Category Archives: Classic Movies

Harper

Classic Movie Watch — Harper (1966)

1966’s Harper is not only one of the great Paul Newman’s best and most enjoyable films. It’s also by this late date a bit of an under looked classic with a remarkable creative pedigree. Based on the great Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, and capturing the bubbling striking and strangeness of burgeoning, fast moving California in the post war era, Harper is an excellent crime thriller with a first-rate cast. Not only is there the always terrific Newman as the title character at his most wry, nimble and reluctantly heroic.  The film is also packed with other standout actors like the screen legends Lauren Bacall, Shelly Winters, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner. Great character actors also play their parts notably the always indelible Strother Martin, Robert Webber and Harold Gould. The movie was also legendary screenwriter William Goldman‘s big breakthrough, establishing him as a major Hollywood writer and adaptor of work and essentially launching his long successful career in the movies. It was capably directed by Jack Smight with a nice light touch, who also went on a pretty good run later in the 60s and 70s helming films like No Way to Treat a Lady (from a novel by Goldman), The Illustrated Man, Airport 1975 and Midway. Finally Harper was shot by the great Conrad Hall and the film has a terrifically bright and colorful California feel even though it is essentially a noir in content.

Without giving too much away, down on his luck private investigator Lew Harper is hired by an old friend, an ex- Assistant DA and now private attorney Alfred Graves (Arthur Hill) to investigate the disappearance of his client, millionaire grower and developer, Ralph Sampson. The unlikeable Sampson has disappeared en route to LA while flying back from Vegas and his wife, the beautiful but ice cold and disabled Elaine Sampson (Bacall) wants to find out what happened if only to catch him stepping out on her. Harper also meets Sampson’s daughter from another marriage, Miranda (played by a very kittenish Pamela Tiffin) and her boyfriend and Sampson’s private pilot, Alan Taggert (Wagner), who also happens to be the last person to see Sampson before he went missing at the LA airport after ordering a limo. By searching Sampson’s private bungalow Harper finds a picture of faded starlet Fay Estabrook (Winters), whom he tracks down and finds to be overweight and alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk to pump her for info and from Fay’s web of strange connections he’s led to even more unseemly characters such as the nightclub singer and junkie Betty Fraley (Harris), Fay’s vicious husband Troy (Webber) and the bogus holy man Claude (the one-of-a-kind Martin). Deeper crimes are uncovered including kidnapping, human trafficking and even murder and no one is entirely what they seem.

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If that all sounds complicated it is. True to the Ross MacDonald style there are a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of plot twists to follow and throw the audience off balance. Harper uses his wits more than his fists to move the case forward, though he is more than capable in either hand-to-hand combat or with a gun. He’s a step above the local police and he doesn’t mind letting them know it to their face. He takes more than a few beatings and serious risks to his life but, like all great detectives, is compelled to stay on the case and see it through no matter were it may lead. As personified by Paul Newman, Harper is never grim but always wise-cracking, quick witted, effortlessly masculine with a appropriately sardonic take on his gray-shaded word and the people in it. It’s one of Newman’s subtly great performances in that it comes across so effortlessly, as though Harper were just a second skin he was slipping on, and ranks right up there with Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another Goldman screenplay) and The Sting for moving Newman away from the “angry young man” stereotype of his earlier career — a sort of alternative Brando — and into the persona of the affably cynical, world wise, wise-cracking and sometimes reluctant hero that served him and us as theater-goers so well. The direction is crisp and manages to fit in all its twists and turns in a highly enjoyable and never draggy 2 hours. And of course the brilliant screenplay does justice to MacDonald’s original novel even elevating the humor somewhat to keep the dialogue fast and clever, rife with sharp ripostes and cutting lines. It’s tough and violent enough without being exploitative and it’s one of those movies where everything just seems to hum along like a well-oiled machine with just enough oddness and ingenuity to prevent it from being an exercise in formula or slickness. In short, if you’re a Paul Newman fan and crime thriller fan and you haven’t  seen Harper yet what are you waiting for? It’s a mid-60s knockout and you are going to love it.

Just a couple of quick asides: Legend has it that the character was changed from the original Archer to Harper because Newman liked H names and thought they were lucky (see Hud, Hombre, The Hustler, etc). Other sources say that because the producers only has the rights to The Moving Target and no other MacDonald works at that time they didn’t want to use Archer. In fact another Harper/Archer movie was made nearly 10 years later with Newman reprising his role and playing alongside his wife Joanne Woodward in The Drowning Pool (1975). The location was shifted from MacDonald’s beloved coastal California to New Orleans and while the plot was equally byzantine if not more so and the cast of characters just as compelling the film plays a lot more seriously and almost has a grim feel to it. Not a bad thriller by any means but definitely not the nimble, witty masterpiece that the original Harper is. It’s also worth mentioning that the original Archer books themselves are definitely worthy of a read. They are a major cut above most detective fiction and MacDonald earns his high praise as the natural successor to Raymond Chandler as a superlative writer of hard-boiled crime fiction with his Lew Archer grabbing the baton from Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe and ably running with it.

Roger Moore

RIP Roger Moore, 1927 – 2017

The heroes of our youth continue to fade away. So it is with the passing of Sir Roger Moore Tuesday, May 23 at the age of 89 after a life very well spent. The Guardian’s obituary is here.

Moore was “our” James Bond for those of us growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, an impossibly suave and arch version of Ian Fleming’s iconic super spy. Taking over the role at 45 from the great Sean Connery and Aussie George Lazenby, who flamed out after one very good outing (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Moore slowly moved the portrayal of Bond away from the super macho style that Connery personified and into a more self-aware, almost ironic approach. With his first two outings as Bond, the very good blacksploitation hybrid Live And Let Die and the rather less effective The Man With the Golden Gun, Moore seemed to be trying to split the diferrence between his own mischievous personality and the hardness of the Connery era, including slapping women around nonchalantly. But as two-time Bond movie alum Maude Adams famously remarked that was simply not Roger. And as the movies became more gadget driven and wilder in concept, culminating in the very wacky Moonraker that tried to capitalize on the Star Wars craze by putting Bond into space, Moore’s self-aware bemusement served the ever more hyperbolic franchise well. Even if today’s pundits are quick to dismiss the Moore era as lightweight and his portrayal of Bond as lacking in gravitas this misses the zeitgeist of when his films were made. The 70s were not a time of gravitas but rather The Me Decade, a time of partying down and sexual abandon, of thinking less and doing more. And so Moore’s Bond was simply suitable to the times. He seemed to recognize that his perfect features constituted the most important weapon in Bond’s ultimate pursuit, the conquest of women while in the service of the Queen. It’s certainly no accident that he essayed the role 7 times over 12 years, even if by his last outing in 1985’s A View To A Kill his knees seemed to be showing their 57 years more than that well-tanned face. Yet he still managed to take on the Amazonian Grace Jones and a very nasty Christopher Walken, as well as bed Tanya Roberts in the process, so you could say Moore’s Bond retained the good stuff even in his swan song.

Moore had been a major international TV star before being cast in Live And Let Die in 1973. His big break came when he took over from James Garner as his British cousin on Maverick in the early 1960s after working regularly in other action roles on American television. Most importantly, he played Simon Templar in The Saint from 1962 to 1969, a cultured thief who only steals from other criminals. The series was a huge hit both in England and in the US and probably put Moore on Albert Broccoli’s radar as a potential future Bond. He was also immensely enjoyable as one half of the wealthy oil-and-water crime fighting duo in The Persuaders! alongside a manic Tony Curtis, bickering and galavanting their way through jet set Europe and generally having a ball. While the series was not the big hit in the States that the producers hoped it remains a very enjoyable cult classic and peak super suave Moore (check out his very early-70s self-designed wardrobe as Lord Brett Sinclair). After his time as Bond, Sir Roger became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador due to the example and influence of his friend, Audrey Hepburn. He was knighted by the British Empire in 2003 for his years of service doing that worthwhile charitable work and his special focus on helping children in the developing world.

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Roger Moore liked beautiful women, finely tailored clothes, good cigars and good drink and most of all pleasant company. He loved playing  James Bond and never struggled with being strongly identified with the role, as so many of the other actors have (with the notable exception of Pierce Brosnan). For him, Bond and his ever wilder and more humorous adventures were all great fun to be approached with a raised eyebrow and a good quip but not too much perspiration. There was never any doubt he was going to accomplish his mission, kill the villain and sleep with the girl. He made the James Bond movie a terrifically enjoyable experience during a time when the films were real blockbuster summer events. His was an angst-free Bond for a hedonistic era, helping perfect an over-the-top formula that simply worked like a charm nearly every time. If tastes have changed and authenticity is now the new fetish that is no fault of Moore’s. He had the light touch at the right moment and his films remain the most consistently and purely fun of the franchise’s epic run. So godspeed to Sir Roger Moore and may he rest in peace. He brought the world a lot of joy and entertainment and did a lot of good work in his long time on this earth. He is the first cinema Bond to pass on and certainly one of the most loved. But even with that towering cinematic accomplishment he’ll be even more fondly remembered as Roger Moore the kind, funny and very generous human being. Just read this great anecdote from a fan who met him as a child and then again as an adult for proof of that.

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Merry Christmas from MFL!

Merry Christmas to all our loyal regular readers and casual visitors. Wishing you and your families the very best this Holiday Season and a joyous, prosperous & healthy New Year!

Today we’re going (very) old school with this clip from 1954’s White Christmas. This Holiday classic featuring the inimitable Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s songs ably assisted by the very funny Danny Kaye, the charming songstress Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) and the amazing dancer Vera-Ellen. Helmed by the great Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, White Christmas is a very funny musical and dance extravaganza with enough sentimentality to warm the heart of even the Grinchiest viewer. If you’re having trouble getting into the spirit of the season, this slice of 1950s post-War Americana will do the trick like the visual equivalent of turkey with all the trimmings and a cup of egg nog. Merry, merry!

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Documentary view — Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans

(This article was co-written with tomvox1, who helped fill in the biographical blanks of McQueen’s Hollywood career)

Legendary screen icon Steve McQueen was not only one of his generation’s most interesting and successful actors but he was also a serious motorsports addict. An accomplished racer on both two wheels and four, McQueen began spending lavishly on racing machines just as soon as he started making money as an actor after his discharge from the Marines, where he had even attempted to soup up his squad’s tank. Tearing around Greenwich Village in a wire-spoked 1950s MG, he graduated to ever more exotic fare upon moving to California and hitting the big time with his starring role on the Western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. As well as means, McQueen had exquisite automotive taste and would come to be identified with some of the most remarkable cars of the second half of the 20th Century: the 1958 Porsche Speedster, the stunning Jaguar XK-SS, the 1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso and, perhaps most famously, his personal gunmetal gray 1969 Porsche 911S and the Highland Green ’68 Mustang GT fastback from Bullitt.

Throughout the 1960s, running parallel to his rise as a Hollywood superstar, McQueen honed his craft as an expert racer. While truly gifted on a dirt bike, the King of Cool worked hard to become one of the top amateur sports car drivers in the US. In fact, despite being hampered by a broken foot in a cast, McQueen and co-driver Peter Revson drove their Porsche 908 Spyder prototype to an impressive second overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, and first in the P2 class. After a gritty and inspired run, McQueen and Revson only missed out on the overall win when Ferrari drafted the great Mario Andretti into their second car as the laps wound down. It was the pinnacle of McQueen’s racing career but it was almost incidental to the real reason for purchasing the 908 in the first place: he was bound and determined to make the greatest racing movie of all time.

And that’s where the excellent documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, picks up the story. In exhaustively researched detail, the film, a 2015 Cannes official selection, delves into how McQueen put the full force of his stardom and clout behind making his racing epic for good and for ill. Grabbing hold of a project originally titled “Day of the Champion” but now renamed simply “Le Mans,” his vision was to capture as realistically as possible the thrills he himself was experiencing in the cockpit of a high performance race car. And as the title now suggested, the indispensable backdrop for all of the action would be the greatest race of them all, the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. With a cast full of real-life professional road racers and innovative filming techniques, including converting the Sebring Porsche 908 into a 150 mph camera car, the aim was to mix actual race footage with realistic recreations executed at speed by top pros along with McQueen driving a Gulf-liveried Porsche 917 as the movie’s protagonist, Michael Delaney.

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But despite the dedication and advanced technology brought to bear for the driving sequences and McQueen’s personal desire to eclipse John Frakenheimer’s 1966 Formula 1 epic, Grand Prix, as the the greatest racing movie of all time, production of Le Mans was star crossed from the get-go. Continue reading

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Classic Movie Watch — Battleground (1949)

It is sorely tempting to recommend Battleground as a Holiday movie because so much of the action takes place around Christmastime. But since it’s an archetypal World War II film I figured I better just include it along with the other classic movies we talk about around here. Still, there is something about watching it during the Holiday Season that makes you thankful that such brave soldiers stepped up to the grueling challenge of defeating the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany those many years ago. And while this 1949 movie is a long way from the justifiably gung ho, sentimental propaganda that was a Hollywood mainstay during the actual war years, I’d still be willing to bet that you might find yourself tearing up at points thinking about what these young men had to go through in order to prevail against such steep odds. Such is the excellence and impact of the terrifically well made Battleground even to this day.

The film recounts the famous predicament of a very banged up and replacement-heavy Army VIII Corps, including the 101st Airborne division, when they were cut off and encircled deep in the Ardennes Forest by the Third Reich’s last desperate offensive push, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Familiar to anyone who has watched the excellent HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, this was actually a cock up by the Allied Forces by somewhat letting down their guard after the initial hard-fought success of D-Day and the semi-setback of Market Garden. The massive and perfectly orchestrated German attack on overly stretched lines took the Americans and the Allies completely by surprise and it was only after very hurried reinforcement, enduring heavy casualties and the clearing of some of the worst winter weather in years that the combination of Patton’s 3rd Army coming up from the south and US air power could be successfully deployed to bring relief to the soldiers trapped in the Ardennes. In all, the Battle of the Bulge lasted from December 14, 1944 to January 25, 1945 but the key breakthrough by Patton’s forward relief force arrived the day after Christmas, the true beginning of the end of the battle. A largely German-American affair, each side suffered massive casualties but ultimately it was the outnumbered Americans who thwarted the surprise German advance, eventually breaking the back of the enemy incursion and essentially dooming the potential for the Third Reich to sue for peace on any terms other than complete surrender.

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The excellent ensemble cast features the great character actor James Whitmore as the rock-like Platoon Sargent Kinnie, Van Johnson (usually a song & dance man) as the very funny and reluctantly heroic scrounger PFC Holley and a young and very good Ricardo Montalban as Los Angelino “Johnny” Roderigues, among other quality performances. Continue reading

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Merry Christmas from MFL!

After all that shopping, general running around and all those holiday parties the day itself has finally arrived. So Merry Christmas from all of us here at MFL to all of you and yours! May your holiday be filled with joy, friends & family and good food & drink. Enjoy the day’s celebrations and get home safely — it really is a wonderful life so remember to count your blessings and toast your good fortune. We’re certainly very appreciative that you stop by from time to time and we raise our glasses of ‘Nog to you!

TheBigHeat

Classic movie watch — The Big Heat (1953)

If you’re looking for the precursor to Dirty Harry and a thousand other righteous vigilante cops in the cinema look no further than Fritz Lang‘s 1953 film noir masterpiece, The Big Heat. Starring the underrated Glenn Ford as crusading homicide detective Dave Bannion, The Big Heat unspools like an Eisenhower-era nightmare, peeling away the veneer of wholesomeness from a mid-sized metropolis to reveal the festering corruption beneath. With bracingly modern use of brutal violence, Heat is one of Lang’s top crime masterpieces in a career filled with them, and the film still retains its power to shock and disturb today. Like so much of the Austrian genius’ output, which includes genre-defining classics like Metropolis, M, Fury and Scarlet Street, the phrase “ahead of its time” sticks to the The Big Heat. No matter how many times you’ve viewed it, you’ll come away astonished at the remarkable moral distance the film has traveled from start to finish.

While investigating a colleague’s alleged suicide and after talking to the seemingly bereaved widow, Ford’s Detective Bannion is contacted by the dead man’s mistress who reveals that not only was he keeping her on the side but that he was living far beyond the means of a policeman’s salary. After returning to push for answers from the now chilly dead cop’s wife, Bannion is then told to back off by his lieutenant. But when the mistress is found murdered, her body covered with cigarette burns, and O’Bannion begins receiving threatening calls at his home, he goes to the house of the local organized crime figure and Mr. Big, Mike Laguna (played by legendary voice actor Alexander Scourby), to confront him. Laguna offers to buy Bannion off but the straight arrow cop will have none of it. Seeing that Bannion cannot be deterred by the usual methods, the mob plans to murder Bannion by rigging his car to blow up. But when his wife ends up turning the ignition instead and his department continues to stonewall him, Bannion resigns from the force to begin a one-man crusade against Laguna and his fellow “thieves”.

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Chief among those accomplices is Laguna’s enforcer, Vince Stone. Played to vicious perfection by the great Lee Marvin, at the peak of his early career powers when he was one of the most badass “heavies” in the movies, Marvin’s Stone is a pure psychopath capable of truly terrifying acts of sudden violence, especially against women. Continue reading

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What We’re Watching – Billabong’s “Pump!”

Even though summer still beats down on us, a surf movie may seem an odd choice for a serious film recommendation, but that’s how I’m offering it to you. Aside from Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer” and perhaps one or two other exceptions, most surf movies can not fairly be called movies at all. They are more accurately known as “videos” – a collection of impressive surfing snippets set to some popular music of the day, without much in the way of structure, designed more to trigger memories of one’s own surf sessions or inspire one to new heights, all while steadfastly promoting a brand by unapologetically hyping the surfers who are sponsored by that brand. If you’re a surfer, they’re really fun to watch but never go beyond the fun one can find these days by watching a succession of surfing clips on Youtube. They don’t transcend themselves. They’re not movies. The one exception to this rule however, is Billabong’s Pump!.

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Pump!, produced by surf clothing company Billabong and directed by famed surf movie director Jack McCoy, was released in 1990. On its surface, Pump! essentially sticks to the same model as other surf flicks of the 80’s, with college/alternative rock playing over the surf clips and not much else of anything to drive the film form start to finish. What elevates Pump! to feature movie level however, is the subtext within these otherwise ordinary choices.
First you have the surfers themselves. The film features many members of the Billabong team circa 1990, but two emerge quickly and wordlessly as the films protagonists- Mark Occhilupo and Richie Collins. In 1990, Mark Occhilupo (known more commonly as Occy) was a bit of a mess. Just 5 years earlier he’d been one of the top ranked pro surfers on the planet, but in 1988 he gave in fully to the pressures of super-stardom and fell into a cycle of drug abuse and depression. Up until the late 90’s (when he staged a legendary comeback and finally became the world champion) his life was marked by excesses of all kinds, manifesting publicly in cycles of huge weight gains and losses, along with attempted comebacks and glimmers of glory followed quickly by his immediate disappearance again. Pump! catches him in his periods of top form during this time. While he may appear a bit off his top form physically in one or two scenes, his surfing is incredible. The only dialogue we hear in the entire movie is a voice-over leading into one segment where Occy, in his thick Aussie twang, briefly describes his loss of appetite for competition and newfound focus on free (non-competitive) surfing. Pump! catches Occy in limbo in more ways than one, and what may have been thought of (at least by Billabong) as a chance to present their fading star as still being the invincible hero of recent memory, was instead presented by McCoy as a man with incredible gifts who is in a game of chicken with fate. While his skill seems as untouchable as ever, his future does not.

Continue reading

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Documentary view — Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007

Everybody has a favorite James Bond movie and a favorite actor who played the legendary British secret agent. But today relatively few have ever read Ian Fleming’s original books. Fewer still know the story of the men behind the myth and their herculean efforts to get Bond to the screen and keep him on top throughout the decades. 2013’s superlative documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 brilliantly fills in the blank spaces and inside history for both the casual 007 enthusiast and the hardcore fanatic.

With unprecedented and officially sanctioned access to the key players in Bond’s creation and remarkably enduring success as a cinematic staple for generations, Everything or Nothing delves into Fleming’s biography to show how his conception of James Bond was forged by his work as an intelligence officer for the British Navy during WWII. A cunning planner of sabotage operations, Fleming was nonetheless primarily a desk man who had to live the action vicariously through the exploits of the men “playing Red Indians”, his colorful term for Special Forces commandos operating behind enemy lines. After the war and with a new Soviet enemy to face, Fleming kicked around a bit before finally finding his calling with the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Wonderfully informed with details from his wartime espionage experience if somewhat crudely written in a potboiler style, Casino Royale struck a cord and was an immediate success. This enabled Fleming to devote his energies to writing new adventures for his super spy to please an enthusiastic public if not always the hot-and-cold critics. Between 1952 and his death in 1964, Fleming cranked out twelve full-length Bond novels and two collections of 007 short stories.

James Bond’s exploits were inherently cinematic and almost immediately various film and television producers approached Fleming with ideas for adaptations, with very mixed results initially. Continue reading

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Classic Movie Watch — Sorcerer (1977)

For years, decades even, William Friedkin’s 1977 existential thriller Sorcerer was more infamous legend than actual cinematic experience, a sort of ghost story used to scare overly ambitious directors. And this was for the simple reason that almost no one had ever seen it. Coming off the double-barreled successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin chose to follow that incredible duo up with a re-imagined remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s excruciatingly intense and fatalistic Wages of Fear. But instead of continuing his winning ways at the box office the film very nearly ruined Friedkin’s career. To be honest, as a “force” he was never quite the same having spent all his accumulated juice to make this flawed but compellingly nihilistic epic. And so it became one of the famous “disasters” used by Hollywood studios to claw back the power that they had ceded to the creative types during the brief but fruitful “Auteur” period of the late 60s and 70s, the beginning of the end of letting the inmates run the asylum and a sort of bookend to 1980’s Heaven’s Gate.

Sorcerer was a quixotic, almost resolutely anti-commercial endeavor pushed by a hot director, went predictably well over budget and then was relegated to near total obscurity by the seriously bad timing of its release against a movie that completely changed the Hollywood paradigm: Star Wars. As Friedkin has aptly put it, when Lucas’ sci-fi epic erupted in 1977 it was a vacuum cleaner that sucked audiences from nearly all competing movies leaving very little oxygen for more challenging works. So Sorcerer never had a chance and literally lost something like $10 million dollars, which used to be a lot of money. To make matters worse the inherent risks in the production led to two studios co-producing the film so that in future years, when Sorcerer might have been re-released into the lucrative home theater market first on VHS and then DVD, no one had the legal authority to do so until Friedkin sued to recapture those rights. That finally enabled Warner Brothers to assume control of video distribution so Friedkin could remaster and reassemble his lost classic for DVD and Blue Ray. And that is a great thing for cinephiles in general and especially for those of us preoccupied with 1970s films.

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Because while Sorcerer may not be the greatest film ever made, it is certainly a damn site better than most of what passes for cinema today and absolutely holds its own in terms of intensity with Friedkin’s two more commercially successful predecessors. Expanding on HG Clouzot’s superb original, Friedkin devotes the beginning third of the movie to the backgrounds of the four outcasts who will come together to haul nitro-leaking dynamite in jerry-rigged trucks over treacherous Central American roads to an oil well that is burning out of control. Continue reading