Our new monthly feature offers bullet reviews of five films we watched while staying up too late.
Have you ever stayed up too late to finish watching a movie, or pulled an all-nighter because something good was coming on in the wee hours of the morning? We do that all the time, even now that we’ve got a DVR to record the films for playback whenever we want. Actually, now especially because we’ve got a DVR and can catch up on our film viewing when no one else is around.
Every month or so we’ll review a bunch of films we saw while avoiding sleep. Some of them deserve their own full-length post, and time willing they’ll get it. Others can slip by with only a few words for summary. Not for nothing, but the name of this new feature is a homage to the great USA network series of the 1980s, which always made skipping bedtimes more fun.
Leave Her To Heaven (1945) Sometimes called “the Technicolor film noir,” this excellent suspenser directed by John M. Stahl (Imitation of Life) showcases Gene Tierney as a homicidally jealous wife who’ll kill anyone that gets between her and her author husband (Cornell Wilde). Among her many victims is the author’s polio-afflicted brother, in a scene that’s as chilling for its glacial calm as any half-dozen modern horror flicks combined (about 2:45 into the clip below.)
The role earned Tierney an Academy Award nomination and became 20th Century Fox’s biggest hit of the decade. Its influence on later films including Play Misty For Me, Fatal Attraction, and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is unmistakable and immediately apparent.
The Harder They Fall (1956) – Probably best known as Humphrey Bogart’s last screen appearance, director Mark Robson’s (Peyton Place) boxing drama was based on a novel by Bud Schulberg (On The Waterfront) as well as the scandals surrounding the career of real-life heavyweight Primo Carnera. A visibly ailing Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a down and out sportswriter hired by mobster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to promote an argentine contender. The towering Argentine Toro Moreno (Mike Lang) can’t hit, can’t take a punch, and possesses an almost childlike intelligence, yet since all his fights are fixed by Benko’s cronies his fame and public adoration grow.
Bogart spent much of his last decade in film making “socially conscious” films like this, Knock On Any Door, and Sabrina, and while his performance and the boxing scenes are all accomplished, the ending almost ruins everything by trailing off into a vague, unsatisfying resolution. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to see real-life boxers like Max Baer (Russell Crowe’s nemesis in Cinderella Man) and Jersey Joe Walcott ably fill important roles.
A Face In The Crowd (1957) – Schulberg also wrote the script to this excoriation of the advertising and television industries, reteaming with On The Waterfront director Elia Kazan to tell the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), an Arkansas vagabond who rises to national ideologue status after getting discovered in jail by a well-meaning reporter (Patricia Neal.) Rhodes, like so many modern-day pundits, mixes “down home” folksy sincerity with his politics, syrup-coating the agendas of the advertisers and politicians standing behind him.
Until his hubris catches up with him, precipitating a downfall that Kazan stages as an almost Shakespearean descent from power. Kazan and Schulberg’s understanding of marketing and television’s use of imagery to appeal to audiences – simultaneously stimulating and soothing, sexy and doting - remain to this day acidly barbed in their accuracy.
The Last Detail (1973) – Two Navy career men (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escort a convicted thief (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to the Naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Given a week and a full per diem budget to carry the errand out, the two resolve instead to show the naïve, kleptomaniac convict a good time before his eight year sentence begins. Director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) frame the black comedy as a parable about living within authoritative systems and the toll that it takes on the individual, with the knowledge of their duties and obligations always hanging over the trio’s heads.
Some fans consider Nicholson’s turn as Billy “Badass” Buddusky his finest performance, a claim that’s not completely without merit. Quaid is excellent as the young, doomed thief, giving the character equal parts naïvety and resignation. Also appearing, very early in their careers, are Michael Moriarty, Gildna Radner, Nancy Allen, and Carol Kane (as “Young Whore”) in various minor roles.
Amazing Grace And Chuck (1987) – Montana little league pitcher Chuck Murdock (Joshua Zuehlke) refuses to play baseball as a protest against the United States’ and Soviet Unions’ nuclear arsenals. When Boston Celtics star Amazing Grace Smith (basketball hall of famer Alex English) reads about his protest, he quits the NBA to join him. In time, other athletes join their cause, despite the warnings of Chuck’s fighter pilot father (William L. Petersen), the U.S. president (Gregory Peck), and Smith’s business manager (Jamie Lee Curtis). After Smith is killed, Chuck leads the world’s children in a silent protest for disarmament.
British director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) made his American début with this sweet, well-meaning feature, and the film manages by and large to contain its hokier elements. One of its major strengths lies in its characterizations, which are all surprising but no less believable: each one is complex and multi-faceted, and no character is there just to occupy a stock designated place in the plot. Of the two stars, imdb.com lists no other roles for Zuehlke, and English is now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors.
- Michael Kabel