The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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Adapted by Nelson Gidding from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, this posits the idea that a satellite that has landed in Piedmont New Mexico was carrying an alien pathogen capable of causing mass casualties – everyone in the tiny township is dead. The scientists from Project Scoop are called in and find two people touched but still alive – a baby and an old man, who they remove to a lab. The researchers have to be decontaminated and then it’s a matter of identifying whether it is in fact an alien bacterium that is being launched on the earth’s population and it’s a race against time before a solution is found … Where you stand on this film’s success depends on your tolerance for old technology albeit with great effects for the era, devised by Douglas Trumbull who’d made his name doing 2001. The other issue is the uninteresting nature of the leads – perhaps casting Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid (a man in the source novel) was to ensure that your attention was focused on the story so that the issues of government readiness for such a potential catastrophe or alien invasion, secret projects (the left hand scientist doesn’t know what the right hand scientist is working on) and the nature of the storytelling itself are foregrounded. It’s told documentary fashion, with several interesting split screen effects and a ticker telling us what happens each day. Each specialist brings something different to the Wildfire project with their foibles and strengths exposed as things become exponentially problematic and the clock is ticking on the nuclear device should there be a containment breach – and everyone now knows that whatever this is it’s airborne and is too big to be a virus. Robert Wise directed a film that is very much a product of its time but with some astute lessons about how to deal with foreign invasions, germ warfare and what to do when your chief researcher experiences absence epilepsy and makes the wrong finding.The kind of film that makes you want to go back to the books to look at how pH range functions.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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The very essence of 70s existentialism. In a way. Perhaps those sunburst flashbacks are not a good idea. Maybe if the script had the courage of its convictions we would just experience the desert drive with Barry Newman instead of getting backstory, romance, rationale. Kinda like Falling Down, which similarly overloaded an explosively effective social drama with causes, which wasn’t really needed and deflated the message. Here we have pillhead Kowalski fresh out of Nam who is promised his next cache for free if he brings this 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T back to San Francisco from Denver in 15 hours. A multi-state police chase ensues. Cleavon Little is the radio DJ narrating his progress. Sometimes you should trust the audience a little more. And make a fully fledged classic. Unique, terrifically atmospheric, brilliantly shot by John A. Alonzo and well directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written pseudonymously by G. Cabrera Infante as Guillermo Cain.This is really something. And the car!

The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her so-called friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.  He even gives the last scene to Gable which tells you all you need to know about his attitude to his wife – he wrote it for her. Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.

The Godfather (1971)

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Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep at how his idealism has curdled into limitless violence and ambition, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?! It’s impossible to state how great this film is and watching it side by side with its great sequel is one of the singular pleasures of this mortal life. Seeing it in a big screen revival raised my spirits. It’s simply stunning I have it on all the time chez moi because sometimes you have to make yourself feel good and despite its content it is paradoxically comforting. Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film. I believe in America