Essays on Film

  • Artistic and Economic Legacies of a Landmark Antitrust Case
    The marked decline in Hollywood’s fortunes in the 1950s and early 1960s (before Scorsese, Coppola, Evans et al saved the day) is usually attributed to the increasing availability of televisions in American homes. This was no doubt a factor, but equally important was a 1948 Supreme Court: United States v. Paramount Pictures. The impact […]
  • Black Actors Break the Oscar Ceiling
    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African-American actors had a boomlet of Academy Award acting nominations. Many predicted at the time that the civil rights era had finally come to Hollywood, and that Black nominees and winners would become a fixture at the Oscar ceremony. It was a false dawn. Nomination droughts set […]
  • Bob Hoskins’ Retirement
    My sympathies to Bob Hoskins, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and will retire from acting. Although best known for tough guy roles, he was an actor of tremendous range who could also be endearing, gentle and funny on screen. His breakout performance in “The Long Good Friday” is his best work, indeed […]
  • Conversations in Cars and Elevators
    If you watch many movies you will see a disproportionate number of conversations set in elevators and cars. Of course people converse in such settings sometimes in real life, but why is it so common in the movies? Both cinematically and in terms of acting, the ordinary way people talk to each other — […]
  • De Niro’s Greatness (Guest Essay)
    London-based Ian Jentle had a long and successful career as an actor; Americans are most likely to know him as Josef Goebbels in the epic War and Remembrance television mini-series. I asked Ian to explain from an actor’s point of view what makes a great film performance, and he has kindly agreed to do […]
  • Establishing Character and Plot Elements in Film: The Prisoner
    A remarkable number of films absolutely botch their opening moments by introducing way too much information/needless detail or by providing essential information in a clumsy fashion. The worst ever example in the movies was David Lynch’s Dune, which had such an incoherent opening narration that when it played in the cinema, audience members were […]
  • Finding and Enjoying Older Movies
    My knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations can thus sometimes be hard to find. When I was writing for Washington Monthly magazine, […]
  • Impress Audiences Quickly, Or Else
    Watching a movie once required a significant investment of time. You had to page through the newspapers to find the ads, decide what you wanted to see, look at showtimes until you found one that worked with your schedule, travel to the theater, buy a ticket and travel home afterwards. Today, just sitting here […]
  • In Film, Words Aren’t Everything
    Great dialogue has been in decline in Hollywood for a long time, even though a few masters (Sorkin, the Coen brothers) keep the flame of Preston Sturges alive. As the movie-going audience came to comprise a larger share of teenagers and the international market (much of it not fluent in English) became more important, […]
  • John Leach Helped Make Spy Movies Cool
    John Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon. The theme music of […]
  • Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior
    When we lost the irreplaceable Peter Falk in 2011, most of his obituaries focused on his role as Lieutenant Columbo, one of the best known characters in the world. I remember seeing Falk in a documentary filmed in the Andes, during which he walked through a market in a small village that probably didn’t […]
  • Making a No Budget Movie
    The movie adaptation of some of my wife’s poetic short stories has just been entered into the very intense competition to appear at Cannes. They have categories for big budget, mid budget and low budget. And then below that are films like ours, in which a large cast and crew donated their time because […]
  • Making Good Movies on the Cheap
    The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make […]
  • Money is Small and Light in the Movies
    I recommend Mark Stevens’ excellent 1956 film noir Timetable. There’s a funny movie trope during the robbery scene portrayed above. After the robber blows the safe, he steals “$500,000 in small bills”. The money is contained in two small satchels each about the size of a woman’s purse, which he almost daintily lifts and […]
  • Movie Trivia Quiz
    Question 1: What famous movie includes the first film appearance of Jeff Goldblum (as a vicious thug), one of the first screen roles of Christopher Guest (as a police officer), and was long rumored — apparently incorrectly — to be the first screen appearance of Denzel Washington? Question 2: I have recommended the film […]
  • My Favorite Line in Casablanca
    Everyone has their favorite quote from Casablanca – so many to choose from: “Round up the usual suspects!”, “I’m shocked, shocked, that gambling is going on in this establishment”, “Are my eyes really brown?” etc. After about 10 or 15 viewings, my favorite switched to a lesser known line. I love it because of […]
  • My Second Favorite Fist Fight in the Movies
    My preferred airline now has a channel of “classic films” which included the Bond outing From Russia with Love on my recent trip back home. And why not? It’s a very well made film and unlike the more silly and comic book-like Bond films that came along in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s fairly realistic […]
  • Over and Out: Another Odd Movie Trope
    I have written about movie tropes such as the the tell-tale cough of death and the bullet that throws a 200 pound adult across a room. I was reminded of another while watching my sons play with hand held walkie-talkies. The little boy on the other end says “Over and out!” after each transmission. […]
  • Overused Movie Trope #152: The Completely Ransacked Room
    If you love movies as much as I do, you probably watch a lot of them. Generally that’s a joy, but some overused movie tropes can eventually to wear down even the most devoted cineaste, such as people yelling no-o-o-o-o-o-o!! in slow motion and the tell-tale cough of death. Another one that always gives me a […]
  • Overused Movie Trope #267: No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!
    Suffering through The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on an airplane some years ago, I noticed a movie trope that is even more overused (and is much more annoying) than “over and out” the tell-tale cough of death and bullets that throw people across rooms upon impact. The scene: Thorin sees his father slain in […]
  • Overused Movie Trope #82: How Long Has That Villain Been Standing There?
    I watched one of the usually good English-language adaptations of Wallander (The Swedish detective show), which ended with a painfully predictable stand off as the hero bursts into a room and finds the villain holding a gun to someone’s head. Which raises the usual question: How the hell long was that guy standing there with the […]
  • Physics and Bullets in the Movies
    I watched Harry Brown a few years back, which the magnificent Sir Michael Caine personally lifts from forgettable to above-average. It does though feature a common movie trope, namely that a bullet can thrown a grown adult across a room (Presuming a powerful enough gun). Mass and Speed are roughly interchangeble forces in comic […]
  • R.I.P. Lauren Bacall, the Star Who Almost Wasn’t
    Of the notable Hollywood people who died in 2014, Lauren Bacall is the one I will miss the most. Most of the obituaries about her left out something quite important about the evolution of her career. The typical account noted that her triumphant debut film with Bogart, To Have and Have Not , was […]
  • Sidney Lumet’s Many Contributions
    In the wake of his passing, tributes to Hollywood legend Sindey Lumet focused mainly on 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon, all worthy pieces of cinema (Serpico is less so, in my opinion). He deserves credit for at least two other things. First, he largely rescued Sean Connery from Bondage by […]
  • That Tell-Tale Cough in the Movies
    Before the big romance scene, no one in the movies has to brush their teeth first to suppress halitosis. Before the big action scene, the hero never needs a pee break. And Henry Fonda, as the President, never passes gas. The side-effect of the general exclusion of such realities of human biology from film […]
  • The Real Motive Behind Babette’s Feast
    In the well-loved art film Babette’s Feast, the central character spends her entire lottery winnings to make one spectacular meal for her guests. It is portrayed as an act of marvelous generosity by a poor person who loves to cook and loves to give. But Alan Jacobs points out the surprising fact that Isak […]
  • The Workaday Heroism of Dedicated Parents
    If you wanted to make the case that Akira Kurosawa was the greatest filmmaker of the 20th century, one leg of your stool would be the number of talented directors who copied him, including George Lucas and John Sturges. I watched Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven on the plane back to the states some years […]
  • Tragedy and Triumphs of Rock Hudson
    Anne Helen Petersen has written an intriguing, sad article about Rock Hudson and the gay agent who packaged him and other gay men as movie stars. She argues that Hudson’s sexuality actually made him more attractive to a certain segment of heterosexual women in the 1950s and 1960s precisely because he was handsome, charming, […]
  • Understanding Clockwork Orange
    On the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s famous adaptation of the Burgess novel, Tim Robey analyzed the movie’s impact. I am surprised to see a British writer missing the critically important point that Kubrick’s version is not based on what Burgess actually wrote and what most Britons actually read. The UK version of the book […]
  • Watching the Silent Version of “Roman Holiday”
    The other night I arrived at a restaurant about 45 minutes before my dinner companions, which led to an unusually gratifying wait. Above the bar was perched a mega-size high-definition television, but the sound was off and only gentle jazz issued from the speakers in the ceiling. As my shiraz arrived, William Wyler’s 1953 […]
  • What Do American Audiences Consider Obscene?
    I caught Coppola’s classic at a U.S. hotel not long ago, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities. The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut. Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle […]
  • Why Did They Bother to Explain That?
    I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen. Surely superfluous, they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally […]