A Patch of Blue (1965)

I hope my analogy does not get misconstrued, but A Patch of Blue plays like a sublime fairy tale. It’s set in New York, a city that often feels as much of a visual fabrication made out of magic and myth as it is a real place anchored in time and space. Here is the very same world that exists in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s or other such pictures.

Shelley Winters is at her nastiest and most acerbic as a street tramp Rose-Ann. An evil “stepmother” if you will, because she and her daughter are on a first-name basis. Aside from that, you’d hardly realize they’re kith and kin. Because you see our cinematic cinderella, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), is blind thanks to a violent altercation in her childhood and is now resigned to spending most of their time locked up in the shabby apartment.

Wallace Ford, bless his soul, is Ole Pal and though his heart might be in the right place, he’s not much used to the world because he spends most of his waking days home from work griping at the insufferable Rose-Ann or going out on the town to get royally plastered. 

When Selina’s not slaving away at chores, she’s stringing beads together for mere pennies. Otherwise, she’s considered useless. She’s blind after all. It’s hardly a life at all. At least, that’s what the world around her seems to suggest and any minor pleasure like an afternoon in the park feels more precious to her than gold. 

It’s in this said park where she first meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). If we wished to describe him, you could highlight any number of salient characteristics. He’s tall, handsome, and intelligent. He works the night shift and he has a brother (Ivan Dixon) who’s training to be a doctor. He’s also black…

But Selina cannot recognize or know any of this during their first encounter. Instead, she learns about him through his actions and words. Rather than being an impediment to their connection, somehow it provides the most sincere indications of human affection. She finds him to be kind and patient in a manner she has rarely experienced.

In this first encounter, she’s dumped her precious beads all over. She can’t possibly gather them together again and so we have an effortless meet-cute. For all we know, Gordon appears at her tree, but whatever the means — fate or happenstance — the film is never the same again. The metaphor of this movie is evident even for those who’ve never seen it. The cliche that “love is blind” is made quite literal because, for young Selina, that’s what happens. She falls in love for the first time. 

Guy Green does not employ altogether flashy filmmaking notwithstanding some fitting match cuts, but this leaves ample space for his narrative focal points. There’s something undeniable blooming between Hartman and Poitier making this movie a tender slice of romance brimming with sincerity. 

Poitier empowers her in a way no one has bothered to before, and it’s an awakening of the world around her even as her sense remain attuned to everything. Though Poitier isn’t necessarily stretched beyond his limits — he’s perfectly at ease being a benevolent guide — his customary affability and charm feel infallible at this point. 

True to form, he comes back in subsequent days to check in on Selina, providing her sunglasses to cover the scars on her face. Another day he offers her a can of pineapple juice, which she takes with relish. He broadens her horizons further by traveling together on the crosswalk for pastrami at the local delicatessen and then to pick up his groceries.

To us, these seem like mundane tasks, and yet for Selina, these are such generous acts because someone has taken the time for her. And though she is mostly unawares, there is a sense that in 1965, just there being together, existing in the world, and taking part in life together, is a meaningful act of solidarity if not total rebellion against prejudicial behavior. At its most fundamental level, it courts these ongoing themes of friendship and tolerance.

 Most importantly, it is Gordon who rescues her from the pit of despair and the vengeful jowls of Rose-Ann once and for all. Remember, it is a fairy tale — Poitier acts as the fairy godmother whose job never has enough contours for us to really know what he does; he appears when he is needed most. His performance is matched by the agreeable whimsy of Jerry Goldsmith’s score dancing softly in the background. It can end no other way even as this adolescent girl’s life still hangs in the air partially unresolved. 

Although the words have been echoed many a time, it does seem like Selina comprehends Dr. King’s incomparable words in their totality. Because in her mind’s eye and in their day-to-day actions, she has no difficulty judging Gordon, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

It’s another sentimental picture and you can rail against it, although I’m predisposed to enjoy its quiet bounties. Even compared to a more high-profile option like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s something unostentatious and rather attractive about this movie. It has Poitier’s sense of decency and there’s a message of tolerance, but the scale feels wonderfully mundane. So, perhaps it’s a realist fairytale. 

4/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

It seems that some of the greatest strides in diverse representation have found their roots on the stage. One of the cornerstone examples would have to be Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961). I saw the film adaptation quite a few years ago, but now, with a renewed sense of context, it’s ripe with so much more discovery.

While it might feel like a trivial observation, I was reminded how the movie is laden with nagging, moaning, and groaning as you would find in any family living in close quarters. For this very reason, the stage conventions feel less of a limitation and more of an expression of this family’s tangible struggle.  But it also feels like a safe space for the black cast where they are able to express themselves in all manner of ways. One moment they’re wild — gesticulating all over the place — and the next minute is the height of silliness. It feels almost unprecedented for the era.

Sidney Poitier is often shafted for playing an “Uncle Tom” because detractors have some kind of preconceived straw man of him they’re prepared to tear down. Whatever your thoughts on this, Walter Lee Younger is just the character to rip those presumptions down to their foundation. His main credo is built around the idea that money is life and despite everything Poitier became known for over his illustrious career, in A Rasin in the Sun, nobility goes straight out the window.

But it’s not simply a story about a man, because we must consider the entire family as they wait impatiently for the $10,000 insurance check set to be bequeathed to their matriarch Lena Younger. Walter Lee can’t wait to siphon off some of the funds for one of his shady business deals.

His sister, Beneatha, is a young free-minded woman of the modern world with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She’s hoping for some financial support to make her dreams come true. Marriage is considered an afterthought.

However, whatever she might say, there are two worthy suitors played by a pair of familiar faces. Ivan Dixon is the benevolent Nigerian suitor: Mr. Asagai, tickled pink by her iron will and prepared to take her back to his homeland. The other is Lou Gossett Jr’s George. He’s hoodwinked by Beneatha’s recent behavior and when he comes a calling, he’s left on the couch to crawl out of his skin. Walter’s ready with the rich black college boy wisecracks or else prepared to proposition the boy’s daddy with one of his business ideas.

Beneatha and Walter have plenty of sibling animosity to go around (I dissected something that looked just like you yesterday). And she also receives the ire of her mother because God has no place in her personal destiny. She tells the scandalized old lady point blank, “I get so tired of Him getting all the credit for everything the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There’s only man and it’s he who makes miracles.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

Because the movie is borne out of this generational difference. Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) was raised up a certain way, and God will always be present in her house just as family and charity are of great importance to her. She’s not a woman trained in book learning, but she is a picture of stalwart character. Keeping her family together means everything to her, but she will never become a slave to money.

Ruby Dee is the only one who seems unencumbered by the thought of worldly wealth and what it will do to them, both good and bad. Instead, she works diligently at her laundry and becomes a kind of calming force in a house that feels constantly in a state of familial tumult.

This is what makes their final introduction to their new home that Lena plans to purchase so cathartic. When they drive up, walk up the steps, and then rush around the house, it’s a slice of suburban heaven, albeit situated in an all-white neighborhood. As a housewarming gift, her kids pitch in for some gardening tools, and it speaks to her character — always wanting to till the soil and cultivate all that is around her with love.

However, we must also take a moment to mention John Fiedler and Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He’s a favorite of mine from 12 Angry Men, The Odd Couple, Bob Newhart, and of course, he’s the voice of Piglet. What an inspired piece of casting it is to have this diffident, genteel little man be the face of de facto racism in the world we live in. He’s perfectly civil; he will gladly trade pleasantries, and yet his people want no part of blacks in their neighborhood. At any rate, it doesn’t fit the agenda or the name of their little two-bit association.

It all comes down to his fabled line: “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.” These are like trigger words signaling a gunshot going off. When he’s out of the room, the more satirical members of the Younger family rephrase his words: “he can’t understand why people can’t learn to sit down and hate someone with good Christian fellowship.”

If you’re anything like me, these words sting a little. But that’s nothing compared to what hits Walter. The hammer drops when a no-good shyster runs off with some of his money. Ever the principled moral compass, Lena gladly loves others at their lowest, when they’ve made a mess of things and the world has whipped them. Because despite all of her unyielding values, she’s a creature of love and integrity.

Poitier makes his final stand — his first prominent act as head of the household with the blessing of his mother — like his father would have done before him. So perhaps I wasn’t quite right. Even in this picture, Poitier makes a stab at nobility. The greatest part is how he’s given license to fail.

Although their hope might be deferred, they still have hope nonetheless. What a lovely reminder it is about the human spirit. We are thoroughly irrepressible creatures and strengthened in the arms of our loved ones. Let that hope reap heavy dividends. My prayer is this comes sooner rather than later.

4/5 Stars

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
      – Langston Hughes

Pressure Point (1962)

Peter Falk with Sidney Poitier sounds like as good a place as any to start a movie. There he is a young man charging into his superior’s office, telling him he’s just about had it with his latest case. Surely, what we have is a story of mentorship on our hands.

Although this review is meant to be standalone and films do not need to be watched in tandem, there’s something to be said when they can interface with one another. Recently, I’ve been delving into the early works of Poitier, and his partnership over several films with Stanley Kramer certainly cannot be understated. Likewise, though John Cassavetes joined forces with Poitier in Edge of the City, it was Falk who would become one of the actor-director’s foremost collaborators. You can rarely imagine one without the other.

However, it shows where my mind goes because all these mental extrapolations are all for naught; it’s only a ploy. We barely catch sight of Falk again because this is not his movie. Instead, we drift into the recollections of the veteran doctor and the one case that almost broke him. Hokey setup aside, you can appreciate the unspoken and altogether unprecedented nature of Pressure Points.

Poitier’s lead doesn’t feel like an explicitly black part, but Kramer earmarked him for the role, and it adds a dimension to the movie that would be unavailable with almost any other actor of the era. In Poitier’s own words, “Obviously a picture about a black psychiatrist treating white patients was not the kind of sure-fire package that would send audiences rushing into theatres across the country. But Kramer had other gods to serve, and he was faithful to them.”

The dynamic of the movie is established thereafter when a new patient (Bobby Darin) pays a visit to the doctor. What becomes apparent after a few minutes is that Darin is really going for it. His giggling neo-fascist is all over the doctor from the outset, and here the mind games begin. He can’t figure out why “people” try to be white and respectable — doctors, psychiatrists — it’s not the place for them. 

However, as Poitier’s character scours the other man’s memories, he begins to establish who he is as a person — what his fears and vices are — all born out of his traumatic childhood. After the shaky narrative device, it’s a relief to admit Pressure Points has some artistic invention at its disposal, namely, in the trippy childhood scenes.

In his youth, Darin’s alter ego flees through a meat locker from the grotesque liver his domineering father waves in front of him, while bouts of paranoia overtake him in the present. The only friendships he forms are through hooliganism and a kind of sadistic dependence on invisible playmates.

It feels a bit like Norman Bates’s splintering dissociative identity disorder but playing out in real-time within Poitier’s office. Darin’s voice dissolves in and out of his adolescent personality in an eerie melding of his psyches. A small but crucial detail is how young Barry Gordon’s rounded features somehow mimic his older doppelganger, thus making the connection between them that much more pointed.

Two scenes that succinctly color his antisocial personality involve a tavern and a Bund Meeting. He takes a bit of artistic license with the Nazis’ early strong-armed tactics. In his version, they use tic-tac-toe to systematically vandalize the hapless owner’s establishment (Howard Caine who was Jewish in real life), while effectively scandalizing his onscreen wife. It’s totally perturbing to witness and one of the most evocative scenes I’ve been privy to in some time; the later Bund meeting causes some queasiness in its own right.

To echo Poitier’s words, it’s no surprise that Pressure Points was far from a box office smash. Take a moment to consider what was going against it. Whether people believed in its message or not, it’s a resolutely unnerving picture causing us to take a long, deep look at the very spine of American nationalism.

One of its primary characters spews rhetoric rallying white Christian Americans. Jews and Blacks are necessary. They need them as a scapegoat so they can mobilize the populous against something. It gives them something to hate and be against. Because they are the unchosen people — somehow oppressed in their own way — and breeding resentment and fear.

What strikes me about Darin’s performance is not the pure evil of it, but if we were to evoke Bates again, there are moments where he feels sane even momentarily reasonable. This unnerves me. How many people has this man taken in? How many people believed his methodologies and had their sense of self and right and wrong twisted by narrow-minded vitriol and hate speech?

Is there any of Darin’s character in me?  Wasn’t Norman the one who said we’ve all gone a little crazy sometimes?  It’s frightening to come up against a man who shows no emotion. Although sometimes I see that very same apathy in myself. But I brush it off. Surely we’re nothing alike. We have nothing in common…

I remember when The Atlantic first premiered the footage from a “Night in the Garden,” with Madison Square Garden full of German-American Bund supporters in 1939. Those feelings of discomfort and dissonance are not easy to dispel because the history we are taught tells us that the Allies are good and the Nazis are bad. Here there’s something fundamentally wrong. We wonder why there is still anti-Semitism. We wonder why there is still race hatred and violence against Blacks.

It seems contrary to the country we know and love. And yet if these newsreel images, Darin’s neo-Nazi, and current events tell us anything, it’s that we need to take a hard look at how these poisonous ideologies take root. They are not fantastical, they are not innocuous, and they certainly are not dormant.

What a horrible thing if these insidious things gain legitimacy and become normalized. Watching Pressure Points, it seems good and right to acknowledge mental illness and to acknowledge our shortcomings as human beings, but there is also a time and place to label evil for what it is.

3.5/5 Stars

Edge of The City (1957)

Edge of The City boasts a self-important opening, with a raging score and noirish mood-lightning, especially considering all it shows is John Cassavetes going into work. Even if it is all mood, there’s arguably no better conduit for the time being than Cassavettes. This was a few years before his directorial career kicked off in earnest with Shadows, but it’s as if he oozes unease and discontentment.

He’s not in the same vein as Brando or Clift; each man deservedly stands on his own and Cassavetes was no fan of “The Method,” but he had an innate capacity to present characters with emotions incarnate, whether through the most tangible of fears or tormenting, ever-volatile demons.

He too was totally engaged with the act of crafting characters. He seems to give himself over to them, and thus, later on, behind the camera he offered his fellow actors so much freedom. I imagine it’s both terrifying and invigorating being in Cassavetes’s care, like a thrilling tightrope walk in the best of hands.

For now, he’s in the studio system, but he gets to team with people who arguably appreciated the craft as much as him in a scenario that relies on its main trifecta to create a substantive storyline. At the very least, we’re in for some fine character moments.

Axel North (Cassavetes) finds himself knee-deep in the life of docks where longshoremen make a hard day’s wage with their hands and the sweat of their brows. He gets a gig when a gruff stranger (Jack Warden) vouches for him after he mentions a mutual acquaintance. However, this is hardly an act of pure altruism. He’s a shrewd customer and looks to skim off the top of the newcomer’s pay.

In fact, the most noirish aspect aside from the New York stockyards is a veiled past that doesn’t have the decency to leave him be. Because an itinerant like Axel has to be running away from something; he can’t afford to complain. If Charlie is a symbol of the biting survival-of-the-fittest mentality on the docks, then Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) is the friend you’re always looking to have in your corner.

Poitier’s blessed with a sharp wit in the role, and he feels like the comeback kid, always bright-eyed and ready with the retort. But it also always comes out of a place of camaraderie. He takes Axel under his wing. No matter his color or creed, Tommy knows this world far better than his new buddy. As he maps out the social order, there are the bigs and the lower forms (and probably more than a few loners).

Somehow Cassavetes comes off almost boyish and demure in his first starring role, more so than I’ve ever seen him. It just goes that his normal picture of pent-up intensity took on many forms over the course of his career.

In his film directorial debut, Martin Ritt introduces the kind of themes that would stick with him for the rest of his career. He was passionate about honest character studies focused on people with convictions and conflicts — some good and some bad. How do you begin to categorize Hud, Tommy, or Norma Rae? The catch-all answer is their joint humanity, tainted or not. There’s an inner truth to them imbued by the performers.

In some ways, Edge of The City feels more unprecedented and significant than Stanley Kramer’s Defiant Ones for the sole reason that it’s far more mundane. Its interracial friendship is formed not over an arduous, embittered game of survival, but in the salt mines and urban jungle of the common working man. Axel and Tommy live life together. It normalizes them.

Because one of the greatest joys of the movie comes with depicting the daily activities occurring outside the typical 9 to 5 grind. There are playgrounds overrun with kids, and apartments filled up with mundane rhythms, from cooking dinner to conversations with spouses and friends.

What’s more, the primary female characters as portrayed by Ruby Dee and Kathleen Maguire are intelligent, well-informed human beings. Tommy and Lucy are happily married, and they set Axel up with their friend Ellen, spending evenings together going dancing or bowling. It injects an air of levity onto an otherwise dour canvas.

Still, there are tough conversations too after the laughs have subsided. We hardly expect space for this kind of pragmatic discourse, especially in 1957, and yet here we are. The most noteworthy thing to come out of the inevitable devastation is Ruby Dee’s final stand. For much of the movie, she plays the affectionate wife, who nevertheless has thoughts and opinions of her own. In one shining moment, she showcases her resolute strength even as she decries the madness around her.

It calls for some outward response breaking the code of the docks for the sake of compassion and vindication in the face of heartless human tragedy. Because Martin Ritt studied under Elia Kazan, this might as well be his version of On The Waterfront. It evolves into a tale of collective responsibility where inaction is one of the worst forms of culpability (and also one of the easiest to fall prey to).

In the final hours, Cassavetes becomes his version of Brando’s Terry Malloy and Warden fills in for his 12 Angry Men castmate Lee J. Cobb. Here battles, if not fought with baling hooks, are settled with fists. Finally, Axel casts off his fear and his apathy to stand for something meaningful. So while this is not a wholly original sequence, at the very least, it’s ingraned with a level of moral resonance.

With the birth of the black power movement and blaxploitation in the ensuing decades, Sidney Poitier did not just go out of fashion, he became an easy target. He was a sellout and a relic from a bygone age. It seems time has proved just how uncharitable this is especially when you have the misfortune of becoming acquainted with the likes of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best.

Sidney Poitier is an inimitable trailblazer, and it’s sorely unfair to place the onus of black representation on one man. Thankfully, he’s had a few others to carry the mantle though progress has been incremental at best. Hopefully, his heirs will keep coming thick and fast, articulating the vast, complex circumferences of the black experience.

However, my final thought is only this. All I could think about after the movie was how he single-handedly built a sub-genre: the interracial buddy film. He could count the likes of John Cassavetes and Tony Curtis among his onscreen friends. Not many men can say that.

3.5/5 Stars

Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Billy Haley and The Comet’s “Rock Around The Clock” is often touted as the first rock n’ roll tune. I won’t get sucked into that discussion for the time being, but whatever we want to call it, there’s this sense of youth culture — teenagers as a demographic — coming into bloom.

Future generations would harness the music of the contemporaneous adolescent culture to greater effect. In Richard Brook’s Blackboard Jungle, it feels a bit more one-note and generally unattached to the marketing and main message of the picture. They haven’t quite harnessed its power. Because like the gangster pictures of old — or even The Wild Ones and Rebel Without a Cause — this is meant to be another cautionary tale about delinquent youth. In its day, it was no doubt considered dangerous and indecent.

There’s some of that, but an honest assessment would acknowledge how tame most of it feels now. It’s the 50s take on the teenager problem through the eyes of a Hollywood still neutered by the production codes. However, that’s not to say there is nothing to be relished about the movie or gleaned from the depiction of cultural anxieties.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not Glenn Ford does an adequate job at playing a teacher. It’s certainly not a western and although there are tinges of an urban jungle, it’s not quite your prototypical city noir. To his credit, in spite of his usual intensity, his scenes with Anne Francis, in particular, do reveal a certain sensitivity. He uses his brawn on a number of occasions; he has a foot in that world, and yet there’s some sense he is a gentleman and an aspiring family man.

Still, his life as a new recruit to North Manual Trades High School feels a bit like baptism by fire. Despite its gruff and no-nonsense administrators as represented by such ready veterans as John Hoyt and Emile Meyer, there’s no question the all-boys, multiethnic melting pot of a school has a major discipline problem.

One wry teacher who’s been around the block calls it the “garbage can” of the education system. And he’s resigned himself to taking out the trash. Nothing more. As such, in preparation for the first day of school, there’s an uneasiness in the air. Even as Mr. Dadier (Ford) desires to reach his class, there’s a sense that battle lines are being drawn up: you have students on one side and teachers forming a rear guard. One new recruit, a bookish Richard Kiley comments, it’s like being back on the beach at Salerno doing the war. In other words, this mission is not for the faint of heart.

The world and the atmosphere around the school evoke so much. One of the primary pleasures of the picture comes with actually familiarizing ourselves with this rank and file replete with familiar faces like the Louis Calherns, Kiley’s, and even an odd Richard Deacon or Jamie Farr here or there. We can only experience the power dynamics and, the underlining conflict thanks to the range of characters.

I have very little practical hands-on knowledge about New York geography, but there is this sense that the high school featured here could exist not too far away from the courtroom in 12 Angry Men. If the morality on what to do with punks and malcontents doesn’t entirely overlap, then the visual landscape feels like a shared space.

But enough delaying tactics. We must acknowledge the emblematic youth at the heart of Blackboard Jungle. Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) is cool and disaffected. Dadier ushers him out of the washroom during a mid-period smoke break. He’s made his stance toward education plain. Though he’s a more complex case than his opening introduction might suggest. Most people are.

Artie (Vic Morrow) thrives as the gang’s primary leader, at least in the fact he’s good for a derisive comment and stirring up his cronies in rebellion against the establishment. Boys like Miller’s have intelligence and some semblance of passion.  Artie’s got nothing of the sort. He has a future career of hoodlamism all sketched out.

It’s not a radical hypothesis, but watching Sidney Poitier here, it’s easy to surmise that if he had been white, he would have been lauded as a cult icon on par with Brando or Dean. However, to his credit, he takes the part in a direction commensurate with his specific talents. While Morrow at times feels like the typical street thug, Poitier eschews many of these conventions over time.

Considering the opening preamble and where the movie goes, it’s intriguing to consider the implications. It does preach a message of racial tolerance — that certain people aren’t too far gone and teens are humans too — but there does seem to be an easy fix. You have to pin the blame on the black sheep. They are the ones souring everything. It has nothing to do with skin color, but perhaps the pains, the fears, and the psychological duress of youth.

One of the most powerfully symbolic moments is not any fistfight or savage skirmish. It happens in a classroom where the boys, urged by Artie, bust a teacher’s collection of jazz records. Kiley’s reaction is hardly devastation. He’s more so shellshocked and resigned to bewilderment. What would come over them to do such a reckless thing? They get no utility out of it. It’s merely an act of spite, a way to wreak havoc and target other people so they become inured to it.

Creativity or beauty of any kind, anything that doesn’t conform to teenage masculinity, even flaunted sexuality gets quelled and totally crushed into the ground. There need not be a better summation. Otherwise, there are few revelations in the movie and the finale is tense if not altogether authentic, brimming perilously with self-serving melodrama.

In this facet alone, it seems time has not been kind to The Blackboard Jungle. At the very least, it’s because a myriad of similarly-minded movies were built out of its image — on its shoulders even. If you’ve seen Stand and Deliver or even Poitier’s later success, To Sir, With Love, it makes the work here feel outmoded, if not altogether negligible.

However, after everything else burns off, there’s a particular appreciation for Poitier. If Morrow deservedly filled the space of a punk antihero, then Poitier derives a nuance out of his role that seems unprecedented, and he would keep on presenting such seismic and extraordinary performances to the American screen. Even in his relative youth, I’m always in awe of his intuitive stage presence.

Far from simply offering a convenient context for the movie and its student-teacher factions, Ford’s character reaches out to Poitier because he is the leader that others follow. In 1950s America this seems like an almost startling statement. Here is a black man being acknowledged as capable of leading the masses. But when you watch Poitier, it doesn’t seem implausible by any means because he plays it so assuredly.

Thus, Blackboard Jungle might as well remain as a time capsule of 1950s sensibilities, beatnik-era slang, burgeoning rock n’ roll culture, and most importantly of all, a showcase for one of the movie industry’s incomparable talents. Yes, I’m talking about Jameel Farrah.

3.5/5 Stars

Cry The Beloved Country (1951)

As an American, the history of Apartheid is still something I feel relatively ignorant of even as I must confess to still be learning constantly about our own history of segregation in the U.S. This is part of what makes me marvel at Cry The Beloved Country, which really is one of a kind — a bit of a gem plucked out of the 1950s.

Because the talents are innumerable, a young Sidney Poitier on the rise and Canada Lee in what would turn out to be his final screen role. I haven’t seen many of them, but this might be his best. Because although there is plenty of time to speak of Poitier for any number of movies, well worth our time and consideration, this particular film is carried first and foremost by Lee.

It impresses upon us a certain dignity of spirit. He’s a priest named Kumalo, stately and compassionate in all aspects. His eyes bear the same melancholy of a man who has been forced live under the weight of many hardships. It also makes us yearn that his stage efforts might have been captured for posterity as he famously worked with a theatrical wunderkind in Orson Welles and built up quite a career for himself. Alas, this was not to be.

One must confess that the reason for his starring turn was partially out of necessity. American, now deep in the throes of the Red Scare, was no friend to him or anyone who purportedly had Communist connections, whether real or imagined. The fact that he was black definitely didn’t help matters (Just ask Paul Robeson).

Meanwhile, Sidney Poitier was on the entirely opposite end of his career: Now in his early 20s and coming from the stage to navigate the strictures of Hollywood set before him. He’s so young, but he holds a civility and a stature that make him feel fully present and somehow wise beyond his years. This would be a trend throughout his lifetime.

If it’s not evident already, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is totally engaged with the contemporary issues of South Africa, ranging from systemic racism to pervasive poverty. If they are contextualized to this culture, surely we aren’t ignorant enough to believe they have no bearing on our own historical background.

So here we are in South Africa offered an auspicious film by Zoltan Korda meant to be about something of real consequence — to speak of the ills and indiscretions of society — when we purposely build structures of oppression. The production is steeped in its share of legends, the most famous one being Korda pronouncing Lee and Poitier as his manservants so he could get them into the country to film. If nothing else, it adds not only to the aura but also the concrete reality of what is in front of us.

For a black man, Johannesburg feels very much like the valley of the shadow of death. When Reverend Stephen Kumalo (Lee) receives a letter, it sends word that his sister is ill. His mission is twofold: support his ailing sibling and track down his son Absalom.

In many ways, Cry, The Beloved Country is a journey film as one man pursues answers and then restitution for a life. I wouldn’t say all the performances feel natural, but at the center of the drama Lee and Poitier act as a bit of an anchor for the entire movie. We have them to cling to. And even if the local, untrained performers leave something to be desired in terms of emotional resonance, the milieu around them speaks volumes.

There is an austere veracity that’s innate to on-location shooting. You could not possibly achieve this kind of atmosphere any other way. The overall degradation and the poverty are palpable in most every frame filled with the blocks of shantytowns.

It also willfully engages with issues of black-on-white crime. In a society whose social structures and racial castes are tenuous at best, these are perilous waters to breach. The newspaper headlines detailing a botched robbery are made far worse by their immediacy.

The man killed was an idealistic reformer envisioning a world of greater equality and stability for the black community. This show of brutality against someone sympathetic to their plight is poor P.R. nor does it placate his crusty old father (Charles Carson), who never believed much in his crusading, to begin with. For people of his age and estate, white is white, black is black, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not to say evolution is not possible…Between the frail sympathies of his wife (Joyce Carey), looking at his late son’s writings, and a fateful encounter, there’s still room for ample growth.

However, this crime also has bearing on Stephen as well. Because his boy Absalom is one of the men implicated in the killing. It’s a father’s worst nightmare, and he’s powerless to prevent it. Here two fathers are juxtaposed while coping with two strains of unfathomable grief.

Soon court dates are set, and there’s a trial for the murder of young Jarvis and the impending deliberations.  Although all the elements are there, the plotting and execution never add up to anything that feels more than intermittently affecting. It’s the kind of film I like the idea of it and what it stands for rather than what it actually culminates to onscreen.

Make no mistake. Cry, the Beloved Country feels like imperative viewing if we want to understand what empathy is in the face of our own limitations and human biases. To my knowledge, it’s nearly an unprecedented historical documentation granting center stage to black actors who deserved more acclaim. And thus, our attention must consider and appreciate the performances.

For Poitier, in a fledgling career, there would be still so much ahead of him. For Canada Lee, an unfairly forgotten talent now, it was the end. He would go the way of his buddy John Garfield and many others, perishing no thanks to the toxic industry around him. Cry, The Beloved Country is not a great movie, but it’s an understated one, brimming with solemnity, and sometimes we would do well to have this posture. We can mourn our own sins, the sins perpetrated against us, and the sobering reality that the world is not as it should be.

3/5 Stars

Note: This review was originally written before the passing of Sidney Poitier on January 6, 2022

4 Star Films: Celebrating 10 Years of Blogging!

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Well, it’s been 10 years and I still haven’t found it in my heart to choose another name for my blog. What I can say is that I’ve put a lot of passion into it and it’s been an edifying experience.

Not only have I watched a lot of films, grown as a writer, and met a lot of great people through comments and blogathons, but I feel like I’ve created something that I can be proud of. I don’t know what forms this blog will take or when it will take a hiatus (I still have quite a few posts in the tube), but it’s been such a good rhythm for me.

For the last 10 years of my life, I don’t think I’ve gone a week that I can remember without at least 1 blog posting. I’ve gone through transitions between platforms and designs, a few of my very earliest posts were republished, but for the most part, everything is timestamped as they came out.

But rather than dwell on that aspect, I think I’ve really gotten to see my own writing change as I grapple with films and topics that interest me and directors and performers who have garnered my utmost adulation and effusive praise.

The mission statement of the blog still remains fairly unwavering: to look deeper at the best classic movies as a community. I know I often falter and don’t always meet my goal, but I will continue to follow what interests me and hopefully, that will continue to highlight films that are interesting to others.

As a simple way to reflect on the past 10 years, I thought maybe I would try and take a post from each of the last 10 years as a small overview of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Here it is:

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2012: My 25 Essential Movies

For some context, I got into classic movies back in 2010 after discovering TCM on a family vacation and coming upon AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 Top Movies of All Time. At that point, there was no blog, but I wanted to keep some kind of record of my viewing. So for a couple of years, I maintained spiral-bound notebooks of short, page-long reviews. They were filled mostly with plot summaries, typos, and my own curt brand of hubris. I gave Citizen Kane a very tepid review on first viewing. In My 25 Essential Movies, I tried to break out of my original form and layout my viewing criteria. It’s twee now, but this was also the beginning of my blog.

2013: UP (2009)

Looking through my early reviews, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anything close to actual thought-out commentary or analysis. It was more so observational writing with a few personal comments in summation. Still, one of the longer reviews I was able to find was on UP, a film that still deeply moves me to this day. Pete Docter is a fine storyteller. That opening montage guts me every time. Russell, Dug, and Kevin are characters for the ages. There’s something bitter-sweet now that both Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer are gone. And there’s some solace in knowing that a sequel to this movie would never be conceivable. It stands alone as a phenomenal film.

2014: The Spectacular Now

This might seem like a really random film to highlight, but one of my foibles is that I truly enjoy a good coming of age film and regardless of what you think of the genre (or this film), I saw The Spectacular Now right at a time where it resonated deeply. In fact, when I’m not writing reviews, working a job, and taking care of my other personal responsibilities, I’ve dabbled in screenwriting. The Spectacular Now was one of the first movies/screenplays I ever read where I thought this is a world that I know and that I relate too. It will be interesting if it will stay with me as I grow older or if it was merely a milestone of my late teens. I wrote a more succinct review that I probably like better over at Film Inquiry.

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2015: Crimson Kimono

I discovered Crimson Kimono in college and I essentially transcribed the essay I wrote for a film noir elective onto my blog. I would say my writing has probably grown, but the impetus behind this piece and the film is still something that stays with me. Because the images and the themes Sam Fuller trades in feel so relevant and totally ahead of their time. As someone who is a lover of Classic Hollywood, but also half-Japanese, some might take it for granted, but those two worlds rarely intertwine. Crimson Kimono is one of the most exhilarating exceptions with James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett walking the beats of Little Tokyo. More recently I wrote a piece highlighting Japanese-American culture in Classic Hollywood. 

2016: Citizen Kane

My feelings about Citizen Kane have gone through several evolutions through the years. I mentioned already that it was so overblown as “The Greatest Move of All Time” in my nascent film brain that I was left mostly under-whelmed. Future viewings have elicited a less lackluster response and each subsequent reappraisal has made it grow in my esteem. Now it’s gone beyond a gargantuan tragicomedy, but also a cinematic expression of many of the themes in Ecclesiastes (everything is meaningless — a striving after the wind). But further still, it is a film that still surprised me with its ingenuity and technical prowess. I try not to think too much about how Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he made it. Being a genius does not always guarantee success. Far from it.

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2017: Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn

I very rarely write these kinds of posts. Listicles and Actor Bios probably are a lot more delectable as evergreen content on the internet than some of my more gargantuan reviews; I simply enjoy the process of review-writing the most. Still, this post I did for The Wonderful World of Cinema’s Blogathon on Grace Kelly has remained one of my most persistently read pieces. It’s not much but it just goes to show the lasting gravitas and impact of Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. In considering them my two favorite classic Hollywood actresses, I found I am one of many. This appreciation started early on in my journey, and it continues to this day.

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2018: Rear Window 

It seems fitting to include a review of the movie I consider one of my personal favorites. I’m not sure if it’s one of my better reviews, but regardless, I got to speak about Rear Window in a way that seems to highlight it in a different way than merely bandying about the plot points and my reactions. It was meant to dig into the stylistic choices Hitchock used down to the very meticulous use of music and sound design not only in the execution of a taut thriller but also in distilling the film’s romance down to its very essence. I’m not sure if others see it this way (or even the Catholic Hitchock), but Rear Window is a reminder to me of what happens when the so-called Greatest Commandment to “Love Thy Neighbor” has gone heedlessly awry. I love this movie.

2019: Ad Astra

I’m fascinated by spiritual elements in movies and I was fond of how I was able to explore them in my review of Ad Astra using the motif of the essay, “The Seeing Eye.” I don’t always find unique ways to frame my analysis, but I like to think my writing gets more individual and enjoyable when I’m able to bring something to the movie that works in tandem and somehow builds upon the film in ways that I could not initially imagine. The Greek idea of ekphrastic (artistic description) writing intrigues me, and in some fractured form that’s what I tried to accomplish here to some small effect.

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2020: National Classic Movie Day

Blogathons have been such a meaningful way to connect with other classic film enthusiasts while stirring up a wealth of activity on each other’s sites. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Classic Film and TV Cafe’s yearly blogathon that has become an annual enjoyment over the last few years. For 2020, I was able to put together a list of 6 of my favorite films of the 60s running the gamut, and I was quite happy with my choices and what I said about them because they are totally indicative of my own personal tastes. This is the kind of writing I appreciate the most.

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2021: Paterson

I was a late arrival to Paterson, but it was one of those films I instantly connected with on some elemental level. I feel like my best reviews are conceived at the moment right after the film has ended and my head is full of all my myriad thoughts and strands of ideas. The images are still fresh in my mind’s eye and the emotions still coursing through my body. At times, it’s under this incubation where I’m able to write things that still resonate with me. Other days I hack out reviews strung out over a few days, and it’s more like an act of mechanized assembly, but there’s something freeing when it feels like you are totally in touch with your creative flow.

2022: In The Heat of The Night

If I remember correctly, Sidney Poitier and Sophia Loren are the last two giants living on AFIs Top 25 Stars List, and they have remained close friends over the years as I’ve worked through their filmographies to varying degrees. The passing of Mr. Poitier was sad, but it also provided ample space to celebrate his prominent legacy and so many facets of his life and career. I revisited some of his most renowned films and dipped into some new ones only to be pleasantly surprised. Including In The Heat of The Night here is less about the review and more so about what it represents. I felt the same way writing about Olivia De Havilland, Kirk Douglas, and Stanley Donen after their passing, just to name a few. The hope is to keep Mr. Poitier’s legacy alive and well. His films can do the rest as a supreme testament to the conduct of his character.

I definitely should not take this blog for granted, and I have been very thankful for the opportunities and experiences it has afforded me these last 10 years. Thank you to anyone and everyone who has ever taken the time to read even a few of my words!

Regards,

Tynan

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