Lonely Are The Brave (1962): The Last Cowboy

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Armed with black and white and rolling plains full of instantly recognizable western exteriors, Lonely Are The Brave goes for an intimate approach. The camera focuses on a man splayed out with his hat tipped over his eyes in slumber. This could have been out of many earlier pictures up until this moment. An instant later the illusion is stripped when a jet cuts across the skyline. It’s an indication of where we are.

Because this is not a blaring lack of continuity. This is a telling signifier. What proves to be out of place is not this jet but the main character at the center of our story. If one of these things is not like the other, then he is indeed the anachronism.

This is the continual struggle of Kirk Douglas’s John W. Burns because even as he fights to maintain his rootless lifestyle reminiscent of the bygone drifting cowhands of old, it’s hardly in vogue with the introduction of social security cards and, for a lack of a better word, civilization. The two diverging stratospheres just don’t gel very well.

The film must sit somewhere atop the list of deceptive film titles. Going in imagining a High Noon-like film about one man standing up in the face of many, instead we get an equally meaningful meditation on the lingering ways of the west in a contemporary context. No thanks to the marketing department, I might add.

However, what does that matter when you employ the considerable wit and wizardry of Dalton Trumbo? He has a ball toying with the most obvious thematic idea of a near-mythical man — an old-time cowboy — whose code of conduct and dwindling philosophy on life butts up against a world that will not have him. He is at odds with it. Averse to fences, boundaries, sectioning off of lands — all now common practice.

He’s indicative of a certain romanticism with his horse and hat out on the range. Even as the pragmatic world around him as passed him by in favor of changing forms of living. This intersection of the remnants of the West with post-war American modernity is made visibly evident when he is forced into playing animal crossing with his horse on a heavily trafficked highway.

When he pays a visit to a woman (Gena Rowlands), there’s something enigmatic about the encounter. A wife, perhaps a lover. At first, we’re not sure. It’s more complicated and less understood. Until it comes out her husband — his best friend — is in prison, and she’s worried about him. Rowlands would have to wait for a true tour de force, but the best compliment I can give is her role has something equally bewitching about it. She’s not quite an entirely conventional housewife.

The subsequent scene takes place in a Mexican-flavored cantina. It proves to be the unlikely arena for an explosive fistfight with a belligerent one-armed man, for what seems to be no reason at all.

If we’re ever told, I’ve no recollection of it and if we weren’t, it doesn’t much matter. It conveniently serves the story twofold. Because we get a rowdy action piece with Douglas duking it out “mano y mano,” while subsequently landing himself a jail sentence so he can drop in on his old buddy as a favor to the incarcerated man’s wife. If this makes little logical sense, then at least it’s different — not where we expect the story to go.

His jail sentence gets dropped and then upped following a police station scuffle carried out while the booking officer dryly lists off the unidentified drifter’s personal belongings like it’s just another day in the office. In the end, Burns keeps his promise to see Paul. There are momentary glimpses this could be a prison movie not unlike Brute Force, Caged, and certainly Cool Hand Luke.

We have a sadistic George Kennedy on the outside of the bars instead of inside. His main adversary is obvious. However, true to character, nothing can keep the cowhand in one place, not even prison.

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The movie is beholden to a cast of giants (current and soon-to-be). Trumbo’s impeccably inventive scripting gives them all the words to emote with wry humor and assorted ticks making them come alive beyond the range of flimsy cinematic outlines.

The plotting itself is of a strange and unorthodox nature, nevertheless buoyed again by the talent and words on the page. Payoffs abound for these very reasons. Otherwise, it would wander as an ill-paced, unfulfilling mess. Thankfully, this is far from the case. The payoffs are strangely affecting, thanks to a story that bides its time, allows for asides, and spends time in untrodden places.

Between Douglas playfully cajoling a recalcitrant new mount and Walter Matthau observing the daily rituals of an unseen mutt outside the office window, Trumbo continually adds these delightfully offbeat touches.

William Schallert — as the good-natured bumpkin officer manning the police radio is in one sense totally aggravating and yet endearing in an innocent way. Even a fresh-faced Bill Bixby is manning the police helicopter the fugitive promptly shoots down from overhead. It’s an unceremonious reversal of fortune with the cowboy’s bullet taking on the whirly gridiron machine down from its illustrious heights.

Still, he cannot hang on forever. Eventually, even his tried and true way will betray him against the rapid assault of constant advancement. It cannot survive just as he cannot. Carrol O’Connor gets only a few solitary lines at the beginning and the end of the picture with rain pounding the highway, but his truck driver has a crucial moment we can all but see coming from a mile away. Though such a realization does not make it any less impactful when it arrives. It was inevitable.

Kirk Douglas, a man known for his intensity (some would say overacting), gives a performance bridled back with his winsome charm. In fact, the entire story plays with this generally lackadaisical, at times, melancholic pacing.

The final act in another picture might be chockful of moments. Lonely are the Brave needs only one. Turner makes one final push to freedom — his escape route, a harrowing ascent into the mountains. As gravity determines, the only way to go is down. It must be the so with John Turner.

So he never quite reaches his apotheosis. He is a partial embodiment of the sentiments of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work — the fight to rage against the dying of the light. Except the light is the way of the West and the battle is lost. It is a foregone conclusion. As time marches on, there is no way to claim victory. One wonders if being the last cowboy is an act of bravery, futility, or folly. Perhaps the answer runs the gamut of all three.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on 2/5/2020.

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!

Mirage (1965): Gregory Peck 20 Years After Spellbound

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“Most people will do in the dark what they never would think of doing in the light.”

Mirage takes full advantage of one of those grab-you-right-away openings. The scene commences in the dark, there’s a power outage, candles are flickering, and voices call out up and down the corridors as people mill about.

Among the bystanders whose work has been disrupted is cost accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck), and within a minute, he receives an invitation to a braille party (touching only) by two giggly women. Then, one minute he’s talking to his chipper colleague (Kevin McCarthy), and the next he’s climbing down the stairwells with a woman (Diane Baker) who had the same idea to get out.

As they walk and talk, they comment on how everyone is looking to “rescind the 10 commandments.” The cloak of darkness has a strange effect on people. Of course, when the lights do go on, this phantom woman vehemently asserts they know each other. Stillwell’s never seen her before in his life. Now we know something must be up. They cannot both be correct.

For a movie from the 1960s, it’s awfully noirish and that we can easily enough attribute to Edward Dymtryk who, before becoming a Blacklist casualty, was behind such pictures as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947). It continues with the bleak black and white tones for the rest of the picture, the complete antithesis of comparable thrillers like Charade or even Arabesque.

A shocking suicide impacts the street below the building Stillwell works in, attracting hordes of onlookers. He has more pressing issues like disappearing floors in buildings he cannot find. More peculiar interactions follow with not only the same woman, but bartenders, security guards, and just about everybody else.

The story is blessed by a plethora of oddball characters shuffling about who might or might not be a part of some sinister plot. That or they’re just your typical New York eccentrics. They are indicative of a world full of strange circumstances that cannot be unrelated. It’s all uncanny.

Next, he’s getting held hostage at his own apartment. Could it be he’s some type of doppelganger — living a double life of sorts? One cannot help but think of Roger Thornhill’s predicament in North by Northwest. However, in this case, it comes out Stillwell cannot remember his life from two years prior.

The most fortuitous decision he makes is to visit the AAA Detective Agency run by an amiable shmuck of a P.I., Ted Caselle. With these forthcoming developments, Mirage becomes almost a buddy film — the buddy is no other than Walter Matthau — and it’s the most delightful interlude while still being injected with this same perplexing conspiracy.

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All of a sudden, our solitary hero has someone at least willing to listen to his predicament. Someone who is in the dark just as much as he is (and we are). They get whisked and weaved all around the city, so much so that detailing it all won’t do any good. There are gunmen and murders and even a little girl named Irene who gives them asylum. She makes them a make-believe cup of coffee while they wait it out. Screenwriter Peter Stone, by this point, is relishing every unique aside he can wring out of the utter convolution.

Scenes are constantly intercut with earlier conversation all of sudden becoming illuminated — as the puzzle pieces start falling into place in the present — only making the past all the more perturbing. We are not allowed to forget anything, knowing it all ties together into this patchwork that has yet to be revealed. This is the source of the continual tension.

Mirage and then Arabesque from the following year might both be in the running as the unofficial sequel to Charade (1963). Mirage, of course, carries over such supporting actors as Walter Matthau and George Kennedy while retaining the services of Stone’s screenwriting. Arabesque was actually meant for Cary Grant (though Peck ultimately ended with the role), and Stanley Donen reluctantly was enticed back by the star power of Sophia Loren and Peck in color.

Neither of these pictures is on par with their predecessor, but they hardly need to be. Likewise, one might easily concede Mirage is Hitchcockian in plot but not execution. Again, it’s not an outright criticism. Instead, it leans more toward a sparse, unsentimental spy drama like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

It is about human beings who are frail, jaded, and scared. But most of all, deep, trenchant flaws are revealed. It’s not quite a full character study, but it is inching in that direction, even as the labyrinth is laid out for us to rack our brains over.

A psychiatric appointment allows space for scientific and ethical terms to be traded like “insanity,” “right and wrong,” and “good vs. evil.” Mirage is not a top tier social commentary — it works best as a bewildering thriller — but it’s admirable in its attempts to say something. Human psychology plays a part as much as human malevolence and avarice.

Despite the wide chasm of time between them, Mirage does conjure up Spellbound,  which by now feels like a dusty old entry on psychoanalysis. Thankfully, 20 years on, Gregory Peck still makes an interesting mental case and Edward Dymtryk is still a capable director. The most honest assessment proves Mirage to be a flawed yet deeply underrated thriller.

3.5/5 Stars

Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Lonesome Rhodes is No Andy Taylor

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It begins unobtrusively enough. In a backwater Arkansas jail, a drunkard plays his guitar on a radio segment of “A Face in the Crowd” being broadcast from his cell. They don’t know it quite yet but soon the host who found him, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) capture the public’s imagination. Far from just plucking Rhodes out of obscurity, Jefferies also rebrands him with an off the cuff remark and uses her daddy’s radio reach to broadcast him all around.

With such a platform, Rhodes does the rest with his wild whoops of down-home charm and strangely beguiling magnetism. He’s a natural performer and showman who knows how to form a connection with the folks at home. Soon they have created a following or as is popular in the lexicon these days a “tribe” giving him real media presence in the cultural conversation.

Someone asks him the question, “How does it feel to be able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people?” But it’s true. He’s at the forefront of a grassroots democracy turning into a television phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Jefferies watches it all unfolding with bright-eyed awe and deep enthusiasm. It’s absolutely rich seeing it sweep over the country. One of the cogs in the machine is a jaded writer named Mel (an early Walter Matthau) who watches the unfoldings with grim amusement. Meanwhile, Lonesome’s ever-ambitious and cutthroat promoter (an even younger Anthony Franciosa) positions his man to continue broadening his success. Everyone’s trying to get a piece of this new pie. Because what’s more American than pie?

Rhodes keeps up his side of the bargain by purveying his own brand of “authenticity.” On one show he brings on a destitute African-American woman and gives a call-to-action and the money comes pouring in, in response. Another week he crosses a mattress sponsor and subsequently raises the man’s sales all across the country simply by belittling his product.

Soon he’s brought on to promote the product of the stuffy Vitajex company and he takes their pride and joy, disregarding their focus groups and tradition, selling the pill straight to the public. By the time he’s done with them, the public’s buying them up by the barrelful.

He also captures the imaginations and the fancy of all the young girls all across the nation — soon has them all swooning over him — but one lucky girl wins out (Lee Remick) with her baton twirling during the Ms. Arkansas Majorrette competition of 1957. Of course, Lonesome Rhodes is made the judge and after getting mobbed by the girls, he takes a shine to Betty Lou.

Marcia gets pushed further and further into the periphery of his life as Rhodes weds the frisky twirler and sets his sights on the next domain to be conquered. Politics have entered a new stage — the television age — and no man is more beloved than Lonesome Rhodes. “You gotta be a saint for the power the box can give you,” as Mel notes, and in the wrong hands, this immense power is dangerous.

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Rhodes throws his support behind a stodgy old lawmaker giving him advice in the process. The film was already predicting the famed televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Where campaigning is about punchlines and glamor; it becomes a popularity contest and an advertising endeavor as much as a smear campaign. He uses his Cracker Barrel Show to promote the senator in a more relaxed atmosphere and has the position of Secretary of National Morale waved in front of him.

He even notes his candidate should get a dog, observing that it didn’t do Roosevelt any harm or Dick Nixon neither (referring to the well-received “Checkers” speech in 1952). Because these events begin to hint out how corruption, even double talk, begin to make the general public question “authenticity.”

In one off-handed remark, Lonesome crows, “This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.” However, like Arthur Godfrey, his downfall (though more rapid) occurs after an onscreen incident that removes his mask and undermines his image before the people. They can never see him the same way. The saboteur, as it were, is Marcia for she cannot bear to see the people taken in.

So the final trajectory is obvious — the ascension and the dethronement — but that can hardly neutralize what we have already witnessed. A Face in the Crowd lingers with fair warning, relevant to any analogous situation in the modern landscape, only magnified to the nth degree.

Earl Hagen’s down-home waterhole tunes fit The Andy Griffith Show just as this arrangement from Tom Glazer gels with A Face in the Crowd. Speaking of, I must insert a thought on what I know more about, as I grew up watching countless hours of The Andy Griffith Show.

The character of Andy Taylor obscures the fact of what a fine actor Andy Griffith was. To some extent, the same can be said of No Time for Sergeants because like the early seasons of his show, he’s just playing a bubble-headed hick. Later on, he became more of a straight man and after Barney Fife left, he settled into a more irascible role so there was an evolution.

Regardless, Lonesome Rhodes turns the overarching stereotypes of the man on their head. You can still see him as the benevolent Sheriff of Mayberry but this certainly lingers in the back of your mind. Take away the moral integrity and others-centric mentality of Andy and you wind up with Lonesome.

Given its themes about media and television, which seem like a cutting-edge indictment in their contemporary age, it seems logical to lump A Face in The Crowd with Network. Similarly, though technology and advertising continue to become more advanced and invasive, the themes explored feel, not less relevant, but more so.

We simply have to magnify them. Instead of television, we have Twitter and smartphones. Instead of people who willfully hide their intent, we have people in power who seem to blatantly disregard moral uprightness.

I want Lonesome Rhodes to be outdated and immaterial but to make such a claim would be an immense act of folly. It would cater to the same sense of ignorance and sway in all sectors of society, which led to the rise of such a person in the first place. Then and now…

4.5/5 Stars

Note: An earlier version of this review erroneously said Rip Torn instead of Anthony Franciosa (He was featured in an uncredited role).

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The_Fortune_Cookie_(1966)_poster.jpg“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” ~ Inscription in the Fortune Cookie

For some inexplicable reason, I expected The Fortune Cookie to be in color. Maybe in some subliminal way, I assumed it would be like a dry run for the zany Odd Couple (1968), pairing the two stars who would make the most delightful comedic coupling in years. But once you get into the nitty-gritty and The Fortune Cookie is less of an intangible idea floating up in the sky, it’s very obvious that this is more akin to The Apartment (1960) and the obvious reason is Billy Wilder.

Once more he lets Jack Lemmon do his sympathetic role, that guy that we all know who is a bit of a loser but not a bad sort of fellow. From such a characterization Lemmon’s scintillating skill at both physical comedy and verbal jokes come off like they always seem to. You can’t help but smile. But Wilder places that same man — that sorry individual — a simple cameraman named Harry Hinkle, into a very cynical world indeed. It’s Wilder’s version of America.

While he unequivocally loves the country that welcomed him when he was an immigrant, that by no means suggests that Wilder is unwilling to satirize its very flaws. In fact, he relishes doing just that. Sometimes it feels like that was what Billy Wilder was put on this earth to do. Make people laugh and do it with a biting style that forces us to look a little closer at the incongruities around us.

You can easily make the case that the main attraction here are two noteworthy dynamic duos (although it’s slightly dependent on how you want to draw them up). First Billy Wilder paired with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond yet again after their string of successes with Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), and One, Two, Three (1961) among others.

But perhaps just as importantly we have the genesis of the longstanding comedic collaboration between Lemmon and Walter Matthau. It just works. It’s easy to see why they continued starring together because when they’re in the same room wonderfully hilarious things come into being.

Otherwise, the film takes a wacky premise involving a Cleveland Brown’s punt returner leveling a CBS cameraman and draws them out as far as they can possibly go. It’s actually rather impressive that this single spark of an idea gave way to a fairly substantial picture. Because all kidding aside, and without consideration of its title, the film is not unsurprisingly cut out of Billy Wilder’s cynical worldview as already acknowledged.

Yet again he finds his perspective of America derived from some combination of screwball comedy and a more downbeat, melancholy tone. True, he made some delightfully dark films-noir but this same malaise somehow worked fairly well in his comedies too.

Here it’s perfectly enhanced by world-class shyster Whiplash Willie (Walter Matthau) the conniving ambulance chaser who takes great interest in his brother-in-law’s purported injuries on the football field — even if they wind up being next to nothing. The insurance company doesn’t know that and that’s the key.

The periphery is complicated by a private investigator (Cliff Osmond) staked out across the way who has their room bugged and under surveillance. Harry’s mother is constantly bawling. The wife (Judi West) that he once loved and who ran off with another man is tantalizingly close to returning to him. Meanwhile, the soft-hearted football superstar who bulldozed him, Boom Boom Jackson (Ron Rich), looks for any way to make his little buddy’s life more comfortable and it’s taken a major toll on his success on the field.

It’s these very relationships that have Harry seesawing back and forth as his wily brother-in-law coaxes him to keep working the angle so they can nab their $200,000 in recompense. Watching Lemmon pirouette in his electric wheelchair, stiff-necked in a brace is priceless. Concurrently, Matthau seems to be limbering up for all his greatest roles from The Odd Couple to the Bad News Bears (1976) showing off his own impeccable adroitness with curmudgeon comedy — delivering dialogue in such a tone with such a way about him that’s at the same time devious and terribly hilarious. He even answers the phone like nobody’s business.

Lemmon owns the final scenes, however, as he must try and reconcile this lie he has been made to live — this charade he has been playing for the sake of $200,000. Perhaps even more troubling than Harry’s lie and less funny is what happens to Boom Boom. Because he’s such a kind soul even dangerously subservient in how he follows cinematic precedence. But we can make the case that this is part of what Wilder is poking at.

The one moment his protagonist shows any integrity, the one moment he stands up, literally, is in the face of a supposed bigot. Even if it says little, there’s no denying that it says something. Sometimes we don’t need comedies to win the big battles. A film called The Fortune Cookie is not going to garner a lot of respect (nor should it necessarily) but it can at least get us to stop and think. Maybe the utter absurdity in some ways isn’t all that far away from our own existence. That’s part of its charm. Crack it open if you’re so inclined.

3.5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

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It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.

From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).

Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.

It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.

The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.

Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.

He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss.  If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.

Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so,  that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.

The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.

It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.

However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.

So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.

Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.

4/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 16-20

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Okay, here we go with the next installment in the series of my favorite films. But, in case you missed #21-#25 and have a passing fancy to see what I fancy,  check them out Here…

Otherwise, enjoy part II!

16. Back to the Future (1985)
Doc Brown and Marty McFly. A delorean time machine. Awkward mother, son relationships. High School Dances circa 1955. Good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll. These are only a few of the reasons that Back to the Future is a perennial classic and the best time travel film around. Two more installments followed re-teaming Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, but it’s hard to top the original Sci-Fi classic.

17. Shane (1953)
There are numerous classic westerns from the Golden Age, but Shane is one of the most unassuming. It’s a treasure of a film, revolving around of the great iconic heroes of cinema, the eponymous Shane. He’s a gunslinger, upright and kind, but he’s also deadly. Within the expanse of George Stevens’s tale of the untamed West, is a human heart and also foreboding moments of darkness. It’s the complexities of this film that bring me back to it time and time again. Its main character being a fascinating man indeed.

18. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Walking on that beach in St. Andrews Scotland was one of the most enjoyable things in my life thus far. Partially because it’s so incredibly gorgeous in a raw, untouched sort of way. But the other reason is due to this film, full of heart and some of the most inspiring music ever. By telling the biographical story of the likes of world class sprinters Eric Liddel and Harold Abrahams, it successfully blends so many things that I like. Sports, history, Great Britain, and deep spiritual dilemmas. Let us remember those few men with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels.

19. The Odd Couple (1968)
I’m a fan of comedies that boast good unadulterated fun. The Odd Couple is one such film born of a Neil Simon play and subsequently turned into a successful television show. This is the rendition starring the bickering duo of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both in fine form. They take this simple tale about two divorced men living together and make it a bellyful of laughs. Their poker playing buddies are a gas as well. It remains a classic with renewed value each and every time.

20. The Dark Knight (2008)
I am a product of the age of superhero films. Some mediocre, some simply run-of-the-mill, but few have left such an indelible mark as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. What sets it apart is a villain, a most worthy adversary for the cape crusader. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the creme de la creme of cinematic bad guys, and he elevates this film to be one of the most intriguing moral tales released in the last decade. This is far more than a superficial action flick.

Review: The Odd Couple (1968)

8ca16-oddcouple1By now The Odd Couple is rather like returning to an old group of friends. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau never had a better pairing than their turns as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison. The roles seem to fit each man to the tee or at least they make them their own. Lemmon is as hilarious as ever playing the neat freak, hypochondriac who was recently divorced. He drove his wife crazy because he cooked better than her, cleaned more, and was allergic to her perfume. She had to put on his aftershave instead. Then, there’s Matthau reprising his stage role of Oscar the slob of a sportswriter with an affinity for messiness. Droopy jowls courtesy of Matthau. Put them together and you have some of the greatest comedic fireworks ever, and it’s so simple. You see, all the poker playing gang is nervous that Felix will commit suicide, which he attempts during the film’s opening sequence, but he cannot get the window open. Thus, Oscar obliges to take in his buddy with the rest of the buddies keeping a wary eye on Felix. It’s hilarious to watch them because they really care about Felix, but they have no idea how to act around him. They think every move will be his last.

Oscar does not know what he’s gotten into since Felix cleans up after him, follows him with an ashtray when he smokes, does the dishes, vacuums, sprays air freshener incessantly, and even distracts Oscar from a triple pay while telling him the evening’s dinner plans. Then there’s Felix allergies, his high maintenance, and yes, his pouting. He even ruins weekly poker night with cigar smoke replaced by fresh air and disinfected playing cards.

Bring in the twittering Pigeon Sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily and you’re bound to have more laughs, until Felix the killjoy hurts the mood. Now we truly begin to see Oscar’s sour side which was mostly saved for his former wife Blanche. Now it is specially reserved for Felix and his maddening cleanliness that’s gone too far. Oscar has a nervous breakdown and blows his top chasing Felix out. But Oscar is not a bad guy, Felix is his friend after all, and so enter the poker buddies once more to go searching for Felix. He has been taken in by the Pigeons and the two friends make up. As it turns out, the two men rubbed off on each other, but there’ no chance of completely changing them. They will always be The Odd Couple, just separate now.

The Odd Couple has such a wonderful mythology surrounding it thanks to Neil Simon’s play, the film adaption, and then the television show. Furthermore, it is one of those very special cases that was great on both the big and small screen, since Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were wonderful in their own right. Focusing on this film, the dialogue is not forcing the humor, and it ultimately leads to genuinely funny lines coming out of the circumstances. The poker playing buddies are a riot from Florida-bound Vinnie (John Fielder) to nervous cop Murray (Herb Edelman). The opening of the film is made by Neal Hefti’s theme, and I’ve got to say, the sequence where Felix has his sinus attack is priceless. Without fail it puts me in stitches everytime as the weirded out Oscar looks on along with everyone else. I cannot help but love The Odd Couple. By now it’s too ingrained in me and that’s fine by me.

4.5/5 Stars

A New Leaf (1971)

0a2a4-anewleaf1Elaine May garnered fame in the early 1960s as the female half of the comedy duo alongside Mike Nichols, who later directed such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. This was May’s film debut, and she did everything; directing, writing, and of course acting as Henrietta Lowell. Interestingly enough, the film we see is not necessarily the film she wanted, but it is what it is I suppose.

Obviously, Elaine May did a lot for this film, but the story starts with Walter Matthau who gives another memorable turn playing a variation on his prototypical grumpy grouch of a character. This time he’s stuffy Henry Graham who lives beyond his means riding horses, driving a Ferrari, and keeping servants. But he is very bad at what he does…which is nothing. His Ferrari suffers from carbon on the valves, his latest check has bounced, and Mr. Graham is not a happy camper much to the chagrin of his long-suffering lawyer Beckett (William Redfield). His only hope is to get his uncle to bail him out one last time, but it does not come without a price. $50,000 with interest unless Henry can find a wife lickety-split. The prospects seem grim and both men know it. On the urging of his faithful manservant Harold it becomes a mad race against the clock to find a lady with money to spare.

At a social gathering, he finds the perfect object for his mock affection. Clumsy, bespectacled, messy, and filthy rich botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). The courtship is quick and as clumsy as ever because Henrietta is present. Henry only has one objective: get the girl and get the money with her. A little glass in the knee and wine on the rug means little. The wedding happens and what ensues is strangely comedic. Henry has outwitted his uncle and Henrietta’s shady lawyer with his own intentions ahead of him. Soon he is running his wife’s home, firing her servants, putting her life in order and generally being condescending. He even dabbles in toxicology over their honeymoon, because a nice simple murder would be nice.

But in a sentimental moment, Henrietta names her new species after her hubby who actually is touched by the honor. On a camping and canoe trip in the Adirondacks, Graham is as miffed as ever as he prepares to get rid of his wifey. Their canoe capsizes and it’s the opportune moment since she cannot swim. In a moment of weakness, he goes to her rescue and resigns himself to be a professor as she has always dreamed. He’s a married man now. He’ll need to leave the pesticides alone at least for awhile.

This is far from your typical comedy and yet Walter Matthau is quite enjoyable as he navigates the upper echelon with an air of snootiness and bother. In some strange sense, I suppose it’s even a love story because in a weird way Henry Graham needs Henrietta. She for one fell in love with him. But as Harold notes, she has caused Henry to be far more competent than he has ever been in his life. By the end, we’re not really sure what to think. In some indirect way, they are a perfect match because they seem oh so wrong.

3.5/5 Stars