I got a very part-time job in March, and even though I don’t work that often, I’m also doing a little freelancing for someone, and I still have to take care of my daughter, so my movie-watching time has been somewhat restricted. I’m still trying to watch plenty of them, however, and here are some thoughts on movies made over the 30-year period of 1960-1989. I have so many thoughts!
Experiment in Terror (1962). This movie starts off with a bang, as Lee Remick drives home over the opening credits and the instant she enters her garage, a man accosts her from behind and tells her that she’s going to help him steal $100,00 from the bank where she works or he’ll kill her and/or her younger sister. Damn, that’s harsh. She manages to get the FBI – represented by square-jawed, no-nonsense Glenn Ford – on the case, and the cat-and-mouse game is on! This is a pretty good noir thriller, with the Feds trying to figure out who’s threatening Remick and not having too much success, while the bad guy runs Remick around and continues to threaten her. I’m not sure if “terror” is a good word in the title, but I guess they were scared of more things in the 1960s. San Francisco is represented very well, as it was filmed on location, and we get some keen camera angles and shots, with deep focus a crucial part of the misc-en-scene and some vertiginous angles in the cinematography. This is Ford’s final picture on his original Columbia contract, which he signed in 1939, and while we (well, I) tend to think of the Ford of the 1950s as a craggy old-timer, he was only 45 when this was filmed (exactly halfway through his life, as it turned out). He does fine in a role that doesn’t require much of him. Remick, who was absolutely dazzling when she was young (I mean, she aged very well, but Remick in her 20s was stunning), does a good job playing someone who is both scared and determined to be strong for her teen sister, played by Stefanie Powers in only her third movie (after a few TV roles). Powers does a decent job, too. It’s fun to see some great character actors show up – Ned Glass makes an appearance as a stool pigeon, Clifton James, a decade before annoying Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, is a much better cop in this, and Ross Martin plays an interesting villain. There’s even a subplot about his devotion to Anita Loo and her son, which is notable for the fact that Loo is Asian. There’s a somewhat confusing subplot about a woman, Patricia Huston, who needs Ford’s help, but the most interesting thing about it is her apartment, which is extremely creepy. Perhaps the weirdest thing about this movie is that it was directed by … Blake Edwards? What the heck? Edwards is more versatile than people think – yes, he’s famous for Operation Petticoat and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther and 10 and Victor/Victoria, but he also made Days of Wine and Roses (in the same year – maybe 1961/1962 was a bad time for Edwards), so it’s not like he can’t do serious drama. It’s just a bit bizarre. Still, this is a cool movie, a nifty noir story that isn’t quite as good as some because there’s not the tension of the main character vacillating between good and evil like in a lot of the genre, but still pretty good.
(Some of the action takes place on 18 August 1961 during a baseball game. Edwards got many of the details correct – it was a Friday, the Giants were playing the Dodgers, and Don Drysdale was pitching for Los Angeles. We even hear Vin Scully’s voice, and considering Scully was still calling games as recently as 2016, it’s pretty keen to hear. Edwards seems to imply that the game ended on a double play, however, but the Giants won on a walk-off home run by Orlando Cepeda in the bottom of the 10th, which would have been much more exciting than how it ended in the movie. Furthermore, San Francisco didn’t turn any double plays during the game. Still, it’s not bad overall.)
(Remick and Powers live in a neighborhood in San Francisco called “Twin Peaks.” Yep, David Lynch apparently digs this movie, as he’s referenced it a few times in his work.)
In the Heat of the Night (1967). This is a strange movie because it’s an “important” one (but, thankfully, Norman Jewison doesn’t emphasize that so it feels more organic), both leads are superb – Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor, but Sidney Poitier, who is just as good, wasn’t even nominated (which would naturally make us think of racism, but he had already been nominated twice and won once, so it’s not like the Academy didn’t want to nominate black actors) – and the entire atmosphere of the movie works quite well … but it’s not that good a movie, ultimately. Yes, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, but Bonnie and Clyde (which was one of the nominees) is better, I think. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that the murder mystery isn’t very good, and Steiger is just stupid. I get that he’s racist and we’re supposed to see racists as stupid, but after he realizes that Poitier is a police detective and didn’t have anything to do with the crime, he’s still not very smart. Poitier at least recognizes that he allows his anger over white privilege cloud his judgment, but Steiger just goes around arresting anyone he can think of for the crime, hoping he’ll hit the right one eventually (including poor Sergeant Hulka, whose only crime is staring through a window at a naked girl who obviously wanted him to stare at her). It’s an interesting movie, certainly, and worth a look to see how racism is insidious and foolish and how divisions in society are even more subtle than that (Poitier isn’t exactly condescending toward the poor black people of Mississippi, but it’s also clear that he doesn’t have a lot in common with them, mainly because he’s middle class and they aren’t). But they work hard to keep Poitier in town even when Steiger and Poitier himself don’t want it, and a good part of the movie feels forced, as if they needed Poitier to stay there (which, of course, they did) to teach Steiger and the rest of the racists a lesson. It’s not a bad movie, just disjointed. Still, worth a watch.
Villain (1971). This is an interesting movie. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good, and it’s interesting because of some odd circumstances. It stars Richard Burton as a London thug who’s clearly modeled on one or both of the Kray brothers, who were convicted in 1969. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor was in London doing a movie (probably X, Y, and Zee, but possibly Under Milk Wood) and Burton wanted something to do, so this B-movie got upgraded when they cast him, but the film’s financial and commercial failures ended Burton’s star cachet. Which is too bad, because he’s pretty good as the thug. He rambles around London collecting “protection” money and hanging blokes out of windows when they don’t pay, and he takes care of his elderly mother, even squiring her to the beach at Brighton regularly. He has a pretty good life, but he decides he wants to pull off a heist to get a big score, so he ropes in some associates, including a dour-looking Joss Ackland, who’s probably best known on this side of the pond for playing the evil South African dude (“Diplomatic immunity!”) in Lethal Weapon 2. Meanwhile, Ian McShane is strutting around (he plays a pimp), and we’re not sure what he’s doing until Burton pays him a visit and … has sex with him. I mean, first he beats him a little, but it seems like McShane digs that as well as the sex (McShane is clearly bisexual in the movie, as he’s later seen post-boink with a woman). This is one reason the movie is so interesting – Burton was a big star, and he didn’t mind playing not only a brutal thug but a gay brutal thug, which even with the opening up of the cinema in the late 1960s was still a pretty bold move. Anyway, Burton gets McShane to be his alibi, and then he heads to the heist, where the other interesting thing happens: Burton and his gang are hilariously terrible at the heist. I mean, ridiculously bad. It’s not played for laughs, but it’s laughable, because you wonder how on earth Burton has avoided prison for so long when he’s so inept at it. He wants to do the heist because he wants some excitement in his life, but if he was always this bad at it, one wonders why he’s not sitting in prison for a heist he pulled years ago. The police know he did it, but it does take them a while to unravel the alibi, and even then, Burton has another card to play. Burton is pretty good as the gangster, and he looks weathered and worn in a way that belies his comparatively young age (he turned 45 during filming, but of course, he had lived a hard life). McShane is pretty, of course, but he’s so magnetic as an actor that I’m really stunned it took him another 30 years to become a big star. You might recall I’ve watched several 1970s McShane movies in the past year or so, and it’s shocking to me that he stayed a minor actor until Deadwood. Honestly, after The Terrorists in 1975, his biggest role until Sexy Beast in 2000 (a great movie, by the way) is … Sejanus in A.D. from 1985? Maybe? Who the hell did McShane piss off anyway? But back to the movie – it’s pretty good. Burton is good, McShane is good, Nigel Davenport is good, and it’s a nice gangster movie in which the bad guys are vicious but not all-powerful, and their hubris leads to their downfall even though they have it pretty good. Ah, hubris. Is there anyone it can’t take down?
The Eiger Sanction (1975). This is a decent spy thriller, although it has some goofy problems. It has a massive MacGuffin, which becomes more of one thanks to a twist about two-thirds of the way through, and the mission in the movie is kind of silly. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs this (it’s his fourth directing gig, and you can see him getting more confident and still making some mistakes), and Eastwood isn’t the most versatile actor, so he’s basically a nicer version of all the tough guys he plays in this, the early stages of his movie career (“early” is a bit of a misnomer – this is 11 years since his first big starring role, but given his long career, it’s still early). He’s an art professor who just happens to be a retired assassin, but the shadowy government agency he worked for in the past wants him to do one more job. One of their agents was killed, and they want Clint to get revenge on the two men who did it. It turns out Clint knew the victim, so after some hemming and hawing over the price and a promise that the IRS won’t investigate his superb collection of paintings, Clint heads to Europe. He actually goes there twice – once to kill the first dude, and then, a few months later, to get the second dude, which is where the Eiger comes in. Clint was once a mountain climber, and the SGA he works for knows that one of the climbers is the second assassin, but not which one. So Clint has to climb the damned mountain (which he’s failed twice before to climb) to discover who the second killer is. If this sounds stupid, it’s because it is. I mean, he couldn’t just investigate those three men? He couldn’t just kill all three of them in their beds the day before the climb? No, he has to climb the damned mountain. Which means he has to go to Arizona and train, where he hangs out with old friend George Kennedy and bangs non-speaking Brenda Venus, who’s acting as his trainer (she has zero lines in the movie, but she does take off her top twice, so there’s that). He also gets to have it out with Jack Cassidy, playing a ridiculously stereotypical gay man who’s also, naturally, duplicitous and evil (Clint, the dead agent, and Cassidy were once friends, but Cassidy kept selling them out). Cassidy actually does a nice job making his character not quite as bad as he could have been, which is nice. The scenery is spectacular, of course, both the Utah/Arizona scenes and the Eiger scenes (this was the last time anyone was allowed to climb the “Totem Pole” in Monument Valley, and it’s totally worth it), and the action is pretty good. Eastwood does all his own stunts, too, which is pretty keen. In addition to banging the aforementioned Venus (who’s a Native American), he also gets it on with Vonetta McGee, who was black – Clint didn’t discriminate when there’s sex to be had! It’s nothing too special, but it’s a pretty cool movie.
The Drowning Pool (1975). Paul Newman stars as Lew Harper, his second time as the character, in this weird, not-terribly-good movie. Newman is fine, although he’s kind of mailing it in … but Newman mailing something in is still pretty good, so we can live with it. He goes to Louisiana because a woman he once had a fling with (Joanne Woodward, his real-life wife) wants him to find out who’s trying to blackmail her because she, well, had another fling. She suspects the chauffeur, so Newman tries to track him down. Her husband is obviously gay, her daughter (Melanie Griffith) is obviously a sexpot, and her mother-in-law, who controls the family’s vast wealth, is a nasty old woman. Meanwhile, an oily oil man (Murray Hamilton, hamming it up and having the time of his life) wants some land the family owns because he wants the oil underneath while the old lady plans to turn it into a bird sanctuary, and he wants the chauffeur for a completely different reason than Joanne Woodward does. It’s not quite as confusing as it sounds, but it never really coheres into anything interesting. Someone ends up dead, everyone blames the chauffeur (who’s played with wild-eyed nuttiness by Andrew Robinson, whose sole notable role in a long career of guest-starring in every action show from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s is as the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry), Hamilton traps Newman in a giant room in an old mental asylum (which becomes the literal drowning pool), and, like most 1970s movies, it ends on a big downer. The cast is fine, although it’s another example – along with Night Moves – of a director casting Griffith in a role where she’s far too young to be playing a sexpot, but at least she doesn’t get naked, like she does in Night Moves (the Seventies were weird, man), and as I’ve never liked Griffith (her voice just grates on me), it was distracting. But everyone else tries their best, but the story’s a mess, the solutions to the problems are obvious, and the movie is trying way too hard to be Chinatown or The Long Goodbye or some other, better detective story. Oh well. Newman is pretty, though!
Robin and Marian (1976). I love this movie even though I recognize it has some serious flaws, but it’s such a good idea and it has such beautiful moments that I can almost forgive the places where it doesn’t cohere. Sean Connery, playing Robin, has been off fighting the Crusades for 20 years with King Richard the Lionheart, but when Richard dies early on in the movie, he and Little John decide to go home. First of all, Richard was king of England for almost exactly 10 years, and he spent about a year-and-a-half on Crusade (to be fair, at the beginning of the movie they’re fighting in France, but Robin continually implies he was on Crusade for a very long time). The original legend even takes place while Richard is king, so the timeline doesn’t really work at all. But whatever – it’s just a bit annoying. Robin returns to Nottingham and discovers that Marian, played by Audrey Hepburn, has become the abbess of a nearby abbey, and she’s about to turn herself in to the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Robert Shaw. Of course, Robin will have none of that, and he spirits her away to Sherwood Forest, drawing the ire of the sheriff and a duke, who whines to King John (Ian Holm in a wonderful cameo) until he gets some fighting men. He doesn’t really need them, as Robin decides to fight the sheriff one-on-one (a champions’ duel), and it goes poorly for all concerned. Despite many moments of humor, this is a tragedy, as you kind of knew it had to be. There’s a lot to like about the movie. Connery and Hepburn have good chemistry, although Hepburn acts circles around Connery, bless his little heart (that they have an equal number of Oscars – one – is a crime against humanity). Robert Shaw also out-acts Connery, as he imbues the sheriff with both a bruised humanity, a vicious streak, and an ennui about the stupidity of men that makes him far deeper than both Robin (who’s not introspective at all) and Sir Ranulf (who’s meant to be a cartoon). Even Nicol Williamson brings more depth to Little John than Connery. (I don’t mean to slag on Connery, who can be a very good actor, but he’s not really taking this very seriously, which is fine, but he can’t seem to turn it on when he needs to be serious.) Hepburn can do so much with a tilted head or a lowered gaze, as she tries to get Robin to understand that he can’t live his life fighting, but Robin just blunders his way into fight after fight. We’re supposed to see that Robin doesn’t know anything else than fighting, so stopping just isn’t in his nature, but Connery doesn’t quite sell that, and it’s up to Hepburn to do all the heavy lifting (which she does beautifully). Connery is good at the devil-may-care attitude that Robin is often shown to have, which makes the lighter parts of the movie delightful, and his sword fight with Shaw is really well done. It’s a movie that could have been 20-30 minutes longer to delve into Robin and Marian’s romance a bit more, but it’s still fun to watch. It’s close to being a great movie, but it’s just a solid one.
Force 10 from Navarone (1978). When I wrote about The Guns of Navarone recently, commenter fit2print brought up this movie, which I think I saw years ago but couldn’t really remember, and now that I’ve watched it again, I’m convinced I saw the ending but not much else, as I remember the ending pretty clearly. Anyway, fit2print is right – this isn’t all that good, but it’s fairly entertaining, and while it’s nowhere near as good as The Guns of Navarone, without that movie reminding us about how superior it is, this might be a more enjoyable flick. They show the ending of the first movie (which did come out, after all, 17 years before this one) and then substitute Robert Shaw and Edward Fox in for Gregory Peck and David Niven, hilariously, as the former jump into the roles played by the latter in the original. This time, Shaw has to identify one of the men from the original who was thought to be killed but is alive and still spying for the Germans, so he hops onto a mission run by Harrison Ford, who objects to his and Fox’s presence but can’t do anything about it. Carl Weathers, bizarrely, joins the mission (it’s bizarre because he’s not part of the original mission and literally goes along for the ride). They get shot down over Yugoslavia and are taken captive by German allies, led by Richard Kiel, of all people (whose lines are dubbed, which is weird) and whose second-in-command is the hopelessly miscast Barbara Bach. It’s pretty crazy. Anyway, their missions dovetail a bit, and in the end, they have to destroy a dam, and while the special effects aren’t great, they’re pretty good for 1978. Ford was doing his “I’m a serious actor thing” after Star Wars, it seems, with this and Apocalypse Now coming out between his breakout and Empire (of course, who the hell knows when his scenes on Apocalypse Now were shot), and he has charisma but it’s clear that Shaw and Fox are almost toying with him, from an acting standpoint (Shaw was only nominated for one Oscar, mostly because he’s in movies that aren’t Oscar bait, but he was a very good actor). Poor Bach – I made a comment to my wife that costumers and especially makeup people in movies are terrible with women, because until very recently, women in movies looked like they were from the era in which the movie was shot rather than the time period, and Bach is such a 1970s actor, and that’s what she looks like here – someone from 1978 dropped into 1943. She does okay, but she’s not the best actor, and her look is so distracting. Weather and Kiel are fine, too, but the movie belongs to the three leads. It’s a fun action movie – not as deep as the original, but not bad.
The Fog (1980). I had never seen this movie, so we watched it with my daughter, whom we’re trying to watch movies with so she can have some cultural knowledge … although I’m not sure if The Fog qualifies as something people should see. But we got to talk about John Carpenter a bit, and she’s seen other Jamie Leigh Curtis movies, and she’s seen Psycho so she knew who Janet Leigh was, so it sort of qualifies! This is Carpenter’s theatrical follow-up to Halloween (he directed some television movies in the interim), and it’s a fun movie, but it’s not too scary, and even in 1980, I doubt if it was that bad. It’s particularly odd at the end, but Carpenter, a master of suspense, does a nice build-up before things start to fall apart a bit. John Houseman tells a bunch of kids a story about a ship breaking apart on the rocks near the town of Antonio Bay, 100 years ago exactly, and then the sailors on the ship show up with the mystical fog and start killing people. They don’t seem to have victims specifically in mind even though Hal Holbrook, the local minister, seems like a prime target (there’s a reason for that, but I don’t want to give away the secrets of a 40-year-old movie!). Anyway, Adrienne Barbeau (who has one brief scene with the boy playing her son and interacts with no other human for the rest of the movie), Curtis, Leigh, Holbrook, and Tom Atkins (whom I know as the father of Amanda Hunsaker, the girl who was killed at the beginning of Lethal Weapon, which brought his old buddy Roger Murtaugh into the case) do their best, and it’s an entertaining movie. It’s so very Seventies – Curtis hitchhikes blithely and sleeps with Atkins, who picks her up and with whom he shares approximately fifteen words before they jump into the sack together – but it’s fun until the somewhat ridiculous ending. Carpenter doesn’t show a lot of gore, which works well, as his use of sound effects makes the violence a bit more icky and unsettling than if we had seen more. And the leprous sailors are good, too. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still fun to watch.
The Verdict (1982). This is AN IMPORTANT MOVIE, and Newman acts the hell out of it, seemingly trying to get an Oscar that had eluded him all his career (the Academy felt bad about him never getting one, so they gave him an honorary one a few years later … right before he won Best Actor for The Color of Money). It’s not that great a movie, though, because it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Newman is an ambulance chaser who’s thrown a case by Jack Warden, his old buddy and teacher. The case involves a woman who was given an anesthetic during the delivery of her child and fell into a coma, and her sister is suing the doctors and the hospital, which is run by the Catholic Church (in Boston, no less), for negligence. Warden knows that the Church wants to pay off the sister, and he figures Newman will get a nice paycheck along with it. Newman is a stereotypical old, drunken lawyer, and he needs the money, but after visiting the woman, he decides to go to trial despite the archbishop offering a good amount of money. So he squares off against James Mason, the Church’s lawyer, and of course it all goes to hell, but Newman never gives up!!!!! The acting is top-notch in the movie – Newman is superb, Warden is sick of it all, Charlotte Rampling is like a wounded bird, and Mason is sly and evil and such a better lawyer than Newman that it’s not even funny. Even Roxanne Hart, who would go on to fame in Highlander, and James Handy, as the sister and brother-in-law of the plaintiff, are good in small roles, and Milo O’Shea is good as the slimy judge. But the movie doesn’t really work. There’s not enough of Newman’s desperation and not enough of his hope to make us believe he would turn down all the cash – he just decides it, seemingly out of the blue. Rampling doesn’t have anything to do, which makes us suspicious of her, and the movie eventually plays right into Pop Culture Rule #1. The case itself should never have gone the way it did, because Mason runs circles around Newman. I get that Newman saves his soul, I suppose, but he keeps saying the case is about the victim, but in the end, it’s really not – it’s about Newman feeling good about himself. David Mamet wrote a crackling screenplay, but I don’t know how much of this is in the original novel, so maybe he couldn’t save it. It’s not a bad movie, and Sidney Lumet does some nice work directing it, but it’s also just a showcase for Newman, and while that’s not a bad thing, it doesn’t make it a good movie, either. And see if you can spot Bruce Willis in the clip below!
Silverado (1985). I’ve loved Silverado since I first saw it in the late Eighties, and I like to re-watch it every once in a while, so I did recently. The biggest problem with the movie is that Rosanna Arquette does almost nothing yet somehow is involved in the worst romantic triangle in history (Kevin Kline tells Scott Glenn he’s not that interested in her, and then Scott Glenn does nothing, but when he leaves, we get a quasi-romantic scene between the two of them even though they never really had a romance, and what does the director’s cut of this relationship look like?), and yes, it’s a very male-dominated movie (although Linda Hunt is fantastic, because it’s, you know, Linda Hunt), but it’s just so good. Lawrence Kasdan, who was on fire in the early 1980s (The Empire Strikes Back: screenplay; Raiders of the Lost Ark: screenplay; Body Heat: writer/director; Continental Divide: writer; The Return of the Jedi: screenplay; The Big Chill: writer/director; and then this, which he wrote and directed), throws in every single Western cliché you can think of – I can’t even list them, there are so many – but the movie is so earnest and big and adventurous and fun, and the cast is so freakin’ good that it doesn’t matter. Kline, Glenn, Kevin Costner, and Danny Glover are the four leads, Brian Dennehy shows up as Kline’s old friend, Jeff Goldblum is on hand as a shady gambler, John Cleese has an extended (and hilarious) cameo as the sheriff of a town Kline, Glenn, and Costner pass through, and Ray Baker, Joe Seneca, Lynn Whitfield, Jeff Fahey, and Richard Jenkins show up, too. There are gun fights, jail escapes, cattle stampedes, ambushes in a box canyon, disputes over hats, men in long underwear, bucket brigades, and just great acting all around. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat. If you have seen it, watch it again!
Action Jackson (1988). Surprisingly, I’d never seen Action Jackson, so when it showed up on a premium cable station recently, I had to DVR it (because if you’re not going to watch 1980s action movies uncensored, why are you even watching them?). And boy howdy, is this a garbage movie, but it’s still ridiculously fun, and it clocks in at less than 90 minutes, which is not bad at all. Weathers tries his best, and I love how they don’t even bother with the “Hand me your badge” scene of every action movie with a rogue cop in it, because at the beginning, Jackson has already been busted down from lieutenant to sergeant! Craig T. Nelson is goofy as the villain, Bill Duke lends a tiny bit of gravitas as Jackson’s boss, good ol’ Biff Tannen himself, Thomas F. Wilson, provides some comic relief, and Vanity stops being a heroin addict by saying, basically, I don’t want to be addicted to heroin anymore. Who knew it was that easy? The movie amps up the goofy at the end, when Jackson drives a car up a flight of stairs and into Nelson’s bedroom, in a move that defies pretty much all the physical laws of the universe. It’s glorious and stupid and gloriously stupid. And hey, both Vanity and Sharon Stone take their tops off, so there’s that. This is just a terrible movie, but you can’t help but love it!
With that beautiful scene, we come to our end. Talk amongst yourselves!