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The Flame and The Arrow (1950): Italy’s Acrobatic Robin Hood

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In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”

The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.

In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.

Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.

There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.

Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).

Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.

Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.

The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.

At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.

The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.

All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.

Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.

4/5 Stars

Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

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For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

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It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

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First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run through and reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying that still can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Danny Kaye Does Thurber

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In many ways, it seems short stories are the best sources for feature-length films because they allow the narrative to take the spark of an idea and extrapolate and mold it into something new and hopefully ingenious in its own right.

Author James Thurber didn’t seem to think that was the case with this adaptation of his short story plucked from the pages of The New Yorker in 1939 and turned into a vessel of lavish Hollywood entertainment by Samuel Goldwyn. Reading his story, in itself, gives a fascinating insight into the film version. For one thing, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” onomatopoeia is translated from page to screen.

However, it’s also very apparent watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that Goldwyn, for obvious reasons, tailored the material to his star Danny Kaye. There’s certainly no point of contention there and the story probably is better for it.

In this version, Walter Mitty is a Pulp magazine editor and being unmarried, it’s his mother, not his wife, who is constantly nagging him to stop dawdling and do his best to not be so absent-minded. If you actually think about it, the fact this homely mama’s boy is brainstorming racy detective novels, exotic love stories, and horror romances is a bit ironic. Though given his flights of fancy, it’s not all too unbelievable.

Kaye’s spry verbal acrobatics are as limber as ever finding his voice contorting, shrieking, and hiccuping in all manner of ways through all manner of dialogue, monologues, and songs. He also progressively plays up his nervous shtick as he goes clunking around offices, with pigeons flying about, continually fearing for his life while also receiving the ire of his conceited boss.

These developments come with the acquisition of a little black book that very much resembles the one he uses to maintain his daily regimen. Except this one is very important to a beautiful woman named Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) as she attempts to acquire some priceless Dutch jewels.

The best elements of the narrative, plucked from the fanciful comic short story, have Mitty swimming in and out of daydreams. And of course, alluring Mayo plays the grateful damsel in every scenario, cast as his dream girl and later found in the flesh when they cross paths for the first time.

His imagination has him taking on all sorts of occupations from a captain on the high seas to a world-class surgeon in the operating room of a hospital. Then, it’s a daring Air Cadet in the RAF with impressive impersonation abilities. The persona of the Riverboat Gambler made me realize Snoopy has a bit of Walter Mitty’s whimsy in him. It’s not too far a stretch to surmise Charles M. Schultz was all too familiar with the picture. But onwards and upwards as Walter daydreams himself into being a women’s hat designer and finally a western hero. Each scenario conveniently brought to life in front of us. This is the film at its most inventive.

But the comedy of the original story, you soon realize, is that Walter Mitty really is a mundane individual. There’s nothing particularly special about him and yet he takes the banalities of daily life and turns them into something thrilling to ignite his hyperactive imagination. Maybe implicitly it’s about being stuck in the monotony but more overtly it’s simply a tale of a normal, average, everyday person who, when you pull back the curtain, has a deeply imaginative fantasy life. Perhaps there’s something neurotic about it but more so it’s simply goofy.

Although watching Danny Kaye run around with Virginia Mayo in what feels like an inept amalgamation of The Big Sleep and North by Northwest has its intrigue, you begin getting away from its true inspiration. Because the lovable peculiarity of Mitty is that he’s so very unextraordinary and his life is so menial. However, by inserting this cloak-and-dagger stuff, although the film gets more exciting, it loses something of its main conceit.

The best single scene by far finally comes at the tail-end where Mitty’s lives collide and he finally gains a backbone. Calling out all the small-minded, tiresome, annoying quibblers in his life. It’s Walter’s way of firmly sticking it to the insufferable doldrums he’s been subjected to.

But it is interesting how films or modes of media, in general, are very much indicative of their times. Take Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” being turned into Apocalypse Now (1979) in the post-Vietnam years and most certainly the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  It reflected the escape from mid-life crises that many Americans no doubt crave at a certain age. Again, it’s part of the overarching narrative but not necessarily the true essence of Thurber’s original idea. Funny how that happens.

3/5 Stars

The Boatniks (1970): A Balboa Island Sit-Com

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I won’t make any pretense that The Boatniks is a great movie by any means but surely it speaks to some favorable quality when you enjoy something for its sheer goofiness, a certain sense of nostalgia, and the overall familiarity that pervades the material.

Yes, it’s a long sitcom episode but in this case, I have no qualms with such light and fluffy fare because so many good friends from my childhood came aboard for the ride. Norman Tokar, a prolific figure behind Leave it to Beaver directs with a script worked on by among other people Arthur Julian of Hogan’s Heroes, one of my dearest childhood favorites.

The cast has all sorts of sitcom mainstays of the 60s including Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko), Bob Hastings (McHale’s Navy), Joey Foreman (Get Smart guest star), Al Lewis (Car 54 Where Are You?, The Munster), Joe E. Ross (Car 54 Where are You?), Shaaron Claridge (Adam-12), and last but certainly not least Vitto Scotti, arguably the most prolific sitcom actor of all time. If you don’t know who he is, it’s all too obvious you haven’t seen enough of the classics.

The Boatniks (a not so clever play on Beatniks) wears its goofball wonkiness on its sleeve. We have a hapless hero who must come out from under the shadow of his prestigious father to take over command of the local Coast Guard in Balboa Bay.

Ensign Garland (Robert Morse) doesn’t start off too successfully as he lands a plethora of citations and winds up instigating a traffic accident all on his way to the docks. Then, at the docks, he clumsily splatters a sun-soaked Boat Rental and Sailing Instructor (Stefanie Powers) with yellow paint much to her chagrin. Everything is going just dandy only to get better.

He subsequently bumbles his way through his duty, first getting beached on a rock and having to be towed by the smug instructor, followed by any number of issues from a husband locked in a cabin to a pretty girl whose skirt got caught in her boat’s controls. A Mayday goes out on both accounts. Despite handling some of these problems about as successfully as possible given the circumstances, Garland’s commanding officer (Don Ameche) is far from impressed by the compromising situations he always seems to be in but at least the girl starts to like him.

Simultaneously, three thieves led by, of all people, Phil Silvers, have absconded with a payload of priceless jewels. Their car is the one that gets rear-ended by the same awkward Ensign and with roadblocks dotting the coast, all the way from Orange County to San Diego, their only chance is to head for the sea which they do despite having no nautical knowledge whatsoever. For those who didn’t gather already, it does not bode well.

They lose their priceless picnic basket into the great wild blue yonder and in an attempt to recover their spoils the trio trawls for everything in the bay except what they’re looking for. First, they snag a gigantic sea bass that sends their boat reeling. Then, they go deep-sea diving. It’s all to no avail and flustered by a shark attack, the commodore picks up the phone and makes a long-distance call to his buddy in Tokyo for leads on pearl divers. A young Japanese woman arrives and the failure to communicate is used to great and awkward comic effect even as Phil Silvers tries to use Spanish to speak with a pretty diver (Midori). Of course, when it counts she knows how to speak the language.

The Bay is also inhabited by an assortment of other weirdos including Wally Cox and his floating harem La Dolce Vita; it’s a constant party at his place that never leaves the docks. One oddball sailor does his best to practice lashing himself to the mast in preparation for his trip around the world, conveniently leaving his wife and children behind. Another bungling seaman nervously huffs before he performs his daily ritual of bouncing his boat off the dock. It has no bearing on the plot but each is good for a few stray laughs of sheer corniness.

The scenery remains another point of interest for me because the fact is the film was all but shot in my backyard or at least quite close to where I grew up (albeit a few years before I lived there). We grew up hearing stories of John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen, and Joey Bishop only a few of the prominent figures who resided in the area at one time or another.

We have brief views of Balboa Island and seafront homes visible in the background as the buffoonery takes center stage. Boatniks would precede the Columbo episode “Dead Weight” starring Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette with Peter Falk’s title character, making use of the same scenery. Except Boatniks is a great deal lighter.

In the modern age of Disney as a mega-conglomerate, these are the kind of family-friendly movies that I dearly miss. It feels like part It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and some of McHale’s Navy sprinkled in with dashes of so many other things. I enjoyed it far more than I probably had any right to but why shouldn’t I? It’s unabashed, quality fun for the whole family.

3/5 Stars

He Ran All The Way (1951): John Garfield’s Final Film

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We meet the belligerent two-bit criminal named Nick Robey (John Garfield) sleeping one off in the grungy apartment he shares with his acerbic mother (Gladys George). It’s not exactly the lap of luxury but it gives us some immediate insight into who he is. He’s an oafish, pitiful excuse for a human being and he’ll never amount to anything. One very visible reason comes from his open disdain for other people; he and his mother share no amount of affection whatsoever. It’s not a very promising portent.

Norman Lloyd, once again, plays some sidewalk sleaze, like he did in Scene of The Crime (1949), this time coaxing his pal Nick into helping him pull a job. It looks as easy as pie. And it is. The man parks, starts walking away with his briefcase full of dough, and they overtake him easily — without a hitch of any kind. But it’s inevitable; in order for there to be any movie at all, something must go wrong. A nosy policeman starts poking around and they scramble to get away before he nabs them.

The cop fatally wounds Lloyd but Garfield gets away, not before gunning down his pursuer. Just like that he winds up a cop killer. Except no one knows his identity definitively. So he’s got to go on the lamb keeping himself masked with the weekend crowds.

It’s a fascinating documentation of weekend diversions, in particular, community swimming pools. With his payload of money in toe, Nick nervously tiptoes around the pool eyeing the oblivious policemen milling about. There he also meets a girl. She’s not only a cover but a bit of a welcomed distraction from his continual paranoia.

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He Ran All The Way takes on a motif reused in Suddenly (1954) and other such pictures as Nick essentially becomes a live-in guest to Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle), and her kid brother (Bobby Hyatt). He lets them go about life partially unimpeded, keeping one of the family at home at all times as constant leverage. That way there’s no funny business.

While the picture is hardly Garfield’s best, it is imbued with tightly coiled tension that’s instigated in the opening minutes. The ticking clocks never end aided by confined spaces, oddly intimate relationships between captors and hostages, as well as a volatile showing by Garfield. He’s all turned upside down trying to deliberate on his future plans.

Then they have a clash of principles over the dining room table. The family with their stew and him with the turkey and the lavish meal he’s gotten together. They want no part of it but he’s going to get them to eat even if he has to provoke them at gunpoint. In another scene, he inquires gruffly, “What does that church stuff do for you?” Without skipping a beat, still working away on his model vessel, Mr. Dobbs succinctly replies, “it makes you understand the virtue of love.”

Thus, this dialogue aptly frames the story as a tale pitting family versus romance in such a way that only one can come out intact. Peg is the one forced to make a choice. James Wong Howe’s camera works in numerous close-ups and that continues even until the end of the film to underscore moments of isolated impact. Garfield’s face, in particular, is singled out. We see the fear, the anger, and the confusion breaking out across his features time and time again.

A stairwell finale perfectly epitomizes the dynamic between the two leads, see-sawing back and forth perilously. Until they make it to the ground level and things must come to their harrowing conclusion once and for all.

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For all the hell Garfield put his captors through, the look on his face is striking, when it all comes to an end. It’s betrayal and fright and forlornness all rolled into one. Even as he’s a hard-bitten, tormented man, there’s still a sliver of something inside of him that we cannot help feeling sorry for. That’s a testament to the earnestness of his talent.

The context of the picture becomes arguably just as important as the film’s condensed narrative. Like any movie, it was hardly conceived in a vacuum and the early 1950s were, of course, characterized by the paranoid finger-pointing culture of McCarthyism.

The emblematic figurehead that always gets brought up is The Hollywood Ten — who subsequently were some of John Garfield’s closest collaborators. Dalton Trumbo even worked under a pseudonym on this script while director John Berry, for all intent and purposes, might have been christened the 11th member of this targeted group. Following the production, he would enter a self-exile in Europe.

But this would also be John Garfield’s last film and it would primarily be his last film — most people agree — because his heart attack, brought on at the age of 39, was caused by undue stress from the allegations he was embroiled in.

Even though he went before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, his appearance did not completely absolve him and on top of that, a separation with his wife looked to be ending in divorce. He would die on May 21st, 1952, his funeral attended by masses of mourning friends and fans.

He was the apparent forerunner to such other tragic figures like James Dean and Montgomery Clift and the not-so-tragic decline of Marlon Brando. Without Garfield, those fellows would have come out of nowhere but from him, you trace the line of progression from hardboiled stars like Cagney and Bogart. Watch these films and you recognize that same pent-up alienation and angst. Most importantly there’s a newfound sense of vulnerability being awakened.

3.5/5 Stars

The Breaking Point (1950): Updating Hemingway and Hawks

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Michael Curtiz, to all those who revere him, has far more than Casablanca (1942) on his resume. It’s stacked with classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954) and even a less-heralded picture like The Breaking Point.

Those familiar with the original source material, from Ernest Hemingway, might also realize an earlier version of the story was made starring Humphrey Bogart opposite his future wife, Lauren Bacall, in her crackling debut.

Director Howard Hawks helmed To Have and Have Not (1944), which proved to be very loosely based on the eponymous material indeed. About the only elements comparable between the two renditions are the oceanic atmospherics with salty seafaring types and other undesirables mixed together liberally. Though donning a new name and casting a new star in John Garfield, it’s easy to make the case that The Breaking Point is a lot more authentic.

To Have and Have Not is a delight because it is such a cinematic creation with indelible characters filling up a world, not unlike Casablanca, ironically. But its successor unfurls qualities that feel less done up and artificial in a still delightfully atmospheric Hollywood fashion.

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One could wager it begins with a location that’s very much a real place. In fact, it’s a place I have known quite well in my lifetime. I was first tipped off to its whereabouts when Garfield gives money to his daughters to go see a movie and tells them to be careful on Marine Ave.

As I only know one Marine Ave., I double checked the film’s shooting locations and looked ever more closely at the exteriors. All this confirmed the fact The Breaking Point was shot in and around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California. I know the area well as I used to spend some summer days there as a kid. The exteriors are most obvious when our protagonist comes back from the bar, walking by the docks, and he’s already day drunk.

We have yet to describe any of the narrative but already we have something vastly different from its predecessor. The main character is a family man, a seaman, and simultaneously trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. What adds insult to injury is the fact Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a highly commended Navy Seamen during the war. Except, ever since coming back from the war a hero, he’s never been a somebody and that’s hard to take for a proud human being.

All he knows is the sea and so he’s tried to make a go of it obdurately, working furiously to subsist off his boat but it seems like everyone is pushing his head underwater. Try as he might, he can never get ahead. He needs dough for the reasons we all do. To pay the bills. To put food on the table. To take care of his wife and daughters.

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Soon Harry’s peddling a would-be fisherman and his gal pal (Patricia Neal) off the coast of Mexico. Of course, the shyster runs out without paying and leaves his girl behind. Harry’s been played for a sucker, stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, without any fare to get home. He’s kept his nose clean thus far but times are desperate. In a dive joint, he gets approached by a slimy undesirable, chomping on cigars and proposing a shady business proposition. Momentarily, our hero has been submerged back into the world of Bogart and Hawks.

He’s tasked with sneaking a group of Chinese passengers into American water illegally. However, following an altercation with his contractor (Victor Lee Seung), with Ms. Charles (Neal) and his mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez) aboard, he backs out leaving the Chinese behind. He’s escaped for now, his mores still intact.

But that doesn’t help him when he gets home. The Coast Guard soon confiscate his livelihood. His wife takes on work at home to try to compensate and he has one last chance to save his boat from being taken away from him in order to make ends meet. He feels compelled to take a second job bringing him back into cahoots with the same cruddy opportunist named Ducan, albeit reluctantly.

It’s in these dire straights where it becomes evident The Breaking Point is on the same moral plane as The Bicycle Thief (1946), where our protagonist is forced to make horrible decisions, all for the sake of his family. Should we blame him for the deadly finale that follows? It’s so difficult to enact decisive judgment.

Surely Patricia Neal has the flashy role because she’s the flirtatious blonde who’s never tied down and seems ready to get with anyone. But Phyllis Thaxter, even as she competes with the other woman, dying her hair in an attempt to win back her husband’s affection, has a softer more vulnerable tremor in her voice that feels so very transparent.

When we look into her eyes and see her get angry with her husband for not throwing in the towel and taking up a life on her father’s farm, the concern there is so very real. We understand it because it’s plaintive and deceptively unprepossessing. Because there are deep wells of beauty inside of her making the film’s romantic dynamics that much more intriguing.

John Garfield maintains the working-class persona he always seemed to flaunt so easily but here he’s surrounded by a family — two daughters and a loving wife, making his struggle all the more relatable.

He’s also a loving father bringing his daughters trinkets from his trips, cradling them in his arms affectionately, and slipping them change so they can go to the picture show again. The same goes for his wife. Even as they struggle and fight fairly regularly, over the kitchen table, there are other moments where he makes his love and faithfulness supremely evident. He compliments her looks and the new hairstyle she’s trying after the girls criticize it.

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Because the one thing The Breaking Point is not is a story of infidelity. Sure, it comes close on multiple occasions with Neal playing the tantalizing siren but Garfield unreservedly loves his wife. He’s honest with her in that sense, even as he keeps other secrets on the side. He thinks it’s a way to protect his family and his friends. The waters of the film are undoubtedly choppy, even perilous; that’s partially what makes the solid rock of the marriage at its core all the more refreshing.

Any relationship with a firm foundation is predicated on transparency. There’s no other way if you don’t want to harm your spouse and push them further and further away. I admire The Breaking Point deeply for this unflinching portrayal of marriage that, while not always polished, feels inherently real.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Network (1976)

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“We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth! We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth! I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth! But, you’re at least capable of self-preservation! That’s good enough!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale.

Throwing around the term auteur and you’ve already set yourself up for a grievous debate with some diehard cinephile. There are those ardent disciples as well as those who vehemently oppose what they deem a simplistic notion.

Because the main tenet is that the auteur or “author” who exacts his vision on a movie is namely the director. However, if there was ever a subject to cast in the role of “screenwriter as auteur,” Paddy Chayefsky just might be the perfect candidate. He came of age in the medium of television, an adamant humanist and purveyor of social realism. His most prominent work of those early years being the heart-warming classic Marty, which first starred Rod Steiger and then did great things for Ernest Borgnine in the film adaptation.

Network is conveyed by a veteran Chayefsky who has weathered the industry for a long spell now and looking at it presently, we observe his wry bit of commentary. Because the beast of a medium made him but he seems to derive some glee from confronting it head-on. He’s taken the systems in place and very conveniently added his own spin.

Along with the Big Three, CBS, NBC, ABC, he has created his own outlier, a dark horse, and the littlest giant UBS. The landscape is one familiar to anyone who lived through the 70s. Nixon got the can. There have been two recent attempts on President Ford’s life. It’s the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, with the throes of inflation and depression. America is looking for an escape valve for their dissatisfaction.

I’d like to think that the world of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has some semblance of truth to it with its camaraderie and the humanity of its comedy, but then we see Network and are provided another harsh alternative that bears the uneasy feeling of its own truth.

In this same world of civil unrest, television networks with their programming regimens and new shows are bloated with all sorts of agendas. You have the continually clashing horns between warring executives and self-serving angles in their neverending quest for higher ratings and a bigger share of the viewing public.

Max Schumacher (William Holden) is a remnant of television’s bygone era where men like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite were symbolic purveyors of truth in all facets of America. Maybe the nation was naive but at least they believed in something. Times have changed. Sensationalism and stories to stir up some form of controversy are of particular interest especially with Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who aims to use such material to bolster the network’s abysmal ratings.

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Meanwhile, abrasive big whig Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) is tired of the news divisions lackluster performance and he’s ready to instigate some new changes within the business conglomerate. Schumacher feels slighted as his former allies seem to crumble around him.

Now’s about a good as time as any to introduce Howard Beale (Peter Finch). He’s one of Max’s best friends from the old days and due to plummeting ratings, he’s being given the ax. I never felt sorry for Howard Beale before because he’s so often lost in the shuffle of the movie. He’s used by not only the network but the film itself as a kind of diatribe. It seems like the man is all but forgotten.

Finch plays the role so pitifully at times and that becomes easily overshadowed by his attention-getting histrionics.  However, when he makes his initial announcement that he will take his life on air, in two weeks time, it’s very matter-of-fact. There’s little agenda to it. Here’s a man who’s lost his wife and now is losing his job after 11 years of service to the network. Soon he’ll have nothing. The utter disinterest in his plight is what’s most striking when you look down the line of producers and behind-the-scenes employees who sit in the dark in front of the monitors chatting rather than actually paying attention to their anchor. Apathy seems to reign.

Simultaneously, Christensen is exploding with hairbrained schemes of inspired lunacy that she seems all too serious about enacting, from a docudrama called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour to keeping Howard Beale on the airwaves. She’s the foremost proponent of angry shows to articulate the angst of the general public through counterculture and anti-establishment programming. That’s her agenda.

In this very way, Network is a film of bewildering disillusionment in the world full of crises and absent of reason and maybe even God. Howard is a voice to all those absurdities and when he calls B.S. he turns the heads of the entire country. It blows up but as any publicity is good publicity, Diana convinces her boss to keep the mad prophet on. She positions Howard Beale as a prescient even messianic figure calling out the hypocrisies of the age. Her boss openly objects, “We’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on television,” which Dunaway promptly nods her head in response to. Maybe she’s a bit crazy in her own right.

Then, when the fad keeps on going and he’s now got people yelling out their windows or sending their grievances straight to the White House, Christensen is complaining that he’s too irascible, not apocalyptic enough, recommending some writers be brought on to pen some juicy jeremiads for him to spout off. In spite of the ludicrous nature of it all, the results speak. Soon Howard Beale’s antics have landed him 4th in the Nielsen ratings surpassed by only The Six Million Dollar Man, All in The Family, and Phyllis.

Hackett is deliriously happy about the success and becomes power hungry. But as Beale’s sole friend still kicking, Schumacher can’t help but feel Howard’s being used, even as he himself gets involved with Diana (she harbored a girlish crush on him in college).

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The film’s trajectory seems all but predestined. The fad of Howard Beale begins to wane and ratings go down with him. Max Schumacher’s job and then his marriage go down the tubes as well, all because of Diana. For her part, Diana is so completely consumed by her work that everything, even her personal life, works in scripts. However, the rendition of The Blue Angel that she’s unwittingly been playing with Max doesn’t end as she initially thought.

As a satire of the medium we know as television, Network certainly has few equals. Chayefsky spends a good spell of time orating off his soapbox as he does in many of his pictures. The ideas are there. The words are coming from voices and we’re taking them in and they are spiced with rhetoric and wit. If anything one can marvel at his work even when it doesn’t take. It bears his mark.

The one thing about Network that is still harrowing today are the mere implications. Television was being considered an institution systematically destroying everything it touches through its manipulation and backstabbing industry practices. It only exasperates the situation by breeding a public that’s both vacuous and apathetic. There is no call for human decency anymore. There are no true glory days. People are depressed, lonely, bitter, and helpless. If that all came to pass, theoretically, because of a box sitting in a family’s living room, 21 inches in size, that could be turned off, and had bad reception more often than not, what is the internet doing to us?

Now we’re in constant interface with our devices, warring for our attention and promising us comfort and convenience. Meanwhile, our ghost machines suck us dry. We’re shells of human beings. There are some figures in Network that I dislike, played most convincingly by Duvall and Ned Beatty. They seem opportunistic, crass, and merciless. But most everyone else of note I feel somewhat sorry for. The Max Schumachers, the Diana Christensens, and of course the Howard Beales. What did we do to deserve this madness?

4/5 Stars