Tag Archives: Movies Based on Novels

Straight Time (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Parolee can’t go straight.

Straight Time is an engrossing, highly realistic drama detailing a parolee by the name of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) who gets released from prison and cannot seem to stay away from the allure of crime despite his initial efforts. The movie is based on the novel ‘No Beast So Fierce’ by Edward Bunker.  Bunker himself was a career criminal who was in and out of jail from 1955 to 1975 and only managed to finally turn his life around when this novel, which he had written while incarcerated and deals with many of his own exploits, got published. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay and appears in a bit part playing a character with a really bad comb-over by the name of Mickey.

I found this film gripping from the second it started and infinitely fascinating the more it progressed. It gives you a whole new perspective on things as you are forced to see it from the viewpoint of the criminal and as an outsider looking in. Every facet of the story and characters is believable and the film does a very good job of being stark and searing without ever getting exploitive, or overtly shocking.  I remember back in 1977 when I toured the new county jail in the town where I grew up when it was first opened and before it housed any inmates. I remember the officer describing the rather degrading procedures all felons had to go through when they were first booked including being stripped searched and forced to take a shower nude while a fully clothed officer stood by and watched them.  The scene where Max and other criminals are ‘welcomed’ to the L.A. County jail worked exactly like that. It was so authentic and frank that it seemed almost like a documentary.

The essence of the story revolves around Max and his relationship with his parole officer Earl Frank that is wonderfully played by noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl does his job a little too well. He shows a constant distrust of Max and gives him no respect while overzealously tracking his every move until it finally forces Max to snap. It is a terrific indictment on the flawed system as it examines just how hard it is for the criminal to go straight and stay straight even if they want to. It also exposes how it seems almost designed to push the person back into crime in its refusal to ever treat the criminal as a human being. The part where Max finally has enough and overpowers Earl and chains him naked to a fence in broad daylight on a busy L.A. freeway while hundreds of cars drive by him should leave an indelible image on the minds of anyone who sees it.

The remaining supporting cast is great as well. Theresa Russell is surprisingly effective as Max’s girlfriend Jenny Mercer. Usually she has played more glamorous types of roles, but here she is perfect as a very ordinary woman who inadvertently gets caught up in Max’s eventual self-destruction until she finds herself in over her head.  I liked the fact that she wore no makeup and the camera was able to pick up her natural beauty through regular lighting. The only issue I had with her character is that it is never made clear why she would fall in love with Max so quickly and what it was about him that she liked since he shows some clear destructive tendencies right from the beginning. To me it just came off as a bit forced and phony to have an otherwise well-adjusted woman that he meets at an employment agency get so infatuated with him after just one date that she immediately agrees to move in with him, visit him in jail, and even quit her job on the spot and go on the run. I know it is standard practice in a Hollywood film for the anti-hero to always have ‘his girl’ that can be used to humanize and compliment him, but there still needs to be more of an explanation and history shown to her character in order to validate the relationship.

Harry Dean Stanton gives another great performance as Jerry Schue. He was a long-time partner to Max during the robberies he did before landing in prison. Jerry has now turned his life around. He has a nice house in the suburbs, an honest job, and a beautiful wife. However, when Max comes to visit, and the minute his wife leaves the room, Jerry begs him for a crime job that they can do together because he finds his new found life to be boring.  I thought this made a great statement as to how the sterile suburban existence is not the American dream for everyone and how it will not necessarily ‘domesticate’ those that still harbor a reckless urge.  I also found it interesting how Jerry views the art of robbery as an actual profession that he takes a great deal of pride and care in. When one of the men shows up late for a planned robbery Jerry calls him ‘unprofessional’.

The robbery scenes are filmed in a diverting way. In most films the camera gets real close to the action in order to heighten the tension. Here the action is captured from a long shot that allows the viewer to see just how chaotic and frantic a robbery really is as well as showing how the most nervous people in the place are the thieves themselves.

If I have one complaint with the film it is in the fact that the second hour becomes rather difficult to watch as it focuses solely on the self-destructive downward spiral of the main character. Max has some good qualities, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Yes, some of his anger is justified, but his insistence at ‘evening the score’ with everyone who has wronged him ends up only hurting himself. Hoffman is outstanding as usual. It is interesting to compare his role here playing a very violent character with the pacifist one that he played just seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs.

If you are looking for an intelligent, searing drama that is still relevant today then this no-holds-bar character study is highly recommended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ulu Grosbard

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Gypsy Moths (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Skydivers travel to Kansas.

Three skydivers, who make a living going around the country doing airshows for the public, stop off at a small Kansas town on a fourth of July weekend that ends up changing all of their lives. Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) is the eldest and the leader of the group. He seems unhappy and suffering from some inner turmoil that he is reluctant to elaborate on.  He ends up having an affair with one of the attractive middle-aged women in town named Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr).  Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) is restless and impatient and has a fling with the town stripper (Sheree North).  Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) is the introspective member of the trio.  He grew up in the town that they are in and uses the visit as a way to reconcile with his demons from the past.

MGM was hoping for a big hit with this one as it reteamed Lancaster and Kerr 16 years after their famous embrace in From Here to Eternity. The film broke ground as it was the first to feature an established and respected actress who was nearly 50 years of age doing a nude scene. Kerr, who looked great both with her clothes on and off, can be seen fully nude from the front and back during a lovemaking scene with Lancaster.  Yet the film failed to gel with the public.

There were some things that I did like. One is the fact that it was filmed on location in Kansas. The opening shots capturing the countryside of the Midwest really gives a strong visual sense of Americana.  The scenes taking place in the neighborhoods of the small town give the film an added dimension that a studio back-lot just couldn’t do.  The skydiving sequences, which take up the majority of the time, are breathtaking and exciting. The aerial photography makes you feel like you are right there jumping out of the plane and free falling into the air.

The basic plot though is dull and uninteresting.  The characters and situations are contrived and derivative.  It is almost like the story was a second thought to the stunt work and put in merely as filler. I also didn’t like the pretentious quality of the production that made it seem like it was making some sort of profound statement when in reality it was nothing more than second rate soap opera.  The whole thing would have worked better had they skipped the story and made it into a documentary on skydiving instead.

Spoiler Alert!

The most frustrating thing about the movie is the fact that the Mike character dies at the end when he decides, for no apparent reason, not to open his chute and goes, literally, splat on the ground right in front of a throng of spectators. I actually thought this was one of Lancaster’s better later career performances and I was intrigued as to what was causing his character’s inner-strife, but the film offers us no clue, or hint.  I thought there should have been a backstory and even some flashbacks. The ambiguity leaves the viewer cold and unsatisfied and makes the film seem incomplete.

The only possible explanation may come through researching actual Gypsy moths and then correlating the species to the characters. Per Wikipedia, the female gypsy moth is unable to fly. This would then explain why Elizabeth refused to run off with Mike despite her unhappy marriage simply because she could not ‘spread her wings’.  The adult male moth always dies in July, which would then explain Mike’s death. No reason for his demise was needed because his life cycle was ending regardless. July is also the time when the moth lays her eggs, which would explain why Joe and Malcolm, who were much younger than Mike, decided to go off on their own separate ways at the end.

End of Spoiler Alert!

I  ended up finding more misses than hits with this one and can’t help but label it as a misfire.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 28, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Clint goes mountain climbing.

Dr.  Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a retired assassin and mountain climber now working as a college art and history professor. However, due to his penchant of collecting rare paintings he is sucked in to doing hits from time to time by an obscure government bureau in order to help pay for his expensive collection of artwork. His assignment this time is to track down the Russian assassin who killed his old army buddy that at one time had saved his life while back in the war. The identity of this killer is not known, the only thing that is known is that the man walks with a limp and is a part of a team of mountain climbers set to scale the foreboding Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps.

Eastwood’s foray into the spy genre while entertaining enough to be considered passable still ends up being a misfire. Sure it is fun to see him go a bit against type especially with the accepted image of the spy. Here he wears glasses and actually turns down the advances of beautiful women at least when approached by an attractive student who states she is willing to do ‘anything’ in order to get better grades. It is even fun hearing him speak like a flaming homosexual when he disguises himself as a gay delivering man. However, the overall hokey premise does not suit Eastwood’s rugged persona and mentality. He seems stiff, out-of-place and unemotional most of the way and never believable. I also couldn’t buy into the idea that this paid assassin was actually a deep and philosophical man who abhorred the violence.  A person who becomes as good of a killer as this character is purported to being would have to have some deep dark passion for it in order to spend as much time doing it as he does.

The supporting cast does not fare much better. Dragon (Thayer David) who is head of the secret government bureau that recruits Roger is over-the-top and cartoonish as an albino man who must live in almost complete darkness in an underground temperature controlled room. George Kennedy gets another bland, thankless role this time as Ben Bowman the man who helps train Roger to climb the mountain. It seems like once he won the Academy Award for Best supporting actor in 1967 for Cool Hand Luke his career when straight downward. I also didn’t like the names given to the characters, which were supposedly done as an ‘inside joke’. The last name of Hemlock for the main character is too obvious and naming the black prostitute Jemima seemed even worse.

The only actor and character that comes off well here is Jack Cassidy as the gay man named Miles Mellough who walks around with a pet poodle named Faggot while playing a crafty game of cat and mouse with Jonathan. The character is both threatening and amusing and it was a real shame that he gets killed off in the middle as he could have made the tension more interesting had he stayed on until the end.

Most critics have described the pacing as ‘sluggish’ although I thought it was alright and it gets sprinkled so much with Eastwood’s amusing one-liners that it is always entertaining. The only real issue I had in this area is the first part, which seems unnecessary. It has Jonathan flying out to Switzerland to kill one of the killers only to come back and then fly out again to get the other one. This all becomes redundant and the scene involving the assassination of the first killer is poorly choreographed and edited.

The film’s main redeeming quality is the mountain climbing sequences, which is impressive. I loved the bird’s-eye view camera shots that captured the majestic landscape both in the scenes at Monument Valley as well as in Europe. The fact that Eastwood did almost all of his own climbing and stunts is equally impressive. There looks to be a lot of research put into the making of this film and the climbing segments are well shot and authentic looking. The climax atop of the Eiger becomes a bit drawn out and if anything I found the climb that Eastwood and Kennedy did on the ‘Tootem Pole’ in Utah in the middle of the movie to be more exciting and breath taking.

(Spoiler Alert)

The biggest, most glaring problem that I had with this movie comes at the very end with the ‘surprise’ identity of the killer, which turns out to be the Kennedy character who is finally seen walking with a limp. This though makes no sense because if the man had a limp how was he able to disguise it for so long during the many weeks that he spent with Jonathan during their training and how was he able to climb up the mountain with Jonathan in Utah. The fact that none of this gets answered and almost seems over-looked really makes this thing seem pointless and poorly thought out.

(End of Spoiler Alert)

Rod Whitacker who wrote the novel of which this movie is based labeled this film as being ‘vapid’ and I would have to agree. The story seems to borrow a lot of the same ingredients from other spy films without adding anything new or original of its own.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Clint Eastwood

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Fury (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blow up the body.

Another Brian De Palma/Hitchcock wannabe, this one involving a sinister secret government agent named Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) who wants to use the amazing psychic abilities of a young college-aged man named Robin Sandza (Andrew Stevens) for his own nefarious purposes. While he is in Israel with the father and son he decides to stage a terrorist attack, which he hopes will kill the boy’s father Peter (Kirk Douglas) and allow him to whisk Robin away to an underground research lab where no one will find him. However, Peter manages to survive the attack and goes on a relentless pursuit to find his son. This occurs while a young woman named Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) with equally strong parapsychological traits starts to have visions of Robin and his whereabouts while attending a school that specializes in people with these abilities and eventually she teams up with Peter to help him in his quest.

I liked the opening sequence being shot on-location in Israel, which gives the film an exotic feel. The attack is well-handled and comes as a surprise without any set-up, but I felt there was a fatal flaw with the premise. This is namely the fact that with Robin’s amazing psychic abilities you would think he could figure out that his Dad was still alive and be able to find him while also outsmarting the people who are holding him.

The secret agency thing and what they are using him for is vague and we see only a few scenes with him there. I felt this should have been more detailed and less time spent with Gillian at the psychic school, which is not very compelling and rather draggy.     There are a few good action moments, but unfortunately they come at the beginning and end with a talky middle that lacks any real suspense.

However, Peter’s escape from some gunmen by jumping out of an apartment window and onto the ‘L’ tracks along Wabash Avenue in Chicago is amazingly well shot and nerve-wracking.  A scene where Robin tortures a female Dr. (Fiona Lewis) by using his telepathic powers to spin her around a room until  blood oozes from her body and sprays all over the walls and furniture deserves some merits, but I wished it had been more extended. There is also the exploding body that is the film’s final shot and possibly its best and it is shown several times at different angles. I also enjoyed the darkly humorous scene where Robin uses his powers to send a ride at an indoor amusement park out of control and throwing the riders through the window of a nearby restaurant.

De Palma’s trademark over-direction is in full gear. Sometimes it works, but other times it is a distraction. For instance he uses a lot of panning shots showing one person talking and then panning to the other person and then back again. During a funny scene where Peter breaks into an older couple’s apartment while looking for a disguise this really works, but De Palma continues to go to this well throughout and eventually it becomes annoying. There is also a foot chase that is done in slow-motion, which to me sapped the tension and excitement right out of it. He does have a few bird’s-eye view shots, which while not adding anything to the story, are still kind of cool.

Andrew Stevens, son of actress Stella Stevens, is well cast as the young man who starts out likable, but slowly becomes evil as the film progresses. Stevens has a good knack for this as he can go from nice to menacing very quickly and I first noticed this during a classic episode of Murder She Wrote. His clear blue eyes can give off a creepy stare as well.

John Cassavetes is an excellent bad guy.  He is best remembered as an independent film director with a unique vision, but with his dark features, cryptic glare, and intense delivery he can also be a very good villain. I don’t think the film made the most of it, but it was astute casting.

Although billed as the star Douglas does not have the most screen-time and there are long periods where he isn’t seen at all. This was really a vehicle for Irving, who is convincing and makes the viewer sympathetic to her quandary of having super-powers that she does not fully understand, cannot control and doesn’t really want.

It’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t go far enough with it. There weren’t enough twists to justify sitting through almost two hours. The pacing is poor and had it been trimmed to 90 minutes it would have worked better. The special effects are decent, but there needed to be more of them and they might not hold-up to contemporary standards. John Williams’s orchestral sounding score helps elevate what is really just bubblegum material.

This is a great chance at seeing some young stars in their film debuts including Darryl Hannah, Laura Innes, and James Belushi. There is also an amusing scene featuring Dennis Franz with a full head of hair playing a nervous and befuddled Chicago cop.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 10, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Married to a jerk.

Director Frank Perry may not be a name one throws out when mentioning some of the top directors, but a lot of his early work that he did with his screenwriter wife Eleanor were definite forerunners of the independent film movement and ahead of their time. David and Lisa was their first and it dealt with the budding romance between two patients at a mental hospital. Ladybug Ladybug was their follow-up and it was the true story of what happens when an errant nuclear warning siren goes off and the staff and students of a small rural school think it is for real. There was also the critically acclaimed film Last Summer dealing with the brutal gang rape of a teen girl by her so called ‘friends’.  They also did the revisionist western Doc starring Stacy Keach as well as the brilliantly quirky Rancho Deluxe.  However, it is Diary of a Mad Housewife that I find to be their very best.

It is the story based on the best-selling novel by Sue Kaufman dealing with the character of Tina Balser.  On the outside she seems to be living the American dream. She is married to a up and coming lawyer, living in a swank Manhattan apartment, and the mother of two beautiful girls.  Unfortunately the husband is an obnoxious bore, the girls are spoiled and mouthy, and she feels lonely and depressed.  She decides to have an affair with a novelist, but he ends up treating her just as poorly and when she tells her troubles to a support group, they end up doing the same.

I have seen this film many times over the past twenty years and am always impressed at the fluid way it goes between satire and drama as well as the fact that it doesn’t seem dated at all. The scenes with Richard Benjamin as the jerk husband are hilariously over-the-top.  Yet the scenes involving Frank Langella as the lover who is bitter about his lagging writing career and repressed homosexuality and takes these frustrations out on Tina, are just as interesting, but in a much more subtle way.  In fact these scenes feature some great dialogue and character development and I find them more intriguing with each viewing.  Langella, in his film debut, makes a lasting impression.

The cinematography, editing, and color schemes are also first-rate. Perry does a great job in infusing the counter-culture movement of the time with the old values of marriage and family. The mod party that they go to is well staged with scantily clad mannequins in a provocative poses placed throughout.  The pretentious attitudes of the party goers is nicely captured.  This scene also features the Alice Cooper Band as well as giant pillow fight.

Carrie Snodgrass performance is what really makes this work.  She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it. Her ability to display her characters feelings through such subtle methods as facial expressions, body gestures, and reactions is impressive.  The viewer can easily relate to the character and feel her pain.  Rock singer Neil Young was so impressed with her that he wrote her a fan letter and the two ended up getting into a relationship. Unfortunately because of this she dropped out of Hollywood and didn’t do another movie until almost nine years later.  When she returned all the top roles were no longer accessible and she was relegated to ‘B’ movies and small supporting roles until finally succumbing to cancer in 2004. This was a real shame because her talents were never fully utilized, but at least this was a perfect vehicle for her and one that movie fans today can really appreciate.

In the end though what makes this film so very good is that it makes a great statement on the fact that isolation is a part of modern day living and at some point everyone will have to deal with.  Getting married, having kids, even having a lover or a support group will not necessarily be an effective buffer and may actually only exacerbate it. The whole film kind of reminded me of a statement made by a character on the old ‘Ally McBeal’ TV-show “My loneliest times in life are when someone is lying in bed next to me.”

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: August 10, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes (Theater Version) 1Hour 35Minutes (TV Version)

Rated R

Director: Frank Perry

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS

Fathom (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dental assistant becomes spy.

The spy genre became a big craze in the late 60’s with the success of the James Bond films.  Studios were busily either coming out with imitations of the genre, like the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin, or spoofs of the genre.  This film, starring the voluptuous Raquel Welch, is a combination of both.

The premise is slightly unique as the Welch character, whose name is the same as the film’s title, is not actually a spy. She is a dental assistant and part-time parachutist. This attracts the attention of the British secret service who want to use her parachuting skills to have her ‘drop-in’ to the island mansion of bad guy Tony Franciosa and plant a bug on his premises. They need this done so that they can monitor his conversations and find the whereabouts of a priceless Chinese dragon statue that they are after.

Initially I was intrigued with the idea of the Welch character being just a regular person who gets trained to be a spy from the ground up. However, this concept almost immediately falls flat and ends up pretty much ruining the whole film.  One of the problems is that the Welch character goes through no training to speak of and agrees to this potentially dangerous mission that comes out of nowhere without any conversation regarding her compensation.  She also ends up thinking way too quickly on her feet and behaving like a seasoned spy without any of the expected awkwardness. The character is also poorly fleshed out having no personal life, relationships, history, or even a few odd little quirks.  There are constant references to her beauty, but this quickly become tiresome.  Raquel’s typically one-dimensional performance doesn’t help.

The storyline becomes too convoluted and suffers from having too many plot twists. Reportedly even the cast members found the story confusing.  The good guys become the bad guys and then become good guys again with boring regularity.  A decent spy film needs one true bad guy who is evil and nefarious and seemingly unstoppable because that is what builds the tension.  This film has no tension whatsoever and the musical score sounds like Herb Alpert or Sergio Mendes, which would be better suited for a romance.

The one thing that did impress me was the stunt work.  There are a few that look genuinely dangerous and are shot and edited very well.  One involves Raquel trapped in a bull ring while wearing a red dress.  There is no question that it is a real bull and several shots have her stumbling to the ground while the bull stands right over her. The editing is so well done that I could not tell when the stuntwoman was put in, as usually I can spot this.  Even if a stunt person was used it still looked quite dangerous and very real.  Another good one features Raquel swimming away from a bad guy who continues to shot at her with a spear gun. Both the underwater and aerial photography in this segment are outstanding.

Alas, none of this is good enough to save the film as a whole.  The tongue-in-cheek humor and pacing is poor, and the film ends up being boring and contrived.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fast cars fast women.

During the 70’s car chase movies were all the rage.  Smoky and the Bandit, Convoy, Vanishing Point, and Two-Lane Blacktop were just a few.  Most of these films followed the comedy adventure blueprint closely resembling the politics of the time where the police were the befuddled authority figures and those being chased symbolized the downtrodden masses looking to break free from the values and customs of yesteryear and find their own identities. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is pretty much the same as the rest with a few notable exceptions the biggest being its very downbeat ending, which was quite talked about at the time of its release and one of the main reasons this film continues to have a strong cult following today.

The story is based on the novel by Richard Unekis called The Chase. It involves an out of work race car driver named Larry and his mechanic (Peter Fonda, Adam Roarke) who decide to rob a grocery store to make ends meet. Much to their dismay they are accompanied by a hooker named Mary (Susan George) and the three spend the rest of the film riding in Larry’s Dodge Charger with a powerful V-8 engine and avoiding the relentless pursuit of the police.

The screenplay follows the book pretty closely, but does make a few ill-advised changes. One is that in the book the two leads characters were career criminals who robbed for a living. I thought this made more sense and gave the characters a little more grounding.  I didn’t understand why a race car driver and his mechanic would suddenly be pushed to robbery, or what lead them into their fix. The robbery is executed in much too sophisticated a way for a pair of novices as they kidnap the store manager’s wife and daughter and then threaten to harm them unless the manager opens up the store’s safe. They also rig his home phone up to a tape recorder device so every time he calls home he hears the voice of the two and thinks they are still there even though they had already hit the road.  Criminals who had done this all their lives would be brazen enough not only to come up with this idea, but to also pull it off.  People with no background in robbery most likely would not.  There is also no explanation as to why they chose this store and how they planned the whole thing out, which would have helped.

Another change that was made was the addition of the Mary character.  In the book it was just the two men, which made it more gritty.  Although easy on the eyes the character serves no fundamental purpose to the story line.  All she does is have very redundant arguments with Larry that quickly become tiring.  I began to realize that these shouting matches were put in solely as filler material and it ends up getting inane.

Although I have like Peter Fonda in other films, most notably Easy Rider, I did not feel his laid back persona fit this part.  Larry is indeed a potentially interesting character as it is a person who can only find solace when he is taking extreme risks and driving real fast, but Fonda seemed unable to bring out this edginess effectively and his incessant gum chewing ends up becoming real annoying.

Vic Morrow probably gives the film’s best performance as the sheriff.  Normally the police are portrayed as bumbling idiots in this type of genre, but here they were a little more human and I liked the way that he was a bit of a non-conformist himself in the relentless way  he pursued the trio.

I also liked the attempt by the film makers to put in more realistic elements to a car chase that is never shown in most movies. One particular scene involves a pick-up truck that has nothing to do with the chase pulling out and getting side-swiped by Larry’s car.  For a minute the film becomes somber as they think they may have killed the other driver, which is good. Too many chase films always show other drivers and pedestrians miraculously getting out of the way and never being hit or injured even though in reality a lot of them probably would. The subject of seat belts also comes up, which is another pet peeve that I have with these films.  The occupants of these cars are never shown wearing them and with the stunts that they do they would all end up injured and killed without them.  They don’t wear them here either, but at least Larry does mention to Mary that she should put one on and there is also an amusing scene where a big yellow billboard stating ‘There is only one word for people that don’t wear seatbelts…STUPID’ which is shown briefly just before one of the out-of-control police cars goes careening through it.

Of course the best thing about the film and the one thing that has made this film so famous is the notorious ending, which is a downer for sure. If you consider this a spoiler then please don’t read any further, but the truth is when I first saw this film many years ago I already knew it was going to have a downbeat ending, but it kept me more intrigued because I didn’t know how it would happen.  Unless you count the film’s opening shot there is no foreshadowing of it and it happens very suddenly where the victims end up not knowing what hit them, which is also realistic.  Personally I loved it and most other viewers seem to also.  Too many chase movies have the good guys being able to escape one close call after another when in reality the odds will catch up with you sooner or later and with this film that is what happens, which in some ways can be considered ‘refreshing’. The scene is captured well and features one of the best explosions I have seen and without any of that tacky computerized special effects. I also liked the way the film ends very abruptly after it happens without any denouncement.

Normally I argue against Hollywood remakes, but this is one instance where it would be a good thing.  One of the main problems here is the film’s low-budget.  Although I felt they captured the central California countryside nicely (it was filmed in and around Stockton) the indoor sets are quite bland and dull. A bigger budget, tighter script, and some flashy camera work could work wonders here.  Too many times Hollywood seems driven to remake films that were already good the first time and only ends up tarnishing the original instead of remaking films that didn’t quite work on the first run and trying to make them better.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 17, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Hough

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Innocents (1961)

innocents 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Children frighten their governess.

Legendary British actress Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, the governess hired to care for two children at a sprawling English estate. However, the children are not exactly as they seem. Strange occurrences and behaviors begin to manifest as well as several ghostly sightings, which leads Miss Giddens into believing that the children may actually be possessed.

The film is based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. I have not read the book, but those that have feel this is a pretty satisfying adaptation. I did like the slow, methodical pacing. It helps to build the tension as well as enhance the mystery. Things are revealed in deliberate layers, which kept me intrigued throughout.

Director Jack Clayton shows a marvelous handle on the material.  The estate that they chose for the setting is perfect and captured well in glorious black and white by famed cinematographer Freddie Francis.  There is a lot of spooky imagery throughout including a creepy nightmare sequence in the middle.  The garden with its hulking, strange statues is used quite effectively especially in the haunting finale.  The music also grabs your attention right from the start with a very eerie song that is played before you see a single image on the screen. The song is similar to the one used in Rosemary’s Baby.  In fact there are several things here that reminded me of that film as well as The Shining.

Kerr was a good choice for the increasingly frightened governess.  I loved that scared expression on her face, which becomes progressively more frequent. Yet she is also effective when the character decides to become proactive by taking matters into her own hands and singlehandedly trying to ‘cure’ the children herself.  This also helps make both the character and the story a more multifaceted because you are never sure if this stuff is really happening or all just inside her head.

What really impressed me the most though was the performances of the two children especially Martin Stephens who plays Miles the young boy. His character shifts through many different moods, playing an innocuous child one minute and then a menacing, volatile one the next. He does each one flawlessly and becomes practically mesmerizing in the process.  Pamela Franklin is also fine in the role of Flora. This was her film debut. Eight years later her career would peak playing her signature role as Maggie Smith’s nemesis in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Another thing that I liked about the children is that they are initially portrayed as being normal and even engaging.  This is unlike other films with a similar theme like Children of the Damned or Children of the Corn where the kids are given creepy features right from the start. Here it works better and is more chilling to the viewer because the children’s dark side is unsuspected.

Unfortunately, despite the film’s impeccable technical quality, I still went away feeling unsatisfied. Part of the problem is that nothing really happens.  The ghosts appear but then do nothing but just stand there, which quickly becomes tiresome. One scene in particular has the camera constantly cutting back to the lady ghost standing across the lake until she starts to look like a mannequin, which I suspect she was.  The buildup is good, but I would have liked more of a payoff.  The ending is much too vague and gives no explanation as to why this was happening, if it was happening, or whatever became of the main character.

I couldn’t help but feel that this story would have worked better as an episode from one of the old horror anthology series like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour or even The Twilight Zone where it could have all been compacted into an hour. A hundred minutes seems like much too long for such little to happen. It is also interesting to note that in 1972 a film came out entitled The Nightcomers starring Marlon Brando that attempts to speculate what happened to the children before the main character of the governess arrives and before James’s original story begins.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1961

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Jack Clayton

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

John and Mary (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sex and then relationship.

Considered provocative at the time this film detailed the new phenomenon of the one-night-stand, a fad in the late 60’s early 70’s that quickly went out of style upon the release of Looking for Mr Goodbar in 1977.  The story here details a rather nondescript man and woman (played by Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow) who meet at a singles bar and then go back to his place for sex.  The rest of the film involves them considering whether it can grow into a relationship.

The first ten minutes are pretty good. It nicely analyzes all the expected awkwardness one must have of waking up the next morning and not sure who you’ve been sleeping with. I liked how the John character secretly goes through Mary’s purse to find out more about her while Mary does the same with his telephone messages. Unfortunately after this segment Director Peter Yates unwisely decided to put in voice overs of their thoughts. This adds nothing to the proceedings and ends up being heavy-handed. It also takes away one of the fundamental points of good film-making, which is learning about characters through subtle visual observation.

The film is also no where near as sophisticated or daring as I think the film-makers would like us to believe. I expected, and would have like, the male character to have been a life-long swinger who has had many of these flings and now suddenly finds himself attracted to this woman and wants to go in a different direction. Instead we get a Hoffman character portrayed as being someone who has never done this before and only does so at the coaxing of his much more liberated friend.  This leads him to act all shy and unsure and coming off like an extension to the character he played in The Graduate. The end result is getting a very boring, bland person who responds to things in all the predicted ways instead of giving us a fresh new perspective by delving into the mind of someone living a lifestyle many of us have not experienced.  I also got a strong feeling that the film-makers had done very little research into this topic, thus giving the viewer no new insight whatsoever.  It ends up coming off like one of those trendy ‘statement movies’, but with no idea of what statement it actually wants to make.

There is no chemistry between Hoffman and Farrow at all.  Nothing is shown that would indicate why these two would want to pursue this thing any further. I actually found the scenes involving the side-story of Farrow’s affair with an older college professor (Michael Tolan) to be more interesting and filled with stronger more snappy dialogue.

In the end this ‘provocative drama’ deteriorates into being an uninspired love story. It concludes with the tired, cliche ridden scene of having John madly driving around the city of New York looking for this mysterious woman who he is convinced he is in love with despite the fact that he still does not know what her name is.  It is easy to see how, in Hoffman’s very distinguished career, why this film remains one of his lesser known efforts.

On the technical side this film is actually well done.  I liked how it inter-cut between the present day and the past as well as analyzing the previous relationships of the two characters. This film also offers a nice chance to see a young Tyne Daly as Farrow’s roommate.  Cleavon Little from Blazing Saddles fame appears briefly as a would-be film director.  Olympia Dukakis  has an amusing, non-speaking bit as Hoffman’s activist Mother.  This also marks the film debut of character actress Marian Mercer.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Yates

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They can hear everything.

In Sean Connery’s long and storied career in which he has played in a wide variety of films, The Anderson Tapes somehow always gets lost in the shuffle, which is unfair as it is really an offbeat gem waiting to be discovered and appreciated.  Fortunately in October it was finally released to DVD and the print is excellent and there is now discussions of a remake, but see the original first.

It involves a man by the name of Duke Anderson (Connery), who upon being released from prison, seeks to borrow money from the mob in order to finance a high scale robbery of an apartment building that is filled with affluent tenants. The problem is that Duke is being tailed by the government who, through means of sophisticated electronic devices, are able to record everything he says and does.  Even by today’s standards I thought the gadgetry and the way it was used was quite clever.

Many things help make this film stand out. One is the very distinctive music score by the legendary Quincy Jones.  It has a weird electronic, techno quality to it that nicely compliments all the gadgetry in the story.

The casting is also interesting.  Martin Balsam, who made a career playing typical, everyman characters, appears here as a flaming gay interior decorator, which he does hilariously well. Comedian Alan King gets cast in a serious role as the crime boss. Even the casting of Connery is offbeat.  Usually he plays characters with strong personalities who are very much in control.  Here he plays a character who is constantly forced to compromise and trying desperately just to hold everything together  he even ends up getting rejected by his girlfriend (played by Dyan Cannon) for another man and all Connery’s character can do is stand there looking dumbfounded.

The script has some really sharp dialogue. This is probably the third or fourth time that I have seen this film and yet I was still impressed by some of the great lines that I hadn’t caught from the previous viewings.  One should actually make a point to watch this film twice just so they can take in all the great writing, which coincidently was done by Fran Pierson the same person who did Dog Day Afternoon.

The most unique thing about the movie though is the actual robbery sequence, which is made memorable due to director Sidney Lumet’s innovative approach.  It is told in semi-flashback form where you see a scene of the robbery and then it cuts to a scene where the victim recounts what happened to the police, which makes for some creative segues. The robbery victims are full of odd quirks and quite amusing.  Two of the best ones involve Margaret Hamilton best know as the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz who plays a cursing, argumentative elderly woman in this her final film role. I also like the bedridden, paraplegic young boy (Scott Jacoby) who is far more resourceful than anyone thinks and ends up single handily ruining all of their well thought out plans.

This sequence also edits in scenes of the police force quietly getting set-up to raid the building.  I especially like the shots of the S.W.A.T. team members sliding along a rope from one high rise rooftop to another.  It is photographed in a realistic way so you see them dangling high in the air with nothing but the street below, which made me cringe a little.  This is also a great chance to see Garret Morris in a pre-Saturday Night Live role playing the head of the S.W.A.T. team.

There is very little that I didn’t like in this film that I otherwise found to be original and engaging from start to finish. However, of the two issues that I do have, one is the ending, which in typical 70’s fashion was a bit of downer. It does have a twist to it, but it is not as clever as I think the film-makers thought it was.  There is also a glaring factual error that in a film as sophisticated and polished as this should never have happened.  It deals with a woman on a phone stating that she is calling from Wichita Falls, Kansas.  Now Kansas does have a city of Wichita, but Wichita Falls is actually in Texas.

I highly recommend this movie not only to those who may be fans of Connery or director Lumet, but also to those who enjoy movies with an offbeat story and approach.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video