Tag Archives: Eli Wallach

Girlfriends (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She misses her friend.

Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) are best friends and roommates, but when Anne decides to get married to Martin (Bob Balaban) and move out Susan can’t handle the solitude. She picks-up a hitch-hiker named Ceil (Amy Wright) who moves in for a bit, but it doesn’t work out. She then gets into a relationship with Eric (Christopher Guest) and even a 60-year-old married rabbi (Eli Wallach), but both of these end in heartache. The more Susan tries to ‘move-on’ the more she longs for the old days with Anne and Anne starts to feel the same way.

This was Claudia Weill’s feature film debut that met with high accolades including director Stanley Kubrick who considered it his favorite film of 1978. There’s a nice understated quality here that not only brings out a vivid late ‘70s feel, but also the very real day-to-day struggles of a young adult trying to swim through the quagmire of relationship and career obstacles. Melanie Mayron is certainly not a beauty by the conventional standard, but her plain appearance helps accentuate the challenges of the regular person trying to break-out and get noticed.

Susan’s struggles at trying to become a full-time photographer had me hooked the most as it portrays the universal challenges anyone can have in trying to get ‘their foot-in-the-door’ no matter what the profession, but I was a bit stunned when she forgets about the exhibition of her work at an art show. If someone is truly excited about getting their first big break then there is simply no way that would happen. It’s also hard for the viewer to completely empathize with someone’s career struggles if they themselves aren’t doing all they can to achieve it.

Another misguided wrinkle to the story was Susan’s relationship with a married rabbi who was almost 40 years older than her. These types of relationships suffer from extraordinarily long odds  and just about anyone would realize that from the get-go, which makes Susan’s ‘shocked’ reaction when the rabbi is unable to get together for a date due to family obligations seem almost  irrational. How a relationship like this could even begin to blossom is a whole other issue that never even gets addressed.

The film suffers from a few awkward scenes too. One has Wallach sitting down to play a game of chess with Melanie only for him to get up a minute later and leave for no reason. Why does he bother to show up for a chess game if he isn’t even going to make a single move on the board? Later Viveca Lindfors appears wearing a neck brace and yet no explanation is ever given for why she has it on. Later she’s shown without it, so why did she have it in one scene and not the other? Maybe it was for a minor accident, which can happen, but film is a visual medium and when something slightly askew gets shown it needs to get addressed even if it’s just in passing otherwise the viewer will key in on that and not the story.

Even more amazingly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this as I’ve never seen it in any other movie that I’ve ever watched before, but there’s an actual scratch on the camera lens that can be spotted in just about every scene. It appears on the top right hand side as a small white mark. If the sun is shining through a window it will reflect the light and be more pronounced. If a character walks in front of the window it fades a bit, but you can still see it and this continues throughout the entire run of the film. I can only presume that cinematographer Fred Murphy was aware of this, but due to the budget constraints they didn’t have enough money to replace the lens and decided to simply chug along with the scratch in place and hope no else would notice.

Ultimately though I found the story, in its simple way, to be touching and poignant this is particularly evident at the end where the viewer can see firsthand how friendships help add insight and support to a person’s life and are an important dimension to the human experience.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 4, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Claudia Weill

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube

Cinderella Liberty (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sailor falls for prostitute.

John Baggs (James Caan) is a sailor who checks into a Seattle, Washington naval base medical facility for a check-up and while there has his files lost and is unable to receive pay or new orders until they are found. While the navy tries to find them they give him a ‘Cinderella Liberty’ pass, which allows him to come and go from the base as long as he returns before curfew. During his excursions into the city he meets up with Maggie (Marsha Mason) a prostitute and goes back to her place for sex. It is there that he meets her biracial son Doug (Kirk Calloway). Despite the tremendous odds John finds himself falling-in-love with Maggie while trying earnestly to make a better life for Doug.

This is one of those films I enjoyed quite a bit the first time I saw it, but could not get into it as much the second time around, which is a shame as it does have a lot of good things going for it. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and the way he captures the seedier side of the city is one of the film’s chief assets particularly the vivid look at Maggie’s squalor of an apartment that no studio could possible recreate quite as effectively. Trying to mix romance with gritty reality while getting away from the soft focus and idealized view of love, which permeated a lot of romance films of the ‘70s is a noble and interesting effort. I also really enjoyed John Williams’s ragtime sounding score and the bouncy opening tune sung by Paul Williams.

The performances are excellent. For Caan this may be the best performance of his career and the role that most effectively works into his acting style. Mason is equally good and deserved her Oscar nomination alone through the strained facial expressions that she shows during the delivery of her child. The supporting cast is great too and includes Dabney Coleman, who wears a wig, as Caan’s crass, blunt superior and Eli Wallach as an old timer in the naval system who seems genuinely shell shocked at the prospect of having to survive as a civilian.

The film’s main fault is that I just could never buy into the idea of why John would ever want to get into the situation that he does. There might be some cases out there where a prostitute and one of her customers do fall for each other and start a relationship, but I would think they’re few and far between and usually doesn’t last. If anything it couldn’t be as extremely bad of a situation as it is here where the woman is a complete emotional mess living in squalor with a delinquent son and pregnant with another.

Several characters throughout the film keep asking John why he would want to get involved in something like this and his answer of ‘because it makes me feel good’ is not sufficient. A good relationship needs a healthy dose of give-and-take, but here John is doing all the giving. There isn’t much to love with the Maggie character anyways as she is extraordinarily irresponsible as a parent and at one point even abandons her son with not much more than a second thought.

Had the film emphasized John’s bonding with Doug and made this the focal point then I could see him wanting to have some limited involvement with the mother in order to help the kid, but the romance angle in this situation given the circumstances bordered on the insane and prevented me as a viewer from fully getting into it.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 57Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mark Rydell

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The People Next Door (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter is on drugs.

Arthur and Gerrie Mason (Eli Wallach, Julie Harris) are a middle-aged couple living the comfortable suburban existence, which comes tumbling apart in a matter of only a few short weeks. It starts when their daughter Maxie (Deborah Winters) dabbles in acid and is sent to a mental institution. Acrimony and in-fighting commence and even with family counseling nothing helps. As both Maxie’s and Gerrie’s mental condition deteriorates it seems like their family unit is doomed while their neighbors David and Tina Hoffman (Hal Holbrook, Cloris Leachman) have issues of their own including the shock at finding out that their son Sandy (Don Scardino) is a drug dealer and was the one that gave Maxie the acid that sent things spiraling out-of-control.

There were many movies about the drug culture made during the 60’s and 70’s and many of them weren’t very good, but this one I have always liked. It is not that it doesn’t have its share of flaws like the others although not as many, but it is the performance by Winters (no relation) that knocks this to a whole new level.  Although only 17 at the time she exudes an amazing amount of composure and tackles some difficult scenes with ease and naturalism. Her blue eyes penetrate the screen, which director David Greene takes full advantage of especially during her acid trips, which get pretty freaky.

Two scenes of hers in particular really stand out and are worth catching. One is where she takes some acid and then strips off all of her clothes and goes running outside in the nude through the snow banks of their suburban neighborhood while singing and dancing to some strange song. Another is when she runs away from home and Wallach tracks her down living in squalor in a seedy, rundown apartment building with her boyfriend. When Wallach finds her she hops out of bed stark naked and walks over to him and plants him a deep kiss, which makes him violently slap her to the ground.

There are a few other interesting moments including one that takes place during a group counseling session where a young man of 20 named Wally (played by Matthew Cowles who later went on to marry actress Christine Baranski) berates in front of everyone his elderly parents who had him at a late age and he now finds them to be too old and embarrassing. The scene where David and Tina confront their son late at night about his drug dealing is also compelling.

The script by J.P. Miller has some emotionally high moments and hits on the issues of family strife head-on in a way that I felt is still impactful and relevant. Some critics argued that because Miller and director Greene were already 50 at the time that they were ‘out-of-touch’ with the youth generation, which to some extent may be valid, but the drama itself is strong and in the end that is what counts.

The only weak link is that of Wallach and Harris two very good actors who become wasted here. Both are locked in caricatures that are too broad and rigid and at times turn the thing into a heavy-handed soap opera. The correlation to the fact that while the daughter takes drugs they continue to smoke and drink becomes a bit too obvious and overplayed.

The story was originally made as a TV-movie that was broadcast on October 15, 1968 on CBS. Winters, Scardino as well as Nehemiah Persoff who plays the doctor at the institution play the same roles on that one that they do here. Lloyd Bridges and Kim Hunter played Winters’ parents and Fritz Weaver and Phyllis Newman were the Hoffman’s.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 26, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Greene

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: None at this time.

The Tiger Makes Out (1967)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mailman kidnaps suburban housewife.

Ben Harris (Eli Wallach) is a middle-aged mailman living in a crummy, rundown basement apartment. He is bitter and angry at the world around him, which he feels is filled with a lot of vapid followers to a rigid and dehumanizing system. When his upstairs neighbor puts a hole in his roof and both his landlord and the housing authority refuse to do anything about it he decides to kidnap a young beautiful women as a form of insurrection. Instead he mistakenly nabs middle-aged housewife Gloria (Anne Jackson) who has similar issues and the two slowly form a budding friendship.

The screenplay is written by Murray Schisgal and is based on his one-act, two-character off-Broadway play ‘The Tiger’. The film is filled with a lot of diverting, offbeat humor some of which works and some of it doesn’t. I liked the part where Gloria’s neighbor Leo (John Harkins) gets his entire family on their knees to pull out crabgrass from their otherwise ‘perfect’ lawn and we eventually see them tear the entire lawn to bits from a bird’s-eye view and in fast-motion. Wallach’s confrontation with Sudie Bond inside the housing authority office is also amusing, but his attempts at kidnapping a woman come off too much like Wiley E. Coyote trying to get the roadrunner and turn the film into an ill-advised live action cartoon.

Director Arthur Hiller does a fabulous job of disguising the fact that this was originally a play. The editing is quick and the locales varied particularly at the beginning. The pace has a kinetic late 60’s feel, which gives it a certain time capsule quality. However the choice of music, which includes a studio group singing the film’s theme, is quite sterile.

Wallach gives a flawless performance and Jackson is also good. The two have been married since 1948 making them Hollywood’s longest lasting couple. Unfortunately the scenes of the two of them inside the apartment are rather stagnant and the one-time that the film gets boring.

There are also some great supporting performances including Rae Allen as a paranoid woman who thinks every man is a potential stalker and Charles Nelson Reilly as a goofy college registrar. The film also marks the film debuts of Dustin Hoffman and Mariclare Costello as his jilted girlfriend, Bob Dishy as an exasperated husband and John P. Ryan as an escort to a female impersonator. You can also spot a young Joe Santo inside the housing authority office and Frances Sternhagen as a passenger on a bus as well as Barbara Colby who in 1975 ended up getting murdered in mysterious and yet unsolved circumstances.

The one error that I noticed in the film is the gaping hole in Ben’s apartment ceiling somehow gets strangely taken care of and is nonexistent when he comes back to the place with his victim. I realize this movie borders on the bizarre and quirky to begin with, but I still felt there needed to be some explanation for that and none is given.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 18, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: None at this time.

A Lovely Way to Die (1968)

a lovely way to die

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cop protects sexy defendant.

Jim Schuyler (Kirk Douglas) is a tough guy cop who leaves his job after his superiors put pressure on him to change the brutal way he treats criminals, which he refuses to do. Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach) a high profile defense lawyer hires Jim to protect his client Rena Westabrook (Sylva Koscina) who is on trial for conspiring with her lover (Kenneth Haigh) to murdering her rich husband. Jim takes a liking to Rena and the two soon begin a torrid affair while he tries desperately to prove that Rena is innocent even though everything points against her.

This film sat in complete obscurity for almost 4 decades having never gotten released on either VHS or DVD until Universal finally made it part of their Vault Series. Why it took so long to get out I don’t know why as it is on the most part pretty good. The mystery is intricate and entertaining and full of unusual twists. The woodsy New Jersey scenery isn’t bad and the large mansions where most of the action takes place are impressive. This film isn’t any different from any of the other myriad crime noir mysteries of that era, but it manages to be slick enough to keep it intriguing until the very end.

The opening credit sequence is a definite drawback as it shows freeze frames of scenes from the film and seems almost like an ad or movie preview that does not help the viewer get into the mood of the story. The music also gets overplayed to the point of being distracting and irritating. It also has too much of a playful tone to it that does not coincide with the dark, moody overtones of the plot or characters.

Douglas who was already in his 50’s at the time of filming looks too old for the part and his love scenes with Koscina look almost like a father and daughter, which comes off as creepy and unnatural. The part would have been better served had it been played by an actor that was at least 20 years younger, which would have made the romantic angle much more believable. Wallach’s attempts at a southern accent are futile, but his arguments and theatrics during the trial are still fun.

The film also offers a great chance to see young up-and-coming stars including Conrad Bain as the prosecuting attorney, Doris Roberts as a snoopy housekeeper and Ralph Waite as the star witness. There is also Philip Bosco and John P. Ryan as bad guys. Richard Castellano is a bartender and David Huddleston is one of his patrons. You can even spot the beautiful Ali MacGraw in her film debut at the very beginning.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Lowell Rich

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Universal Vault Series)

How to Steal a Million (1966)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They steal a statue.

Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) is a successful art forger who lends his Cellini Venus statue to a Paris Museum. He also has it insured, but doesn’t realize that for the coverage to take effect it would have to go through a test by the insurance company to make sure it is authentic, which sends him into a panic. His daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) decides to help him by enlisting the help of Simon (Peter O’Toole) who she thinks is a professional burglar. Simon though is actually an investigator who is on to Bonnet’s racket, but decides to play along and steal the statue back despite the place being under tight security simply because he has fallen for Nicole and she for him.

Directed by William Wyler this film is engaging from beginning to end and perfectly blends the comedy with the caper. The story itself has limited action and a moderately slow pace, but I was never bored and enjoyed the plush sets and wide array of supporting characters making this a perfect tonic for those looking for light forget-your-troubles entertainment.

O’Toole’s detached manner works well with the character who allows Nicole to take charge or at least think she is while still secretly holding all the cards. The chemistry between the two is good, but I felt the romantic angle got played out too quickly. Sometimes it is more interesting not knowing if they are going to fall in love or not until the end and having them get all romantic with each other while trapped in a cramped janitor’s closet at the museum and during the tension of the robbery seemed a bit of a stretch.

Hepburn is elegant as ever and as usual it is her chic outfits that become almost as fun as her performance and the one that she wears to a restaurant when she meets Simon to set-up their plan has to be seen to be believed. The funniest one though is when she dresses in a very frumpy un-Hepburn-like dress and hat and then gets down on her hands and knees to pretend to be a cleaning lady.

Griffith hams it up marvelously as the crazy father and makes the most of every scene he is in. His cross-eyed stare makes him look almost like the twin brother of character actor Jack Elam.

Eli Wallach is underused in a supporting role that really doesn’t offer much and there is never any explanation of why he becomes so infatuated with the statue like he does. However, the way he describes his love for the statue in an aroused type of way is funny.

The robbery itself features some interestingly intricate moments. The best is when the couple is locked in a closet and Simon uses a magnet to take the key, which is hanging on the other side of the wall off of its hook and along the wall and into the lock, which I found to be totally cool.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 13, 1966

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Not Rated

Director: William Wyler

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Tough Guys (1986)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old guys go 80’s.

Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas) are two old-time crooks, the last men to rob a train, who are released from prison and find life on the outside to be tough going.

The comedy and story are extremely predictable and too exaggerated to be entertaining or humorous. Having two elderly seventy-year-old guys beat up two young gun wielding punks or a street gang is unrealistic and the film loses any validity in the process. The film also plays-up 80’s fashions and attitudes until they are no longer funny. The musical soundtrack stinks and Kenny Rogers’s opening song isn’t much better.

Yes, it is fun to see Douglas and Lancaster together again, but it would have been better if they weren’t wearing those tacky, dated suits. Eli Wallach as a severely nearsighted hit-man is the best thing. His lines are amusing and he needed to have had more screen time. Charles Durning also does well in support.

This uninspired film should have been much better especially when considering the star quality. It does come to life a bit during the final train robbing sequence, but only marginally and I really could’ve done without having to see Douglas’s bare bottom.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jeff Kanew

Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 2), Amazon Instant Video