Tag Archives: Mystery

The Nanny (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid doesn’t like nanny.

            Bette Davis plays a nanny to an upper-class British family whose oldest son Joey (William Dix) is accused of accidently killing his younger sister. Joey, who is only 10, is sent away to a home for disturbed children. When he returns he accuses the nanny as the one who did the killing and a psychological game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Davis is sensational. She plays a type of character that she has never done before and the results are fascinating. She is much more subdued and evasive than usual and she falls into the role of the unassuming nanny in a seamless fashion. The different setting works well for her and I commend her tenacity for taking on a project that was not glamorous. She even puts on some thick eyebrows for her part and at times, especially at the beginning, she starts to resemble her most hated rival Joan Crawford.

Dix is amazingly good as the kid and it is a shame that he did only one other picture after this one. I liked the independent nature of the character and he plays off Davis quite well and showed no signs of being intimated by her. Making the adversaries have such extreme age difference and personalities gives the story an interesting edge that helps carry the picture.

The evocative black and white photography helps accentuate the dark-tone. The British setting along with the expected formalities of that culture, particularly that from the father character Bill (James Villers) give the film some distinction.

The first act though goes on way too long. We are given the general premise right up front and then have to spend the whole first hour going through the scenario that Joey doesn’t like his nanny and is suspicious of her again and again until it becomes derivative. When the second act does finally come about it seems too late. The revelation isn’t all that clever or creative and the climactic sequence desperately needed more action and punch. The final result is unsatisfying. The viewer is given an intriguing premise that it can’t sustain to the end ultimately making this a misfire despite the outstanding presence of Davis and some high production values.

There is also the issue of the three-year-old girl who is adorable and an absolute scene stealer and yet right up front you are made aware that she is killed, which makes the proceedings rather depressing. Having to then watch her actual death is disturbing and, for its time period, rather vivid and startling.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 27, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Seth Holt

Studio: Hammer Productions

Available: DVD

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She is all alone.

Rynn (Jodie Foster) is a 13-year-old girl living alone in a big house in the countryside. Her father has leased the place for three years from nosy landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) and her adult son Frank (Martin Sheen) who continually makes lecherous advances towards Rynn. No one has seen her father and when anyone asks for him she comes up with excuses, which starts to make everyone in town suspicious. She meets fellow teen Mario (Scott Jacoby) who she lets in on her secret and the two devise a plan that will rid them of the meddlesome Hallets.

Although she has stated in interviews that this is the least favorite out of all the movies that she has done I can’t think of anyone more perfect for the part of an independent headstrong young woman than Foster, who has always carried that persona. Despite the vast age difference she easily carries the picture from her older co-stars. There is even a nude scene involving her character although it was done by her older sister Connie working as a body double. This was done despite her adamant protests as was a scene where she goes to bed with Jacoby, which she has said made her extremely uncomfortable and probably explains her dislike for the film.

Sheen is menacing as the perverted Frank, who enjoys ‘younger girls’ and his ongoing banter and advances with Rynn is consistently creepy and tense. Alexis Smith is excellent as the mother and her worn face and attitude gives her a witchy presence and it is too bad she couldn’t have remained for the entire movie. I also found Jacoby engaging and amiable and I really enjoyed his character, which I found a bit surprising since he is best known for playing dark, sinister characters in Rivals and the TV-movie Bad Ronald.

The on-location shooting, which was done in both the Canadian province of Quebec and in Maine, is excellent and gives one a nice taste of small town life on the east coast. There is some nice synthesized music that gives the film a dark tone. The premise is offbeat and to some extent, at least during the first half, it is enough to keep you intrigued.

My main issue with the film is the fact that not enough happens. Almost all the action takes place in the main room of the house, which eventually becomes dull, especially visually. There are no scares, or shocks and the twists aren’t all that clever, or surprising. In fact the final twist I saw coming long before it happens. There are times when cutaways would have been helpful and spiced things up particularly when Rynn talks about a visit from her mother and her ‘long red finger nails’, which we never see and is just described. The conclusion leaves A LOT of unanswered questions making this thing empty and incomplete. The final shot is one very long take of a close-up of Foster staring at a subject while the credits role by, which eventually becomes annoying and it would have been better had they done a freeze-frame instead of forcing her to sit and stare at something way longer than humanely possible. Also, composer Mort Shulman is badly miscast as the policeman. His acting abilities are clearly limited and he shows no presence or authority and makes the scenes he is in weak.

It is hard to know what genre to put this in. It is really not scary and the mystery angle has too many loopholes to being taken seriously. The story, based on a novel by Laird Koenig, seems rather tame despite some dark elements and geared more for teens, or young adults.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG (Brief Nudity, Mild Cursing)

Director: Nicholas Gessner

Studio: American International

Available:  VHS, DVD, Netflix Streaming

Still of the Night (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: This teddy bear bleeds.

Successful psychiatrist Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) finds himself immersed in a tangled web of murder and deceit. One of his patients, wealthy art dealer George Bynum (Josef Sommar), is found murdered. A mysterious woman named Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) visits him and states that she was George’s mistress and Sam suspects that she may be the killer. He tries to do his own investigation, but the police start to doggedly tail him thinking he may know more than what he is letting on.

This was yet another homage to Alfred Hitchcock, this time done by writer/director Robert Benton, who is an excellent filmmaker in his own right.  This one has all of the style, but none of the substance.  The concept is slickly handled, but it misses Hitch’s flair as well as his wry sense of humor.

Normally I have never been too impressed with Scheider as a leading man.  He has always seemed transparent and his range of characters as well as emotions that he can convey are limited. Here though, as an evasive middle-man, his acting abilities work quite well and I actually found him perfect for the part.

Streep does not fare as well.  Her acting is almost always impressive and I admire her prolific career, but this is one of her few roles that takes no advantage of her talents. She seems to have an almost ghost-like presence. I didn’t find her character to be compelling, nor intriguing. I had no interest in her fate nor her relationship with Rice.

Joe Grifasi was a poor choice as the lead investigator Joseph Vitucci. He showed none of the characteristics of a seasoned police detective and looked and acted more like a disheveled kid just out of college. The rest of the supporting cast is dull and cardboard. It would have been nice if one eccentric character had been put in to liven things up.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the whole movie is a nightmare segment that the George character has that comes in the middle of the story. I liked some of the creepy imagery that was used including a bleeding stuffed teddy bear. I also enjoyed how afterwards Sam debates the dreams meaning with his mother Grace (Jessica Tandy) who also has a background in psychology, but I thought it was a bit of a stretch when she suggests he go to the police about it as dreams can be interpreted in many different ways and hold no relevancy in a court of law. I thought it became even more far-fetched when at the end Sam uses some of the symbolism in the dream to figure out the identity of the killer.

The film has a few plot holes and certain things that just don’t add up.  Some of the ones that hit me was when Brooke talks about seeing George off in a cab that night and then the next morning reading in the papers that he had been murdered, which is preposterous.  Most newspapers go to press between ten and midnight, the dead body might not yet have even been discovered until later that day, or even a few days later. There is also a segment where Sam makes a $15,000 purchase on a painting he doesn’t even want at an auction simply so he can use it as an excuse to write a note on the bidding card warning Brooke that the police are after her. Also, when Sam does not find Brooke at her apartment her friend tells him that she is at her parent’s house in some town called Glen Cove, but she is not sure of the street name and yet Sam is able to find the place in the middle of the night with hardly any effort. Also, I found some of the conversations that George has with Sam during their sessions to be unintentionally funny.

There is enough intrigue to keep you somewhat interested, but the result is mild. I did like the idea of building the tension up through slow subtle means instead of the quick shocks that you see done in a modern suspense movie, but it is still slow going. The music played over the opening credits is more suited for a romance and does nothing to create the right mood for a thriller. The lighting in literally every shot is dark and shadowy, which certainly helps with the atmosphere, but after a while it gets to be too much. I was also not impressed with the climactic sequence. The protagonist is too helpless and defenseless and does not fight back, which severely limits the action. Having it occur at an ocean-side house does create a nice ambience, but the chase that is involved there could have been more extended and the camerawork during the segment is unimaginative.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 19, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: MGM/UA

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Notorious Landlady (1962)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Landlady could be killer.

            William Gridley (Jack Lemmon) is an American who has arrived in London and looking for a place to stay. He rents a room from a home owned by Carly Hardwicke (Kim Novak) a gorgeous woman who Bill immediately becomes smitten with. The problem is that many people think Carly has killed in her husband even though his body has not been found. When Bill gets word of this he becomes determined to investigate the case and prove her innocence.

You would think a script written by Larry Gelbart and Blake Edwards would be funnier and full of zany scenarios and slapstick, but instead it gets grounded in a lot of dialogue for much of the first hour and forty-five minutes and only starts to get interesting during the final fifteen. The conversations lack any wit, or sharp one-liners, and the premise plods along at a much too leisurely pace. There is a segment where Bill accidentally sets fire to the patio, but I think this was simply thrown in for some action as there is very little else of it. The plot is formulaic and fails to add any new twist or perspective and once it is over it is easily forgettable. Lemmon’s character is bland and transparent and more than a little naïve since he falls in love with her immediately and is then convinced that she is innocent even though he has only known her for a day.

The best part comes at the very end where the two find themselves at a recital for a group of senior citizens that are all sitting in covered wheelchairs. This scene gets drawn out amusingly and includes a bit where an old lady named Mrs. Dunhill (Estelle Winwood) is pushed down the side of a hill, which is nicely captured in a silhouette style with Bill chasing after her. Winwood, who was already seventy-nine at the time, hams it up perfectly as the daffy old woman.  Of course all this comes much too late to really help the picture, or story, but at least it saves the film from being a complete bore, which it otherwise would have been.

Novak gives a surprisingly strong performance and a convincing British accent that I wish she had spoken in for the entire duration.  She was always a stunner, but here she may look her all-time best. One scene taken with her in the bathtub was highly risqué at the time and doesn’t leave much to the imagination. British character actor Lionel Jeffries is engaging as the inspector, but Fred Astaire is essentially wasted as Bill’s boss. The production values are decent, but the results are middling.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 26, 1962

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 1 & 2)

Lady in Cement (1968)

 

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Tony solves the case.

Frank Sinatra returns as detective Tony Rome in this sequel to the 1967 hit. Here, while going on a diving expedition off the coast of Florida, he finds a naked woman underwater with her feet encased in cement.  He then meets a large and mysterious man by the name of Gronski (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find the girl’s killer, but he is not so sure that Gronski himself may have something to do with it.

            One of the things I really liked about the film as well as in the first one is the very cynical, world-weary, streetwise nature of the detective character. It seems to be a part that Sinatra was born to play and he does it well. I don’t think it was too far off from Sinatra’s real personality, which is why it works. I loved the cryptic dialogue and snappy one-liners. The banter is fun and intoxicating. It was the best thing about the first film and continues to be the case in this one. If anything it is the one thing that really carries it.

            The mystery itself is dull.  In the first film the case was more intriguing and complex. Here it seems mechanical and uninspired. It gets played out in a formulaic way with the standard suspects that seem borrowed from other, better stories. The twists and turns aren’t exciting, or surprising. The movie is more concerned with being amusing and filled with hip banter making the case itself seem like a side-light and not allowing the story to move forward. Yes, the bickering is fun, but there still needs to be a plot to match it and that was not the case here. The suspense is lacking with a final denouncement that is nothing special. The climatic fight sequence is particularly clichéd and forced.

            The opening bit where Tony finds the dead woman underwater is poor as well. It happens right away with no build-up even though I felt one was needed. I would think if a dead person had been trapped underwater for any period of time there would be some discoloration and decay. Instead the woman looks gorgeous, wearing a provocative expression one would find on an erotic model. Her skin is unblemished and she even still has her lipstick and make-up on, which I thought was unrealistic and pretty much ruins the story’s validity before it even gets going.

            The presence of actor Dan Blocker is a major asset and helps the film’s appeal. Blocker was probably better known for playing the character Hoss in the hit TV-series ‘Bonanza’. The fight sequences that he is in are amusing because he can simply throw the other men around like they are toys and seems unstoppable in the process. Like in the TV-series he exudes a lot of charm and is very engaging. There is even a brief in-joke where he is sitting in his room watching an episode of ‘Bonanza’. He and Sinatra make an unlikely, but interesting pair although when shown together he does make Frankie look puny, out of shape, and even a bit washed-up by comparison.

            One of the biggest issues I had with the first film was that there were a lot of loopholes. Particularly one scene where Tony kills a man and then he glibly tells the police that it was ‘clearly self-defense’ and he is never brought in for questioning, or arrested. That just didn’t jibe with me as there are many cases where a person kills someone in self-defense, but the case still ends up being brought to trial. Tony is very good friends with the police chief (Richard Conte), but I still didn’t think that would make him untouchable. At least here when Tony gets framed for a murder the police tell him they are going to have to take him in, which seems more plausible.  This culminates into an extended car chase sequence, which due to the long edits, slow speeds, bird’s eye view camera shots, and laid-back music, make it one of the least riveting and most uninteresting car chases you’ll ever see.

The production values are high and I have no real complaint on it from a technical stand point.  Everything is slickly handled despite a weak story.  There are some strong homophobic undertones, which may offend some, but I felt it fit the era. If you like Sinatra then you will find this passable, but if you enjoy a good mystery then don’t bother because in that area this thing falls flat.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 20, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Director: Gordon Douglas

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

The Detective (1968)

detective

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Up against the system.

Many people may not realize that Frank Sinatra was the original choice of Harry Callahan for Dirty Harry.  Due to various reasons he turned down the part despite the fact that he was interested.  You can’t help but wonder what that film might have been like had he accepted.  A good indication may be the character of detective Joe Leland that he plays hereIt has a similar theme of a tough cop tired of ‘the system’ and breaking off on his own to solve a bizarre case.

The murder itself is particularly gruesome and ahead of its time as it deals with the killing of a gay man found nude on the floor of his apartment with his genitals cut off. The actual shot of the victim is conveniently framed so that a fern, yes a fern, is strategically placed over the offending area, which is a little corny.  Yet the dialogue and description of the case seems incredibly graphic for the time. Ol’ Blue Eyes even says the word penis, which I think has to be a movie history first.

The way it deals with the homosexual topic is also surprisingly enlightening. Gays are not labeled as ‘sick’ and ‘perverse’, at least not by the Leland character. In one good bit the Sinatra character even slugs another officer, played by Robert Duvall, in retaliation for getting  rough with a gay man that he was questioning for no apparent reason except that he was gay.

There is another electrifying sequence involving Leland questioning the victim’s live-in lover and chief suspect. The part is well played by actor Tony Musante who gives his character all sorts of weird body gestures and nervous ticks, which makes the viewer feel uneasy but still compelled to keep watching until it becomes a fascinating experience. The Leland character again shows an amazing amount of compassion and enlightenment for the gay lifestyle during the interrogation, which should be enough to give this film a landmark status.

However, for all of its apparent sophistication, there are also things that hold it back and make it dated. One is reverting to what was a trend in the 40’s and 50’s, which was to film a person driving their car while sitting in front of a blue screen and holding onto a steering wheel that is not connected to any dashboard. It was considered a ‘ingenious’ way to stay under budget and not having to go through the ordeal of mounting a camera onto an actual car, but for today’s sharp audiences it comes off looking obvious and cheesy.

The casting of Sinatra is another drawback. He was already 53 at the time and he looked it.  The part seems to be screaming for a younger, more rugged method type of actor like Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, who would have done better.  Sinatra overplays the tough guy thing too much until it becomes one-dimensional and boring. The character needed more personal quirks and odd habits in order to make him more filled out and interesting.  He also wears outfits worn by the ‘old school’ investigators of yesteryear even though the character is one looking to break from tradition and fighting the mainstream.

I also wasn’t quite sure why Lee Remick’s role as Sinatra’s love interest was necessary. I usually dislike it when crime dramas feel the need to work in a romance angle as a side story because it usually bogs everything down and in this case was no different. Now Remick is always reliable and her character was interestingly flawed, but how that was supposed to connect with everything else was not clear.

The story works in three different parts. The first deals with the murder and the homosexual community of the period.  The second analyzes the politics of the police department while the third involves a mysterious suicide of a successful businessman. The third part, which doesn’t start until the second hour of the film, was the most intriguing for me. The suicide is shown from the point-of-view of the victim. They literally took a camera and heaved it over the edge of a building until it crashes directly onto the pavement below, which actually made me flinch. It is not until the very end where you see how all three of these parts come together, but the twist is excellent and made viewing this film well worthwhile.

Overall the cinematography, editing, writing, directing, and supporting acting are first rate.  There are a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles including: Jack Klugman, William Windom, Lloyd Bochner, Jacqueline Bisset, Horace McMahon and Al Freeman Jr. They all do splendidly. The subject matter and the way it is handled easily elevates this from other melodramas of the period.  The resolution should make this entertaining even for today’s viewers and enough to overlook a few dated elements.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 28, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Gordon Douglas

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

The Verdict (1982)

verdict

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawyer makes a comeback.

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer that has hit rock bottom. He has lost his last four cases and become an alcoholic in the process. His associate Mickey (Jack Warden) hands him what appears to be an open and shut case dealing with a woman who was put into a permanent comatose state after being given the wrong type of anesthesia during the delivery of her child. Both parties are willing to settle out of court and Frank is initially happy to accept the settlement as he is hard up for funds, but after seeing the sad condition of the patient in the hospital he changes his mind.  He becomes convinced that the hospital is trying to hide something, but the other doctors and nurses that where present during the procedure are refusing to talk. He then tracks down the admitting nurse, who was the one person who refused to sign a sworn statement relieving the doctors of any wrong doing. Once he finds her it blows the case wide open.

This marked a turning point in Newman’s career. He was no longer the young, shirtless, virile hero, but now a grey haired, gravely voiced man showing the signs of aging and his roles from then on where all of older characters past their prime. Newman definitely looks tired and washed up and it is so effective that it makes the viewer feel the same way. Yet, he is still able to show the boyish side of his character by way he becomes engrossed with the pinball machine at the bar and getting excited when he achieves a high score.  Newman continues to be one of my favorite actors and his ability to act in a way that seems so effortless never ceases to amaze me. It may seem minor, but I liked when Galvin is forced to take a red-eye flight out of town in order to meet the former admitting nurse (Lindsey Crouse) who has moved to another city, he is shown to be unshaven. Too many times male characters placed in hectic scenarios in most films are clean shaven at all times even when it doesn’t make sense. Yet here Newman’s character isn’t. Being the consummate method actor who was always looking for realism I’m sure he decided to add this extra touch himself. Sometimes what separates the great ones from the average are the little things.

Director Sidney Lumet shows why he is a legend as well. The movie was shot in the late autumn, early winter in Boston. The cold climate and gray skies help accentuate Galvin’s state of mind and stage in life. I remember hearing Lumet state in an interview how he made sure that the color schemes in the entire film where of a dark, brownish color which he felt would reflect the story’s serious tone. In fact the color brown is the one quality I remember most of this film from when I first saw it years ago. I also liked the visual touch Lumet uses of having Frank taking Polaroid pictures of the victim lying motionless in her hospital bed. As the viewer watches the images of the woman on the Polaroids slowly develop it perfectly reflects Galvin’s developing empathy for her. My only quibble is that I wish that Lumet had shown a close-up of the woman so we the viewers could completely take in her sad condition as well. We are only shown the victim from a distance and even then it is never straight on, which doesn’t help us become as upset by her quandary as we should have.

Another thing I appreciated about the script, which was written by David Mamet and based on the novel by Barry Reed who was at one time a practicing attorney, is the fact that is focuses on all the behind-the-scenes tasks that a lawyer must do before the case comes to trial. Most courtroom dramas deal almost exclusively with the trial portion, but here we see how the attorneys prep their clients for questioning and cross-examination. We also take in the process of them interviewing potential jurors, researching legal issues, chasing down witnesses, and even discussing potential strategies with their clients. I found the approach here, as opposed to other legal dramas, to be more thorough, revealing, and satisfying.

The grievances that I had with the film all contain spoilers, so if you are interested in watching this movie then you may want to skip the next two paragraphs.

The first problem I had was with the Lindsay Crouse character who plays the admitting nurse whose bombshell testimony turns the tide of the case in the favor of Galvin’s client. Her scenes are certainly riveting and marked with all the classic ingredients of high drama. Her character states that the admittance sheet that she had filled out that day had been altered by the doctor and that she had the original. Yet neither the viewer nor the jury is shown the original making what she says, as compelling as it may be, seem like hearsay. The judge also orders everything that she said to be stricken from the record and not considered when the jurors come to their final decision. Yet the jurors openly ignore this order and side in Galvin’s favor anyways, which I couldn’t completely buy. I didn’t think all twelve of them would disregard the judge’s order especially when no documentation was ever shown to help verify what the witness stated.

I also did not like the Charlotte Rampling character who plays a woman that Frank meets at a bar and begins to date. She is also paid by the opposing attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason) to spy on Frank and give away all his strategies. I didn’t feel it was necessary to show this, or even bring in the character at all. We are already shown earlier that Concannon is underhanded by the way it is implied that another doctor, who was going to be the star witness for Galvin, was paid off not to testify and then just disappears. Having him go further by using Galvin’s girlfriend as a snitch seemed like over-kill. The movie strives for realism and therefore should keep extreme side-story scenarios like this out of it as I am sure it is not something that occurs every day.

The subject matter is serious and somber. On a dramatic level it is excellent and although some may find it slow and depressing others will appreciate the intelligent script and deliberate pace. It is also an unusually quiet film with long stretches with no dialogue, or music, which is a nice change of pace from most films, which feel it necessary to be loud and noisy, or risk losing the audience’s perceived short attention span.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 8, 1982

Runtime: 2Hours 9Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD (2-Disc Collectors Edition), Amazon Instant Video

Body Double (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sex through a telescope.

During the 70’s and 80’s director Brian DePalma, a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, made a lot of stylized thrillers using many of Hitchcock’s trademark devices.  He even storyboarded every shot that he did just like Hitch. Unfortunately a lot of these films had rather flimsy plots and characters and were over-directed, drowning out what little story there was. DePalma tried so hard to imitate Hitch that he ended up showing no original vision himself and made the viewer crave even more at seeing a genuine Hitchcock film.  This film, which I first saw when it was released 26 years ago, I felt was the best of DePalma’s Hitchcock imitations. Upon viewing it a second time many years later I found a lot more holes despite one clever twist and some good camerawork.

The story is about Jack Scully (Craig Wasson) who is a struggling out of work actor who is offered a place to stay by a man named Sam (Gregg Henry). The house is a very modernistic place looking almost like the Space Needle in Seattle.  Jack is offered the home on condition that he takes care of the place while Sam is away on business.  During his stay Jack becomes obsessed with the attractive neighbor lady named Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) who he watches through a telescope.  She does an erotic dance in her bedroom each night at the same time while wearing a revealing negligee. The dance itself is not real exciting and would probably bore most people after a minute or two, but Jack becomes hooked on it and watches it endlessly night after night.  Eventually he starts following the woman around during the daytime and even tries to start up a relationship with her. He also begins to notice another man, who is very creepy looking, is also following her and eventually he witnesses him murdering her, but Jack becomes convinced there is more to it.  With the help of a porn star named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who he meets along the way, the two set out to try and solve the mystery.

Wasson makes for an incredibly weak male lead. This helps somewhat because the character is very weak, but it is hard for the viewer to relate or care about him.  His best scenes come during his endless auditions and rather thankless treatment he receives from directors, producers, and acting coaches.  These are one of the few scenes that the film gets right as it hits the nail right on the head showing just how degrading working as a low paid, nameless actor can be in Hollywood. The porn star character is also weak as she is too cliched and predictable making her more annoying than anything despite the fact that Griffith plays the part pretty well.  The character was based on real-life porn star Annette Haven who gets listed in the credits as a ‘technical advisor’. I did like Gregg Henry though who makes for a great sleazy villain as well as Dennis Franz in a small, comic relief type role as a brash, stressed-out B-movie director.

The film also has a lot of rather implausible elements that prevents the viewer from getting as involved in it as they should. One of the biggest ones is when Jack sees Holly Body performing in a adult video that he has rented and becomes convinced that she may be connected to the case when he sees her do the same type of dance that the neighbor lady did, so in order to meet up with her he auditions as the male lead in her next X-rated production. Now I’m not completely sure how casting in these productions work, but having some guy with no experience starring and having sex with the industry’s biggest female star at the time seems to be a bit of a stretch. I would also think that a guy who was not used to having sex in front of the camera and with everyone staring at him might get nervous and be unable to ‘perform’ especially in what was still the pre-Viagra age.

The porn scenes themselves aren’t too interesting, or exciting.  This industry is no longer quite as underground, or taboo as it once was, so the shock factor is gone.  The characters and situations are handled in such a placid way that the viewer is given no real insight into the business, or the people who work in it.  The industry has evolved a lot in the past twenty-five years, so the scenes here become irrelevant.

There were a few things that I did like.  The scenes where Jack follows Gloria around in the shopping mall are pretty well handled despite the fact that I think they could have had a little more action here and there also needed to be more customers in the background.  However, the bird’s eye view, which is another patented Hitchcock type shot, showing Jack following Gloria around who is also being followed by the killer is good.  This part also features the one definitive moment from the film that I remembered after all these years.  It involves Gloria throwing away her old panties when she buys some new ones and then having Jack fish through the garbage, retrieve the panties, and put them in his pocket as a sort of ‘souvenir’.

Some of the shots during the actual murder are also really innovative especially the way the camera captures the giant drill, which is the killer’s weapon.  Probably the best shot of the entire film occurs when the killer drives the drill into the victim, which then goes through her body as well as the floorboards and then pops out of the ceiling from the floor below.  Yes, it is rather gory, but I still thought it was a really cool shot anyways.  I also thought the innovative design to the house that Jack stays in had potential, but I wished they had shown a little more of the place from different angles and given us more of a feel of the inside instead of having all the action occur in just one room.

Overall the film is slick, but very shallow and superficial.  The neighbor lady especially seems like a male fantasy.  DePalma gets too hyper with the camera.  I really don’t like his ‘spinning camera’ shots.  He spun it around Jack and Gloria as they kissed and it was tacky and cliched.  Once, in the film Blow Out, he spun the camera around so much in one scene that it started to actually make me feel dizzy and nauseous. The film has a scene during the closing credits showing how a body double is used during a film production, which is amusing and interesting, but a bit out of place for a thriller.  You walk away from the movie wondering how much more entertaining it could have been had Hitchcock himself been able to direct it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Special Widescreen Edition), Amazon Instant Video

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murder at army base.

This film is based on the off-Broadway play that won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 1982 and was written by Charles Fuller. Many of the performers in the play ended up reprising their roles in the film including the stars, Adolph Caesar and Howard E. Rollins, Jr. Director Norman Jewison spent many years trying to get the green light for the project and ended up being rejected by just about every studio. Finally Columbia Pictures gave the go-ahead, but only after Jewison agreed to do it for no salary and all the performers agreed to be paid at the minimum union scale.

The story is actually pretty well written and I’m surprised that so many studio heads refused it by using the excuse that it wasn’t ‘commercial enough.’ The plot involves the murder of a black army sergeant (Caesar) and the subsequent investigation by a black army captain (Rollins) brought in from Washington. The period is around the end of World War II and the setting is an all black army base in the deep South, which leads to many expected racial tensions. What sets this story apart from others of its type is the fact that the racism and underlying tensions is not just white vs. black, but also, and more prominently, black vs. black.

Caesar plays a memorable victim. He is hated by his own men due to his harsh treatment of them. When he is killed everyone is a suspect and as his men recount their dealings with him, it is easy to see why. Yet this is also no one-dimensional character. The story does a very good job of letting us understand why this man has become the way he is. The viewer can’t help but come away feeling sorry for the man and genuinely sad for the way he ended up. The suspects are equally complex, so the film easily becomes quite riveting as it goes along.

Rollins gives an outstanding performance as the head of the investigation. It’s sad that his career, and ultimately his life, was cut short by his drug addiction because he makes a solid impression here. I liked the way he remained stoic throughout despite having to deal with a myriad of different personalities and at times overt racism. Denzel Washington is also very good in a pivotal role.

There were a few things that were thrown in that I felt were not necessary and ended up hurting the film as a whole. One of them is the musical score. It has a very bouncy, ragtime sound to it that would be good if this was a comedy. However, for a drama it seems completely out of place and at times is even jarring. The film has a few musical interludes as well. A couple of them are by Patti LaBelle, who I think is a great singer, but in this film she is out-of-place. It starts to take away too much of the grittiness of the story, which should be the central theme. I also found the use of slow motion to be distracting. It occurs twice. Once during the murder scene and another time during a baseball game between the soldiers.

Overall the film succeeds enough with its story and characters that the viewer is forced to think and feel, which is always a good thing. I can’t say that the resolution was anything shocking, but it does manage to keep you guessing. However, this is one rare case where I might have actually preferred seeing the stage version.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 14, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix Streaming

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