John Heard 03/07/1945-07/21/2017

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The death has taken place of one of my favourite actors. Apparently he died a few days after having back surgery while recuperating at a hotel in CA. I first saw him and became immediately besotted as a young kid one long ago Valentine’s Day when a film called  Between the Lines was on TV. It was about a bunch of supposed subversives working on an underground newspaper. On the one hand it appealed to my youthful and romantic sense of rebellion. Hell it was a Seventies movie!  On the other? I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nor could writer/director Joan Micklin Silver, who then cast him again as the lead in her romantic comedy drama Head Over Heels aka Chilly Scenes of Winter – a movie that I didn’t see literally for decades because it never got to the small town where I grew up. In between he had worked for her husband Raphael in a prison movie called On the Yard which I saw many years ago, somehow, somewhere. As well as a TV mini-series adapted from The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t blame Meg Foster for doing what she did, not even a bit.  He was terrific as Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat but I didn’t see that for many years. However it was then I stumbled across the most amazing film of the Eighties after I found a book called Cutter and Bone which is still a beautiful piece of writing about California and corruption and Vietnam and PTSD.  I read it straight through without sleeping once I accidentally found out – book in hand – that my local cinema had the adaptation opening that weekend under the title Cutter’s Way. I saw it the evening I finished the book – I still can’t see a movie if it’s an adaptation without reading the book beforehand – and believed my earlier judgment of the actor to be on the money. And I still believe it. Heard is simply astonishing in a truly great film. He’s a one-eyed impotent crippled Nam vet who has the opportunity to right a wrong. He was working opposite Jeff Bridges and the heartbreaking Lisa Eichhorn. Everyone did their best work right there. He never really fulfilled that early promise and admitted as much in a late interview. He probably never got offered a role to equal it again. He wasn’t ‘seen’ in the right way by the right writer or director, maybe. Although he worked with some good people maybe the chemistry wasn’t right.  Or, he dropped the ball, as he said. Who knows why. Great films are miracles. A trained stage actor, he never ‘got’ Hollywood but he took roles that earned him huge audiences – Home Alone and its sequel being the prime example. It doesn’t matter. Cutter’s Way is one of my very favourite films. Make it one of yours. You only have to be great in one great film to be truly remembered. Vaya con dios, John.

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In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Home Alone (1990)

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Sensational, kinetic, lively action comedy from the late and beloved chronicler of childhood and adolescence, auteur John Hughes.  Little Kevin is terrorised by everyone in his family – and they forget about him when they depart for a trip to Paris for Christmas, leaving him on his own in their big suburban Chicago house to deal with a pair of bungling thieves. Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as the kid whose dream comes true – to be spared his awful family, even for a short time. This held the record as the biggest grossing live action comedy in the US until Hangover Part II came along to spoil the party.  Simply sublime entertainment for any time of year.

Cutter’s Way (1981)

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If you were to put a gun to my head I would have to say that this is my favourite American film. Or my favourite Californian film. Or my favourite film of the Eighties. Or …  my favourite film, period. There is simply nothing wrong with it. And it was one of those curious coincidences that made me see it. I had borrowed the source book from the public library just 10 minutes before seeing the poster at the local fleapit without being remotely aware of the film’s existence. The novel was Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornburg and I saw a poster (not this one) with Jeff Bridges and John Heard and looked closer:  it was indeed an adaptation of the book I was holding in my hand (the name was changed because publicists thought it sounded too surgical). I read the book over the course of two days and saw the film on the Sunday night. It filled my head for years. I loved John Heard, had done since BBC2 had screened Between the Lines on Valentine’s Day 1980. Bridges of course I adored since he accompanied Clint in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Heard is Alex Cutter, the crippled one-eyed Nam vet who is convinced of his friend’s story that an oilman is responsible for a teenage girl’s death after seeing her body disposed of in a trash can in a Santa Barbara street on a rainy night as he’s returning from an assignation. Richard Bone is a boat salesman and gigolo who seems to love Alex’s sad alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) more than her husband and all three live a rackety lower class life in the very upper class town. Cutter pursues the suspicion with the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) and they go after magnate J. J. Cord with devastating results.  (And yes there are those who will see in this an element of Moby Dick, something Alex himself references early on.) The three leads are just astonishing with Eichhorn offering one of the best performances you will ever see. Their complementarity reminds me that the American movie business was still making great films in my lifetime.  Heard was director Ivan Passer’s choice after playing in Othello – the role was originally intended for Dustin Hoffman (whew).  Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s adaptation alters the last section of the novel but it works, however angrily and unhappily. Jack Nitzsche’s music has the aching power of a lullaby and Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography is as indelible as a piece of enamelled jewellery. I still feel privileged to have seen this on the big screen on its first release (they let me in though I was far from 18… well, it was a small town and I was the only regular customer.) Incredible.