Tuesday, June 28, 2016
TCM TiVo ALERT
July 1–July 7
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (July 3, 11:15 pm): It's one of the most visually-stunning and fascinating films every made. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the story of man from pre-evolution to a trip to Jupiter, and how superior beings on that mysterious planet made it all possible. The storyline is fascinating and the ending is very much open to interpretation, which makes the film even more compelling. The interaction between astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL 9000 computer that controls the spaceship and has a mind of its own reflects how mankind has experienced gains and losses through the use of advanced technology. The cinematography, special effects and music take this film to a special level.
THE CANDIDATE (July 7, 2:45 am): This is an excellent political satire, and its message of having to sell your soul and give up your integrity to get elected is timeless. Robert Redford is Bill McKay, a liberal attorney and son of a former California governor (played by the great Melvyn Douglas), recruited by Democratic political operative Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) for a long-shot challenge to popular Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). At Lucas' recommendation, McKay softens his message a little bit, compromising his principles – and it works. McKay and Jarmon essentially become one as both say the same thing, but the difference is McKay is young and good-looking, and Jarmon is older and doesn't look like Robert Redford. The storyline is intelligent and compelling, giving viewers a fascinating inside look at the political process in a documentary-style of filming.
ED’S BEST BETS:
1776 (July 4, 1:30 am): A musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You’re kidding, right? No, we’re not kidding, and furthermore, it’s quite good. Based on the play, it retains many of those originally performed it. William Daniels is splendid as John Adams, Ken Howard makes for a most effective Thomas Jefferson, and Howard DaSilva is the spitting image of Ben Franklin. Throw in Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams and Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson, and the film really rocks. Watch out, however, for John Cullum as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. He brings down the house with “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Other numbers to look for include “But Mr. Adams,” “Cool Cool, Considerate Men” (my favorite), and the heart tugging “Mama Look Sharp.” American history was never this much fun.
ANNIE OAKLEY (July 5, 2:15 pm): Barbara Stanwyck is a marvelous actress. Even in bad movies she still manages to shine. Put her in a film worthy of her talents and there’s no ceiling. This is such a film – a wonderful, lively biography of one of the legends of the West. It’s Stanwyck’s picture and she dominates as the woman popularly known as “Little Miss Sure Shot.” Preston Foster provides solid support as Toby Walker, at first Annie Oakley’s rival at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and later the love of her life. George Stevens’s direction is nearly flawless as he keeps a tight rein on the picture, which in turn amps up the realism and believability. The result is a movie that’s fun to watch and can be seen numerous times without tiring out the viewer.
WE DISAGREE ON ... CAPTAIN BLOOD (July 1, 5:15 am)
ED. B. Captain Blood is a solid adventure with great performances from its cast, including Errol Flynn in his first swashbuckler, Olivia de Havilland as his leading lady, Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone as the heels, and that wonderful Warner’s stock company in support. The only fault, and that which prevents a higher grade, is the rather primitive way it’s presented. The use of title cards makes it almost seem as if it were made in the silent era or as an early talkie. This is 1935, and sound recording had been mastered. Perhaps the reason was due to it being a low-budget production; Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were unknowns at this time. Note the difference in production values between this film and later Flynn adventures. Otherwise, it’s a great way to spend one’s time.
DAVID: A. The movie that launched the career of Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling icon is not only historically important, but is an excellent film. The cast is top-notch with Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Guy Kibbee and Lionel Atwill. Flynn is Dr. Peter Blood, condemned to a Jamaican plantation to serve out a sentence for treating an English rebel. When the Spanish invade Jamaica, the fun and the action begins. Blood leads a prison rebellion with the men stealing a Spanish ship – the Spaniards are busy looting the town – and later the French on his way to becoming a hero when England is overthrown by William of Orange. Flynn is as dashing as you'll see him on screen showing great charisma during the fight scenes, though he needed work at times with dialogue. There's no arguing that it's a low-budget film. It was so low budget that stock footage from silent films were used. However, I strongly disagree with Ed that it diminishes from the impact of the movie. The action sequences are top-notch. Flynn and de Havilland are perfect together without being over-the-top in the romance department, and of course, Rathbone is outstanding.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Pursuit of the Graf Spee (Rank Organization, 1956) – Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Stars: John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, Bernard Lee, Peter Finch, Lionel Murton, Anthony Bushell, Peter Illing, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Macnee, John Chandos, Douglas Wilmer, William Squire, Roger Delgado, Andrew Cruickshank, Christopher Lee, Edward Atienza, April Olrich, & Peter Finch. Color, 199 minutes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, otherwise known as The Archers, have given us many wonderful films over the years. This would be their next to last collaboration and their most commercially successful. Made in England as The Battle of the River Plate, it was edited and renamed in the United States as Pursuit of the Graf Spee.
The movie dramatizes one of the great British triumphs of World War II, and as such is in keeping with some of the most popular British films of the 50s, which were based on real life accounts of wartime missions. Films like Gift Horse (the raid on the submarine pens of St. Nazaire), They Who Dare (a commando raid in occupied Greece), The Dam Busters (a raid on the dams of the Ruhr), and The Colditz Story (an account of the escape from one of the most formidable prisons in Germany) paid tribute to British soldiers on special missions or engaged in near impossible tasks where they were taking on superior forces.
The Battle of The River Plate took place early in the war. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee was causing havoc, raiding the sea lane to India, where it sunk England-bound freighters and seized their crews. A trio of smaller British cruisers trailed the Graf Spee to the South Atlantic and attacked, damaging the ship and forcing it to retreat to the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo. The diplomats now took over the battle, with British intelligence agents bluffing the Germans into thinking that a full squadron was waiting in ambush outside the neutral port at the mouth of the estuary of the Rio de la Plata. Would the Germans allow the Graf Spee to remain in Montevideo and be seized by Uruguay by the rules of neutrality, or make a break for the open sea? Adding to the drama was the fact that the deathwatch for the battleship was covered live on radio.
It would seem that the subject matter could simply be taken and made into a standard war film. But keep in mind that neither Powell nor Pressburger were satisfied with merely making an ordinary film. They always went further and deeper into their subject matter, with the result that their films frequently stood above the rest. They made Pursuit of the Graf Spee 11 years after the end of the war, which allowed them to present a more relaxed attitude toward both the war and the enemy. They give us a sympathetic, non-stereotypical treatment of the German officers (a feature that can be seen in all of Powell’s war films, even those made early in the war and containing an obvious propaganda slant), and seem at times to be more concerned with the honor and integrity of the Graf Spee’s captain than the heroism of the British Navy, though on the surface the film is a valentine to the heroism and courage displayed by the British at a difficult point early in the war.
The film opens in November 1939. The British freighter, The Africa Shell, is sunk by the German battleship and its crew is taken prisoner. Despite the humiliating circumstances, the freighter’s commander, Captain Dove (Bernard Lee) is impressed by the courtesy and professionalism extended him by Captain Langsdorff (Finch) and the fact that the other prisoners are equally well-treated.
In the meantime, three British cruisers, the Exeter, the Ajax, and the Achilles, under the command of Commodore Harwood (Quayle), have assembled in the South Atlantic and are waiting for the Graf Spee as it heads home to Germany. They spot it near the mouth of the River Plate between Uruguay and Argentina, and although not as heavy armed, open fire. The battle rages for an hour with heavy casualties on both sides. But Captain Langsdorff mistakenly believes that the Ajax and Achilles are destroyers, instead of the smaller cruisers they actually are, and retreats into the neutral port of Montevideo. The British ships, though heavily damaged, follow in pursuit and lie in wait for the Graf Spee to come out.
Now begins the subtle game of diplomacy. Captain Langsdorff doesn't know that the only two Allied ships that were waiting for it were badly damaged and largely incapable of any further action. The third was knocked out of action in the battle. He remains in port, convinced by reports that a large British fleet is waiting for him. The British diplomats, quoting the Hague Convention, initially press to force the Graf Spee out of the neutral port in 48 hours. Shortly after, they reverse their strategy and scheme to keep her in port so as to allow more time for British reinforcements to assemble at the mouth of the river.
The scene quickly becomes a circus, with a crowd gathering on the beach on the first day that the Graf Spee could have sailed, joined by live radio coverage of the events as they were happening. Expecting a grisly fight to the death, everyone was surprised when the Graf Spee left port and was scuttled by Langsdorff before engaging the British ships.
Pursuit of the Graf Spee depicts the historical facts with reasonable accuracy, dividing the film into the meeting of Captains Dove and Langsdorff, the naval battle, and the later game of diplomatic poker that begins when the Graf Spee flees to Montevideo. There is rarely a dull moment as the early scenes between Dove and Langsdorff are used to provide the characterization necessary to transcend the typical war drama.
The film is rightly praised for its dramatic, stunning action sequences, which reflected the desire of Powell and Pressburger to make something better than the typical oceangoing movie where large model boats battle one another in a special effects tank. This was especially important as they opted for VistaVision, a new large format process from Paramount that put forth bright, sharp images, especially when employed with Technicolor. The use of models would have seriously cheapened the impact of the film, so the directors negotiated with the Royal Navy and the US Navy for ships to use as the participants, although some miniature effects were employed to depict parts of the finale.
Although the battle sequences are impressive, they run a clear second to the human drama, which is the real strength of the film. Powell and Pressburger depict Captain Langsdorff as a superb professional naval officer, able to efficiently execute his duty without sacrificing his humanity, instead of the usual portrayal of an idealistic fanatic and sadist. When Captain Dove is captured as his ship is sunk, he is allowed to see his crew rowing to safety on a nearby island and is assured by Langsdorff that no party will pursue them. He is impressed by Langsdorff's respect for the British officers and finds that they have much in common, as the two develop something in line with friendship. Thus, by the time of the battle sequence, Langsdorff is shown to be something of a likable figure; a feature that serves to heighten the human tension that occurs later when the ship is docked in port.
The highlight of the film occurs in the second half, when the Graf Spee is moored in Montevideo. Captain Langsdorff's aide throws a Christmas party for his prisoners, punctuating the celebration by announcing that, because Montevideo is a neutral port, they will be set free. We are also introduced to a group of calculating diplomats (Bushell and Wilmer) and British Naval Intelligence (Goodliffe and Squire). Powell and Pressburger do an excellent job displaying their machinations, first in trying to get the ship expelled as quickly as possible, then seeking to delay its departure so as to allow reinforcements to arrive and finish off the German ship, all the while flaunting their closer relations with the Uruguayan foreign minister.
Added to this is the arrival of American broadcaster Mike Fowler (Murton), who sets up a live reporting post on the patio of a seaside bar owned by the reluctant and easily riled Manolo (Christopher Lee) by purchasing hundreds of drinks he can’t possibly ingest. This sets up the finale of the public circus on the seashore, all to the accompaniment of an impressive montage of nighttime Montevideo sights.
As the deadline is reached the next day, a huge audience lines the shore, hoping to witness the final battle. It’s accompanied by the radio play-by-play of Fowler, which gives the scene a definite comic tinge as he lays it on with a trowel: “The whole world is watching and waiting with suspense for the battle of the ages.” We quickly cut to a couple of British listeners, one of whom notes, “Lays it on a bit thick, doesn’t he?” Fowler, who has been bloviating nonstop, is beginning to become hoarse and begins to down glass after glass of scotch.
As the Graf Spee pulls out of the harbor, the ending, far from being a fight to the death, becomes anticlimactic as Langsdorff sees his crew safely off, then scuttles his ship before what he believes to be a waiting superior British force comes to finish him off.
For such a tightly contained film about a relatively minor, though important, battle given the morale implications in England, Powell and Pressburger give it a truly epic feel. This is even more remarkable considering that the battle itself, though the centerpiece for the film, is not the focus, but rather the human drama, with the stress being laid on the experience of the sailors and civilians involved, from the captured merchant seamen being held aboard the Graf Spee to the concerns of the officers and crew of the three British cruisers to the spectator circus that breaks out when the Graf Spee retreats to Montevideo.
Not that the battle scenes are underrepresented. We get to see what a naval battle is really like, as opposing crews are shooting each other to bits; a direct hit on the bridge of the Exeter calming met by its ranking officers. The scenes are efficiently and dramatically filmed, with as little use of models as possible (except at the conclusion), thanks to the loan of real warships by both the English and American navies. One truly impressive scene shows the British Minister observing the Graf Spee from the balcony of his embassy, a wonderful build-up to the dramatic finale.
The directors are abetted by an outstanding cast of actors. There is not one sour note in the entire film. As Commodore Harwood of the H.M.S.Ajax, Anthony Quayle embodies the finest of the British “stiff upper lip” tradition, while allowing for human feelings, as when the officers of the Exeter meet their doom. Bernard Lee, as Captain Dove of the M.S. Africa Shell, gives the right amount of trepidation and afterward puzzlement as he discovers that his captor is not about to employ sadistic methods. In fact, Lee’s friendship with Langsdorff provides another highlight, as the two come to terms though their relationship is unequal.
However, in the final analysis, the performance of Peter Finch as Langsdorff is the highlight of the cast. His portrayal affords the the German captain a great deal of sympathy, showing a man caught in a true no-win situation who chooses not to engage in a pointlessly deadly battle, the whose sole purpose of which would be the maintenance of Nazi glory. Instead, he places the lives of his crew over that of pleasing his fuehrer.
For all practical purposes, however, the captain did go down with his ship. The directors neglect the real final ending to the story. Langsdorff made his way to Buenos Aires, where, two days later, knowing the consequences if he were to return to Germany, he committed suicide in his room at the Naval Hotel. After writing letters to his family and superiors, in which he acknowledged his responsibility for scuttling the battleship, he laid down on the Graf Spee’s battle ensign while in full naval dress and shot himself, preventing any allegations that he had avoided a final battle because of cowardice.
As noted above, Pursuit of the Graf Spee was the next-to-last film directed the team of Powell and Pressburger and was their most commercially successful. Though today it is regarded as below their best work (I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), it still rates as a superior film, especially in its genre.
Michael Powell was so fascinated by the story of the Graf Spee that in 1956 he published a novel, The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee, recounting its historic last few weeks of service.
After this, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would share the directing credit on just one more film, 1957’s Ill Met by Moonlight, although Pressburger would script two of Powell's later films, They're a Weird Mob (1966) and The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972).
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Dinner and a Movie
By Steve Herte
Now You See Me 2 (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Jon M. Chu. Writers: Ed Solomon (s/p and story), Pete Chiarelli (story), Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (characters). Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, Ben Lamb, William Henderson, Richard Laing, & Henry Lloyd-Hughes. Color, Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.
Although this movie takes place one year after the first installment, it’s been three years since the first one was released. For those who did not see the previous film, a little background information may be necessary. (For the full review of the first film, click here.)
Four incomparable amateur magicians are formed into a team by an unknown benefactor and call themselves the “Four Horsemen:” J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Franco), and Henley Reeves (Fisher). They perform in an elaborate Las Vegas show funded by Arthur Tressler (Caine) and their final trick is to empty the vault of the Crédit Republicain Bank in Paris of its recent delivery of euros and then shower the Las Vegas crowd with the money. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is assigned to investigate them. He turns to former magician, now magic debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) for help. In a later spectacular trick, they steal millions of dollars from Tressler’s private account and plant the money on Bradley, thus landing him in jail as well as making an enemy of Tressler. We learn that Dylan is the son of famous magician Lionel Shrike and he leads them to an elite and secretive group of magicians called The Eye.
A year later, Henley Reeves has left the infamous quartet and the remaining three are keeping under the public radar. But nature abhors a vacuum and illusionist Lula (Caplan) finds Atlas begging to be the fourth (and first woman) horseman. Dylan, still working for the FBI, and still unknown as the fifth horseman, inducts her into the group with a special mission. It seems that Owen Case (Lamb) has created a major bit of malware which can steal identities not only from computers, but from phones and other electronic devices. The Four Horsemen are assigned to discredit him. However, in the middle of their presentation, the scheme is thwarted by a mysterious intruder and the four run for their escape plan.
But instead of winding up in the truck they had waiting for them, they wake up in Macao. Asian thugs lead them to Walter Mabry (Radcliffe). Not only is he the one whose high-tech brilliance interrupted their show, but he’s the illegitimate son of Arthur Tressler. He wants the chip from Owen Cases’ machine (which just happens to be the same size as a standard playing card) for his own corporation’s uses.
Meanwhile, Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Lathan) and Dylan are seeking out the Four Horsemen to eventually arrest them, but the group’s public appeal as modern day Robin Hoods make it extremely difficult. Dylan breaks Bradley out of prison and, following the clues, wind up in Macao, where Bradley vanishes.
The first movie was spectacular, but the sequel easily outdoes it. There are several “Wow” moments, great dialogue, superb special effects, acting that makes you care about the characters and a super soundtrack. It was like watching a Penn and Teller show with a fantastic Mission Impossible story (virtually all the tricks performed are explained). It opens with the back-story between Dylan and Bradley when Young Dylan (Henderson) witnesses the death of his father, Lionel Shrike (Laing) in his final illusion – escaping an inescapable safe at the bottom of a river. Morgan Freeman’s performance was so slick you didn’t know if he was a bad guy or a good one. Daniel Radcliffe makes a greasy villain as compared with Michael Caine’s suave exterior. And I loved Lizzy Caplan as the new member of the team. She provides a lot of the comic relief, but you know she’s dead serious. And Woody Harrelson gets to play two parts, as the serious Merritt McKinney and his wacky twin brother, Chase.
I didn’t see any children in the audience but I’m sure they would be amazed, even without the first film. The language is kept clean almost throughout (only one goof and it’s a small one) and the short violent scene is bloodless. I came out of the theater almost tired. That’s entertainment!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.
The Perfect Pint
123 W. 45th St., New York
Casual is this Irish pub with the unusual menu items from Asian places. If you can’t locate The Perfect Pint by the pint-shaped neon sign three stories over the door, you might find it with the six-foot-high, three-dimensional one just above the faux-thatched awning over the entrance.
Once inside, I confirmed my reservation with the hostess and she led me upstairs to a long, cozy room with perhaps 20 tables total. I sat at a central table about midway in the room and chose to face the bar. A true pub, none of the tables had tablecloths, but there were both charcoal and cream colored cloth napkins.
With a selection of 40 brews on tap, I was not about to order a cocktail. With Meabh, my server, I chose a three-course meal and the order in which each dish was to come. To start I chose The Perfect Pint Irish Red. This red beer had the creamy flavor and minimum bite for a refreshing start to my meal.
As I mentioned before The Perfect Pint is an unusual pub in that interesting Asian dishes are mixed in with the standard Irish pub food. For my first course I chose the chicken lemon grass dumplings with ponzu (soy based) dipping sauce.
The dumplings were light, tender and aromatic with ginger and only a light flavor of the lemon grass. With it was a sprinkling of what only could be called kim chee, but not as spicy as the Koreans would make it. It was remarkable. With it, I chose the Magners “Angry Orchard” beer, boasting that 17 varieties of apple go into its brewing. It delivered the apple experience in spades.
I had considered the Newcastle Brown Ale to be perfect with my second course, the Irish onion soup – caramelized onions, stout, chicken broth, sage derby croutons and, of course cheese. It is sweeter and less salty than French onion soup and uses mozzarella instead of gruyere. The sage and the stout made it uniquely delicious.
On to the main course: crazy plum shrimp lo mein. I found it to be unlike any lo mein I’ve ever had in a Chinese restaurant; more like the Vietnamese would make it. The noodles were almost translucent with julienned green, red and yellow bell peppers, and the sauce was both spicy and sweet. The shrimp were cooked to that crunchy tenderness shrimp lovers enjoy.
To accompany it I chose Duvel Green – a full-flavored Belgian golden ale. Its spicy after taste almost interfered with the dish but it was an exciting combination.
Meabh then asked me what would my next choice of beer would be before dessert. I chose Hoegaarden – a white, Belgian wheat beer, spiced and fermented in the medieval fashion. It was rich, hoppy, and almost malty, but a good precursor to dessert.
While the Irish cream cheesecake was tempting, the Mississippi mud pie won me over. In addition to the rich, dark chocolate topping the normally cocoa/chocolate filling was imbued with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jameson, making it irresistible on a chocolate, graham cracker crust.
Meabh was ready with my check, but I saw that they had specialty coffees. I asked if could have a cup of regular coffee. “Yes.” And I noticed that there were two single-malt scotches I’ve never tasted, Clynelish and Middleton. I ordered them both. Meabh identified which was which and I started my comparison. The Clynelish is smooth and unassuming, a good scotch for the non-scotch-drinker. The Midleton was my favored one; it had the character and the slight bite of a good scotch.
When I had paid the check and was ready to leave I asked Meabh how long the two Perfect Pints (there’s one on the East Side as well) have been in business and she responded, six years. I had a great time and I look forward to the chance of dining there again and trying more ales or beers.
For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
TCM TiVo ALERT
June 23-June 30
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
EXECUTIVE SUITE (June 24, 12:30 pm): A fascinating look inside the cutthroat world of the business boardroom as allegiances are formed through a variety of ways, including blackmail and seduction. Top executives at a major furniture company are fighting it out to see who will run the company after the president drops dead on the sidewalk. The dialogue is riveting and the storyline is compelling. A large part of the film takes place inside an office, particularly the boardroom, which normally detracts from a film. But this is quite the engaging movie. The film's greatest strength is its all-star cast – William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March and Walter Pidgeon at the top of the bill.
JULIUS CAESAR (June 25, 4:00 pm): This 1953 film is among my two favorite cinematic adaptions of William Shakespeare along with Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (which is on June 29 at 10:00 pm). Marlon Brando at his method acting mumbling peak is brilliant as Mark Antony. Brando more than holds his own in a film that features an all-star cast of Shakespearean veterans such as James Mason, John Gielgud and John Hoyt as well as other talented actors including Louis Calhern (as Caesar), Edmond O'Brien, George Macready, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. That it came from MGM, known for its slick production values, and was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made numerous fine films but nothing even remotely close to Shakespeare, are pleasant surprises.
ED’S BEST BETS:
BLACK ORPHEUS (June 23, 4:00 pm): A beautifully lyrical updating of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend set during Brazil’s Carnival as streetcar conductor Orfeo (Bruno Mello) meets, loses, finds, and finally loses his Eurydice, country girl Mira (Marpessa Dawn). Wonderfully acted, directed and scored, this is the ultimate eye candy, with vivid images of Carnival drawing us in to the proceedings, a testament to the power of film to entrance and entertain. The soundtrack, with is mixture of samba and bossa nova, was a bestselling album and it’s easy to understand why. This is a film that cries out to be seen. It’s one of my Essentials.
SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (June 26, 8:15 am): During the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, Britain made a series of what became to be known as “Angry Young Man” films. This is one of the best. It’s centered on Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), a Nottingham factory worker who combines a hatred of authority with his anger at his co-workers’ acceptance of it. The anger constantly eats at him, even during off work hours making pub tours with his mates. But though he is a rebel with a cause, he has no plan of how to escape the oppressive conformity that’s crushing his soul. To assuage himself, he adopts the motto of “What I want is a good time. The remainder is all propaganda.” In other words, live for the moment and see what tomorrow may bring and deal with it then. He channels his anger into drinking bouts and an affair with his best friend’s wife, Brenda (Rachel Rebuts), whom he ends up impregnating. At the same time, he’s head over heels for Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a young woman whose extraordinary beauty masks her shallowness and desire for conformist respectability. Directed by Karel Reisz from a script from Alan Sillitoe.
WE DISAGREE ON ... JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (June 30, 12:30 am)
ED: D+. Hollywood has always had a tenuous relationship with religion, with the question being how to make the most money with the least criticism. And for the most part, the depictions of Christ in the movies followed the cultural and political mores of the time. And this film is no different. Based on the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Kings of Kitsch, it gives us a distinctly ‘70s approach to its subject, making him out as some type of hippie up against the Establishment. Aside from the music, it fails as a film: poorly directed and badly acted, especially by its lead, Ted Neely, whose voice wasn’t up to the task. (In fact, the vocals are all dubbed, with really poor sync, plus the film suffers from some serious continuity errors with the chorus dubs.) The anachronistic prop and costume choices were inconsistent, to say the least: sometimes they were period, sometimes they were modern, and sometimes in-between. The movie is supposed to be as look at Christ through the eyes of Judas, the film’s anti-hero. Unfortunately, Judas seems to be shrieking his songs like a mad dog. Josh Mostel’s Herod comes off as a camp figure and his scenes with Neely were pathetic. This was the first film that gave us Jesus as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – he’s so confused. In fact, the Jesus in this atrocity is so wimpy it’s hard to imagine anyone following him around the corner, much less to Jerusalem. Neely won a Golden Turkey from the Medved Brothers for his performance. For those who want to see a good feature on the life of Christ, try Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings with Jeffrey Hunter from 1961 or Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth.
DAVID: C. First, I'm not a fan of this film as you can tell by my grade. But I felt that Ed's D+ was too harsh as the movie has a few redeeming qualities. Carl Anderson is very good as Judas, Josh Mostel as an over-the-top Herod is campy fun, and Yvonne Elliman (who plays Mary Magdalene) is an excellent singer, but a terrible actress. The location shots are beautiful, some of the songs are good, and Jesus as the leader of a group of "Jesus Freak Hippies" is an interesting twist as is having Judas be a sympathetic character who thinks he's doing the right thing. I like how the film reflects its time during the early 1970s though Ed is correct that it's unclear whether it wants to be in biblical times or what was modern times in 1973. The “Superstar” musical number toward the end of the film is completely outrageous and enjoyable. Now for the bad – and there's a lot of it so I won't write everything. The biggest problem is casting Ted Neely as Jesus. He's awful. He can't sing, he can't act, and has no personality or charisma. If that was really Jesus, the Christian religion would not exist. Ian Gillan, Deep Purple's lead singer, sang Jesus' parts on the original 1970 rock opera album, and would have been a major improvement over Neely in terms of his vocals and presence. Gillan turned down the offer to play the title role in the film to focus on his work with the classic heavy-metal rock band. Everyone knows that nothing good comes from a singing dialogue and this film is Exhibit A on the subject. The movie is also about as anti-Semitic as it gets with the Jewish religious leaders plotting to have Jesus killed and the crowd of Jews portrayed as a blood-thirsty mob. I saw this film when it was in the theaters in 1973. I was six years old and my father didn't really understand parental responsibility. To say I was freaked out after seeing it would be an understatement. To this day even seeing clips unnerves me. As I've explained, the film isn't terrible, but its multiple flaws greatly exceed its good points.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Film in Focus
By Ed Garea
Special Agent (WB, 1935) – Director: William Keighley. Writers: Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel (s/p). Martin Mooney (story). Stars: Bette Davis, George Brent, Ricardo Cortez, Jack La Rue, Henry O’Neill, Robert Strange, Joseph Crehan, J. Carrol Naish, Joe Sawyer, William B. Davidson, Robert Barrat, Paul Guilfoyle, Joe King, & Irving Pichel. B&W, 76 minutes.
Neither Bette Davis nor George Brent held any special regard for Special Agent. Davis felt frustrated by what she saw as subpar efforts by director William Keighley and cameraman Sid Hickox, while Brent was a little more vocal in his criticism, telling writer Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay that the film was “a poor paltry thing, unbelievable and unconvincing.” Brent’s statements shocked Waterbury, for his reputation around the lot was as an actor who did what was required and rarely complained. He considered himself fortunate to be in show business as he regarded his own acting abilities as poor and was often afraid that people would find out just how lousy he was and fire him.
True, Brent was a wooden actor, but his affable personality endeared him to moviegoers. Moreover, Davis liked him. Special Agent was the fifth film they made together, and they would go on to make six more, including the classics Jezebel and Dark Victory. But though she liked working with him, she still noted that his onscreen energy never came close to matching his off-screen vigor. Luckily for Brent, Waterbury never published his criticism because she showed it to the Warner Bros. publicity department and they talked her out of it.
However, Special Agent was popular with the public and critics. The New York Times lauded it as a “crisp, fast moving and thoroughly entertaining melodrama,” noting that Warner Bros. “have set about the job of glorifying the special agents of the Internal Revenue Bureau with commendable thoroughness and a neat sense of gun play.”
The script, from a story by real-life newspaperman (and the film’s co-producer) Martin Mooney, is a reworking of the Al Capone tax evasion trail. Ricardo Cortez, Warners’ stock villain of the time, is gangster Alexander Carston. Carston’s pretty much a Teflon Don, having just been acquitted by a jury on charges of bribery. As we saw at the beginning of the movie, the IRS Chief (Barrat) has charged his agents with going after those gangsters whom the local authorities have been unable to put away.
Carston is living pretty high on the hog. He’s a favorite of society people and a continuing story for reporters, one of whom is Bill Bradford (Brent). Carston has his bookkeeper Julie Gardner (Davis) audit the accounts of Alec “Waxy” Armitage (Strange), the hood who runs Carston’s gambling business. Julie reports that Waxy has come up $30,000 short. Waxy tries to talk his way out of trouble with his boss, offering to make good on the losses, but Carston’s not impressed. Waxy, knowing he’s good as dead, goes to fellow hood Jake Andrews (La Rue) for advice. Jake’s advice is that Waxy should go to the DA and turn state’s evidence. Waxy goes to see the DA. Meanwhile, Jake (being ambitious and wanting to step into Waxy’s shoes) tips Carston as to Waxy’s move. Carston assigns hit man Joe Durell (Naish) to take Waxy out. Unfortunately, Joe not only kills Waxy, but also the four policemen guarding him. Carston calls Joe into his office and tells him he’s botched the job and to lay low, but Durrell answers with a lot of lip. After he leaves, Carston tells his second-in-command Ned Rich (Sawyer) to take Durrell fishing and use him for bait.
Bill Bradford reports the story. Carston believes Bill is merely doing his job, which is why he doesn’t object to Bill’s romance with Julie. But what Carston doesn’t know is that the IRS has deputized Bill as a special agent.
Next to go is Andrews. The District Attorney (O’Neill) tells Andrews they have the goods on him and he can save his skin by trading information on Carston. Andrews spills what he knows, but a document he has given the D.A. is stolen by the D.A.’s file clerk Williams (Guilfoyle) who sells it to Carston for $10,000. Although Carston is tried for his role in the shootings, the main witness against him, Andrews, is killed and the vital document is “lost.”
In the meantime, things are getting sticky. Carston warns Julie about seeing Bill. Bill tells Julie he wants to marry her, but she’s afraid to leave Carston as only she knows his bookkeeping code.
After the jury acquits Carston, Bill reveals his true identity to the D.A. and Julie. Bill and the D.A. come up with a plan to photocopy Carston’s books, with the help of Julie, who offers to hide them in her room after Bill, in his role as the friendly reporter, tips Carston about the upcoming raid. Julie is arrested as a material witness. She helps the D.A. and Bill decode the books as Carston is arrested for tax evasion. Julie also exposes Williams to the D.A. as one of Carston’s informants. Before Julie can testify, however, Carston has her kidnapped while on her way to court.
Bill comes up with a plan to find Julie. He and the D.A. pressure Williams into tipping Carston that Bill is actually an IRS agent in disguise. When Bill visits Carston, the gangster has Rich take Bill to the hideout where Julie is also stashed. Bill is tied up next to Julie, but the police arrive and rescue them. Back in court, Julie is testifying about the code when Bill sees Carston pull a pistol from his valise. Bill shoots it out of his hand in the nick of time. Carston is convicted and sent to Alcatraz, and the film ends with Bill announcing he’s taking some time off to marry Julie.
Despite the fact that it a breezy, fast-moving 76 minutes, in the end it’s just another programmer ground out by the studio, no less and certainly no more. About the only thing worth remembering about Special Agent is that for Bette Davis, it was the film that she did immediately prior to Dangerous, which brought her the Oscar. Other than that, it was the sort of potboiler that the studio kept casting her in despite the acclaim she won for quality films such as Of Human Bondage. At least she got George Brent, one of her favorite leading men, as her co-star.
With the enforcement of the Code, Warner Bros. got an attack of establishment fever, making films glorifying the government lawmen sent to battle criminals that have eluded local law enforcement efforts. Cagney’s ‘G’ Men was released earlier that year (May), and Special Agent could have been as exciting if the studio had decided to put a little effort into it. But Warner Bros. didn’t value Davis in the same way they valued Cagney and the film suffers as a result.
Special Agent is obviously based on Al Capone, who was taken down by the IRS for income tax evasion. But the similarity stops there, as the studio opted for a generic gangster picture where only the titles of the characters change. The idea of Brent’s character being an undercover agent posing as a newspaper reporter has great possibilities, but the writers ruined it by having Brent established as a reporter who was deputized by the IRS as a special agent.
In reality, it doesn’t work that way, as there is no way a layman could just be deputized like that, with no training. Special agents did work in undercover roles; the Capone case was a prime example of IRS men going undercover to gather the necessary evidence to nail Big Al. If Brent’s character had been established as a special agent who worked undercover as a newspaper reporter, it still would be a bit far-fetched but would have at least made sense. Here, Brent is simply a reporter deputized as a cop, the result of lazy scriptwriting. And would a gangster on the level of an Al Capone employ a single young woman as the keeper of his books? That goes against every historical example and seems intended only as a way to give Bette Davis’ character something to do.
Davis and Brent give their usual professional performances and work off each other nicely. They should, considering their working history together. The only flaw in their performance is when Brent convinces Bette to turn on Cortez; it just doesn’t come off as convincing, considering that Davis’ character is scared to death of her employer. Speaking of, the best performance in the film belongs to Ricardo Cortez, who breathes life into what should be just another supporting role. I liked Cortez’s bit of constantly wearing gloves. It gives a little quirkiness to his character and sets us up for the trial scene, when he takes the gloves off just before reaching into his valise to a gun. William B. Davidson, one of the great unsung supporting players, is excellent as Cortez’s sleazy mouthpiece. Jack LaRue, as Andrews, the kind of role Humphrey Bogart would soon fill, uses his sleepy-eyed menace to good effect, though his screen time is all too brief.
In the final analysis, Special Agent is a film that should please Bette Davis fans, with the best thing being said about it was that it did neither Davis nor Brent any great harm. For Davis, although it did not seem like it at the time, great things were still in store for her in the future.
Made just after the Hays Office began to strictly enforce the Production Code, the film suffered from uneven continuity resulting from the deletion of lines and parts of scenes deemed inappropriate. According to the TCM essay on the film by Jeremy Arnold, the toughest scene to fix was one involving a line of dialogue that was seen as especially offensive. As the scene couldn’t be cut because it contained important plot information and couldn’t be redone because of budgetary limitations, the decision was made simply to erase the line altogether, with the result that Cortez’s lips are moving, but nothing’s coming out.
In 1940, the studio remade the film in its B-unit as Gambling on the High Seas, with Wayne Morris in Brent’s role, Jane Wyman in Davis’ role, and Gilbert Roland as the crime boss. The gimmick to the film is that crime boss Roland is running a floating casino beyond the territorial limit. Morris remains a reporter; there is no connection to the IRS. After Roland is indicted, look for George Reeves in a quick scene as a reporter phoning in the story to his paper.
Reporter Bill Bradford (Brent) to Julie Gardner (Davis) over lunch: “I like you. You don’t ask asinine questions at a ball game, you don’t get lipstick on a guy’s collar, and you carry your own cigarettes.”