Films we watched instead of getting the sleep we need.
Remember this one?
Why do older movies – films from previous decades – seem to have a fascination that new releases cannot match? They aren’t wine, growing better and more refined as their ingredients merge and shift. They aren’t like people, either, learning from their mistakes or changing to fit the world around them. A film is exactly the way it was when it was new. But older films take on a life of their own as they recede into history, becoming something more than an object of nostalgia.
We think staying up all night watching old movies is one of life’s great unsung pleasures. It’s an intimate, concentrated experience that sometimes allows a greater understanding of the film viewed, more even than seeing something in a theatre or among the company of friends. Over the last month of so we watched the following seven films, mostly older but a couple of more recent vintage. We were more impressed with some than others, but they were all worth staying up too late – and the consequences that that guarantees the next day – to enjoy.
Brute Force (1947) - Noble criminal Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) schemes to break out of a fortress-like prison, both to comfort his dying wife (Ann Blyth) and to escape the machinations of a sadistic guard captain (Hume Cronyn.) Enlisting the aid of a veteran con (Charles Bickford) and his bookish sidekick (Sam Levine), the two devise a risky plan to capture the bridge leading from the prison gates to freedom.
Though not as celebrated as his subsequent noirs Night and The City or The Naked City, Jules Dassin’s wrenching suspenser featured shocking depictions of violence intermixed with the director’s willfully – and sometimes self-consciously – artistic style. Though Richard Brooks’ (The Blackboard Jungle) script occasionally lapses into stock Hollywood melodrama, particularly in the cutaway vignettes about the convicts’ loves outside the prison walls, the climactic riot scene (based on real-life events at Alcatraz) is about as taut and riveting a set piece as can be imagined.
The Last Voyage (1960) - We’d first heard of this film over fifteen years ago but didn’t see it until a recent TCM showing finally gave us the chance. It didn’t disappoint. When the boilers of the overworked ocean liner SS Claridon explode, the crew and its clay-footed captain (George Sanders) and resentful chief engineer (Edmond O’Brien) scramble to contain the damage and prevent a panic among the passengers. Meanwhile an American businessman (Robert Stack) struggles to free his wife (Dorothy Malone) from the steel wreckage pinning her from the neck down.
Writer-director Andrew L. Stone (The Secret of My Success) understands how to build suspense by letting events speak from themselves: you’ll never feel so enthralled by men trying to fortify a bulkhead or loosen a pipe fitting, or feel terrified by the sound of rushing water. Stack and Sanders give solid if unspectacular performances, while the true pleasure of the film is seeing the under-appreciated Woody Strode stretching out in a heroic, substantial role as one of the ship’s hands. A clear and unmistakable influence on every ocean liner-disaster film to follow, including most notably The Poseidon Adventure and its sequels and remakes. By the way, the film is 91 minutes long.
Slow Burn (2005) – District attorney and mayoral candidate Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) finds his lover/assistant (Jolene Blalock) may have been conspiring with a powerful, unseen drug lord to undermine his campaign. Adding to the confusion are a suspect (LL Cool J) who may be either a thug or a federal agent and rumors of a shadowy disaster scheduled for the coming morning. Cole has the rest of the night to get to the truth of his assistant’s rape and self-defense murder story and, in turn, prevent the disaster.
Revelations about the assistant’s duplicity play out through a series of flashbacks that, under screenwriter Wayne Beach’s (The Art of War) journeyman direction, don’t come together as tightly as they could to elevate the film past its genre thresholds. Still, the script raises intriguing ideas about racial identity and the role of race in big city politics and law enforcement, ideas for which it shrewdly doesn’t offer explanations. As usual, Blalock brings more to the part than it probably deserves playing the chameleon-like, duplicitous femme fatale, and Liotta is solid (if sometimes unexciting) as always.
Rancho Deluxe (1975) – A good example of a film whose time has passed, this too laid-back for its own good comedy-Western features Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as dim-witted, affable Montana cattle rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective hired to catch them. Along the way the rustlers steal a prize bull, romance two local cowgirls, and deal with their own family issues while the detective and his wily assistant (Charlene Dallas) manipulate their employer (Clifton James) and his two dopey ranch hands (Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright.)
Frank Perry’s (Mommie Dearest) direction of Thomas McGuane’s script is loose and carefree to the point that tone and suspense suffer, and he includes too many diversions and scenes that don’t amount to much. There’s gratuitious sex and nudity, and extended gag scenes and set pieces, and ultimately the slack pacing and tone don’t matter. Like many would-be cult films of the 70s and early 80s, it’s a film to watch while you’re (to quote Bill Murray in a much better film) stoned to the bejeezus belt. To that end it also features Jimmy Buffet, schlocking it up in a live performance:
Night of the Hunter (1955) – The diametric opposite of Rancho Deluxe in probably every way, this genuinely disturbing psychological thriller casts Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, a serial-killing preacher who roams the Depression-era South looking for women to rob and murder. Sent to jail for car theft, he learns of a hidden store of money from the farmer (Peter Graves) who stole and murdered for it, hiding it upon his farm before his capture. Upon his release Powell woos and marries the farmer’s lonely and sexually frustrated widow (Shelley Winters), then kills her when she realizes his intentions. Her son and daughter, who alone know the money’s location, flee down the Ohio River with Harry close on their trail.
Director Charles Laughton’s blending of Southern Gothic story tropes with German Expressionism imagery is probably a stroke of genius, as one disturbingly unforgettable image flows into the next. Audacious and brazenly unconventional, it’s a film that has to be seen to be believed. Mitchum played a lot of roles in his legendary career, but there’s a case to be made that he’s at his best here.
The Man From Elysian Fields (2001) – Struggling novelist Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) is recruited by the debonair head of a male escort service (Mick Jagger) to provide company for the trophy wife (Olivia Williams) of a legendary but terminally ill author (James Coburn.) Tiller needs the money and agrees to the indecent proposal, even going so far as to sleep with the woman with the author’s bemused approval. The two writers become friends, and Tiller gets the once-in-a-lifetime chance to collaborate with his literary idol even while hiding his new “job” from his own wife (Julianna Margulies) and child.
A film that under George Hickenlooper’s (Factory Girl) direction assumes its audience is intelligent enough to connect dots without a map and verbal instructions, for much of its runtime it’s a low key and elegant big of filmmaking that’s lovely to look at and intriguing to think about in the days that follow; only towards the end does it sweat a little to reach its conclusion. All the principal cast members are subdued and modulated in their parts, getting powerful support from smaller turns by the always-welcome Xander Berkeley, Anjelica Houston, and Richard Bradford. Jagger, playing a man giving all his well-learned politesse, is a scene-stealing delight.
There are cooler movie posters, but not many.
No Way Out (1950) - Some films you have to respect for their nerve, as they tackle subjects America wasn’t necessarily ready to face at the time of their release. So with this thriller from co-writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Somewhere In The Night), about a black medical resident (Sidney Poitier, in his debut role) assigned to treat two wounded thugs. When one of them dies from a previously undiagnosed brain tumor, his racist brother (Richard Widmark) swears revenge, going so far as to organize a race riot from his prison cell. The resident’s boss (Stephen McNally) and the dead man’s widow (Linda Darnell) find themselves caught in the middle as the ensuing riot proves disastrous for the white aggressors, and the bleeding, delusional thug escapes in the ensuing commotion.
Mankiewicz and Lesser Samuels’ script pulls no punches, offers no platitudes, and makes no consideration for audience taste or decorum; the film flaunts racial epithets and the simmering rage of both blacks and whites with equal candor. Poitier is good but not yet the actor he would become, while Widmark’s role is one he would play probably too often in his career, a variation once again of Kiss of Death‘s Tommy Udo. Darnell gets maybe the best part, playing a self-loathing but essentially good person torn between her sense of self and her sense of right and wrong. Twentieth Century Fox knew they were holding dynamite, if the trailer is any indication:
We’ll be back next week with a review of a new release. Thank you for reading.
- Michael Kabel
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