Tag Archives: Walter Matthau

Charley Varrick (1973) 3.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.8
Genre: Crime
Duration: 111mins
Director: Don Siegel
Stars: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr

Don Siegel’s hard hitting thriller about a modest bank robber (Walter Matthau) who knocks over a mob bank without knowing it and becomes the target of their ruthless bag man (played effectively by Joe Don Baker). Like all of Siegel’s movies, Charley Varrick is slow burning and gritty, full of interesting characters and superb actors. Matthau is a great lead (as ever) and he commands the attention of the viewer with his burly presence and acerbic charm. The film has dated in parts so the over-elaborate ending which probably counted as a decent climax in 1973 is a little old hat now. Despite that, the movie as a whole is far stronger than the majority of fluff delivered today.

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The Couch Trip (1988)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.4
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 97 mins
Director: Michael Ritchie
Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin

The late eighties was a great time for Hollywood comedies, as there was a sense of ease and good fun about them. This underappreciated gem is one such movie. It stars Dan Aykroyd as a small time fraudster who escapes his mental hospital, assumes the identity of his psychiatrist, and heads to LA to cover for a well known radio therapist. Along the way he picks up legitimate looney Walter Mathau and begins working his magic on the rich elite of L.A. in particular the his new assistant Donna Dixon. Charles Grodin is a howl as the radio therapist recuperating in England from his mental breakdown while Richard Romanus and Ayre Gross are suitably slimey as his agents. Michael Ritchie (director of Fletch) plays this one just right allowing his cast plenty of room to find their characters’ level while still managing to zip the drama along. The gags are actually quite funny and some of the radio calls are classic. If you’re in the mood for some easy comedy, The Couch Trip will not disappoint.

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JFK (1991) 4.53/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 79.8
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Duration: 189 mins
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Kevin Costner, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland

Oliver Stone’s sprawling account of New Orleans’s DA Jim Garrison’s investigation into the assassination of JFK is a remarkable piece of work. Coming in at three hours long and replete with dialogue heavy scenes and very little action, this film shouldn’t have worked. However, Stone employed a documentary style full of flash backs and hypothetical re-enactments laced together with quick paced explanatory dialogue which was for the time a revolutionary approach to making a feature. He also populated the expansive story with a seemingly endless array of big name actors which itself was a masterstroke as it allowed the audience to easily remember the various personalities who popped in and out of the narrative. Kevin Costner is terrific as Garrison and carries almost the entire film as he features in nearly every scene. The rest of the cast are excellent while John Williams throws in with a nice little score. However, in the final analysis, this film is ultimately about the Stone’s direction, his and Zachary Sklar’s screenplay, and Joe Hutshing’s and Pietro Scalia’s peerless editing.

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The Laughing Policeman (1973) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett Jr.

From the heyday of gritty crime cinema comes this forgotten gem full of slow burning tension and ambiguous sentiment. Water Matthau stars as a disenchanted San Francisco inspector, Sgt. Jake Martin, whose investigation into a multiple homicide on a city bus is made all the more complicated with the discovery of his off duty partner amongst the bodies. As Martin begins retracing his partner’s steps, he must contend with a brash new partner in the form of Bruce Dern, sleazy informants, a crazy city, not to mention an estranged family at home.

The Laughing Policeman attempts a rare blend of crime and introspective drama but director Stuart Rosenberg and writer Thomas Rickman just about pull it off albeit in a very unorthodox manner. The movie phases between the gritty realism of the edgier crime thrillers from the 1970’s and the more experimental dramas of the late 60’s. In fact, it walks a similar line to Bullitt but whereas Peter Yates’ film only coated the thriller element in contemplative drama, Rosenberg’s film steeps it in it. Thus, in between some rather impressive action set pieces like the bus shooting itself, the audience is made privy to the eroding disharmony in Martin’s life by showing us his forced and awkward conversations with his wife and his attempts to be a father to his son. This might make the film less accessible to those who respond best to the crime elements and there’s no denying that the tension generated by that side to the story is let slip from time to time as Rosenberg indulges the more abstract side. However, there’s equally no denying that it makes for some very original and peculiarly engaging cinema.

For his part, Walter Matthau gives us a character whose complex relationship with his partner echoes that of Spade and Archer’s and whose personal life is just as complicated. It’s a rich characterisation bravely written and insightfully acted as Matthau demonstrates yet again a level of intuition and maturity of understanding that few of his peers did. As his partner’s cocksure replacement, Bruce Dern is just terrific, full of attitude and abrasiveness and for a guy who specialised in constructing one intriguing character after another throughout the 1970s and 80s, it’s no small thing to say that this is one of the most intriguing. In fact, given the necessarily subdued turn of Matthau, one could easily argue this becomes his movie as he’s given most of the memorable lines and delivers them with oodles of sarcastic charisma.

What’s most impressive about this film, however, is that all this moody drama plays out against a flat realism that was decades ahead of its time, where the procedural tones of the police work become as important to the film as the plot. The sequences in which the protagonists (including Louis Gossett Jr.’s hard as nails/cool as ice fellow cop) are going about their investigations by interviewing stoolies, harassing pimps, and generally putting the pieces of the puzzle together are deliciously executed and shot with all the murky grace of the best neo-noirs. Moreover, they help authenticate the more subjective moments all the more and thus provide a valuable grounding for the movie. However, given the decision to favour a real depiction of police work over a dramatic one, the investigative sequences and even the larger scale set pieces only ever seem to nudge the plot forward – the point being that the majority of police work leads nowhere helpful. This adds to the realism but it gives the film a meandering quality that won’t suit everyone.

Nonetheless, The Laughing Policeman remains a unique slice of 70’s cinema that deserves a lot more attention than it has received even if it was only for the tremendous turns from Matthau and Dern. However, the rewards it offers are much richer thanks to the brave approach of Rosenberg and the delicate balancing act between reality and drama he performs.


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Lonely Are the Brave (1962) 3.95/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.7
Genre: Drama
Duration: 107 mins
Director: David Miller
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau

When Jack “W” Burns learns that his friend has been arrested, he orchestrates his own arrest so that he can help his friend break out of prison from the inside. Things don’t go altogether as planned and he ends up fleeing back to the open terrain on his own with a posse of marshals after him and a 5 year jail sentence hanging over his head for escaping. Lonely Are the Brave is a thoughtful work which captures much of the spirit of the US cultural revolution of the 1960’s & 70’s but from the seemingly counter-intuitive and old fashioned perspective of an open ranging cowboy whose life of freedom has been reigned in by the expansion of the modern world and the laws and restrictions that go with it. Kirk Douglas is that cowboy and as usual, he presents us with a charming character who represents an ideology not entirely fashionable for its time.

To say that Lonely Are the Brave defies expectations as a film is an understatement. The film opens with a shot of Douglas’ cowboy resting with his horse, a shot which could have introduced any western of its time. However, this shot is startlingly interrupted by passing fighter jets. A fleshed out story of friendship then threatens to blossom but before we know it, the film takes another couple of turns before a manhunt through mountainous terrain emerges as Burns is pursued by George Kennedy’s nasty prison guard (who had assaulted him while in jail) and Walter Matthau’s decent but determined Sheriff. Sound familiar? It should because it’s First Blood! In all fairness, it must be pointed out that the latter Stallone vehicle brings a lot of its own ideas to the table (some of which are even better than those addressed here) and goes its own way in character construction and overall plot.

David Miller brings a very soft and calm momentum to the film. This is surprising because with so many plot turns, one would assume he would be in a hurry to get to the most exciting part of the film. But he is not. Each segment to the story’s progression is respected and given all the time it needs. This is a refreshing touch and it makes Lonely Are the Brave a uniquely satisfying watch. When he does ramp up the tension, he does so in admirable fashion for the final 30 minutes are gripping to say the least. However, he still manages to remain respectful of Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay and Edward Abbey’s original novel while doing so. Burns remains the same character he was at the beginning and a pleasing sense of authenticity is felt as the chase relentlessly continues.

Douglas is not as intense as he often is and seems content for his character to play the hand dealt by the script. There seems to be a genuine admiration for his character’s way of life and there’s a lot of charm to it but it’s not as memorable as some of his other turns. Kennedy is suitably boo-hissable as the mean prison guard and adds a really interesting layer of veiled cowardice to his character (this idea would be further tapped and built on to brilliant effect in the later First Blood). Matthau isn’t really given enough to do but he provides some welcome comic relief to the pursuit. And let’s not forget Gena Rowlands who steals the show in a scene and a half as the wife of the Burns’ friend. In fact, the sub-plot between Burns and her offers as much interest as the one the film ultimately builds around.

Lonely Are the Brave is an originally written and directed film and it’s finely acted. It offered much to the jaded western genre before Sergio Leone was to revitalise it five years later. Traditional western themes are analysed softly within the narrative and there’s a strong retrospective tone to the piece. As many filmmakers were arguing in various films throughout the 1960’s, from The Wild Bunch to The Professionals to Once Upon a Time in the West, there was a real sense that the genre’s time was passing into history in the same way the era itself did. Lonely Are the Brave is definitely putting that idea out there and far earlier than the those other better remembered pictures did. Just another reason, this little gem deserves to be seen.

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Fail-Safe (1964) 4.36/5 (2)

 

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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.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam

The Daddy of the 70’s thriller gives us one of Walter Matthau’s best performances as the smart talking Subway Transit cop who has to negotiate with the legendary Robert Shaw’s nasty hijacker. This is exactly what a thriller should do. From scene one when that thumping David Shire score (which on its own could have defined the best decade in American cinema) jumps out at you, this movie has you and it keeps you right through to the closing scene. The tension is built up in sublime fashion as director Joseph Sargent takes his time introducing the various characters and their even bigger personalities. In fact, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect to the movie is watching the various headstrong characters playing off each other (each one a walking, talking force of New York nature) as they each do their bit to solve matters to their own satisfaction. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three directly inspired Tarantino in his writing of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s not difficult to see why as Peter Stone’s screenplay is eaten up by the uniformly splendid cast. Accept No Substitutes!

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