Monday, December 26, 2011

"THE THING" (1982) Dir- John Carpenter

If you’ve been checking out this blog, then you know I am not a horror film devotee. It’s a genre I avoid as a rule, but as Leonard Bernstein once said, “It doesn’t matter what style of music you play, there is good and bad in all genres.” That is a paraphrase to be sure, but you get the point. I just feel that there are a lot less great films in the horror genre than in others. There sure is a lot of Drek-ula.

1982 was a huge year for me. I met my wife in 1982. I went on my first nationwide tour as a musician with the band “Skyy”, opening for Kool and the Gang, and sharing the stage with such legends as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Rick James, The Time, Al Jarreau and many more. I played in places I’d only dreamed of, like Radio City Music Hall, Cincinatti’s Riverfront Stadium, The Cotton Bowl, the Greek Theater, Reunion Arena.

We spent a lot of time watching movies on the tour bus, because we spent a LOT of time on the tour bus. There were some movies we watched once or twice, and some we watched multiple times. “The Thing” was one that got a bunch of viewings. It was very popular, and rightfully so. For the time, the effects were quite impressive, even on a smaller than small screen. The tension was on such a high level, the pacing so measured that time flew by.

I’ve never been a big fan of John Carpenter. He made some films that were cartoonish, almost unintentionally satiric. I am thinking primarily of “Halloween”, “Escape From LA” and “The Fog”. Then there were those movies that showed exactly what the guy could do with the right plot and attitude, like “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Starman”.

Leading this pack was “The Thing”. Supposedly a remake of the Howard Hawks classic starring “Gunsmoke”’s James Arness as a “kitenous alien being” discovered in the Arctic. The setting of extreme cold and isolation, and the presence of a malevolent extraterrestrial are the only two factors the original and Carpenter’s remake have in common. The films otherwise couldn’t be more different. Hawks’ movie is a talky, low tension detective story masquerading as a horror film. It does hold a role as the first scientist vs. monster movie that treats the scientists as scientists, not madmen.
Apparently much more true to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr., Carpenter’s is a tumultuous shape-shifter tale, with a high level of gross-out, mistrust, and general badass-ness in the person of Kurt Russell. Carpenter and Russell had a great relationship with “The Thing”, the 2 “Escape From..” films and “Big Trouble”. These movies changed Russell from the Disney nice guy to “Snake Plissken”—a wise-cracking charismatic tough guy in the mold of Bogart’s take on Phillip Marlowe. Russell’s R.J. McReady is a paranoid loner, the perfect hero for a story like this. The scientists want to analyze the situation, but he is all about action.


“I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!”- Garry


A U.S. scientific post in Antarctica is on the verge of winter. They witness a Norwegian helicopter in pursuit of a fleeing Siberian Husky, the passenger firing at the dog with a high-powered rifle. The dog makes it to the U.S. camp unharmed, and the chopper lands. It soon blows up by a mishap, killing the pilot. As the dog runs to the Americans, seemingly for protection, the Norse shooter fires and hits one of the Americans in his leg. A different American shoots and kills the armed Norwegian. The dog is rescued, the Americans assume the Norwegians had psychotic cabin fever, and head to their camp to find out what the situation is. The gruesome scene at the decimated camp includes a corpse with two heads that was burnt alive. Upon bringing the deformity back to their camp, they realize something is wrong with the dog, who in captivity with other huskies, has caused the other dogs to snarl and attack. The Norwegian dog begins to transform grotesquely and take over the other dogs. The Americans now realize that this is an alien life form that can transform itself into any other life form given enough time. They need to stop it, but have a huge problem. Some of them have already been infected, and they can’t tell whom.


Here’s the pitch—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” meets “Ice Station Zebra”. That simply does not do this movie justice.
However, comparisons to “Body Snatchers” are inevitable, since the major cold war theme of an alien society coming over and stealing your soul, your individuality, your unique YOU-ness, and turning us all into walking automatons simply geared to do their bidding, is what “The Thing” is all about.

Or is it?
By 1982, this was not as fascinating and horrible a thought as it was in the ‘50’s. In the ‘50’s, they sold us a bill of goods that we, as capitalists, were all good and free cowboys, and that they, as commies, were all soulless and enchained bureaucrats. By the time the ‘80’s came around, we were no longer cowboys, that’s for sure. We were bureaucratic as HELL. We were capitalistic, warmongering, dictator supporting, hush money laundering LIARS. The only thing we had to fear was US ourselves.
Oh yeah, we also had to fear viruses, like AIDS, and our own incompetence, like Three Mile Island. Let’s not forget malevolent psycho serial killers like Son of Sam and the Green River Killer. NOW it seems like I’m getting somewhere.
John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing” was obviously a product of its time, not just in the available film technology, but also in the national ethos. The mutating alien obviously represents a disease that can take you over at any time. Our inability to identify and contain it is pure incompetence. Like a serial killer, it takes you over one at a time.
Disease, incompetence, violent psychosis. Ding, ding and ding.

The fact that the camp is isolated in Antarctica and yet still vulnerable, might just represent even more of the American ethos. We have always felt buffered by the oceans, our safety as a nation supported by the distances. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended that, and global trading, our involvement in foreign wars that had no bearing on our societal well-being, Iranian hostages and Central American revolutions began to shrink these distances.

Right now you’re saying, SHEEEEIT, Wayne. It’s just an alien horror movie! Stick to Hollywood, will ya? True. It IS just an alien horror movie, the template for which was set by Ridley Scott’s revolutionary Sci-Fi “Alien”. Unlike Scott’s horror masterpiece, which is totally a serial killer parable, “The Thing” tries (and succeeds) to speak to ALL of our fears during that strange era of cultural and political waste known as the ‘80’s.


The star of this movie is not Kurt Russell, although he does a fine job in his role of the tough chopper pilot. The stars are the effects, the make-up and the grossest of gross out images, concocted by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. Apparently the workload was so heavy for Bottin that he had to be checked into a hospital for exhaustion at one point. The mutation scenes pre-date “Terminator 2” by 9 years! They are also much more disgusting than anything I think I have seen in any other horror film. There will be at least 4 times when you say “auggghh…no!” At one point, Palmer sees Norris’ disembodied head sprout King Crab legs and start to scuttle along the floor to escape the flamethrowers, and he says what we are all thinking; “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.” All of the transformation sequences take the amazing make-up/animation concepts and techniques from the previous year’s “An American Werewolf in London”, and raise the ante.

There are tons of flammable and explosive moments, of course. The film is sometimes a bit of overkill in this way. After all, this is a quintessential “dick flick”. In fact, it is completely devoid of female presence whatsoever, with the single exception of the voice of McReady’s computer chess opponent, supplied by Carpenter’s then wife, Adrienne Barbeau.

Carpenter turns the Spielberg model (adding normal everyday life events to heighten the realism) a bit on its head with a few comic turns to lighten the unbearably tense atmosphere. One of my favorites is when Palmer is watching “Let’s Make a Deal”, and he runs up to the video console, turns it off, and declares “I know how this one ends”, ejecting the video tape. Boy did that moment hit home on the tour bus! Ironic that there was this dig at Spielberg, since “The Thing” can blame it’s box office futility on a far more benign story of aliens landing on Earth that was released at the same time—“E.T.”!

The decision by Carpenter, et al to not reveal whether either of the last two survivors are infected I found both courageous and fascinating. The film ends unresolved, like so many contemporary art house flicks. Think about it; there are so many ways they could have gone with the end of this film. 1) McReady and Childs both get rescued, but you don’t know if one of them is infected. 2) One of them kills the other, and it turns out that he was right, and the one he killed was infected. 3) One of them kills the other and it turns out he was wrong, the man was still human. 4) They decide to blow themselves up. 5) The alien wins and takes over the human. 6) The actual ending—we never know what happens. I like both 1 and 6 of these endings, which are pretty much the same. This lack of resolution probably hurt the movie at the Box Office, but I believe it will help the film have a long and happy life as a cult classic.

Ennio Morricone of Spaghetti Western fame supplied the score, and it is typical for a horror film. Lots of droning synth sounds are punctuated with a persistent low pitched heartbeat. There’s no great theme like his melodies for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, or both “Once Upon a Time…” films. Whatever—it’s about a million times better than that cheesy crap Carpenter wrote for “Halloween”!


As stated earlier, Kurt Russell is the hero/anti-hero McReady, and despite apparently wearing eyeliner, he is a tough as nails, scotch swilling sonovabitch. If you identify with anyone in this film, it’s McReady. Most of us remember the shock when Russell, a Disney heartthrob, went WAY out of character to play Texas tower spree killer Charles Whitman in “The Deadly Tower”, a very well known made for TV movie. However, his real breakout role in the raunchy and hysterical comedy “Used Cars” gave us a clue of the future actor we had on our hands. Right on the heels of that was Russell’s first true actioner, and his first team-up with Carpenter, “Escape From New York”. At this point we knew there was a great male lead in Russell, and that he was someone you could count on for humor, toughness and range.

There is little to no character exposition in the film. You get the idea that Wilford Brimley’s character, Dr. Blair is the head of the science crew, and that Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is the main muscle guy, supported by Childs (Keith David) and Clark (Richard Masur). Windows (Thomas Waites) is communications, the other scientists are Dr. Copper, Norris, Fuchs and Bennings. Nauls is the cook, and Palmer—well, we just know he likes to get high. Brimley does a great job in trying to destroy everything when he realizes that the alien must be contained or else it might infest the entire planet. It’s probably the most real acting anyone does in the film, and he handles it as beautifully as he handled anything else he ever performed.

One other performance worth noting in the film is by Jed, the husky who plays the “dog thing”. So much of the tension and eeriness of the beginning of the film comes from watching Jed check things out. He watches the goings on from a window, far more interested than a typical dog. He goes in the cage with the other huskies and lies down in a very sentient manner, knowing they are going to be able to recognize his malevolence. It’s a great, bravura animal performance. No, seriously!


Oh, man. Just go get a nice doobie, settle back and watch this movie again. It’s a wild trip, and something very different than your typical alien monster horror pic. Get (Mc)ready by listening to some tunes from “Thriller”, or maybe even better yet, Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”. Get in that 1982 mindset. Oh, and don’t make the mistake I made and cuddle your dog while watching. In fact lock the dog in the other room. And definitely don’t eat rich food right beforehand. No red meat! Prepare to be grossed out, and to be scared and entertained by a great horror film—one of the best.

1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look ★★★ 1/2

Thursday, November 24, 2011

“A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH” (1946) Dir- Powell/Pressburger

What I Remember:

Another of those great films from the Channel 13 WNET vault they used to play from time to time that I would make a point of watching if home. There were generally three studios that provided these films: Janus, J. Arthur Rank and Toho. If the film was Continental European, then it was Janus (the 2-faced Drama/Tragedy mask). If it was British, then it was Rank (the guy hitting a gigantic gong). If it was Japanese, then the Toho logo showed up (just the name and some Japanese writing). If I saw any of those openings, then I knew I was in for a treat.

One evening I was home and flipped over to 13. The gong guy came on. The titles started and it was a British film called “Stairway To Heaven”, starring David Niven and Kim Stanley. I knew Niven from “The Pink Panther” and “Casino Royale”, two very silly movies wherein he played a dashing, debonair character. Kim Stanley I only knew as Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire”. The movie began and the most riveting scene ensued: an RAF pilot about to die in a burning plane is on the radio with an American WAC. She is trying to ascertain his situation and summon help for him, he is spouting poetry and hopeful fatalism. She is captivated by his bravery and erudition, he by her wholesomeness and earnest character.

He miraculously survives, but it turns out he cheated death. Unfortunately that’s pretty much all I can recall nowadays. I remember some very cool effects, especially this incredibly long stairway that seems to be the Roslyn Metro Escalator on steroids. Vaguely I remember a heavenly trial, and a very effeminate Frenchman from the 17th Century as this film’s version of Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The movie was very touching, and extremely poignant having been made just as the war ended.

After Re-watching:

“Don't be upset about the parachute, I'll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones. I hope it hasn't gone all modern, I'd hate to have a prop instead of wings!” – Peter Carter


Peter Carter, an RAF pilot (David Niven) is going down in his disabled plane. He has no parachute, so his choice is to jump and die in the fall, or go up in a ball of fire with his aircraft. He is on the radio with a young WAC named June (Kim Stanley), who is trying desperately to help a no-win situation. The urgency of it all forges a bond between the two. When contact is lost, the WAC is obviously distraught. In heaven, his co-pilot waits for him, but he never shows up. You soon realize that this is a special wing of heaven, where only victims of the War are processed. We find Carter dragging onto a beach, apparently unharmed. He assumes it is heaven, but in actuality it is a beach very near where June is stationed. They meet, and fall in love. Meanwhile, heaven figures out that a foppish Frenchman/Angel from the 17th Century named Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) who was supposed to deliver Carter, lost him in the British fog. They must bring him back to heaven where he belongs, but he contends that his falling in love exempts him, especially since it was no fault of his own. Eventually a trial ensues, and his fate is decided.


Apparently the reason the film has two names is that the USA distributors felt that putting the word “Death” in the title would not be good for box-office so soon after the end of WWII. Pretty much everybody was related to, or friends with someone lost in that conflict. Therefore the change to “Stairway to Heaven”; which stuck until a recent restoration effort of all the Archer films. Their most well known effort is of course “The Red Shoes”, a monumental treatise on the subject of art vs. life. Interest in this film has recently been sparked by the success of “Black Swan”, which took so much from the Archer classic as to almost be a remake.

What superficially seems to be a story of love conquering all—even death, has some very interesting undercurrents. The most obvious and pervasive of these themes is the Anglo/American connection, so clearly strengthened by the Allied effort to defeat the Axis. The love affair in the film is between a British pilot and an American woman. It is somewhat symbolic of the gratitude the British felt to Americans for their help in subduing the Nazis. There is also a feeling of respect from the American side for the courage under fire the British showed during the war years. When an American revolutionary (Raymond Massey) is appointed to prosecute the case, his anti-British prejudices weaken the bond, but merely temporarily. The writing is down to earth (with the exception of the poetry recitations) and tautly paced.

Yet there are some plot issues which detract a bit from the film. As the story goes on, June’s friend, Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesay) has decided that maybe Peter has some kind of brain illness from a concussion that is causing him to see the messenger from heaven. He urges that surgery be performed, and the operation occurs on Earth concurrently with the trial in heaven. This is confusing, since the whole thing is a fantasy anyway. I mean, Carter survived plummeting thousands of feet into the sea. Why bring in Earthly matters into something so blatantly spiritual? You are never as invested in the surgery as you are in the trial, since none of it feels like reality.
When Reeves dies in a motorcycle crash trying to get to the ambulance which will take Carter to surgery, everybody feels bad, but life goes on. Why is Carter’s life so much more important than Reeves’? Because he’s in love? Wait—next we’re supposed to feel good that Reeves dies so he can be Carter’s defender in the heavenly trial? Nobody seems to care that this poor schmuck gave his life up just so Peter and June can be together.


“A Matter of Life and Death” is a fantasy, a romance and a war film all wrapped up together. There is also an element of science thrown in. The film starts with a narrator (God? Carl Sagan?) talking about the vastness of the universe (“the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans…”). Look at that dust cloud, it’s space gas! Uh-oh, a super-nova is destroying a solar system. Maybe someone was playing with Uranium atoms. Considering what’s to come, the whole intro is a touch weird. To us in 2011, it’s rather quaint. However, when I think of it, the whole intro and all the very cool scientific trappings like the camera obscura scene must have been very cutting edge to those watching in 1946. It’s hard to hold that against the movie. It would be like making fun of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” because its all-powerful robot, who could stop the Earth’s rotation, can’t speak even rudimentary English.

One fascinating film choice was to exclude mention of the enemy from the halls of heaven. There are plenty of ethnicities there, but no Germans, no Spaniards, no Italians and no Japanese. I think the words that explain this are “TOO SOON”.

Probably the biggest filmmaking decision was Powell’s to make Earth beautifully Technicolor, and Heaven drably monochrome. When Conductor 71 appears on Earth to bring Carter back to heaven, he even comments about the Technicolor as he holds a flower in his hand. This anti-Oz treatment works beautifully. It makes the Earth a place you want to stay in, while heaven seems somewhat like the set from “Metropolis”. I guess if heaven was so great and amazing, why wouldn’t the lovers just both die so they can be in the better place together? Incidentally, when some Americans are entering heaven, they both look wide-eyed (you don’t see what they see) and one says, “This is nothing like home”. The other retorts, “It is like MY home.” Hmmm. The whole thing resembles a bureaucratic nightmare. The celestial courtroom looks like a colorless Rose Bowl. It’s certainly not the typical cinematic heaven. Whatever you may think about these set and camera choices, it keeps the film interesting.

The other great set piece is the giant, infinite stairway, festooned with huge statues of the great figures from mankind’s history. It’s an amazing effect, and it never gets old. When Carter feels he is being tricked into ascension, he turns and runs down the up escalator as fast as he can. This scene makes the climax in “Vertigo” seem like a step-aerobics class.


Niven and Stanley are charming and perfectly cast. Their opening scene is unforgettable. Afterwards, the real heavy lifting is given to Livesay and Massey. Good old Dr. Gillespie (that was my into to Massey, in the Dr. Kildare series) had had some big time roles to that point, in particular “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which showcased his formidable trial lawyer chops. As the prosecutor in “A Matter of Life and Death”, he does ‘bombastic’ beautifully. Livesay, who is magnificent in the Archer classic “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, has a smaller but perfectly played part as the sacrificial doctor/ defense counsel. Goring is the perfect fop; he is concerned about his job, but those concerns are outweighed by his French respect for true love. As always in these Powell/Pressburger efforts, the acting and casting of all smaller roles are pitch perfect. When the writing is this good, it takes a real amateur to screw up the performances. Look for a VERY young Richard Attenborough in one of the early celestial scenes.


“A Matter of Life and Death” or “Stairway to Heaven” is a moving and fun post-war effort, regardless of what you call it. It is a touching tribute to those who gave their lives in armed conflicts. It is a romantic fable of love conquers all, even when that love is between two war-tossed nations.

1st Look- ✭✭✭1/2 2nd Look- ✭✭✭1/2

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“FREUD” (1962) Dir: John Huston

What I remember:

“Freud” is the second film in this blog that was directed by John Huston. He obviously had no problems taking on big subjects, or disparate subjects, for that matter. A man who could direct “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Asphalt Jungle”, “Moby Dick” and “Freud” is certainly no slave to genre, nor can he be classified as an Auteur.

I saw this on TV back during my high school years. The opening alone was on such a high level of writing and directing that I recall being simply stunned (I probably would have used the term “blown away” at the time). The camera focuses on some strange hypnotic drawings, while Huston’s voice-over describes man’s three great revelations/humiliations. “Before Copernicus, man thought he was at the center of the universe, Before Darwin he thought he was separate from the animals. Before Freud, he thought he could control his own mind”. Or something like that. So yes, maybe it was dime-store intellectualism, but I wasn’t even a college Freshman yet, so Sophomore-ism seemed pretty cool. Now, I’d probably think, why is Noah Cross talking about Freud? Shouldn’t he be saying something like “You've got a nasty reputation, Mr. Gittes. I like that.”

I vividly can recall the dream sequence from the Susannah York character’s hypnosis as being visually very different and compelling. This was years before I saw Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, with dream sequences that are a direct antecedent to those in “Freud”. Salvador Dali designed the “Spellbound” sequences, so it’s possible that when I watch now, I will think that the “Freud” scenes pale by comparison. All I can say is that I thought it was brilliant as a pretentious, artsy fartsy teen.

Nonetheless, “Freud”’s subject matter was fascinating to me, and I still find mental illness one of the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed and misrepresented conditions of human existence. So little progress has been made since the period represented in this film. Maybe it’s time for a movie about THAT.

This film, listed as “Freud: The Secret Passion” (are you kidding me?) is unavailable on DVD. That galls me beyond words. Why the hell can you buy a piece of garbage like “Children of the Corn” on Blu-Ray for fuck sake and you can’t get “Freud” or “Porgy and Bess” on regular old DVD? I am forced to watch this on some very crappy transfer on YouTube. Looks like I am set up to be disappointed. Kee-rist, I hope not.

After re-watching:

“What a splendid thing to descend to Hell and light a torch from its fires!” Dr. Meynert


Sigmund Freud (Montgomery Clift) is a young Viennese neurologist who is fascinated by neurosis and its main symptoms, hitherto categorized as “Hysteria”. Along with his colleague, Dr. Breuer (Larry Parks), he pursues the sources of neurosis, but eventually comes upon a theory which even Breuer, his closest ally, must reject.


As far as biopics go, “Freud” has many of the run-of-the-mill characteristics; it compresses much of the man’s story into a very small window, it hyper-dramatizes some of the key moments in his career, his personal life and relationships are trivialized, and the work that brought him his fame and notoriety is simplified into terms that most of us can understand. Think about some recent efforts like “Ray”, or “Pollock”. This is, sadly, the nature of the beast. No great person’s life/work/torment can be adequately captured in a two hour film. Also, thanks to the film being made in 1962, Freud’s addiction to cocaine, and his mistaken use of the drug as a treatment for his patients, is never even referenced in the slightest. You’ll need to find another missing masterpiece, “The Seven Percent Solution” to see that story.

Yet “Freud” does some things very differently than others in its genre. There is filmmaking of the highest order going on here, and parts of the script are as brilliant as anything you might read in the finest of novels. Supposedly, the first draft of the script was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, as commissioned by Huston. Jean-Paul Sartre! It is assumed that some of what he wrote survived the rewrite by Charles Kaufman (No, not THAT one. The man who brought us “Adaptation” was about 4 years old when this made).

The importance of this film has to do with our understanding of just how huge a breakthrough it was for mankind to discover the unconscious mind. Our knowledge of ourselves is paramount to our mental health. Our collective mental health is paramount to the health of our society. Should one, as the opening monologue insists, place Freud on the same pedestal as the great thinkers in history; akin to Galileo, DaVinci, Newton, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Marx? Or is he simply just one of the cogs in the slowly turning machine of Psychiatry? Well, this film would have you believe, Freud was a man who bucked the system, who stood for what he believed regardless of the condemnation of his colleagues. A man who risked career and livelihood for the chance to destroy some myths about the human mind. I think he was a hero.

Apparently, so did John Huston.


As I stated earlier, what makes this better than the typical biopic is the filmmaking itself. The more I watch the films of John Huston, the more I am inclined to put him with the masters of the medium. This movie must have had some major obstacles- obstacles not unlike those Freud himself might have encountered. When your star is in the midst of committing a decade-long suicide (as Clift’s close friend Elizabeth Taylor described his last years) then you will probably have some trouble shooting your film. Universal Pictures sued Clift since his problems caused the film to go way over budget. More on this later.

Huston manages to overcome these problems, and he also manages to evoke the period with very few outdoor shots. The film was shot in Germany, but one would never know. Most of the “action” takes place in drawing rooms and lecture halls. The set designs are very impressive- all the décor looks like you’d imagine the 19th Century halls of wealth and learning to look. The dream and memory sequences have a soft focus blur, and much of the imagery is reminiscent of German Expressionism of the ’30’s. These sequences are great, but nowhere close to the brilliance of those in “Spellbound”. Perhaps the enlistment of a visual genius like Dali would have helped Huston reach that level.

In any case, the revelations in the dreams are beautifully realized, using camera, costume and set. One of Breuer’s and Freud’s patients, Cecily Koertner (Susannah York) tells of going to a hospital in Naples to identify the body of her father. She tells of how the nurses looked at her funnily. You see that the nurses in the dream lounging around in frilly skirts, some sitting suggestively. As the Doctors strip away the artificial layers with which her unconscious has shrouded this memory, you see that the nurses are really prostitutes, that the hospital is in reality a brothel, and that the doctors who came to get her were police.

John Huston’s great achievement was to make the plot of “Freud” a very elaborate, psychiatric whodunit. We want to understand exactly what causes Ms. Koertner’s paralysis and blindness as much as Freud and Breuer do. Did her father molest her? Did she seduce him? Did her mother reject her? As the layers of her past are revealed concurrently to Freud, the audience and Koertner herself, the film becomes as hypnotic as one of their spells.

Speaking of which, a major problem with the movie comes from the act of Hypnosis and how it is portrayed. There are some times when Freud simply waves a pencil in front of a patient’s eyes, says “You’re getting sleepy”, and the man falls unconscious in a manner of seconds. “Look at the candle”….and boom! Sometimes, that part is just laughable. How better it would have been for them to show the real process once, and then subsequently just said, “I’m going to put him under” and dissolve to the state of hypnosis.

Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score, and it is brilliant and haunting. There is not a moment where it calls attention to itself, and yet subtly it adds to the eeriness and tension of any scene. Interestingly, Ridley Scott borrowed the title music from “Freud” for use in “Alien”, a score written by Goldsmith too.


In the ‘50’s, Montgomery Clift was as big a star as the movies had. He, like Marlon Brando, could have named his price in modern day Hollywood. By the time “Freud” was made, he had had a terrible car accident, which started an addiction to pills. There are times in this film when you wish he could have been more animated, more angry. His piercing eyes and soft-spoken delivery seem much better suited to a mysterious love interest, not an intellectual scientist.
It is an uneven portrayal. On one hand, he has some very fine moments. One scene, when he realizes that a patient of his is sexually obsessed with his own mother, he is repelled and his professional detachment is shattered. As he realizes what is happening, Clift perfectly embodies the disgust and ambivalence he feels. Yet in another scene where Cecily threatens suicide, his pleading with her seems almost half-hearted. The lines are well written; Clift just puts nothing into them.

Huston does all the voice-over, not just the prologue and epilogue. You have to wonder during those times when the voice-over is supposed to be Freud’s inner thoughts, if those lines were supposed to be spoken by Clift, but he was unavailable. It feels incongruous having the narrator’s voice come in and start speaking lines that should be coming from the character’s mouth.

Larry Parks, of “The Jolson Story” fame plays Dr. Breuer. This is also Larry Parks, of “Blacklist” infamy. He was one of the artists who testified against colleagues in the McCarthy hearings, admitting his involvement in the Communist party, and yet still found himself banned from work. This is probably his most famous role besides Jolson, and he is very good. When he realizes that Ms. Koertner is in love with him (psychiatrists call this symptom “transference”), he has to decide to stop treating her, or else ruin his marriage. His frustration is palpable. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he been allowed to freely pursue his career.

Susannah York as Cecily is beautiful and flirtatious. She shows remarkable range for a young actress. She was just 23 at the time of the film’s release, and she cold not look more luminous. Her energetic portrayal of the psychosomatically riddled woman is as hyperbolic as Clift’s Freud is static. When the two share the screen, particularly in the suicide attempt scene, the disparity is conspicuous. Ms. York is probably the “On Second Look” mascot; I will be writing about her in two upcoming blogs about “Tunes of Glory” and “The Silent Partner”. Talk about your underrated, underused actress. Sadly she just passed in 2011. I’m a fan.

As for the supporting cast, David McCallum (‘60’s heartthrob who played Ilya Kuryakin in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) takes a short turn as the young man with the Oedipal complex, and does a splendid job. Character actor Eric Portman as Dr. Meynert is a stand out. Ingenue Susan Kohner as Freud’s wife gets little to work with, and does less with it. Sigmund and Martha were supposed to have a very passionate relationship, and that is nowhere to be found here. Interestingly enough, she is the only Jewish actor in the film. Both Freud and Breuer were Jewish, as of course were Martha and Frau Freud, the mother of all mothers. Apparently Eli Wallach campaigned very hard to play Freud. He even went so far as to grow a Freudian beard for the audition. Rumor is he never got a chance. Considering Montgomery Clift’s problems, one wonders if Wallach could have made this film even better. Certainly his being Jewish would have helped the Waspy Huston understand that part of the story.


I still love this film, despite the obvious central flaw of the casting of the lead. It is remarkably intelligent, and the writing is at times transcendent. Huston’s gothic/noir style is a perfect atmosphere for this story about the removal of shrouds of ignorance. This is a film that should be required viewing for anyone interested in mental illness, or simply the machinations of the mind. And by that I mean everybody. Sadly, the only way to see this is to either have it on tape, hope it comes on TCM, or watch it in pieces on YouTube. Criterion---are you listening?

1st Look-★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★1/2

Monday, August 29, 2011

“MIDNIGHT RUN” (1988) Dir- Martin Brest

I didn't get it.

What I Remember:

Buddy movies were all the rage in the late ‘70’s. Then came the ‘80’s wave of Anti-Buddy movies, wherein two characters are thrust together who may or may not be alike, but who definitely have antipathy for each other. The ‘90’s developed the “Bromance” flick, which is a trend that continues, and has yet to evolve into something new.

“Midnight Run” was pretty much the apex of the “Anti-Buddy” film. Starring Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, the movie derived much of its humor from the two stars’ discongruity. Ex-cop DeNiro was as tough as tough guys come. Mafia accountant Grodin was a typically fussy egg-head, neurotic but not pathetic. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby pioneered this pairing, but it was really developed by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Of course, Dino was not a tough guy, more like a “smooth” guy. That was the Crosby role too. DeNiro was probably the first pairing of a tough guy with the nudnik character.

Trying to recall what so underwhelmed me about “Midnight Run” is difficult. I know many consider it a masterpiece of comedy/action. My immediate recollection says, “Hmmm. Grodin. Not funny. Never funny. Bad timing. Deadpan delivery. Not good at physical comedy. Basically a no-talent”. Well, there you have it. I think DeNiro is a genius. I obviously don’t feel that way about Charles Grodin. He used to host SNL it seemed like all the damned time back in the ‘80’s, and I was always disappointed to see his name in the TV guide. I loved the show back then, and couldn’t wait to see Steve Martin or George Carlin host. But Grodin? Bleh.

It always seems to me that there are people in show biz who make it big, and you just scratch your head and wonder what is it that everybody else loves about this actor/band/comic/broadcaster? My short list: Neil Young, U2, Madonna, Rob Dibble, Charles Grodin, Dane Cook, Julia Roberts, Emeril, Gallagher, Kevin James.

I guess that tells the tale. A comedy starring a person who I don’t find funny. Can I get past my obvious prejudice, my being “Anti-Grodinic” and enjoy a film that Rotten Tomatoes critics give a 97? A film that has joined, amongst others, “The Godfather” and “Citizen Kane” in Filmspotting’s Pantheon? Damn good question.

After Re-Watching:

"You're OK, Jack. I think... under different circumstances… you and I probably still would have hated each other!"- Jonathan Mardukas


Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) is an ex-cop who is now a very tough and bitter Bounty Hunter. He has been offered a big time bounty; track down Mob Accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) and bring him back to LA within 4 days to collect $100,000. He has little trouble finding The Duke, but runs into a lot of interference from 3 sources; The FBI, the Mob boss and another Bounty Hunter, Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton). All the while, Mardukas tries to convince Walsh to let him go, but Walsh refuses to give in, obsessively trying to beat the clock and complete the task.


To say that “Midnight Run” has a few holes in its plot is like saying that Boy George occasionally indulged his feminine side. Just keepin’ the ‘80’s theme consistent, people.

Holes? The movie “Holes” has less. I’ve never seen it, but still, I am sure of this fact.
For starters; Mardukas has supposedly given the bulk of the money he embezzled from the mob to charity. So where exactly is the 4 million for the bond coming from?
Second- how is it that everyone in this movie can move instantaneously from place to place without any time lapsing, when it takes Walsh and Mardukas forever to do the same trip? Regardless of where they go, someone gets a tip and hundreds of people are waiting at the next bus station, train depot, airport, cow pasture.

Next, the bondsman (played by Joe Pantoliano) calls Marvin at his home, and the phone rings in what is obviously a hotel.

Wait, there’s more. In the climactic airport scene, Walsh has arranged to swap some discs that have all of the info Mardukas has on his ex-boss’ dirty business for Mardukas himself. The FBI has to wait till Jack hands over the discs before they can arrest the boss. Why? We already know that the discs are fake. Why couldn’t they just arrest the mob guy on a kidnapping charge when he brought Mardukas into the airport terminal?

But the most ridiculous plot point is that Jack finds The Duke in 24 hours, when the mob and the FBI have supposedly been searching for him for years. I don’t care how good he is, we are talking about THE MOB. Generally, they can find anybody anywhere. In fact, Mardukas spends a lot of time saying that witness protection is useless, that the mob will get him before he even makes it that far. Still, these crooks seem dumb as rocks. To make it look possible, they staff the henchmen with a couple of dodos. The boss, Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) spends much of his time explaining what horrible thing he’s going to do to theses “morons” if they don’t get Mardukas. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but the result is violent and unimaginative. Direct quote from Serrano :

“You and that other dummy better start getting more personally involved in your work, or I'm gonna stab you through the heart with a fuckin' pencil. Do you understand me?”

Is that the best they could do? It feels like the Scorsese template is being satirized, but sadly not for laughs here. Like a Scorsese film, there’s a lot of profanity, but it never feels as edgy, and it never makes you laugh.

All this notwithstanding, the heart of the film is the two leads and their interaction. If you believe that these two characters could exist, and that they might communicate the way they do, and you find them funny and entertaining, then you will buy this film, holes and all. For me, it’s a swing and miss on all pitches.

Martin Brest had kind of a brief career in Hollywood considering the fact that he had some pretty huge successes in this film and it’s predecessor, “Beverly Hills Cop”. Maybe the quick end of his career can be attributed to his more recent efforts; “Scent of a Woman”, “Meet Joe Black”, and the ultimate career killer, “Gigli”. He almost took down Pacino, Affleck, J Lo, Brad Pitt and a ton of others with these horrific movies. Brest was the original director of “War Games”, an ‘80’s film I really enjoyed, but he was replaced by John Badham. Supposedly a tiff with the producers got him fired. Maybe they wanted it to be good.

In Brest’s defense, there are a lot of difficult action scenes in “Midnight Run” that are executed well. Standout scenes are a “Blues Brothers” like car chase, a shootout near a bus station and a boat-less trip through rapids. The action is well played and filmed throughout. Not so for the comedy.

Danny Elfman’s score sounds more like Bruce Springsteen than Oingo Boingo; lots of guitar and horn section stuff, very blues-rock influenced. Then it kind of deteriorates into an imitation of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, with pervasive little bits of the original theme tucked underneath any scene that has neither dialogue or action. I’m not a fan of this use of music. Can’t we just watch DeNiro walk around New York without his own personal E Street Band?


DeNiro is typically himself, he rarely played a different role during that era. He’s not given a great bunch of lines to work with. It’s pretty much a lot of “shut the fuck up”. Still, he does a great job with his part physically, and is very convincingly emotional when forced to confront his ex-wife and estranged daughter at one point.
It’s a terribly written scene, but Bob does such a great job with his actions and face that you feel the emotions.

You might think that Mardukas gets the lion’s share of the laughs, but again, there’s that Grodin thing. He has his moments, for sure. There is a great scene when he cons a redneck bar out of some money, and you realize that he is both more courageous and resourceful than previously imagined. You can almost see how he has evaded the FBI and Mafia for so long. For the rest of the time, he’s kind of annoying. You can tell early on that there’s more to him than he’s showing. His little needling of Jack for his diet, smoking, and lonely life is supposed to come across as condescending, but it’s obvious he’s trying to get under Jack’s skin. Grodin doesn’t play this for laughs at all, he asks these questions, and the deadpan delivery just makes it all fall flat. I think the concept was to underplay it, make it more intellectual. Maybe in a different kind of film this could work, like “My Dinner With Grodin”. This is an action/comedy. The laughs need to equal the intensity of the suspense and the action scenes. “48 Hours” did this beautifully, and Brest’s own “Beverly Hills Cop” works well. The difference? Eddie Murphy instead of Charles Grodin. Big, broad comedy, not deadpan subtle snickers. Apparently Robin Williams was originally supposed to have the inside lane for the Mardukas role, but he never got a chance to audition, since Brest liked the Grodin/DeNiro matchup. Wait there’s my finger- pointing back in the same direction, Mr. Brest.

As for the supporting cast, Ashton’s burly bounty hunter is by the books, but not as meaty and interesting as his turns as Taggart in the “Beverly Hills Cop” films. Joey Pants is a bit one-note, lots of desperation and yelling. The really fun performance here is by Yaphet Kotto as FBI agent Mosley. His role is like Ronny Cox in “Beverly Hills Cop”, but he is much funnier and is a better foil for DeNiro than anyone else in the movie.

I feel the need to point out that, other than the brief appearance by Walsh’s estranged family, there is not one significant female role in this film. In fact there is not even the slightest hint of love/sex interest. At least in BHC they go to a strip bar!


I still don’t get it. “Midnight Run” has its moments, and it’s not a BAD film at all. In fact, it’s entertaining, and has some pretty funny and suspenseful scenes. To me, “48 Hours” is by far the best of this genre, and it’s thanks to Eddie Murphy’s hysterical turn. Charles Grodin makes this movie second rate, in my opinion. I got more laughs from Yaphet Kotto. Hell, I got more laughs from the moron mobsters!

1st Look-★★ 2nd Look-★★

Thursday, July 28, 2011

WHERE’S POPPA (1970) Dir. Carl Reiner

What I remember:

Talk about your raunchy comedies, this was the pinnacle of raunch in the ‘60’s/’70’s. There are tons of senility jokes, almost more than in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys”. This type of humor is probably considered in terrible taste now that we know about Alzheimer’s and other types of Dementia associated with old age.

Yet “Where’s Poppa”, has it’s comedy evenly distributed throughout. It attacks the elderly, the young and impetuous, the officious, the desperate. It’s another uproarious black comedy from the age of iconoclasm that brought us “Little Murders”, “Putney Swope”, “M*A*S*H”, “Harold and Maude” and “Brewster McCloud”.

As with many Mother-centric films, front and center is the put-upon son, usually Jewish, who must contend with the eccentricities and demands of his Mother to the detriment of his personal and professional life. George Segal, handsome but with a huge touch of nebbish, fits this bill to a tee. As the mother, our ultimate New York ptitsa is played by Ruth Gordon, who reprised this kind of character more than a few times. Ms. Gordon also played a demented mother in “Inside Daisy Clover”. As Mrs. Hocheiser in “Where’s Poppa”, she is both lovable and horrid.

What made “Where’s Poppa” special was the outrageous dialogue and premise that makes movies like “The Hangover” seem tame and mainstream. When I talk about how important it is for a comedy to actually make me laugh, then you know this one had to have that going for it. There were certainly no redeeming characteristics to be found.


“He made a CACA in the bed”- Louise.
“That son of a BITCH!”- Gordon


Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) is a trial lawyer who lives at home with his widowed mother (Ruth Gordon), who is suffering from dementia. She is extremely difficult to take care of, and Gordon has struggled to find a nurse that will stay with her. During interviews with prospective caretakers, he meets the beautiful Louise (Trish Van Devere) and both are immediately smitten. She agrees to meet his mother, and finds out that their relationship is a little stranger and deeper than she thought. Gordon’s brother, Sidney (Ron Liebman) tries to help, but has his own issues. He also reminds Gordon that they promised to never put their mother in a home.


Yes, it’s another black comedy from the ‘70’s. What is it about this genre that I find/found so appealing? Maybe it’s just that the kind of fare we’d been fed in the ‘60’s was so happy, so uplifting, so “YAY LIFE”! My built in BS detector just couldn’t deal with watching “Dr. Doolittle” and “Mary Poppins”. I needed to see what seemed real to me. Now this movie is about as far from real as you get, but it was honest in exposing the reality of our inner minds. This is the stuff you can’t, shouldn’t EVER talk about. But you know it crosses your mind. You can’t help it. You are a sick bastard at heart. Your Id is the sickest of sick bastards. Thank goodness you have a Super-Ego to tell it to go stand in the corner. Howard Stern has made a billion being your unchained Id. Your Id can be damned funny.

The question is, is your Id funny all the time? Absolutely not. Sometimes it is just sick and repellant. I hate to say it, but now that I am getting older, “Where’s Poppa” has lost it’s appeal for me. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff that is still funny, but there is a ton of stuff that is uncomfortable and just plain awful. 15 year old Wayne and 56 year old Wayne are not on the same page here. When I rewatch “Little Murders” or “The Producers”, films that have a lot in common with this one, there is never a moment where I want it to end. There were a whole bunch of those moments watching “Where’s Poppa”. Scenes I remembered fondly seemed poorly drawn and not at all as uproarious as I thought.

When Sidney has to run through the park to help Gordon, he keeps being confronted by a gang of African-American muggers. The torments they devise for Sidney are clever and different, but not close to as funny as I had it in my mind. Amongst the muggers is Garrett Morris, I was surprised to discover. Also making his film debut later in the movie is Paul Sorvino. The Director’s son, Rob Reiner, is in his second movie, his first being Carl’s “Enter Laughing”.

Both the famous “Tush” scene and the monologue by Louise about her first husband’s incontinence are less funny than I thought, they are just plain weird. Maybe the problem is that the shock value just isn’t there anymore. We can thank Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow for that.

Interestingly enough, the parts that were funniest I had no memory of! A scene wherein Gordon is defending a young radical played by Rob Reiner (predicting his Mike Stivik character from “All In The Family), is made side-splitting by veteran character actor Barnard Hughes’ depiction of a profane, racist Army Colonel. Another great moment is when a New York cabbie passes by a black woman to give a ride to Sidney, dressed in a full-out ape costume.

At the heart of this movie is subject matter that we once considered funny, but now that so many of our parents and grandparents are victims of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s, it has lost it’s comic charm. I assume that this would be the same for “The Sunshine Boys”, but I was never a big enough fan of that film to watch it again.


Carl Reiner was known both for his writing and as a producer of the groundbreaking “Dick Van Dyke Show”. He was also the straight man to Mel Brooks’ classic “2,000 Year Old Man”, one of the funniest comedy teams to ever be on record. His best work as a director was probably his run of films starring Steve Martin in the ‘70’s; “The Jerk”, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, “The Man With Two Brains” and “All of Me” are all very funny comedies. “Dead Men..” really was a stand out if you are an aficionado of B&W films, and in particular film noir. Reiner seamlessly integrates his film and star into clips from old movies, and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching Martin interact with Bogie, etc.

Carl’s work with Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar probably prepped him well for the helm of “Where’s Poppa”. Watching it now, however, really exposes what a beginner he was at directing. There are some very strange choices being made, a lot of chances at huge laughs that are undercut by bad timing and strange shot choices. For example, the climax of the movie is shot from a great distance, what seems like hundreds of yards. You hear the dialogue, but you can’t see what’s happening to be in on the film’s punch line the way you would like.

The shock value of the opening, where you watch Gordon wake up, perform his ablutions, get dressed in the ape suit and try to scare his mother to death, is also not played up as drastically for the surprise as it could be. It is shown with a sort of filmic diffidence that is hard to comprehend. Brooks would have played the scene for huge laughs.

Yes, it was low budget. Yes it was 1970, and film technology was not what it has become. But again, this movie loses out to both “The Producers” and “Little Murders” in every way.

One great bit is the song for the opening credits. If I tried to describe it I would be doing it a disservice. Suffice it to say that it is a stream of consciousness lyric that sounds like a bunch of non sequitors that could be said by an old senile person. The lyric is put to a Burt Bachrach type track.

One great filmmaking decision was going with the ending that we see. On the DVD you can watch an alternate ending which continues on from the last scene. It is disturbing, and not funny or even ironic. “Sick, sick, sick”, is all I could think of, in the parlance of the period.


The two leads, George Segal and Ruth Gordon are exceptional in their roles. Segal plays “harried” better than anyone except maybe Gene Wilder. Ruth Gordon has her character down, and she really gets going when Louise enters the story. When she realizes that Louise is not just a nurse, but a love interest for her son, she becomes sharp as a tack while still being addled. It’s amazing to watch her pull off this dichotomy. Trish VanDevere as Louise, is attractive, but not much of a comic source, even as a straight man/woman for the leads.

Ron Liebman provides a lot of the humor from his supporting roll. His funniest moment concerns his reaction to getting flowers from the undercover male cop in drag that he was forced to rape by the gang that keeps mugging him. Yeah…the comedy is THAT dark.


With the passing of Amy Winehouse at age 27, there have been a lot of discussions about music stars that died at that age. A few of my 30-something friends all agree that Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain were all deserving of their stardom. However they single out Janis Joplin as someone who really wasn’t so good, and they can’t see why she was considered amazing by my generation. When I listen to her stuff now, I kind of see what they mean.

What they don’t understand is how different she was to all those who preceded her in pop music. For a white girl, hell -- for ANYONE to sing with that intensity and commitment, it was just unheard of. It wasn’t that her chops were so great, but that she was so raw and unfettered by artifice. They say that for success in the entertainment field, you have to be the best, the first or different. Janis was more than different….she was totally unique.

Well, at the time of its release, “Where’s Poppa” was different. Maybe that’s what I saw in it back then. It’s level of outrageousness was unprecedented. It was not the first sicko comedy, and certainly not the best. 40 years have reduced that edge to a dull razor, and now the film is simply abrasive.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★

Monday, July 4, 2011

"In a Lonely Place" (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray

What I remember:

I believe the old adage amongst writers is, “When you’re stuck, write what you know.” And the one thing all writers know best is themselves.

This can apply to the autobiographical story based either on reality or fantasy. I always hear a little bell going off when I read a book or see a movie wherein the protagonist is a writer. Ahhh, I think, so you were stuck, and couldn’t come up with a REAL story. Often these stories take place in academia (see/read “Wonder Boys”, “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “The Human Stain”). These usually smack of some truth and reality. Then there are the more fantastic stories, like “Misery” by Stephen King, and “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin. These usually strike me as a tale invented from the imagination of some dreary life event, like King being harassed by some over-ardent fan, or Levin being brow-beaten by some older colleague.

In movies, there is the occasional screenwriter protagonist. Interestingly enough, three of my all-time favorite films have screenwriters at the center of them. Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation”, the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” and Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” are, to me, all masterpieces. A bit lower on my list comes “In a Lonely Place”. Nicholas Ray directed this very intense movie, and cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role as tough guy writer Dixon Steele, a man with a violent streak who is under investigation for murder. The premise seems a bit unreal. Most writers you come across are intellectual, pacifist types. I guess there’s always the Hemingway prototype to lean on, although he seems the anomaly.
I remember it as a bravura performance by Bogie, maybe one of his best. That usual Bogie aplomb, the controlled fire we all know is not to be found. His Dixon Steele is all rage and impudence. Ray also cast his ex-wife Gloria Grahame in the role as the sexy neighbor who becomes Steele’s lover. Grahame is smoldering and for me, a real revelation when I saw this film. We all remember her as Violet in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and she is likeable and attractive in that classic. In this film, she is equal to any of Bogie’s most comely co-stars, even Bacall.

I was really very impressed with and absorbed by this movie, and found it’s slightly sketchy premise to be eclipsed by the powerful performances and Noir stylings of Ray’s direction.

After re-watching:

“I've been looking for someone a long time... I didn't know her name or where she lived - I'd never seen her before. A girl was killed, and because of that, I found what I was looking for. Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look.”- Dixon Steele


Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter who has a serious temper, but who is obviously quite intelligent and talented. He gets into a lot of fights, and can be a lout, but his agent stands by him, and his friends put up with him because at the core he is a good guy. He is asked to adapt a trashy book, and rather than spend the energy reading it, he asks the coat-check girl at his favorite haunt to come to his apartment and tell him the story. She is a little ditzy and star-struck, so she agrees. At his building he runs into a new neighbor, the attractive Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Mildred, the girl from the restaurant, tells Dixon the flimsy story, then he sends her home with cab fare. Mildred is discovered murdered the next day, thrown from a car in the canyon. Dixon’s alibi is Laurel, who says she saw him send the girl on he way. Laurel soon becomes Dix’s lover, and helps him finish his screenplay. All the while, she sees the violent side of him, and begins to suspect that maybe she was wrong to give him an alibi. The investigation begins to fray their relationship, and soon the trust between them erodes to almost nothing.


There’s an expression I once heard back when I was in college about the sacrifice an artist makes, and it is quite simple:
“Perfect in life, or perfect in art.”
I immediately found that fascinating and haunting. Is it really true, I wondered. Does one have to give up all real relationships in order to be great? Or is it a fact that you need to have a personality disorder to have the single-minded dedication in order to achieve greatness? Bi-polar behavior seems prevalent amongst the geniuses in the arts. The list is long (though not proven): Pablo Picasso, W.A. Mozart, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, Jaco Pastorius, Graham Greene, Edgar Allen Poe, Brian Wilson and Virginia Woolf were all said to be afflicted with this problem.
Though it’s never said, anyone who knows about this connection can see that this is the problem with Dixon Steele. He has manic episodes, and these are often hostile unless he focuses the mania on his work. Eventually what makes you great becomes your undoing, as it did for Van Gogh, Bird, Jaco, Mozart and Woolf. I originally thought in remembrance that this was a writer’s fantasy, but after watching again I realize that this is a portrait of the tortured artist, unable to harness the insanity. I’m sure both Ray and Bogart were thinking of people they knew in the business when drawing this portrait.

As for the movie itself, what starts out as a typical LA Noir whodunit, turns smoothly into a relationship and character study. It’s not simply a descent into madness, it becomes the tale of two people who can save each other, and how the mental illness of one is both the creation and destruction of this salvation.
To quote my old friend, “Mr. Bass Man” Ronnie Bright, “That’s some deep shit”. Unfortunately, he was referring to the lyrics of the song “If” by Bread, so maybe his estimation of “deep” might be a bit suspect.
Anyway, the turn from Noir to love story is paralleled by the turn from the audience’s identification with Dixon to its identification with Laurel. This is accomplished with maximum finesse by Nicholas Ray and writer Andrew Solt. At first, before the relationship really kicks in, you are completely with Steele. Then, as the two become lovers, you are with both as one unit. Then, as suspicion and lack of trust pulls them apart, you go with Laurel. I can’t remember another film, with the exception of “Psycho”, that does this so well.

One other theme in the film bears mentioning. You get the feeling while watching that you are getting a serious insider’s look at the movie business circa 1950 (and maybe always). It is a bit melodramatic in representation, but then again there seem to be elements of candor that I suspect were rare, and that we don’t really see back then except in “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard”, both of which, coincidentally or not, were made that same year.


There is a symbiosis with Ray and Bogie, that you see only in the great works. It is on a level with Ford and Wayne, or Hitchcock and Grant, or Truffaut and Leaud, or Scorsese and DeNiro, or Kurosawa and Mifune. Director and Actor working together almost as one unit, creating a persona and atmosphere to make the movie take on it’s own life.

Normally I will discuss the acting of a lead in my next section, but because of what I just said, I think Bogart’s performance needs to be discussed now. In one very Hitchcock-like scene, Steele directs his friend Brub (who is also one of the investigators of the murder) and Brub’s wife Sylvia into reenacting how Dix thinks the murder was committed. As he orders them around, there is a light across Bogart’s eyes that illuminates them, adding to his manic look subtly, producing a hypnotic concoction that is horrifying and reassuring at the same time. What a delcate line they (Ray and Bogart) both walk during this scene.
There is also no care taken to make Bogart look good during the movie. Laurel says she likes his face, and acts like that is why she is attracted to him, but it is clear it is the kind of person he is that she falls in love with. His fire, his creativity, his artistry, and by proxy his edginess are the magnet. He is obviously much older than Laurel (in fact Bogie had 24 years on Grahame- he was 50 and she 26 during the filming). There is no attempt to play down or even acknowledge this gap. One is simply left to believe the moth and flame situation that we are proffered. I didn’t doubt it for a second.

As in all films about writing, the dialogue is snappy, and without cliché. At times it is a bit over the top and leaden. After one of his episodes, Steele says this line to Laurel: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” He says he is putting that in the script. Probably at the time it’s a line that was a focal point and 1950 audiences might have needed the hook. Today, it plays heavy handed, to say the least.
Full disclosure--When I first saw the film, it inspired me to write a song entitled “I Lived For a Day”.
Guilty as charged, your honor.

The score by George Anthiel is way too pervasive; always there, always highlighting the emotions which need no help. I think it takes away from the power a bit, and would love to see this film with just a few touches of music instead.


As I stated before re-watching, Gloria Grahame is a revelation in the film. She captures the character changes in Laurel so perfectly throughout. Her coolness to Dix early on is controlled fire, and very alluring. Then, when deeply in love with him, she embodies that high so captivatingly; you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Finally, as she begins to fear him, her apprehension is powerful and visceral. It’s bravura acting from start to finish, and one wonders where performances like this were in other films.
Both Ginger Rogers (!) and Betty Bacall were considered for Laurel, but Bacall was under contract, and Ray held out for Grahame, who not incidentally was his wife.
Fascinatingly, in real life, she and Nicholas Ray were in the midst of a divorce during the shooting of this movie! They kept this under wraps, which I guess was more great acting. It gets weirder; Grahame got remarried to Ray’s son from a previous marriage.
To quote the Dan- “Hollywood, I know your middle name”.

Frank Lovejoy and Jeff Donnell as Brub and Sylvia are very believable, but not standouts. As for the rest of the supporting cast, there is really only one role that is interesting- Martha, Laurel’s masseuse and confidant, played by Ruth Gillette. She plays it like a bastard offspring of two Hitchcock characters, Judith Anderson’s chilling turn as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” and Thelma Ritter’s wisecracking Stella the physical therapist in “Rear Window”. Martha keeps calling Laurel “Angel”, and comes across with heavy lesbian overtones, which must have been a risky take in those days. She knows Dix is trouble for Laurel, but because of her persona it feels like she’s always saying, “you’d be much better off with me, Angel.”
Art Smith as Dix’s agent Mel is standard issue Jewish nebbish. The role could have been played for more comic relief, but thankfully was not. There is also a piano bar scene featuring Hadda Brooks singing the Ray Noble classic, “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”. Fun trivia: Her contralto led her to a job as the first black woman to host a TV show.


This is probably the first re-watched movie that went higher in my estimation than it was originally. For the performances, the difficult subject matter, the intense direction and crushing ending, it should be considered one of the masterpieces of American Cinema, and for certain a top 3 Bogart role, along with “African Queen” and “Casablanca”. You’ve probably never seen it. Change that as soon as possible.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★★

Monday, June 6, 2011

“A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER” (1938)- Dir. Lloyd Bacon

What I Remember

This was a true mash-up of a gangster movie and a screwball comedy. Edward G. Robinson plays a bootlegger who wants to go legit with his business once Prohibition is repealed, but doesn’t realize that the beer he has been selling is vile.

EGR did more than a bit of self-parody in this movie, and I recall that this "meta factor" really enhanced the comic elements. He carried the film almost single-handedly, although the premise itself, that I believe came from Damon Runyon, is funny enough. It’s a big cast for such a short film, and there are loads of sub-plots, including a Sopranos-like plot with his oblivious daughter and her boyfriend from college.

I have no memory of where and when I first saw this film. I am sure it was on television, and probably on broadcast in New York. That would mean commercial interruptions for things like crossplugs for The Joe Franklin Show , ads for Martin Paints, PC Richard, or Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee. A guess would be “Million Dollar Movie” on channel 9, WOR.

HAH! Million Dollar Movie. That used to mean the most expensive, big budget blockbusters of all time. Nowadays a million only covers the cost of George Clooney’s trailer.

Anyway, this movie struck me as original, and very funny. It was pretty much as if Preston Sturges had made a gangster flick.

After re-watching;

“I was gonna speak ta dem about it, but Boss—I don’t t’ink dem people are in a position ta listen too much. Dey don’t seem ta be alive.” – Mike


It’s the evening that Prohibition is repealed, and bootlegger Remy Marko has decided to turn his illegal beer making business into a legitimate brewery. Nobody who works for him seems to have the heart to tell him straight out that his beer is undrinkable. Cut to four years later, and the once flush Marko is now on the verge of bankruptcy, with the bank about to take over his brewery unless he can come up with a half a million dollars. Meanwhile, Remy’s daughter, Mary comes home from being schooled in France, and announces that she is engaged to a blueblood scion. Even though he is wealthy, she wants her fiancée, Dick, to get a job. Dick decides to become a State Trooper, adding to the comedy and tension of the situation. Up in Saratoga, five gangsters have robbed the local Bookmaking establishment of, you guessed it, a half a million dollars. They plan to settle a score with Remy, too, but things go wrong. One of them overhears the others about to cut him out, so he kills all of them, but just as he is about to escape, the Marko’s show up at the house. Outnumbered, the lone gangster left hides in the guest room, which is soon to be occupied by an obnoxious orphan Remy has brought up for some clean air and relaxation.

Let’s see: a comedy that features a gangster going legit, class differential engagement, bad seed causing trouble, murder, revenge, theft. Whew. All this in about 85 minutes. And that riveting drama “Somewhere” was 97 minutes long. Go figure.


The first question I always ask of a comedy is, did it make me laugh out loud? I like to laugh, and I love a good comedy. But the humor has to hit me a certain way. “Bridesmaids” made me laugh a lot, and hard. “There’s Something About Mary” did not. That might actually be a good one for my “I Didn’t Get It” entries.

“A Slight Case of Murder” made me laugh more than a few times. Yes, there’s a lot of plot. But it never got in the way of the laughs to the point where you spent more time trying to figure out what was going on, than just enjoying what was up on the screen. The source of the comedy was mostly the one joke, of a bunch of people from the lower class putting on airs. This is a running gag in all of Damon Runyon’s work, in particular Apple Annie of “Pocketful of Miracles” posing as a member of New York’s elite class for her visiting daughter, and of course Sky Masterson romancing Sarah in “Guys and Dolls”. Putting bluebloods in proximity with lower class citizens (like this movie) or wack jobs (“You Can’t Take It With You”) was a big source of humor during the Depression. Often in these films, it’s not the central characters who do the heavy comic lifting, but the sidekicks.

This is true in “A Slight Case of Murder”, but the main character is also a major part of this levity. Remy is one of those people who think big, and use street smarts to get what they want and need. Bootleggers usually get a pass from depression era audiences. They were supplying a needed staple of life that the government had shut off. They were considered human, almost Robin Hood types. Bank robbers, on the other hand, were killers and stole our money. No comedies about them would be popular.

Of course the truth is, Al Capone and most of the really bad guys from gangster land did everything criminal, and bootlegging was a major part of their income. Bootleggers shot each other over territory, strong-armed (beat into submission) innkeepers and storeowners into selling just their brand. They were not nice guy, Robin Hood types at all. They were brutal criminals, making an illegal buck regardless of the consequences.

Geez….lighten up, Francis.

Regardless, they made good Hollywood stories, and I can only imagine how different “A Slight Case of Murder” was when it came out. Having a host of actors known for playing tough guys and criminals do it for laughs really makes this film a treat.


Director Lloyd Bacon may be most famous for directing movies wherein the only memorable elements are those with which he had minimal involvement. By that, I mean he directed a lot of the movies that included Busby Berkeley production numbers; those stunning dance and showpieces which included the camera as part of the experience. Bacon cranked out feature after feature, rolling up an unthinkable 130 credits as director over 32 years. He seems like the epitome of a studio director. He did comedies, musicals, sports films, gangster pics, war movies during WWII, jail epics, and even westerns. I think that makes him a good fit for a gangster/comedy/family drama like this movie. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m surprised there was no prize fight somewhere in here!

There are some well-timed shenanigans with the hold-up man who is hiding out, and a big party with a lot of action that is surprisingly easy to follow considering how much is going on. Otherwise, it’s typically Hollywood for the ‘30’s, the stars are really the dialogue, the acting and the pacing. Bacon handles all quite well, and never gets in the way of the laughs. To be sure, in Sturges’ hands, the movie could have risen much higher, but there are a lot of directors from the period that I think would have messed this little gem up with their imprimatur. Lloyd, you were a hard-working SOB, and someday you will get your props. Meantime---good job on this one.


You probably think I am going to wax rhapsodic about Edward G. for the next three paragraphs, and I certainly could. A 5 foot 4 inch leading man, who could play a tough guy as good as anybody (Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo” for example), and also turn in moving performances like Christopher Cross (no not THAT one) in Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street”, or thoughtful, incisive characters like Barton Keyes in “Double Indemnity”—why, that’s an actor’s actor. EGR said that playing Remy Marko was one of his favorite experiences as an actor, and he sure seems to be having a great time. It’s a great role, and he is wonderful in it.

For me, the revelation is Ruth Donnelly, as Remy’s wife, Nora. She switches back and forth between aristocrat and moll effortlessly, and to great comic effect. You’ve probably seen her in many films; she too has over 100 titles in her resume. She acted on Broadway until the stock market crash, then moved out to Hollywood just in time for talkies. A good thing, since her skill at repartee is up to par with her great facial expressions.

Sidekicks Lefty (Edward Brophy), Mike (Allen Jenkins) and Guiseppe (Harold Huber) provide perfect foils for the Marko family members. One of the best moments comes when Remy is telling them about the bookies getting their take stolen, and while they are all saying things like “how terrible”, they are smiling and laughing and getting a huge kick out of it. Their interplay with orphan Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (played by Bowery Boy veteran Bobby Jordan) is also a great source of humor throughout.

If there is a weakness in the movie’s performances it comes from Jane Bryan and Willard Parker as the daughter and fiancée, Mary and Dick. They feel like placeholders, and even at the climax when Dick has a chance to really do some slapstick, it’s Robinson that makes it work.


If you have yet to see this great comedy, make a point of guide searching for it on Turner Movies or ordering from Netflix. I promise you one thing, you will not be bored, and I am sure you will get some huge laughs out of it. It holds up beautifully.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2

Monday, May 30, 2011

“THE BRIDE WORE BLACK”- 1968 Dir: François Truffaut

What I Remember:

I saw this on television, probably on PBS, in the ‘80’s. My guess is it was at least the partial inspiration for “Kill Bill”. The groom at a wedding gets assassinated on the chapel steps, to the horror of all in attendance. The bride proceeds to go about finding out who did it, then wooing each person involved, and finally killing them. As I’m sure you all know, all of Tarantino’s films are referential. Almost every idea he has had is derivative, and yet he puts an original spin to make it uniquely his own. In the case of “Kill Bill”, he even names his character “The Bride”. In case you’ve never seen “Bill”, she and her entire wedding party are shot at the ceremony, and she wakes in a hospital assuming that the baby she was carrying is among the dead as well. She then proceeds to track down each person she knows responsible for the melee, and murders them one at a time.

When a film aficionado (like me, for instance) thinks of Truffaut, he (me) is immediately mindful of the great classics of his early works; the Antoine Doinel series, and of course, the superb “Jules and Jim”. Other early classics include “The Soft Skin”, and “Shoot the Piano Player”. Truffaut’s involvement in the New Wave of French Cinema cannot be overstated; he was one of the driving forces along with Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. Truffaut seemed the most approachable to American tastes of this crew. His main influences were from American Cinema, in particular Alfred Hitchcock. But Truffaut did not imitate Hitchcock the auteur, he was most interested in how Hitchcock considered his audience and their reaction to every scene and bit of dialogue that his films proffered. With Hitch, the audience was paramount. This rubbed off on Truffaut.

Just as Hitchcock would have you identify with a Norman Bates, as he nervously watched and hoped that Marion Crane’s car (with her mutilated body in the trunk) would fully submerge in the pond, Truffaut asked us to identify with Jeanne Moreau’s bride, who avenges her groom’s death by seducing and killing those responsible, rather than let the law do its job. As I recall, you root as hard for this bride as you do for Tarantino’s.

As far as I can tell, this is a forgotten classic. I remember being totally bowled over, and wondering how it was that I missed seeing this film in theater, when I was so enamored of Truffaut and Moreau. I count “Jules and Jim” in my top 20 all time. It seems in the pantheon of French Cinema, you never hear or read about “The Bride Wore Black”. Let’s see if it deserves that fate.

After re-watching:

“I didn’t come here for love!” Julie Kohler


Prevented from suicide by her mother, a mysterious woman subsequently tracks down 5 men to murder, men whom she holds responsible for the murder of her newlywed groom on the steps of their nuptial church. She uses her feminine mystique, her cunning, her looks and her single-mindedness to trap and eventually kill her targets.


Truffaut freely admits that this is his homage to Hitchcock. Having just completed the famous coffee-table masterpiece Hitchcock/Truffaut, wherein the younger man probed in depth (via interviews) the entire canon of the elder’s work, Truffaut was suitably inspired to make this film. He went so far as to adapt a story from the same author who’s work was the foundation for “Rear Window”, his use of Eastmancolor resembles the Technicolor of Hitch, and for the final and most convincing touch, his score was composed by the great genius Bernard Herrmann.

The similarities don’t end there. Many shots and stylistic elements are direct references to the portly master of suspense. The POV shot of Julie pushing her 1st victim off a terrace is straight out of Raymond Burr attacking Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”. A leitmotif of pouring a glass of liquid into a plant or flowerpot becomes a plot device that helps a man remember where he saw our killer. Hitch was well known for these moments of revelation. Many of the scenes take place in open air, friendly environs, places you would never expect evil to be afoot. The schoolyard crow attack in “The Birds” and the Senator’s soiree where Bruno strangles a dowager in “Strangers on a Train” are prime examples of this juxtaposition that Hitchcock adored.

Be that as it may, there are so very many things in “The Bride Wore Black” that you would NEVER see in a Hitchcock movie. The bride does not ever reveal how she found out who these men are. Hitch would have found some clever way to explain this. Why does Julie Kohler know, and the Police don’t? More importantly, there is no real protagonist other than our bride. In a Hitchcock film, there would be someone with whom the audience can completely identify, someone whose humanity overcomes their desire for revenge. Exoneration is the driving force of Richard Hannay, of Roger Thornhill, of Barry Kane, of Guy Haines. Revenge is something for the bad guys.

Yet this is also French New Wave, and that movement’s disregard for Hollywood conventions developed a troop of anti-heroes. Our bride, Julie Kohler, is a standard-bearer. As I wrote before re-watching, you find yourself rooting for Julie to succeed, to not get caught, to continue. This theme is a twist from Hitchcock, who loved to manipulate his audiences in uncomfortable ways, but would always give them a more suitable target in which to invest their allegiances. It would take “Bonnie and Clyde” for American Cinema to finally give us anti-heroes akin to the French.

As for the suspense, it’s only important for Julie to stay at large until she finally gets all 5 men. You are only invested in this intellectually. You wonder how she is going to get away after pushing the first man off his terrace, but you don’t find yourself begging her to run, for God’s sake! You are fascinated why she doesn’t deface a painting of herself on the wall of the artist she has just killed, but you don’t find yourself yelling at her to wipe it out.

Why do I continue to harp upon this subject? It’s at the root of what I think makes this less of a classic than it could be. Hitchcock understood that unless the audience is emotionally tethered to a character, it is nearly impossible to create true tension and release. Therefore the audience’s experience at the cinema is one of lessened returns—a far less affecting film than “Notorious”, or “Spellbound” even. Check me out…defending Hollywood formula. Go figure. I guess it just got real cold down in hell.


I’ve already spent some time describing a number of the homages to Hitch, but there are some other elements that are worthy of discussion. Cinematically, there are some very fun moments provided by François. The final scene is a long static shot, and the action takes place off screen. Shakespeare would have been proud.

Julie’s first appearance in disguise is as an apparition, which symbolically shows her as the ghost she is, already dead inside. The billowing, white outfit is at once revealing and angelic. You can see why the men are fascinated with her, even though her target is at his own engagement party. Her scarf gets blown off the terrace and onto the awning, which allows the fiancée to go over the edge to grab it, and for her to push him off. Later after we watch her quickly walk away from the building, the camera follows the scarf as it wafts around the sea winds of the Cote D’Azur. It reminded me of “The Red Balloon” more than a bit. Eventually the scarf comes to rest in the fronds of a palm tree, and we see a jet taking off through those leaves. Of course, Julie is on that plane.

The music of Herrmann makes such a visceral connection to Hitchcock, almost in the way a song from your youth can bring a time and place physically to mind. Music can be a form of time travel, and when a composer references his own work on an earlier film, it’s almost like you’re watching both films at the same time. The score of “The Bride Wore Black” reminds me of Herrmann’s work on both “Vertigo” and “Psycho”. I rank “Vertigo” at the very top of my favorite; it is for me in a revolving door with “Chinatown”, “Citizen Kane” and “The Conversation” at the pinnacle of Cinema. Note: none of these films end happily. Just sayin’. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah- having the score bring to mind “Vertigo” and it’s near flawless majesty, probably went a long way towards pointing out just how “The Bride Wore Black” did not measure up. In fact, it helped me to realize what a thin line between homage and satire Truffaut walked while making this film.


If you don’t fully identify with Julie Kohler and her quest to rub out her husband’s murderers, don’t blame Jeanne Moreau. I read some talk about how Truffaut should have used the typical icy blonde of Hitchcock, maybe Catherine Deneuve instead of Moreau. My contention is that Moreau’s performance alone places the movie in a different strata. She is so wonderfully oblique, then suddenly shows chinks in her wall, and even has a full on breakdown while describing marrying her childhood sweetheart only to watch him be gunned down on the chapel steps. At one point, she realizes that one of her victims-to-be has legitimately fallen in love with her, and her face registers the pain of knowing that this emotional connection could never derail her juggernaut of a revenge train. It is a masterful turn, and I believe she is perfectly cast.

The men all do a great job in their reduced roles as misogynists, womanizers and losers. You do almost feel bad for them..well not ALL of them. Certainly the guy who’s kind of a flop with chicks (to quote Jerry Lieber) is a tad sympathetic, as is the artist who falls in love with Julie. The family man is kind of a self-obsessed prick, and you don’t really mind that he gets locked in an airless cupboard. All the other roles are at most one-liners, so it’s really about the killer and her victims. There is a building clerk that does a bit something like Dennis Weaver’s motel clerk in “Touch of Evil”, but it’s totally for laughs.


Hitchcock never did an homage to other filmmakers, and neither did Bergman, Kurosawa or Fellini. Woody Allen has a bunch, as well as Tarantino, and here we see Truffaut take a stab. You’d think when one master references another it would be a very special, magical moment. Ivan Lins did a full record of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs. Herbie Hancock did a full record of Joni Mitchell. I want to hear the masters do their own material. There are plenty of lesser lights out there that can do the job of homage to a master. Truffaut is at his best doing Truffaut. Don’t get me wrong here—it’s a fun and surprising suspenser with twists and turns and great movie moments. It just doesn’t reach the heights of “400 Blows”, “Love on the Run”, and particularly “Jules and Jim”.

1st Look-★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★

Saturday, April 30, 2011

THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949) Dir: Anthony Pelissier

What I Remember:

Based on a story by D.H. Lawrence, I recall this movie as a kind of Twilight Zone episode, only longer, more British, and without a major plot twist. It was kind of like the “Franklin” episode of the Zone, where a slot machine takes on a personality as it calls the newly gambling addict like a siren, luring him to a plunge from a Vegas high-rise hotel window.

In the case of “The Rocking Horse Winner”, a lower income English household is in trouble, and their child hears the house itself demanding money. He gets on his Rocking Horse, and suddenly finds that riding the horse very hard causes him to predict the winners at the local track. If that ever happened to me, my family would have probably taken me out of school on the spot, installed a TV on the horse’s nose, and had Lutece cater all my meals while I rocked away all day and night. “Sleep? There’s time for sleep later, Wayne. Now get on that damn horse and tell me the Exacta winners from the 4th at Aqueduct!”

So right now you’re thinking, “Oh, that Wayne. Exaggerating again for comic effect”. Not this time, bub.
Example 1; Most people have grandparents who break their hip in a fall, and that usually is their undoing. Sadly, this was true for my wonderful Grandma Pearl. However, Pearl slipped and fell running to the cashier at Belmont after she nailed a longshot in the 2nd race.
Example 2; The other side of my family lived at the track also. There is actually a room at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey named after my Grandfather. When told of this honor, he responded by saying, “All the money I lost at this track- they should name the whole damn place after me!”

Anyway, my college girlfriend and I were sitting at her place relaxing with the TV on, and this movie came on Public Televison. She literally jumped up, and said, “I love this movie. We have to watch it!”. Remember, I was a film major, and I went “Oh great. Some precious British kid’s film with a ‘40’s version of Hayley Mills and a rocking horse. Just how I want to spend my night. Aren’t the White Sox on or something?”

On the inside, of course.

On the outside it was, “Sounds great, baby.” Needless to say, the movie completely shocked and surprised me, in a very positive way. This was no Disney does Darby. It’s a serious film about child abuse and neglect, and an allegory about how parents can exploit a child with talent to the child’s detriment.

After re-watching:

“Don’t send me away till after the Darby! Please Mommy, please Mommy, please!” – Paul Grahame


The Grahames are an Upper Middle Class family who are running out of money. Mrs. Grahame spends like there’s no tomorrow, and Mr. Grahame gambles at cards to try and generate enough to handle her needs. They have 3 children, the oldest of whom, Paul, is a happy young boy who strikes up a friendship with their landscaper/handyman, Bassett (John Mills). Mrs. Grahame’s brother, Oscar, is well off, and is also her trustee. He has helped them many times, but is running out of patience. Mrs. Grahame’s mantra, “we must get more money” becomes part of Paul’s unconscious, until he believes the house itself is saying it. His new Christmas present is a Rocking Horse that he rides with intensity, believing it will bring him the luck his parents don’t have. With Bassett, he begins to pick the winners at the track, and rides until the inspiration hits him. Uncle Oscar gets in on the deal, and takes his winnings to replenish his sister’s money, telling the family it’s trust disbursement. Soon the luck runs out and Paul becomes desperate, riding his rocking horse maniacally.


Wow, did I have this one wrong! The parents are not lower class, and they are totally in the dark about the boy’s special talent. They don’t even really know where the new money is coming from. It seems like they don’t care to know. They are simply ready to spend and live extravagantly without asking questions. Just now, it occurs to me that if there’s an allegory here, it’s to today’s USA. Spend, borrow, spend more. Live the high life, don’t ask questions until the collection agent shows up expecting a payback. Then the excrement hits the propeller. It’s an endorsement of the Protestant ethic, for sure.

Nobody realizes that Paul is destroying himself with his maniacal riding except maybe the nanny, who is worried initially, but later seems to lose track. The Mother is totally oblivious, then out of nowhere, gets this sixth sense that something is very wrong with Paul. It’s very hard to believe, and is a pretty huge flaw. The Father is a real nothing in this movie, he ignores the children, and is obviously a failure at providing for the family.

Is there a villain in “Rocking Horse Winner”? Maybe the horse itself, but it’s not Uncle Oscar, who despite being snarky and brusque, genuinely tries to help. It’s not Bassett, who is a lower class nice guy, with a real code of honor. The parents are products of their upbringing, spoiled, yes, but not malicious. The real enemy is greed, just like it is today in the good old U S of A.

The moral of the story? Greed kills. Money is the root of all evil. Check in on your kids once in a while.

To wit, there’s a great scene early on, where the mother puts her children to bed, and she remarks to the father that it was so easy, and she has no idea why Nanny complains about how hard it is all the time. Meanwhile, we cut upstairs to the previously placid bedrooms, now with mayhem breaking out. She has NO CLUE about her own children, because she is obviously so self-involved.

On a side note, there is an awful scene which I had no memory of, and it might have been cut from the version I saw. Trust me, if I’d seen it, I would have remembered it. Mrs. Grahame, faced with the prospect of having a bill collector stay in her home unless she produces 40£ to pay him off, goes to a ghetto neighborhood to sell some of her expensive clothes to a tailor. The tailor, a Mr. Tsaldouris, is obviously Jewish, despite the name. He has a Central European accent, acts and looks the part with coke bottle glasses, carrying a dog around in his dank tailor shop. And he’s a tailor. After they “hondel” (bargain) they settle on a price that gets her to the amount she needs, only if she throws in the expensive bag that she is carrying the clothes in. When he pays her, he asks, “Aren’t you going to count it?” She replies, “No, Mr. Tsaldouris, I trust you”. In that one sentence, she puts him down so thoroughly, and elevates herself. It is classic Brit Anti-Semitism. Only four years after the war. It made me almost as sick as Watto, that huge nosed flying Jew-bug in The Phantom Menace episode of Star Wars, who sells Annakin’s mother into the slave trade, explaining that “Business is business”, with a buggy shrug.

Fuck you, Lucas. You haven’t made a decent movie since “The Empire Strikes Back”. Man, that felt good.


I had never heard of Anthony Pelissier, and with good reason. Nothing else that shows up on IMDB is well known. Mr. Pelissier both directed and did the screenplay adaptation of “Rocking Horse Winner”. The screenplay has its moments, and I’m sure Mr. Lawrence supplied much of them. The Direction is ambitious, and often succeeds. There are great Noir-ish lighting stunts, and the horse itself looks exceptionally demonic at times.

Probably my favorite moments are;
1) The first time we see Paul on the horse, it cuts from the children cowering in the corner watching him, to Paul’s POV while riding. The camera tracks in and out very fast on a fuzzy, filtered vision of the mother and Nanny. You can see that he is in another world, and that the reality of his room is like a separate dimension. It’s very effective.
2) When Mrs. Grahame finally gets the mental idea that something is terribly wrong, and she rushes home to find Paul on the horse, she opens the door, and there is a remarkable shot of her head in the lower right corner of the screen, while the rest of the box is filled with the giant shadow of Paul on the rocking horse. Yes, I am sure Mr. Pelissier was familiar with the works of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

Music is used very dramatically throughout the film, and the score by William Alwyn is powerful, indeed. Mr. Alwyn also wrote for the great wartime documentary “Fires Were Started”, and Carol Reed’s two lesser-known masterpieces “Odd Man Out” and “Fallen Idol”. This is interesting, since Pelissier’s ex-wife remarried Reed! The score is typical, but much of the tension in the movie is provided by its presence in scenes that otherwise would seem quite mundane.


John Mills, who played Bassett, also produced the film, and he is very convincing in the role as the slightly dim but good-hearted handyman. Paul is played by John Howard Davies, a child actor who had two other quite meaty roles as Oliver Twist and Tom Brown in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. Davies had a short career as a young actor, but a very long one as a TV director, including helming many episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and more importantly, directing the greatest sitcom of ALL TIME, “Fawlty Towers”. When I read that little factoid, I decided not to trash him for being way over the top in “The Rocking Horse Winner”. Actually, he is only slightly over the top. The kid who plays Phillipe in “Fallen Idol” (Bobby Henrey) does a better job, but frankly that film is far superior to this one.

Ronald Squire as Uncle Oscar does a decent job of delivering his sarcastic dialogue, but he looks decades older than his sister. In fact, IMDB research revealed that he was indeed 30 years senior to co-star Valerie Hobson, who played Hester Grahame. Hobson had had two very big roles to her credit at the point this film was made; as the adult Estella in “Great Expectations”, and Edith D’Ascoyne in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. Her performance in this film is fairly shallow, even at the end when she is transformed, the character lacks depth and personality. We take for granted how terrific British actors are, so when they are a bit substandard it really can undermine a film.


This was not the film I remembered both in substance AND in quality. There are some fine moments in imagery and sound, but the poor acting and shallow characters take away from the power of the film. We’ve seen this kind of story many times in Twilight Zone, so the novelty of it, which must have been quite compelling in 1949, has little to no effect on us now. In any case, if I had been on the fence about “The Rocking Horse Winner”, that little trip to the London shtetl pushed me off of it.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★