Tag Archives: Vintage Movies

Classic Movie Watch — On Dangerous Ground (1952)

It’s far too facile to call Nicholas Ray’s stark 1952 classic, On Dangerous Ground, a film noir. It certainly starts out that way with hardened cop Jim Wilson, played by the incomparable Robert Ryan, violently working his way through tarts and hoodlums in his obsessive pursuit of two cop killers. But quickly we see that Wilson is no hero. His partners are finding it difficult to work with him and his superior has had to give him increasing warnings about police brutality. From the opening shots of the film we see that Wilson is utterly alone and has only the job to live for, while one of his two partners has a devoted young wife and the other more senior one already has a large family. Worse still for Wilson, he is beginning to hate his job and himself by proxy. As Wilson sneers at one point “everyone hates a cop” on both sides of the law and “garbage is all we handle.” It’s readily apparent that violent self-loathing is beginning to consume Ryan’s masterfully curdled Jim Wilson.

But although On Dangerous Ground begins in the grimy urban shadow world typical of film noir it doesn’t stay there. Having cuffed around one too many suspects Wilson is given an assignment out of town and far upstate until things cool down for the wayward detective. A young girl has been murdered in a small country town and Wilson is sent up to help the local sheriff. Suddenly the movie drives out of a crime infested, artificially lit city and up into the stark and pristine mountains, eventually arriving at a sparsely populated wintry outpost that has been the scene of a horrible crime.

There Wilson meets Walter Brent and his family, whose young daughter has been slain. Brent, played by the square-jawed and tough Ward Bond, familiar from so many John Ford Westerns alongside John Wayne, is consumed by the need for revenge and vigilante justice. He is resentful and dismissive of the big city detective when all he wants to do is find his daughter’s killer and blow him away. Nonetheless, Wilson and Brent join together to pursue the suspected killer after he steals a car in town, following him even further into the mountainous wilds until they crash their car in the icy conditions. Their quarry has also crashed his car and they follow his tracks as best they can to a remote house in a barren, frozen landscape. There they meet a blind woman seemingly living alone, Mary Malden, played by the always excellent Ida Lupino. And now the source of tension changes yet again, as the detective and the bereaved father wonder if the blind woman is hiding or helping the assailant and Wilson begins to wonder if he can open his heart to this stubbornly independent yet tender and kind woman.

Once the action has left the city and moved to the rocky terrain the tenor of the film also changes. Upon repeated viewings there is a distinctive existential aspect to the manhunt and its implications, becoming almost an allegory. All of a sudden Wilson is the one upholding the law and trying to keep Brent from pursuing extra judicial action. It’s almost as if Brent is the ultimate extension of Wilson’s increasingly judge and jury approach to law enforcement in the city. In seeing it in another man he experiences a similar revulsion to that of his partners at his own over-the-line actions. And can the blindness of Mary Malden simply be a plot device or is there something more profound being implied there? After all, the famous statue of Justice is blindfolded and once Wilson comes into contact with this isolated blind woman his own angry defenses begin to soften and he begins to want to trust in the process of the law again over simple retribution.

It all makes for an extremely strange and intriguing police drama. Ray’s sense of story is inventive and never bound by the conventions of genre. The black and white cinematography is dark to the point of cinema verite with the vast outdoor spaces seemingly even more claustrophobic than the inky, densely packed city streets of the first third of the film. The tense mood is consistently heightened by the pulsing score of the great Bernard Herrmann, Hicthcock’s favorite composer. And the two stars are top notch. Ida Lupino, with her lovely eyes and husky voice, was always such a fascinating combination of tough and tender, a perfect foil for hard men, and never more so than in this brave and accomplished role. She was also a Hollywood groundbreaker as a female director at a time when that was almost unheard of and got her start in that pursuit by directing a few scenes in On Dangerous Ground when Ray was too ill to work.

But the movie’s center of gravity is Ryan’s hair-trigger Jim Wilson, a man drowning in his own exposure to the darkest aspects of human behavior, in others and those within himself. Made some 20 years before Dirty Harry, the cop in On Dangerous Ground is a direct progenitor of the kind of avenging urban policeman that Clint Eastwood portrayed so well. But whereas in Eastwood’s conception of Dirty Harry his vigilante violence is cathartic and necessary as a response to impotent bureaucracy in an increasingly chaotic and frightening world, for Ryan’s Jim Wilson the chaos is within and so the resort to violence is self-wounding and destructive of his humanity. His exposure to someone even more out of control, even more hungry for blood in Brent the avenging father brings him back to the belief in the power of and the need for the due process of the law. Of all the classic Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 50s Ryan was the probably the least suited to that title. He was more like an anti-matinee idol, often specializing in heavies and unreliable neurotics. But there is not really another actor like him and his ability to channel an inner darkness was rarely matched. There’s just something about those jet black eyes of his that radiates menace even when he is a supposedly sympathetic character. That his Jim Wilson requires the help of a blind woman to save him from himself and that Ryan only grudgingly allows this redemption to happen makes this one of his most satisfying “heroic” roles in a career mainly distinguished by masterful portrayals of violent racists and psychopaths.

A final word on director Nick Ray, at least for now: Ray was undoubtedly one of the most interesting American directors to emerge from the post-WWII era. While trained to be a typical handler of studio projects, Ray constantly found ways of making routine material something more transcendent. Thus a movie like They Live By Night (1949) becomes a doomed romance rather than a simple crime spree movie. In A Lonely Place (1950) allows Humphrey Bogart to take his uncompromising tough guy persona to an unsavory extreme. Bigger Than Life (1956) is a seemingly typical 1950s domestic melodrama upended by James Mason’s frightening steroid-induced psychosis. The brilliantly stylized Rebel Without A Cause (1955) became the signature youth rebellion film of all time due to an intuitive grasp of a coming generational revolution and the absolutely perfect casting of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as the teenagers. And 55 Days At Peking (1963), Ray’s last major film after being dismissed late in the production, is a period war epic that allows the often monolithic Charlton Heston moments of wounded humanity that he only rarely revealed in his other films. And there are several other great films to his credit aside from these like The Lusty Men, Bitter Victory and Johnny Guitar, all well worth seeking out.

Ray had an obvious gift with actors, getting them to delve deep and really expose themselves and also a rare understanding of interior and exterior spaces as emotional contributors and activators (not coincidentally he studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s). All of his best talents of mining hidden depths in conventional material and making the most of limited resources are on display in On Dangerous Ground, possibly the most unusual film noir in the canon. It’s truly a movie of deceptive complexity and beautiful playing that rewards multiple viewings and reveals new levels of understanding each time. It’s hard to think of a better compliment to Ray’s unique cinematic talents than that and it’s an ideal jumping off point for further exploration of one of the more idiosyncratic of the major “Golden Age” Hollywood directors.

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

Classic Movie Watch — The Dirty Dozen (1967)

In a case of supremely ironic timing, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen was released in 1967 at the height of the “Summer of Love.” As one of the toughest, nastiest and most fatalistic classic war movies, there is not a lot of love in the Dirty Dozen. But there is a killer plot, action galore and a very cool, badass ensemble cast of male stars who make the whole thing tick over like clockwork. Sharing the hard bitten cynicism and mordant humor that came to dominate the best 1960s WWII films like The Bridge At Remagen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, Dirty Dozen reflects both the experiences of the actual combat veterans who contributed to the making of the film, as well as the creeping disillusionment with the nation’s quickly souring military involvement in Vietnam. After the recent Spielbergian gloss given to World War II in the violent but heroic Saving Private Ryan and the excellent and idealistic Band of Brothers, where the action is doubtless brutal but the characters themselves are invariably heroic, one wonders whether today’s moviegoing public would be ready to accept a deranged group of criminal misfits like “The Dozen” as their heroes. But the audiences of the late 1960s made the film a colossal hit, so maybe that says something about the differing need for hero worship between that generation versus ours.

Loosely based on actual events, the plot of The Dirty Dozen unfolds in classic three-act action-adventure epic style: Picking the Men, Training the Men and the Mission. Only in this case the “elite force” being assembled is drawn from a group of convicts in military lockup facing either death sentences or decades-long prison time. And the mission is a suicidal attack on a German staff officer “rest & relaxation” chateau behind enemy lines in pre-D-Day Normandy. Drawing the unenviable task of assembling these misfits into a cohesive commando unit is maverick Major John Reisman, played by the inimitable Lee Marvin. If The Big Heat is Marvin’s apotheosis as the ultra-heavy villain, The Dirty Dozen reflects the archetype of Marvin’s remarkable second act as a lead actor in big films: still the hard man capable of extreme violence but in the end possessed of an individual code of honor that turns him from bad guy into ambiguous hero. As it would again later in Sam Fuller’s excellent The Big Red One, Marvin’s real life combat service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater, were he saw fierce action and was badly wounded, informs his performance as the sardonic and relentless Major Reisman as he badgers, threatens and cajoles his convict team into a cohesive fighting unit. Like many great coaches and military leaders, Reisman’s genius is to realize that if he can get the group of men to hate him they will in turn bond with each other.

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And what a group! Featuring some of the most macho and physically imposing 1960’s actors, as well as some bona fide rising stars, the convicts include Charles Bronson as an honorable German-speaking Polish American convicted of shooting his unit’s cowardly medic; football great Jim Brown as another decent guy wrongly convicted of murder in a case of self defense against a racist attack (this is actually the film that prompted Brown’s premature retirement from the NFL); the towering Clint Walker as a gentle giant with a fierce temper; Telly Savalas as a despicable and crazy Bible-spouting southern racist and woman hater; a young Donald Sutherland as a dim but mischievous private; and a sterling John Cassavetes as a Chicago gangster with a serious problem with authority. Cassavetes really shines among this esteemed company, seeming to channel the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as he proves the biggest obstacle to Reisman’s grand plan, resisting him at every turn through sarcasm and tooth-baring indolence. Continue reading

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

Classic Movie Watch — The Naked Spur (1953)

The third Western in a sequence of five innovative collaborations between director Anthony Mann and Hollywood legend James Stewart, 1953s The Naked Spur is arguably the leanest of them all if not quite the meanest (that honor goes to the slightly later and still shocking The Man From Laramie). With an excellent supporting cast of only four other players, Spur’s taught plot unwinds in the period directly after the Civil War and finds former Union soldier and rancher-turned-bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart) looking to capture fugitive murderer Ben Vandergroat (a constantly laughing and manipulative Robert Ryan, one of the screen’s great neurotic villains) in order to claim the reward on his head and then buy back his lost ranch. Kemp is helped in his tawdry task first by no-luck prospector Jesse Tate (the always excellent character actor Millard Mitchell) and then a dishonorably discharged soldier-adventurer Roy Anderson (the underrated and wonderfully cynical Ralph Meeker), whose morals are definitely flexible. When the hastily assembled trio corner and capture Vandergroat, they discover he is traveling with the young daughter of one his slain gang, Lina Patch (a very lovely and pixieish Janet Leigh). Tate and Anderson also find out, courtesy of the always-plotting Vandergroat, that Kemp is no lawman and also that the reward on him is a staggering $5000. Confronted with this uncomfortable fact, Kemp reluctantly agrees to deal his other two “partners” in for equal shares of the reward. But shortly after the group heads out for Abilene to turn Vandergroat in, Kemp is shot in a needless confrontation with Blackfoot Indians pursuing the unreliable Anderson, leaving him wounded and ever more at the mercy of his dubious companions and the ever-scheming Vandergroat. With the reward payable dead or alive, and Vandergroat set to hang for his murder, the tension ratchets up as the three “good guys” debate whether they should even bother to keep the fugitive alive, Kemp and Lina begin to fall in love and Vandergroat shrewdly tries to manipulate the others so they will turn on each other and he can make his escape.

The seminal films with Stewart marked a turning point in Mann’s career, his middle period really, as he graduated from very good black & white crime thrillers on tight RKO budgets to expansive location Westerns eventually shot in Technicolor. In his last period, Mann would move on to massive widescreen historical epics such as the remarkable El Cid and the sweeping The Fall of the Roman Empire. But Mann first brought his hard boiled noir sensibilities to the Western and as a result his heroes are much more flawed than John Ford’s prairie Galahads and Howard Hawks’ tough talkers with hearts of gold. Continue reading

Classic Movie Watch — The Seven-Ups (1973)

If there is a Big 3 of classic car chase movies, it would have to be Bullitt, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. In 1968, Bullitt ignited the car chase craze that would come to dominate 1970s cop movies and especially TV series. In 1971, The French Connection turned it into art with its ur-cinematic thrill ride beneath and between the elevated trains of New York City. And the vastly underrated The Seven-Ups, made in 1973, essentially elevated the car chase to the level of deus ex machina perfection. One could argue that from that point onwards that pinnacle has been repeatedly attempted but only succeeded in becoming ever more over the top, digitally enhanced and clichéd (although the fantastic against-traffic-in-the-Paris-tunnels sequence in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin does come pretty close to that level of old-fashioned awesome again).

The connection between these three all-time crime classics is their producer, Philip D’Antoni, the somewhat unknown force behind what came to be an action movie staple. For The Seven-Ups D’Antoni also took the director’s helm for the first time and used what he learned on his previous two smash hits to engineer the biggest, baddest car chase of them all. Check it out and see if you don’t agree.

But The Seven-Ups is more than that white-knuckler through Manhattan and across the Hudson to Jersey (and also, if you’re watching closely and out of continuity, up the Taconic into Westchester). It’s also a gritty police procedural with an outstanding cast led by the late, great Roy Scheider as lead cop Buddy Manucci, working again for D’Antoni after his excellent turn as Popeye Doyle’s partner in Connection. As time goes by, one sees how fantastic an actor Scheider was: funny, wry, intense, the bantamweight champion of no nonsense naturalistic tough guy performances. Is it any wonder that he’s in so many key 1970s films? While the fellow cops on his special semi-autonomous squad, tasked to pursue felony crimes with sentences of seven years and up, are not quite as memorable, they form a decent ensemble. In the end, it’s really the shadier characters who counterbalance Scheider’s intense, driven cop.

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Tony Lo Bianco also returns to the D’Antoni fold from his breakout performance in French Connection, this time playing Buddy’s boyhood friend Vito Lucia, a funeral home director who provides Manucci with inside dope on the mob. Continue reading

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

Classic Movie Watch — The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Very few movies have ever packed more star power into their two hours than John Sturges’ 1960 Western extravaganza The Magnificent Seven. Featuring a presciently well-chosen collection of actors who would go on to become massive stars, the film is also fascinating for being a remake of Akira Kurosowa’s Seven Samurai with a perfectly logical transformation of milieu from the classic Samurai period of feudal Japan to the Old West of the United States/Mexico border. Highly skilled mercenaries are hired to defend a small, poor village from the depredations of a rampaging bandit and his gang, and Sturges shrewdly swaps swords for six guns even while the plot and characters of the two films remain largely identical. Of course, the ultimate irony is that Kurosowa was in fact striving to emulate a John Ford Western with Seven Samurai, so Magnificent Seven winds up being a Hollywood Western refracted back to its source by way of Japan. But it was Sturges’ singular genius to see how seven huge stars (eight if you count the bandit super villain) could fit together in one action-packed epic.

Sturges had already succeeded brilliantly with several other high wattage blockbusters like Gunfight at the OK Corral, which featured the always sparkling tandem of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas; Bad Day at Black Rock with a one-armed Spencer Tracy being menaced by all-star heavies Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin; and the WWII action adventure Never So Few, which starred Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford and Gina Lollabrigida but was stolen by a young Steve McQueen in his breakout film role. Sturges immediately saw McQueen’s potential after the remarkable reaction to his supporting role in Few and teamed him that great bald showman, Yul Brynner, already famous for playing grand exotics like the King of Siam and Pharaoh, as the twin leads for his new project. Continue reading

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

RIP James Garner, 1928-2014

When James Garner passed away the other week at the age of 86 I felt as if I had lost a favorite uncle. Wry, worldly wise, down to earth, a little cynical, a little cranky, very funny and definitely a man’s man, Garner was a uniquely successful and uniquely American actor. The native Oklahoman started out in 1950s television after a very brief theater apprenticeship, and quickly achieved fame in Maverick as the title character Brett Maverick, the dapper and quick-witted Old West card sharp who preferred talking his way out of trouble to shooting. He then rose to stardom as a romantic lead and action star during the last gasp of the old Hollywood studio system: alongside Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson playing the Scrounger in the all-star POW epic The Great Escape and wooing Julie Andrews in Blake Edwards’ sly, sophisticated anti-war comedy, the Americanization of Emily (Garner’s own favorite film). After the excellent Western comedy Support Your Local Sheriff and a foreshadowing turn as a bemused Marlowe, he found cultural immortality back on TV as the iconic and perpetually harassed ex-cop, ex-con gumshoe Jim Rockford.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, The Rockford Files was omnipresent, from the jaunty Mike Post theme song after the answering machine sequence to the initial run from 1974-1980 to the endless repeats in syndication. The series gleefully embraced a non-glamorous LA with the laconic and perpetually broke private eye working low rent bars and strip clubs while living in a cheap trailer home on Malibu beach, getting his meals from taco and hotdog stands and bouncing checks at the local grocery. It was a unique persona for a hero PI, totally at odds with, say, the slick rich kid mastermind of George Peppard’s Banacek. But then, maybe that’s why The Rockford Files went on to television immortality while Banacek, for all its tacky turtlenecked pleasures, is more of a fun footnote. There was just something so original about Jim Rockford as a hero: the loud sports coats with wide lapels; the wrongful conviction that gave him his cynical perspective; the beatdowns given and received; the clever ruses and identity games when on assignment; his meddling and very funny father (Noah Beery); and always a good old fashioned car chase in the mysteriously overpowered and rubber screeching gold Pontiac Firebird.

I told you that theme song was omnipresent! Garner was, in fact, an excellent driver and racer — he caught the bug starring in John Frankenheimer’s seminal racing movie, Grand Prix, competing in several grueling Baja 1000s thereafter — and did much of his own driving on the series, as well as many of his own stunts. Continue reading