Tag Archives: Lee J. Cobb


Thieves’ Highway (1949) 4.14/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 76.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 94 mins
Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb

Unique noir drama courtesy of one of the genre’s great directors follows a couple of truck drivers as they attempt to sell a consignment of apples to a cutthroat retailer while at the same time wrangle the money he cheated from one of their fathers during a previous sale. Richard Conte stars as the offended party determined to stand up to Lee J. Cobb’s hardened chiseller and, if possible, exact some revenge for his role in his father’s paralysis. The pair cultivate a fine antagonism that Jules Dassin slow cooks for most of the film while he goes about showing us the ins and outs of the backstreet produce trade. As Conte’s partner, the craggy Millard Mitchell adds a worldly presence to contextualise Conte and Cobb’s personal duel while providing a tense subplot involving Millard and a couple of competitors. With Dassin behind the camera, take it as a given that Thieves’ Highway looks every bit the classic but for a story outside the traditional noir territory of murder and detectives – a tradition that lent itself to a raw visual aesthetic – it’s particularly accomplished in its execution. Norbert Brodine’s polished photography and Thomas Little’s set design are especially stunning to behold and fit for the purposes of A.I. Bezzerides’s unusual take on the doomed inertia of the noir hero. Adapting his own novel, the latter strikes a delicate balance between the intimacy of the working man’s plight and the hard edge of criminal ethics but it’s Dassin exquisite orchestration that brings it all together in such riveting fashion.

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The Exorcist (1973) 4.96/5 (7)


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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!

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Call Northside 777 (1948) 3.07/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 70.7
Genre: Film-Noir, Drama
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb

Another one of those 20th Century Fox thrillers that were rolled out in an attempt to cash in on the success of the great films-noir of the early forties. Rarely fitting snugly into the noir category, these films were strong on plot but nothing more than solid in the screenplay and direction department. This one is much the same although with James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, and Richard Conte in the starring roles, the standard enough script was made extra effective. Conte is the blue collar mug sentenced to life for the murder of a police officer but proclaims his innocence. Stewart and Cobb are the investigative reporter and editor respectively who attempt to lift the lid on the case eleven years later only to find evidence of corruption and stonewalling.

Stewart brings his usual five star presence and sharpens it with just enough cynicism to carry the film’s tension square on his shoulders. Alongside him, Cobb and Conte bring a level of professionalism to the film that gives it a personality it might have otherwise struggled to achieve given that Henry Hathaway shot this one with a level or greyness that leaned more towards the traditional noir aesthetic but without the intrigue of shadowy contrasts.

Hathaway was one of Fox’s preferred directors for these films perhaps because he knew how to shoot these stories and generally wasn’t drawn off task by an over commitment to aesthetic. He was solid as a rock. And while Call Northside 777 was competently shot, it still looked every bit the mainstream vehicle. For this reason, there’s a lack of edge to the tenser moments and the film’s overall progression but, as usual in these movies, it’s the story that wins out here. With strong arm police officers and shady witnesses at every turn, sniping lawyers, and even a touching romantic angle, this one has some great fundamentals and they tie together seamlessly. You’ll find yourself fully endeared to Stewart’s mission to clear an innocent man’s name and more than satisfied with the conclusion.

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On the Waterfront (1954) 4.72/5 (4)


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Rating: The Good – 95.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

Easily one of the most inspired pieces of film-making to grace the silver screen, Elia Kazan’s film about a young longshoreman who gets mixed up with his local mob-run union is a searing triumph of writing, direction, and acting. Marlon Brando is the ex-fighter Terry Malloy, whose path towards the world championship abruptly ended when his educated yet corrupt big brother began using him to do some of the mob’s nickel-and-dime dirty work. Rod Steiger is the brother, a sophisticated hoodlum who runs the numbers for his hard-as-nails self-made mob boss Lee J. Cobb. Together they have perfected a despicable racket on the docks whereby only those dockworkers who take out extortionate loans from their outfit get work. Eva Marie Saint stars as the sister of a dock worker recently murdered by the mob for speaking out against this enterprise while Karl Malden rounds off this solid gold cast with a firecracker turn as the local priest whose exasperation with the climate of fear his flock live under, leads him to take an open stand against the union.

Given how well history has remembered the directing and particularly the acting in this film, it’s no small thing to say that Budd Schulberg’s script is just as good. It tells an essential story which reaches into soul of humanity. The unnatural corruption of people lies at the centre of this allegory – from the perversion of a man’s right to work by making him pay for it (corrupting its direct function of acquiring money in the first place) and fight others like him for it (corrupting its wider function of contributing to society) to the manner in which the victims are cultured (programmed) to see this as the natural law and to call any man who stands up for them “a rat”. In fact, by the time Marie Saint’s character poses the question “Isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”, the more perceptive audience members will find themselves sickened at the all too real way in which normal people can be twisted away from normal healthy behaviour by bullies who shout louder and harder.

On a more technical level, the screenplay is just as impressive. The character dynamics are inspired as the link and connection between everyone from dock-worker, to cop, to priest, to mob-boss profoundly reverberates with the broader tropes of the tale while simultaneously setting up some powerful confrontations both dramatic and subtle and within practically every scene. The dialogue is deeply affecting and always feels real even (especially!) when Lee J. Cobb is “LeeJCobb-ing” it to the max – “They’re dustin off the hot seat for me”. As with all great dialogue, the cast are mutually inspired by such writing with Cobb, Steiger, Malden, and Marie Saint all giving uniquely memorable performances. But of course what Brando does with it is even more special.

For those of us who didn’t grow up watching the old greats of the acting profession, it can take years of watching to appreciate the depth and importance of what they were doing on screen. Not so with Brando and definitely not here. From the first moment we see him, there’s an unmissable magnetism that utterly captivates. The improvisation, the intensity, the innate understanding of how to move in relation to the camera. At times, it feels like the performance could become too big for the film even with a story this powerful. That is until we realise that his acting is, in its own unique way, directing the film as sure as the man behind the camera is. It’s an astonishing thing to behold and in the moment when Kazan’s direction, Schulberg’s writing, and Leonard Bernstein’s score catch up with him in the back seat of that car as he delivers that line, it’s as perfect a cinematic moment as we could ever hope for. Seriously!

A final word should be saved for Kazan because On the Waterfront is directed with gargantuan vision. Every shot is masterfully composed with the lighting, staging, and camera movement at times eclipsing even what Brando was doing with his words (the alleyway scene towards the end being a prime example). Whether or not Kazan’s passionate take on a story about everybody being part of everybody else can be interpreted meaningfully with regard to his role in the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1940’s and 50’s is beyond the scope of a straight review of the film’s virtues as a film but a more sensitive depiction of the downtrodden worker yet scathing indictment of the perils of free enterprise you couldn’t find. What is clear, however, is that On the Waterfront is as close to cinematic perfection as few films have got.

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12 Angry Men (1957) 4.65/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 95.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

“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.

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