improve its image by giving people an incentive to quit smoking.  In the real world, of course, they ended up funding Truth.org and coming up with anti-smoking commercials that were so lame that they would make viewers want to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes just to spite the self-righteous people lecturing them during the commercial breaks.  In the film, however, Marwen Wren (Bob Newhart) comes up with the idea of offering to pay 25 million dollars to any community that can completely stop smoking for 30 days.

Wren figures that no large group of people will be able to just give up smoking for a month.  Not in 1971!  However, Wren didn’t count on the single-minded determination of the Rev. Clayton Hughes (Dick Van Dyke).  Hughes is the stern and self-righteous minister of Eagle Rock Community Church in Eagle Rock, Iowa.  He knows that Eagle Rock could really use that money so he sets off on a crusade to convince all 4,006 of the citizens of Eagle Rock to take the pledge to quit smoking.

As I said at the start of this review, Cold Turkey is pretty much a one-joke film.  The joke is that everyone in the movie — from the tobacco company execs to the citizens of Eagle Rock to Rev. Hughes — is an asshole.  They start the film as a bunch of assholes and, once they try to quit smoking, they become even bigger assholes.  Soon, everyone in town is irritable and angry.  The only people happy are the people who never smoked in the first place, largely because they’ve been set up as a sort of paramilitary border patrol.  Even though his anti-smoking crusade lands him on the cover of Time, Rev. Hughes is also upset because he started smoking right before it was time to quit smoking.  He deals with his withdraw pains through sex and frequent glowering.

Wren is concerned that the town of Eagle Rock might actually go for a full 30 days without smoking so he attempts to smuggle a bunch of cigarettes into the town and then runs around with a gigantic lighter that looks like a gun.  It’s a storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere but then again, you could say that about almost all of the subplots in Cold Turkey.  There’s a lot of characters and there’s a lot of frantic overacting but it doesn’t really add up too much.  Storylines begin and are then quickly abandoned.  Characters are introduced but then never do anything.  For a while, It seems like the film is at least going to examine the Rev. Hughes’s totalitarian impulses but no.  Those impulses are clearly there but they’re not really explored.

If I seem somewhat annoyed by this film, it’s because it really did have a lot of potential.  This could have been a very sharp and timeless satire but instead, it gets bogged down in its own frantic storytelling and the film’s comedy becomes progressively more and more cartoonish.  By the end of the movie, the President shows up in town and so does the military and it all tries to achieve some Dr. Strangelove-style lunacy but the film doesn’t seem to know what it really wants to say.  It seems to be setting itself up for some sort of grandly cynical conclusion but instead, it just sort of ends.  One gets the feeling that, at the last minute, the filmmakers decided that they couldn’t risk alienating their audience by taking the story to its natural conclusion.

Admittedly, while watching the film, I did find myself comparing Hughes and his bullying mob to the same people who are currently snapping at anyone who suggests that maybe the Coronavirus lockdowns were a bit excessive.  It’s easy to think of some modern politicians and media figures who probably would have had a great time in Eagle Rock, ordering people around and shaming anyone who wants a cigarette.  But otherwise, Cold Turkey was just too cartoonish and one-note to really work.

Bang The Drum Slowly (1973, dir. by John Hancock)


 

The last time I wrote a film review for this site, it was because I was missing baseball.

Guess what?

I still miss baseball!  Luckily, I’ve still got plenty of baseball films to keep me busy until the MLB gets its act together and starts up again.  I hope we’ll get baseball this year but if we don’t, at least I can watch a movie like Bang The Drum Slowly.

Bang The Drum Slowly is the ultimate baseball movie.  It’s about a pitcher named Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) who plays for the New York Mammoths and who has a side job selling insurance and writing books.  When it’s time to renegotiate his contract, Henry says that he’ll re-sign with the team if the team agrees to not release or trade one of their catchers, Bruce Pearson (a really young Robert de Niro).  Henry says that he and Bruce are a package deal.  No one can understand why Henry cares because Bruce isn’t an outstanding player and everyone thinks that he’s slow but Henry finally gets the team’s general manager, Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), to agree to his terms.  What only Henry knows is that Bruce is terminally ill and that he will be lucky to survive the entire season.

Though the Mammoth eventually make a run for the World Series and there’s a lot of great baseball footage, Bang the Drum Slowly is more about friendship than it is about winning or losing.  Henry is willing to sacrifice everything to make sure that Bruce enjoys his final days and Bruce finally gets to play on a wining team.  Because Bruce is so young and he appears to be so healthy for most of the film, it’s really devastating when he suddenly does get ill and he’s finally has to come to terms with his mortality.  I cried a lot while I was watching Bang The Drum Slowly.  You will too.

The other players eventually rally around Bruce and they become a stronger teams as a result.  That’s one of the things that I love about baseball.  One player, no matter how good, can’t win a game on his own.  Instead, the entire team has to work together.  Not everyone can go out and try to hit a home run.  That’s not the way you win at baseball.  Instead, you win by doing what you have to do to bring your teammates home.  Bang The Drum Slowly celebrates friendship and loyalty and it perfectly captures the spirit of the game.

We may not be able to watch baseball right now.  But at least we can watch movies like Bang The Drum Slowly.

Bang, You’re Dead!: Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (Paramount 1974)


cracked rear viewer

Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.

Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that…

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Film Review: The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark (dir by Charles Jarrott)


I recorded the 1980 film, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, off of TCM because I looked at the title and the fact that it starred Elliott Gould and I figured that it would be a film about an expedition to recover the actual Noah’s Ark.  I figured that it would feature scenes of Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer (who I just assumed would be in the movie) climbing Mount Ararat and having comical disagreements about all of the snow.  I also assumed that the movie would end with the real Noah’s Ark sliding down the mountain while Gould and Plummer tried to steer it.

Seriously, it sounded like fun!

Of course, it turned out that I was wrong.

It turns out that The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark is about an out-of-work pilot named Noah Dugan (Elliott Gould) who has a gambling problem and owes a lot of money to the mob.  Normally, you’d be worried that this means Dungan has a contract out on his life but instead, it just means that a bald guy named Benchley (Dana Elcar) keeps popping up and saying that Dugan’s got a week to come up with the money.

Since this film was made before our current socialist moment, Dugan is forced to get a job.  Unfortunately, the only one that he can get involves flying a missionary (Genevieve Bujold) and a bunch of animals to a South Pacific island.  Dugan agrees but, because the plane is an old World War II bomber, he ends up having to make an emergency landing on a remote and uncharted desert isle.

Of course, it quickly turns out that Dugan, the missionary, and the animals aren’t alone!  First off, it turns out that two orphans (played by Ricky Schroder and Tammy Lauren) stowed away on the airplane.  And then, we discover that there are two Japanese soldiers stranded on the island as well!  They’ve been there since World War II!  Fortunately, one of them is named Cleveland (John Fukioka) and can speak English.

(As for Christopher Plummer, he’s nowhere to be seen because he’s not in the movie.)

Anyway, can you guess what happens?  If you think that Noah and the gang turn the plane into a big boat, you’re on the right track.  If you think that cynical Noah turns out to actually have a soft spot when it comes to children, you’re right.  If you think that Noah and the missionary embark on the most chaste romance in movie history …. oh my God, have you seen this movie before!?

Here’s the thing with The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark — the animals are cute.  I mean, the animals really are adorable.  There’s this one duck who has more screen presence than every human in this movie.  And normally, I’d say that cute animals can save just about any movie but this might be the exception to the rule.

I mean, I get it.  This was a movie for kids and that’s great.  But my God, this is a slow movie.  We start with Dugan getting threatened by the gamblers and then it’s another 25 minutes before Dugan even starts the engine on that plane.  I get that this is a family film but I imagine that even families in 1980 would have been bored to death by it.  Elliott Gould certainly seems to be bored, as he gives a performance that all but screams, “Where’s my paycheck!?”

What would have improved The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark?

Christopher Plummer, dammit.

Bronson’s Back!: Death Wish II (1982, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote John McClane, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

It has been eight years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lost his wife and single-handedly cleaned up New York City.  The first Death Wish ended with Paul in Chicago, preparing to gun down a new group of criminals.  I guess Chicago didn’t take because, at the start of Death Wish II, Paul is in Los Angeles and he’s working as an architect again.  He has a new girlfriend, a bleeding heart liberal reporter named Geri (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) who is against the death penalty and who has no idea that Paul used to be New York’s most notorious vigilante.  Having finally been released from the mental institution, Carol (Robin Sherwood) is living with her father but is now mute.

Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles and why not?  The legal system is more concerned with the rights of the criminals than the victims and Paul has retired from patrolling the streets.  But when a group of cartoonish thugs rape and kill his housekeeper and cause his daughter to fall out of a window while trying to escape them, Paul picks up his gun and sets out for revenge.

Death Wish II was not the first sequel to Death Wish.  Brian Garfield, the author of the novel on which Death Wish was based, never intended for Paul to be seen as a hero and was disgusted by what he saw as being the film’s glorification of violence.  As “penance,” he wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which Paul discovered that he had inspired an even more dangerous vigilante.  When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the rights to produce a second Death Wish film, they decided not to use Garfield’s sequel and instead went with a story that was co-written by Golan.

It’s the same basic story as the first film.  Again, Paul is a mild-mannered architect who is a liberal during the day and a gun-toting reactionary at night.  Again, it’s a home invasion and a death in the family that sets Paul off.  Again, Paul gets help from sympathetic citizens who don’t care that the police commissioner (Anthony Franciosa) wants him off the streets.  Jeff Goldblum played a rapist with a switch blade in the first film.  This time, it’s Laurence Fishburne who fills the role.  (Fishburne also carries a radio, which he eventually learns cannot be used to block bullets.)  Even Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) returns, coming down to Los Angeles to see if Paul has returned to his old ways.

The main difference between the first two Death Wish films is that Death Wish II is a Cannon film, which means that it is even less concerned with reality than the first film.  In Death Wish II, the criminals are more flamboyant, the violence is more graphic, and Paul is even more of a relentless avenger than in the first film.  In the first Death Wish, Paul threw up after fighting a mugger.  In the second Death Wish, he sees that one of the men who raped his daughter is wearing a cross, leading to the following exchange:

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, you’re going to meet him.”

BLAM!

Death Wish II is the best known of the Death Wish sequels.  It made the most money and, when I was a kid, it used to show on TV constantly.  The commercials always featured the “You believe in Jesus?” exchange and, every morning after we saw those commercials, all the kids at school would walk up to each other and say, “You believe in Jesus?  Well, you’re going to meet him.”  It drove the teachers crazy.

Overall, Death Wish II is a lousy film.  Michael Winner, who was always more concerned with getting people into the theaters than anything else, directs in a sledgehammer manner that makes his work on the first film look subtle.  He obscenely lingers over every rape and murder, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in titillating the audience than getting them to share Paul’s outrage.  The script is also weak, with Geri so poorly written that she actually gets more upset about Paul going out at night than she does when she learns that Paul’s daughter has died.  When Paul sets out to track down the gang, his method is to merely wander around Los Angeles until he stumbles across them.  It doesn’t take long for Paul to start taking them out but no one in the gang ever seems to be upset or worried that someone is obviously stalking and killing them.

There are a few good things about the film.  Charles Bronson was always a better actor than he was given credit for and it’s always fun to watch Paul try to balance his normal daily routine with his violent night life.  Whenever Geri demands to know if he’s been shooting people, Paul looks at her like he is personally offended that she could possibly think such a thing.  Also, the criminals themselves are all so cartoonishly evil that there’s never any question that Paul is doing the world a favor by gunning them down.  For many otherwise sensible viewers, a movie like Death Wish II may be bad but it is also cathartic.  It offers up a simple solution to a complex issue.  In real life, a city full of Paul Kerseys would lead to innocent people getting killed for no good reason.  But in the world of Death Wish II, no one out after nightfall is innocent so there’s no need to worry about shooting the wrong person.

Finally, the film’s score was written by the legendary Jimmy Page.  The studio wanted Isaac Hayes to do the score but Winner asked his neighbor, Page.  Page took the film, retreated into his studio, and returned with a bluesy score that would turn out to be the best thing about the movie.  The soundtrack was the only one of Page’s solo projects to be released on Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns with Death Wish 3!

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!

An October Film Review: The Night America Trembled (dir by Tom Donovan)


Today is the 79th anniversary of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

In 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War of the World.  Presented as a live news program, it was one of the first mockumentaries.  It also caused a panic.  How big the panic was is open for debate.  Some say only a few people took it seriously.  Other sources say that it was a nationwide crisis.  But, regardless, Welles made history on that night.  Not only did he illustrate the power of the media but he also scared the Hell out of a lot of people.  All in all, a pretty good night…

Filmed in 1957 for a television program called Westinghouse Studio One, The Night America Trembled is a dramatization of that night.  For legal reasons, Orson Welles is not portrayed nor is his name mentioned.  Instead, the focus is mostly on the people listening to the broadcast and getting the wrong idea.  That may sound like a comedy but The Night America Trembled takes itself fairly seriously.  Even pompous old Edward R. Murrow shows up to narrate the film, in between taking drags off a cigarette.  (I enjoyed the show but, whenever Murrow showed up, I was reminded of a grumpy old teacher complaining that none of his students cared about the Spanish-American War.)

Clocking in at a brisk 60 minutes, The Night America Trembled is an interesting recreation of that October 30th.  Among the people panicking: a group of people in a bar who, before hearing the broadcast, were debating whether or not Hitler was as crazy as people said he was, a babysitter who goes absolutely crazy with fear, and a group of poker-playing college students.  If, like me, you’re a frequent viewer of TCM, you may recognize some of the faces in the large cast: Ed Asner, James Coburn, John Astin, Warren Oates, and Warren Beatty all make early appearances.

As I said, it’s an interesting little historical document and you can watch it below!

Enjoy!

Lisa Watches an Oscar Nominee: The Hustler (dir by Robert Rossen)


Hustler_1961_original_release_movie_posterFor my final Oscar-nominated film of the night, I watched the 1961 film The Hustler.

Filmed in harsh black-and-white and featuring characters who live on the fringes of conventional society, The Hustler is one of those films that’s so unremittingly bleak that it would probably be so depressing as to be unwatchable if not for the talented cast.  Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson, a pool hustler who is talented but cocky, a guy who has the talent of a winner and the self-centered, self-pitying personality of a loser.  When we first meet Eddie, he and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick) have traveled all the way from Oakland to New York, all so Eddie can challenge and hopefully beat the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).  Eddie does get his chance to challenge Minnesota (or perhaps I should call him Mr. Fats?) and comes close to winning.  However, in the end, Eddie is too arrogant and impulsive and he ends up losing to Mr. Fats.

Defeated and humiliated, Eddie is hiding his meager possessions in a storage locker at the local bus station when he first meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie).  Sarah is an alcoholic and an aspiring writer.  She claims to be a part-time student but we never actually see her in class.  She walks with a pronounced limp and she has a habit of declaring the world to be “perverted, twisted, and crippled.”  Soon, she and Eddie are living together, two lost souls who support and destroy each other at the same time.  When Sarah attempts to write a short story about Eddie, Eddie responds by destroying the page and ordering her to never write about him again.  Charlie views Sarah as a destructive influence and decides that he doesn’t want to have anything else to do with Eddie.

However, Eddie soon finds a new manager.  Bert Gordon (a demonic George C. Scott) is a gambler who says that if Eddie sticks with him, Eddie will not only get rich but he’ll defeat Minnesota Fats as well.  At first, Eddie wants nothing to do with Bert but, when his own attempts at hustling lead to him getting his thumbs broken, Eddie has a change of heart.  Under Bert’s guidance, Eddie find success but he does so at the expense of what little decency that he had to begin with…

Eddie is an interesting character, one who most viewers will probably have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, he’s a jerk.  He’s an arrogant, cocky jerk who thinks that he’s the best and who either uses or allows himself to be used by almost everyone that he meets.  Though he definitely ends up being exploited by Bert, Eddie knew what he was getting into when he made his deal with the devil.  Though he loves Sarah and she loves him, Eddie still treats her poorly.  There are just so many reasons to dislike Eddie Felson.

Except, of course, Eddie Felson is played by Paul Newman.

Seriously, it is possible to dislike a character played by Paul Newman?  As an actor, Newman was so charismatic and projected an innate goodness that came through even when he was playing a character who didn’t always do nice things.  As written, the character of Eddie spends the majority of the movie acting like a louse.  But, as played by Newman, Eddie becomes a wounded anti-hero, the bad boy that every girl dreams of somehow redeeming.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to see The Hustler.  Gleason and Laurie both give good performances.  George C. Scott, meanwhile, is like a force of nature.  Just listen to him as he shouts, “You owe me money!”  Director Robert Rossen finds an odd beauty in some of the sleaziest parts of New York City.  But, in the end, the main reason to see The Hustler is for Paul Newman’s amazing performance in the title role.  It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film.

I have to admit that I don’t know much about pool.  During my first college semester, I lived in a dorm that had a pool table in the front lobby.  There was always a large group of people gathered around that table, playing pool and generally looking like a bunch of hipster douchebags.  Sitting in the lobby meant having to listen to a constant soundtrack of balls clacking against each other, followed by people saying, “Such-and-such in the corner pocket” or whatever the Hell it is people say when they’re playing pool.  (To be honest, though I could hear the voices, I rarely listened to what they were actually saying.)  I don’t know if the people playing pool in the lobby were any good.  But, after seeing The Hustler, I can say that Eddie Felson would have beaten all of them.