The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

The Pledge (2001)

There can’t be such devils.  Veteran detective  Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) investigates the murder of a little girl in small-town Nevada just six hours before he’s officially retired.  He makes a pledge on a crucifix the dead girl made to her anguished mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will catch the perpetrator. When the only suspect Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) blows his head off in custody, Jerry sets off on his longed-for retirement fishing trip but TV coverage of the case affects him deeply and he moves into the neighbourhood buying a gas station where the killing occurred. When he begins a relationship with a waitress and mother Lori (Robin Wright) and gives a home to her and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) after she takes a beating from her ex, he has all the more reason to nail the killer – but by this time his colleagues reckon they have long since wrapped up an open-and-shut case.  The behaviour of a local Jesus freak Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan) causes Jerry to believe he might have solved not just the mystery death of the young girl the previous winter but the grisly crimes of a previously unnoticed serial killer and when Chrissy goes to meet a man she calls The Wizard Jerry decides to set a trap All at once you became like an animal. Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance, as the twice-divorced retired cop who might just find happiness late in life and solve the crimes of a serial killer, is everything in this meticulously staged murder mystery. The relationships are well observed, the contrast with blowhard ‘tec Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the wonderfully observed eccentrics (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Eileen Ryan, Vanessa Redgrave) who populate the ensemble, the visual tics and psychological hints at Nicholson’s state of mind, the clues, signs and portents which inflect the text. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella (adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski) was already transposed three times to both big and small screen but its tragic undertow is an understandable lure for someone like director Sean Penn, a performer who himself never shirks complex dramas. Nobody gets away with anything here – and it’s not a pretty picture and even Wright (Mrs Penn at the time) looks careworn with half a tooth missing. Far more than a police procedural, this is a deeply affecting, emotive exploration of loss and missed chances, with the revelations managed so very well.  It’s not just about the predilections of paedophiles but also about paying heed to small children and what they tell adults. The ending is just horrendous and Nicholson, reunited with Penn from The Crossing Guard, is just wonderful, a dedicated cop pursuing his suspicions to the very last. What a great performance. How could God be so greedy?

The Appaloosa (1966)

This horse ain’t for sale. Mexican-American buffalo hunter Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) returns home only to have his beloved horse stolen by a powerful bandit, Chuy Medena (John Saxon), ending his dream of owning a stud farm. Matt begins to hunt down the bandit to recapture the horse but finds matters more complicated than expected when he meets Chuy’s girlfriend Trini (Anjanette Comer) in the border town of Ojo Prieto. Trini was sold by her impoverished father to Chuy at the age of 15 but has been brutalised and discarded. Fletcher is subjected to torture and humiliation by Chuy and his gang. A foray into Medina’s camp results in a brutal arm wresting match in a bar between Fletcher and the bandido. Fletcher loses and is stung on the arm by a scorpion.  Fletcher is rescued by Trini, who despises Chuy. They get help from a kindly old peasant, which later costs the old man his life. Fletcher is then forced to choose between Trini and his beloved Appaloosa … Chuy’s not just one man – Chuy’s an army. Adapted from Robert McLeod’s novel by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, this stately drama directed by Sidney Furie and lensed by Russell Metty retreads Brando’s slightly eccentric One-Eyed Jacks characterisation and blocks out the action with obvious obstacles forcing a psychological perspective in every scene. Pauline Kael may have christened it ‘a dog of a movie about a horse’ but it has other interesting qualities, not least in the performances, with Saxon a standout as the sadistic bandit and Comer (who would be in the later, fabulously perverse The Baby) offering wonderfully precise contrast to Brando’s masochistic rebel with a cause. And what about Mexico’s finest,  Emilio Fernandez as Lazaro and Alex Montoya as Squint Eye!  They sure had faces then. I don’t want no more trouble. I just want a peaceful life

 

What a Way to Go! (1964)

What a Way to Go

You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need your head examined. Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a widow four times over, donates $200 million to the Internal Revenue Service because all her four marriages end in her husbands’ deaths, leading her to believe that the money is cursed and she is a jinx when all she wanted to do was marry for love. She winds up on the couch of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Stephanson (Bob Cummings) who asks her what has led her to do something so crazy and Louisa recounts her life starting with her childhood when her hypocrite mother (Margaret Dumont) preached penury but actually wanted to be rich and berated her poor husband. Louisa dates the richest boy in town Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) but prefers the little shopkeeper Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke) from high school who refuses to sell out and they bond over Thoreau – until he feels guilty and ends up accumulating huge wealth from non-stop working until it kills him. Then she travels to Paris for the holiday they never took where she encounters part-time taxi driver and wannabe artist Larry Flint (Paul Newman) and inspires him to create moneymaking paintings using machines that respond to Mendelssohn and kill him. She meets maple syrup tycoon Rod Anderson Jr.(Robert Mitchum) who flies her to NYC on his private plane when she misses her flight home and they marry immediately. When he sells up and they retire to a farm he mistakes a bull for a cow in the milking parlour and winds up in a water trough. Dead. Louisa goes for a coffee in a diner and meets Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly) a performer who stars in a terrible dinner theatre production every night. When she persuades him to be himself the crowd loves him, he becomes a star and they go Hollywood where the fans love him to death and Dr. Stephanson hasn’t been listening for the last two husbands …  Every man whose life I touch withers. This Betty Comden and Adolph Greene screenplay (from a story by Gwen Davis) proves an astonishing showcase for MacLaine with the film within a film parodies punctuating each marriage providing a great opportunity to send up various moviemaking styles, including silent movies, foreign art films, a Lush Budgett!! spectacular, and culminating in a wonderful musical pastiche with Kelly.  It’s a total treat to see these famous dancers performing together (look quickly for Teri Garr in the background!). It’s a breezy soufflé of a movie and a distinct change of pace for director J. Lee Thompson who previously worked with Mitchum on the classic thriller Cape Fear. Very charming and funny with lots of good jokes about the American Dream, the art world, Hollywood and fame, and terrific production values. That’s Reginald Gardiner as the unfortunate who has to paint Pinky’s house … pink. A wonderful opportunity to see some of the top male stars of the era making fun of themselves. Perhaps what’s most astonishing is that this was supposed to star Marilyn Monroe until her shocking death and Pinky’s swimming pool is the one from the abandoned set of Something’s Got To Give.  Thompson and MacLaine would work again the following year on the Cold War spoof John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. Shot by Leon Shamroy, edited by Marjorie Fowler, costumes by Edith Head, jewellery by Harry Winston and score by Nelson Riddle. Money corrupts, art erupts

 

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo

A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got? In the American west, small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) enlists the help of Stumpy, a cripple (Walter Brennan), Dude, a drunk (Dean Martin), and Colorado Ryan, a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) in his efforts to hold in jail the brother Jack (Claude Akins) of the local bad guy, Nathan Burdette (John Russell) until the marshal arrives, while dealing with card sharp Feathers (Angie Dickinson) who swears she’s leaving town on the next stage. Then the outlaws arrive … Let’s get this straight. You don’t like? I don’t like a lot of things. I don’t like your men sittin’ on the road bottling up this town. I don’t like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don’t like it when a friend of mine offers to help and twenty minutes later he’s dead! And i don’t like you, Burdette, because you set it up. Producer/director Howard Hawks had been in Europe for four years and came back to find that US TV now boasted several filmed TV series each night, mostly westerns, one even starring The Thing (James Arness), Gunsmoke. He didn’t like the politics of High Noon or 3.10 to Yuma so took the scenes he disliked and turned them around, inverting their meaning and attitude, in this story starring a man called Chance (named for the 20 year old Chanel model Hawks met in Paris and who would remain with him until his death twenty years later). Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, this is one of the most relaxed yet keenly felt chamber westerns, so laid back and laconic in its reversals you nearly don’t notice how little people say, because what they do, even the simplest gesture, is replete with meaning, especially when it involves cigarettes. Furthman and Brackett had both worked on The Big Sleep but never actually met. He had more or less retired and she had become a sci-fi novelist. He didn’t like to do any writing per se so he and Hawks would discuss ideas while Brackett would type them up, rework them and make her own contributions, so that the first draft screenplay bore her name alone. Furthman was on set and helped Hawks rewrite while the director encouraged the cast to improvise, a speciality of Brennan’s; Wayne preferred to have his lines given to him and he was a quick study. Nelson was given some of Montgomery Clift’s tics from Red River so he would have something to do with his hands. Hawks was so in tune with what the TV audience wanted that he cast Ward Bond (from Wagon Train) in his final role as Chance’s friend Pat Wheeler, Russell (Lawman), Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as hotel proprietor Carlos Robante (from You Bet Your Life), Dickinson had recently appeared in a Perry Mason episode directed by Christian Nyby and of course Brennan (The McCoys). Hawks noticed The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was hugely popular and cast 17-year old Nelson, believing he could do the kind of box office numbers that Elvis was doing.  His 18th birthday happened on set and the hard-drinking Big Guy cast (all the principals plus Hawks himself stood over six feet)  gave him 300lbs of steer manure which they duly threw him into. Hawks trusted Martin to produce the goods when the singer arrived for a meeting at 8.30AM on the lot in LA after performing a midnight show in Vegas because he wanted the part so badly. The script reworked several ideas, characters, relationships and plot points from Hawks’ previous films (mainly with Furthman) in recycling Underworld, Gunga Din, To Have and Have Not and Red River. And what an entrance Dickinson has – inviting Wayne to disrobe her when he suspects her of hiding three missing cards after fleecing a friend of his at the table. Their sparring is really something, her teasing leaving him at sixes and sevens. Brennan is simply adorable as Stumpy, the ol’ toothless guy that can, while hotshot Nelson and cleaned up drunk Martin even get to sing a couple of songs in between firing off those six-shooters – music is particularly important here with Dimitri Tiomkin (hired despite working on High Noon!) reworking De Guello as the haunting melody from the Alamo (and Wayne would use it in his own take on The Alamo the following year). Wayne is more himself than ever, ambling through the sequences, always doing the right thing, taking care of people, using that pump action rifle to even the score as he walks back and forth up and down the main street of the Old Tucson set (from Arizona) to see to things in the jail and see to his girl in the hotel, back and forth, back and forth. Sheer genius. A hugely influential American classic that is not just expressive filmmaking, it is also entertainment of the highest order. If I ever saw a man holdin’ a bull by the tail, you’re it. MM#2900

Please Turn Over (1959)

Please Turn Over

I do wish Julia would go out more. In a small English town a scandal ensues after bored teenage hairdresser Jo Halliday (Julia Lockwood) secretly writes a novel called Naked Revolt, turning versions of her family, friends and neighbours into sex-mad boozers.  Her father Edward (Ted Ray) is an inoffensive accountant now believed to be an embezzler, her mother Janet (Jean Kent) is thought to be carrying on with a retired soldier turned driving instructor Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries) whom people now assume is Jo’s father.  Her fitness-obsessed aunt Gladys (June Jago) is treated as an alcoholic having an affair with the local philandering doctor Henry Manners (Leslie Phillips). Although initially surprised to see themselves written into the book, everyone begins to learn more about themselves and each other through the novel, meanwhile Angry Young Playwright Robert Hughes (Tim Seely) is interested in adapting the novel to the stage and begins a relationship with Jo …. My goodness! That’s a highly sagacious aphorism, what’s its current application? Adapted from Basil Thomas’ play Book of the Month by Norman Hudis this is the British version of Peyton Place and it’s a much more anodyne portrait of small town secrets. Directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, this is a Carry On production but more subtle than its origins would suggest with a superb British cast of familiar faces like Joan Sims, Joan Hickson and Victor Maddern. Lockwood is the daughter of star Margaret Lockwood and acquits herself very well as the knowing ingenue. It looks good thanks to the cinematography of Ted Scaife. Good fun but unfortunately the author Basil Thomas didn’t live to see this on the screen – he died in 1957 aged just 44. Those that are the most affected are always the last to know

Beautiful But Dangerous (1954)

Beautiful But Dangerous

Aka She Couldn’t Say No. I do a lot of thinking when I’m driving and sometimes I just don’t notice small towns. Wealthy Corby Lane (Jean Simmons) returns to the American hamlet of Progress, Arkansas, whose residents had paid for a critical medical operation for her when she was a child. Now her father has died and she has returned from being educated in England, she decides to express her gratitude by giving them money anonymously but her goodwill bumps up against the homespun locals. The headstrong heiress clashes with the local doctor, Robert Sellers (Robert Mitchum), a confident type who foresees the resulting chaos and tries to woo her himself … I only got two ways of feeling. I either feel bad or I feel awful bad. A good cast wrestles with a dull script and the liveliest scenes are when Simmons goes fishing with little Jimmy Hunt who wises her up to the local scene. The score by Roy Webb fills in the gaps that the screenplay by D.D. Beauchamp & Williams Bowers and Richard Flournoy doesn’t reach. Lloyd Bacon’s final film. Is there anyone you’d care to marry?

 

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime

It is real. It’s just deceiving to the eye, that’s all. On 30 September 1975 to commemorate James Dean’s death, the former members of The Disciples of James Dean gather in the small Texas town at the Woolworth’s store where twenty years earlier they formed a fan club after Giant was filming in the nearby town of Marfa. Juanita (Sudie Bond) prepares for another day on the job and calls for Jimmy Dean by name. One of the Disciples, Sissy (Cher) comes in late after helping out at the truck stop.  Another two Disciples, Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) make their way to the five-and-dime, bringing a red jacket that the club used to wear. Mona (Sandy Dennis) joins them and explains that the bus she was riding on broke down and had to be repaired. She’s worried about her son Jimmy Dean whom she has always said was fathered by the star. A window shopper, Joanne (Karen Black) driving in a Porsche sports car has arrived in McCarthy thanks to an old highway sign promoting Dean’s son at the store and there’s something about her that makes Mona think she knows her but can’t quite figure it out …Unlike apparently all of you, I have undergone a change. Ed Graczyk adapted his own play for director Robert Altman who spent the Eighties directing stage plays for the screen following the grandiose flop Popeye and he applies his usually imaginative technique to this single-set production. He uses a mottled old mirror as a means to transport the action to twenty years earlier, a device which not only brings the underlying tenets of the story to life but also functions as an uncanny reflection and a means of transmitting the distorting tricks of memory. Dean’s death (which features in a broadcast announcement in a flashback) creates a bereavement trigger, making the frenemies confront their inadequacies, deceptions and delusions. The performances are startling and true:  Dennis (recreating her stage role) is her usual nervy self and plays the mother of James Dean’s son to the hilt, the (expected) revelation about the fathering stunningly revealed;  Black is a joy as the person nobody can quite recognise, with more than one shocking story to tell; Cher has to confront her own demons. Bates is a ball of energy and Bond makes for a very sceptical proprietor. Worth seeing for the lively, powerhouse performances by a wonderful collection of actresses at the top of their game, treated wonderfully well by a sympathetic director. The first of five Altman films to have Canadian cinematographer Pierre Mignot as DoP. Catch the documentary Children of Giant if you can as it makes for a great companion piece. We can make them change. Jimmy Dean has shown us how

Captain Boycott (1947)

Captain Boycott

I simply can’t understand a man like that. In 1880s Ireland Charles Stewart Parnell (Robert Donat) makes a rousing speech against the villainous property thefts by the British in Ireland but urges passive resistance, shunning rather than killing landlords. In a Mayo village, British landowner Captain Charles Boycott (Cecil Parker) dispossesses the townspeople who are being charged extortionate rents as his tenants and uses police and army to evict them, leaving them without hope. But when a passionate farmer Hugh Davin (Stewart Granger) creates an organised and nonviolent rebellion against the oppressor and falls in love with a beautiful newcomer Ann Killain (Kathleen Ryan) he proves that the Irish people are willing to fight for their rights ... You can’t make British soldiers fight for what any fool can see is an unjust cause.  Wolfgang Wilhelm’s screenplay makes light work of the systematic property rout and starving of Irish citizens described in Philip Rooney’s source novel, weaving a skein of complicity, action and politics that rings true. Co-written by director Frank Launder, with additional dialogue by Paul Vincent Carroll and Patrick Campbell,  the location shooting (with Westmeath standing in for Mayo) adding immeasurably to this history lesson about the infamous land agent who entered the lexicon because of the campaign of ostracising that brought him recognition. The cast is a Who’s Who of the British and Irish acting contingent of the era including the genial Noel Purcell playing Daniel McGinty a teacher who is also a crafty agitator, Mervyn Johns as a sneaky property dealer, Alastair Sim as a Catholic priest, Father McKeogh, and Maurice Denham as Lieutenant Colonel Strickland who is inclined to attribute Boycott’s conduct to a kind of personal pig-headed eccentricity rather than Anglo rule. Granger has a good role and is up to the witty and lively construction of this typical Launder and Gilliat production. William Alwyn’s spirited score captures the mood of the rebellion very well. Can you count pain – suffering – hunger – wretchedness?

To Each His Own (1946)

To Each His Own

Are you proud of your life? In World War 2 London, fire wardens Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris (Olivia de Havilland) and Lord Desham (Roland Culver) keep a lonely vigil. When Jody saves Desham’s life, they become better acquainted. With a bit of coaxing, the ageing spinster tells the story of her life, leading to a flashback of her life in upstate New York town where is the daughter of pharmacist Dan (Griff Barnett) and she is proposed to by both Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) and travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) but she turns them both down. A disappointed Alex marries Corinne (Mary Anderson). When handsome US Army Air Service fighter pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) flies in to promote a bond drive, he and Jody quickly fall in love, though they have only one night together. Months later she gives birth to his son in a New York hospital and her plans to adopt the baby by stealth go wrong when Corinne’s newborn dies and she and Alex take in the child, known as Griggsy.  Bart has died in the war and then Jody’s father dies and she has to sell up. She starts up a cosmetics business in NYC under cover of Mac’s former bootlegging enterprise and reveals to Corinne she’s been propping up Alex’ failing business and will continue to do so but she wants the baby – her son – however the boy misses his ‘mother’ … You sin – you pay for it all the rest of your life. A morality tale that doesn’t moralise – that’s quite a feat to pull off but master producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett (with Jacques Théry) does it. This miracle of straightforward storytelling never falls into the trap of over-sentimentality and is helped enormously by a performance of grace notes and toughness by de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her role as the unwed mother who through the worst of ironies loses access to her own baby when a finely executed plan goes wrong. Her ascent through the business world is born of necessity and grim ambition to retrieve her son – and the scene when she has to admit there’s more to parenting than giving birth is one of the finest of the actress’ career. Just bringing a child into the world doesn’t make you a mother … it’s being there … it’s all the things I’ve missed. The subject of illegitmacy is handled without fuss and de Havilland is surrounded by fine performances, acting like a sorbet to her rich playing of a woman whose coldness is pierced by the thoughts of her lost son: Culver is excellent as the no-nonsense English aristo who engineers a reconciliation; Anderson is fine as the flip rival who gains the upper hand while knowing her husband still loves his childhood sweetheart; and Lund scores in his debut in the double role as the flyer chancing his arm at a one-night stand and then as his own clueless son twenty years later, wanting nothing more than a night with his fiancée. A refreshing take on that strand of stories known as the Independent Woman sub-genre. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  I’m a problem mother