Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Richard Todd also feature but more peripherally, the latter excelling as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides.
Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting.
The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Raoul Walsh Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis
The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.
The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.
Rating: The Good – 80.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: William Wyler Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!
Rating: The Good – 88.9 Genre: Comedy Duration: 98 mins Director: Harold Ramis Stars: Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield
If Caddyshack was merely a reflection of the sum of its parts, those parts (top comedic actors, original premise, tremendous script, outstanding soundtrack, and a great comedy director) are of such high quality that the film would still rank as a comedy classic. However, the film transcends the sum of those parts to become one of the most enjoyable movie watching experiences. Set in the hilarious Bushwood Country Club, the movie follows its caddies, the rich eccentrics they caddy for, and the various staff including its unstable groundskeeper as they go about their ridiculous daily business. Michael O’Keefe is perfect in the lead as the likable but cheeky Danny Noonan but this movie is as much if not more about the supporting cast of comedic heavyweights. Ted Knight is a riot as Judge Smails, Rodney Dangerfield finds the perfect vehicle for his unique brand of humour (“hey lady, you wanna make 14 dollars the hard way?”) while Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb is Chase at his skewed and improvisational best. Best of all though is Murray as the deranged groundskeeper Carl. This is easily one of his best performances and one of the most off the wall eccentric characters you’ll find in any film. From his “kill all the golfers” line to “you wore green so you could hide” Murray will have you howling with laughter for the full 90 mins and beyond. The quantifiable magic that occurs when every aspect of a movie comes together in perfect harmony is something we rarely encounter in life so let’s just be eternally thankful that Caddyshack is with us. “In the words of Jean Paul Sartre: au revoir”.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 122 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The Daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Jason Miller’s Father Karras is a vessel of pure intensity as the troubled priest sent in conflicting directions by the doubt and fear that he was already experiencing through a crisis of confidence. Fear and doubt that are monstrously amplified when he’s called into help the girl. Von Sydow is calmer but more visceral in emotional demeanour as he wilfully uses a combination of intellect and profound belief against his nemesis. As the film’s sense of reason, the paranormal side to the story is bolstered all the more because his is an ability to reason against the unthinkable. Linda Blair, under close instruction by her director and with no little help from Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal support, is a bristling package of tortured spite and venom, a relentless abomination, and arguably the bold fella’s most ferocious screen incarnation. But sometimes forgotten in all this is Ellen Burstyn’s distraught mother. Given that little Linda isn’t much in the mood for conversation, Burstyn is the glue that binds together the disparate characters including Lee J. Cobb’s endearing homicide detective. It’s a remarkably levelled turn that is critical to the film’s balance.
Fantastic as the cast are, the movie’s power ultimately comes down to the full-on confrontation with the profane which Friedkin and his writer serve up here so relentlessly. The term “genius” is bandied about a little too freely these days but Friedkin and Blatty’s perceptive (not to mention daring) use of western culture’s deep-wired moral coding to impact the audience beyond the confines of the film was as extraordinary an accomplishment as Kubrick’s final act in 2001. It also laid the groundwork for some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years as that particular trick was exhausted to the point that Hideo Nakata was forced to have his demon actually crawl out of the TV in order to imbue his audience with the requisite sense of intrusion. Blatty’s script swings between the warm and scathingly twisted and spanned across its unpretentious dialogue is a clear idea of what he wants this movie to be. Though, on the issue of unpretentiousness and clarity, no review would get far without mentioning the film’s archetyping use of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells.
But the masterstroke comes courtesy of the director who ensures that the atmosphere and tension are defined primarily within the personal tribulations of his protagonists. At crucial moments, the insanity of the story’s events is snapshot back within the boundaries of the world in which we live as it refocuses around the authenticity of those personal trials. Friedkin complements this by keeping the movie’s visual profile rooted in the gritty lighting of contemporary crime cinema and the warmer production design of a family drama. Unlike most horror movies which can’t resist going ‘big’, at no point does he get sucked towards the absurd of horror porn or supernatural melodrama. And with that, the horror is kept pure and unabated so that, when it spikes, it will chill you to the core of your marrow. A peerless form of dissonant terror that’s even more extremely exemplified in that spider-walking director’s cut. A true classic!
Rating: The Good – 84.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 110 mins Director: Robert Rossen Stars: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru
John Ireland takes a rare centre billing as the passionate young reporter who is determined to make it without the help of his step-father’s wealth. When he learns of a local hick come political candidate standing up to the power brokers of a small town, the journalist and that politician’s paths become one, not to mention, a cautionary tale of the temptations of power. A more gritty and serious take on the subject matter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King’s Men is a pull no punches look at the yearning for power and the Shakespearian demise inherent in its pursuit. Broderick Crawford is the headstrong politician Willie Stark with the baseball bat ambition and total absence of scruples and he dominates the film. Ireland is unsurprisingly weak in the lead and is probably the primary reason why this movie’s popularity failed to display the longevity of other classics. But outside of the acting and Robert Rossen’s (adapted from Penn Miller’s novel) cynical screenplay which simply exudes unapologetic exploitation, it’s Rossen’s cultured touch behind the camera that marks this movie above most. Allowing context to breathe and grow, his film is defined by the power of setting-influenced perspective. This is best seen in the contrast between Ireland’s childhood home, Burden’s Landing, an island of wealth and security aloof from the sharp consequential world of politics which its most wealthy inhabitants still manage to determine. Rossen strikes a fine tuned balance between the otherworldly qualities of Burden’s Landing and the cut throat political scene. The former hazy with childlike mythos and naive optimism, the latter strewn with the grit and deceit of the great noirs. With an island named “Burden’s Landing”, it will come as no surprise that metaphor plays a sometimes heavy handed role in exacting the movie’s themes but it seems to curiously resonate with the naivety of the place rendering their harshness more forgivable. On the dramatic front, Rossen’s film is flush with political intrigue and offers a an up close and personal examination of the mechanism of US politics that probably hasn’t changed much since the era of its making.
Rating: The Good – 85.2 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 111 mins Director: Billy Wilder Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. There’s just one problem: the schmuck may be rescued too soon for the story to get enough traction. Using all his wiles to co-opt the sheriff and rescuers, the driven reporter orchestrates a slower rescue while, outside the cave, the public interest reaches fever pitch.
Ace in the Hole makes for a rather picturesque film even if you don’t immediately notice it. The sun bleached New Mexican landscape contrasted with the dust and darkness of the cave harnesses the mood of Wilder’s perceptive screenplay to create a rather impressive canvas for his critique of media sensationalism. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. The latter peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. All framed around Douglas’ arch manipulator buzzing about somewhere within. And on top of all this, they go and give us one of the great noir endings too.
Rating: The Good – 87.3 Genre: Western Duration: 97 mins Director: John Ford Stars: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Few if any directors had an eye for scene composition and linearity like the master John Ford had and this here classic is about as good an example of it as you will find. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play the legendary duo of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who along with Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford regular Ward Bond) Earp get drawn into a blood feud with the nasty Clanton clan. That genial old soul, Walter Brennan, plays their murderous patriarch is just one of several factors that makes Ford’s treatment of Earp’s time in Tombstone arguably the most memorable of the lot. Another is Fonda who compliments his oak exterior with all manner of playfulness that gives the Old West legend a genuine humanity and, with that, the edge on the likes of Russell or Costner (to name but a few). Mature didn’t always seem comfortable in his acting skin but he too counts as one of Ford’s aces as he captures the contradictory mystique of his character with presence and pathos alike. Holt and Bond are nothing more than bit players but Linda Darnell turns in a typically brash performance that further embellishes the movie’s emotional quotient.
They’re all aided considerably by Samuel G. Engels’ script which is a veritable peach of mouth watering turns of phrase but, also, seems a little conflicted in how it incorporates the titular Clementine into a plot that inevitably builds towards the showdown at the OK Corral. Cathy Downs does what she can as the woman caught between two friends but her character remains of side interest only. Needless to say, all fall in the shadow of Ford on this one for My Darling Clementine is just a spellbinding testament to the art of the visual pattern. If there was one film that could, on its own, instruct film students in composition, it would be this one. Sight lines that expand the psychological space by drawing our gaze out into the vastness of the desert, dusty light that silhouettes the famed characters of western lore in all of their immortal glory, and action sequences staged with a sniper’s eye for detail not to mention his/her patience. An aesthetic not easily matched nor ever forgotten.
This inspired meditation on class, morality, passion, and duty is Akira Kurosawa’s finest hour behind the camera and possibly Mifune’s finest hour in front of it. As funny as it is touching, there’s not a single aspect of this film that could’ve been improved upon and it offers more than perhaps any other. Watch how Kurosawa wonderfully counterbalances the necessarily languid scenes where the characters are waiting for the battles to commence with the shocking brutality of those battles one they begin. As incredible as Toshiro Mifune is he’s equalled by Takashi Shimura’s simmering portrayal of the head samurai which is one of most quietly powerful pieces of acting ever captured by a camera. With every rub of his shaven head Shimura expounds kindness, generosity of spirit, and a keen sense of leadership and in doing so, his performance as much as any other aspect of the film reflects the soul of this poingent masterpiece. Timeless.
Rating: The Good – 97.5 Genre: Thriller Duration: 92 mins Director: Charles Laughton Stars: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
“Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” Charles Laughton’s majestic film tells the story of two orphaned children on the run from a murderous “preacher” who wants the stolen money that their father gave them to hide before being captured by the police. Robert Mitchum was never better as the malevolent women-hating criminal who disguises himself as a man of the cloth in order to get his hands on the cash his cell mate spoke of in his sleep. There have been few performances as brave, captivating, and disturbing and it would surely have been the most memorable feature of the picture if it wasn’t for what first-time director Laughton was doing behind the camera.
More used to being in front of it, Laughton gives a master class in the use of light, shadow, and perspective to give the ordinary and mundane a mythical and otherworldly feel. The film flows with a dreamlike quality with the river-rafting sequences in particular demonstrating an innovation and boldness which few established directors of the time were demonstrating, let alone first-timers. In fact, its subtle manipulations and breadth of imagination give it the psyche-affecting power of those archetypal fairytales we all grew up on.
This sweeping brilliance makes it difficult to pigeon-hole The Night of the Hunter into one particular genre. Some have classed it as a film-noir but given the message of hope and optimism (delivered chiefly through the outstanding performance of Lillian Gish) which powerfully permeates the final act, it would seem to certainly defy that genre’s conventions. At times a parable and at times a deeply cutting satire, this film’s form is defined by an almost whimsical momentum as if Laughton was purposefully channeling the playful and malleable way children (most of all) see the world. And it’s in this achievement that the true genius of the film is realised. However, Laughton’s astounding debut was so reviled at the time of its release (for daring to dress evil in the clothes of a preacher) that he never stepped behind the camera again, depriving us of perhaps one of the truly great directors.