Director: Paul Mazursky
Writer: Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld
Cinematographer: Michael C. Butler
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a film I’ve never heard of and came across during a random burst of trusting the Netflix suggested rating. The story is very much inspired by John Steinbeck’s "Travels with Charley", which was a personal memoir of Steinbeck traveling around the country in a trailer with his dog Charley. Counter to Steinbeck’s success, this story involves 70-something retired Harry (Art Caney) as he carries out his daily routines - walking his cat Tonto, singing him songs, stopping at the local market for a few groceries, meeting with his friends in the park (in this case, a Polish Socialist who spouts anti-capitalist rhetoric, pontificating about the demise of America, leaving you wondering why he's living in the States). Harry nods his heads during the political tangents, simply enjoying watching the streets and living his remaining years in the city; that is, until he’s evicted from his rent controlled apartment in order to make way for a new parking lot.
Harry moves in with his son’s family, but the house is small - with both sons still living at home, one having taken a vow of silence after a few bad acid trips, and the other soon getting married and completely resentful of his brother. Everyone bickers with everyone, and with Harry sharing a room with the silenced son, it’s only moments before he’s back out the street, searching for another apartment. But things have changed - New York is wildly expensive, and to get an apartment for what he was paying means he’ll be living in a run down part of town that accepts no cats. It’s the latter that’s not possible. Thus begins a trip across the country, heading to Santa Monica to see his other son.
When Harry’s about to get on a plane, he argues with security over having to put his cat through the x-ray machine, taken aside by a cop and refusing to board. He switches gears to a bus, and it’s fine until Harry refuses to go to the onboard bathroom, forcing the driver to stop and let him out to piss in a graveyard. Tonto then runs off and the bus leaves, unable to wait any longer. Harry’s picked up by a traveling blender salesman who makes the sale; later shacking up with a few teenagers who’re making their way to a hippie commune; with a prostitute who gives Harry the hitch of his life; getting arrested in Vegas after having a few too many drinks and taking a public piss; getting massaged by a Native American who fixes Harry’s bum shoulder; ending up in Santa Monica, where his son is doing poorly, crying on Harry’s shoulder, with Harry realizing that the loneliness he’s experiencing pales in comparison to most others. Harry stays in Santa Monica, which is particularly funny, as given what happened to New York, is now one of the most expensive cities in the country. You’d have to journey an hour out to find an affordable place to live. Forget living by the beach, you’re lucky to get a studio apartment for what social security pays out.
Stay tune for Part 2...
BELOW: Art Carnie winning Best Actor, against some of the stiffest competition in the history of the category
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on our contact page
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Peter Shaffer; based on his play "Equus"
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
by Jon Cvack
Equus falls under the kid-talking-to-psychologist sub-genre made popular in the late 70s and 80s, with the most famous example being Ordinary People, which would go on to win Best Picture, followed up over a decade later with Good Will Hunting. It’s based off a play by the same name, in which a 17-year old boy Alan Strang (Peter Firth) stabs six horses in the eye with a metal spike. He’s sent to a hospital, where he’s interviewed by Dr. Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), who’s unable to take on anymore patients, but is willing to make an exception just this once.
The film is about forty-five minutes longer than it needed to be and is one of the most boring films I’ve seen compared to the accolade it’s received. Richard Burton hoped it would revitalize his career, which he completely failed in accomplishing. Given Lumet’s focus on crime, I was excited to check out his attempt at a more traditional drama. Perhaps the problem was the formula, and though predating Ordinary People, you still see where it’s going. There will be resistance from Strange, eventually a major breakthrough, and we’ll then discover the horrific truth. It makes you appreciate that the complete lack of flashbacks in Good Will Hunting.
While I understand and appreciate Strang’s peculiar theology and the homosexual undertones, I just don’t think they were interesting. So the boy has a strange obsession with horses, can’t get it up with his new girlfriend, and goes off on a macabre rampage, stabbing horse eyes with a metal pick. My suspicion is that Lumet simply did a poor job of adapting the material for the screen. In fact, Daniel Radcliff recently reprised the role, full front nudity and all (a first for a mainstream film, in Lumet’s case). There were critics who resented that Lumet opted to show the stable’s carnage rather than relying on Strang’s unreliable narration. Personally, I just don’t care. By the time the final scene came I was so bored I just wanted the film to end as quick as possible.
BELOW: Richard Burton does the best he can with the little he was provided
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on our contact page
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan Sharp
Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1 of 2...
The largest issue is that the film feels entirely too 70s. I’ve mentioned it before, but PTA said him and the costume designer had to restrain themselves from being too true to the year for Inherent Vice, as the fashion would look like an exaggeration. Night Moves proves this to be true. It seems to so heavily honor the exact, present year it took place in that everyone’s wardrobe and the places they live look antiquated to the point of parody. And it makes me wonder if it’s because the costume designers on these shoots were told to utilize the present styles rather than providing a general flavor of the styles; as though they’re using the trendiest clothes instead of finding what others might wear as an alternative, more muted style.
There is a strange and uncomfortable Pulanskish fetishizing of the sixteen year old girl Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith). Although the situation was wildly uncomfortable, knowing she was underage and being molested, Arthur Penn nevertheless objectified her in wearing tight outfits, which slowly through the remaining half, came off more and more. The girl is attractive (I’m saying this knowing Griffith was of age while filming; seee note below*), but when when I kept recalling the fact I started feeling more and more creepy. This isn’t to criticize Arthur Penn (though the objectification of an underage girl is gross and unwarranted), so much as raises a second ethical issue in that no matter what conclusion you come to with the above situation, Arthur Penn was trying to be honest with the material. I assume some sixteen year girls might be more developed and sexually open compared to others her age and Penn was simply portraying that. But then - why work with such uncomfortable material at all? This seems an example where an equally intricate plot without the pedophilia could have and might have worked a bit better.
It also just didn’t look that great. I suppose I could blame this on the DVD and a bad conversion, and maybe the Blu Ray would look better, but I still have my doubts of any improvement, with maybe an exception of the closing scene. The film grew on me by the midpoint, as the piling on of characters leveled off and I accepted the strange 70s look for what it was. Still, there is a great and original moment as we watch Harry and Ellen’s relationship. Contrary to the trope, Harry is married, and seems to genuinely love his wife. Combined with a hardboiled attitude it’s set up for disaster, as he catches his wife cheating on him. In one amazing scene, he heads over to his wife’s new lover’s house, seeing the two glasses of wine, and hearing muffled sounds coming from the bedroom. There’s a pain that Hackman expresses that seems very real, as though he knows there’s no one else he could be with, or would want to be with him. All he can do is accept the situation. Of course, Penn kind of makes us lose our sympathy when he sleeps with Delly’s surrogate mom Paula (Jennifer Warren; who looks exceptionally 1970s-like, which I’m struggling to understand how this works, functioning very much as “I know it when I see”).
The best part of film noir is how much more confusing and dark the stories get as we head down the rabbit hole. There are dark moments in Night Moves, but I think Penn distracted us with too many other things - the 1970s Florida setting; the marriage; Delly’s oversexualization. In Chinatown, we witness and feel the bleakness. Night Moves never goes that far. Still, it’s worth seeing for Hackman and the closing action sequence alone.
*Such a plot point raises an interesting ethical problem with sexualizing underage girls in film - is it right to ask an eighteen year old girl to pretend she’s sixteen in such a salacious role, as because she’s eighteen, she can elect to get naked, yet while acting like an underage girl; and thus, while men might think she’s of age, they’re willing to either a) forget she’s sixteen and acknowledge her beauty as an adult (a sign of a bad movie if one were to lose their suspension of disbelief), or b) you don’t suspend your disbelief, but actually think the girl is sixteen and attractive, thus asking viewers to participate in some strange near or mild pornographic/pedophilic fantasy.
BELOW: Some dude talking about Night Moves on Turner Classic Movies. I can't find much else.
Please report any errors or corrections on our contact page
Director: John Badham
Writer: Norman Wexler
Cinematographer: Ralf D. Bode
by Jon Cvack
I remember my friend told me about the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in my fourth grade class, and for Halloween he dressed up John Travolta’s iconic white suit. I recall picking up the VHS and popping it in and ‘Staying Alive’ lit up the speakers and I was hooked. I’ve heard this song so many times that it’s completely lost its magic. I hadn’t watched this film in over a decade, back when I was nineteen years old. I always enjoy discovering a central character in a film who I considered so much older and mature, is now years younger, with his immaturity and irascible attitude coming out in brilliant and awkward moments.
The story is of dancer Tony (John Travolta) living in Brooklyn during Disco’s peek. What I love about the film is its ability to portray a moment in time. Soon Disco would become the brunt of jokes, with the great album burning at Wrigley field, and even up through the nineties, when I first saw the movie, there was still a sour taste for the era. In 2017, the first film I could compare it is to The Naked City, in which we got a genuine taste of the spirit of 1948 NYC. Saturday Night Fever is not a great film, but it does capture a very unique and niche moment in time, which really has no other competitors.
Tony is surrounded by his dead beat friends who enjoy drinking, snorting coke, and taking turns with girls in the back of their one car. The film has moments of such grotesque misogyny that I was more terrified over the fact that such behavior was evidently more regular back then and acceptable for the screen, further supported by a recent interview I listened to with Norman Mailer back in 90s on Book Worm where he mentions that 9 out 10 men genuinely believed that “No” in no way meant no, and allows you to at least rest assured that we’ve come a long way with how popular cinema portrays women.
For instance, in one of the film’s more powerful scenes, in a relentless and demeaning attempt to make Tony jealous, a friend zoned Annette (Donna Prescow) takes up with one of his friends, Gus (Bruce Ornstein). The pair leave with Tony and his other buddies, start having sex in the back of the car, and just when it’s over, Annette is forced to stay in the back while Double J (Paule Pape) then rapes her, with Tony and the others doing nothing, until they stop at a bridge, where their diffident and diminutive friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller) ends up falling off the bridge and Tony castigates Annette for having done what she did. It’s a scene that leaves you feeling dirty, despising Tony in a way that the film never really vindicates.
The film abides by the presently uninspired, mumble core premise of working a dead end job, going out on the weekend, partaking in the same debaucheries night after night, living paycheck to paycheck, always hoping for something more. That all changes when Tony meets the older and more mature Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) - a masterful dancer who could provide Tony with a genuine shot of winning the 2001 Odyssey Disco Dance Club grand prize of $500. Tony is enamored with Stephanie, though constantly puts his foot in his mouth as his refractory short temper is unleashed time and again, such as when he can’t walk her home he kicks a garbage can; when he catches Stephanie dancing with the Dance Studio owner he flips out and storms away; when he can’t get the afternoon off he unleashes a profane maelstrom against his boss, finally quitting. Individually, these tirades are some of Travolta’s most brilliant moments. In terms of overall story, they have the opposite effect. It creates a person who is so volatile you can’t understand why anyone would give him the chance, whether for his love or for his talent. The only defense I can muster is believing that it was all about the dancing, acting as some type of noble pursuit, in which case the era's hilarity returns as you wonder how Disco Dancing could ever possibly hold this much meaning for a person, with so many willing to overlook his volatile temper, violence, and intensity just because he’s that good at Disco Dancing.
Tony’s brother Father Frank Manero, Jr. (Martin Shakar) is one of the film’s great roles and characters, along with their mother Flo (Julie Bovasso) and Frank (Val Bisoglio) as the father. Flo embodies the spirit of late middle aged dissatisfaction, compulsively crossing herself at every single mention of her son Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar). Shakar is a flawless cast, falling far short of Tony’s good looks, appearing a bit awkward, but with a respectable persona, looking like someone you could spill your guts to. Finally, we learn rather creatively that Frank, Sr. has been laid off from his job, with most of the information exchanged through passing moments, rather than someone coming into the kitchen and declaring it. Midway through the story we learn that Frank has left the parish, no longer interested in the priesthood. He comes home and heads out with Tony.
While he watches Tony dance, Bobby C. (pre-suicide) asks him about an abortion for his girlfriend and Frank has little beyond hallow platitudes. Frank, Jr. then takes off the next day. They built up a character as a legend, and when he finally arrives he runs away. A perfect opportunity for insight and direction was all prepared, and the story wasted the opportunity. I suppose I can imagine some type of silence acting as a metaphor, but I think it could have been done better with Tony’s flaring temper and Frank, Jr.’s empathy coming into battle.
A lot of the film feels like should have turned right when it went left. While I once recalled this as a melodramatic story told amidst a shitty moment in time, I now would put this more in the direction of A Bronx Tale, Diner, or Liberty Heights, albeit falling far a bit short. Historically, it’s as good as it gets, especially understanding that it’s appealing to the generation that enjoyed Disco. I wouldn’t look to this film for universal truths or grand philosophies but rather as a historical piece. It makes the darker scene far more dark, as you realize that men like Tony and his friends are meant to look like the Male Ideal. It was meant to inspire, and we have this story to highlight that moment in time with genuine Sexist Disco Bros.
BELOW: One of the strongest hooks in popular cinema (at least in terms of simplicity)
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual mistakes on our contact page
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Frank Pierson; based on "The Boys in the Bank" by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen this movie since working my way through the AFI Top 100 - the mission any fresh cinephile completes. I must have been eighteen or so and honestly I just didn’t like the film all that much. Still, I purchased the Special Edition Double Disc which doesn’t really make sense, though probably because it was directed by Sydney Lumet and felt cool to put another one of his films on my shelf. With nothing looking good on Netflix and having just moved into a new place, it was sitting on top of my rubbermaid bin that held all my films. I popped it in and for the first five minutes I was bored, remembering why I didn’t like the film. After five minutes, as the bank robbery was getting under way, with all its farce and hilarity, I was hooked and wondered what I had missed the first time around.
This film has everything - incredible characters, a fresh take on an old story, it looks at media and entertainment, gender and sexuality, and that which links us all together. What we discover very quickly is that Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Their third partner Stevie (Gary Springer of Jaws II fame) ditches out and so they’re left trying to figure how to pull the heist off, managing the six bank tellers/hostages, led by their supervisor Sylvia (Penelope Allen) who fluctuates between finding the situation thrilling and growing overwhelmed with fear.
The situation is kicked off with Sonny trying to remove his gun from the flower box, as it gets caught on the ribbon, which many know was a mistake made by Pacino that he played through, portending the entire story in that Sonny and Sal have no idea what they’re doing. The three grand they were looking for hasn’t arrived and so they’re left with $150. Fortunately, Sonny knows banks; what to do with and where the cameras are. He decides to burn the teller receipts, which in a pre-computer age is pretty brilliant as it’ll wipe away the money record and avoid anyone tracking them down. Soon the cops arrive. Sonny tries putting the tellers in the bank vault, and then one of them has to use the bathroom, where he then discovers another woman who failed to notice the robbery at all.
The demonstration of what media would become is eerily prescient. There’s the moment when the Bank Manager turns on his small television, which has a news anchor discussing the breaking story. Sonny gets on the phone with the anchor and begins explaining the situation before launching into a perverse tirade, only to have the program cut to black: no matter violence, networks have a zero tolerance policy toward bad language. Of course, this then makes the tellers even more excited, seeing themselves as characters in a national news story.
One of the film’s great characters is Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) who is one of cinema's all time greatest detectives. Eugene’s trying all the tricks in the book to placate and satisfy Sonny, but as the crowd falls in love with the guy, Eugene quickly learns he’s dealing with a fairly smart robber who knows a con when he sees one. In the film’s best scene, the two argue over one another, edited with such lightning speed that it plays like a great jazz song as they rapid fire exchanges and insults with such awesome intensity that you find yourself catching your breath at the end.
It’s when we learn that Sonny has a gay lover, and that the money he was attempting to steal was all for this person’s sex change that there’s a sudden shift. The crowd that loved him now voice their bigotry. They can’t be on the side of a homosexual; once again serving as a harbinger of the politics to come. It’s been over forty years since the film was released, and with such vast progress having been made with gay rights, there still remains a solid minority of folk that despise homosexuality and transgender folk. Lumet was willing to examine this hate; to put a magnifying glass upon it light years ahead of when anyone else would, placing it within a story with extraordinarily badass characters, completely disrupting the stereotypes that so many hold.
The film’s humor was much more apparent now that I’m older. John Cazale delivers a magnificent and creepy performance. Watching the "Behind the Scenes" his involvement was due to Pacino, who urged Lumet to hire him rather than - what I believe - was suppose to be a much more vanilla casting decision. Cazale is quiet in the beginning, though after the robbery gets underway and the cops arrive, with Sonny threatening to kill the hostages and kill themselves if the police try anything, Cazale looks right in his eyes and asks if Sonny is serious - because he is and they agreed to go all the way. I don’t know many actors that could pull off this line without slipping into melodrama. Cazale’s delivery is so frightfully candid, with Pacino’s reaction driving it home, that we truly believe we’re watching a madman unwind. Every line and interaction he has feels as though he’s about to snap, standing to kill everyone in the room.
I had forgotten how the film ended exactly. I just knew they didn’t get away. A solid gauge for any film is to maintain an irrational hope that the characters act a bit smarter the second time around - that Sonny would direct them to pull closer to the plane, or keep a closer eye on Agent Murphy (Lance Henriksen). I’m not sure where this comes from, or how our minds can create such a silly hope that maybe the film will play differently. It seems a symptom of any great movie, where you love the characters so much that you’re willing to excuse your own irrationality in order to root for their success. The ending is dark, with Sal getting shot in the head, and Sonny taken in, knowing he’ll spend the majority of his life behind bars. And yet beyond his individual punishment is realizing the people will no longer care; his wife and children will remain on welfare; his mother will never understand; and the world will hate them after what they learned.
BELOW: The best scene of the movie (and the entire period)
Director: François Truffaut
Writer: François Truffaut, Claude de Givray, and Bernard Revon
Cinematographer: Nestor Almendros
by Jon Cvack
Yet again, Netflix spoils the film by revealing what happens after nearly 60% of the film is over. Regardless, the story is Truffaut’s fourth in his Antoine Doinel series; a character that’s a more exaggerated version of Truffaut himself, perhaps most famous as the lead character from The 400 Blows. Doniel is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who embodies the look of a selfish, shitty, self-centered person. In Bed and Board, Doniel is now a street florist, trying to discover the best way to use food coloring to create the perfect red carnation, at times with literally explosive results. As with many of Truffaut’s films, about half of it takes place in an apartment containing a colorful cast of characters, including the strange neighbor who watches and attempts to help Doniel’s floral concoctions, and a concupiscent woman, making countless failed attempts to seduce Doniel, who seems more oblivious than uninterested.
He’s married to Claudine (Claude Jane), whose elegance and patience is unfounded. We’re not entirely sure what she sees in Doniel, but given that I haven’t seen The 400 Blows in years or Antoine and Colette ever, I’ll assume I’m leaving something out.
Eventually, Doniel gets a job at some shipping company, in which he’s in control of an incredibly ornate quay model, in which he gets to drive radio controlled ships around a pond. I’m not sure what this has to do with anything and it seems more McGuffin in design, given that it’s what eventually leads to his meeting Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer). The two enter into an affair, just as Claudine gets pregnant. Doniel’s job was pretty funny, but similar to the movement in many of the 00s comedies, where there seemed to be a race between who could come up with the goofiest job for the slacker main character. Those decisions are all the more uninspired after revisiting Truffaut.
Nevertheless, Doniel grows on you as the film progresses. He’s a loveable idiot, who's clearly trying, although completely weak-willed. It’s clear that a mixture of boredom and fear of further descent into adulthood has caused him to pursue Kyoko. Not having any particular passions or motivations, he maintains a childish regard for all his actions. Doniel doesn’t even see his infidelities as all that bad, and neither do we. In some ways we too want to forgive him, since it seems almost more of a mental defect than a deliberate choice. The relationship eventually goes stale as he discovers that beneath the exotic superficialities of Kyoko there is very little else. They have nothing to talk about, and their indiscretions start taking on a clockwork mundanity that makes his marriage look fresh and exciting. In a great final sequence, while at dinner with Kyoko, Doniel keeps going back to the payphone to call Claudine and complain. Again, as despicable as the act is, we can’t help finding it cute and celebrate his return home. It’d take nine years before Truffaut would return to Doniel with Love on the Run, which will be checked out later this year.
BELOW: Antoine Doinel tries to speak English at his new job; love Truffaut's casting of an American businessman
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Sam Peckinpah and Gordon Dawson
Cinematographer: Alex Phillips, Jr.
by Jon Cvack
I’d consider this a slow moving Tarantino film. At nearly two hours, I figure if someone dared challenge Mr. Peckinpah it could have been a phenomenal movie. Instead, we are left with a lot of meandering, watching a couple talk about things that aren’t all that interesting, which eventually results in a the main character going around with the actual head of Alfredo Garcia, talking to him per the likes of Wilson from Cast Away, and participating in some of type of revenge caper film per the likes of Kill Bill or Django Unchained.
The film opens up in a Mexican Mansion. We see hombres and cowboys, packing their rifles and six shooters and we have no idea when the film takes place. There’s a young, pregnant teenage girl standing before mob boss El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez). Demanding she tell him who the father is, they strip her down naked, and she finally spills it - Alfredo Garcia. The father demands his head. And in a maelstrom, the men leave the small town, driving and flying all over the country, as we now discover that it’s all taking place in modern times.
Two bodyguards head to rural Mexico where we meet pianist and alcoholic, Bennie (Warren Oates). I first thought Bennie was Alfredo Garcia given the similarity to the picture, though after about twenty minutes I understood he wasn’t and rather a retired Army Officer with thick teeth and insatiable thirst for the bottle.
He’s been courting prostitute Elita (Isela Vega) who passes her crabs onto Bennie, who picks them off and cracks them apart in one of the great uses of subtle sound effects. The two embark on a journey across rural Mexico. We head from urban area to urban area, each more begrimed and disgusting than the last. We understand that the couple is being followed and will likely get killed. What we don’t expect is the random pair of bikers who stop the couple after a prolonged, mawkish dialogue that Ebert loved and I lost patience with. The biker pair is led by Kris Kristofferson, who in foil to his wholesome role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (same year 1974), plays a rapist who requests the act with his typical calmness, which results in frightening command. I enjoyed Elita’s confusing choice to either play along, or feign interest. We know that Bennie will approach the pair - and in a brilliant switch, we no longer doubt that he’ll kill the biker, so much as if he'll kill Elita as well.
And thus, approximately halfway through the film, the story finally takes off (and we get our first Peckinpah Slow Motion Action Sequence), and we begin to witness the disintegration of Bennie. Ebert highlighted that this film in large part reflects that a "...real director’s at his best when he works with material that reflects his own life pattern.” At this point in his life, Peckinpah was completely drunk each and every day. It’s easy to see the film as his own rebellious act after believing the studio deliberately screwed him on his previous project The Ballad of Cable Hogue. What begins as a simple story, descends into madness as Elita gets murdered, and Bennie stops at nothing in order to bring in the head and avenge her death. The script almost feels improvised, as though Bennie and Elita were going to bring in the head, drive off into the sunset, and instead Peckinpah went on a binger one night, saw his life pass by in front of him, and said fuck it, pulling the crew further into rural Mexico.
Bennie's complete and utter rage from Elita’s death onward, while seeming initially shallow, became more apparent after reading about Peckinpah’s history. In fact, shortly after watching this, I ran into a woman I met while taking the ferry to Catalina Island, who was visiting from Florida and worked out in LA for three or four years as a nurse. She said she met Sam Peckinpah in the hospital a few times, always due to his drinking. There was something very real hearing this from a random stranger, who didn’t have much interest in film and could hardly remember his name. His alcoholism was memorable enough even for Nurses.
It ends similar to other films from the period - Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, etc. After all he achieved, it all came back to him. There’s something about him being a retired Army Officer that makes me think this a pretty heavy insight, obfuscated by all the guns, sex, and drinking. Bennie was waiting on his comeuppance for a long time, as was Sam.
BELOW: The opening scene, taking place in what feels to be the Wild West
Director: Peter Yates
Writer: Paul Monash
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper
By Jon Cvack
This might enter into the top 10 most underrated films I’ve rarely heard of. I came across the title here and there, always recognizing the Criterion cover, but it was after watching Ben Affleck’s “The Town” and its making of where Affleck mentioned this film’s influence on the story that I bumped it up in my Netflix queue. I now have a bit less appreciation for that film (less in the sense of taking a couple of sprinkles of a birthday cake), mostly for the fact that FoEC makes the masks and 'cool' dialogue in The Town seem a bit uninspired,
The story involves old man Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum, in one of his all time greatest roles, think his classic Crossfire/Murder, My Sweet Philip Marlow, told within a highly realistic manner) who’s currently under investigation for driving a truck of stolen goods, and hoping to get the heat off his back. As side work he’s running guns for a mafia-backed series of bank robberies. His one friend is a fellow ex-con and current bartender, Dillon (Peter Boyle). Unbeknownst to either party, both are talking to the cops about all the activity that’s going on.
Meanwhile the gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Stephen Keets; hmm, what a familiar name..), is a highly paranoid and intelligent guy, who’s dealing with both Eddie and a married couple living out of an old ice cream truck. So the guns go from Jackie Brown to Eddie to the bank robbers, all while Eddie is swayed by the ATF to reveal some information in the hopes that he could get off the stolen goods wrap, while Dillon is trying to stay clean.
What makes me this movie so incredible is that it takes some badass dialogue and action, integrating them within a naturalistic story. The fall weather creates a chill through each and every scene. True to noir, there’s a feeling that each person is doomed or cursed, and simply biding time while they’re on the road to damnation. Contrary to The Town, there’s no romance here. Just heartache, and the tail end of a life of bad decisions. The robberies aren’t exciting, or badass. They’re terrifying. Initially we’re not sure who’s wearing the masks. And against a gray sky and a broken town, we’re not sure what they’re going to do. There’s no redemption; there’s no one who’s really all that cool; except for Eddie, and even he turns on us. It’s rare that I resent a character in a movie so much. For eight months of jail, he could have kept quiet and maintained his life. But he wanted more. He wanted Florida.
BELOW: One of the master's greatest monologues
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Cinematographer: Owen Roizman
by Jon Cvack
Even as I was getting into film, I didn’t understand a lot of my sister’s friends interest in older films. I’m not talking the AFI top 100 and stuff like that, but more obscure fair. Yet the older I get the more I appreciate film’s ability to capture moments in time. One of the greatest examples is The Naked City ('48), which films on location all over 1940s New York City, allowing us to see the city as it was, instead of dressed as the filmmakers wanted us to see.
The French Connection provides a glimpse into New York City during the early 1970s. I had watched this film while working off the AFI Top 100 list, and like many of the films, it was too early for me to understand what the film had accomplished. It’s shot in a gritty hand held realism style, feeling much more like a documentary about two undercover detectives than the traditional polished narrative about officers hunting down some drug dealers. There are moments where we seem to just miss what we are about to see, or can’t hear what we’re suppose to because a truck drives by or the character mumbles. We are pulled along the narrative, figuring it all out as it occurs, hoping to capture the relevant information between all the overlapping dialogue and diegetic sounds. As Ebert notes, the story line hardly really matters. It’s about following the characters, getting a taste of the city, and becoming immersed within all of the real locations.
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know this was based off a real story. Turns out the opium trade migrated to France as Turkish and Indian farmers were allowed to produce poppie opium for legal drug use during the 1960s and 70s. However, the excess was sold to the black market, which then made its way to the states. It got to the point where the dealers were smuggling in about 200 pounds of Heroin every other week, with the Feds only seizing about 200 pounds per year.
By 1971, the year The French Connection was released, the Turkish government officially banned its opium seed production. The trafficking continued, with the French smugglers bribing police and military personnel to assist with the imports. It eventually led to one of the biggest corruption cases in US history, involving the NYPD. The details were never discovered, but it involved officers replacing the seized heroin with flour and cornstarch. Eventually, it was discovered that insects were eating these bags of faux-heroin, uncovering the ill-dealings that were going on for years.
The French Connection wasn’t the only film that alluded to these dealings (although it was the most direct). Others were The Godfather I & II, Prince of the City, American Gangster, and, of course, The French Connection II. However, one of the most fascinating elements of the entire situation was that the downfall largely began after The French Connection was released. I haven’t found any evidence that it contributed to the bust, or how much, but I’m sure it was at least partially significant to shedding light on the situation.
Of course, the most memorable moment is the famous car chase, often regarded as one of the best ever produced. Given that it was all filmed on actual New York streets, it’s fascinating to read about the ways they achieved such a realistic action sequence. Cinematographer Owen Roizman undercranked the film to 18fps so that he could speed up the sequence, along with working with William Friedkin to find the best lenses that could cheat distance - something that Spielberg would eventually use for his famous feature-length car chase film, Duel.
However, it’s the end that I had forgotten all about. The fact that Popeye (Gene Hackman) shoots the federal agent and Charnier (Fernando Rey), but Mulderig (Bill Hickman) ends up getting away just never stuck with me. After all of the dirt, grime, and grit, after they bend the law as far as they can in order to a job well done, the man escapes. Popeye and Buddy are transferred out of narcotics. I haven’t seen the sequel yet, but I do know that Popeye makes a comeback. Though like any sequel, you can’t really use that to the judge the original. In some ways the movie’s ending is extraordinarily depressing. In others, it’s perfectly fitting given how far the law was bent to capture their suspects and the comeuppance they faced.
BELOW: A documentary about the actual French Connection
Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jeremy Larner
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper and John Korty
by Jon Cvack
The Candidate precedes what would be established in Network and carried onto into Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, Bulworth, The Newsroom, and what we’re currently experiencing with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The formula is simple - a politician finally speaks the Truth. However, counter to the idealism of the films that followed, The Candidate takes a look at how far the individual would go in order to gain the power, even at the cost of sacrificing their integrity. I never really picked up on this during the film so much as after, though I think that’s more on account of how much more recent films bash you over the head with the same idea. The descent into losing one’s soul is minute and subtle.
McKay (Robert Redford) begins as a successful environmental lawyer who’s recruited - for a reason I’m entirely not sure of - to challenge the incumbent Crocker Jarmon (who indubitably has the best challenger name in any political film; played by Don Porter). As he tries to gain ground, repeating the same talking points about inequality, housing, poverty, crime, and abortion, director Michael Ritchie follows along in a docu-drama way. It is clear that McKay doesn’t really know how he’s going to deliver on any of these promises. In the end, in pure 70s narrative ambiguity (see The Graduate), a victorious McKay takes his campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) into a hotel room and asks what they’re suppose to do now that they've won. Lucas can’t hear him over the celebratory noise, unable to offer any insight.
What’s most gripping about the story is how prescient it was about the role of media in politics. Marvin and his team find the best way to say everything. They hire the best video producer who churns out inspiring and cheesy campaign videos after following McKay around manufacturing plants and inner city neighborhoods. Instead of saying he’s pro-choice (I’m not sure this phrase was developed yet), McKay is instructed to refer to the ongoing research. He has a script, and while veering away from it, never says anything too divisive.
And that’s what makes the whole film so prophetic. It’s as though we’re entering into an age where people know that most candidates walk on eggshells when giving any type of answer and films like this and others helped demonstrate why. When I hear Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton speak all I see are very carefully crafted talking points, based on marketing research and designed by the campaign team. Everything is polished. And then you have the Left and Right populist candidates who’re willing to shoot from the hip, drawing massive crowds on account of it. And it’s because polished candidates don’t seem real, especially as social media plays a more central aspect, that we want real people, not the manufactured candidates of yesteryear. It’s as though we’re entering into a new age of what politics could be. While before television and radio people depended on newspapers and possibly a chance to see them in person now we want to know everything - we want to know they are real people. Those who want to cater to the antiquated method of researching every point will not last long. It’s off the cuff that works. The Candidate saw what politics had become. It also saw where it was going. Strange to think that most of what these candidates discuss is the same - the Right thinks there are too many entitlements which make people lazy, and the Left is a champion of the poor and trying to even out the playing field. Nearly 45 years later and it’s the exact same. With the exception of the abortion-research talk, this movie could easily be remade with the same script and stay just as relevant. Talking off point or not, that’s kind of a bummer.
BELOW: 70s'style ambiguous ending
Thoughts on films, old and new
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.