The last time I posted about movies, I wrote about pre-1960 movies I had watched in the past few months. Now, I’m going to write about movies from the 1960s and 1970s (and one from 1980, but it was filmed in 1979 and feels like a Seventies movie). These might not feel “old” to people who were born in those decades, but, sad to say, they are. And so are we! Embrace your oldness, I say!!!!
The Birds (1963). Over the past few years, we’ve been introducing the daughter to Hitchcock, which works for me, as I haven’t seen enough of his movies from start to finish. The Birds is one of those that I know very well but never saw from the beginning to the end, so it was fun watching it. There’s not a lot to say about it, because it’s as good as everyone says – the tension and suspense is terrific, the special effects work surprisingly well for 1963, and the eeriness and implacability of the birds is superb. I do like watching old movies, because I really have only seen Jessica Tandy in a few movies, most notably Driving Miss Daisy (I’m not really sure why I saw Driving Miss Daisy, but I did), so while she’s not exactly young in this movie (she was in her early 50s), she’s much more vibrant than she was 25 years later. The first time we see Mitch’s sister (Rod Taylor is incredibly dapper throughout this movie, something we kept commenting on), we barely see any of her, but something about her face struck me, and I said to the wife, “That’s the chick from Alien,” and it is indeed Veronica Cartwright (she looked like she was going to cry the first time we see her in The Birds – even though she’s happy – and Lambert in Alien is always crying, it seems, until she is mercifully dispatched). Finally, I’m a big fan of Suzanne Plechette, and I never realized she was in this movie, looking very nice (both she and Hedren are gorgeous). She dies stupidly, though – when the gas station explodes, she and Cartwright are safe in Plechette’s house, but they go outside – where all the killer birds are – to see what’s going on. Cartwright makes it back inside, but Plechette doesn’t. Meanwhile, the penultimate scene in the attic is terrific, but Hedren is stupid, too. “What’s that flapping? Could it be butterflies? Could it be a curtain? Could it maybe be all the motherfucking birds that are trying to kill us? I think I’ll check it out alone!” Hedren apparently asked Hitch why on earth she would go up there alone, and Hitch said, “Because I tell you to.” Then he took out his little black book and wrote “She dared question me. She’ll never work in Hollywood again.” I’m sure that’s what happened, right?
The Great Escape (1963). This is a fiercely ironic title, as those who have seen the movie can attest, but it’s a very good movie, with strong performances all around. There’s not much to the plot – a group of Allied prisoners of war plot and carry out an escape from a German camp specifically built to hold the worst escapee offenders (putting them all in one place seems rather dumb, doesn’t it?) – and it all goes well until it all goes wrong. This is a long movie – it come in just under three hours – but it hums along, as the prisoners dig a tunnel and create false identities for the 270 or so prisoners that plan to escape, all the while distracting the Germans so they don’t figure things out. Only 76 get out (thanks to the stupidity of one prisoner, who let’s hope got shot for his stupidity), and then the movie becomes about what happens to them as they try to get out of Germany. It’s based very loosely on a true story, and it’s 55 years old, so those who have any idea of the movie probably know what happened, but somehow I had avoided spoilers my entire life, so what happens after the escape is quite gripping, at least for me. It’s a great cast, with Richard Attenborough as the main British leader; Steve McQueen as the incorrigible American who tries to escape on his own several times because he’s not a team player, at least at the beginning of the movie; James Garner as the American who gets all the stuff everyone needs; Donald Pleasance as the forger, an unlucky behind-the-lines soldier who decided to take a plane ride to see the front and got shot down; Charles Bronson as the claustrophobic digger; James Coburn offending Australians forever with his awful accent; David McCallum practicing for his roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, weirdly, NCIS (he’s one of the few remaining cast members still alive); Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, who gets tripped up by the very thing he warned another escapee about (come on, Mac!); plus several others. The level of verisimilitude inside the camp is apparently very high, and the chase scenes out in the countryside are exciting. It’s good to know that movie stars have always been douchebags – McQueen refused to do the movie unless he got to ride a motorcycle, so that was added, and he also complained because in the middle of the movie, his character disappeared for a while, so they wrote new scenes for him (it’s weird, because it’s not like he was a huge star – he had been in The Magnificent Seven, of course, but that and Hell Is for Heroes were really his only big roles by this point). Anyway, it’s a terrific war movie, and it’s definitely something to watch if you’ve never seen it.
The Prize (1963). Man, action thrillers in the 1960s were weird, man. This movie, as well as the two movies below it, are action thrillers, although this one isn’t about spies, it’s about Nobel laureates. Oh, you think I’m kidding! Anyway, they’re weird because it’s as if the filmmakers can’t quite take them seriously, even though the threat of Soviet aggression was much more prevalent than ever – or perhaps that’s why they don’t take them quite seriously, because they knew audiences wanted escapism. Because the main plot of this movie is fairly serious – a Nobel laureate is kidnapped and replaced with an imposter, who plans to denounce the West in his speech and return behind the Iron Curtain (he was a German who was taken to the U.S. after the war, but we’re told that he only worked for the Nazis because they told him they wouldn’t kill his family … which of course they did, because they’re lousy Nazis!). The Nobel laureate for literature, with his plotting brain, figures this out, but no one believes him, so he has to save the original and expose the plot. Not a bad little story. But the movie itself goes off on tangents, some weirdly humorous. Two laureates are fighting because the American believes the Italian stole his research. The married French physicists are in a jealous fight because the man is canoodling with his secretary, so the woman tries to seduce the American novelist. The novelist wants to, um, handle his handler, who’s assigned to him because he’s an alcoholic (the charming 1960s kind) and he might say something embarrassing, which he does quite often. It’s all very bizarre. So while the plot is nothing great, it’s perfectly fine, but the movie drags a bit because of all the other shenanigans, which feel imported from a different movie.
The reason the movie works at all is because of the cast. Paul Newman, as beautiful as ever, is the American novelist, playing Andrew Craig with that smarmy charm that men in the 1960s seemed to think would make women weak in the knees. Newman isn’t quite a cad, but he’s close. His handler is Elke Sommer, vivacious and radiant, who succumbs to his charms eventually, even though the movie remains chaste by having something interrupt them whenever they’re about to go further than simple mackin’. Sommer gets off a great line early on, telling Newman that compared to Scandinavians, Americans are sexual amateurs, which only makes him more interested in her, of course. The German physicist is played by Edward G. Robinson, who always brings gravitas to a role (even when young), so he’s a good choice. Diane Baker is gorgeous as Robinson’s niece, and she plays the quasi-innocent coquette quite well, so we’re never quite sure if we can trust her (Baker seems to have retired, but she worked in this decade, so good for her!). Kevin McCarthy is a good choice as the aggrieved American doctor, as his lantern-jawed-ness always bespeaks American ruggedness and honesty. The other cast members are quite good, too. Newman was 37/38 when this was filmed, and he’s really at the height of his attractiveness, so it’s not surprising that the women dig him (Sommer was 23 and Baker 25 in the movie, so the age difference isn’t ridiculous). It’s just a fun movie, but tonally, it’s a bit strange.
(It also provides a good link for Six Degrees of Separation: Andrea Risborough (first feature film: 2005) —> Tom Cruise (Oblivion) —> Paul Newman (The Color of Money) —> Edward G. Robinson (The Prize) —> Dorothy Gish (The Bright Shawl), with Dorothy Gish’s first feature film coming in 1912. Good times!)
The Quiller Memorandum (1966). I love the title of this movie, because it makes no sense whatsoever. Quiller is the main character, but at no time does he write or receive a memorandum, nor is one written about him. He is not tasked with getting one that has been sent or is about to be sent, either. There are, in fact, no memoranda in the movie. It’s rather glorious.
Anyway, this is a weird spy thriller, kind of the anti-Bond movie. George Segal, wildly miscast as Quiller, plays the spy as a man who cares not a whit about being secretive. He’s an American inexplicably working for MI6, something that is never explained. He’s sent to Berlin to find out about the neo-Nazi movement gaining strength in that city, and he does an awful job at it but ends up getting the job done almost through no initiative of his own but because of the Nazis’ utter incompetence. Segal has a weird way of talking, as if he’s on a mild strain of marijuana throughout. Alec Guinness, sporting that awful tiny mustache that a lot of older British dudes seem to wear throughout history, gives him some clues that previous operatives have managed to find (before they were killed), and Segal dutifully follows them, leading him to Inge, a teacher who replaced a man who committed suicide after it was discovered he was a Nazi during the war. Inge is played by Senta Berger, and she is absolutely luminous in this movie. She doesn’t get to do much, but she looks amazing doing it. Segal gets captured by the neo-Nazis, whose leader is a bemused Max von Sydow. He tells his henchmen to kill Segal after he realizes he can’t get any information out of him, but they leave him alive for no good reason. Later, Segal finds his way back to the house where the Nazis are, and finds they’re moving out. Von Sydow has captured Inge, and he allows Segal to leave and decide whether he’s going to talk, in which case he’ll let them both live, or if he won’t, in which case he’ll kill Inge (whom Segal pretends not to know, hopefully to try to keep her safe and not because he’s a douchebag). The Nazis follow Segal around, but he ditches them, gets to the Brits, tells them where the Nazis are, and – off-screen – the bad guys are all captured. Later, Segal returns to the school and finds out that they let Inge go, but he believes that – wait for it – she’s one of them! We never find out if he’s right, though, because the movie ends.
Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, and he obviously had no interest in doing a typical spy thriller, which would have been fine, but he bungled the kind of reflective, naturalistic vibe he was going for, as well. The movie’s skeleton makes no sense, so the idea that Pinter was trying to examine identity and the false faces we show the world is essentially meaningless, especially given the fact that Segal can’t carry that material very well (I haven’t seen Segal in too much, but he seems a much better comedic actor than dramatic one). Why do the British care so much if Nazis are becoming a threat in West Germany? Where is German intelligence? The raid at the end brings them in, but it’s strange to see British and American agents running around Berlin trying to stop what is essentially an internal German problem, especially because the Nazis haven’t done anything overt yet (well, they killed the British agents, but I mean taking political action or such). Why are the Nazis so bad at being evil? Von Sydow has Segal at his absolute mercy twice, but does nothing. Segal doesn’t even carry a gun, which seems strange, as he’s a secret agent. Of course, he’s a terrible secret agent, but maybe that was Pinter’s commentary on James Bond, as everyone in the world seems to know that Bond is a spy.
This is just a weird movie. I can’t recommend it, but like a lot of older movies, it’s fun to see the actors when they were young. Segal, especially, was quite the pretty boy when he was young (he was about 31/32 when he made the movie). Overall, though, this is pretty skippable.
Triple Cross (1967). This is another spy thriller with a strong cast that doesn’t quite work. Terence Young, who directed a mediocre Bond movie (Dr. No), a pretty good Bond movie (Thunderball), and a brilliant Bond movie (From Russia With Love), directs here, apparently using a real person as a template. Christopher Plummer plays Eddie Chapman, a seemingly terrible safe cracker (he just blows them up, using a not-at-all-suspicious chauffeur backfiring his car to cover up the blast) who decides to vacation on the island of Jersey just when World War II is breaking out (why anyone would go closer to the Nazis on holiday is beyond me). He’s arrested there and is in jail when the Germans take over, and he offers them his services as a spy. Given the name of the movie and the fact that we can’t believe that they’d actually make a movie about a (relatively) sympathetic Nazi spy, we think he’s really an agent for the British, and the most Nazi of the Germans actually floats this possibility, but he’s overruled. Plummer gets dropped in England so he can blow up an airplane factory, and he promptly heads to British Intelligence to offer to spy on the Germans for them, which he does fairly effectively. Unfortunately, such good stuff (based very loosely on Chapman’s real life, which sounds a bit more interesting than this movie) is strangely enervating – there’s very little action or even suspense in this movie, as everyone seems to get lost in Plummer’s dreamy eyes and just accepts whatever he tells them. This includes Romy Schneider, lovely as a Swedish (Norwegian, maybe?) countess who falls in love with him; Gert Fröbe (hey, it’s Goldfinger!) as his immediate superior; and Yul Brynner as the man who runs the intelligence services. Brynner is somehow involved in the Tom Cruise plot to kill Hitler, so he gets shot, but the rest of the Germans seem to do all right for themselves even though they’re Nazis. Plummer also toys sexually with Claudine Auger, playing a French Resistance fighter and looking extremely glamorous in that very 1960s way even though the movie takes place in the 1940s. I don’t mind that Plummer is a bit insouciant – it’s the nature of his character – but he’s so casual about everything that it’s hard to get invested in him and makes his infrequent outbursts of emotions silly. The other actors are fine, but Schneider seems to be the only one really taking it seriously, as she does a nice job as a woman using her sex as a weapon and learning the cost of that when she falls for a jerk like Plummer. Plummer was in his late 30s when he made this, and he almost glows with sex appeal. He still does that weird thing with his mouth where he makes his lips very thin that is a tic he still does, and when he does, you can see the old man he’s turned into coming through. It’s another disappointing spy thriller, but that’s the way it goes. Oh well!
Planet of the Apes (1968). I don’t want to SPOIL this or anything, but Charlton Heston is on Earth the entire time!!!!!
This is, if you can believe it, the first time I’ve ever seen this movie. I missed it for weird reasons – I’m too young to have seen it in the theaters, and by the time I was old enough to consume pop culture, it wasn’t really a thing anymore, and then I had other things to do. I knew pretty much the entire plot, including the killer ending, and I love Troy McClure’s performance in the musical, but I just missed it. Which is too bad; it’s quite good. Heston brings the right amount of misanthropy to the role – you can believe that he would go on the space mission because he had no one who cared about him in 1972, and that makes the ending all the more devastating. It’s an exciting movie, a somewhat sad movie (we don’t know the other three astronauts very well, but their fates are cruel enough that we can empathize even though we don’t know them), and also a ham-handed allegory about religious ignorance. I mean, the apes have evidence that their worldview is wrong right in front of them, but they cling to it anyway. I don’t know any group that acts that way! So watching it 50 years on is fascinating, especially because it ages pretty well, unlike a lot of science fiction. Sure, Heston is a bit typically male, but not ridiculously so, and Kim Hunter probably gives the best performance in the movie as the sympathetic doctor who wants to help Taylor and understand him. Heston chews the scenery a bit, but that’s the kind of actor he was, and it works here. The idea that New Jersey could turn into a desert scored by deep canyons in 2000 years is a bit silly, but it just confirms what everyone kind of suspect – that Jersey is a big wasteland (oh, I kid, Jerseyites!). So if you haven’t seen this yet, you should, and if you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again. It’s pretty danged good!
Klute (1971). This is a weird movie, fairly typical of 1970s thrillers, but weird all the same. The strength of Fonda and Sutherland carries it (it’s interesting that the movie is named after Sutherland’s character but Fonda gets top billing) – Fonda beat Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Glenda Jackson (Sunday Bloody Sunday), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots), and Janet Suzman (Nicholas and Alexandra) for the Oscar, and I’ve only seen Mary, Queen of Scots from that list, and that was a long, long time ago, so I don’t know how much better Fonda is than those women, but she’s very good in the movie. Sutherland is very good, too, and that makes the movie worth watching, because the actual plot is dull as dishwater. Sutherland takes far too long to come to the obvious conclusion, but he’s better than the cops, who simply ignore the missing businessman because they think that people go missing all the time. What kind of weird hellscape was the 1970s that prominent businessmen went missing all the time and the cops think it’s normal? Anyway, Fonda is riveting, Sutherland projects quiet strength, the movie makes some interesting and cogent (but obvious) points about hypocrisy, and Alan Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis make excellent use of New York as a character, from the richest areas to the poorest. It’s an interesting movie to watch, but it’s not anything great. Without Fonda and Sutherland, it would have sunk without a trace.
The Terrorists (1975). I like to see what’s on FXM Retro late at night (I love FXM Retro), and not too long ago, I saw this movie. The information said Sean Connery was in it, which doesn’t necessarily mean quality (dude had bills to pay, amirite?), but the second name on the list made me pause: Ian McShane. Now, I knew McShane had been around a long time – I remember his two guest-starring roles on Magnum, P.I. in the 1980s – but I didn’t realize quite how old he is – he was born in 1942! He played Heathcliff in a television production of Wuthering Heights in 1967, when I’m sure he almost smoldered right off the screen, and after The Terrorists, he kept busy doing all sorts of things. My question is: How did it take until Deadwood, when he was SIXTY-TWO YEARS OLD, for him to become a big star? He’s certainly dreamy enough (my daughter saw a few seconds of this movie and declared him “beautiful,” and she’s not wrong), and he’s magnetic in this movie, rising above the weak material quite nicely. How McShane wasn’t huge in the 1970s and beyond is bizarre to me. Maybe he’s a douchebag so no one wanted to work with him?
Anyway, The Terrorists is kind of a dumb movie, but it’s entertaining enough for 90 minutes. Connery, using his Scots accent, is the head of security for the country of “Scandinavia” (the movie was filmed in Norway), when a British terrorist takes the British ambassador hostage. He wants to get on a military plane and then parachute out, but when their landing spot gets blown, he moves to Plan B: his associate McShane hijacks a plane and lands in Scandinavia, and he says they need to bring the hostages to the plane. The British are utter simpering weaklings in this movie, telling the head terrorist he can pretty much do whatever he wants, and Connery is forced out of the way at the embassy pretty quickly. He tries to take over the plane situation because it’s on Scandinavian soil, so it’s his case, and he wants to send soldiers in and shoot it out with the bad guys. So the movie becomes a tense thriller, as Connery tries to get guys on the plane and McShane keeps thwarting him. Finally, the other terrorists make in onto the plane and say they want to trade the ambassador (all the passengers are released) for a British military attaché. Connery takes his place (without his consent) and gets on the plane. That’s when things go absolutely to shit, and I’m going to SPOIL the ending.
So Connery figures out that McShane is an undercover policeman, and he wanted to get his boss – the military attaché – on the plane so they could take out the terrorists. This is a perfectly fine if somewhat predictable twist. Connery is pissed about this, but it’s never really clear why. Is he mad that they didn’t tell him? Is he mad that McShane did, after all, hijack a plane? Who knows. So he wants to get on the plane. When he does, he immediately tells the head terrorist that McShane is a cop. Naturally, there’s a shoot-out, and while the head terrorist ends up dead, so does McShane. The British ambassador is safe, though. So what the fuck, Bond? The terrorists had done everything they had said they would do – they released the hostages on the plane and the hostages they took with the ambassador. They seemed to be perfectly willing to exchange the ambassador for the military attaché, who would presumably be armed or perhaps be slipped a gun by McShane, and then they could take out the terrorists. Connery didn’t need to be involved at all. Even worse, the head terrorist had seen Connery at the embassy, so he knew he wasn’t the British military attaché, and he says so the moment Connery gets on the plane, at which point Connery tells him about McShane. I mean, Jeebus, Dr. Jones. You done fucked up so bad and cost a British cop his life. I hope the sequel to this movie was all about the trial of Sean Connery for being so goddamned stupid.
It’s too bad, because this could have been a really good thriller. Connery is an underrated actor, and he does a nice job here, and McShane, as I noted, is terrific. The stand-off is tense, and even the twist doesn’t suck. But Connery’s actions at the end are so idiotic and even criminal that I can’t believe the movie ends right after the shoot-out on the plane. Even loose cannons like Harry Callahan and John McClane didn’t purposefully get cops killed!
Ian McShane, though. He’s beautiful.
The Great Train Robbery (1978). This is another Connery movie, as he, Donald Sutherland, and Lesley-Anne Down plan the first train robbery in history, stealing gold destined for British soldiers in the Crimea in 1855. Michael Crichton wrote the book on which this is based, the screenplay of the movie, and he directed it, so if you’ve seen a Crichton movie, you probably know what you’re getting. This is far more light-hearted than Crichton usually is (he’s only directed 7 movies, so I’m talking about his screenplays, too), but it has hallmarks of his, too – it’s quite slick (for 1978), it’s adventurous, and it doesn’t concern itself with being too, too realistic (there are plenty of goofs, such as electric lights seemingly being common in 1855 London). Connery is fine, Sutherland is hilariously miscast as a slick pickpocket and safecracker who uses English slang without even trying to do an accent (Sutherland is fine, too, it’s just that because of his lack of an accent, you’re always aware that you’re watching Donald Sutherland), and Down is actually a fairly vital part of the crew and not just arm candy, although she does use her womanly wiles on more than one occasion. A good deal of the movie is about the crew getting the keys to the safe that holds the gold, with only the last 30 minutes or so about the actual robbery. Crichton actually makes some interesting points (whether it’s intentional or not) about the way women were treated in 19th-century England, as Down fools the same man twice with vague promises of sex and barely changes her appearance the second time (when she does it on the fly, which is why she doesn’t disguise herself) but he doesn’t even notice. Connery famously did his own stunts on the train, as he had to climb on top of it and make his way to the car carrying the gold, and that part looks great. The movie ends really abruptly, with no indication if Connery and his crew ultimately got away with it (it’s implied they did, but the movie simply ends; in the real life incident on which this is loosely based, everyone went to prison). It’s a mostly forgettable film, notable only because of Connery, Sutherland, and Down and the chemistry they have together, which isn’t bad. As an aside, the guy who’s in charge of the rat fight is familiar to me, and it’s bugging me that I can’t remember who he is!
The Formula (1980). This was released in December 1980, but I’m breaking my rule because it feels like a Seventies movie – it’s gritty, it’s kind of bleak, and it stars George C. Scott and Marlon Brando (in his last movie until 1989), both of whom feel like quintessential 1970s actors even though they got their starts in the early 1950s (dang, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 was Brando’s second movie – holy crap, was he good fast). It’s not a very good movie, unfortunately, even though it sounds like it should be. It begins in the last days of World War II, and the Nazis are trying to smuggle something secret out of Berlin to bargain with the Americans to basically save them from the Russians. They get stopped by an American patrol near Switzerland, and decades later, the major who stopped the transport is murdered. Scott, playing a crusty old cop, knew the dude for years, so he’s tasked to investigate. There are plenty of red herrings about cocaine and hookers, but of course his murder had to do with the Nazi secrets. Now, Nazi secrets are a good way to get into a movie, and the actual secret is not bad, but then the plot stops making sense. Brando, who was only 55 or so when this was made, made himself look older, and in the process makes himself look a bit ridiculous, as well. He’s playing an oil magnate, and of course he’s the villain – even when his name is first mentioned, before you know it’s Brando, you know he’s the villain – but his scheme doesn’t make a ton of sense. Scott goes to Berlin to investigate further, and bodies keep dropping the moment after he gets crucial information out of said person. Why are the killers waiting until after Scott talks to the people? Why does Brando want the secret kept buried when what’s in it could make him even richer than he is right now (he has a telling quote at one point which could explain it, but it goes nowhere)? Why does Scott leave the murdered man’s widow alone when it’s so clear she’s in danger? Why is Brando so weird that he asked for (and got) a scene in which his character stresses the danger of chlorine in pools (I am so not joking about this)? So many questions!!!!
It’s too bad, because there are some interesting elements in the plot. As I noted, Brando makes an off-hand comment about the oil business that’s interesting but never explored. There’s a terrifying scene in a strip club that uses Nazi imagery to disturbing effect (and surprised me, as I would have thought that kind of thing would be banned in Germany). Scott’s love interest, Marthe Keller, has a secret that drives her, and while it’s not a surprising one, it’s revealed effectively. Scott’s confrontation with Brando at the end of the movie, while convoluted because of the fact that Brando is doing something seemingly against his own interest, is nevertheless fraught with tension and makes some depressing points about America that are still salient today. You can see the vague outlines of a decent thriller, but it’s such a mess that it never comes together. Too bad.
(Brando is in the movie for probably ten minutes, and like Apocalypse Now, he got paid a king’s ransom for that short work. He said he needed the money, but that doesn’t explain his somewhat goofy demeanor in the film. Brando was certainly still capable of excellent work – he’s great in Apocalypse Now, which was made not too long before this, and he’s amazing in The Freshman, which was a decade after this, so it’s unclear why he’s kind of odd in this movie. Also, there’s the fun piece of trivia that Scott and Brando, the only two men to refuse Oscars, face off against each other in this movie. Well, I thought it was fun.)
So those are some movies I’ve seen recently that aren’t too old but aren’t too new. Yes, I have posts about more recent ones and older ones in the hopper, as well! Movies are fun!