Rating: The Good – 81.9 Genre: Western Duration: 118 mins Director: George Stevens Stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Alan Ladd is the archetypal hero in George Stevens’ cracking western about a wandering gun fighter who finds a home as a labourer with a small farming family who are been intimated off their land by a nasty cattle baron and his dangerous right hand man Jack Palance. It’s a slow burner but not difficult to stick with thanks to the solid performances (Ladd and Palance were never better) and that awesome cinematography courtesy of Loyal Griggs. Of course, Shane is also one of the best movies to address the construct of bravery and strength and while the majority of its themes are realised in a quiet but overt manner, some are much more subtly drawn. This makes Shane a truly rewarding watch. There are so many little things to admire about this movie too but to point out one, check out that final showdown and the sound Ladd’s gun makes a millisecond after it’s been drawn. Completely out of kilter with what for long periods is a quiet and restful film, it must surely represent one of cinema’s most effective uses of sound.
Rating: The Good – 85.2 Genre: Fantasy Duration: 126 mins Director: Tim Burton Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson go toe to toe on the streets of Gotham as Batman and the Joker respectively in Tim Burton’s ingenious re-imagining of the famous comic book. Christopher Nolan and his films may be surfing on a wave of popularity at the moment but Burton’s original (and indeed his follow-up Batman Returns) is a far superior film to Batman Begins and even The Dark Knight. Coming from the mind of Burton, Batman’s darkness seems somehow more authentic than Nolan’s, yet it also remains more faithful to the comic book idea which Nolan was clearly moving away from. Burton’s vision of Gotham City and its colourful inhabitants are sumptuously brought to life through visionary set design, some of best dialogue in the business (seriously!), and terrific performances from all concerned. Nicholson’s Joker has one immortal line after another to chew on while Keaton’s hugely under-appreciated Batman is the most layered and intriguing portrayal of the Caped Crusader to date. Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, and Pat Hingle all offer strong support but this is Keaton vs Nicholson all the way. The action set-pieces are all masterfully directed with the museum-escape sequence in particular standing out. Danny Elfman’s score quickly became the template for all subsequent superhero movies and the film as a whole changed the genre forever. Fantastic!
Rating: The Good – 85.4 Genre: Western Duration: 117 mins Director: Richard Brooks Stars: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan
“Maybe there’s only one revolution since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys.” Three years before The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks wrote, directed, and assembled a middle-aged western heavy mob of his own with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode squaring off against a Mexican revolutionary played by (err..) Jack Palance, who has kidnapped a wealthy American’s wife (Claudia Cardinale). Marvin and co. play four specialists (guns, explosives, horses, tracker) who are put together to traverse the Mexican desert, rescue said wife, and bring her back across the border alive.
Although The Professionals is not as overtly philosophical as Peckinpah’s later film, it has some wonderful moments of quiet reflection where times past and the politics of the modern world are considered in mature and touching ways. Rather than being seen as increasingly obsolete, however, the seasoned experience of the four heroes is taken more traditionally as a virtue, as their combined expertise is put to work in a series of well crafted and memorable set pieces.
The Professionals is a technically superb movie on nearly every level. Conrad L. Hall’s photography creates an awesome backdrop worthy of the epic action and the use of the “day-for-night” technique gives the night time shots a striking beauty. Maurice Jarre’s score is as rousing as any from that vintage and used well throughout. However, the real strength of the film is the script and story. The plot was hugely original for its time and the manner in which it develops is disciplined and clever. The scenarios which the protagonists act out are its equal and the dialogue is as good as if not better than anything the western has offered up.
Needless to say, the cast is uniformly splendid and while Ryan and Strode have less to do than the other two, they throw in with some wonderfully memorable performances. But this film is all about Marvin and particularly Lancaster who were rarely better. Marvin gives one of those thoughtful man-with-the-will-of-iron turns but with more emphasis on the former than we typically saw from him. This sets the tone for the film more than anything else. Lancaster, on the other hand, sets the theme, the momentum, and the energy with a profoundly magnetic turn as the “the whirlingist dervish of them all!”. Charming, chilling, rousing, and full of shrewd intelligence, his Dolworth is easily one of the most under-appreciated western characters and as we watch Lancaster swinging from trains and scaling 100 foot canyon walls (without a safety harness), the character and actor become one and the same. What an actor. What a man. What a professional.
Although, it has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten over the years, The Professionals is one of the very best westerns of its era. It takes a refreshing break from town marshals and nasty cattle ranchers to explore the more peripherally relevant themes of the wild west but, best of all, it throws a handful of movie legends together with a script and movie big enough to do every bit of their monumental personalities justice. “So what else is on your mind besides 100 proof women, 90 proof whiskey, and 14 carat gold?” Pure class!
Rating: The Good – 81 Genre: Thriller Duration: 96mins Director: Elia Kazan Stars: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel
Richard Widmark takes on a rare ‘straight down the line’ good guy role in this highly engaging tale of a plague outbreak in New Orleans and a frantic manhunt to capture the criminals who are spreading it. Widmark stars as the Public Health Medical Officer who discovers the disease on the body of a murder victim and must then convince the authorities to orchestrate a secret manhunt so that a mass panic and ensuing spread of the disease by the public is averted. Unfortunately, the murderers, led by the fearsome small time operator Jack Palance, assume the police are chasing some loot that the victim had stashed and begin their own search, causing a small outbreak as they go.
Widmark always had an edge to his game that made him well suited to play the meaner and more heartless characters but that same edge made him a very unique lead. This comes across very well as the underpaid public health officer whose passion for saving the city boils over into often self-defeating impatience with the bureaucratic procedure he faces along the way. The relationship he strikes up with Paul Douglas’ initially suspicious police captain is a focal feature of the film given how the captain’s trust is imperative to an expeditious search and there’s much satisfaction to be had watching the two sparky characters develop a mutual respect for the other’s commitment. Jack Palance is pure strychnine as the paranoid hood full of self-serving duplicity and murderous spite. He’s given us an array of great villains over the years but this easily ranks with his most entertaining.
Panic in the Streets bears all the signifying flourishes of the great Elia Kazan films. The sets are textured and richly lit with the sounds and sultry music of the city streets intermittently spilling over into the dramatic space. This gives the story a personality of its own and one that’s uniquely tailored to the tones and cadences of New Orleans. That a breakneck pursuit is playing out against the city’s languid vibes adds a delicious contrast and even mystique to the film and helps to ramp up the tension when needed. Case in point is that enthralling chase sequence at the climax of the film in which a sweaty diseased Palance streaks mayhem through the harbour area with Widmark, Douglas, and half the police force in chase. Ultimately, it’s this scintillating energy that defines Panic in the Streets but don’t underestimate the level of class that the cast and director bring to the quieter moments. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 110mins Director: David Miller Stars: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame
This elegantly sculpted film-noir begins with successful playwright Joan Crawford being seduced by an unusually charismatic young actor in the form of Jack Palance. It’s not long before their courtship blossoms into a seemingly perfect marriage and in the process, transforming Crawford’s once uptight and stifled spinster into a love-struck romantic. That is until a fast and loose blond bombshell shows up from her husband’s past and in the midst of the inevitable and sultry affair, the two former lovers plot to kill the wealthy bride so they can claim her estate.
Sudden Fear is classic noir territory. The film is full to the brim with psychological and emotional suspense as director David Miller sends the audience in all directions from early points in the film right up until the end. Crawford is in commanding form while playing a complicated lead. Though her character is strong and self-sufficient, Crawford sews a subtle weakness into her personality which logically explain many of the decisions she makes throughout. Palance is terrific and while his character is not as overtly tough as those he built his reputation on, his gold-digging manipulations are thick with menace. His devious partner is played with typical zeal by Gloria Grahame who fleshes out her own little sub-plot so well that she ably manages to hold her own with Crawford and Palance.
Sudden Fear looks the part too. Miller brings a heavy atmosphere to the film and even in the earlier more romantic scenes, he constantly manages to convey the impending trouble through some clever framing of Palance’s character and seriously moody lighting. However, it’s the later darker scenes where Miller really turns on the style and, with two sequences in particular, he demonstrates some supreme innovation with no small help from his editor and Crawford herself. On top of that, there’s a brilliantly conceived finale, which is Hitchcockian in spirit and shot with a breathless tension. It may not be as well remembered as some of the great noirs but Sudden Fear tells as sharp and tight a story of suspense as the best of them.
Rating: The Good – 77.3 Genre: War Duration: 107mins Director: Robert Aldrich Stars: Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert
Robert Aldrich’s Attack is a war film about guts that took a lot of guts to make. At a time when most Hollywood movies were being actively supported by the military with equipment, machinery, vehicles, and other logistics, Attack was not considered by the military to convey as positive a message as other more propagandist movies did. Thus, without the support of the military, it was made on a shoestring budget and with a bare minimum of props and equipment which they had to acquire themselves. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, Attack shines a piercing light on the less seen side to war: that of cowardice. In the wake of Band of Brothers, where such subject matter was dealt with in a number of episodes (and in a very similar way to Aldrich’s film), this might not seem so risky but in the 1950’s, it very much was. That said, the film is not a criticism of the army but in actuality a respectful examination of the individuals who find themselves in battle whether they signed up or not.
Eddie Albert stars as a captain of a National Guard Infantry company ordered to take and hold a strategically important town from a regiment of SS. However, as Captain Cooney is only there to impress his powerful and overbearing father and has no stomach for battle, he has on numerous occasions let his men die by failing to move in and support besieged front line platoons which he sends in ahead of himself. Jack Palance is the caring but tough as steel Lieutenant Costa who decides he has had enough of his captain’s cowardice and promises to kill the captain if he fails to support his troops again.
The premise is truly gripping as the tension is softly tightened with every passing skirmish, battle, and personal confrontation between the officers. Albert who himself was a decorated war hero showed an astonishing amount of bravery by throwing everything into his detestable character while also managing to reveal the damaged person underneath all Cooney’s pretense. It’s a wholly commendable performance that probably could only have been delivered by someone who had nothing left to prove in real life. Palance too was rarely better in an equally substantial and multifaceted performance. Lee Marvin offers some interesting and uncharacteristic support as the ambitious superior of both Costa and Albert whose politically motivated yet reckless promotion of the latter is what’s ultimately to blame for the decimation of the company.
There’s a stark beauty to the way this film is shot with the rubble of the destroyed buildings being wonderfully captured by the coarse black and white photography. The direction behind the action sequences is outstanding and the crew made a lot of the small resources they had. However, it’s in the more personal moments where Aldrich’s direction really stands out. Being one of the better film-noir directors, it’s not surprising that his use of light to reflect the varying tensions of the indoor sequences is superb and it adds substantially to the mood of those scenes. Norman Brook’s play and James Poe’s screenplay no doubt provided the rich basis for all this and while the dialogue is bare in terms of finesse, it actually serves to accentuate the raw emotion it’s expressing.
Attack is a fascinating breath of fresh air which will make even the most familiar fans of war movies stop in their tracks. It’s complex and determined and in the final analysis does more to honour the men of WWII than most flag waving propagandist films.