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 – 77.8 Genre: Western Duration: 122 mins Director: Edward Dmytryk Stars: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn
Terrific western about the scared townsfolk of Warlock who unofficially hire a feared gunman and his disturbingly protective assistant to marshal a gang of cut throats. However, when a outlaw turned hero is formally instated as sheriff, the question of who’s in charge becomes a defining feature of the town’s battle with the outlaws. Some films work simply on the basis of their writing and there’s little doubt that the intriguing characterisation and dialogue on display here would probably make a success out of Warlock even if it didn’t possess a truly outstanding cast, all of whom, act their chaps off. With Richard Widmark headlining as the modestly capable sheriff, his nuanced likability offers a warm contrast to the more interesting dynamic shared between Henry Fonda’s expert gunslinger and Anthony Quinn’s grisly defender. The latter are immense with Fonda in particular relishing the darker meat to his role with one of the genre’s better turns. Quinn is the unknown factor and his slippery personality keeps the audience firmly hooked. Based on Oakley Hall’s novel and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur, Warlock is rich in thematic depth without getting too aloof from the genre’s more modest origins while the always excellent Edward Dmytryk solidly balances the unintuitively related subplots and serves up some intense showdowns as he goes. We could’ve stood to have seen more of Widmark and of his attempt to make a life in the town but Dmytryk clearly saw it as a trade-off worth making.
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.
Rating: The Good – 95.7 Genre: Western Duration: 175 mins Director: Sergio Leone Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Sergio Leone’s meta-western was the first true revisionist western. The man with no name is not Clint but Bronson and he’s not as much a man as he is the embodiment of a dying breed of men and the western genre itself. The plot is inconsequential as it is merely a vehicle for Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Donati to anthologise and meta-analyse the genre, celebrate its glory, and lament what they saw as its inevitable demise. But what a vehicle it is. From the beginning of the first reel, Leone is reaching into our psyches, tantalising us with familiar shots and references to half-remembered images from the westerns of yesteryear. He scales the story both wide and narrow, subverting our expectations (“that was Henry Fonda right?”), deconstructing mythology, and employing the most audacious yet subtly appropriate use of metaphor in the history of the medium (he got up!). And all this ticks along to Ennio Morrincone’s spell-binding score, themed perfectly to the four main characters played memorably by Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, and Claudia Cardinale.
An interesting but problem ridden account of the decisive WWII battle of the pacific sees Carlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford and others go up against their Japanese counterparts in the form of Toshirô Mifune and James Shigeta. The strength of the this film lies in its honest attempt to capture the ebbs and flows of the battle as tactics, mechanical and human error, courage and above all luck played their respective hands. This goes a long way in recreating some of the anxiety and panic that defined the days events. The cast is littered with big names from the aforementioned to Hal Holbrook, Robert Webber, Robert Wagner, Cliff Robertson, James Coburn, and most exciting of all Robert Mitchum. Though they all bring their presence in different ways most of them are mere cameos and so there’s a tendency to feel rather hard done by as the film continues. But that’s only a minor issue compared to major problems which beset this film.
First off, the Japanese characters either speak English in American accents or in most cases they are dubbed by Americans making no attempt to disguise their accents. While this reduces the authenticity which films like Tora! Tora! Tora! achieved so easily it also makes it difficult to discern which sides the various pilots belong to as they radio back to their ships. Even more unfortunate is the shooting of the battle sequences themselves. Pedestrian at best, laughable at worst, they lack any proper coordination and involve bargain basement visual effects. The director Jack Smight is most culpable here and one suspects his decision to incorporate actual dog fighting footage into those scenes was to compensate for the poorness of those effects but in the end, they only destabilise them further.
All this is a shame because the Battle of Midway is an important and critical moment in WWII and no other film before or since has brought the necessary scale to do it justice. That this is what hardened WWII movie fans are left with is frustrating especially give that it could be avoided. However, for those fans alone, Midway’s successful attempt to give a methodical blow by blow account of the day should prove enough reason to give this one a watch.
“You’re like everybody else. You think too much and get mixed up.” Few films have managed to get to the truth of things like 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Inherit the Wind and it’s a shame those few exceptions are all from over half a century ago. The premise is well known now: twelve white male jurors all sitting in a sweaty room debating whether a young man from the wrong side of the tracks is guilty of killing his father. Writer Reginald Rose and a 34 year old Sidney Lumet cleverly use the context to expose the varied prejudices which humans bring to bear on the world and the result is an insightful analysis of truth, perception, and moral fortitude. Henry Fonda is exquisite as the brave conscience of the twelve but there isn’t one of them (Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Martin Balsam especially) who doesn’t pull out all the stops.
12 Angry Men is a testament to the power of simplicity when delivered with clear purpose. The dialogue is not fancy but rather tailored authentically to the various personalities whether they be straight-talking working class men or more white-collar. They talk exactly like you’d expect their characters to talk and the arguments which unfold do so in an organic and unplanned manner, again exactly how real life informal debates do. That Rose and Lumet manage to peak the drama around the key points and revelations that come from these arguments is no mean feat. In fact, for all the glowing talent in front of the camera and for all the brilliance of Rose’s story and screenplay, the standout performer here is undoubtedly Lumet who quite simply rewrote the directors’ manual with the methods and devices he used to generate and balance the tension as it rises and settles repeatedly throughout the film. Watch how he builds a sense of anticipation particularly in the opening scenes and how he focuses it on the faces of the actors, the knife, the glasses, or Fonda’s simulated limp. Lumet knew how to get the best from his sterling cast and his framing of their faces and actions works flawlessly yet silently to achieve this.
12 Angry Men is a profoundly moving film and deeply arresting. It’s not a pulpit for liberalism or a champion of bleeding heartism. It’s an analysis of both the flaws and strengths of humankind and a piercing one at that. From a purely film-making point of view, it’s not only a lesson in the construction of dramatic tension on screen but it’s damn near the best made drama ever. It’s cinematic gold is what it is.
Rating: The Good – 74.6 Genre: Drama, Comedy Duration: 102 mins Director: Franklin J. Schaffner Stars: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams
Gore Vidal and director Franklin J. Schaffner joined forces to give us this perceptive analysis of 1960’s politics and the ugly machine which drove it and thanks to the very systemic problems it attempts to shed a light on, it’s as relevant today as it was then. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson star as the two front-runners in their party’s Presidential nomination race vying for the President’s public backing on convention day. Fonda is a principled and honest liberal determined to run a clean campaign who is forced into a dirty battle by his ruthless fear-mongering rival.
There aren’t enough comedy dramas like this. The comedy isn’t the slightest bit contrived where characters are asked to be wittier than the average person or where unlikely circumstances are contrived to elicit laughter. Here the comedy comes from the serious and realistic interactions of the various political movers and shakers. This approach allows the serious tones to Vidal’s screenplay and Schaffner’s direction to remain strong throughout without dominating the drama to the point that it becomes depressing. And of course, that’s exactly the point because the hypocrisy and selfishness of the politicians is so rampant and invulnerable that to face it head on, would leave one exasperated. Fonda’s William Russell is the embodiment of this sentiment. As a witty intellectual who feels compelled to race in the absence of a candidate who could do his party justice, he forces himself to play a game he has a clear distaste for and attempts to rise above it through clever jibes at the hypocrisy he sees all around him. Robertson’s Joe Cantwell, on the other hand, is the personification of the worst elements of the political system who has lied so often and so prolifically that he now believes his own rhetoric as gospel despite his own actions providing evidence to the contrary on a second-by-second basis.
Vidal and Schaffner get the personal sides to the story just right by humanising both candidates and their wives in a way which excavates some interesting explanations. The central story revolves around a blackmail scam which Cantwell tries to pull on Russell and the manner in which the latter fights it makes for an interesting if somewhat simplistic morality play that unfolds with a wonderful tension right up until the penultimate scene. Schaffner handles all this with the competence you’d expect, effectively backdropping the deal-making and manipulations against the hustle and bustle of the convention. Fonda is his usual shining light of liberal ideals, that is, a strong, intelligent, and relatable leading man while Robertson offers a tastier sample of the kind of character which is typically overplayed in these dramas. His version is more restrained, low key and, therefore, sinister. The Best Man isn’t Schaffner or Fonda’s most piercing social analysis but it is an eminently neat political burner which because of its limited ambition, avoids putting a foot wrong.
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Thriller, War Duration: 112 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver
Sidney Lumet’s powerhouse of a film came out at the same time as Dr Strangelove and given it was about a squadron of US bombers who are accidentally ordered to drop their nuclear payload on Moscow and the frantic attempts of the US military to stop it, it was completely overshadowed by Kubrick’s similarly themed classic. In popularity that is, not quality, definitely not quality. Henry Fonda stars as the US president who must handle the incendiary negotiations with his Soviet counterpart while maintaining his military staff’s perspective on the other telephone line. Walter Matthau is the creepy political scientist who advises the latter to make the most out of the situation and attack all out in the expectation that the communist mindset will self-council surrender.
Unique, intensely disturbing, and saturated with nervous authenticity, Fail-Safe is a remarkable piece of work in every respect. The drama is constantly switching between the White House, the Pentagon, the lead bomber, and its airforce base but at all times the transitions are seamless. Fonda is as usual terrific in a role of authority while Matthau seems to relish the darker role. However, given the broad scope to the drama, there’s a well rounded cast of support players such as Dan O’Herlihy who have just as much to do and are, in the main, every bit as impressive. Given the inevitable prevalence of technical jargon, there’s proper depth to Walter Bernstein’s screenplay. The dialogue elegantly balances the philosophical, the emotional, and pragmatic as Eugene Burdick’s story plays out on a number of simultaneously relevant dimensions. As the insanity of what we are seeing spirals into ever darkening territory, the scenario ironically begins to feel more and more real.
Fail-Safe is Lumet at his imperious best reflecting all the innovation that marked The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, and Network and the flawless construction which marked 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. The opening and final sequences in particular are ingeniously conceived and in many ways they set the tone to Fail-Safe as clinically as Kubrick’s opening and closing sequences did to Dr Strangelove. On that note, it’s remarkable at how both films parallel each other while being almost completely opposite in tone. In many ways, Fail-Safe is the same story but told and shot from a more sombre point of view which is intriguing in its own right as Kubrick always said that he originally intended to tell his story that way but couldn’t due to the insanity of the entire scenario. Lumet and co. capture that sentiment profoundly right at the moment Fonda’s character glimpses the only solution to his most terrible of dilemmas. For in an insane world, the most rational decision must surely appear to be the most irrational. In essence, they pulled off what Kubrick felt was impossible.