Tag Archives: Burgess Meredith

The Day of the Locust (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Desperate people in Hollywood.

During the depression a young artist named Tod Hackett (William Atherton) comes to Hollywood to help design the set for a new movie. While there he meets a wide assortment of people, who seek fame and fortune, but find heartbreak and rejection instead. Tod falls for Faye (Karen Black) a woman striving to become the next big Hollywood starlet despite lacking any talent while her father Harry (Burgess Meredith) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. At one time he was a vaudeville comedian, but now with his failing health is relegated to selling health tonics door-to-door.

This film is the last great effort of director John Schlesinger whose films after this lacked the same visual style that made Midnight Cowboy and Far From the Madding Crowd cinematic masterpieces. From a visual standpoint it hits all the right chords and is filled with many memorable segments. The best ones include the scene where a group of bourgeoisie guests who come to Natalie Schafer’s home (she was best known for playing Mrs. Howell on ‘Gilligan’s Island’) to watch porn movies There’s also the scene where an entire film set comes crashing down and injuring the entire crew as well as the climactic moment where a large crowd waiting outside to see the premiere of The Buccaneer turn into a violent, bloodthirsty mob.

The acting is first-rate particularly Black who portrays her desperate character to a perfect tee. Meredith, who was nominated for a supporting Oscar, gives a vivid portrayal of her equally desperate father making his scenes quite entertaining. Donald Sutherland is also solid as a likable, but socially awkward outsider, which best suits his acting persona.

The script though by Waldo Salt, which is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Nathanael West, misses out on a lot of the book’s subtext. In the movie Tod tries to rape Faye while at a party, but this eruption of his seems to come out of nowhere while in the book it gets better explained by showing how Tod continually harbors rape fantasies for Faye and makes these fantasies a running part of the story.

Donald Sutherland’s character, the aptly named Homer Simpson, which supposedly was the inspiration for Matt Groenig’s character in his famous comic strip, is a confusing enigma. In the book he is given a better backstory and revealed to be a man struggling with a lot of inner turmoil while here he’s seems more like a strange, naïve mope from another planet.

There’s also no explanation in the movie for why the word Locust is in the title, which is in reference to the Bible and the plague of locusts that descended onto the fields of Egypt. Tod symbolizes the locust in the novel’s version of the story while in the movie his character is more of an outsider observing the ugliness, but not having a hand at creating it

The biggest issue though is the film’s underperformance at the box office, which helped relegate both Black and Atherton, who at the time were considered up-and-coming stars, to supporting roles afterwards. I believe part of the reason for this is because none of the characters are likable. It’s fine showing humanity’s bad side as long as the audience doesn’t feel beaten-over-the-head with it, but the film wallows so much in the darkness that it overwhelms the viewer. Having a character that was slightly removed from the madness and not as flawed might’ve helped to balance things and make everything else that goes on more tolerable.

Overall though it’s a great film, but the statement it’s trying to make remains murky. Better efforts should’ve been made to tie it to the disillusionment of the American Dream, which is what the book does and not seemed so much like just a glimpse into a freak show of a bygone era like it ends up doing here.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 7, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 24Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

A Fan’s Notes (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He writes about himself.

Exley (Jerry Orbach) is a loner residing in and out of mental institutions. He imagines having conversations with beautiful women, but is rarely able to approach them in real-life. He also obsesses over New York Giants running back Frank Gifford and wishes one day to achieve that same type of success, but fears that he’ll be a spectator in life just like he is in sports. He decides to begin writing about his nomadic existence in hopes that it will be a cathartic effort only to find that too harbors its own share of frustrations.

The film is based on the Frederick Exley novel of the same name, but despite the filmmaker’s best efforts it’s not able to achieve the book’s cult potential and in fact Exley himself stated that the movie “bore no relation to anything that I had written”. The idea of trying to somehow visualize a story that was never meant for the big screen is the film’s biggest issue and one that it cannot overcome no matter how hard it tries. The pacing is poor and tries awkwardly to make profound statements while at other points being zany and absurd, which is off-putting.

Orbach does well in the lead and helps hold it together. This also marks the official film debut of Julia Anne Robinson who appeared in only one other movie King of the Marvin Gardens before she tragically died in a house fire at the young age of 24. Like in that movie her acting is poor, but here it works in the positive because it makes her character seem transparent and accentuates the dream-like theme. The segment where she dresses up like a nun and then later as a street hooker, as part of Exley’s sexual fantasy, is fun as is his visit with her quirky parents (Conrad Bain, Rosemary Murphy).

Burgess Meredith appears only briefly, but practically steals it with his outrageousness. Watching him lie down on the floor in an effort to look up a blind woman’s skirt is a real hoot as is his ability to walk on his hands across the edge of a sofa.

Had the film stuck solely with the goofy comedy it might’ve worked and there are indeed a few memorable bits. The part where Exley punches an obnoxious woman (Elsa Raven) in slow motion is arresting and the segment where he imagines himself inside a scene of a his favorite soap opera where he directs the cast to strip off their clothes and have sex right in front of the camera is pretty funny too, but the best moment is the telephone conversation he has with a couple where he pretends to be a lawyer pleading with them to take-in the husband’s mentally unstable brother.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 21, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated R

Director: Eric Till

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: YouTube

Hard Contract (1969)

hard contract

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hit man becomes humanized.

John Cunningham (James Coburn) is a professional hit man hired by Ramsey Williams (Burgess Meredith) to do one last ‘big score’ by rubbing out Michael (Sterling Hayden) of which Ramsey suffers a large financial debt to. John has done many of these jobs before and travels to Europe with the expectation that this one will be as routine as the others, but then he has an encounter with call-girl Sheila (Lee Remick) who plagues him with self-doubt and forces him to question his purpose in life.

This film was written and directed by S. Lee Pogostin a long time TV writer who finally at the age of 55 got his big break to do an actual feature film. Unfortunately for him his script is excessively heavy with dialogue and little to no action. There is only one brief segment where we see John actually doing his job and offing someone and it comes in the form of watching him drop a large trunk with a dead body inside of it out of an airplane, which is kind of a cool visually, but that is about it and the rest of the film consists of nothing but talk and long winded, flowing conversations dealing with theories and philosophies that regular people, particularly those in the crime and prostitution business, just don’t have.

Coburn and Remick are both excellent, but the scenario that their characters are placed in is ludicrous. The idea that a high paid prostitute would suddenly fall for one of her clients is quite doubtful. Had the Coburn character been somehow kind or gentle towards her then maybe, but instead he is cold and distant and treats her more like an animal than a person, so why, especially after all of the other men she has already presumably slept with, would she get so worked up over this guy? It just makes no sense and the same thing goes for the Coburn character. He’s slept with hundreds of prostitutes before and even brags about it, so why would this one stand out?

The conversation that Coburn has with Hayden, amidst a large wheat field and while sitting on a tractor, is pretty good and the most engrossing moment in the film. The scene where he drives a car speedily down a winding road, which gets the other passengers quite nervous, isn’t bad either. The European locations are scenic and the supporting cast all give strong performances especially Karen Black as a talkative hooker arguing with Coburn over political candidates. However, the script tries too hard to make a statement and comes off more like a protracted concept than a story with a pretentious flair that just doesn’t work.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 30, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: S. Lee Pogostin

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: None at this time.

There Was a Crooked Man…(1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Money in snake pit.

Paris Pittman (Kirk Douglas) is a rugged bandit who at times can be quite charming, but also cunning and ruthless. When he gets sent to an escape-proof Arizona prison he becomes determined to find a way out while using the skills of his fellow prisoners, who he has all promised will get a share of some stolen loot that he has hidden in the desert, to help him do it. Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) is the prison’s new warden. He’s on to Paris’s manipulative ways and becomes equally determined to stop him from escaping while also subtly attempting to reform him.

During the social/sexual revolution of the late ‘60’s many film genres took on society’s new attitudes while also taking full advantage of the new found freedoms by showing things that had previously been taboo. Comedies, dramas, action films and even sci-fi movies were suddenly breaking new ground, but the western for the most part remained entrenched with the old-school values at least until the ‘70’s, but this film is one of the early entries into what became known as the revisionist western where age-old dramatic trappings where suddenly given a whole new spin and the caricatures of good and evil became much murkier.

Here the ‘good guy’ is to some extent the bandit who works outside of the system while seeing all the hypocrisies from those still working within it. The people getting robbed are no longer ‘God-fearing’ innocent town folk, but instead the greedy establishment who enslave blacks and use the façade of religion for their own self-interests.  Woman are no longer virginal maidens waiting to be properly married, but instead sexually oppressed young ladies eager to pursue their horny desires behind their parents back if they can get away with it. Those that still remain loyal to the old ways of doing things such as with Fonda’s character are now seen as being out-of-touch and unreasonably rigid to an inflexible, dated system.

Watching the western genre suddenly ‘grow-up’ as it where and show things that only a few years earlier would’ve been unthinkable is a lot of fun and the script meshes in a good amount of snarky humor, which keeps things consistently lively and comical. Even the music score gets a new slant. Typically music themes in westerns had a booming, orchestral sound, but here it’s much jazzier and modern.

Douglas is engaging and makes a great adversary to Fonda. Fonda, who just a year earlier shocked filmed audiences with his brilliantly creepy portrayal of a psychotic gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West goes back to his old form as the stoic good guy and does it quite well although I was confused why he is seen in the first half walking with a limp and a cane due to being shot only to go without it and walk normally during the second half.

The support cast, all men in their 50’s and 60’s and seen for years in the old fashioned westerns, but now clearly relishing the chance to be bawdy and irreverent are in fine form as well. Burgess Meredith is quite funny as an old codger who has worn the same underwear for 35 years and refuses to take it off even for a bath. Hume Cronyn lends equally good support and I loved the scene where he adds giant tits onto a drawing of an angel. This also marks the film debut of Pamela Hensley who became best known for her work on the TV-shows ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ and ‘Matt Houston’.

There are clearly other comical westerns out there, but this one, with a script co-written by Robert Benton, manages to still have a good story, some very exciting moments and even a great twist ending. The prison used in the film was built specifically for the production and great effort was put in to make it seem authentic to the period. The detail that was put into it along with the rock quarry where the prisoners work in is impressive and worth catching just for that.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Such Good Friends (1971)

such good friends 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her husband fools around.

Julie (Dyan Cannon) is a well-off New York Housewife living in a swanky Manhattan apartment with her husband Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) who is the successful editor of a New York fashion magazine. Her life seems fulfilled and happy until Richard goes into the hospital for routine surgery, which has unexpected complications that sends him into a coma. While going through some of his personal belongings she comes upon his little black book that lists all sorts of sexual conquests he has had with her friends, which first leads the devastated Julie into considering suicide, but then ultimately into revenge.

This film can be considered Otto Preminger’s swan song as the two movies he made after this weren’t worth watching. This movie also proves to be a giant improvement from the awful Skidoo that he did just three years before where he tried unsuccessfully to get with the ‘hip generation’, but failed miserably. It has the same irreverence and satire as that one, but it is much more disciplined and sophisticated and makes its point without going overboard. It also shows that despite his renowned cantankerous nature behind-the-scenes he was still a gifted director who managed to span five decades with movies that had vastly different styles and themes and he deserves to be labeled a filmmaking legend.

I loved the way the camera spins around in a circle during a scene inside a New York art museum as well as some breathtaking shots of the New York skyline while on top of Jennifer’s and Richard’s condominium. The fractured narrative that deals heavily with flashback sequences is also nicely handled though the scenes showing a middle-aged Cannon trying to look like she is an adolescent while wearing pigtails looks tacky and should’ve been scrapped.

The film is based on the Lois Gould novel of the same name and while that book had a much more serious tone the movie gives the material more of a satirical spin much like Diary of a Mad Housewife, which Preminger had scriptwriter Elaine May (who gets credited as Ester Dale) watch before writing this one. The result is endlessly witty dialogue and some near brilliant conversational exchanges between the characters. Some of the best bits are Jennifer’s discussions with Richard’s doctors who seem reluctant to take responsibility for their medical blundering as well as Jennifer’s awkward sexual encounter with her friend Cal (Ken Howard) when he is unable to ‘rise to the occasion’.

Although she has a face that can show pain and sadness well Cannon may not have been the best choice and some other actresses would’ve been more interesting in the part. Apparently Preminger had her in tears already on the first day and she has in subsequent interviews called him a ‘horrible man’. The scene showing her naked in a snapshot is actually that of another nude model with Cannon’s face cropped on it.

James Coco is great in support and I was genuinely shocked that it didn’t get him nominated for best supporting actor. The scene where Cannon is undressing him for some sex and he tries desperately to distract her while he takes off a corset that he is wearing underneath is frickin’ hilarious. Burgess Meredith has an outrageous moment where he is seen nude while attending a posh party and only his genitals are covered by a book hung from a belt that he is wearing.

The only real negative is the ending that is too serious and somber and deflates the energy from the film’s otherwise snarky tone. Some of the music used doesn’t work with the scenes either including the O.C. Smith song played over the closing credits. Otherwise it’s as fresh, original and timely as it was when it first came out and ripe to be rediscovered by the right audience. The title sequence created by Saul Bass that is used to open the film is diverting and I wished it had been extended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Otto Preminger

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Burnt Offerings (1976)

burnt offerings 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Evil house menaces family.

Marian and Ben (Karen Black, Oliver Reed) are a couple who takeover for the summer as caretakers for an old gothic-like mansion.  They bring along their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) and Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis). Soon there are strange occurrences as well as a transformation of their personalities, which makes them believe that the place is haunted.

The attempt at going back to an old-fashioned type of horror movie doesn’t work. Dan Curtis’s direction is too restrained and most likely will be a turn-off to even those that like these types of films. The pace is slow and the film takes way too much time telling a story that in the end adds up to nothing. The scares are non-existent and I didn’t even find it to be the slightest bit creepy. The only impressive scene involves a body flying out of an upstairs window and crashing head first into the windshield of a car, but that doesn’t occur until the very end. There is also a potentially interesting subplot involving Ben’s reoccurring nightmares about a traumatic childhood experience with a chauffeur, but it is never fully explained what this is about, which ultimately makes this more frustrating instead.

The soft lighting approach is another mistake as it makes the whole thing look like a shampoo commercial and adds nothing to the atmosphere. There is also the backyard pool that was clearly shot at another location from the summer house one that they reside.

Probably the only fun element of this otherwise blah film is the eclectic cast. Burgess Meredith, who shows up at the beginning, should’ve won an award for campy performance of the decade. Black plays another one of her flaky characters with her usual flaky style and Montgomery is good as the no-nonsense kid. Reed is outstanding as he ends up showing the widest array of emotions.

However, it is Davis whose latter day presence gives the film its broadest appeal. She spent a career playing strong-willed women with electrifying performances and yet here her character is downright ordinary. The change of pace is interesting especially the scene where she gets shouted down by Black. She also has a pretty good deathbed sequence and there is even a moment where Reed pats her on her rear. Depending on one’s point-of-view you will either find this to be amazing, amusing, or really gross.

On the whole though I found this to be a pretty hopeless excuse for a horror film with the most horrifying thing about it being having to sit through it.

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My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Dan Curtis

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD