Whistle Down The Wind (1961)

Whistle Down The Wind feels like it employs the “kitchen sink” aesthetic in step with British film of the day, bleak and tough around the corners with working-class folks coping with all kinds of toilsome drama. However, if the mantle of that zeitgeist was normally carried by the likes of Albert Finney and Richard Harris, then effectively we have the “angry young men” of the subgenre replaced by children.

It gives the picture a slightly different if altogether refreshing perspective on these same issues. At its center is young Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills); she lives on a farm with her father (Bernard Lee), an aunt, and the aunt’s two children.

They are three rambunctious little farmhands but not altogether wicked, mind you. They come home with three discarded kittens in tow, looking to sneak past the prying eyes of their betters, so they might raise them in the barn. As such, it provides a safe haven and becomes an even more sacred space given what happens next.

Young Kathy is alone busying herself with their charges, and then she sees a stranger (Alan Bates), rather haggard and disoriented. Both man and child are shocked and as she inquires who he is, he utters the words, “Jesus Christ.”

Now many an adult could tell you lots of people exclaiming the Lord’s name are using it in vain, but this never crosses Kathy’s mind. Whatever you might think of her, whether foolish or otherwise, she takes the name very seriously.

This naive misunderstanding is what the entire movie turns on, and it’s a lovely bit of irony. It takes all our cynical assumptions about these people and their world and completely turns them on their heads. Suddenly, we have this glorious portrait of child-like faith set before us, and this only works because Bryan Forbes’ picture allows children to hold such a central place in the story from the outset.

They are funny and mischievous and yet so very sincere in spirit. A cat can be named Spider, and it’s completely honest to gripe and groan about everything little thing. There are these sublime closeups sprinkled through that, even momentarily, allow us to be in their place and empathize. I think of one where the little boy Charlie (Alan Barnes), always at odds with the girls nevertheless, peers over at the man in the hay, and his face lights up. Curiosity getting the better of him, he asks if it’s really Him? He too wants to believe this is the Christ.

This comparison might be tenuous, but rather like the internal logic of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife, there’s something pleasant and powerful about the spiritual reaching into our human environments. We want to believe in their benevolence — that they are able to redeem our families and hardships, with a bit of divine intervention.

There’s still a sense that the spiritual world enters into our lives of its own accord. In fact, there is no true distinction between one and the other, whether they be kindly angels or guests in the haystack. They have the capacity to invade the everyday and breathe new life into it while still feeling almost mundane.

If you’re like me, sometimes religious allegory can feel too on point and obvious. It’s not exactly subtle here, but there’s something about the context that still makes it delightful. After receiving further spiritual insight from their Sunday school teacher, we have the procession of three little kings returning into the presence of their visitor, complete with a musical cue to send them on their way.

The hypothetical question of what to do if Jesus came back takes on very concrete meaning for them because of course, he’s lying right there in their barn waiting for them. And so, with all sincerity, they bring their gifts to place before him. They want him to feel welcome. They want to find favor with him.

It’s a striking allegory — not quite to the degree of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic gallows as it were, but there’s something moving in this picture. Rich in content and meaning, but never in a way that makes one feel put upon or totally scandalized. We watch their visitor become the subject of ensuing pilgrimages of all the local children.

As we’re privy to both worlds, we know this man is actually wanted by the authorities. He’s no Christ; he’s not even a saint, and we must watch and wait for their expectations to be utterly crushed. Because there will always be persecution and unbelief in some form acting in constant opposition. Although they conveniently keep their secret from the grown-ups, it cannot last forever.

A local bully tries to intimidate them all back into the status quo. One small boy on the playground all but recants a visitation with “Jesus,” which in his mind is tantamount to Peter’s denial. There’s personified devastation on his youthful face as he gets a reprieve from earthly torment, but at what cost? It sounds almost silly to speak of these things in such weighty terms, but I’m only treating them with the same gravity as these little children.

If this is the case, we must always return to our protagonist. Hayley Mills shows off all her most extraordinary traits as a young performer, buoyant and yet defiant and determined in the face of naysayers. There’s an assurance she holds onto that guides much of the movie, and it must lead to the inevitable.

The final juxtaposition of Charlie’s boisterous birthday party full of hearty squeals and blind man’s bluff plays against the more ascetic sense of the outdoors as the wanted man tries to escape the local dragnet. He gets cornered in the barn with the police flying to the scene and the whole town hot on their heels. It looks like the children’s faith is bound to be dashed right before their eyes.

What a difference a point of view makes and the intention behind it. Instead of churning up the local rumor mill with clamoring gawkers and gossipers, it feels more like one final act of belief with all the masses set to pay their respects and catch a glimpse of the man. Certainly, the masses are mostly children and that says something in itself.

Because you can take its parable in two ways: either it’s a pragmatic lesson that children must learn how the real world works — with sin, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak. Still, maybe it’s actually a reflection of the Christ’s sacrifice, coming into the world for the humble and the downtrodden, those who would willingly put their trust in him. If we consider these children, their trust is such that they believe he will come back again someday. It’s similarly arresting.

The extraordinary nature of the ending comes with the revelation that this sense of reverence is never broken, keeping with the film’s guiding light from start to finish. This is far from the norm, and it’s rather refreshing that hope is never completely quelled. It’s up to the viewer to decide what to do with this.

4/5 Stars

CMBA Blogathon: Fun in The Sun 1967 Double Feature

In honor of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s latest spring blogathon “Fun in The Sun,” I wanted to highlight two movies that might be outside the normal purview of what we cover on the blog.

However, if it’s not apparent already, I do have at least a minor interest in the subgenre of beach party-type movies that proliferated with Gidget and then Frankie and Anette during the 1960s. Here, without further ado, are two films that fit into the tail-end of this craze.

Clambake

My blog was initially founded on the idea of looking deeper at the best movies, but somedays you just need to lighten up and watch Elvis in Clambake. I’m no authority on the Elvis musicals, but Viva Las Vegas always feels like the standard by which to measure all future entries.

By my own admission, Clambake follows the same pattern and so you’re not watching to get blown away by the plot. This is purely a sun-soaked excuse to watch Elvis sing some tunes and woo the prettiest girl in the picture.

Scott Hayward was born into the family of a rich oil tycoon. Being Elvis, he’s also devilishly handsome and hopped up on fast wheels. However, he’s a young man who doesn’t want to be a victim of his money and possessions. If he meets a girl and falls in love, there shouldn’t be any strings attached. Like that would happen.

Still, he meets Tom Wilson (Hutchins) during a pit stop at a gas station on the way to Miami Beach. They strike up an immediate liking and look at each other’s life with a certain amount of relish. So they quickly agree to switch places and continue their journeys.

Elvis becomes the anonymous water ski instructor and Hutchins puts on his most pronounced Texas accent to carry off the overblown bravado of an oil kid. Arguably, the only other person to top him is James Gregory going for the fences as Presley’s dear old dad, who shows up later to check in on his boy.

For now, Bill Bixby is the most obvious antagonist as a wealthy moneybags who represents everything Elvis rails against. He can be found regaling all the pretty girls with his exploits and then picking the loveliest one to ride at his side. He’s accustomed to this kind of entitlement.

The movie itself is compromised of all the outlandish camp color schemes one would expect because it’s this kind of backdrop making these studio films what they were. There’s not one shred of nuance. There isn’t meant to be.

Clambake also feels like a last bastion of the teen films earlier in the decade even as Elvis’s own celebrity was in this complicated state with the cultural storm whipped up by The Beatles and Britishmania. Regardless, his charisma is undeniable whether he’s on the playground messing around with kiddos or dancing with pretty girls shimmying around at the clambake in their bikinis. I don’t actually remember too many of the tunes, it’s more so the experience that leaves a mild impression.

In a former life, Hayward was also an engineer who created “goop,” the colloquial term for a hardener that earns its own pop song replete with dancing girls and a refurbished boat hull. Beyond getting the pretty brunette Dianne Carter (Shelly Fabares), his other goal is to win the local Orange Bowl Regatta.

Like all the perennial Elvis movies, there’s a climactic race, this time on speedboats, and he gets the girl. What else? Shelly Fabares starred in three films with The King and their chemistry is affectionate even if the vehicles themselves are mostly paint-by-numbers and inane.

There’s a time and place for everything under the sun and given your disposition, Clambake definitely seems to fit the bill of “Fun in The Sun.” It’s easy enough to enjoy watching them drive off into the sunset. And it’s not so much about the foregone destination but the goofy, totally outlandish journey to get us there.

Don’t Make Waves

Don’t Make Waves stands at a strange crossroads as a starring vehicle for Tony Curtis, whose box office was mostly waning. You had the international appeal of Claudia Cardinale, and then the emerging allure of Sharon Tate.

Curtis was also reunited with director Alexander Mackendrick a decade after the prominent acclaim of Sweet Smell of Success. This is a much more puerile brand of satire extrapolated from the novel Muscle Beach by Ira Wallach.

Vic Mizzy, who famously penned the incomparable theme to Green Acres, composed the music, while the titular theme song was sung by none other than Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds! It’s unmistakable even as they aren’t normally associated with the surf music scene.

The screwball antics of the movie are instigated with Curtis and Cardinale. She’s a fiery painter leaving a Malibu panorama behind and unwittingly sending his car freefalling down the coast. When it careens into the road below and causes a collision with her and an oncoming bus, she has the nerve to blame his incompetence. He’s left running around in his tidy whities, clothes on fire, with a car totally demolished in a matter of minutes. It’s a decent, if slightly exaggerated, way to begin a movie.

His Carlo Cofield, though destitute, takes an immediate interest in the local beach scene, and it’s true the ocean feels alive with activity, from bodybuilders, surfing dogs, and pretty girls. Despite all the bad juju, she’s brought into his life, Laura Califanti feels slightly responsible for him. Through her male friend (Robert Webber), Curtis somehow gets a gig as a swimming pool salesman, and although there are things that happen and these vague romantic hijinks, there’s not much of a motor to the picture.

Alexander Mackendrick had a fine pedigree with comedies in the U.K., but he can’t do too much with Don’t Make Waves because there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the plot. Nor does its attempt at satire feel especially original or inspired.

But like a picture such as Harper or Bob Carol Ted and Alice, it’s another film looking to do its own pastiche of the counterculture. The funny thing is, it feels quite twee and out of touch if not exactly in the best taste. It tries its best to be salacious and cheeky.

Curtis gets manhandled and tossed around in his wince-inducing introduction to Sharon Tate’s bronze beauty Malibu. But it gets worse. He’s totally smitten spending extra time watching her acrobatic exploits doing flips on the nearby trampoline with the point of view shots lingering over her tanned figure.

Still, some of the holdovers from earlier generations are a pleasure. Although it was based on a novel, I feel like we could have entertained a movie with just Cardinale and Curtis if the writers had figured a way to flesh out this story around them. We also get a cameo from Mr. and Mrs. Jim Bachus. Future couple Mort Sahl and China Lee turn up and there’s even Edward Bergen in a bizarre supporting spot.

The finale does nicely to top the chaos of the opening as a notorious California mudslide swallows up Cofield’s new home on a hillside. It’s another totally outrageous setpiece that actually does the movie a few favors. At the very least, it’s memorable. Cardinale literally has to scramble for her life suspended over the abyss below.

There are a lot of curious elements in this movie joined together, and it makes for a few minutes of diversion even if it doesn’t always work too well. If any of the talents piques your interest, it might be worth some mild consideration.

Easy Rider (1969): An Emblem of The ’60s

EasyRider

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to Easy Rider. It remains a cultural landmark not only of the counterculture of the ’60s, but it also stands tall as one of the Great American Road movies, albeit from a very specific perspective.

It opens with a dope deal. First, picking up the product below the border. Then, with planes taking off overheard — they make their connection with their contact (Phil Spector) — jamming away to the conspicuous “Pusher” by Steppenwolf. In a matter of minutes, our two cult heroes have got it made. They have a pile of cash for their troubles, and they’re ready to take on America.

Fonda’s Captain America is the epitome of disaffected cool — a triumphant symbol of a restless generation sticking it to the man — living on their own time and by their own standards as they see fit. It’s a new paradigm of manhood. But in his own way, he does have a certain idealism. He wouldn’t be taking to the road or living in this manner if he wasn’t driven by something: his own version of the American Dream.

Dennis Hopper’s performance is pervaded by a paranoid chatter, laughing in fits and starts when he’s not taking a drag. For now, they’re as light as a feather cruising down the highways and byways lazily with a steady array of classic tunes availing them with an anthemic backdrop. Take “Born to Be Wild,” “I Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and my personal favorite, “The Weight,” and there’s no looking back as we get to breathe in the fresh air and appreciate this land that was made for you and me. It’s during this invigorating outset one is made to appreciate America’s diverse geography.

Out of these open-air beginnings, Easy Rider becomes tantamount to a cinematic drug trip through flickering images, lens flairs, psychedelic rock, and certainly a copious amount of drugs. It’s composed of vignettes of many shapes and sizes coloring the journey of Captain American and Billy.

They’re thrust up against all sorts of lifestyles. In one moment they stopover in a man’s barn to remedy a busted tire, and the backcountry farmer shares his table with them. He’s contented in life with a Catholic wife and tons of children.

Another moment they pick up a hitchhiker who leads them to a rural commune bustling with kiddos and bleating livestock. The folks there are looking to subsist off the land, even as they share and share alike — holding carnivalesque stage performances for evening entertainment. It’s yet another form of the good life — living in solidarity and unity with one another.

However, the boys also butt up against the complete opposite subset of society. By this, I mean yokums suspicious of long-haired dudes they don’t understand in the slightest. They might as well be from the planet Uranus. Cutting a path to the Mardi Gras festivities, the boys wind up imprisoned for parading without a permit thanks to “weirdo hicks.”

Their jail bunkmate, George (Jack Nicholson in one of his early triumphs) is a rich-kid southern boy who nevertheless extends the olive branch. They come to appreciate one another. He’s as fed up with the scissor-happy locals beautifying America and subsequently making everyone look like Yul Brynner, a bald-pated Russian, I might add.

Furthermore, they partake in campfire chit-chat babbling about satellites and UFOs while getting totally stoned out of their brains. It feels like the beginner’s guide to writing such dialogue — mostly informed by ad-libs and circuitous digressions.

A roadside cafe becomes another microcosm of small-town America, and they stir up quite the maelstrom of gossip. If there’s anything close to empathy for the two bikers, it’s garnered in scenes like these because we understand what it is to be considered a social pariah on what feels like little fault of their own.

George is perceptive when he wants to be and also an affable companion on the road with his dorky football helmet. I’ve rarely appreciated Nicholson more. But he also has no illusions about how guys like Captain America and Bobby fit into the social order.

He sees that people are scared of what they represent: freedom. Because talking about freedom and being free are two different things. As an esoteric concept, individual freedom is nice to talk about even comfortable, but what about seeing an individual free — totally uninhibited and living by their own cadence. It’s true even the soothsayers are eventually silenced.

They make it out to a choice brothel with “prime rib” in memoriam to a dear departed friend, though it quickly turns into a night on the town for Mardi Gras. If we can say it, these are the most spontaneous sequences of the movie. Everything else feels sincere in its attempts at truth and authenticity, but it’s in this footage during the real Mardi Gras where everything starts to meld together. They wander around goofing off and making out with their new companions (Karen Black & Toni Basil).

Of course, this “reality” culminates in the infamous acid trip sprawled out in a cemetery. A solemn girl recites The Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer as they lose themselves totally to the psychedelics. It feels like an act of desecration but also an unveiling of all their fears and anxieties. Fonda clutches a statue and goes to pieces dialoguing with his long-deceased mother.

The soundtrack may only sound like audio atmosphere in the beginning but more and more it overtly informs the beats of the story. As they rebound and make their way forward, Bob Dylan’s “Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding” becomes another uncanny expression of both their private and public angst. They all feel in a state of unceasing paranoid helplessness.

At its most compelling, the picture is like this perplexing tableau of performance art, indie slap-dash filmmaking, and docudrama. The production was notorious — Fonda and Hopper as director and producer respectively were at each other’s throats even as they remained the driving forces behind the film from its conception. And far from just portraying Hippies being brutalized by podunk America, it has the ring of truth.

Formalistically it’s informed by jump-cut-infused, schizophrenic pacing. One can only imagine what it might have felt like in the 3-hour monolith Hopper originally had cut. In its theatrical form, it feels more impressionistic and light leaving us stunned more than we are stultified because it never totally loses its resonance.

It runs parallel to Bonnie and Clyde — the sense of these outlaw heroes being decimated by the establishment — although in Easy Rider the retribution seems even more needlessly violent and unelicited. George’s caution never seemed more prescient. People are scared of seeing other people acting free.

But also thematically, Easy Rider fits with The Graduate and any other movies capturing the generational shift with youth breaking out of the shackles of the past, looking to exert and define their own road ahead. It just so happens the road ahead can be daunting even unnerving when the American Dream seems to have gone totally awry.

Easy Rider is another lodestone in the cultural conversation. You can hardly begin to grapple with the moment without bumping up against it, and the movie suggests so much in its many facets, through its decisions — its sense of truth and freedom — but also by what it doesn’t say. It makes the world out to be galvanizing and terrifying all at the same time. Far from just being about the corrosive nature of mind-altering drugs, sometimes humanity can be equally merciless. Take your pick. These dudes couldn’t win.

4/5 Stars

Blow-Up (1966): A Mystery Dissolving Before our Eyes

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With time it’s become more and more ironic that Blow-up, the film having become synonymous with the Swinging London scene of the 1960s, came from two Italians: Carlo Ponti and Michelangelo Antonioni.

In the picture, Antonioni casts David Hemmings as a kind of snarky, scruffy hero of the London street scene. He’s a fashion photographer armed with the testosterone-fueled vigor of a 25-year-old. Without mincing words, he’s a bit of a hedonistic brat.

We soon come to understand his day job has a volatile intimacy to it as he shoots gorgeous models up close and personal, barking orders at them, commanding their every movement, all so he can capture their look.

But if we give him a long hard look, his heart isn’t in this kind of glossy mainstream work. He’s intrigued by the art, and it’s hinted at that this is the kind of lucrative crud he takes on to fuel his passion project. So he is a true artist. After all, commerce fuels art. However, Blow-up is hardly a commentary or a simple mediation on the artistic experience. So what is it about?

Perhaps we’ll get our answer when Thomas takes a fateful detour to an all but deserted park. Although both of these descriptors might give the wrong impression. It’s fateful in as much as it takes over his thoughts and the consciousness of the movie. It’s also not entirely deserted; there’s a couple making out, and he starts wildly flashing photos of them like a voyeuristic maniac, leering from behind fences and trees. It’s almost compulsion that draws him in.

Finally, the girl (Vanessa Redgrave) chases after him desperately wanting them back — could they be compromising to her career? He gives her a vague promise to give them back. Still, he needs them for his passion project.

If it’s not obvious already, every so-called expositional answer is evasive — about wife and kids or anything personal — and so all we have to go on is the visual depictions, although eventually, even these will begin playing tricks on us too. For the time being, the woman appears at his apartment unannounced, and he’s intrigued by her, slightly obsessed.

He complains to her “even the beautiful girls you look at them and that’s that. I’m stuck with them all day long.” Like a calling card of the old noir archetype, his mysterious woman all but evaporates. He blows up the images of her and her man in his darkroom and pastes them up all over his studio to study them frame by frame.

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Has he uncovered a plot? Somebody was trying to kill someone else. The images are so blurry we can’t possibly tell with any definitive proof, though Thomas tells a friend over the phone, “I’ve saved someone’s life.” He seems to believe it wholeheartedly even as Antonioni’s movie starts dissolving as fast as it formed.

The young photographer returns to the scene — he feels scared (maybe implicated), and flees as quickly as he arrived. Back at his flat, he flies around, snacking and grabbing and whipping around — there’s an almost animalistic fight or flight to his every movement. This frantic energy carries throughout his performance, and it’s extremely telling.

So much of the movie is built out of the pace of Hemmings’s footsteps. Because certainly you have the striking images and Herbie Hancock’s jazzy compositions, but the movie is indebted to its use of sound.

Hemmings and Sarah Miles, his neighbor, have a curious relationship fraught with a kind of disaffecting malaise. I’m reminded of the scene where he admits to her he’s seen a murder. “Shouldn’t you call the police?” she inquires. And already distracted he wonders why they shot the man. There’s a kind of spellbinding inaction to them. It’s either apathy or helplessness or a bit of both.

Instead of facing the circumstances, Thomas runs away again. This time down into a basement concert with a bunch of similarly catatonic youth imbibing the Yardbirds (Jimmy Paige and Jeff Beck both rocking away) complete with a Pete Townshend-inspired guitar demolition.

It sends the entire room into a mad frenzy of emotion. Thomas races away from the mob clutching the remnants of the guitar — making it back out to the street — and then proceeds to drop the guitar neck on the street corner. Suddenly, it’s become a piece of junk again, another meaningless token, in another meaningless sequence, in another meaningless life.

It’s at this point where dialogue is little more than ambiance. Take as a fitting example the party Thomas shows up at acknowledging his acquaintances and making his way through the rooms, eyeing all the people. I’m not sure if there’s one word of intelligible dialogue, but it gives us a sense of the environment full of strung-out dead heads. So he goes to meet his colleague.

At first, it seems like he’s looking to fess up — they’ve got to go back and find the body — still, not to tell the police, but to take more photos of it! This insanity too falls on deaf ears. It’s yet another dead end. So Thomas returns to the park alone — no one prepared to support him or corroborate his story, we never see neither hide nor tail of the woman again, and now the body (if there ever was a body) is gone. Again, the whole plot has literally degenerated in front of our eyes. We have crossed over into an entirely new stratum.

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If his dilemma wasn’t plain already, our hero resigns himself to watching a pair of Mimes playing tennis, eventually losing their ball over the chainlink. He goes to fetch it for them with nothing left to do but dissolve into the background himself. It’s become evident reality as we know it has totally disintegrated. It’s a terrifying thought and you can either fret or blindly make peace with it.

One of the taglines for Blow-up is surprisingly apt. It goes like this: “Antonioni’s camera never flinches. At love without meaning. A murder without guilt.” If you think about their essence, romantic love is a very comforting force because we can make it into a kind of ultimate thing that can fill the void — making us complete in some manner — whether this is entirely practical or not.

Then, we have the narrative construction of murder mysteries. There’s something satisfying about them because we know the culprit will be found out. There’s closure and some form of justice, a reestablishment of order in an inherently disordered world.

Antonioni is not having any of that and his explanation of Blow-up — this metaphor of photographed images extended to life — proves a telling way to make sense of what he is doing on a very conscious level. He explained his ambitions the following way:

“By developing with enlargers…things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye….The photographer in Blow-Up, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there’s a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. This was in part the meaning of Blow-Up.”

Photography, Swinging London, models — all these things become immaterial — the film’s not really about any of them at all. It’s about how all truth, all meaning, whether subjective or objective, has dissolved in front of our eyes. By the end of the film, there is nothing of the sort. The murder is a figment of his imagination. Love as a romantic concept with any real sway is also dead. Frankly, it sounds terrifying.

Because films cannot be totally stripped away from their worldview, and they become one and the same. Either you agree with them, you disagree, or they can become a kind of trojan horse entering into your psyche. But Blow-up leads us right into the middle of the modern man’s dilemma. At this point, it feels like more than a mere cultural artifact. It calls for some ideological response from every viewer.

4/5 Stars

Uptight! (1968): Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Uptight was released in December of the same year. It’s a rather unnerving circumstance because the movie was conceived well before the horrid tragedy, and yet this cataclysmic moment haunts the picture. If the struggle for unity was a tough proposition before, how do you begin to make sense of the moment afterward? Now a story that didn’t necessarily need this specificity was inextricably linked to very real events. The film in its updated form literally begins with the wake of MLK.

Only recently did I recognize two separate films that recontextualized Irish struggles during The Troubles with the black experience in the 1960s. John Ford’s The Informer became Uptight with Ruby Dee and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out turned in The Lost Man with Sidney Poitier.

Although I don’t know enough about the nuance and minutiae of these respective histories, I am fascinated to learn if this was merely a coincidence, a marketing strategy someone actually employed, or a small cog in a broader genre conversation.

Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee are easy to tap as the primary architects, one a causality of The Hollywood Blacklist that forced him into European exile, and then Dee, along with her husband Ossie Davis, were two of the foremost black performers and social activists of their generation.

Given this context, it’s not surprising, the film hardly made a blip on the broader cultural landscape. In an era of COINTELPRO, this movie seems more timely than many people realize and a testament to that might just be that very few people recognize the movie. This is not the type of film that would get championed because even today it bristles against some prevailing sensibilities and causes us to reconsider the trajectory of our nation’s legacy.

The FBI purportedly had informants in the crew who helped them keep tabs on the production. The crew, including its director, was predominantly white while the movie was financed by one of the big studios: Paramount Pictures. This is the context of a picture that floundered at the box office.

The film itself is set in Cleveland, Ohio where tensions are high. The nonviolent philosophy of MLK has been brutalized, and the rest of the black community seethes with rage, understandably so. It sets the groundwork for fiercer insurrection. The emerging leadership believes it’s time for a new vision to take its place.

Growing sentiments of disillusionment are made clear early on: “The man from love got his head shot off, and all those people learned nothing.” And they derisively criticize what’s come before:  “Cry, march, pray, that’s the way to win Whitie’s heart.”

Crucial to the film’s core dilemma is the character of Tank (Julian Mayfield). The movie resculpts Victor McLaglen’s carousing tragic turncoat into an even more pitiful figure if it’s possible. Because McLaglen is at least physically imposing albeit neutralized by drink and his own weak-willed failings. Tank here feels like an even sorrier figure. James Earl Jones, who could have been slated for the role, is a muscular, stronger stage presence. Somehow it wouldn’t work in the same manner as Mayfield.

He’s a wretched cast-off grappling for some sense of belonging and searching for people around him who will trust in him and let him be an integral part of their lives even as he backslides. One is Johnny (Max Julien), a member of the local militant movement, but also a lifelong confidante. It seems like the tides of the times are moving and they will leave stragglers like Tank behind unless they get with it.

Ruby Dee plays the other crucial part as Laurie a single mother who carves out an existence for herself as a prostitute. I’m not sure if they’re immediately plausible as a romantic pair, although there’s a kindred spirit between them that feels real with affection as well as reproachfulness. Dee’s imbued with both playing a woman trying to eke by as the world continues to writhe around her.

Because there’s a heartlessness in the face of the impending revolution. Roscoe Lee Brown feels simultaneously crass and charismatic as a man who has gotten fat off a career as a police informant. Black men on street corners stand on their soapboxes preaching black power to the restless masses. Women preach an unswerving Christian rhetoric from their posts. The movement itself is represented by the quiet authoritarianism of a cool cat simply known as B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques).

A deserted bowling alley becomes a forum to air grievances and discuss courses of action within the differing factions: those who believe that Selma, Birmingham, and lunch counters are all old hat. Then, there are others still trying to keep the social doctrines of Dr. King alive maintaining there are legal channels to pursue change for the broader black community.

In this dialogue, one of the most intriguing figures is Teddy (Michael Baseleon). He feels like a James Reeb or James Zwerg type, a white man, and yet a man who earned his stripes in the tussles of Dr. King and Civil Rights. He’s been through the maelstrom. He’s counted the cost and yet to the emerging generation of young black power leaders, his skin betrays him. His ex-communication, even peacefully, from this space, seems to signify a point of no return. None of them know how prescient this will prove to be.

Because under the neon lights of Cleveland’s nightlife, Tank makes his Judas choice — to turn in his best friend — literally trudging through the muddy water of the gutter. He’s been besmirched both inside and out.

The film leans into campier moments from the bar where Tank lives it up and then the local arcade where he has a blast in the shooting gallery before scaring the heebie-jeebies out of some bubbleheaded whites in the funhouse. Blacks and whites alike seem to only exist to string out Tank’s delusions, becoming these grotesque stereotypes as reality (and morality) begin to fragment around him.

The wake for Johnny is one of the most arresting sequences where Dassin again exerts his influence over the material. I’ve rarely seen a sweatier face than Julian Mayfield as he drips all over the scene. The low angles stack towering figures all around that make Tank quake with fear in the presence of everyone. It’s a strangely tranquil space that he fills up with his totally unhinged paranoia as his guilt sets in and closes in around him like a noose.

And then he shares a scene with Ruby Dee running to her for comfort. I can’t quite describe the moment: she’s flailing, gasping for air through the tears, and trying to smack him until she falls over on top of him. She loathes him and loves him and feels sorry for him all at the same time.

As the story is stretched out, I got the sense, even as it remained pretty close to John Ford’s film, that Uptight deserved its own resolutions and universe with a level of nuance fit for its current events. But as we come to understand, this is more poetic and not a stab of purely social realism; it allows us the pliability to accept everything that happens on their own terms.

Whereas John Ford was going into expressionistic territory with inspiration nicked from people like F.W. Murnau, Dassin employs his own kind of stylized language to make sense of a story that he’s an outsider to and also probably still deeply sympathetic towards.

To that end, there’s no churchly absolution to absolve Tank from his sins. He’s literally left in a dirt heap, another sorry life, and another black man left for dead. The upbeat Booker T. and The MGs finale can’t do anything to negate the breadth of this tragedy. Even years later, as a nation, we’re still coming to terms with these events. Because we live in a progressive society encouraging non-violence, and yet in the face of inaction — when nothing seems to change, the call for a more aggressive response is hard to rebuff.

Uptight is not the film I was expecting, but my hope is that more people can see it as a segue into conversations. It tackles the issues of 1968 more overtly than the majority of films of the era. Although it hardly reaped the reward at the time, surely it deserves more consideration now. And if nothing else, it’s another crowning testament of two underrated icons: Ruby Dee and Jules Dassin.

4/5 Stars

The Incident (1967): Psychological Torture on a Train

Before there ever is an incident to speak of in Larry Peerce’s film, we open on the lowest scum of the streets, played by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante, shooting pool and kicking up any trouble they can manage. Between catcalling after women and ambushing pedestrians for 8 lousy bucks, they’re still starved for more action.

It’s all a game to them, an adrenaline rush to get their Sunday night fix before the week sets in. What’s most telling are the perspective shots that can best be described as sociopathic POVs. Even momentarily they get us inside their heads, and we realize just how debased they are.

The opening display shows us who we are dealing with and what we are getting ourselves into. Because they all but evaporate from the movie for a time. But in the back of our minds, we know they will not be gone forever. It’s inevitable that they will return to wreak some kind of havoc.

The rest of the movie is an act of building out from here. We meet other supporting players from other cross-sections of society. There’s the husband and wife (Ed MacMahon and Diana Van der Vlis) who stayed out late with their daughter and quibble about hailing a taxi or not.

Another elderly couple (Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter) bickers about their grown son who seems to have a perfectly situated life with a wife and kids and still seems ungrateful. Then, there the young lovers — the guy’s quite the Romeo (Victor Arnold), and he’s only interested in a girl if she puts out. His tentative girlfriend (Donna Mills) feels pressured but also anxious to win his aggressive affections.

If it’s not evident already, almost all of the characters come in couplets because there is something poetic and practical about it. Everyone has a talking partner, someone to nag and gripe with over the course of the movie. They all have their petty problems and individual relational dynamics.

These are the seeds of conflict, ready to combust under the right circumstances, and they do. One of the more light-hearted pairings includes two soldiers (Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard) who are currently on leave visiting some of their parents. Just wait…

We can see what the screenwriters are working towards already. All these stories are slowly interwoven together, crosscutting between each individual pair as they make their way to their respective train stops. Each group has its bit of business to take up as they file aboard all but oblivious of everyone else.

Although the black and white does wonders in making the film feel older than even its release year of 1967, there’s probably one thread that signifies the cultural moment better than most. Brock Peters and Ruby Dee play opposite one another, not as a groveling black couple but as a husband seething with militant desires and his high-minded social working wife who evidently listened more to Dr. King than Malcolm X. Even here we see the tension stretched out taut between them.

What coalesces almost feels like a psychological experiment put to film. Sure enough, Joe (Musante) and Artie (Sheen) come on the scene cackling and drinking like they have all night — going crazy and swinging their way through the train car like a pair of monkeys. For anyone who’s ridden the subway, you can witness some weird things to be sure, but there’s an immediate knee-jerk reaction to mind your own business.

This movie tests these principles whether it’s Good Samaritan syndrome or the diffusion of responsibility. The crux of our story is triggered when the two malcontents accost a homeless man snoozing on the train, prepared to light his boot on fire. Only one bystander (Gary Merrill) tries to casually get them to stop their antagonism, and it’s the first time where the invisible bubble is broached. When he encroaches on their anarchic freedoms, they look to intimidate him.

What’s made plain throughout the movie is the horrifying indifference as the thugs have free rein to perpetrate infractions and humiliations on the people around them. Sheen now is the big name of the two thugs, but Musante is arguably the most chilling, giving a performance that makes the insides crawl with its cruel manipulation. He literally walks through the camera, lumbering around and ruling the car like a vindictive prison warden where the prisoners are now running things.

Although all these moments of duress feel compartmentalized; no one is let out of their incisive games,  and each group is hustled and harried with all sorts of mind games laced with the threat of menace. Old men, old women, children, pretty girls, soldiers. Each one has a weakness and some pressure point to be prodded.

Oddly enough, this is the black man’s paradise watching white people degrade and torment each other for his personal pleasure. Little does he know, he can’t be an impartial observer forever. He too is thrown headlong into the fiery inferno. He too comes face to face with a mortifying breaking point.

By the end, Sheen and Musante aren’t human anymore, and not just because they are movie characters. They feel like evil demons looking to undermine everyone and bring their victims faced to face with their greatest fears and humiliations as they systematically make their way through the car triggering just about everyone.

There’s no conceivable end to this movie other than Beau Bridges taking on Martin Sheen as they look to beat each other to a pulp. It seems almost prescient because these men would become fairly big names in future generations, but for now, they represent the youth movement and where it could take us in the ’70s.

The aftermath of the picture feels equally indicative of the times. When the police rush on the scene, they are quick to apprehend the one black man and pin him down, only to realize their mistake and amend it in the heat of the moment.

There’s something poignant about the final coda: The drunk remains sprawled out on the floor and each and every bystander steps over him. It’s like one final symbol to show the threshold they’ve bypassed. There’s no turning back and whether they realize it or not, The Incident might embody an event that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. They managed to live another day but at what cost? It’s the kind of trauma causing heroes to come out of the woodwork and others to totally capitulate.

It feels like a film perfectly caught between two decades. It’s grittier and more audacious than I was expecting. But then again, this is a low-budget film and the year is 1967. We’re already getting Virginia Wolf, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, and Bonnie and Clyde, the forerunners to a generation of New Hollywood films that would blow the cover off what was permissible in the Hollywood scene. The Incident has some of that, but it also has a wealth of players and a premise that feels planted in a different era.

I recently watched The Silver Thread and it has the same distinction. Although it’s far less graphic, these are films totally suspended in time, hearkening back to the ’50s and still somehow forewarning the films of the future. The Incident, in particular, feels like an antecedent to Mean Streets, Badlands, The French Connection, and even Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. It’s fascinating to see glimpses of this emerging generation, especially in a film that, while rarely being discussed in a broader context, is still full of genuine heart-stopping drama. 

4/5 Stars

One Potato, Two Potato (1964): Love and Games

I was recently marveling how a theater actor I know predominantly from TV show appearances, William Redfield, could show up as an earlier incarnation of himself in an unorthodox film like The Connection. Then, about a week later, I had a similar revelation seeing Barney Miller’s wife, actress Barbara Barrie, doing something equally daring and landmark in One Potato, Two Potato.

Yes, it’s another black and white film of humble means, but it’s hardly short on ideas or purpose. Despite a childish title and production values that are a bit clunky around the edges, there’s still a fundamental sincerity to it in the tradition of something like Marty.

The very DNA of the picture is so fragile and tender, and yet it has a heart and exudes a kind of genuine candor capable of smoothing over a plethora of technical inadequacies. What I mean is that I like the movie — appreciate what it’s trying to do — and it feels bolder and braver than many of its contemporaries.

An all-knowing narrator helps bookend a story with court proceedings, but the crux of the matter must begin with Barbara Barrie and Bernie Hamilton. They meet in the carpool to work with their mutual friends, a pair of chatty lovebirds. Julie’s a white divorcee. Frank’s a black man who lives with his parents.

This is what the outside world sees, but in the movie, we watch how their temperaments meld as they are put in sharp relief with their friends. They gravitate to one another, not for some outlandish reason, but their simpatico and emotions are somehow attuned.

They have brief interactions. It’s tentative at first. There’s no intention on the part of either party. They have many walk-and-talks at night, quiet and pensive because they appreciate the company, and their demeanors are perfectly suited.

Then, in one of many grounding moments, maybe a policeman comes by, shining his lights on them, and ordering them away (what he sees as a black man and his prostitute). Either that or there’s some other sin of humanity, and they are shocked back to the debilitating frameworks that society has set up around them. These are blatant visual articulations, hardly subtle, and yet they acknowledge the prevailing cultural incongruities of the time: He’s angered; she thinks it’s funny, but together they must press on.

The resistance goes both ways because his own father (Robert Earl Jones) gives him a blatantly severe talking to. He brings up the questions of societal pressures and the prospect of kids: They’ll be outcasts, and it would be even worse to bring children into the world.

Frank almost buys it. He tells his beloved, “It won’t work.”

She responds, “What won’t work? Kindness and love?”

Yes, it’s true. The culture is entrenched with a deadly narrative of hate, riots, lynchings, and prejudice between their disparate people. But they want to push against this with their love. It’s all they can do.

In an earlier scene, after a friend’s wedding, they dance by lamplight, not like Astaire and Charisse in The Band Wagon, but like normal people would. Slowly and tentative, pressed up against one another. Instead, they play like a pair of kids with imaginary games of hopscotch and follow the leader. It’s a different kind of whimsical magic hearkening back to a world of possibility before children learn racism and are taught the limits placed against them by “reality.”

Their own wedding is punctuated not by joyous dancing and merrymaker but the jaundiced ire of a lady witness looking on in contempt. Because even if she’s not going to put a stop to it, we can read her face. She thinks this is repugnant, against nature or something. Her face is a canvas to reflect the peer pressure of an entire society. And it’s not the only one…

Julie’s ex-husband (Richard Mulligan) comes to visit his daughter after years away, and they have fun playing cowboys and shoot ’em up together. It’s another instance of play where the man is stripped of his responsibilities only for them to become firmly established again when he sees his estranged wife living in the home of a black man. He doesn’t want his daughter to somehow be sullied by such a sordid existence. One questions if it’s really for her well-being or his own reputation because people will talk.

It seems only realistic to encapsulate One Potato, Two Potato through the sum of its various sequences since it’s really a film of ellipsis as scripted by Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes. Even when they feel a bit abrupt and unpolished, there’s an unparalleled potency to them because they speak into the moment like few films I’ve been aware of. What it lacks in fluidity, becomes bottled up in these perceptive moments that come to represent very specific even salient points of view and bits of trampled humanity.

Joe Cullen goes to a local preacher who admonishes him for wanting a God who has racial prejudice too. But God will not let him off that easy. His very commands adjure his people to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” without any kind of qualifying remarks or addendums. The man’s problem, along with so many cultural Christians, is reflected in their religion, which is such a self-serving construct rather than a way of life and relationship.

Then, the drama comes thick and fast. Julie confronts her former husband who still remains skeptical of her, full of outrage and insinuations (You talk about how he loves the girl, loves you, but can you love a black man?). And yet she remains resolute.

Frank feels successively beaten down as a husband, left emasculated and powerless because he cannot protect his wife based on the color of his skin. He goes to a college lawyer friend for help. He’s a jovial, accommodating fellow who grows scared and defensive when he learns about the parameters of the case. This is before Loving v. Virginia. Regardless of right or wrong, there is no legal precedent and a hot case like this could ruin him, and so he folds. Not because he’s a “bad person” but because he’s spineless and scared like you and me.

We stew in Frank’s powerlessness much like Ivan Dixon’s struggles in Nothing But a Man from the following year. They are kindred spirits. He gets some kind of catharsis by proxy watching the American Indians massacring the whites in the western at the drive-in theater. One can’t imagine he’s the first man to ever cheer for the other side even as he yells and shouts — slamming on his steering wheel.

The movie has an inevitable conclusion, if not an altogether just one. The judge (Harry Bellaver) makes a final decision predicated on economic viability rather than true measures of parental love and affection. It’s indicative of a culture that while acknowledging its fault lines — how a couple like that is made into social pariahs — nevertheless reinforces the status quo. Although it may be fictitious, this isn’t fanciful drama. It cries out with streams of all too apparent truth.

By the end, it feels like social horror, more heart-wrenching and harrowing than even something like Get Out because this was very real and no peppy nursery rhyme tune can wipe any of that devastation away. I still can’t believe this film. It feels like a small but mighty gem of a movie.

4/5 Stars.

In The Heat of The Night (1967): They Call Him Mister Tibbs

In The Heat of The Night is a testament to the collaborative nature of Hollywood. We watch Sidney Poitier step off the train. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives an instant texture to the world so the sweaty atmosphere is almost palpable around him.

However, one of my immediate recollections of the movie is always Ray Charles and Quincy Jones who help in creating a truly remarkable soundscape. Charles sings the title track (with lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman) setting the mood for one of the formative movies of a turbulent decade.

Although Rod Steiger becomes one of the film’s primary focal points as the gum-smacking, narrow-minded Sherrif Gillespie, it’s Warren Oates, one of the generation’s finest character actors, who’s our entry point into this community.

He’s a police officer sitting at a diner drinking a cola as the scrawny, beady-eyed attendant shoots a pesky fly with his slingshot. It’s a sweaty night in Spartan, Mississippi and already despite these mundane activities, there’s an uneasy equilibrium to the place.

Poitier has to navigate the film’s space all alone for the majority of the movie. There’s a black family who puts him up for a night, a servant (Jester Hairston) who looks at him a bit disapprovingly, a phantom black woman (Beah Richards) who runs a business at night, and of course, the host of blacks working the cotton fields. Otherwise, he’s all alone, isolated and alienated from those around him as a blatant outsider. His only solidarity is in the score and soundtrack.

If it’s not apparent already, In The Heat of The Night continues a conversation that automatically puts folks at odds and in opposition to one another. You have blacks and whites. You have North and South. You have rich and poor. All of them are visible in the movie.

For blacks in particular there are these daily barbs of indignity pervasive throughout the southern culture and totally baked into the system. Norman Jewison’s film (and Stirling Siliphants’s script) only has time to acknowledge some of them, both explicitly and implicitly.

It’s plain that when an influential man is found murdered, the first person suspected is the black man sitting at the train depot. It’s a guilty ’til proven innocent economy. Black men must also suffer the subtle humiliation of being called “Boy.” An out-of-towner like Tibbs will never hope to get a hotel. And even after weathering any number of indecencies, he finds himself cornered and physically intimidated.

The whole movie is about this even as Poitier reluctantly stinks around to bail out the less-experienced, backcountry police force. He’s doing them a favor that very few people are ready to accept.

In The Heat of The Night can theoretically be distilled down to two defining moments. The first is in the police station where Gillespie is railing on him, badgering him for all he’s worth. He asks what they call him in Philadephia and he seethes, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! Poitier’s trademark intensity proves so gripping it’s maintained lasting resonance all these years later.

However, the film’s other defining moment is presaged by a lawn ornament calling to mind Flannery O’Connor’s wince-inducing short story “The Artificial Negro.” It’s found in an establishing shot of the Endicott Estate. Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates) owns the local cotton industry and effectively keeps the southern ecosystem alive and well from the antebellum days.

I hadn’t recalled how Tibbs trades small talk with Endicott when they pay him a house call in his greenhouse. They share a conversation about orchids, trading vernacular, and it feels amicable, at the very least. This is what they call southern hospitality. But then an ugly undercurrent is revealed and the conversation turns. Tibbs asks one question too many and gets a scathing response.

The old boy takes offense at being questioned on his own property, by a black man no less, and he lets him have it with the back of his hand. This is relatively unsurprising — another unseemly relic from the old days. What makes the moment is how Poitier strikes right back without a moment’s forethought or hesitation. It’s electric, and it’s as if all the years of southern tension are being brandished in one spontaneous reaction. It’s a show of righteous indignance, pride, and dignity. It’s also just such a human response.

Whether the moment was in the script, added later, or proposed by Poitier seems almost immaterial. It’s the fact that the moment is forever crystallized in cinema giving it a lasting cultural currency.

However, Norman Jewison’s movie does court a few more ideas. Oustide Gillespie prods Tibbs, “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t yuh?” Poitier might be a shining knight, but his character is still wounded, proud, and simmering with pent of emotions submerged just below the surface. He wants to put Endicott away and make him pay. Gillespie’s just trying to do a job, but Tibb’s drive is something more personal. He’s looking for vengeance. It’s also enough to warrant deadly backlash.

I recently heard an interview with Jewison reminiscing about Poitier and the filming of In The Heat of The Night in the wake of his passing. The director said the following:

“I’d wanted to shoot in the South; the book takes place in Georgia and we’d moved the story to Mississippi for the movie. But we had to shoot it in a town in Illinois, called Sparta because Sidney would not go south of the Mason-Dixon line. He and Harry Belafonte…they had been arrested and attacked by guys in pickup trucks, so he refused to shoot down South.”

“Later in the shoot, I wanted to shoot some exteriors in actual Southern locations, so we talked about going to Tennessee. ‘I’ll give you four days, Norman,’ Sidney told me. So we all went down to this small town with one hotel…and it was ‘whites-only.’ So all of us, the cast and crew, ended up in a Holiday Inn a little ways away, which allowed both Blacks and whites.”

“And I’ll never forget, these pickup trucks came into the parking lot in the middle of the night, honking their horns and waking people up. I got a little nervous, so I called my crew and told them, “Get the biggest guys in the grip department and electrical department, get them over to Sidney’s room right now, we have to protect him.’ Then I called Sidney’s room and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Sidney, we will take care of everything.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried. I’ve got a gun under my pillow.”

“So the first one of them comes through my door, I’m going to blow them away.’ Thank god nothing happened, but this naive director from Canada suddenly understood the extent of American racism. I began to really get just how vicious things were.”

I’ve heard In The Heat of The Night labeled as a do-gooder film, but this seems to minimize not only the movie but Poitier in particular. I find it to be a fundamentally gripping police procedural and this is without thinking about a specific message potentially being crammed down our throats.

This is a testament to the unnerving milieu of the southern town being evoked. It’s the cinematography of Haskell Wexler that feels alert and alive in how it lights and considers the fully-colored spaces. It comes down to this antagonistic rapport of Steiger and Poitier, two very different actors who prove themselves to be exceptional sparring partners as mediated by Norman Jewison.

Surely Poitier had no illusions about what he was portraying. Jewison’s remarks make this very plain. And so he took his image and his part in the movie very seriously. Is it a fantasy about blacks bending over backward to help whites, and then irredeemable racists being redeemed right in front of us? You could say that. But even this seems to oversimplify the picture and sell it short.

This is the movie where Poitier burned with righteous anger and slapped a white man in retaliation, out of his own human pride. Surely isolated moments like these belie any facile interpretation. Because I can’t totally disregard how these scenes make me feel on a fundamental level — how they move me.

How can I have failed to mention Lee Grant, who was finally allowed to leave the Blacklist behind and prove her chops improvising some heart-rendering passages opposite Poitier. They show her ache and his tender concern toward a grieving widow, but also a fellow human being. It’s like some kind of dance they do together.

Or consider how Steiger, still chewing his cud, tells Virgil to “take care.” It’s not much; the exchange is almost sheepish, but it’s trusting we understand the implications. If it’s not an apology, then it’s some form of an olive branch.

This movie doesn’t remedy “the race problem” as it was called in generations past. Its fissures are still supremely evident and ugly. Still, these human exchanges with Poitier at the center, model something deeply healing. To see them on the screen feels validating and also like a balm. Righteous anger has its place, truth has its place, and so does seeing the inherent dignity in others. Rest in peace, Mr. Poitier. You were one for the ages.

4.5/5 Stars

Sidney Poitier: For Love of Ivy, Lost Man, Brother John

In honor of the inimitable Sidney Poitier, I spent some time revisiting a bevy of his finest films and also some underrated ones that were new to me. Because he was a prominent archetype for a black movie star, when he was often the only one, it’s fascinating to see the roles he chose at different junctures in his career and how they evolved and played with his well-remembered screen image.

He will be dearly missed, but he left a sterling career behind well worth our consideration. Here are three films you may not have seen before:

For Love of Ivy (1968)

As best as I can describe it, For Love of Ivy, features Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in their version of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson rom-com. It starts out a bit cringy. Lincoln is the maid of the most hopelessly oblivious white family. Mom and Dad are completely blindsided when she says she wants to quit so she can actually have a life with prospects.

Instead of listening to her, the two teen kids ( a hippy Bea Bridges and bodacious Lauri Peters) scheme to set her up with an eligible black man. They know so few, but Tim Austin (Bridges) settles on Jack Parks, a trucking executive because he conveniently has some leverage to get Jack to give Ivy a night on the town. Some awkward matchmaking (and blackmail) ensues to bring our couple together.

Hence how Lincoln and Poitier become an item. But even this dynamic has some unprecedented delights. They eat Japanese food together and visit a club that positively scintillates with ’60s vibes as seen through Hollywood’s eyes. It’s the age-old ploy where the transactional relationship morphs into real love until the truth threatens to ruin the romance. Again, it’s not exactly new hat from Robert Alan Arthur.

Still, with a happy ending and equilibrium restored, Poitier, who helped develop the story, is trusting his audience can read between the lines of all the dorky craziness. For what it is, the movie plays as a great showcase for Poitier and Lincoln. Since there are so very few movies like this with black leads, it feels like a cultural curio. If the mood strikes you, some might even find a great deal more agreeable than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because it doesn’t take its own social importance too seriously. It’s mostly wacky fun.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Man (1969)

The Lost Man features an edgier more militant Poitier because there’s no doubt the world around him had changed since he first got to Hollywood in the ’50s. He’s cool, hidden behind his shades, and observing the very same world with tacit interest. It’s a world ruled by social unrest as his black brothers and sisters picket and protest the racial injustices around them only to be forcibly removed by the authorities.

Robert Alan Arthur’s film shows a brief focused snapshot of the social anxieties of the age. It becomes more convoluted when Jason and some other members of the organization rob a local bank. Their motives are in some ways philanthropic as they hope to use the funds to get some of their friends out of prison and support their families on the outside. But it’s also an overt act of insurrection in their battle against a broken system.

It also puts lives in jeopardy, culminating in a frantic murder as the police hunt for the perpetrators in the botched aftermath. Jason flinches in a crucial moment and must spend the rest of the movie as a fugitive nursing a bullet wound. These all feel like typical consequences in a crime picture circa 1969.

However, one of the most crucial and fascinating relationships in the movie is between Joanna Shimkus, who is a social worker, and Poitier. We don’t get too much context with them, but it’s an onscreen romance that would predate their marriage in real-life. Their rapport complicates the story because she is a white woman who is so invested in this community like few people are, and she effectively brings out a gentler more intimate side of him.

Although it’s not necessarily pushed on us, their interracial romance puts them both in jeopardy because it’s not the way the world normally operates. The ending somehow gave me brief flashbacks to Odd Man Out, but Poitier’s marriage with Shimkus would last well over 40 years! It’s the best denouement this movie could ever hope to have.

3/5 Stars

Brother John (1971)

Brother John feels like one of those characters who is a cinematic creation. He joins James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd and anyone else who was ever sprinkled with something special that enchants the world around them, whether they’re angelic or extra-terrestrial. But Brother John is a different version for a different generation, and he’s played by none other than Sidney Poitier.

He provides a quiet catharsis for a black audience as a cipher of a man that no one can get a read on. The film itself has a no-frills TV movie aesthetic that somehow still gels with its ambitions.

John comes back to town when he gets news of his sister’s death. The last time he came back was when there was another death in the family. The local doctor (Will Geer), who brought John into the world, is curious about where he comes from and where he goes, but no one takes the old man too seriously.

Still, the police manage to hound him because they’re suspicious of someone they cannot easily intimidate and put in a box. The doctor’s self-promoting son (Bradford Dillman) also needles him in his attempt to gain local prominence. The town’s leaders are looking to quell a factory from unionizing. All of this feels rather mundane in detail. John seems to have nothing to do with any of it.

They remain uncomfortable with him because he’s so inscrutable, well-traveled, knows a myriad of languages, and finds no need to divulge all the shades of his character. He’s contented this way, spending time with family and even calling on a pretty schoolteacher (Beverly Todd) who asks for his company. He won’t play by their preordained script.

There’s one painfully excruciating scene where some cops pay a house call on a black family. The man of the house is left so powerless as he’s subjugated and persecuted in his own home in front of his kids. John is at the table too. Quiet at first. Almost emotionless. Is he just going to sit there or spur himself into action?

In this uncanny moment, he goes down to the basement with one of the officers and proceeds to whoop the tyrant wordlessly with a bevy of skills the backwater lawmen could never dream of. It’s the kind of power exerted over malevolent authority that one could only imagine in your wildest dreams.

As such, Brother John fits in somewhere analogous to the Blaxploitation space but as only Poitier could do it. He wasn’t the same bombastic militant cool dude a generation craved for and received in Shaft or Superfly. He still has his measured exterior, and yet he equally makes quick work of any antagonists: racists, malcontents, white, black, or otherwise. It’s a bit of a boyish fantasy watching a hero vanquish all evildoers quite spectacularly. But, after all, this is what movies are for.

3/5 Stars

The Slender Thread (1965) Connecting Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft

The Slender Thread feels a bit reminiscent of one of those self-contained film noir from a previous decade like 14 Hours or Dial 1119. It’s not a very ambitious scale, still, within its confines, it’s a rather enjoyable film. But, of course, the main attractions are Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.

Like its predecessors, the film has a bit of a hook — a gimmick that everything else in the movie works through. He’s a university student, named Alan, who volunteers at the local suicide clinic. She’s a checked-out housewife. They never share the screen together, but they are marginally connected through the cord of the phone lines. He’s her last lifeline to the outside world and life. Under such duress in such a vulnerable space, an unmistakable bond is formed between two human beings. It’s also a convenient chance to show off some newfangled technology in Seattle’s crisis hotline, which still seemed to be a fairly new concept in the U.S.

The Slender Thread falters when it hews too close to melodrama thereby discounting a lot of the genuine work Poitier and Bancroft do to build real believable chemistry. I’m thinking of the moment where the housewife’s secret is found out by her husband (Steven Hill), instantly decimating their marriage and sending them into freefall.

His solutions are to show up at church on Sunday morning and then take a fishing trip to get away. She resorts to a state of catatonic fugue. Walking the streets of Seattle, along the seaside, and then ultimately looking to end her life.

And while the film does hearken back to earlier procedurals, it does suggest the movie is a bit of a relic, out of step with the times even as it tries to show off some cutting-edge resources. Ed Asner is part of the police force looking to track the housewife down and Telly Savalas is a respected doctor at the clinic who trusts Poitier with the night shift. Neither has much to do though if you’re familiar with the TV landscape of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s easy enough to divvy out some goodwill toward them.

Aside from a few scenes at a disco tech, the rest of the scenario and the black and white pictorials seem to denote an earlier era. It’s as if Hollywood, as is, is still in the past and has yet to fully comprehend the magnitude of the youth movements and counterculture percolating up through society.

The dancing sequences allow debut director Sydney Pollack to break out of the humdrum and come onto the stage into the emerging decade. Later, the film’s Hyatt finale evokes a bubbly gaiety of the time-honored work convention of the old world as the authorities frantically search for Inga with time running out.

There’s something traditional about all of this connective tissue even if in a year or two the whole industry would be flipped on its head. If you take stock of our primary players, you have Poitier’s ascension with arguably the greatest single year for an actor in film history during 1967. He starred in To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In The Heat of The Night! Anne Bancroft would become fiercely identified with the role of Mrs. Robinson, helping to define the generational malaise whether she liked it or not.

Pollack, for his part, would continue to rise up the ranks with pictures like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They effectively leading to more high profile projects int he ’70s and ’80s. Everyone seems to be on the scusp of something more, something dynamic.

But for what it is, in this moment and time, The Slender Thread is easy to appreciate now that it’s unstuck from that particular cultural juncture. Bancroft shows her capability for encapsulating human frailty and the despondency of the nuclear family with the raspy whisper of her voice.

Poitier is totally invested and makes us care just as dearly, with every syllable, every droplet of sweat on his brow, and every iota of his being engaged with Inga. When he lets out a boyish scream at the end of the picture, it almost feels out of place and yet after everything he does, he rightly deserves it.

The final bit of poeticism is the ending. He has the chance to meet this lady — a woman he went through hell and high water with, forever bonded together — and yet he declines. It’s not an anticlimax but something that feels right. She needed him for a time, and he reciprocated. Now they can return to their lives. Anything else might feel forced and disingenuous. In this manner, they carry the picture. It would feel empty and lacking without them.

3.5/5 Stars