I first read about A Flash of Green in Barry Gifford’s fun read The Devil Thumbs a Ride, a tribute to all the pulp/noir films he loves. He doesn’t say much about the film, mostly focused on Richard Jordan’s performance in that and two other movies (The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Mean Season). However, something about A Flash of Green caught my immediate interest. Only available on VHS, I decided not to order it and over time forgot the title. Then, browsing the back of the instant streaming Netflix catalog, I found it. Only available to watch online (still not on DVD) I was ecstatic to watch this movie I knew little of. And now after seeing it four or five times I can say that it is one of my favorites.
The movie, based on a book by crime writer John D. Macdonald (Cape Fear), tells the story of a community’s battle in a Florida town over a piece of land and the reporter (played by Ed Harris) stuck in between the two warring sides. He sympathizes with the nature conservationalists, in love with the wife of his deceased best friend who organizes and pioneers a campaign to stop the construction. On the other hand, he secretly works for his childhood friend (Richard Jordan), a county commissioner with plans to be governor. Jordan is charming and sly, dealing with the companies to build developments on the land and using Harris to dig up dirt on the opposition.
This is not a thriller in conventional terms. The pace is slow and beautifully so. Director Victor Nunez creates a world, a tone with picture and music, and characters that feel more true than any I’ve ever encountered. When showing the movie to my father, he remarked that all of the houses in the film looked like real homes, not Hollywood sets, and the people too who do not reek of the glitz and glamour.
Ed Harris, who I believe to be one of our greatest actors, delivers a complex mysterious performance. It is quite impressive how subtle yet effective he is in the role and the rest of the cast follows him.
I feel that Nunez made an American masterpiece with A Flash of Green. This forgotten under-appreciated film is a treasure of great storytelling and a film that will always remain close to me.
The Jazz movie. Since I don’t know much about Jazz and haven’t seen many of the movies made about it, I’m totally unqualified to declare any movie the quintessential Jazz movie. Still, I do not retract my statement. All Night Long, directed by Basil Dearden, is the Jazz movie because I can’t imagine anything more perfect.
At first, a 50’s/60’s re-telling of Othello in the Jazz-club London sounds like one of those rotten Shakespeare modernizations that often (always) go wrong. Well, slap a one-location, one-night scenario on and you’ve got potential for a major cinematic blunder, full of good intentions and bad decisions. But no. Somehow it worked.
All Night Long is one long night of deception, lust, greed, and Jazz. A mixed British/American cast crowds a warehouse like apartment with brass instruments and back-stabbing motivations. There are lots of good actors here: Richard Attenborough for one, and Paul Harris as the noble Othello-turned-Jazz band leader Rex is solid as hell. But it’s one guy who steals the show and his name is Patrick McGoohan.
I had no idea McGoohan when in the movie when I started it. He navigates the tiny world of musicians and women with devilish ambition. Boy, he makes the whole picture. A dynamite performance, I’m telling you. It rocks the socks off his turn in The Prisoner and stands as one of the most intriguing/ repulsive/ attractive characters the cinema knows.
And here, another stellar effort from Basil Dearden, who I first made acquaintances with last week’s The League of Gentlemen. Dearden was no fluke filmmaker. No. It took great cinematic instincts to hold a movie like this together and he keeps it tight and wild till the last beautiful shot.
Throw in some cameo spins from Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus and wow, this is one hell of a picture.
In 1960, some British underground filmmakers made a movie called The League of Gentlemen. It’s a heist movie, and to my mind, maybe the best ever made. Certainly, fifty years later, it remains a fresh cinematic experience.
A retired colonel played by Jack Hawkins assembles a group of ex-soldiers with tainted, criminal histories for a robbery. That’s all I’ll say for plot specifics. These men almost belong in a Hawks film, but no, they’re too melancholy for that. And it’s the melancholy, the dry wit, the way writer Forbes, director Dearden, and the actors create a group of ex-soldiers, lost in a world of peace with a last chance at glory that becomes something quite terrific.
Nigel Patrick gives a standout performance, an equal to Hawkins in screen presence. A scene like the one where Patrick washes Hawkins’ dishes is something that would never make it into most movies, but this is what makes The League of Gentlemen good. The heist scene is nothing compared the tiny moments between these characters, the dialog, the wit.
And of the heist I will only say that it was simple. Stark. It and the movie possess no flash. They are neither burdened by tricks or twists. Anyone making a movie in this genre should return to Gentlemen because it will outlast all the Ocean’s and Italian Jobs.
I must thank good and bad luck that this movie never came together as it was intended to (as a Hollywood vehicle with Cary Grant). Sure, that fantasy version might’ve been a good romp but what we have here is very special. And for me, an introduction to a group of filmmakers I’d like to make cinematic acquaintances. Jack Hawkins has always caught my eye, a contagious force on screen. Add to his company Bryan Forbes, young, full of life in this picture. He also wrote the screenplay (from a novel by John Boland) and later directed some films. More movies directed by Basil Dearden are available in the Criterion box which includes Gentlemen and I plan to seek them out.
Body Heat (1981) is a movie that I like and dislike at the same time. I dislike it because it poses as an original when it is so obviously derived from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I mean plot point by plot point it matches up identically. But then I like it because it is so smartly written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, beautifully acted by William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in the principal roles with great support by J.A. Preston, Ted Danson and Richard Crenna who spiritually ties Body Heat to Double Indemnity because he once starred in the TV version of Double Indemnity (1973). In that version he plays the hapless hero, in Body Heat he’s the victim. In this film Ted Danson gives what is to my mind a truly witty performance that fore shadows his wonderful turn as Sam Malone for all those years on the TV series Cheers. Also in the cast is a young Mickey Rourke giving a charmingly relaxed performance. I remember critics at the time saying that they thought he stole the film, I don’t agree. But he is damn good in his role.
What I like about this film is that it is both sexy and erotic. This is one of the few American films that possesses those rare qualities. A lot of films claim to either be one or the other and are usually neither. They are frequently explicit but generally never sexy or erotic. And as I said before, this film is both. The two leads (Hurt and Turner) go at each other like adolescents in heat and it comes off the screen in a palpable way. Added to that the dialogue is smart and the plot turns ingenious particularly if you haven’t seen Double Indemnity. And even if you have it’s still interesting from a literary stand point to see how he spins something old into something new. The ending strikes me as somewhat problematic but it’s not so bad as to negate what came before it.
As I said I didn’t like the film the first few times I saw it but as the years go by I appreciate more and more when I see the poor job other filmmakers have done trying to make something remotely sexy and mysterious about the criminal doings of ordinary people. In other words something in the Film noir genre. I wish Lawrence Kasdan would do something else in that tone. He came so close the first time maybe he’ll hit center target the next time…I can dream, can’t I?
A Great Pulp Performance
Let’s get this out of the way. Miami Blues isn’t a very good movie. Somehow it misses and misses pretty far. Perhaps it’s Fred Ward, cast as the lead detective, turning in an oddball performance highlighted by a pair of false teeth and goofy expressions. But I don’t think he can be blamed. It could be George Armitage’s fault, he wrote and directed the film, or the producer Jonathan Demme (the movie has a sort of Demme quality, the same that has ruined some of his other genre pieces). Still, it could be inherent in the source material, Charles Willeford’s detective yarn. Something about the quirky nature of the story might belong only on the page and not the screen.
Whatever it is. The movie glories in one aspect: Alec Baldwin’s performance. This is really the best Baldwin ever got. He plays Junior, a criminal who robs criminals (but this isn’t a Robin Hood story at all). He murders a hare krishna at the airport in the first scene with a single pressure point move. This sets the cops (specifically Fred Ward) on his trail. The real story happens outside the chase; he picks up a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s sweet, young and stupid. And he likes her and keeps her aside as his loving wife while he continues a crime spree in Miami. Junior raises the stakes higher when he steals Ward’s badge and parades as a cop, walking into robberies, shooting thieves, and of course stealing the money himself.
Alec Baldwin is electric. With full wild eyes he carries the movie from beginning to end. Yes, he is a psycho but he’s more than that. His scenes with Leigh really come off as genuine. One minute, he tells her all he wants is to work a 9 to 5 and come home to a loving wife. The next minute he’s running into a pawn shop, getting his fingers cut off with a meat cleaver. Was the first statement a lie? Yes and no. We believe him like she does. He is sincere. He loves her. But something drives him towards crime, the energy of action, the draw of the chase and the fight.
This is really a bizarre midpoint to Baldwin’s career. It falls between the action hero roles like Hunt for Red October and the comic direction he’s recently taken. I think by accident it shows what Baldwin really could have been at his best as an actor. In Miami Blues he turns in one of the best pulp performances of the last few decades. If used properly, he could’ve been a pulp star, a pulp hero.
Take for instance the sheriff role from Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me. It’s been done wrong twice already, by Stacy Keach and just this year by Casey Affleck. Watching Miami Blues, I saw who I would cast. Baldwin can find the balance of crazy and caring, killer and cocksman. He would descend through a landscape of murder, still convincing those around him that he is the trustworthy deputy sheriff until the end when they know what really goes on his head.
There are many actors, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, who would’ve been perfect for the pulp/noir genre. Alec Baldwin is just one of them. Of course, it’s too late and he can only fill the roles in my movie fantasies.
The Turning Point, what a bad title for a hell of a picture. This one crept up on me. I didn’t know it was good till it got better and better and then that big end title came up and an occasional question filled my mind: how many great films like this lurk in the shadows?
It’s a crime picture. Not noir. Not exactly gangster either. It’s one of those movies about shutting down a syndicate. It bares a lot in common with The Phenix City Story, directed by Phil Karlson. Both are about intelligent righteous men out to shut down an overbearing syndicate of crime. In each film, the crusader’s fathers play important roles, both tied to the bosses, both eventually woven into the tragedy and complexity of the situation. The pictures have a common bond of upholding the law. The only difference is that The Turning Point is a hundred times the movie The Phenix City Story tried to be.
To sum up the story, Edmond O’Brien plays a do-gooder lawyer with a cop dad who makes it his agenda to shut down organized crime. He brings with him a pretty assistant and love interest (Alexis Smith) and lots of ideas about the importance of law. His old buddy from college happens to be a reporter in town; the role is played by William Holden.
As O’Brien starts to go after the mob, Holden finds some dirty things out about his friend’s father, while he can’t help falling in love with Smith and she can’t help it either. After certain tragedies and disasters, the tables turn as the crusader becomes disillusioned and the cynic journalist must convince him to keep fighting.
What’s good about the picture, what really nailed me is that it has the perfect combination of guts and heart. It’s a tough picture: tough things happen in it and it doesn’t pull punches. Sure, it’s a movie “about” something, but even the bursts of dialog about justice don’t detract from the real, hard things happening on screen. The affair between Holden and Smith is just right, a love that creeps in on them, inevitable if inconvenient. The movie isn’t overshot or over-lit; we get a black and white city and people in it and bad things happen to them in daylight and darkness, in a plain world. The ending cuts right to the bone. It’s a shootout at a boxing ring where Neville Brand shows up for the last ten minutes of the picture as a cold blooded assassin. And if ever a picture proves that old Hollywood wasn’t predictable, this is it. At least, it reminded me.
The movie was directed by William Dieterle, my official introduction to the German emigrant who worked many genres. I should mention also that it comes from a novel by Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (also adapted into a terrific movie). But however many names belong to this picture and however good they are (and they’re good by the way), the movie belongs to William Holden.
There’s something about Holden I can’t stay away from. What draws us to actors isn’t always easily definable. Here he plays a character familiar to his body of work: the cynic. I think he played a cynic better than anyone in cinema. But there’s more to it than that. His characters may see life as a joke, a game board where good and bad luck are dealt in no particular order, but there’s usually something that pulls him away from his habitual doubt. In Sunset Boulevard, it’s the fated romance with Nancy Olson; he gets a glimpse at a real relationship outside the cobwebs and nightmares of Hollywood. He rises to the top only to be dive headlong into a swimming pool with bullets in his back. In Union Station, another crime film, he plays a detective who considers acts of bravery to be foolish, especially when a patrol cop dies in a daring attempt to catch a crook. Of course, at the climax, he cannot help himself and he too steps out into the line of fire. In Bridge on the River Kwai, he’s full of nothing but cynicism, sick of the army and its absurdities. It might be self-preservation and survival that gets him back into the jungle, but there’s something else charging through his veins when he storms out onto that river and tries to keep Alec Guinness from stopping the bomb. There are more, more that I probably haven’t seen, Stalag 17 is another and even The Wild Bunch, where the old Holden takes one last chance at glory when he could’ve rode away rich and alive. I feel it bears kinship to the last act of Sydney Carton in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: a man moving in one direction, perhaps very selfish, makes a vital decision to sacrifice himself.
Whatever it is, I attribute it to Holden (an accidental part of his character that continued to seep on screen or a reflection of his taste and choice of screenplays). He was a hell of an actor and as I said before, The Turning Point, beyond its title, is one of hell of a picture.
The Bedford Incident
If James B. Harris is known at all it isn’t as a director but as Stanley Kubrick’s producer on The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). But he was and is a director and a pretty good one too. The first film he directed was The Bedford Incident (1965), a cold war drama that came and went so quickly that hardly anyone knew that it even existed. The critics of the day generally dismissed it as a sort of “too little, too late” event. It came out a year or so after Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove (1964) and Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) and was looked upon as an “also ran” in the cinema of paranoia sweepstakes. Now it occasionally shows up on cable but I’ve never seen it on network TV. In fact I’ve never even seen it listed. In spite of this it’s quite a nifty little cinematic think piece that deserves a second look if you’ve seen it or a first if you haven’t.
The story is about the situation on The Bedford, a US Destroyer outfitted with the latest technology (circa 1965) for tracking down supposedly disguised Russian spy ships in neutral waters just to make sure that they know we’re keeping an eye on them. The captain of the ship is one Eric Finlander, a strictly by- the- book career officer whose achievements were exemplary but who is nevertheless mysteriously kept at a distance by Navy administration. The role is played by Richard Widmark and it is one of his best. He is cold, steely, authoritative, and sometimes even frightening. Then just when we think we’ve got a fix on him he will flash a smile and suddenly appear warm and human.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of hard work being a mean bastard.” He says to his first officer, who is also his confidant, who then replies: “But Captain, sometimes I can’t help but admire how effortlessly you do it. Almost as though it came natural.”
The narrative, which is not very expansive, depicts a few days on The Bedford as they track down and essentially trap an unseen spy submarine violating territorial waters somewhere around Greenland. The focus here is on the work ethic of a few men on the ship as they play a deadly game of “cat and mouse” fueled by the Captain’s obsession with the phantom sub…“I keep them interested in the hunt.” He says, explaining how he keeps his men motivated. His whole philosophy is summed up in another line of dialogue delivered late in the film at a moment when he is being urged to give up his pursuit because the suspect sub is in international waters.
“Look, if I catch a man robbing my house and he makes a break for it, do I let him go just because he makes it to the sidewalk?” …Finlander, like Quint in Jaws (1975) later on, is cut from the same fabric as Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick but both the screenwriter James Poe and Mark Rascovich from whose novel the film was adapted were able to make him individual enough that he transcends becoming a stereotype.
We see most of it from a dual perspective. Those of a Life Magazine reporter/photographer assigned to the ship for a story, portrayed by Sidney Poitier and the newly assigned ship physician played by Martin Balsam (1919-1996). Poitier’s character Burt Munceford is more of a device than a truly etched character. He is there to represent our or the civilian’s point of view. The role is somewhat thankless because Munceford is positioned mostly to ask questions and give us some back story on Finlander. But Poitier handles the part with grace and some savvy as well. At the time he got some flak from the critics for being too off handed and flip. But looking at it closely the performance serves the narrative as a dramatic alternative to Finlander’s intensity.
A side note here. Poitier and Widmark were close friends. It began when they appeared together in Poitier’s first film role, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s race drama No Way Out (1950). At the time of The Bedford Incident Poitier was a big box office name and it was said that he took the role as a favor to his friend who was also producing the film. Later on Widmark returned the favor by appearing in the Poitier directed Hanky Panky (1982).
Balsam’s doctor gives us the perspective of a career Navy officer who does or wants to do his job on the ship without obsessing over it…The recently deceased James MacArthur (1937-2010) who did most of his acting on the TV series Hawaii Five-O gives what is perhaps the strongest performance of his film career as Ensign Ralston, a young over eager officer who nervously wants to please the captain as best he can. Marlon Brando’s best friend Wally Cox (1924-1973) also weighs in with a good performance as well. But the top honors go to Widmark who was a highly underrated actor throughout his career. He was praised mostly for the parts where he played the villain but his terrific performances in films like Time Limit-1957 (which he also produced) and Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) were generally overlooked. In The Bedford Incident he has what I consider his last great role although his career went on for another 40 years. It was really the perfect matching of actor and part and Widmark made the most of it still it went virtually unnoticed by all but a few critics. Nevertheless the performance is there for reassessment and appreciation.
Harris, as director, creates a very good sense of what it feels like to live on a ship for an extended period. The limited access to space, the monotony of looking at the walls or the sea all the time and the boredom of things when you don’t have a specific job to occupy your mind. The claustrophobic sense of it all is nicely conveyed through his direction and through the black and white cinematography of Gilbert Taylor…All in all, The Bedford Incident is a film that didn’t get it’s due the first time around. Unfortunately that happens quite often and that is to be lamented. But through the miracle of DVD’s, Blu Rays, and Streaming we can correct this oversight. This film is a good place to start.
Duel at Diablo – Rousing and lively.
For anyone who liked westerns when they were young Duel at Diablo (1966) is the kind you looked forward to seeing every time you went to the movies but rarely got. It’s tough, it’s exciting, it’s sometimes mean and mean spirited, not too deep, and it’s loaded with lively action sequences and all sorts of confrontations between the principals. It also showcases James Garner in a refreshing role reversal away from the easy going, wry characters he played so often in both comedies and dramas. Here he is an emotionally scarred and embittered military scout who is in search of the man who murdered his Comanche wife. But that’s just a subplot. The main story is about a military battalion of inexperienced soldiers led by an ambitious lieutenant who must transport several wagons of ammunition through hostile Indian Territory. Their enemy is Chata, an Apache Chief on the warpath because he and his tribe have been forced by the US Government to live on a thread bare reservation. So he goes after this troop with his full army of warriors for their ammunition trapping them in a boxed- in space called Diablo Canyon. Will this group of mostly green soldiers be able to hold off this marauding horde or will they succumb and be destroyed the way the US Government destroyed the Indians so many times before. This is the question that the film poses. We of course know the answer. But the fun of this film isn’t in its resolution, it’s in its details and in the inter play of its characters.
The cast is an interesting mix of American and European actors. Sidney Poitier co-stars as an ex-soldier turned horse wrangler ordered against his will to accompany the soldiers. British actor Bill Travers (Born Free-1966) plays the lieutenant who dreams of becoming a general. Sweden’s Bibi Andersson plays Ellen Grange, a woman once kidnapped by the Indians and now shunned by both the townspeople and her husband Dennis Weaver of TV’s Gunsmoke (1955-1975). He has the most interesting role in the film because his character shifts from callous and cold to sometimes caring and tender and back again. Poitier is suitably flashy in a not sharply defined role. Travers does his martinet soldier thing well. Bibi Andersson gets to strut her dramatic stuff out doors instead of the inner chambers of Ingmar Bergman’s claustrophobic world. Garner at the center of much of it is as I said before tough and laconic and quite physical as well… “You got no luck Jess” The lieutenant says to him at one point, “Ellen Grange is already married.” and that sort of sums up the melancholy nature his character. But this isn’t the kind of film that’s designed to demonstrate the histrionic versatility of its actors. It’s about action and more action with a few shades of character sketches thrown in then it’s back to action and shootouts as any good western should be.
It was adapted from a novel (Apache Uprising) by Marvin Alpert, a prolific screenwriter and novelist. He wrote Rough Night in Jerico-1967. It was directed by Ralph Nelson, an all round pro who moved easily between TV and Movies. He directed Sidney Poitier in his Academy Award winning performance in Lilies of the Filed – 1963.The script makes some mention about the plight of the Indians so as not to paint them as heinous villains although they do some pretty heinous things but none of that is important in this film. Its main purpose is to provide you with rousing genre entertainment and that it does in spades. If there is a cinematic equivalent to a good paperback western this is it. There are many others too but this one would be high on the list.
Along with Noir and the Musical, the Western is a genre of the past. There have been entries in the last forty years on television and the cinema that serve the Western well, notably Appaloosa, Open Range, Lonesome Dove and some of the films of Clint Eastwood. For the most part it is an unused side of cinema, regrettably so, a distinct American creation that dominated the first half of 20th century moviemaking and still holds a gallery of some of the greatest films ever made.
Near the end of the sixties, directors were still playing with the genre. Playing is the operative word. What many of these late Westerns achieved was a purposeful rejection or reaction to the values and ideas that make up the Western. Robert Altman turned it into a dark landscape full of Leonard Cohen folk songs in his great McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Sydney Pollack experimented in the mountain-man sub-genre with his Jeremiah Johnson. Peter Fonda made his Hired Hand and Michael Cimino tried for epic size glory with Heaven’s Gate. These films contain shoot-outs, men in hats, and horses; still they are not quite Western.
Again, whether on purpose or by accident, they ignore or refute the principles of the Western. Though there were endless variations of this genre before it faded, certain qualities exist throughout. The idea of code, in the law and against it, is consistent in the work of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher and others. There is a lack of code or a corruption of code in the late sixties experiments. And in the Spaghetti Westerns that followed (and have grown more popular amongst current audiences than the films that spawned them), code is practically abandoned and replaced with a focus on style and sensationalism. Though the Westerns of old had style too, and never ignored the visual, most of them were focused on something else: the characters and what they held true and how that affected their conflicts with others. In that light, it seems that Spaghetti Westerns are hardly Westerns at all, but skeletons wearing the clothes and the hats, holding guns.
Of these “Not Quite Westerns”, there are some magnificent films. As mentioned before, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is haunting and beautiful. Heaven’s Gate possesses some extraordinary moments in its four hours. And of all the Sergio Leone movies, his Duck You Sucker is his best and his closest to being authentic.
Bad Company (1972)
I recently watched my favorite of these films: Bad Company, directed by Robert Benton in 1972, starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Brown plays a young man dodging the Civil War draft. He goes West and soon stumbles into a gang of young ruffians, led by Jeff Bridges. Together they go through a series of trials and misadventures.
On the surface, the movie sounds like a light, Western adventure. But this is no ordinary West. There are no beautiful landscapes. The background is drab, a dreary mid-west setting of dead grass and naked trees. The colors are dark grays and pale yellows. There are startling moments of violence. Take for instance a scene where the youngest of the group, just a kid, tries to steal a pie from a window. Someone shoots him in the head with a rifle.
At one point, the young men buy quick rounds of sex with another traveler’s wife. There’s something pitiful about the scene. They betray and lie to each other constantly. Everyone in the picture is starving, and the phrase “Who told me to go West?” is repeated often. Even the villain, a fast-slinging gunfighter played by David Huddleston is the opposite of the traditional Western bad guy: he’s obese, he acknowledges that he’s the leader of a band of idiots, and even his most impressive “gun trick” is not impressive at all. Near the end of the picture, he calls himself “the oldest whore on the block.”
The final shootout is at once thrilling and violent and completely absurd. The piano score spins a Marx Brothers feel while the characters awkwardly kill each other. It’s an odd moment, but in its own not-quite-Western way it works really well.
The best part of the picture is Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Their struggle for friendship is an interesting reverse of the usual Western companionships (John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, or Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine). Bridges was and is a great presence on screen. He is unpredictable, yet he avoids any sign that he is acting. Barry Brown, an actor I wasn’t familiar with until this picture, carries the whole thing. He is as authentic and natural as Bridges and together they make a great pair.
I was sad to read that Barry Brown committed suicide in 1978, not ten years after he made this film. He had a short career but however short, something of him is left in this great movie, not really a Western, but still great nonetheless.
Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown, not long after the Bad Company shoot.