Tag Archives: Ben Gazzara

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) 4.07/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 160 mins
Director: Otto Preminger 
Stars: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara

Anatomy of a Murder is a near flawless courtroom drama infused with lashings of charm and the most delicate touches of wit. James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of a sleepy Michigan town, who elects to represent the defendant in a murder trial involving the possible rape of a woman and the reprisal of her army lieutenant husband. Bemused by the inherent duplicity of both the alleged victim (Lee Remick) and her husband (Ben Gazzara) and eager to pay the bills, Biegler sets about constructing his defence. As the case wears on, the drama shifts increasingly towards the courtroom where he, the opposing district attorney, and a specialist prosecutor sent down from Washington D.C. (George C. Scott) engage in one clever duel after another.

Otto Preminger’s directorial class is all over Anatomy of a Murder. At 160 minutes, it should be a long watch but it never feels that way. The movie glides along from scene to scene as Duke Ellingtons jazzy score spirals in the background. The soft charm, cutting humour, and darker themes of jealousy and vengeance are seamlessly realised and, at all times, they are working towards the same end. The acting is pitch perfect from all concerned with Stewart and Gazzara excelling in parts that were fully complemented by their own unique charm and charisma. Remick is a delight as the mischievous party girl and Scott adds his usual commanding presence.

Wendell Mayes screenplay (adapted from John D. Voelker’s book) is of course the most powerful feature of the film and whether it be its sublime capturing of legal procedure and etiquette or its even more impressive ambiguity when it comes to Remick and Gazzara’s characters, it drives the tone of the film more than any other feature. One gets the feeling that it could have perhaps made better use of Scott’s intriguing character, although in Mayes’ defence, the story was pushing three hours as it stood and there’s not much that could have been sacrificed.

Anatomy of a Murder is a classic piece of cinema from a time when US film-makers were beginning to once again playfully examine the possible uses of the medium. The entire story plays out in a peculiar but completely satisfying manner and for that reason alone it should be seen by all film enthusiasts. The fact that it’s also a cracking legal drama merely adds to this rare quality.

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Road House (1989) 4.36/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.7
Genre: Action
Duration: 114 mins
Director: Rowdy Herrington
Stars: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott

“Always be nice, be very nice. Until it’s time not to be nice.” One of the all time great action films, Road House is the coming together of a razor sharp script, an outstanding central performance, perfectly orchestrated fight scenes, a rip-roaring soundtrack, and some of the best tongue-in-cheek villainy in screen history (“Prepare to die”, “You are such an asshole”). Add a tantalising supporting cast into the mix (best of all being Sam Elliot’s “Wade Garrett”) and you’re talking an epic action feature matched by few other films.

The story focuses on the number one “cooler” in the business (Patrick Swayze’s “Dalton”), a philosophical, tai-chi practicing bouncer who is brought in to the rowdy “Double Deuce” to clean it up. Things come to a head when the owner of the bar is targeted by the nasty Ben Gazzara (in blistering form) and his hoard of henchmen who come equipped with dagger boots and a Monster truck.

One suspects this film never got the acclaim it deserves because those who deride it don’t realise the bad guys are supposed to be caricatures, while most who champion it think of it as a so-bad-it’s-good type movie. But one could argue that both are wrong. At the heart of this movie, it’s as if there are two different scripts closely layered, one one top of the other. The bad guys’ lines are a festival of overt cliche while the good guys’ lines are as fresh, original, and cool as anything even Tarantino has since dished up. That’s right, Road House may just have been an early taste of the self-referential cinema that was to define the 90′s.

Swayze epitomises this interesting brand of cool and, more than anything, the pace of the film is set by his understated performance. He doesn’t say much but when he does speak it’s a treat to listen to, not only because of the subtle sharpness to his lines but because of his slick delivery. With every nod, salute, and half smile Swayze sinks the hook in deeper and by the time he starts kicking ass he’s firmly got a grip of you.

On the issue of ass-kicking, western film makers never properly understood why eastern actors look so good in martial arts films but essentially it’s down to their Chinese opera training which involves a lot of co-ordinated dancing. Therefore, being a dancer himself, Swayze always looked great while fighting and his natural feel for movement makes the fight scenes in this film (just as they were in Point Break) magnificent. They’re also great fun as director Rowdy Herrington makes the most of the sh!t-kicker bar setting so that the bottles, glasses, chairs, and tables are flying back and forth to the terrific music of the Jeff Healy Band in the background. Michael Kamen’s score is also scintillating but largely because it reminds us of that other seminal action film Die Hard, which Kamen worked on that same year. In fact it’s identical in parts. Given the hidden class of Road House, it’s more than appropriate that this more obscure movie has such a tangible link to what is most likely the greatest action film of them all. Appropriate because it’s only about two places behind it in the rankings.

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 135 mins
Director: John Cassavetes
Stars: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel

John Cassavetes’ crime thriller is as inspired and masterful a contribution to the genre as you’ll find. Steeped in the experimental spirit of 1970’s cinema, it tells the story of a proud strip-club owner who is ordered by the mob to murder a local competitor of theirs in order to square off a debt. Ben Gazzara is phenomenal in the central role bringing a level of improvisation and focus to his character which is comparable to what De Niro did with Travis Bickle. It’s a powerfully confident turn and it must surely go down as one of the most under-appreciated performances of that decade. Yes, he is surrounded by a fine support cast with the highly idiosyncratic and combustible Timothy Carey adding strongly to the spirit of improvisation and unpredictability as the mob’s enforcer. However, it’s the understanding between lead actor and director which allows this film to work.

Gazzara and Cassavetes seemed perfect for each other in style and sensibility and the latter’s use of the camera and sound is every bit as inspired and unconventional as the former’s acting. Unafraid to let the camera linger, Cassavetes’ focus here becomes the moments in between the lines of dialogue or in between the more overtly dramatic moments. Moreover, the sense of space he evokes and manipulates is palpable and whether it’s through the physical blocking of his actors’ faces as they deliver their lines in order to focus our attention on the reactions of peripheral characters or the angled framing of the main characters’ facial reactions, Cassavetes makes us intimately familiarity with the characters and their dilemmas.

The most rewarding aspect to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is in its focus. This film is about pride and modest ambition, themes rarely deemed exciting enough to explore in a crime genre. But through the integrity of the central performance and incisiveness of the writing and direction, these otherwise soulful meditations become a cast iron pretext for the more ferocious aspects to the film. Thus, just when you think it’s going to remain an art house examination of such personal quandary, Cassavetes throws a hand grenade of swift and slickly captured action into the mix which gels perfectly with the subjective perspective he had built so completely. All said and done, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a remarkable film even by the 1970’s standards and one that should’ve had a more profound impact on its genre.

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