The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Desert Island movie #10
For my final Desert Island Movie in this list I’m going with one of my favorite high adventure films. Its advertised title was; Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone. This is interesting because it represents a rare case where the screenwriter, not the director (J. Lee Thompson) or even the author (Alistair MacLean) of the bestselling novel from which it was adapted, is identified as the primary creator. That didn’t and doesn’t happen often so it’s worth noting. I suspect this was because Foreman was the film’s producer as well as its scriptwriter.
Anyway The Guns of Navarone is one of those “mission impossible “stories set during World War Two where a motley group of men are assigned to go into German occupied Greek territory and destroy the fictional guns of the title. And of course no one really believes it can be done. “The operation is insane.” Says Mallory the man assigned to the mission. “The mission is our last hope.” he is told by his commanding officer. “If those guns remain in place 2000 men will die in Kheros.” So there’s no question about it, they have to take on the challenge. And this is par for the course in movies like this. If it was “mission possible” then there would be no suspense. So once again the thrill (for us in the audience) is in the details, the individuality of the characters carrying out the mission and the twists and turns of the plot. In other words the execution. And also, this being a big budgeted Hollywood Studio (Columbia Pictures) film a large part of the fun has to be in the big name cast they gathered to play the roles…Well they did themselves proud. It is headed up by Hollywood’s classic mold leading man Gregory Peck to whom a commemorative US Postal was issued on April 28, 2011. He plays Mallory, a mountain climber who hasn’t climbed in years, but assigned to do just that and lead his men over a mountain to the guns. Anthony Quinn does a colorful turn as a Greek resistance colonel. David Niven is a slightly rebellious cynic. Teen pop idol of the moment actor/singer James Darren (Goodbye Cruel World) is a fiery rebel. England’s Stanley Baker is on board as a character called “The butcher of Barcelona”. In smaller parts are future director/writer Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and a young Richard Harris delivering a nifty monologue anchored by the word “bloody”. Character actor James Robertson Justice lends his authoritative presence as the man who assigns the men to this impossible task. On the distaff side Greek actress Irene Papas and English born Italian beauty Gia Scala provide passion, sex and duplicity to the proceedings as resistance volunteers.
The whole idea is for the men to get through a German stronghold and blow up the guns. But truthfully, the guns here serve as what Hitchcock called “The MacGuffin” which is the thing the characters care about and the audience accepts only because it’s so important to them. But our real focus is on the characters, their personality traits and their differences. They spice up the action and keep us interested in the outcome. And there are a number of interesting sub plots in the story as well. For instance Quinn’s character promises to kill Peck’s Mallory after the mission if they live through it. Another subplot suggests that there might be a spy in their midst. And so it churns. Or as the saying goes; “And the hits just keep on coming”.
There are some wonderful action set pieces that are thrillingly staged. And there’s a storm at sea sequence that is among the best I’ve ever seen. Dimitri (High Noon) Tiomkin, who during those days seem to be the composer of nearly every major film coming out of Hollywood, contributes a stirring score that keeps a sense of action boiling even in the quiet scenes. This was director J. Lee Thompson’s first big budgeted Hollywood motion picture and he acquitted himself splendidly. The film was expensive for its time (6 million) but it went on to become the highest grossing film of that year. Not that I particularly care about things like that but it indicates how popular the picture was.
Today, like so many other good films that are not designated as classics The Guns of Navarone is pretty much forgotten. Still each time I watch it I get the same sense of excitement that I did when I first saw it at the Murray Hill Theatre in New York City all those years ago. So if you’re in the mood for high gloss adventure entertainment where the story seems authentic and all the plot turns are plausible this film is for you. Over the years I’ve recommended to many friends and I have yet have one come back and tell me that he/she didn’t like it. The old phrase; “They don’t make them like that anymore” is particularly apt in this case.
And that completes my ten. On a future date I’ll probably select another ten just for the fun of it. But right now for this series I’ll stamp the file; mission accomplished.
Desert Island Movie #9: Carlos Saura’s Carmen
I go to Spain for my next Desert Island movie. The director is the man who has for many years been called “The most Spanish of Spanish directors.”And its central motif is Flamenco one of the classic dances of Spain forged out the music and movement of the Spanish Gypsies.
Now although the film is called Carlos Saura’s Carmen(1983) it probably should’ve been called Carlos Suara and Antonio Gades’ Carmen because the film so fully reflects both men’s contribution to the finished product. The directorial conception was by Carlos Saura, both men wrote the screenplay while Antonio Gades both choreographed the dances and played the lead.
The film was based on the famous novella written in 1846 by Prosper Merimee a Frenchman living in Spain. The story was adapted into an even more famous opera in 1875 by another Frenchman, Georges Bizet. Besides the opera there are stage adaptations, sometimes with music and other times without, in virtually every major language in the world. Starting in 1907 right up to 2011 the story of Carmen and Don Jose’ has been adapted for the screen more than 40 times. The best known versions are; Carmen (1915) Directed by Raoul Walsh starring Theda Bara, The Loves of Carmen (1948) starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, Carmen Jones (1954), an all black version adapted by Oscar Hammerstein the 3rd, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, First name: Carmen by Jean Luc Godard, Bizet’s Carmen (1984) and Carmen: A hip opera (2001) Starring Beyonce’.
Carlos Saura’s version is not the opera. The story this time is set in contemporary Spain (circa 1983) and in the environment of a Flamenco Dance company. Still it utilizes Bizet’s classic score throughout. We sometimes hear a recording of the opera but most of the music is adapted by Paco de Lucia who appears as himself in the film. As mentioned before Saura and Gades collaborated on all aspects of the film. This was their second time working together. And later they collaborated on another film creating Saura’s much celebrated Flamenco Trilogy; Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo
(Love the Magician- 1986). Carmen is the most popular of the three. It is also my favorite of all the adaptations I’ve seen.
Before going on I want to say a word about Antonio Gades (1936-2004). He was Spain’s premiere Flamenco dancer and choreographer for most of his career. His company toured the world and received many international accolades for the excellence of their work. Weeks before his death of cancer he was awarded Cuba’s highest honor and is buried there as per his request. I had the occasion to see his company perform twice and was astonished by its excellence both times. This film preserves so much of that in the timeless way that only celluloid can. From my perspective this is the best dance centered movie I seen thus far because it doesn’t photograph the dances on a stage as many film adaptations of celebrated ballets have done but keeps it in the informal atmosphere of the rehearsal studio. And among the many things that makes this film a singular movie viewing experience for me are; the fluid camera work in a mostly confined space, the use of color to suggest the emotions being dramatized, the symbolic use of mirrors indicating the dual aspect of blending the traditional version of the story with the new. But what keeps me truly riveted to the screen is first the dancing. The strength and precision it requires, the kinetic energy it sparks, the non-verbal suggestions it evokes and its erotic allure. All of this fueled by one of the world’s great musical compositions. Laura Del Sol who plays Carmen is an actress/dancer whose dual abilities and beauty matched up so well with Antonio Gades’ that it gives the film a sexual force that is not present in any of the other adaptation, including the soft porn Carmen, Baby (1967) made by Radley Metzger.
This is a film I view often because it stimulates me in so many ways. It stimulates my emotions, excites my aesthetic sensibilities and from time to time sends me back to reading the novella just for the sheer pleasure of it. I l quite like the other two films of the trilogy but I absolutely love Carmen. And if you can’t have the one you love on your desert island, what’s the point of being there?
Desert Island movie #8
If I had to chose the one movie to credit (or blame) for my getting involved with theatre and film as a profession that film would have to be Summer Stock (1950) starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly along with a great array of supporting players including the great but often overlooked Ray Collins of Citizen Kane fame. In Welles’ picture he plays Boss Geddes and had the line; “If it was anyone else I would feel sorry for you Mr. Kane. But you’re going to need more than one lesson and I’m going to give them to you.” Here he gives an amusingly comic performance as Eddie Bracken’s overbearing father.
When I first saw Summer Stock I fell in love with both Judy and Gene. She for her singing and him for his dancing. To me and all the guys I grew up with Kelly was just the epitome’ of cool. Especially when he does the “You Wonderful You” song with her. We were just at the age where girls were beginning to interest us and we thought that what Gene did with that song was the perfect formula for seduction. He became our hero after that. I remember that some of the other guys started taking tap dancing lessons just so that they could be like Kelly. I didn’t but I did memorize all the songs and made it my goal to enter some aspect of show business when I grew up. I had no idea what area I wanted to pursue but figured that I would discover it somewhere along the way, and ultimately I did.
Judy and Gene had been together in two films before. For Me and My Gal (1942 and The Pirate (1948). And although they remained good friends for life Summer Stock was their last film together and her last for MGM the studio that had been her home for so long.
Now despite the happy end result Summer Stock was a troubled production. Judy was constantly sick or absent for a variety of reasons. So scenes had to be rewritten and altered, songs had to be changed and accommodations made for her fluctuations in weight. The most famous number in the film ”Get Happy” was shot and added to it several months after its completion. And Judy who looks rather heavy throughout looks slimmed and sleek in that great iconic number…From all reports of the shoot Kelly was a real trooper and provided Judy with invaluable support during these troubled times. He does well for himself too with a couple of show stopping numbers. Eddie Bracken is funny as Judy’s hometown boyfriend. Phil Silvers in a nondescript role steals nearly every moment he’s on screen. There’s also Gloria DeHaven as Judy’s spoiled, sexy sister, while Hans Conried enlivens the few scenes he’s in. Marjorie Main and the tall, curious Carleton Carpenter add their idiosyncratic personalities to the proceedings as well.
The story is a variation of the old Mickey Rooney/ Judy Garland staple about putting on a show in a barn in order to impress the bigwigs from Broadway. This time around Kelly is the broke but ambitious director, producer, choreographer of a show that needs a place to rehearse out of town. Judy owns a barn that her sister (DeHaven) says they can use. Judy objects but can hardly say no. Things become complicated when the stars of the show leave and as we knew they would, Judy and Gene have to assume the roles. During the course of things the wrong couples fall out of love, the right ones fall in love and finally all’s well that ends well. Some standout musical numbers include;” Friendly Star…Happy Harvest…Dig! Dig! Dig!…If You Feel Like Singing and Heavenly Music.”
Now one bit of caution. If you don’t like musicals this is one to skip. But if like me you do, then this is one to treasure.
Desert Island movie #7
When I first saw this film in 1962 everyone I knew disliked it. They thought it crude, tasteless, and a crass betrayal of Nabokov’s controversial novel. I thought the opposite. I thought it was a near masterpiece and I still think so. I also thought that the performances of James Mason Peter Sellers and especially Shelly Winters in the principle roles were of award caliber. But I was in the minority because only the screenplay credited to Nabokov (but vastly rewritten by Kubrick and his partner James B. Harris) was nominated for the Academy Award. It lost to Horton Foote’s screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact as late as 1981 when I asked playwright Edward Albee why he had chosen to adapt Nabokov’s novel for the stage his response was; “Someone has to correct the damage that Kubrick’s film has done.”
Curiously in 1997 after seeing director Adrian Lyne’s version of the same story, that many felt was a closer and more accurate version of the novel, I had nearly the same response to it as my peers had to the Kubrick film. And to me the actors Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith and Dominique Swain, good as they often are; here they seem just shadows of the full bodied creations provided earlier by Mason, Winters and Lyons. And the Quilty character so memorably created by Peter Sellers is merely an oafish presence. Kubrick and Sellers presents him as the personification of perversity and evil whose actions justify Humbert’s final act. In the Lyne version I got no such feeling. Now this is not a critique of Frank Langella’s performance. The role was conceived along different lines that reshaped and reduced his character.
The people who hate Kubrick’s version of the story hate it for all the reasons that I love it. Apparently after paying Nabokov to write his screen adaptation of the novel Kubrick and his partner rewrote what Nabokov had given them. They rewrote it to the point where Nabokov himself felt compelled to publish his script. I read them both and prefer what Kubrick and company did with it. He shifted the emphasis away from strictly pedophilia (or in Nabokov’s parlance Nymphet love) to obsessive love. The kind of love that chokes and strangles, becomes possessive in ways that leads to petty jealousies and envy. The kind of love that consumes the lover and ultimately leads to his or her destruction. This apparently did not sit well with the purists who I guess wanted the screen version to embrace the novel’s plotline more closely. Also many felt that the tone was wrong. Kubrick had chosen to tell the story from an absurdist perspective. As a result many scenes take on a comic view of what many feel is a serious/ criminal issue. But I love it and find that many of the scenes involving Humbert, Charlotte and Lolita high comedy of the rarest kind. And Sellers entire portrayal of Quilty a comic tour de force. James Mason I think gives the best performance of his career as the redundantly named Humbert Humbert while Shelly Winters should’ve been considerably more recognized and praised for what she did with the “Haze” woman’s character. She is by turns crude, pretentious, predatory, amusing pathetic and even soulful. This was as complete a performance as I’ve seen in a long time…The dialogue of the screenplay retains much of Nabokov’s prose style and word play with things like the Town of Ramsdale, Beardsley College and Camp Climax.
The opening scene that precedes the credits could work as a one act play by someone like Eugene Ionesco. And the ending where Humbert desperetly tells Lolita that the distance from where they are to the world outside is only 25 paces. “Come with me” he implores her “Live with me; die with me, everything with me.” is to me one of the saddest and dramatically painful bits of acting I’ve ever seen any actor play.
The novel Lolita is considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century. There have been four stage adaptations, one musical Lolita, My Love (1971) by none other than Alan J. Lerner of My Fair Lady fame, two operas along with two ballets. All are considered critical as well as commercial failures. To the best of my knowledge none have succeeded at capturing the central comic/tragic essence of the novel better than Kubrick with this film. For besides being comic and tragic it is also dramatically compelling and inventive in unexpected ways. And in the final analysis it does the greatest service a film can provide a novel. It makes you want to read the book.
On my desert island I sometimes want to engage with works that move me in a variety of ways. This film takes me through elements of pity and fear and then back again a few times. And that is the reason I have it here on my desert isle.
Desert Island movie #6
Would you believe there was actually a time when romanticism and good looks and not acting or story or even directorial razzle-dazzle could not only power a film but could also push it into the realm of becoming a classic? One example that comes quickly to mind is An Affair to Remember (1957). Leo McCarey’s remake of his own Love Affair (1939) which was then remade again in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning with less happy results proving my point that it was the stars not the story or the acting that made the two previous versions so memorable.
My desert island pick this time around does not have such a lofty pedigree or reputation as the films mentioned before. In fact as far as I can tell it is just about forgotten by most people of a certain age who’ve seen it. Yet it is a film that got good reviews and showed a respectable profit at the time of its release. Since then it seems to have disappeared from sight. I hardly ever see it on TV or cable and it is never mentioned as exceptional in the filmography of its two major stars. Still it is a delightful movie and one that I keep going back to whenever I’m in the mood for pleasant, uncomplicated lightweight entertainment. The film I’m talking about is Melville Shavelson’s Houseboat (1958) starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. The main story itself isn’t much. It’s about a widower (Grant) trying to become a father to his three children after having been away for most of their young lives. Into their midst comes Cinzia (Loren) the daughter of a celebrated Italian symphony conductor, posing as a maid in an attempt at escaping from the stuffy world of her father and his friends.
Much of the film takes place on the houseboat of the title as Grant and Loren looking their glamorous best go through the dance of sizing up each other, interacting with the children and finally falling in love. There is a terrific supporting cast featuring Martha Hyer, Eduardo Ciannelli and Harry Guardino who nearly steals the film as Angelo whom Grant tries to pair up with Loren. The scene where he goes to pick her up for a date complete with flowers is laugh out hilarious along with several other moments in the film. Murray Hamilton is also in the film. It was his first and he remembered it as one of the most pleasant shoots he had ever been on.
But the thing that makes Houseboat special and memorable as far as I’m concerned is the pairing of Grant and Loren. She was 23 at the time and he was 53 but that didn’t matter they still looked great together. Actually they had been paired in a film once before The Pride and the Passion (1957) and it was on that shoot that Grant said he fell madly in love with Loren. He even asked her to marry him. And Loren, smitten for a while reciprocated his ardor but later on decided to marry producer Carlo Ponti instead. This troubled Grant and he actually tried to get out of acting with her in Houseboat but finally decided to honor his contract .And it is a testament to their ultimate professionalism that none of the tension of their strained personal relationship ever shows up on screen. They light up the film with the warmth and romantic aura that makes you wish they had appeared in more films together.
Cary Grant because of his poise, wonderful sense of timing, his acting savvy and his impeccable good taste has often been cited as the quintessential movie star. And I for one go along with that assessment. The greatest proof of this to me is the way he has lifted and improved so many indifferent films with his presence and charm…And Sophia Loren to me is one of those women who was born for the silver screen. From the first she appeared she lit up the screen with her beauty, her earthy sexuality, her personality and the inner fire of her creative abilities. And she just got better and better as the years went by. This was her seventh Hollywood film and after that she went on to have one of the most successful careers in the history of international cinema. A career filled with well known and well regarded films along with many, many acting awards. And like all legendary stars she brought something more to movies besides good looks and good acting… She brought the magic of her personality that lit up the screen and connected with each and every member of the audience. So when you put these two together even when the material isn’t spectacular they’re going to brighten it up with their own special glow. And that is what they do in Houseboat. He brings knowledge and experience; she brings youthful exuberance and her sense of humor to the enterprise. And together; along with everyone else (for film is a collaborative medium after all.) they deliver one of the most enchanting romantic comedies of the 1950s. The scene where they dance to the Academy Award nominated song “Almost in my Arms” is a prime example of the kind of romantic moment we long for in movies but rarely ever get any more. And the thing that makes it so special is the chemistry of the stars. Nothing else, just that and that alone. Murray Hamilton years ago said to me that looking back on all the films he appeared in (And the number at the time was around 300) the most beautiful actress he ever worked with was Sophia Loren. I told him that I envied him and he laughed and said; “You’re not the only one. The list is in the millions.”
Someone once said to Cary Grant that they wished that they were Cary Grant. And the former Archibald Leech answered that he wished he was too indicating that he knew the difference between the screen image and the real man. With Houseboat we have these two great screen personalities at their incandescent best. And any person lost on this mythical desert island won’t be lonely for long with these two for company.
Desert Island Movie #5
Raging Bull/ Casino
Despite their differences I look at these films as a single entity. The one extending the other the way Dumas’ 20 Years After extends the story of The Three Musketeers. The difference here being that Casino (1995) is not in any way a sequel to Raging Bull (1980). But there are many surface similarities. The most obvious is in the casting of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in principal roles that in some way echo the roles they played in Raging Bull. And in the case of DeNiro and Pesci that relationship could be extended to Goodfellas (1990) as well. So why not add that film into the mix? Because to me that film is totally different in spite of the fact that both films (Goodfellas and Casino) were co-authored by Nicholas Peliggi. And both utilize a voice over narration technique. For me Goodfellas portrays (and brilliantly so) an enclosed world of friends, girlfriends, residents and bad boys behaving and very much misbehaving in what seems an almost hermitically sealed- in world whose boundaries never extends much beyond the stores, homes and bars of their small neighborhood. In Raging Bull and Casino we never get much sense of a community. If anything both Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and Ace Rothstein in Casino seem to be at odds with their communities in a variety of ways. What connects both films in my mind are the roles DeNiro and Pesci play, the volatile way they interact with each other along with Frank Vincent providing able support. And also the obsessive fashion in which both DeNiro and Pesci’s character pursue their separate goals in each film.
Visually the films are quite different from each other too. Raging Bull is shot in sumptuous black and white by Michael Chapman and the action of the film stays mostly in the tenements of the Bronx in New York. While Casino’s sun bleached look was provided by Robert Richardson. And that film stays mostly in the lush environs of Las Vegas, Nevada and the barren desert that surrounds it.
The casting of Robert DeNiro as Ace Rothstein whose Jewish background is mentioned many times in both the narration and in the dialogue was viewed as a mistake by many critics when the film first came out. And I must confess that I had a problem with it too. The main reason was because DeNiro had played so many characters whose Italian American personas were so pronounced. But with repeated viewings I think that his performance is so carefully nuanced and so well realized that it transcends any kind of ethnic scrutiny and stands out fully on its own merits. In both films he plays men whose narcissistic possessiveness make the sexy/beautiful women they marry crazy. And then they stand back looking at the women puzzled as to why they are acting the way they are. I can think of no one else in the history of movies who has done this better than the way DeNiro does it in these two films. The result is both disturbing and funny at the same time. It is the same with the violence in these films. The acts are simultaneously horrifying and amusing. I know many people who are turned off by this mixture that Scorsese seems to be able to do better than any other contemporary filmmaker. I am not among their number. I love it so much that sometimes I ask myself; “Am I the only person in the world that think these films (along with Goodfellas) are some of the funniest movies that I’ve seen in the past thirty years or so?” Every time I see one or the other I laugh my head off at the dialogue exchanges, the creative use of obscenity, and the crazy behavior of the characters. I just have to think about the scene in Casino between DeNiro and Sharon Stone where he’s trying to figure out what Lester Diamond (James Woods) did with the twenty five thousand dollars that Ginger gave him. Or the early scene in Raging Bull where Jake tells his brother Joey to punch him in the face. It strikes me as a scene that Pinter might’ve written in his prime. This is the stuff upon which great comedy is constructed. Another is the head in the vise sequence in Casino.
And as always in a Scorsese film the acting by all involved is peerless. It begins with the casting of the secondary roles. Half the time the individuals who fill out those character roles don’t seem like actors at all. Just folks he picked up on the streets and told them to say those words. That’s how convincing they are. Most are old guys with faces that even a mother might have trouble loving. But boy are they good. So good that I now see them showing up in films by other directors and on TV commercials spoofing the characters they have so memorably created. Still we can’t just take for granted the excellence that DeNiro and Pesci brought to Raging Bull and then with the addition of Sharon Stone in Casino. For me it’s like watching fine musicians play to each other in perfect harmony.
For these and a multiplicity of other reasons these two films (counting as one) must hold a permanent spot on that shelf where I place my desert island choices.
Desert Island Movie # 4 Trapeze
Outside of using them as a backdrop for horror films they don’t make circus movies anymore. Yet there was a time when they made them so frequently that it almost amounted to a sub genre unto itself. And any number of popular stars had at least one circus picture on their resumes. John Wayne, Charleston Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Esther Williams, Cliff Robertson, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas along with Clyde Beatty who was a circus impresario and author Mickey Spillane of Mike Hammer fame. Some titles include; Ring of Fire (1954), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961) Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Circus World (1974)…The best known, highest grossing, most critically acclaimed and most honored was Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It was given the Academy Award as the Best Picture of that year. And Mr. DeMille who was known as “The King of Epics” did indeed make the biggest circus picture of them all, loaded with spectacle, thrills, stars, sentiment, and enough plotlines to support three films all held together by a stirring narration spoken by Mr. DeMille himself. But even with all that my all time favorite circus picture is Burt Lancaster’s Trapeze (1956). I say Lancaster’s because although he didn’t direct it, (England’s Carol The Third Man Reed did) he was the dominant creative force behind the entire enterprise. The film was produced by Hecht- Hill – Lancaster a company he helped to found. They had produced the Academy Award winning Marty (1955). This was a story that Lancaster brought to them for development because the subject was close to his heart. Prior to becoming a movie star Lancaster had been a circus acrobat and had been looking for a long time for a story with a circus background. In fact one could say that many of his action pictures prior to Trapeze due to his physical hi jinks in them were sort of circus pictures in disguise. I’m thinking of films like The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) both featuring his former circus partner Nick Cravat. But now he had found the right story in Max Catto’s novel The Killing Frost which writers Liam O’Brien, James R. Webb, Wolf Mankowitz and the great Ben Hecht turned into a screen play called Trapeze.
Now this is by no means is an authentic depiction of circus life any more than The Godfather (1972) is an accurate portrayal of organized crime.. Like that classic film Trapeze is a glamorous and highly romanticized rendition of its subject. And that is exactly what makes it a terrific film. It’s romantic, it’s glamorous, it’s beautifully shot, the circus atmosphere is handsomely rendered and the three leading players couldn’t look more beautiful or physically capable. Lancaster, of course, shines. He was 42 and in great shape physically. So much so that he did all the stunts in the film himself…Gina Lolabrigida, who, preceding Sophia Loren, was the screen’s leading Italian sexpot. She was called “The most beautiful woman in the world” at the time and in this film she looks it. But her performance as the narcissistically ambitious tumbler goes beyond the physical. It is solid and emotionally credible…And Tony Curtis (30 when the film was made) has never looked more handsome in a movie. This was his first major role in a class A, high budget film with a world re known director and a truly international cast. And Curtis made the most of his opportunity. He was always an athletically capable performer and in this one , with coaching from Lancaster and others, he is entirely convincing as Tino Orsini, the young hot shot trapeze artist. Because of his pretty boy looks Curtis was always an underrated actor. In Trapeze he gives a well balanced, romantic performance that would catapult him into the upper echelons of screen stardom.
The film in short tells the story of the new young artist replacing the old one. Here the “Old man” after some resistance and coaching becomes the young man’s teacher and mentor. All is well until a conniving woman named Lola inserts herself in their midst using her looks and sexuality to potent effect. It splits the duo apart and sets up questions as to whether or not they will be able to arrive at the historical breakthrough of performing the triple mid air somersault that they were working so hard to achieve. Reed’s stylized direction takes us wholly into the world of this particular circus and its environs. And with the creative input of his cinematographer Robert Krasker, he uses the then new cinemascope process to full effect.
I like this film because the atmosphere is exotic, the trapeze sequences are breathtaking and the story is suspenseful as well as romantic. When I was a kid everyone dreamed of running away with the circus and living with people who make their living performing death defying stunts that stun and amaze us. If all of them were like the one in this film I definitely would. But since I didn’t the next best thing is this film. And that’s why I want it on my desert island.
The Cincinnati Kid
Desert Island Movie #3
The Blues is a term or a phrase we use mostly to generally describe a melancholy state of being as “I’ve got the blues today because…”The other use of the term is of course in the musical context. It defines a genre of music which also alludes to a state of sadness or depression as well. And when done well it becomes a poetic evocation of that famous line indicating that our sweetest songs come from our saddest thoughts.
Now there have been many movies with the word blues in their titles and several attempting to tell the story of the music and how it became a part of our musical/ cultural heritage. But the only movie I’ve seen that actually captures that elusive state of being is not a musical but a film about gambling called The Cincinnati Kid (1965) directed by Norman Jewison, starring Steve Mc Queen. From my understanding McQueen made the film as a sort of riposte to The Hustler (1961) starring Paul Newman because he felt competitive with Newman for whatever reason.
The film had a troubled time getting made. Sam Peckinpah was the original director and either left or was replaced due to “artistic differences”. Jewison came on and took the film in another direction altogether. I have heard and read speculations all the time about what a great film Peckinpah might’ve made out of this material. I don’t know. What I do know is what is there. A film whose mood takes you in, wraps itself around you and keeps you in that state until it releases you when the end credits come up. But in my case it goes beyond that. This to me is the quintessential blues picture. The tone is set by McQueen’s central performance as Eric Stoner aka “The Cincinnati Kid” and it is picked up and extended by just about all of the other principals. Tuesday Weld as his sad but hopeful girl friend Christian, Karl Malden as Shooter the compromised dealer married to a woman too young and restless for him. Edward G. Robinson as Lancy or “The Man” the tired, ageing champion trying to keep his position one more time. Ann- Margaret gives a sexy and knowing performance as the amusingly wicked but quietly dissatisfied Melba. And Rip Torn, as the villain of the piece Slade gets a variety of colors in what could’ve been a one note part. He’s dangerous, unpredictable, sly and even amusing in his shifts of mood. But in total each seems to be carrying his/her own private state of the blues throughout the entire film. And Jewison’s direction frames and echoes that all the way through.
The story is the age old one of the young contender taking on the old master. Here the game is Poker and the whole situation is set up like a gunfight in a western. The Young Turk is anxious for a face off, the old gun comes in from out of town to take him on and the whole town awaits the outcome. But the side stories leading up to the big game are well drawn and shaded in. And there’s an especially pastoral moment that is both tender and wryly amusing when Stoner visits his girlfriend at her parents farm before going into the big game.
The game itself is shot and cut for maximum excitement. And adding color to all of it are the actors cast as the players and observers. Cab Calloway, Joan Blondell, Jeff Corey, Jack Weston and Milton Selzer. But still all throughout the film retains its melancholy mood. It’s blues. I think much of the credit must go to Norman Jewison for not imposing so strong a directorial personality that might’ve or most likely would’ve choked off the charms the performers brought to their roles and subtle grace of Ring Lardner’s adaptation of Richard Jessup’s novel. He directs it in an admirably relaxed manner that allows us to enter into the gambling world of pre Katrina New Orleans without feeling rushed or pushed.
I look at this film whenever I want to escape into a psychic atmosphere other than my own. And it always does. That’s what makes it a must for my desert island list of ten.
Desert Island Movie #2
Irrational desire (lust) is an emotion difficult if not impossible to explain in life. It’s something so powerful and mysterious that takes place under the skin and inside the loins that defies reason or common sense. We stumble around and fall into traps trying to make sense out of something so mysterious and inexplicable. Consider now the problem of trying to coherently dramatize it in theatrical/cinematic terms. But that is exactly what Louis Malle and his talented cast and crew challenged themselves to do when they decided to make a movie out of Josephine Hart’s slim bestselling novel. The screen adaptation was done by the talented British playwright David Hare. That they got as close as they do to capturing what seems like an impossible circumstance without wandering into pornography is remarkable to me. Because for one thing pornography wouldn’t have solved the psychological dilemma of the two main characters. It would’ve only made it more explicit. Still the film goes pretty far as far as mainstream movies go in attempting to depict an attraction based solely on carnal desire.
The story is about Dr. Stephen Fleming, a respected Member of Parliament with an attractive wife, two children and a promising career ahead of him. One day he is introduced to Anna Barton, an attractive young French woman who is romantically involved with his son. They shake hands and a spark is struck. He recognizes it and so does she. Then almost immediately they succumb to the force of lustful desire that seems to be taking them over. From there we watch as they circle and connect with each other in a frenzy of sexual passion that they’re helpless to control.
This is not a sexy or erotic film but one that is fascinating in the way that it plumbs or rather attempts to plumb the sometimes frightening depths of human obsession and how helpless we can be in its onslaught. One of the reasons the film works so well, for me at least, is due to the nature of the leading performances by Jeremy Irons (Dr. Fleming) and Juliette Binoche (Anne Barton). They both surrender to the physical and emotional demands of the roles and present them naked and unguarded in a way that is both bracing and refreshing. They give performances that sometimes takes us (the audience) out of our comfort zone leaving us troubled and embarrassed. But like the proverbial tragic auto accident at the side of the road we don’t want to watch but can’t look away.
The term ‘a terrible beauty” is to me an apt way to describe this film because the way it is presented and the emotional consequences it exacts are both terrible and beautiful. I look at it and I’m fascinated and repelled, but more the former than the latter. And every time I look at it I hope it will end differently although I know it can’t.
I’ve always liked Louis Malle’s film but this one occupies a special corner in my motion pictures treasure house. And that’s the reason I would want it on that desert island paradise I’ve created for myself.
Desert Island Movie#1
There is a game I used to enjoy playing by myself that I’d like to share with you although I haven’t played it in a long, long time. Maybe it’s because I’m older and have less imagination than I had before. But anyway, here goes.
It’s the old “Desert Island” thing. They used to play it with books way back then when reading was a more popular pastime. The question was; “If you were stranded on a desert island forever and ever which 10 books would you want to have with you?”…Now the same question substituting the word movies for the word books. This question is not as easy as it sounds if you’re going to play the game seriously because it requires that you review in your mind all the movies that you’ve seen then narrow the list down for a variety of reasons. And none of these reasons can have anything to do with critical acclaim, awards won or the film’s designation as a classic or a piece of cinematic shit. It only has to do with you and how you emotionally, more than intellectually react to the film in question. But let us not completely discount the intellectual aspect because that counts for something too. Just don’t give it too much weight.
It’s been so long since I’ve played this game that I’m finding it difficult to get started again. But I’ll take a stab at it.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks-1953).
To my rational mind this is a stupid, somewhat harmless musical expertly made but without the grace notes and sublime pleasures of an MGM-Freed Unit creation. But the women! Oh my God, the women, the women, the women. By that I mean Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Russell and Monroe, Monroe and Russell and Russell and Monroe. Were there ever two more beautiful, sexy and seemingly available women presented so lavishly, so lovingly and so abundantly on the screen? To my eyes and mind no, never. Over the years when asked about this film I always describe it as the most heterosexual musical I’ve ever seen. And that it has the healthy potency of a good strip show. Every time I look at this film I fantasize and dream, dream and fantasize about so many possibilities that it makes my head spin. And when it comes to the ladies who would I choose If I had to? In my mind it’s always a photo finish with Russell winning by a very slim margin. But then I look at the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number and I’m not so sure anymore. But then Russell’s court room spoof of the same number stops me in my tracks and I’m confused once again. Another knockout moment is the “When Love goes Wrong” number. I think of those two kids with the women and how close they were to magic and didn’t, couldn’t realize it. I didn’t when I first saw the film so why should they? In fact when I think about it I was about the same age as they were. But then as the years went by the film keeps coming back and taking me in its arms. Or am I the one who’s doing the embracing? Either way we have each other and will never let go.
So there you have it, the first of my desert island movies. There will be nine more as the weeks go by. But play along with me. Send me a list of your desert island ten. Why should I have all the fun?