STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 

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POINT BLANK (1967) revisited

January 31, 2016

point blank Greetings again from the darkness. In the not-inconsequential sub-genre of 1960’s tough guy crime thrillers, it’s tough to beat this neo-noir that carries the lineage of a fine wine, but the taste of a stout beer. Familiar faces are everywhere, bullets fly, double-crossing is expected, Angie flaunts, and revenge is the mission.

While not a box office hit on its release in 1967, the film grew into a cult classic and is now appreciated as one of the era’s best. The set-up is certainly not too complicated. During a heist (filmed at Alcatraz), one of the gang members shoots another at “point blank” range and takes off with both the money and the poor guy’s wife. The shot guy survives and seeks his money ($93,000) and revenge on those who wronged him.

Sure it sounds simple and common, but it’s made special thanks to top notch work from the writer, director, cinematographer, composer and cast. The story (adapted by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse) is based on “The Hunter” from acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The book was also the source material for Mel Gibson’s 1999 movie Payback. Oscar nominated director John Boorman (Deliverance 1972, Hope and Glory 1987) works with Oscar nominated cinematographer Philip H Lathrop (Earthquake 1974) to create a stylish and gritty look and feel, while Oscar winning composer Johnny Mandel (The Sandpiper, MASH theme) adds just the right musical touch.

If that’s not enough for you, Lee Marvin commands attention as the revenge-obsessed tough guy who won’t get fooled again. To call Lee Marvin a tough guy seems redundant and unnecessary, as his screen presence oozed dominance. He was coming off an Oscar win for Cat Ballou and one of his best performances in The Dirty Dozen. In other words, he was an actor at the peak of his Hollywood power.

Joining Mr. Marvin on screen is a prestigious group led by Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. With a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ms. Dickinson starred in such films as the original Ocean’s 11 and Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill. Of course, she also starred in one of the biggest TV shows of the 1970’s “Police Woman”. And speaking of 1970’s TV, few were more jarring to the culture than “All in the Family” with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. In this film, Ms. Dickinson plays the sister of Marvin’s double-crossing wife and she gets to flail away in anger at him before the two fall into bed together … a terrific piece of editing. Mr. O’Connor plays Brewster, one of the three heads of “the Organization”, and one of the targets that Marvin chases to retrieve his money.

Playing another of the three heads is Lloyd Bochner, who capitalized on his smooth demeanor and velvety voice during a 7 decade career in TV and movies. Mr. Bochner is the father of Hart Bochner, who (as Ellis) tried to out-smart Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Keenan Wynn appears as a mysterious figure feeding information to Marvin’s character to assist in his quest of taking down the organization. Mr. Wynn is the son of legendary entertainer Ed Wynn who was known for his work in vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, TV and movies (Mary Poppins). Keenan also appeared in many TV shows and movies, with Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb being his most famous. Appearing as Lynn, the two-timing wife, Sharon Acker was on the verge of movie stardom … only that stardom never came. By choosing to focus on TV roles, she had a nice long career, but never reached the superstar status many had predicted. Sandra Warner plays the waitress that Marvin talks to, and Ms. Warner simply walked away from the business after this role … despite a successful career that started when she was 18 years old. Yet another familiar face in the cast belongs to John Vernon, who was making his feature film debut. Here he plays the guy pulling the trigger at point blank range, and many will recognize him as Dean Wormer in Animal House. James Sikking plays the sharpshooter employed by the organization, and fans of “Hill Street Blues” will remember him as the slightly annoying Howard.

There are a few other notes of interest regarding actors in the movie … though you’ll have to look quickly. Sid Haig plays a henchman at the hotel. Mr. Haig has had a prolific career as a heavy, bad guy, villain, horror film staple, and even Tarantino favorite. Barbara Feldon, the beloved Agent 99 in “Get Smart” makes an appearance on a Ponds face cream commercial as Marvin watches TV, and Lauren Bacall is seen/heard quickly on a TV set as well. Also, Felix Silla has one scene as a hotel guard. The diminutive Mr. Silla also starred as Cousin Itt in “The Addams Family”. As a final note and shout out to “the Chevies”, it must be noted that Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn would also appear together in the deliciously twisted 1971 film Pretty Maids all in a Row from that lover of the female form, director Roger Vadim.

It’s pretty easy to see how all of these factors came together to create this cult favorite. From a filmmaking perspective, the use of flashbacks, editing and sound effects (footsteps) all add to the experience, as does Brewster’s stunning home – which in real life, now belongs to Drew Barrymore. If you are a fan of 1960’s film, it’s one you probably already have seen a few times, but if not, it’s one to watch if for no other reason that Lee Marvin firing shots into an empty bed … I’m still not sure how that was supposed to help him obtain his $93,000, but he really wants his money!

watch the trailer (it’s a hoot!):

 


RIFIFI (Du rififi chez les hommes, France, 1955)

September 27, 2014

rififi Greetings again from the darkness. This classic French film is often referred to as the birth of the heist film. It’s not that it was the first, rather it was groundbreaking in style and approach. Former blacklisted US director Jules Dassin delivers a tense and unique film with terrific atmosphere, blending Film Noir with the French New Wave. The story is based on the novel by Auguste le Breton.

One of the more unusual aspects of the film is that the actual heist is Act II, not Act III – the latter of which actually involves a kidnapping and a quest for vengeance. It’s easy to view the two Ocean’s Eleven films as remakes of this one, and its influence on Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, as well as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (the table scene), are fun to analyze.

Almost 60 years later, most film classes still discuss the nearly 30 minute heist sequence that involves no dialogue or music (excepting an inadvertent piano key). The teamwork and stress of this sequence is enthralling and worth watching a few times. We somehow find ourselves pulling for these bad guys (criminals, thugs, gangsters, hoods, crooks). I call this the good-bad guy vs bad-bad guy approach.

The good-bad guys are played by Jean Servais (Tony), Carl Michner (Jo), Robert Manuel (Mario), and the director Jules Dussin (Caeser, the Italian safecracker). The bad-bad guys (worthy of hissing) are led by Marcel Lupovici (Grutter) who is simply abusive to everyone.

Paris streets play a huge role, as does the jewelry store set and the simple sound effects that accompany the heist. Also enjoyable is the “casing the place” sequence as the crew plans their process. So many pieces come together to keep this one as a well-deserved entry to the classic film canon.

**NOTE: actress Marie Sabouret who plays gangster moll Mado, died 5 years after filming from leukemia.  She was 36.

All of the “trailers” I found online gave away too much (in my opinion), so I have decided not to post any of them.

 


MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975) revisited

August 5, 2014

monty python Greetings again from the darkness. Consistently landing in the Top 10 whenever a film publication posts an all-time Best Comedy Movie list, this Monty Python classic should be a rite of passage for all teenagers. It is loaded, start to finish, with sight gags, one-liners, outright jokes, satire and overall outlandish behavior. It’s also a reminder that comedy need not be filled with profanity, and that once upon a time, a certain level of grossness was considered tongue-in-cheek.

In 1975, the Monty Python troupe was in between seasons 3 and 4 of their BBC comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“.  While on break, they came up with the movie’s theme of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, though mostly it’s just one related sketch after another.  The six members of Monty Python are each cast in numerous roles, and one of the fun games to play while watching is identifying each new character.  As a hint, Michael Palin plays the most characters (12) and four of Terry Gilliam’s characters die on-screen.  You might also note that the witch is played by Connie Booth, the wife (at the time) of John Cleese.

Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam co-directed, while all members received writing credits. The endless stream of classic sketches include: The Black Knight (“it’s just a flesh wound“), Song and Dance at Camelot (it inspired the Spamalot play), the ridiculing French guard, Trojan Rabbit, the on-camera modern day historian, the Knights who say “Ni”, the 3-headed giant, Castle Anthrax, Swamp Castle, Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (spoofing Sovereign Orb), the Bridge of Death (3 questions), the abrupt ending with organ music. Other classic moments include “bring out your dead“, the recurring “run away” strategy, an (over) abundance of details on swallows, difficulties in counting to 3, and the best film uses ever of shrubbery and coconut shells. LOADED, I tell ya’!

While it would take multiple viewings to catch everything thrown into this one, it clearly jabs (all in good nature) such targets as Royalty, politics and politicians, Religion, and of course, the French. The animated God in the sky is actually a photo of 19th century cricket legend W.G. Grace, and the barbs directed at the French military are downright hilarious.

Graham Chapman (King Arthur, et al) passed away in 1989 due to complications from cancer, but he was one of the first celebrities to publicly come out as gay.  He spent much of his life as a gay activist.  John Cleese has had much success as an actor, appearing in A Fish Called Wanda, as well as two “James Bond” movies, two “Harry Potter” movies, and voicing the king in three Shrek movies. Cleese was also the creative force (with his wife) behind “Fawlty Towers“.  Terry Gilliam has had most of his success as a film director.  His films include Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys.  He was also the main animator for most of Monty Python’s work. Eric Idle is very familiar to audiences after decades of movie and TV acting.  He was also a member of The Rutles (look it up!) and was the musical director and co-creator of the Tony Award winning play SpamalotTerry Jones was the sole director of Monty Python’s next and final two films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of LifeMichael Palin also appeared in A Fish Called Wanda, but these days is renowned for his work as a Travel writer and Travel documentarian.

The five surviving members recently (July 2014) reunited for a live performance that was simulcast to many theatres around the world. They stated this was to be their final appearance as Monty Python, and that this was the best way to say goodbye.  Making people laugh for almost 40 years is quite a legacy, and few have done it better than this comedy troupe and this classic comedy movie.   And just remember, when life gets tough, rather than “run away”, simply tell yourself “it’s only a flesh wound“.

Here is a re-cut trailer that presents the movie as a dramatic action film, rather than uproarious comedy. If you’ve seen the movie, you will “get” this.  If you haven’t seen the movie … it’s high time!

 


BELLE DE JOUR (1967, France)

August 3, 2014

belle de jour Greetings again from the darkness. Nearly 50 years have passed since director Luis Bunuel brought the 1928 novel of Joseph Kessel to the big screen. It became an instant film classic. The story of erotic fantasies is told with Bunuel’s unique surrealistic style. Not the same style as his earlier films, but still, it’s the unmistakable eye of a master.  The film also presents a young Catherine Deneuve at her most striking.

Ms. Deneuve’s Severine plays bored housewife to her doctor husband (Jean Sorrel).  He is extremely patient and understanding of her coldness in the bedroom, and it’s clear that she loves him, despite the lack of physical attraction. Soon enough we are provided a startling glimpse of Severine’s masochistic fantasies. It’s not until later that we begin to understand what drives her imagination.

Severine deflects the advances of an older family friend (Michael Piccoli), who is so attracted by her purity, and he unknowingly leads her into a world that might satisfy her in ways that her gentleman husband hasn’t. When Severine meets Madam Anais (Genevieve Page), she begins playing out her fantasies through the afternoon shift at the brothel … all while keeping up the necessary appearances for society.

Bunuel provides us teases of the sources through flashbacks and sound effects … a carriage harness bell and the periodic meows of a cat.  It’s never Bunuel’s intent to answer all questions, and he certainly makes no moral judgments towards Severine.  Instead we get an exploration in the variances of love, sex and fantasy.

In the end, we aren’t absolutely certain that we can distinguish between Severine’s reality and her fantasy, but we do understand the importance of her fantasies within the structure of her day to day life. If watching Ms. Deneuve perform in this gem inspires you to see more of her work, I recommend Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.  Also, it should be noted that she continues to act to this day.

watch the original trailer:

 

 


A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) revisited

July 16, 2014

a hard days night Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the 50th anniversary and what a treat to see the re-mastered, restored film in a crowded theatre – many wearing their Beatles shirts. The quasi-documentary, cinema verite’ approach from director Richard Lester may not fit the traditional idea of a great movie, but at a minimum, it’s a fantastic pop culture artifact showing a world on the verge of change (and four of those partially responsible).

The Beatles first film shows them at the most innocent and fresh-faced we ever see them … it’s just a few months after their appearance on “the Ed Sullivan Show”. John Lennon is the most guarded, but his quick wit and distrust of the establishment are obvious. Paul McCartney is at his cutest and least arrogant, but still managing to pose on cue. George Harrison comes across most open and full of joy – before he became the most publicly withdrawn. Ringo Starr is self-deprecating and in full hang-dog mode.

For a stark contrast, watch the four lads a year later in HELP!, also directed by Mr. Lester. The luster of fame is clearly tarnished and they are quite aware of the power they wield. In contrast, during this shoot, we are almost “on set” as the boys are first experiencing Beatlemania! In addition to the Fab Four, British actor Wilfrid Brambill plays Paul’s Grandfather. The recurring gag of him being “very clean” is a play on Brambill’s long-running role as Albert Steptoe in “Steptoe & Son” where he is referred to as “a dirty old man“. Victor Spinetti plays the very anxious TV director wearing the infamous sweater. Mr. Spinetti also appeared in HELP! (1965) and The Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Richard Vernon played the grumpy old man sharing the train car with the boys. Mr. Vernon also appeared in Goldfinger that same year. Another James Bond link occurs when Ringo is invited to the Le Cercle Club … the same club James Bond first appears in Dr. No (1962). Lastly, Pattie Boyd is one of the giggly schoolgirls on the train and appears in 3 different scenes. 18 months later, she was married to George Harrison … and a few years later, she reiterated her attraction to lead guitarists by marrying Eric Clapton.

I was caught off guard by the frenetic pace of the film … it has been 3 decades since I last watched it. But mostly, I was stunned at the clean look of this restored version and was awed by the terrific sound, especially of the song restorations completed by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles record producer Sir George Martin … who was nominated for an Academy Award for his film score.

The film inspired the 1960’s TV show “The Monkees“, and of course, the soundtrack was a massive best seller and chart topper. “If I Fell” is one of my favorite Beatles songs and it’s a nice segment in the film, but the real climax is the performance of “She Loves You”, replete with terrific crowd shots. The impact and lasting impression of the film is every bit as recognizable as that stunning opening chord to the title track that opens the film.

watch the (new) trailer:

 


THE RAVEN (1963)

July 5, 2014

raven Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 50 years since this one was released, so it seems a good time to offer up some thoughts and observations. Let’s start with the fact that you probably read Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” in high school. Director Roger Corman and writer Richard Matheson take Poe’s work as a starting point in a most unique story of their own.

If you aren’t familiar with Roger Corman, he is one of the most prolific and entertaining “B” movie makers of all time. His writer here, Mr. Matheson, is best known for his work on numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone“. Poe – Matheson – Corman would be enough, but we also get Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court and a young and not yet well known Jack Nicholson. Price is always a treat to watch (especially in horror films), Lorre appeared in 3 of the greatest movies of all-time (M, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca), Karloff is the master of monster (and much more), Ms Court was one of the first stars of Hammer Films, and of course, Nicholson (fresh-faced here) went on to become one of the most successful actors in movie history.

Price, Karloff, Lorre and Nicholson offer up four of the most unique and recognizable voices ever heard in movies, and they each partake in the fun provided by Corman here. Yes, I said fun. This is almost slapstick comedy, and at a minimum, it’s a parody of the much darker series of Poe films. If you consider it as an influence of the 1960’s “Batman” TV series, you wouldn’t be wrong. Even the music (heavy on the tuba) has an air of comedy.

Watching Peter Lorre as a matador is pretty funny, as is Nicholson as the frenetic stagecoach driver.  Some of the back-and-forth with Lorre and Nicholson as father and son is clearly ad-libbed, but the classic comedic sequence occurs when Price and Karloff take their wizardry duel to the death and turn it into a special effects highlight reel.

This may be the only time you hear the phrase “precious viper” used to describe a woman, and if that, combined with all of the above reasons, isn’t enough to motivate you to seek this one out, then maybe you will never discover why so many adore the films of Roger Corman. Compared with films of today, this style is nevermore.

watch the trailer: