National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 Favorite Films of the 1960s

Thank you to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having me!

Following-up last year’s ode to the 1950s, I secretly relished the addition of another film to make already tough decisions even a little bit easier. But let’s be honest…

All my intellectual posturing and punditry must go out the window. This is not about the best movies alone. It is about the favorites — the movies we could watch again and again for that certain je ne sais quoi — because they stay with us. They always and forever will be based on highly subjective gut reactions, informed by personal preferences and private affections. As it should be.

Drum roll please as I unfurl my picks. Each choice says as much about me as the decade they come out of. Here we go:

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1. Charade (1963)

Charade has always been a highly accessible film and not simply because it’s fallen into the public domain. Its elements are frothy and light calling on the talents of two of Hollywood’s great romantic charmers: Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Their rapport is lovely, and the spy thrills are surprisingly cogent for a romantic comedy thanks to Peter Stone’s script.

Last year I acknowledged the loss of Stanley Donen, but this picture reflected his range as a director, taking him beyond the scope of musicals. By this point, it’s positively twee to acknowledge his movie verged on a Hitchcock thriller like To Catch a Thief. I am also always taken by the supporting cast. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all had more prominent performances throughout the 1960s, but they supply a lot of color to the story.

Likewise, as amiable as the chemistry is to go with the blissful French streetcorners and Henry Mancini’s scoring, there is a sense Charade represented the dawn of a new age. It came out mere days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The happier times were snuffed out, and we could never go back. The decade would be forever changed in its wake.

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2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles were the first band I could name at 4-years-old. A Hard Day’s Night was probably the first album I could sing along to. So already I have such a significant connection with it, recalling bumpy roads in the British Isles on summer vacations. And that has little to nothing to do with this film. It only serves to evoke what the Germans might aptly call sehnsucht. Warm, wistful longings for the exuberance of youth. At least that’s what I take it to mean. But we must get to “Komm gib mir deine Hand!”

Because, all levity aside, A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles “documentary” any fan could ever ask for. Not only does it showcase some of their greatest music, but Richard Lester’s style also keeps the story feeling fresh and free. Even as the schedule and hysteria of Beatlemania look to suffocate the boys in their own stardom, the film is the complete antithesis of this rigid mentality. It goes a long way to showcase their individual personalities, real or mythologized.

What’s more, it’s simply loads of fun, packed with Liverpoolian wit, shenanigans indebted to the Marx Brothers, and a certain lovable cheekiness helping to make the Beatles into international sensations. Again, it’s a film on the cusp of something new. They would kick off the British takeover of American music and usher in a cultural revolution up until the end of the decade. When they disbanded in 1970, the world had changed, and they were arguably 4 of the most influential cultural catalysts.

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3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy began as a revelation for me and quickly evolved into one of my most treasured directors. What makes his film’s magical is how they truly are incubated in their own self-contained reality influenced by near-Providential fate and unabashed romanticism. They too can be wistful and heartbreaking, but equally spry and joyful — maintaining a firm, even naive belief in humanity and love.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is no different. In fact, it might be the great summation of all his themes. Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the tragedy, but Rochefort is merry and light in a way that’s lovely and intoxicating. The palette is a carnival of color, and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are incomparable in their title roles.

As someone who appreciates contextualization, Demy populates his films with footnotes to film history among them Gene Kelly, who was a beloved figure in France, then Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darreux who might as well be considered national institutions for the substantial bodies of work they contributed both domestically and abroad. Even his wife, 21st-century celebrity Agnes Varda, helped choreograph the movie’s action from behind the scenes. It’s a positive delight.

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4. Le Samourai (1967)

If I have a deep affection for Jacques Demy, my affinity for Jean-Pierre Melville runs deep for entirely different reasons. Like his fellow countryman, he had an appreciation for a subset of American culture — in his case, the pulp crime genre — so it’s a fitting act of reciprocation for me to enjoy his filmography.

Le Samourai is without question his magnum opus, at least when his noir-inspired crime pictures are considered. Like Demy, his images are distinct and particular in their look and appeal. Cool grays and blues match the clothes, cars, and demeanors of most of his characters.

Alain Delon (along with Jean-Paul Belmondo) was one of the great conduits of his methodical style, clothed in his iconic hat and trenchcoat. Anything he does immediately feels noteworthy. While it’s never what you would call flashy, there’s a self-assured preoccupation about Le Samourai.

You can’t help but invest in both the world and the story of the characters — in this case a bushido-inspired assassin: Jef Costello. With hitmen, gunmen, and gangsters given a new lease on life in the 1960s, Delon’s characterization still might be one of the most memorable.

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5. The Odd Couple (1968)

Here is one that’s stayed with me since the days of VHS. I’ve watched it countless times and always return to it gladly like time away with old friends. It just happens to be that one friend is fastidious neat freak Felix Ungar (F.U. for short) and the other a slobbish couch potato Oscar Madison.

Despite being one of the great onscreen friendships across a plethora of films, The Odd Couple is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s most enduring film together from purely a comedic standpoint. They bring out the worst in each other, which subsequently supplies the conflict in Neil Simon’s smartly constructed tale, as well as the laughs.

I must admit I also have a private fascination with cinematic poker games. The Odd Couple has some of the best, bringing a group of buddies around a table, with all their foibles and eccentricities thrown into a room together to coalesce. John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are great favorites of mine and The Odd Couple has a lot to do with it. That Neal Hefti score is also just such an infectious earworm. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hardly mind. What better way to spend an evening than with Felix, Oscar, and oh yes, the Pigeon sisters…

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6. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

You can tell a lot about a person depending on what western they pick from 1969. There’s True Grit for the traditionalists. Then The Wild Bunch for the revolutionaries. And Butch Cassidy and Sundance for those who want something a bit different.

Because out of all the westerns ever made, it doesn’t quite gel with any of them. William Goldman writes it in such a way that it feels like an anti-western in a sense. His heroes are outlaws, yes, but they are also two of the most likable anti-heroes Hollywood had ever instated. Whether he knew it or not, Goldman probably helped birth the buddy comedy genre while the partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford fast became one for the ages.

My analysis of the film has waxed and waned over the years and not everything has aged immaculately. However, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most quotable, rib-tickling good times you can manage with a western. I’ll stand by it, and when we talk about endings, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is as good a place to end as any: immortalized on tintypes for all posterity. What a way to go.

Thank you for reading and happy national classic movie day!

The Sting (1973): Newman and Redford Reunited

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To my mind, there’s never been a dream team quite like Paul Newman and Robert Redford — a perfect one-two punch of camaraderie and cool — it comes so easy. All the ladies wanted to swoon over them, and all the men wanted to be like them. Because what they have together is something envied by us all.

Butch Cassidy was, of course, the breakout success helping to redefine the western in 1969 while also cementing the burgeoning buddy genre. It’s amazing we only ever got one other picture in the storied partnership. Thankfully it was The Sting.

Let me be candid. It’s not as great as its predecessor. I never had the same fondness for its narrative diversions and yet even on subsequent viewings, it assuredly plays to its strengths.

The period crime film captures a strain of nostalgia that feels even more euphoric seen through a second lens. This is Scott Joplin, ragtime, old-time title cards, wipe transitions galore, fine threads, better hats, and an ode to the past — twofold. This is prohibition reintroduced by way of the 1970s.

The world of Chicago gambling rackets fits somewhere in between a James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson’s Warner Bros. gangster flicks and John Garfield’s roles over a decade later (ie. Force of Evil). However, while the world is similar, director George Roy Hill has blessed The Sting with a playfulness. It lacks a cynical even brooding edge which would have been so easy to ascribe to. This is the 1970s after all. It would have been in vogue.

But in dealing with the depression years and corruption with a jocular edge, Hill has won himself an audience. He’s made it a game rather than a drama and as such it’s a welcome vessel of entertainment. This is no Godfather or Chinatown, French Connection or Dirty Harry. The Sting gives itself license to lighten up a bit. The delightful opening gambit is a taster for coming attractions introducing grifter extraordinaire: Hooker (Robert Redford), and the old vet who’s taught him everything he knows.

Luther spins tales of “The Big Con” which in their line of business is the big leagues for every man who has ever swindled someone aspires to. He urges Hooker to shake off the dust of their crummy town and make something of his unique talents. If the young drifter got his way, he would have stayed put. Still, he has crossed someone very powerful in local racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). There’s no recourse but to shove off and begin the next stage of his training.

He must meet the man Luther spoke highly of The Great Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). In their first encounter, he’s completely swacked only to utter his first words under a showerhead raining water down on his hungover noggin. When Newman’s grouchy voice finally rings out it’s another form of wish fulfillment we’ve been waiting for. He even soaks his head a la Harper (1966). The anticipation is beginning to set in.

The Hollywood landscape has changed in 4 years. Now Redford is the worldwide megastar. Newman is still a big draw and as good as ever. Regardless, it’s a real hoot to have veteran pros like Harold Gould and Ray Walston. Somehow they feel like television actors to me and that’s by no means a dismissal. In fact, it’s actually a seal of approval; they make The Sting more colloquial even familiar.

Things pick up aboard a train as Gondorf sinks the hook into their pray so they can begin the task of reeling him in for the catch. It’s about keeping the mark off-balance, never letting them know they’re not in control, and making a whole lot of fun for the audience because we’re in on the whole shebang.

He makes a late entrance to a gentlemanly poker game by apologizing, “Sorry I’m late guys. I was taking a crap.” It’s a portent for the entire showdown. Newman hamming it up as the steely-eyed Robert Shaw looks on as if he takes every iota of the other man’s being as a personal affront. It’s a very calculated charade getting under his skin quite effectively. The brilliance of Newman is not taking himself too seriously. He has a good time with every beat and the movie benefits.

It’s a pleasure to watch him walk all over Shaw because Newman might be smug, but we’re in his corner and that comes from his long, hard-fought badge of loyalty. He’s one of those actors we relish playing the scoundrel. Harrison Ford might be the other.

As they look to hook Lonnegan by first getting his ire up and then conveniently setting him up with an ambitious inside man (Redford), we have a game on our hands. Meanwhile, the other boys assemble the crew with a makeshift gambling joint being renovated as they speak.

Hearing Ray Walston’s voice over the action, calling the races, is somehow comforting a bit like having My Favorite Martian reruns on in the background. The film is weak in the female character department but fortuitously Eileen Brennan is able to bring something hardy to the world with her mere presence.

And yet it wouldn’t be a story without a few wrinkles would it? Shaw throwing his weight around in order to play by his rules. They must acquiesce to his demands in order to make him feel secure. Then there’s a nagging cop after Hooker for some prior infraction. Soon even the Feds (led by Dana Elcar) get involved as the whole charade continues to crumble precariously.

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Through it all Redford keeps his cool and looks equally fine streaking around town in his suit — usually to keep from getting the book thrown at him. He might as well be channeling the free-and-easy charisma of Steve McQueen from The Cincinnati Kid. Fittingly, The Sting is an apt descendent of not only that film but Newman’s own stellar vehicle: The Hustler.

Aside from just creating a world of smoky nostalgia, Hill is brave enough to have wordless interludes. The music is robust enough, not to mention his stars and his setting, allowing us to appreciate everything. Sometimes more is said in these moments than in any bit of filler dialogue. We get the privilege of picking up the pieces for ourselves and sitting back to bask in the thrills. The last few minutes are the grand payoff, and it’s lightning-quick but never better.

The Sting is short of a monumental artistic achievement, but it is an experience as only movies provide. It gives laughs, payoffs, and twists in a manner that is wholly satiating. To be a part of a communal event like this is something familiar and warm.

The ultimate joy of The Sting is its ability to play the audience as much as the mark and yet still giving us the relish of feeling like we’re in on the joke. It’s a movie that willingly provides the best of both worlds. And of course, we have Newman and Redford. I’ll stand by it. There was never a better pair.

4.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Paul Newman

Here is the latest in our ongoing series of, hopefully, manageable beginner’s guides to classic movie stars by curating 4 films to watch, while slipping in innumerable more to consider for future reference.

This week our figure of note is Paul Newman actor extraordinaire who became a much-loved icon and remained married to Joanne Woodward for over 50 years! He got his start coming out of the same New York stage-driven scene that revolutionized Hollywood with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

However, his career evolved with the times and one of his greatest attributes was a winsome charisma to go along with his baby blues that led to staggering longevity in Hollywood for decades.

Let’s talk about where to start with Paul Newman.

The Hustler (1961)

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Paul Newman was forever rueful about The Silver Calice, his first major onscreen credit. Some early successes to consider are Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Long Hot Summer. However, this is one of his emblematic roles as up-and-coming hotshot Fast Eddie Felson. His pool table battles with Jackie Gleason became the stuff of cinematic legend.

Hud (1963)

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Paul Newman’s career was laden with H-titled films including the previous entry, Harper (1966), and Hombre (1967). However, his turn as Hud is in a league of its own as he plays the carouser with the barb-wired soul in a western world slowly falling apart at the seams in the face of modernity. It’s a blistering turn by Newman as he fully commits to his unsavory part.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Paul Newman and Luke Jackson are almost interchangeable. He’s a mythical hero both dashing and anti-establishment. A social outcast and a leader of men who captures their imaginations with his casually confident, indefatigable spirit. It’s rare to find such a fitting hero for a generation and a state of being. “Nothing” is a cool hand indeed.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

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It’s the ultimate buddy film. Paul Newman and Robert Redford would forever be linked and immortalized thanks in part to William Goldman’s comical mythology of Old West outlaws. They helped make the anti-hero amusing while redefining the West fading away in the modern age of civilization. The boys had so much fun they came back together for a double-dose with the widely successful The Sting. Still, it’s difficult to top the original.

Worth Watching:

The Left-Handed Gun, The Young Philadelphians, Paris Blues, Sweet Bird of Youth, Slap Shot, The Verdict, The Color of Money, Nobody’s Fool, Road to Perdition, Cars, etc.

Somebody Up Their Likes Me (1956): Starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli

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Here is the first of two purported instances where Paul Newman wound up taking on roles earmarked for the recently deceased James Dean. Dean even had a fairly visible relationship with Pier Angeli who would have been his co-star. At one point, there was even talk of marriage swirling around though Angeli’s mother disapproved of Dean. Because it’s true he was “the rebel,” and she the angelic ingenue. It served them both well on screen, and the saintly image works well opposite Newman here.

While Dean had the angst and a sturdy enough frame to have at Rock Hudson in Giant, there’s no doubt his slight build doesn’t seem like the physique of a boxer. In this physical regard alone Newman might have proved to be a fine choice and in consideration of the performance itself, he showcases a glint of many of the traits that would turn him into a beloved box office attraction.

Watching his big break in the context of his illustrious career is gratifying for just those reasons. Because we know the successes waiting for him. Somebody Up There Likes Me finally gave him a shot to put himself out there so people could take note.

Due to the aura of The Sound of Music and to a lesser extent West Side Story, they are two films that effectively misrepresent the career of director Robert Wise. At the very least, they can be deceptive.

True, West Side Story gives us a glimpse into gangland New York, albeit touched up in vibrant color. But we only need look to Wise’s early noir works, a pedigree including the boxing classic The Set-Up; or even Odds Against Tomorrow, to see what he was capable of in terms of grungy atmospherics. This one occupies a seedy dive world akin to something like On The Waterfront (1954) or even Love with a Proper Stranger (1963).

Coincidentally, Steve McQueen has an early part in this one and Sal Mineo, a Dean compatriot leftover from Rebel Without a Cause, gives a crucial supporting role. Because Rocky incurs a childhood of abuse only to grow up as a hoodlum on the streets terrorizing the neighborhood with his band of cronies. Romolo (Sal Mineo) is the most important because they have the same life experience but wind up in completely different stratospheres.

It does take Rocky a long time though. He lands himself in a reformatory and gets thrown around the social reform structures implemented by society, all to no avail. He gets upgraded to a Penitentiary and still, his brutish intensity is never cowed.

Picking a fight with everyone big or small. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got stripes on their shoulders, suits, college educations, or police badges in their pockets. He’s ready and willing to wail on anyone. To say he has a blatant disregard for rules and authority is a gross understatement.  It’s part of what makes Newman’s turn entertaining in the earliest segments.

We wonder when he’s ever going to hit an upswing as he’s on the lamb, then dishonorably discharged, and awarded a stint at Leavenworth. Could that be a bit of Luke Jackson that we see?

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Even as he reluctantly agrees to jump in the ring for a promoter (Everett Sloane) to earn some desperately needed cash, he never has a taste for fighting. It seems like for once in his life the newly minted Rocky Graziano (like the wine) is looking to get away from fighting. And yet over time, he is convinced to train and to channel his hate into his right hand, like a charge of dynamite, so it can benefit him in the confines of the ring.

Also, about this time, he is introduced to his sister’s friend Norma, a sweet, reticent girl who is taken with romantic movies, butterfly kisses, and nice words spoken out of a place of kindness. Rocky’s entire upbringing has left him with the impression “love is for the birds.” They shouldn’t be together and yet, for some unexplainable reason, they are.

Soon, with the help of Irving (Sloane), Rocky has made a name for himself as the most popular Italian in the world, aside from Frank Sinatra and Michelangelo. Still, Norma can’t stand his fighting believing it is all, “meanness and blood and ignorance.”

On the surface, it seems true. However, Graziano is a curious force. So brutal and antagonistic and yet in his own gruff way, he’s so capable of love. He loves his mother (Eileen Heckert) dearly even as he tears her apart. He loves his wife, never laying a hand on her. He only has tenderness in his heart for them.

Still, in the ring he is ruthless and outside it, he’s plagued by fixers (Robert Loggia in a slimy debut) and a horde of journalists looking to smear his past all over the tabloids.

The climactic bout versus incumbent champion Tony Zale personifies how chaotically communal boxing is. An assortment of POV shots with punches aimed right at the camera, a flurry of edits, and a boisterous brand of intimacy makes us feel like we’re living right inside the ring. The beauty of it has to be the fact Rocky seems like he’s losing the entire time. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Grit alone sustains. It’s a delightful finishing point, but the film is not won in the ring.

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I’m trying to come up with concrete justifications for why I enjoyed this experience so much. A few have been offered up but on the whole, I’m at a loss for words. Certainly Wise is no stranger to this street corner aesthetic, which he develops with such assured conviction, but the beats of the story are nothing new. They come to be expected; what takes you by pleasant surprise in such a context is a performance or a bit of dialogue from Ernest Lehman.

Because the boxing ring is only ever an arena for the life outside the ropes to play out and thankfully a rapport is built with the characters that comes to more than a few fights to prove oneself. In fact, until the final showdown in the ring, most of what we know about Rocky occurs outside of the ring with the gloves off.

Newman invests himself in the part readily showing a young punk evolve into a broken man with hatred in his blood, delinquency, and rage at the core of his being. Yet by some miracle, he’s able to gain a life and a beautiful girl to bless him with an existence worth living. Yes, he wins a big fight in the end, but we get the sense we leave him on a firm foundation. When the inevitable comes and he’s taken down, there’s still something and someone to return home to. Until that day he can relish what he was bred to do. But it’s not his all.

Then, of course, there’s Pier Angeli who is a minor revelation not because of any amount of flamboyance but the exact opposite. She is gifted with a grace and a poise that is positively enthralling. Her voice, quiet even hushed, flows with a peacefulness — an unassuming dignity even — so very unlike the ravishing vivacity of our Italian movie star archetypes. She is a discovery to be sure though her life was unfortunately cut tragically short. This role might be the finest testament to her presence as a performer.

It’s admittedly almost hokey witnessing Rocky riding down a cheering street, staring into the heavens noting exuberantly, “Somebody up there likes me.” Certainly, that’s true, but his wife reminds him, “Someone down here does too.” That’s how he knows The Big Man Upstairs was looking after him, putting such a calming force into the turbulence of his own life.  The scene is so easy to forgive because we’ve witnessed how very true it is.

This boxing biopic would be something of lesser note without Paul Newman’s star-making turn and what is an anti-hero without a companion to salvage their brokenness and turn them into the best person that they can be? Accordingly, comparable praise must be heaped on Angeli too.

4/5 Stars

Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars

Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 Stars

Paris Blues (1961)

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I’m the first to admit I’m no jazz connoisseur but I dig it. In this age that we now live in of shuffling and song roulette — where the single has surged passed a cohesive album in terms of singular importance — there has been some small amount of education going on for me.

Awareness of some of the classics is starting to set in. There’s recognition of a few of the heavy hitters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and of course Duke Ellington. When we hear even the briefest interludes of “Take The A Train” we will grab a hold of it. Ellington provided the score for Paris Blues including some of his beloved classics and they couldn’t be more fitting.

Because Martin Ritt’s film is hot when it comes to jazz — you can feel it wafting through the air and giving an added layer of sensuality to the already romantic milieu of the Parisian streets. This is a propitious factor married with the fact the picture also takes its shoot right to the streets of Paris, even filling out the cast with a few native supporting players.

Less than a decade before, we had Roman Holiday (1953) and now we have something that might just do the same for France, except with an extra flavoring of brass and a rhythm section. The cast couldn’t be better with two of Ritt’s former students from their Actor’s Studio days, power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Equally compelling is another legendary leading man in Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll as beautiful and sophisticated as ever. I admire them all.

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However, in translating the source material to the silver screen, you could easily say the story lost most of its clout. Harold Flender’s original novel was about two interracial romances between two vacationing Americans and two expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. However, this was Hollywood in 1961. Although the script teases the original storyline when Ram Bowen (Newman) comes onto Connie Lampson (Carroll) on an inbound train, it was not meant to be — quickly brushed off for more conventional demarcations.

Believing the public was still not ready for such portrayals, the studio got cold feet and smoothed things out by making sure everyone ended up with their “kind.” It’s Lillian Corning (Woodward) who gets starstruck with the trombone player and her friend eventually softens to the handsome saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier).

Acknowledging this grievance, the only thing that makes me mildly okay with the change is that the husband and wife duo of Newman and Woodward get paired opposite each other so we see real-life romance partially channeled into the movie. While the four leads look great together and there’s indubitable chemistry, somehow it still feels like something is missing.

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Louis Armstrong leading a parade of brass into the jazz club is a shining moment full of uninhibited synergy that fills up the underground space in the most joyous of fashions. As he always does, Wild Man Moore brings down the house. But the real issue is the lack of pizzazz outside these performances.

The story meanders without creating enough interludes ripe with meaning. They’re either cutesy momentary snapshots of lovebirds in Paris or understated pieces of human drama. Not by any means bad but what the picture might have used were some sustained sequences of action in places where it floundered. Most vividly I can recall the Vespa ride through the streets or even the party which is raided by the local police which helped make Roman Holiday a landmark.

There is nothing so memorable here. Instead, some characters leave on the train they arrived on and others stay behind. Musical aspirations and romance are continuously being weighed. Whether we care that deeply about any of it is up for debate.

Worst of all, these issues are only exasperated by the fact that the story no longer has one of Martin Ritt’s finest attributes, a theme of social importance. Because in a Pre-Civil Rights age, Paris Blues could have been a much more moving statement; instead, it’s a middling love story.

Poitier gets one conversation with Carroll where he candidly vocalizes that in Paris he’s a man or he’s a musician. To borrow someone else’s words, “he’s judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character” and even more so by his artistry. It spawns a minor spat but the opportunity to make a statement — a statement without the utterance of words even — was lost before it even began. Perhaps the wasted potential hurts more than anything. Like the musicians at its core, Paris Blues is ultimately a lightweight.

3/5 Stars

Review: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

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Despite my general reluctance to say that the Western in its classical form was on the way out, it’s hard not to make such an assertion looking at the landscape of the late 1960s. The Wild Bunch is a common marker of the seismic shift leading to the complete obliteration of the classic western mythology, but there are some related themes strewn throughout Butch Cassidy that make it equally representative of an era or so one could argue.

The times were changing historically speaking and that plays out cinematically in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bicycles are the future, destined to replace the old reliable horse. And the western hero as we knew him has long since gone, replaced instead by vengeful tough guys and in this case a pair of bank robbing antiheroes. Bonnie and Clyde were the new standards and out of that trend, we saw more like them.

So it’s not just the fact that the film takes place at the tail end of the Old West, slowly evolving into the modern, or New West, but simultaneously the genre would never be the same. There’s a bit of a wistfulness to it all. The legend is fun. The mythology is something to be thoroughly embellished, but it too comes to an end. It’s only a wisp of a memory made of sepia tones and silent newsreels. But Butch Cassidy and Sundance will be remembered fondly by the audience just as the West is. Maybe that is enough.

Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy as a film does have its shortcoming which became more apparent with time. It’s possible to be a dated period piece as this film is (although it’s hard not to love “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). Still, it can be plodding and some would argue it’s about nothing substantial, nothing meaningful at all. Still, it manages to be one of the greatest western comedies of all time only eclipsed by its own heavy dose of cynicism.

It’s funny watching Butch and Sundance go through their motions. Butch (Paul Newman) is the brains who bemoans the fact that banks are getting upgrades and shipments are being made by trains. After all, they are constantly on the move and it becomes a constant guessing game. He’s given more grief by his gang that looks to overthrow him led by the hulking thug Harvey (Ted Cassidy).

And on top of that every lawman wants him dead. In such moments, being the idea man that he is he entertains thoughts of joining the army for the Spanish-American War or even going to a far off land like Bolivia. Content with his gunplay and letting Butch do the thinking, Sundance rides by his side, certainly his own man but also part of this comic duo.

William Goldman’s script is brimming with wry wit that’s almost inexhaustible. But Paul Newman and Robert Redford loom even larger as the titular stars in this epic buddy comedy. In the age where winning charm and star power still seemed like a genuine box office draw. You came to see actors and in 1969 there were few actors as commanding as Newman and Redford. They had looks and charm. Cool and comedy. Charisma goes a long way. For those very reasons it’s an impressive film and enduringly entertaining. If we cannot watch a film and enjoy it as pure entertainment at least on some level, it really is a shame because that’s one of the many joys of the cinema.

But there’s also something admittedly depressing in how their story evolves. It can no longer be about snide repartee and living the good life robbing banks, continuously augmenting their legendary notoriety. It’s light and funny for a time before slowly spiraling into a deadly cycle.

Perhaps my faith in Butch and Sundance wavered slightly but I will go on resolutely and maintain my immense affection for them that began as a boy. This is still a wonderful film. Outlaws do not have to be one-dimensional. They can be just as funny as they are depressing. That is their right and the legend of the Hole in the Wall Gang is exactly that type of story. We don’t have to see them die. Instead, we get the satisfaction to leave them in one last shining moment of triumph. One final triumph of the West as we once knew it.

5/5 Stars