Tag Archives: Ava Gardner

City on Fire (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Title says it all.

When Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) gets fired from his job at an oil refinery he decides to get his revenge by opening the valves on the storage vats, which sends gasoline spewing out into the water system that soon sets the entire city on fire. Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) realizes that his hospital is in line of the approaching blaze and tries desperately to get the place evacuated.

Despite the American cast the film was financed by a Canadian production company and filmed on-location in Montreal with a few shots done in Toronto. While the movie bombed at the box office and later got mocked in an episode of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ it’s actually decent on the special effects end.

In fact I found the effects to be quite impressive particularly at the beginning where two firefighters find themselves trapped in an apartment building in an actual blaze where the flames literally leap towards the camera and make the viewer feel like they are being engulfed by it. Most movies will show people set on fire, but only while wearing a protective body suit, but this one has them set ablaze while wearing regular clothes and with flames not only shooting out from their clothing, but their hair as well, which looked dangerous to film. It also graphically captures the charred burned skin of the victims.

The eclectic cast of old Hollywood veterans is fun for the most part with Ava Gardner hamming it up as an alcoholic newswoman trying to cover the disaster. It’s also nice seeing Shelley Winters playing a ‘normal’ person for once instead of a kooky, eccentric and she does it so well that she ends up not standing out at all, which never happens in any of her other movies.

Watching Susan Clark play a wealthy socialite who suddenly becomes a Florence Nightingale incarnate after the victims start piling up is too much of a dramatic arch and the film should’ve just had her as a regular nurse from the start. The part though where she helps with a delivery at least has the baby coming out of the womb with an umbilical cord as too many other movie births never show this.

Outside of the effects there’s little else to recommend. The scenes dealing with the culprit, played by Welsh, are dumb. For one thing he doesn’t seem unhinged enough to do what he does and in fact comes off as quite bland and even tries helping the victims later on. Also, when an employee gets fired they are usually escorted out of the building by security especially in a refinery and not allowed to just run around the facility freely and unmonitored like here.

It would’ve worked better had the number of characters been cut down to just a few and the story focused solely on their efforts to survive instead of coming off more like a news report trying to capture the chaos as a whole.  The idea of mixing pyrotechnic special effects with a lame storyline and hallow characters doesn’t work and becomes just a poor excuse for a movie.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 29, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alvin Rakoff

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Virus on a train.

A terrorist (Lou Castel) who’s infected with the pneumonic plague sneaks onto a train in order to escape capture, but in the process infects the other passengers. U.S. Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster) devises a plan to have the train rerouted to a quarantine camp in Poland, but this will require the train to go over a bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing, which has not been used since 1948 and could be structurally unsound. When the passengers realize what the plan is they revolt and make an attempt to stop the train before it gets there, but will it be too late?

The way the bridge gets photographed is excellent and helps make it seem like a third character. An actual working bridge known as the Garabit Viaduct was used and is still in operation today, so the filmmaker’s ability to effectively make it look old and weakened is impressive. The climactic sequence showing the train going over the bridge is very exciting and well shot even if certain angles look conspicuously like a toy train instead of a real one it’s still a showstopper and well worth sitting through just to get to that point.

The film though fails on many other levels. For one thing the characters are not likable, or even all that interesting, so the viewer has little empathy as to whether they are able to make it through their quandary or not. The train is too ordinary looking with little pizazz or visual appeal and more attempts should’ve been made to have a luxury one used instead. The fact that the patients begin to miraculously recover from the disease during the second half makes sitting through the first part almost pointless.

The cast is filled with a lot of familiar faces. Ava Gardner is great in a role that allows her to show some key comic touches, but Sophia Loren, who was cast because her husband at the time was the producer, is completely wasted and forgettable. Lancaster is equally stymied in a role that has him virtually locked inside a control room with not much to do except look perpetually worried. Having his character decide to not panic the passengers by telling them about the virus, but instead he chooses to lie and inform them that the train is being rerouted to avoid bombs planted onto the railway line by terrorists ends up inadvertently getting the passengers just as upset to the point that it’s unintentionally funny.

Richard Harris who plays a doctor trying to treat the infected people while also working to prevent the train from driving into an impending disaster is the only cast member who gives the film any life. Like in the similarly themed Juggernaut his brash and irreverent approach that openly stands up to authority without hesitation helps to make his anti-hero persona seem genuine and refreshing, which in turn makes the film more gripping. His attractive real-life wife Ann Turkel, who plays a singer in a hippie band here, isn’t bad either, or at least not on the eyes.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 8Minutes

Rated R

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

The Sentinel (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The Gateway to Hell.

Alison (Cristina Raines) is a fashion model looking for a place of her own. She is dating Michael (Chris Sarandon) and living with him, but has decided she is not ready for marriage and wants her own apartment. She finds an old, but stylish place in the Brooklyn Heights area of New York City that is already furnished and decides to move in, but then strange things begin to occur convincing her that the place may be haunted and when she starts to have physical maladies she is sure that something within the building is trying to possess her and the other residents she sees are really evil demons.

From the very first scene still film reeks of being just another, tired rip-off of The Exorcist. The first hour features no real scares and it is only during the second part that it becomes a full-fledged horror movie giving the film an overall disjointed feel. The much hyped final, which features severely deformed people who are not wearing make-up isn’t that impressive and unable to equal any of today’s horror movies. If anything I wished they had played this part up even more as it is the only time this otherwise generic thing gets even slightly diverting.

Rains, who by her own admission has never ever actually watched the movie, makes for a weak lead. Sure she is beautiful, but the character is dull and ordinary and she gets easily upstaged by co-star Sarandon who clearly shows how to carry a scene and deserves top billing over her for that reason alone. Her characters motivations didn’t make much sense either. Why would such a young woman want to move into a place filled with antique furniture and inhabited by senior citizens that she has nothing in common with? Also, when creepy things start to occur she doesn’t just move out right away like a normal person would, but instead goes back to the place several more times. There is also a moment when she hears strange noises from the upstairs apartment and then gets out of her bed and locks her front door, which seemed crazy because she is living in New York City and should be locking her doors ALL the time to begin with.

The only real interesting thing about this film for me was seeing older stars at the end of their careers in bit parts. Ava Gardner is fun as the leasing agent and Arthur Kennedy is solid as a mysterious priest as well as John Carradine as an older blind priest who lives upstairs and wearing creepy contacts. There is also Sylvia Miles who appears topless and camps it up as a lesbian neighbor with a Russian accent at least I think it was Russian. Christopher Walken can be seen briefly as a detective giving his gum a workout and Beverly D’Angelo plays a nubile lesbian who doesn’t say a single word, but more than makes up for it with her masturbation scene.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 7, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Flawed clergyman loves women.

Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) loses his job as a clergyman when rumors surface of indiscretions he had with a young female parishioner, which pushes him to preach a ranting sermon at the pulpit that eventually drives all the members of the congregation out of the building. He then gets a job as a tour guide in Mexico and has the chore of leading a bus load of middle-aged women around the country. Charlotte (Sue Lyon) is a young nymph who takes a liking to Lawrence much to the chagrin of her over-protective chaperon Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall). When Charlotte is caught in Lawrence’s bedroom late at night Ms. Fellowes promises that she will have it reported and get him fired. Unable to handle a another potential job loss Lawrence takes the bus load of women to an isolated seaside hotel run by Maxine (Ava Gardner) an old friend of his. He hopes that by somehow trapping them there he will be able to convince Ms. Fellowes to drop the charges, but along the way he meets Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who he starts to fall in-love with.

Unlike most of Tennesse William’s other plays this one, at least the first half, is full of energy and comical nuance. I found the group of ladies and Lawrence’s exasperated dealings with them to be quite amusing and the film moves along at an engaging pace. The second half though bogs down with more of William’s signature brooding drama that ends up hurting the flow. In many ways this film seems like two movies in one and the difference in tone and pace never gels. Despite a good nighttime conversation between Kerr and Burton I kept hoping the ladies and Ms. Fellowes would come back and felt the film was weaker without them.

Legendary director John Huston hits most of the right buttons here although it is not his best work. I was surprised and impressed to learn that Maxine’s hotel was built specifically for the production in an otherwise deserted region of the country. The building had an authentic old look and helped give the film added style and personality. I had mixed feelings with the black and white photography. On one had it helps bring out the dark recesses of its flawed characters and accentuate the moodiness of William’s script, but it also takes away from the exotic beauty of the locale.

Burton is good as usual and playing the part of an emotionally fractured, alcoholic character seems right up his alley. Gardner is great as the brassy Maxine and the scene of her making out with her two young, shirtless, maraca playing male assistants along the beach late at night is genuinely steamy. Kerr is in fine form as well and her more restrained demeanor makes a nice contrast to Gardner’s.

Lyon’s acting isn’t quite up to her costars and she seems particularly out of her league during her scene with Burton, but in the looks department she is unmatched. She is more filled-out and mature than in Lolita and in many ways even hotter. The scene of close-up shots of her moving her hips to a tune at a Mexican bar may excite some of the male viewers.

The under-rated Hall is excellent in her role as the heavy. Her craggy face and personality are perfect for the part and it rightly got her a supporting actress nomination.

In the final analysis this is not a bad version of Tennessee William’s material, but not a great one either.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 6, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Huston

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video