Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Scandal Sheet

The directors whose work I have praised repeatedly on this site are all household names except for Phil Karlson. He rarely got decent budgets and spent much of his career at studios and in positions that weren’t worthy of his talent. Yet he managed over the years to make some highly compelling movies that conveyed his bleak and brutal perspective on the human condition. I have recommended two of his collaborations with producer Edward Small that starred John Payne Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Let me add to those a recommendation of another Karlson-Small collaboration, this one with a bigger budget and a bigger star than the director usually had to hand: The 1952 noir Scandal Sheet.

The plot: Circulation at the New York Express has been soaring since an editor named Mark Chapman (or is he???) converted it into a tabloid full of sensationalist stories, ruffling the feathers of the bluenoses on the board as well as idealistic features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed). Said editor (Broderick Crawford) is aided in his work by ace newshound Steve McCleary (John Derek), who digs up dirt for his mentor while failing to successfully romance June. But Chapman’s world is upended when a woman from his past re-appears, and he embarks on a series of desperate, violent, actions that McCleary begins to investigate. Noirish themes of moral compromise and inevitable doom ensue.

This film echoes the summit of Crawford’s career, namely the 1949 Best Picture winner All The King’s Men. Again Crawford effectively portrays a domineering yet vulnerable man and again he has a father-son style relationship with a character played by John Derek, although in this case Derek is his mentee rather than literally his son, and the relationship is much warmer. Indeed, the art in Crawford’s performance is how he simultaneously conveys his rising panic that his secrets could come out and his admiration and pride that his protégé is so effectively hunting him down. The other echo of ATKM is the magnificent Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which combines the look of urban realism (despite this being filmed on the Columbia back lot and using some stock shots of New York City) with a dash of film noir-style camerawork. The opening shot of this movie, as the camera moves over a cluster of fire escapes filled with onlookers and a murder witness, is a clinic by Karlson and Guffey on how to pull an audience in the particular world of a movie right from the first.

John Derek was irresistible to women, but was not a particularly good actor. The quality supporting work here comes instead from Reed, who shows she could do more than be the wholesome All-American mom who serves milk and cookies. Henry O’Neil is also affecting as an unemployed, alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist looking for a way back.

Karlson’s serves up a bracing dose of cynicism leavened with glimmers of hope, and manages to maintain tension throughout the story despite the fact that under the conventions of noir, the ending is never really in doubt. The only person who didn’t like Karlson’s adaptation of the 1944 novel The Dark Page was Samuel Fuller, who wrote it. Perhaps it was just vanity that made Fuller resent anyone other than himself adapting his own work, but movie fans were the winner because it inspired him to start making his own films, including classics like Pickup on South Street (my recommendation here).

p.s. Sadly, Crawford’s alcohol addiction kept him from building on his cinematic successes of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But he did have a late-career revival on television, including starring on Highway Patrol and, bizarrely enough, hosting an early episode of Saturday Night Live.

Categories
Drama Horror/Suspense

The Man Who Laughs

Blu-ray Review: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) - cinematic randomness

A woman has seen my face, and yet may love me.

When people recall Universal Studio’s famous run of monster movies, they generally think of the fine films that began appearing in the 1930s (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein, et al). But those talkies are actually the second generation of what producer Carl Laemmle began in the silent era. The opulent Lon Chaney classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera did huge box office telling the stories of disfigured, lovestruck, scary, yet also sympathetic monsters. Laemmle wanted to return to the well one more time with a different Victor Hugo novel as source material. Chaney was tied up at MGM, so Laemmle recruited a German actor (Conrad Veidt) and director (Paul Leni) steeped in that nation’s expressionist film tradition to create a unique treasure of the genre: The Man Who Laughs.

The plot of this 1928 gem: When an English nobleman refuses to submit to the King, he is put to death and his only child, Gwynplaine, is turned over to a horrific gypsy clan (For which Victor Hugo created the term “Comprachicos”) that mutilates the young to turn them into profitable circus freaks. Gwynplaine’s face is carved into a permanent, ghastly, grin and he is abandoned. As he walks alone on a wintry night (This is my favorite expressionist shot in the movie, see below) he discovers a blind baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. Miraculously, the starving and half-frozen children are taken in by a kindly travelling entertainer named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Grown to adulthood, the lovely, gentle, Dea (Mary Philbin) and Gwynplaine (Veidt) perform in Ursus’ plays, in which Gwynplaine becomes famous as “The Man Who Laughs”. The two also fall in love, but Gwynplaine cannot believe that Dea would want to marry him if she could see his bizarre visage. Meanwhile, a royal advisor (Brandon Hurst in a wonderfully wicked performance) finds out that Gwynplaine is the last surviving heir of a Lord, which presents threats and possibilities for court intrigue, particularly regarding a lustful, wayward Duchess (Olga Baclanova).

the man who laughs

This is a visually stunning film, because of the haunted camerawork of Gilbert Warrenton, the art direction of Charles Hall, Thomas O’Neill, and Joseph Wright, the impressionist sensibilities of Leni, Jack Pierce’s make-up wizardry, and Laemmle’s willingness to open the checkbook for sets, props, and a cast of thousands just as did on his Lon Chaney films. Released at the end of the silent era, this film could easily have been a talkie, except that with his prosthetic teeth and grin, Veidt could not speak clearly. The filmmakers compromised by adding a synched soundtrack with rich music, some sound effects, and a love song to accompany the visuals.

As in another of my recommendations, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt demonstrates that a great actor does not need words to convey a range of emotions. But that understates his achievement, because Veidt makes the audience feel Gwynplaine’s sadness, love, fear, and self-hatred despite having only half of his face available to him. Of many good performances in the film, many of them delivered by veterans of the Lon Chaney films, the other that stands out for me is Olga Baclanova’s. Her role as a sexually assertive aristo is a reminder that prior to the Hayes Code and the rise of domestic dramas after World War II, movies dealt with women’s sexuality far more candidly than they did for decades afterwards.

A couple of the plot developments aren’t motivated quite convincingly, but J. Grubb Alexander’s adaptation of Hugo’s novel more than makes up for it with its humanity. This is particularly true in a heartrending scene in which the circus performers go to extraordinary lengths to try to convince Dea that Gwyneplaine is still near her when in fact he is imprisoned.

I will close by sharing two other wonderful things to know about The Man Who Laughs. First, it has been beautifully restored. Second, it is in the public domain and you can watch it for free right here.

p.s. One person who took inspiration from this movie was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.

user uploaded image

p.p.s. I wonder if when this film was shown in Britain in 1928, the audience laughed at one character’s expressed outrage at the thought of the House of Lords admitting a clown.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Sweet Smell of Success

Many films deservedly flop at the box office because they simply aren’t any good. But a subset of gems meet the same fate because they are too far ahead of their time, violate audience expectations, or both. On the honorable list of the highest quality box office failures of all time, an unforgettable 1957 movie has a strong argument for top slot: Sweet Smell of Success.

The plot: J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an all powerful, Walter Winchell-esque columnist who can make or destroy lives and careers at his whim. Every Big Apple press agent wants Hunsecker to boost their clients and spread their gossip, none moreso than the amoral, ambitious Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). But J. J. refuses to carry Falco’s items unless he breaks up the romantic relationship between a clean cut musician (Martin Milner) and J.J.’s sheltered, brow-beaten, younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). When the young lovers prove determined to stay together, J.J. and Sidney realize that even more ruthless actions will be needed. This comes naturally to both of them, though only Sidney has the self-knowledge to admit it to himself.

sweet-smell-of-success-movie-seven - Vague Visages

Alexander Mackendrick, known for classic Ealing Studio comedies like The Man in the White Suit seems on paper to have been a bizarre directorial choice. But he triumphed with this unfunny, un-British, material including persuading his tempestuous movie star-producer (Lancaster) that the film should end with a confrontation not between the male leads, but between J.J. and his sister Susan, the one person J.J. cared about enough to be damaged by. Mackendrick also cleverly smeared Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to prevent him from focusing, giving the actor a terrifying, wall-eyed stare. Lancaster was furious at Mackendrick for the film’s poor box office performance and refused to work with him again, which may have contributed to the rapid decline of the fine director’s career after Sweet Smell of Success. But at least Mackendrick went out on top with his work here.

Mackendrick also had input into the wood-alcohol cocktail script, which was mainly the work of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It’s a endlessly quotable work of art in itself; even without the actors’ fine delivery the lines would be brutally effective. The plotting is equally so, most particularly the hard-to-watch scene in which Sidney pimps out a cocktail waitress who needs a favor and becomes an bargaining chip in his dirty game.

Josh Olson Presents SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - American Cinematheque

Lancaster is effectively malicious here, both in his dealings with Curtis and also with Harrison as his cringing sister (if Sweet Smell of Success has a weakness, it’s that the relationship between Milner and Harrison is the least interesting one in the movie). But Curtis, viewed at the time as a lightweight pretty boy, is a revelation. In his walk, his physical deference to Lancaster, his furtive looks, his desperate patter, and his surface smoothness over underlying panic, he creates one of cinema’s indelible characters. Grasping ambition has rarely been so vividly captured by a movie performer. Lancaster said that Curtis deserved an Oscar for his performance, but the Academy didn’t even grant him a nomination. More fool them.

There is yet more to praise! Elmer Bernstein contributes an energetic jazz score and the Chico Hamilton Quintet not only sound fantastic in their scenes, but also effectively cover over the fact that Milner couldn’t play guitar at all. But even more than the superb music, this movie will always be remembered for its look.

Picking a favorite cinematographer is tough for any film buff, but for me it’s James Wong Howe, in significant part because New York City has never been shot with such luminous darkness as in Sweet Smell of Success. Howe’s shots crackle with the energy of bustling, anonymous, humanity and bring alive the combined menace and thrill that arrives when night falls on a great city. Howe’s photography here is a genius-level blend of the stylized look of film noir and the more realistic urban photography of such films as The Naked City. Howe and Mackendrick also uses camera positioning expertly to convey character and relationships, for example by using low shots to make the massive Lancaster look even more intimidating or coming in close at just the point when someone sells out morally so that you can see it on their face and right down into their soul (presuming they have one).

Sweet Smell of Success | The Soul of the Plot

Why did such a tremendous work of cinematic art not find an audience? After the financial success of the prior year’s Trapeze, which had Lancaster and Curtis swinging through the air in tights (and screen siren Gina Lollabrigida swinging between them), their fans were expecting a chance to swoon again at their gorgeous heroes. Instead, they got a couple of throughgoing bastards in suits in a dialogue-driven story. Tony Curtis’ female fans haunted the set hoping for a chance to glimpse their idol and can’t have been pleased to see him play a character who treats women like garbage. The unremitting cynicism of the movie may also have turned audiences off in 1957, coming a few years after the post-war film noir boom had faded. In the decades that followed, the magnificence of this movie — including the against-type performances of Lancaster and even moreso Curtis — became widely appreciated, including by inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Instead of the trailer, I will close by posting this “three reasons” promotional film put out by Criterion Collection when they wisely reissued a remastered edition of Sweet Smell of Success. Even at a single minute long, it makes clear why you simply must see this classic movie.

Categories
British Comedy

Passport to Pimlico

Ealing Studios produced a broad range of films in its first decade and a half of existence, including a number of respected documentaries as well as the classic horror film Dead of Night and the trendsetting “kitchen sink noir” It Always Rains on Sunday (my recommendation here). But it’s the marvelous comedies Ealing made in the decade after the war that everyone remembers best. In one of most insanely productive period in any studios’ history, in 1949, Ealing released three still-beloved comic films in the span of two months! I have already recommended the best of this troika — Kind Hearts and Coronets — and now wish to endorse the wonderful runner-up: Passport to Pimlico (No disrespect to Whisky Galore! which is a good fun, but comes in third against the stiffest possible competition).

Passport to Pimlico was scripted by T.E.B. Clarke, who later won an Oscar for writing another Ealing classic, The Lavender Hill Mob. Clarke’s agreeably ridiculous plot runs thus: In a London neighborhood still recovering from Hitler’s remodeling efforts, an unexploded bomb goes boom, revealing a hidden chamber stuffed with gold relics and an ancient royal charter establishing that Pimlico is in fact part of Burgundy! The locals are at first excited to realize that they are legally freed of the hated ration book system, but are soon overrun by spivs from all over London. Meanwhile, negotiations with this new foreign country are bounced between the Home Office and Foreign Office until everything breaks down and Pimlico/Burgundy is blockaded by Her Majesty’s Government. But the English Burgurdians are not about to back down, especially not when the descendant of the Duke of Burgundy shows up to claim his title and lead the resistance.

All the Ealing trademarks are here: Mocking British institutions but loving British people, celebrating those who fight back against toffs, nosy parkers, and The Establishment, throwing a warm glow on small groups of people who bond through common endeavour, and most of all providing laughter, laughter, and more laughter.

As in many other British productions of this period, an ensemble of largely stage-trained actors sparkle here in parts large and small: Stanley Holloway, Dame Margaret Rutherford, Paul DuPuis, Sir Michael Hordern, Basil Radford (who was also in Whisky Galore!), Naunton Wayne and more. I hate to pick out any one performance for praise among such a stellar group, but Hermione Baddelly as a brassy seamstress with ambition in her veins absolutely kills it here. Under the fine direction of Henry Cornelius, the cast delivers a warm, funny and uplifting movie that helped cement Ealing as the kings of post-war British comedy.

p.s. Do everything you can to watch the restored version rather than a battered old print.

Categories
British Comedy

Kind Hearts and Coronets

It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.

Black comedy is the only genre of film that rivals my affection for film noir, which helps explain why my favorite of the thousands of movies I’ve seen is Dr. Strangelove. But if I had to choose a British black comedy as my most beloved, it would be Kind Hearts and Coronets.

This Edwardian tale begins with an imprisoned man facing hanging with aplomb. The cultured, impeccably dressed Duke Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price in his role of a lifetime) devotes his final night to writing his memoirs, thereby telling the audience in flashback of his extraordinary rise and impending doom. His mother was a member of the wealthy, aristrocratic D’Ascoyne family, but was cast out after she married a man who was not only a commoner, but Italian to boot (Imagine that — an Ealing Comedy about social class…). Raised in modest circumstances, Louis desired nothing more than to restore his mother — and of course himself — to the lofty social position which he is sure they deserve. The only problem is that a small army of D’Acoynes (Alec Guinness. Yes, just Alec Guinness) stand in the way of the maternal line of succession to the family’s hereditary title. But if a chap is clever and ruthless enough, surely there’s some path he might cut to the top?

I’ve praised Robert Hamer in several other recommendations (It Always Rains on Sunday and School for Scoundrels) but he probably never rose to a greater height than in this 1949 gem. As director and co-screenwriter (with John Dighton), he creates one of the drollest, driest, and delightful movies about social climbing by the two sexes (and how they get sex along the way too). In the process, he proves that movie characters do not have to be likable, only interesting. After all, about a third of the way through we are rooting for a serial killer to wipe out a perfectly gentle fellow, and are later pleased when our hero (?) begins courting the grieving widow.

The movie is also famous for Alec Guinness’ legendary turn playing seven male and one female member of the same, relentlessly slaughtered, family. Of course we know it’s him each time, but with alterations in voice and movement, as well as some makeup and limited use of closeups, Sir Alec makes us glad to go along for the ride. Price is just as effective as Louis Mazzini, and while Valerie Hobson gets higher billing, Joan Greenwood as Mazzini’s lifelong friend and secret lover makes the stronger impression playing a woman who is just at committed to raising her station in life by any means necessary.

The film is brilliantly comic in its spree of absurd murders, juxtaposition of violent and sexual impulses with quintessentially British manners, and quotably humorous lines (I suspect we owe Hamer and Dighton for most of those, but I can’t say for sure because I haven’t read the Roy Horniman novel upon which the script is loosely based). The combined result is arguably one of the best films in British history, and is certainly the summit of black comedy cinema.

p.s. There is only one thing I would change in this film if I could, which is the reference made to the children’s rhyme, “Eeeny meeny miney moe”, which in the era included a racial slur.

p.p.s. Sadly, both Hamer and Price were addicted to alcohol, which led their careers go into premature decline before they died in their early 50s.

Categories
British Drama

Chariots of Fire

In Chariots They Ran

Some Best Picture Oscar winner selections are immediately recognized as mistakes by discerning viewers (American Beauty, Crash, Forrest Gump, Gladiator), others seem plausible contemporaneously but the bloom fades from their rose over time (Around the World in 80 Days, Dances with Wolves, Gigi). What a pleasure and a relief it is to revisit a Academy Award winner from 40 years ago and find that it hasn’t (ahem) lost a step: Chariots of Fire.

The plot: In the 1920s, two markedly different British men share a love of running and a desire to make a mark upon the world. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Protestant who “feels God’s pleasure” when he runs whereas Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew striving to be accepted by the Establishment. Both are seen as misfits in elite circles and struggle to balance their fierce athletic commitment with the rest of their lives and loves, yet both are talented, determined, and full of competitive fire. As opponents and teammates, they bring themselves and their nation to the pinnacle of tension and opportunity at the 1924 Olympics.

REVIEW: Chariots of Fire | The Viewer's Commentary

There are many ways to understand what Colin Welland’s skillfully crafted story is “really about”. Is this film about how sports can ennoble individuals and forge deep friendships? Is it about the changing nature of post-World War I Britain? Is it about how outsiders crave acceptance so strongly that they are driven to magnificent achievements? Is it about how young people find their purpose in life? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is a rare film that different viewers can appreciate — even be deeply moved by — for entirely different reasons.

Chariots of Fire is also a notable example of how even a little-known director can have at least one great movie in him. Hugh Hudson has been making documentaries and television commercials for years when he was tapped for Chariots of Fire, his first feature film. That doesn’t sound like a promising backstory, but Hudson proves a masterful storyteller, particularly in how he focuses more heavily on the human experience of athletes than on the races themselves (There is a limit to how intrigued most film goers can be by people running in a circle). Also to Hudson’s credit: There isn’t a bad performance or bad shot in the whole film.

The lead actors make a strong impression, as do the supporting players, including Ian Holm as Abrahams’ coach, Alice Krige as his lover, and Nigel Havers (who anchored another of my recommendations, The Charmer) and Nicholas Farrell as his Cambridge University friends and fellow athletes. The film is also famous for its innovative score by Vangelis…I am probably alone it not caring for it that much, but there is so much else to savor in this remarkable film that this in no way diminishes my admiration for Chariots of Fire.

The film takes some liberties with historical facts: Liddell’s refusal to run heats on Sundays did not create a last-second crisis for the British team at the Olympics because he had months of advance notice in which to prepare for a different event, and Abrahams’ family finding the Establishment impenetrable is hard to square with both of his brothers being knighted in real life. But the film isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama based on real events, and every scene is utterly true in psychological and emotional terms. Sometimes Oscar gets things exactly right.

Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

The Silent Partner

Among bank heist movies are some gems that inject a clever plot twist or perspective that livens up the otherwise familiar contours of the subgenre, including Inside Man, Charley Varrick, and JCVD. In 1978, a small Canadian film earned a place among such worthies by crafting a story that is as much a character study as a caper film: The Silent Partner.

Like Charley Varrick, The Silent Partner features a bank robbery that hides another crime. In this case, that crime is pulled off by a seemingly mild-mannered bank clerk named Miles Cullen (Elliot Gould). When a hardened criminal Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) attempts a stick up, Miles gives the robber a pittance and secretly pockets most of the bank’s money himself! But the sadistic Harry doesn’t take kindly to being duped, commencing a tense and dangerous battle of wits between the two men.

Elliot Gould is in good form here playing a man who is continually underestimated by others. Gould makes credible Miles’ increasing confidence in his criminality and also his sexuality. He is matched by Plummer’s disturbingly good turn as a slightly fey yet clearly vicious sociopath. Susannah York, as a co-worker who is both romantically interested in yet confused by Miles, and Céline Lomez as a sexy woman of intrigue, add erotic sparks to the story. Indeed, there is a lot of sex laced throughout the film — including, Plummer makes us sense — some sexual fascination with Miles by Harry.

sunset gun: Elliott Gould on The Silent Partner

There’s a lot of talent around these actors. Daryl Duke, mainly a television director, makes the most of his chance to helm a motion picture. I felt he let the pace slacken a bit too much about 2/3 of the way through, but his storytelling skills and ability to establish tone are impressive. Screenwriter Curtis Hanson and cinematographer Billy Williams showcase the talent that would eventually bring them Oscars (For L.A. Confidential and Gandhi, respectively). Jazz legend Oscar Peterson provides a fine score.

It all adds up to one of most original and gripping bank heist movies ever made. The Silent Partner succeeds both as a thrilling crime film and also as a portrait of how an “ordinary” person can summon remarkable reserves when pushed to the limit.

p.s. Look closely for John Candy as a bank employee who pursues the office floozie.

p.p.s. There is one extremely violent scene in this movie (you will know it when you see it) that Daryl Duke hated so much that he refused to shoot, but the producers put it in anyway without him.

Categories
Horror/Suspense

The Changeling

Because haunted house movies have been a staple of cinema for nearly a century, it’s hard for filmmakers to find fresh ways to grip audiences with that mixture of cobwebs, dark hallways, creaking doors, and restless spirits that makes for an enjoyably horrifying night at the movies. In 1980, a Canadian film nevertheless managed to summon up some of that old black magic in a scary, effective thriller: The Changeling.

The story opens with composer John Russell (George C. Scott) undergoing an unspeakable family tragedy. Disoriented and wracked with grief, he retreats to an old mansion which is rented to him by a representative of the local historical society (Trish Van Devere). But before you can say “poltergeist” strange phenomenon evince themselves in the old dark house, unnerving Russell but also driving him to investigate a mystery every bit as unsettling as his own personal tragedy. What happened in this foreboding pile, and how does it connect to a wealthy and powerful politician (Melvyn Douglas)?

Director Peter Medak (who also helmed another of my recommendations, The Ruling Class) knows how to frighten an audience with style, pacing, and mood rather than cheap jump scares. He and cinematographer John Coquillon also effectively use a nice mix of extended trolley shots, deep focus, changes in camera perspective, and other techniques to keep the audience agreeably wound up and off-balance.

George C. Scott strikes the right emotional notes in the lead, as someone bewildered by loss and in need of a new purpose. He and Van Devere, who were married in real life, do a particularly fine job of portraying halting middle aged attraction. The audience senses they are both interested in each other but for their own reasons are unable to act on their feelings, and so they sublimate them into a shared quest into the supernatural. Melvyn Douglas, continuing the late life acting success he enjoyed (see for example my recommendation of I Never Sang For My Father) also registers in a role of a sort of villain who is also sort of sympathetic.

,There are moments when Russell Hunter’s story, as scripted by William Grey and Diana Maddox is a bit confusing, but it’s fundamentally clever, creepy, and engaging. The result is a very worthy entry in the haunted house genre that scooped many awards in its native country, including for production designer Trevor Williams, who gives us a haunted house set, to, uh, die for.

Categories
Drama

I Never Sang For My Father

I Never Sang for My Father (1970) - IMDb

Playwright Robert Anderson had a big Broadway hit in 1953 when he drew on his experience of young romance in Tea and Sympathy. He went back to the autobiographical well again with a 1968 play based on his family of origin. In 1970, Anderson and one of the producers of the play, Gilbert Cates, brilliantly translated it to the silver screen: I Never Sang For My Father.

The plot to this film is so spare that it belies the work’s impact. Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) is a widower in New York City who struggles to connect emotionally with his successful yet domineering father Tom (Melvyn Douglas). Gene wants to move to California to live with his new lover (Elizabeth Hubbard) but feels guilty about leaving his mother (Dorothy Stickney); guilt which Tom actively reinforces. As the family faces a crisis, complications increase with the return from Chicago of Gene’s sister Alice (Estelle Parsons), who was disowned by Tom years ago for marrying a Jewish man. World-class acting and melancholy observations about aging, parenting, and families ensue.

What makes the movie a knockout is Anderson’s realistic, unadorned dialogue and the superb performances by the cast. Melvyn Douglas had a remarkably long career in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see here why he didn’t fade away after his success in the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t make Tom easy to hate or to like. Tom has accomplished great things in life, overcame a brutal upbringing, and can be quite charming. Yet he’s fundamentally narcissistic, seeing other people mainly as extensions of his own desires. Tragically, it’s less so unwillingness than inability to genuinely love that brings so much suffering on himself and his children. Hackman is also achingly good here, playing off of Douglas with a look, a change in posture, or a weakness in his voice that tells you everything you need to know about Gene’s relationship with Tom. It’s also terrific to see Hackman working so well with the magnificent Estelle Parsons again, after their star-making roles in Bonnie and Clyde. Her Alice is an anguished figure, who suffered mightily to marry whom she wanted and appears to be suffering since doing so nonetheless.

Gilbert Cates became a personage in Hollywood without making many movies: He directed the Academy Awards’ telecast for many years and was also the founding Dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Filming a play is hard because if you take an overly static approach, it looks like a play trapped in a movie, but if you overdo camera angles and movement, it can be gimmicky. As producer-director, Cates strikes the right balance, and when a cast gives such uniformly sterling performances, you know the director did their job well. My only gripe about Cates is his choice of music, which is too heavy-handed in places and includes a fairly wretched song early on that would better have been binned.

To close with an intriguing bit of trivia about this quiet gem of a film: You could consider it a credit to Hackman and Douglas that the former was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar even though he was on screen more, while the latter nominated for Best Actor. Too much credit going to the old man, his son’s achievements underappreciated..sometimes performances are so good that Oscar voters mix up actors with the characters they portray.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

The Limey

Fresh off his success adapting the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh partnered with screenwriter Lem Dobbs in 1999 to produce another strong film that feels like an Elmore Leonard story: The Limey.

The plot: A greying but tough as nails Cockney career criminal known only as Wilson (Terence Stamp) finishes his latest stay in the Big House and comes to sun-soaked Los Angeles to investigate how his daughter Jennifer died (Melissa George). He is guilt-stricken over his considerable failures as a parent but loved Jennifer intensely, so much so that he can’t accept that her death was really due to an unremarkable automobile accident. Wilson’s charm is considerable, and he soon secures the assistance of two of Jennifer’s friends, an ex-con who’s gone straight (Luis Guzmán) and a modestly successful actress (Leslie Anne Warren). From them he learns that Jennifer was in a relationship with a hot shot record producer named Valentine (Peter Fonda), who has a sleazy side hiding behind his perfect tan and aggressively whitened teeth. As Wilson starts to investigate, he finds himself tangling with Valentine’s head of security (Barry Newman), assorted thugs, and federal agents who are also on Valentine’s trail. A noirish tale of vengeance and regret follows.

Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of 'The Limey' - Rolling Stone

The Limey can be enjoyed simply as a professionally produced and performed rendition of a familiar movie story line. It includes exciting action scenes and some good dramatic moments. There are also some laughs, the biggest of which comes from Stamp’s theatrical Cockney slang-filled speech delivered to a calmly befuddled Bill Duke (the director of one of my recent recommendations, Deep Cover). There’s nothing wrong with making a purely entertaining movie, but many people, including me, see something more in this film.

What is The Limey “really about”? After Gene Siskel died, Roger Ebert tried out a number of co-hosts on his television show At The Movies, my favorite of whom was B. Ruby Rich (who alas, did not get the job permanently). In their discussion here, Rich sees the movie as being a father-daughter story, whereas Ebert says its about the contrast between the genuinely tough central character and soft Californians who think they’re tough, but aren’t. Those are intriguing takes; personally I saw The Limey as being about the lingering remains of the 1960s.

Stamp and Fonda were both 1960s icons, and seeing them duel it out here in their declining years and come to terms with the harm they did along the way, makes a mournful statement on that era, particularly when Valentine says the 1960s “were just 66 and early 67 — that’s all it was”. Newman, of Vanishing Point fame, another cult figure from that era (There was also a scene with sex kitten Ann-Margret that was cut from the final film) adds to the throwback feel, as does Soderbergh splicing in flashback scenes of Stamp from the 1967 film Poor Cow. Stylistically, the adventurous editing, repetition of key images, and violation of linear chronology recalls the experimentalism of cinema in that era (Even though Soderbergh didn’t add all that in until post-production when he saw that a more conventional structure didn’t work). It all gives the film an elegiac meta-theme on top of that of the main story, making it stick with you for much longer than other films of its genre.

p.s. The DVD release of includes in its special features menu an audio commentary track that is legendary among film buffs. Rather than do the usual dull nodding along saying how great each scene and actor was, Soderbergh and Dobbs argue intensely and intelligently about how the film turned out. It’s fascinating both for what it reveals about them as people and also about how directors and screenwriters think.