Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life Through Letters




About Schmidt
(2002, Alexander Payne) generally received very good to excellent reviews for its offbeat look at a newly retired actuary who makes a trip from his home in Omaha, Nebraska to see his daughter get married in Denver. The title character, portrayed by Jack Nicholson in one of his most atypical performances, doesn’t much care for his new son-in-law, but he does the proper thing and shows up for the ceremonies (though he pleads with his daughter not to marry her fiancé just a few days before the wedding).

There were some reviewers who thought that the screenplay co-authored by Payne and Jim Taylor took some cheap shots at some characters and felt the film was a bit cruel. I don’t agree with those critics, but I do see their point.

What I’d like to discusss is the film’s message of life as it is really lived versus life as it is lived out in documents, whether in business memos or on computer screens. Schmidt was an actuary, hardly an exciting profession, and life for him revolved around statistics, cold numbers. We find out that he wanted to open his own business and had dreams of being famous and rich, but these plans never materialized; thus he worked for the same company for years. As we learn in the opening scene, when we see him wait until the clock on the wall of his drab office turns 5:00 on the dot until he leaves (presumably on his final day at work), this was not an enthralling job.

Soon after his retirement party (a wonderful scene set in a typically hokey Wild West-themed banquet room), he sees an commercial on television for a program where the public can send $22 a month to help out underpriviliged children in Africa. Intrigued and at the same time, wanting to put something new in his boring life, he decides to send money.

He receives acknowledgement of his charity and is told in a letter that any sort of personal communication along with the monetary gift would be appreciated. Schmidt decides then and there that he will write letters to the young boy named Ndugu that he is sponsoring. But instead of simple letters to a six-year old boy in Africa, he is determined to let the boy in on the inner workings of his life.

What I love about this angle is the fact that Schmidt pours his heart into these letters. It’s clear after seeing a few scenes with his wife that their marriage had become stale. He even writes at one point, “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” We can assume that he didn’t have many meaningful conversations with his wife during recent years, yet he relishes the chance to write all of his complaints about his wife to Ndugu. (These complaints ranged from everything about her wasting their money on her hobbies to how she would take her keys out of her purse well before she got to the car – how this annoyed him!)

It’s clear that written words mean so much to Schmidt now, just as the cold, hard statistics of his former job were the most important thing in his life. When he complains about how his wife smells, you know that he was not exactly a warm, compassionate human being. When he gets into his list of complaints about his wife, who could he tell? No one in his small circle of friends in Omaha, that’s for certain. But when it comes to letters to a six-year old in Africa, he can share his most inner thoughts.

This isn’t exactly mature on his part, but he obviously has been keeping this inside of him for a long time and now has the opportunity to let go with the truth. It’s safe to assume that when he’s tried to be truthful with the loved ones in his life, he failed miserably, so he has to do it through letters and not through actions. When he asks his daughter not to marry her fiancé, as he believes he doesn’t measure up (he’s a water bed salesman), his daughter wonders why he cares about her now, especially as he took such little interest in her life as she grew up. It’s clear she only asks him to the wedding as it’s the proper thing to do – he has to give her away at the ceremony – but she’d probably feel fine if she didn’t have to deal with him. He feels the same way; it’s clear his attention for years was with his work – the cold figures on a compter screen or in reports – that he dealt with on a regular basis. Having to deal with the problems of his daughter was something he couldn’t handle.

The final scene in which he looks at a simple stick-figure illustration of an adult and a child holding hands under a bright blue sky on a sunny day is a brilliant way of closing this film and bringing home the message of dealing with your emotions through actions and not words. Schmidt cries as he glances at this drawing created by Ndugu as a gift to him. (What is especially touching is this happens after he writes Ndugu that he – Schmidt – has been a failure, that he has been weak).

The beauty and simplicity of this portrayal – how two people living thousands of miles away can share a friendship – is overwhelming to him. Fittingly, the message of optimism and hope come to him in a document. Perhaps at last, Schmidt can deal with people in his life through concern and brotherly love.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Best Movie Songs




Here is my list of the best songs ever composed specifically for a movie. I’ll admit I’m a fan of ballads, so keep that in mind as you read this list (arranged in chronological order).


Over The Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg

OK, this may be a no-brainer, but let’s face it, it’s not merely one of the greatest songs ever written for a film, but it’s arguably the most famous song of the 20th century. Need I say more? (Academy Award Winner)



It Might As Well Be Spring from State Fair (1945)
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein ll

Few people realize that this great duo composed this song specifically for this film and not for a Broadway production. This is as unabashedly romantic as anything they ever wrote. A great opening line – “I’m as restless as a willow in a windstorm.” (Academy Award Winner)



The Green Leaves of Summer from The Alamo (1960)
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, Lyrics by Ned Washington

Tiomkin was one of the critical forces in film music in Hollywood during the 1950s and early 1960s, winning a total of three Academy Awards. One of those was for his the song, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ which he co-wrote with Washington for 1952’s High Noon. I regard his bittersweet melody for The Alamo as a far superior work and one of the finest pieces of music he ever composed. The use of this song in the film is quite memorable, especially during the sequence when the women and children of the soldiers at the Alamo are moved out of the fort hours before the final battle. (Nominated for an Academy Award)

Dimitri Tiomkin



Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Music by Henry Mancini, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

A deceptively simple melody accompanied by heartbreaking lyrics, this is one of the most instantly recognizable films songs ever composed. I’ve heard it in elevators in large U.S. cities as well as in restaurants and hotel lobbies in Europe. What amazing work Mancini and Mercer did during the 1960s; they followed this up with another classic work, The Days of Wine and Roses from the film of the same title the following year.
(Academy Award Winner)



The Shadow of Your Smile from The Sandpiper (1965)
Music by Johnny Mandel, Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster

A gorgeous romatic ballad for a trashy Liz Taylor/Richard Burton film, this is a timeless, haunting tune with wonderful imagery in the lyrics. I love the first stanza – “The shadow of your smile, when you are gone, will color all my dreams and light the dawn.” (Academy Award Winner)


The Look of Love from Casino Royale (1967)
Music by Burt Bacharach, Lyrics by Hal David

Bacharach and David may have composed bigger hits in terms of sales, but for me, this song is arguably their finest. A sultry melody and wonderful emotional lyrics (“And what my heart has heard/ well it takes my breath away.”) Nominated for an Academy Award, it somehow lost to Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle, surely one of the Academy’s worst decisions.


The Windmills of Your Mind from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Music by Michel Legrand, Lyrics by Alan and Bergman

Legrand and the Bergmans teamed up to write some of Hollywood’s most romantic ballads, such as What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? (from 1969s The Happy Ending) and Pieces of Dreams (from the film of the same name in 1970). This is my favorite work of theirs not only for the dazzling melody, but the equally elaborate and complex lyrics (“Down a hollow to a cavern/where the sun has never shone.”). The song is heard above the title credits in a beautiful rendition by Noel Harrison and then later, it is reprised in a striking visual scene with the title character (Steve McQueen) effortlessly piloting a yellow glider above an endless green field. (Academy Award Winner)

Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair



Whistling Away the Dark from Darling Lili (1970)
Music by Henry Mancini, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Another gorgeous Mancini-Mercer collaboration and one of their most haunting, the lyrics speak of maintaning hope amidst turmoil (“So walk me back home, my darling/ tell me dreams really come true.”) The message is timeless. (Nominated for an Academy Award)


The Way We Were from The Way We Were (1973)
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman

An incredibly popular song and deservedly so - you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the beauty of Hamlisch’s melody or words of the Bergmans (“Memories may be beautiful and yet/ what’s too painful to remember/ we simply choose to forget.”) Academy Award Winner


All That Love Went to Waste from A Touch of Class (1973)
Music by George Barrie, Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

Unlike recent years, 1973 was a great one for movie songs. The great Sammy Cahn who won a record four Oscars for Best Song (Three Coins in the Fountain, All The Way, High Hopes and Call Me Irresponsible) composed the lyrics to this song heard at the film’s conclusion, after the lead couple end their romantic rendezvous for good. Cahn’s lyrics (“If we only could have guessed /that it couldn’t stand the test/ we’d have played it off a jest/ and have been each other’s guest.”) combined with the moving theme of Barrie make this one of the most poignant movie songs about lost love. (Nominated for an Academy Award)


Nice to be Around from Cinderella Liberty (1973)
Music By John Williams, Lyrics by Paul Williams

I’m not sure that these two Williams ever worked on any other song, but what a song they wrote for this romantic drama about a sailor on midnight liberty (“cinderella liberty”) and the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold (played magnificently by Marsha Mason). This is a charming film – hardly great – but this tune is magnificently moving, as the lyrics are so touching (“Hello with affection from a sentimental fool/ to a little girl who’s broken every rule”). More proof of what a great year 1973 was for movie songs. (Nominated for an Academy Award)





It Goes Like It Goes from Norma Rae (1979)
Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Norman Gimbel

This powerful film about a woman who organizes a worker’s strike at her company needed an equally strong title tune. Boy, did Shire and Gimbel deliver! A lilting melody by Shire with magnificent orchestration and remarkably concise, to-the-heart lyrics:

Bless the child of the workin' man
She knows too soon who she is
And bless the hands of a workin' man
He knows his soul is his


There have been many socially relevant songs written for the movies over the past thirty years since this was composed, but not one can compare to the raw emotions and power of this heartbreaking composition! (Academy Award Winner)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Visions of Mutiny

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched all three film versions of the famous story of the mutiny aboard his King’s ship, Bounty. While each film stays within the same groundwork of the story, it’s fascinating to see how different each film is when it comes to telling the details. It’s also interesting to note the various qualities of these films and it might surprise you to learn which of these films works best and which is least interesting.


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The first working of this story on film is the most famous, no doubt thanks to its casting of Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh and Clark Gable as ship’s mate Fletcher Christian. Winning the Best Picture Oscar (its only Oscar win, a rarity) also helps the image of this film.

Yet in reality, this is the least enthralling version of the three. The film moves along in a leisurely, straightforward manner, yet it never really becomes the exciting tale it should be. Perhaps this adventure on the high seas was rather moving back in the mid-1930s, but today it seems rather ordinary.

The biggest problem for me is the way the story is told. There are a few cruel punishments handed out by Bligh along the way, but they are not dramatized as well as they could be. Christian at one point tells the men aboard the ship that he is ready to take command, but as we've seen only brief segments of mistreatment of the crew, we wonder why. Thus when the actual mutiny occurs in the film, we’re not convinced.

Another curiosity is the way the scenes on Tahiti are filmed. Clearly in 1935, any sensuality had to be toned down, due to the production code in place in Hollywood at the time. Yet, Christian barely even touches his new love or kisses her. These scenes seem more like a diverson than an integral part of the story.

The trial of the sailors who were charged with mutiny is not documented in the other film versions, but here, it’s an intriguing sequence. Especially enthralling is the drama of Franchot Tone as Midshipman Roger Byam (arguably the best performance in a film with several good ones), as he is found guilty of his crime; he then delivers an impassioned speech about the cruelty of Bligh and how the mutiny was justifiable. If only the rest of the film had been as inspired as this scene.

The film was beautifully shot in black and white by Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers and the scenes of Bligh, maneuvering his way across the open seas after being cast adrift following the mutiny, are well done. But there’s not enough in this film to recommend it unless you need to learn the story in the first place. (Final note: on the DVD, there is an excellent short film about Pitcairn Island, the remote locale Christian found as home for himself and his fellow mutineers. The film deals with everyday life on the island in the mid-1930s, some 55 years after the mutiny. It’s an absorbing short work and it’s neat to see things such as a schoolroom and a church service on this little island as well as a marriage ceremony, We learn that due to in-breeding for so many years the inhabitants need to rigorously exercize to maintain their strength. It’s also neat to see how many of the citizens have the last name of Christian.)



Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Twenty-seven years after MGM gave us the first version of this story, they mounted a lavish production starring Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. Nothing was spared for this roadshow production, from the glorious musical score of Bronislau Kaper to the lush, deeply saturated color photography of Robert Surtees to the strikingly beautiful locales of the South Pacific.

Here, Howard is much more intense in his portrayal of Bligh than was Laughton. He smiles only once in the film and his punishments are documented with much more fervor on screen than in the first version. The scene where he has one of the sailors (John Mills, zealously played by a young Richard Harris) receive twenty-four lashes is appropriately brutal, as is another scene where he has a seaman key-holed (dragged underwater for a short time).

One of the reasons this version works far better than the first is the choice of directors. Lewis Milestone, who had directed such legendary films as All Quiet on The Western Front (1930) and Of Mice and Men (1939) was behind the camera for this version of Mutiny, while Frank Lloyd, a solid journeyman, was the director for the 1935 version. Quite simply, Milestone’s work towers above that of Lloyd’s; his visuals are much more interesting, while he also keeps tighter reins on the drama. This second version has a much more edgy feel to it, which I prefer over the leisurely manner of the original. Milestone also gives us more memorable scenes between Christian and Bligh.

The first half of this version is often excellent, especially with the sequence of the storms the ship must endure as it rounds Cape Horn at the tip of South America; we get a great feel for the dangers these sailors must have endured. The visuals in the South Pacific are especially lovely and the interplay between Christian and the island ruler’s daughter is nicely felt. There is also a very funny scene between Bligh and Christian as the captain tells Christian in a very roundabout way that he (Christian) must make love to the woman, so as not to upset the island ruler.

As for the mutiny sequence, this is handled well, especially as we’ve seen some brutal beatings handed out by Bligh. Certainly Howard’s ultraserious performance makes us hate this man even more, so when Christian does take the ship, we cheer him on.

After that however, the film gets a bit sloppy. For example, we see Bligh telling his small crew on the lifeboat that they must endure a challenging voyage on the open seas to an island some 4000 miles away. But the next time we see Bligh after that, he is in England, hearing from the admiralty that he has been absolved of any wrong doing (though he is reprimanded for his cruel nature). What happened to the arduous journey? Did the producers decide that the film at three hours’ length was already long enough and thus decide not to show this trek? Whatever the reason, it’s a puzzling omission.

There’s also a problem with Brando’s performance in this film. It’s fine for much of the journey, as he gives one of his brooding, introspective turns, but after the mutiny, he seems disinterested. He becomes more introspective, which is what the character calls for, but by then, you can only take so much of his mumbling. The ending tends to drag on and the film has lost some of its passion.

Overall, I do recommend this version, as it has some very strong scenes combined with excellent production values (a replica of the Bounty was built for the film). It also gives us a look into the tortured soul of Fletcher Christian after the mutiny, a subject that was not dealt with in much detail in the original. The ending of this film, by the way, is much different than the 1935 version, as a few crew members burn the ship once they are on Pitcairn Island. Shocked by this, Christian tries to save the ship, but is fatally harmed by serious burns aboard the vessel. It’s interesting to see this interpretation, as the original told us that Christian himself was the one who suggested burning the ship.


The Bounty (1984) Although this is the least-known film version of this tale, for my money, this is the best. Directed by Roger Donaldson (Cadillac Man, Thirteen Days), this features an excellent cast highlighted by Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, Mel Gibson as Christian, Daniel Day-Lewis as John Fryer (second in command) and a young Liam Neeson as one of the rebellious seaman.

It’s important to note that the screenplay for this version was not based on the famous Nordhoff and Hall book, but instead on Richard Hough’s book, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian (Hough shares screenwriting credit for the film with veteran scripter Robert Bolt). This book offers an interesting take on this story, that Bligh and Christian were friends and had sailed before. Early in the film, there is a scene where Bligh asks Christian if he would like to accompany him on this journey to Tahiti and back and Christian eagerly accepts. There is a light edge to this scene; clearly the two are quite comfortable being in each other’s company.

I love everything that Hopkins has done in his career and I am quite impressed with his work here as well. His Bligh is a thoughtful man, one who is stern, but not brutal in his punishment. He is able to admit his mistakes, as when he addresses his crew after an attempt to sail around Cape Horn through weeks of horrible weather. Hopkins is a human being here, not a stereotypical madman as Howard potrayed Bligh in the 1962 version. Each performance is admirable, but Hopkins’ (and the screenplay’s) take on Bligh’s humanity adds a splendid angle to this story.

This is a very fine performance by Gibson as well, especially during the sequence when he takes over the ship. He must wrestle with his feelings for Bligh and the raw emotions of the sailors aboard who have reached the breaking point. He screams at Bligh as he is ready to set him adrift, “I am in HELL!” When Bligh argues with him, he replies, “I will run you through and then I will kill myself after.” These are highly charged moments and Gibson is excellent as he realizes the consequences of his deeds. He is also very effective after the mutiny, expressing his doubts about the future, while having to deal with the frustrations of his crew.

The scenes on the island are well done, especially when Gibson meets the king’s daughter Mauatua (Teviate Vernette). A beautiful woman, she is the most sensual of the island women in any of these film versions and boy, are the scenes between Gibson and her worth watching! The women in this film are topless throughout, which comes across as naturally as it can (no pun intended) without cheap thrills. Roger Ebert in his original review of this film, called this “National Geographic nudity”, meaning that as this was south of the equator, it was legitimate. I love it!

Positive notes also for the scenes of Bligh and his loyal crew aboard their lifeboat as they sail across the open sea. We feel their agony and hopeless feelings, as it appears they will not survive. These scenes show us the true leadership of Bligh and the loyalty of his men who are strained almost beyond the breaking point.

Vangelis, who wrote the famous Chariots of Fire score a few years earlier, composed the music for this film. While he did not write a famous theme as in that earlier work, his synthesizer-driven score is quite successful, generally in short cues accompanying images of the ships at sea. This is a low-key score, but one that is effectively moody.

The ending of the film is well done; we witness Bligh receiving the judgment of the British admiralty that he has been exonerated for his part in the mutiny and then see Christian watching the Bounty burn, ensuring that his fellow sailors and he will never leave the island. It’s a quiet, thoughtful moment and we as the audience wonder who the victor in this struggle really was.

So this version gets my vote as the best. The first is straightforward, but lacks excitement, while the second film, though flawed, gets my vote as the most ambitious. It’s easily the most impressive production, but it’s also the most thrilling. Perhaps if it had more of the humanity of the third version, it could have been great.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Heartfelt Journey

At the great blog, Film For The Soul, Ibetolis has been letting a number of enthusiastic film bloggers write reviews of films of this decade in a series called Counting Down The Zeroes. I've been honored to have written reviews of films from the first four years of the decade to date and I look forward to contributing a post over the next few months for the rest of the decade's films (my current post on 2004's The Bourne Supremacy can be read here).

Every once in a while, I see a film I wish I had reviewed and for 2003, it is the wonderful documentary My Architect. I recall the critical praise for this film upon its release, but only saw it for the first time a few nights ago on DVD. Below is my review of this film, easily one of the finest of that year.

My Architect is the story of Nahaniel Kahn's search for the identity of his father, the celebrated architect Louis Kahn, who died some twenty-five years prior to the beginning of this project. In the initial scene, Nathaniel reads the New York Times obituary that mentions only his stepmother and stepsister as remaining family. At this moment, the son realizes that his father kept Nathaniel's identity a secret.

Nathaniel feels a need to discover who his father was; this takes him on a journey to several parts of the United States as well as India and Bangladesh to see his best known works up close and talk to other architects who worked with and knew him. The iconic Philip Johnson tells Nathaniel that his father was the "most-loved" architect of his time, yet Nathaniel soon learns that his father was not a very outgoing, friendly man, at least to most of his colleagues. He was a workaholic and would sometimes keep his associates in his office working until very late in the evening or early in the morning.

His commitment to his work allowed him to craft many revolutionary designs, yet most of them were never built. One fascinating interview with a city planner of Philadelphia, where Kahn resided for many years, tells of a personal conflict, as the planner dismissed his ideas as too utopian and not functional. It's a telling moment in the film as this designer, now in his 70s, is still angry at Kahn for his refusal to compromise. We get the idea that Kahn was probably like this with many others in the profession.

His drive at work meant he did not spend that much time with his family, as Nathaniel tells of the weekly visits that were all too brief. But Kahn's family was not just Nathaniel and his mother; it turns out that Kahn fathered three children - two girls and one boy - with three different women. One of his colleagues, who quit, given the grueling schedule Kahn subjected him to, wonders how Kahn didn't have a nervous breakdown juggling his professional life with the lives of his multiple families.

Nathaniel talks with his stepsisters as well as one of his stepmothers and his own mother to learn about their feelings of Louis (the architect's wife had died before the film was begun) and their stories are quite touching. None of the family hates Louis for cheating on his wife and his stepsisters tell Nathaniel that they are a family because they choose to be, not necessarily because of some blood relations. While this reassures the young Kahn, he is bewildered by his mother's devotion to her lover's memory, as she is now a woman in her 80s who chooses to live her life alone instead of with another man. It's this conflict that makes Louis Kahn's identity so dificult to grasp for his son.

Along the way, we are given a tour of some of Kahn's most renowned buildings, most of which are of a heroic nature, especially his work on the Parliament building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This magnificent project, which is one of the most awe-inspring tributes to man and goverment, took more than 20 years to complete and was not seen in its finished state by the architect who died in 1974. Nathaniel interviews local workers who remember his father; they are clearly proud of this building, which they consider the most beautiful in their country. They are even more amazed that an American architect would work on such a massive project for one of the poorest countries in the world.

Above all, the younger Kahn presents his father as an artist, who treasured the discpline of his craft far more than financial rewards. Kanh, who died of a heart attack just after returning from a trip to India at the age of 73, had amassed a debt of one-half million dollars at that time. That sad news was only part of the tragedy though, as authorities could not identify him as he had scratched out the address on his passport. He was taken to the city morgue in New York City where he remained for two days before things were straightened out. The question of why he altered his passport is one that puzzles his son to this very day.

The conflict in Louis Kahn's life as presented by his son in this film is a subject that captures us from the first frames and takes us on a remarkable journey. This is one of the finest documentaries I've seen in years, thanks to the personal involvement of a son who only wanted to better understand his father. Never reverent or preachy in its tone, this is a moving story that could only be told by Nathaniel Kahn; it is highly recommended.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Great Movie Quotes - Part Two

Noah Cross (John Huston) and J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown (1974)



A few months ago, I published a post with ten of my favorite movie quotes. These were quotes I love and thought did not get the attention they deserve.

This post features another ten great quotes that aren't as famous as they should be. This is part two - I'll eventually publish ten parts with ten quotes each to come up with my top 100 (though I may not stop there, as there are always some great quotes emerging from new films every year.) Please note that these are not the quotes that were honored by the American Film Institute a few years back. Those entries, such as "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," and "Here's looking at you kid," may be timeless and well-loved, but I wanted to feature other memorable quotes. For example, while everyone knows the famous line at the end of Chinatown (1974), "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown," I went with another briilliant quote from that great film.

So without further ado, here's part two:


“You talk different, sure. But you drive just like the rest.” – Stella (Linda Darnell) to Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) – Fallen Angel (1945)


“You know what happened to Lot’s wife when she looked back, don’t you? She turned into a pillar of salt.” – Sam Masterson (Van Heflin)
“What happened to Lot?”- Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck)
“He got away, He didn’t look back.”
“You know your Bible.”
“You would too if you spent as much time as I did in hotel rooms.”
“I’ll take it up.”
- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)





“You can stand only so much of detectives. After all, they’re only policemen with smaller feet.” – Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) – Stage Fright (1950)



“I didn’t get a chance to use that gun, Matthew. But I intend to.” – Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) to his brother Matthew (Stephen McNally) in the closing shootout of Winchester 73 (1950)




“I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.” – Guy Haines (Farley Granger) – Strangers on a Train (1951)



“Who are you? What are you doing here?” – William Darrow (John Bryant)
“I’m from the collection agency. I’ve come to collect my wife.” – Lon Chaney (James Cagney) – Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)


“Doctor, I’d like to kiss you.” – Taylor (Charlton Heston)
“Alright, but you’re so damned ugly.” – Zira (Kim Hunter) – Planet of the Apes (1968)


“See, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” – Noah Cross (John Huston) to J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) Chinatown (1974)


“You got something against ice cubes?” – Nick Curran (Michael Douglas)
“I like rough edges.” – Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) – Basic Instinct (1992)




“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
- Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) – There Will Be Blood (2007)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

La storia del cinematografo italiano

In his painstakingly researched and lovingly told book, The History of Italian Cinema, Gian Piero Brunetta takes us on a wonderful journey from the first years of the 20th century right up to present times, as he illustrates the most important films and filmmakers of Italy during that period. Commenting on the famous directors (Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica et al) and the not so famous (Ettore Scola, Giuseppe De Santis), the author explains not only the visual and spoken messages of the most influential films, he also describes the social changes Italy was going through at the time those works were released. Always informative and engagingly told, this is a journey well worth taking. (The excellent English translation is by Jeremy Parzen.)

Brunetta, professor of history and criticism of cinema at the University of Padua, writes about Italian films in an encyclopedic approach, detailing not only particular works but also specific details on the business of Italian cinema at various periods of time; we are told how many films were made during certain decades or how many theaters opened or closed. Film studios such as Luce and Cinécitta and their contributions are important entries in this book. Brunetta understands that specific works of art never stand alone; they must be inspected carefully as a reflection of the time they were made. His take on comedies is especially insightful; in the author’s opinion, Italian comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s focused on common attitudes and were remedies to the challenges of everday life during that period.

No doubt, it is the Neorealist films produced just after the end of the Second World War that remain Italy’s most valuable contribution to the history of international cinema and Brunetta devotes many pages to these works. In films such as Roma città aperta, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica broke new ground with films that told the everyday experiences of Italian life; these films were usually cast with non-actors, as the filmmakers believed these performers could best express both the beauty and banality that surrounded them. Critics from around the world heaped praise upon these works; this body of work was clearly a turning point in the country’s cinematic reach. For the author, the influence within Italy was perhaps even more important than foreign opinion; he writes, “The neoralist gaze was inclusive and overreaching. It sought to give a voice to every Italian dialect and to embrace all of Italy.”

Brunetta does a wonderful job putting the great filmmakers into perspective. What I love is not only his treatment of what each film meant, but what each director’s cinematic philosophy represented. Speaking about Rosselini, he writes, “the visible was an allegory and metaphor for an outer space where the individual sought answers to the meaning of life and destiny.” Regarding De Sica, he notes,” perhaps he appeals to us also because of his ability to make a seemingly insignificant story into a dramatic adventure.” As for Federico Fellini, whose films moved away from Neorealism into more personal, psychological grounds, the author writes, “Fellini saw the world with a third eye: an inner eye that fished for images in the subconsious, in dreams and in memory.”

There are literally hundreds of directors whose works are covered here; many of them will be known only to the most devoted fan of Italian cinema. Elio Petri, who specialized in police thrillers and political films in the 1960s and 1970s such as L’assassino and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion receives nice coverage as do other lesser-known filmmakers such as Florestano Vancini, Gianfranco Mingozzi and brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.

Brunetta also devotes a good deal of text to the technicians who worked on films over the last 40 years and how their work gave a new look and sound to cinema in general. Among thse are the cinematographers Giusepe Rotunno and Vittorio Storaro (the latter a winner of three Oscars), composers Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone as well as production designers (Dante Ferretti) and costume designers (Milena Canonero). Screenwriters are not forgotten either, especially Cesare Zavattini, who collaborated with Vittorio De Sica on several of his most influential films.

Sadly, Brunetta has to deal with the reality of Italian cinema today and in his opinion, it’s not very healthy. “Italian directors have progressively lost their ability to tell stories that go beyond their own personal experiences,” he writes. “Today, a collection of restored silent Italian films has a better chance of successfully touring the United States than do current Italian films of even being screened outside of Italy, let alone across the Atlantic.”

There have been many factors that have led to this decline, according to Brunetta. One reason is that celebrities today in Italy are often not film stars, but politicians, fashion designers or athletes. Secondly, the world of Italian cinema was not prepared to produce blockbusters, which have changed movie going habits around the world since Hollywood efforts from the 1970s such as The Godfather or Jaws. The author also cites the lack of connection between Italian filmmakers and Italian audiences; this has led to a drastic number of movie theater closings in the country over the past decade.

Still Brunetta does find some positives, mentioning the successes of Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) and others; he praises the work of Gabriele Salvatores (his Mediterraneo won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1991); writing that he, “is the most restless director of his generation and the most open to change, curiosity and experimentation.”

Brunetta also writes about some new talent that has made some impressive debuts recently with made-for-television films and opines that until the bigger picture is fixed, the most creative Italian cinema may appear on the small screen.

So for Brunetta, the classic days may be gone, but they are most definitely not forgotten. Some of his most loving prose deals with the incredible period of Neorealist films just after the end of the Second World War. Rossellini’s Roma città aperta was a groundbreaking work and the author includes an essay from writer Alberto Asor Rosa that encapsulates his thoughts while viewing this film in a local theater with his neighbors in 1945. In an email, Jeremy Parzen told me that this particular text was, “among the most moving passages I’ve ever translated.” Here is a brief excerpt of that essay:

The audience was no longer prompted to dream about what could happen in a situation analogous to the one it saw on the screen. Instead the audience saw itself… In the theater, there were the same people with their cheap clothes and pale faces, with their cheekbones showing from hunger, their cork-soled shoes falling to pieces, their suits made of light cotton, their worn jackets. This was the same poverty of the characters… This story was more or less the same of the audience in the theater…

Capturing these moments and emotions is just one reason why The History of Italian Cinema is so highly recommended.

The History of Italian Cinema
Gian Piero Brunetta
Princeton University Press
Italian version, 2003
English version translated by Jeremy Parzen, 2009
($35.00 - buy here)


P.S. One final note. At the end of the book, there are two indexes- one is of the names of the individuals written about in the book, while the second is of the film titles themselves. This not only makes it easier to navigate this book, it is also a thoughtful inclusion on part of the editor. Not all film books are this well organized.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Preminger's "Angels"

There seem to be two major schools of thought regarding the directorial skills of Otto Preminger. Some believe that he made a terrific film in his first effort with Laura (1945), but could never come up with much success after that; these critics feel that Preminger’s style was simple and that he wasted many filmgoers’ time with his adaptations of blockbuster novels during the early part of the 1960s.

Then these are those like myself, who think that Preminger was a great director, offering films of great subtleties as well as especially fluid camera work. There was the scintillating Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a superb courtoom drama that grabbed us from the initial frames. Think about the world of Washington, D.C. that he put on the screen in Advise and Consent (1961), with the lies, secret meetings and backstabbing power plays – no other political film is as clever or as devastating.

There are many other examples I can give of Preminger’s directorial talent, from the inner workings of the Vatican in The Cardinal (1963) to the subtle psychological manners of Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Preminger was a superb, highly structured filmmaker who succeeded in many different types of genre.

In this post, I will deal with two of his earlier films, Fallen Angel (1945), made at 20th Century Fox when he was under contract to that studio and Angel Face (1952), made for Howard Hughes at RKO. Preminger served as producer as well as director on both of these works; today his critics often praise his skill as a producer (rarely, if ever, going over budget) far more than his directorial skills.

Fallen Angel was Preminger’s followup at Fox to Laura and for this work, he surrounded himself with several of the same crew he used on that film; this included cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art directors Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller, costume designer Bonnie Cashin and composer David Raksin. Perhaps the most famous member of Laura that returned for Fallen Angel was Dana Andrews, cast as the male lead. The director used Andrews, one of his favorite actors, in several more films in the 1940s and ‘50s; this set a tone throughout much of Preminger’s career as he would work with actors and technicians who contributed the type of work that pleased Preminger. The director’s temper tantrums became legendary and unfortunately, have overshadowed his creative efforts in the eyes of his critics; this is regrettable and I believe that studying his works in detail should prove what a talented director he really was.

Fallen Angel is one of the most stylish film noirs ever made. Just look at the introduction in which we view the title credits - written on road signs – from the front windshield of a bus as we hear Raksin’s bustling and tense title theme. This is a supercharged opening to a film that has several other wonderfully creative scenes.

The main character Eric Stanton (Andrews) is a loner who gets off the bus (he is forced off, as he didn’t have enough money for a full ride) in the California town of Walton, some 125 miles from San Francisco. He walks into a run of the mill diner, where we are introduced to Stella (Linda Darnell), a waitress who was missing for a few days. Everyone at the diner, from the kindly old owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride) to the gruff detective, Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) is relieved to see her. Stanton is intrigued by her shapely body and sultry looks; we know immediately that these two will tangle during a good portion of the film.

Darnell, who was Fox’s sexpot at the time, is just great in this role. Her husky voice and no nonsense ways give her a powerful image; she is able to attract men – and toss them aside – with ease. Stanton is obviously attracted, but he doesn’t back down from her ways, while in Stella’s eyes, Eric has a rough edge that appeals to her. He quickly romances her and then tells her he will marry her once he comes up with enough money. She is doubtful, but if he can deliver the cash, she will marry him, as she craves a normal life spent with one man who truly loves her.

His plan is to marry June Mills, a young woman living in town with her slightly older, domineering sister Clara (Anne Revere). June has a $25,000 inheritance owed her; Stanton plans to marry her, get his share of the cash and then dump June, in order to win back Stella.

The contrast between these two women is especially intrigiung:

Stella – brunette, sultry, rough, dominating, experienced in romance
June – blonde, pretty girl-next-door looks, charming, agreeable, few romantic affairs

But both seek the same thing – the comfort of married life.


Preminger takes this juicy tale and injects great style into it. He uses crane shots remarkably well in this film; the camera is constantly swooping down on the actors or gliding in between them. My favorite shot is when Eric and Stella are dancing cheek to cheek in one of those smoke-filled nightclubs you find in most film noirs. Preminger uses an extreme closeup and LaShelle lights this shot so that their faces alternately go in and out of the light. After a few seconds, Preminger’s camera follows them across the dance floor as they maneuver their way around other couples, finally extiting through the rear door, as their bodies disappear in the thick smoke. It’s a sexy shot and a memorable one.

Another beautifully directed and photographed scene is when we see June and Eric in bed at a hotel in San Francisco shortly after they have married. He falls asleep and she nervously gets up to go to the window. Preminger films this so that only the letters H-O-T of the hotel sign across the way are visible to the audience. As this is their first time in bed (Eric in his plot to please Stella left June’s home the night of the wedding), this is such a delicious moment! The shot is at night and Preminger stays with it through a dissolve to morning. H-O-T, indeed!


In Angel Face, the stylish camera work was not as evident, due to the budget restraints at RKO at the time. But Preminger managed to inject a lot of sexual tension in this film and there are many unforgettable sequences.

Working with a superb script by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard from a Chester Erskine story, the film deals with ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) who becomes obesessed with Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), a young woman who lives with the father she adores and the stepmother she detests. The two meet in the first sequence as Frank responds to an emergency at Diane’s house as her mother has been the victim of a not-so-accidental gas leak. After reassuring everyone that things are fine, Frank walks downstairs where he sees Diane playing a lovely romantic theme on the piano (a haunting piece of music by composer Dimitri Tiomkin); the quick cuts between the two of them tell us that their lives will soon intertwine.

They do meet soon afterwards, as Frank cancels dinner with his girlfriend to be with Diane, who has followed him in her car. Diane has the upper hand here and will continue to have it throughout the film, as Frank makes some poor decisions; this is certainly a classic film noir theme. One of my favorite lines from this or any other film noir is when Diane asks Frank if he really loves her; his remark, a beauty: “With a girl like you, how can a man be sure?”

Diane soon does away with her stepmother when she rigs the transmission in her car so that it will only go in reverse once she steps on the accelerator. Unfortunately for Diane, her beloved father gets in the car with her stepmother; she did not plan on this and now must deal with two murders after the car with both of them in it plunges down the hillside of their suburban Los Angeles mansion.

As Frank was recently hired as a chaffeur to the Tremaynes – this was plotted by Diane – he is a prime susupect in the murders, although he had nothing to do with it. For sake of sympathy, a trial lawyer suggests that Frank and Diane marry, reasoning that the jury will be less eager to convict a loving couple.

While the flashy camerawork is more evident with Fallen Angel, the psychological manners of Angel Face are much more complex. Frank knows that Diane is evil yet is constantly drawn back to her, as much for her beauty as for her control. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene when Diane is deep in thought on a future without Frank who has told her he is leaving her. Forseeing her own death, she thinks about how she will take down Frank as well. For this moment, Preminger has her sit slumped in a chair in her now-empty home wearing Frank’s sportcoat. It’s a disturbing image and one that so exquisitely sums up the connection between the two protaganists.

For these two films, Preminger studied the obsessions men and women share when it comes to romance and power; of course, there were no easy answers presented. He injected both films with intelligence and flair combined with a beautiful visual style, a formula he would repeat for another three decades as a director.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Martha Ivers" - Wicked Fun

When I pick up movies at the local branch of the Chicago Public Library, I try and get a nice mix of films, be they new or old, mystery, comedy or musical, Hollywood or foreign. I’ll admit to often searching out old black and white films of the 1940s and ‘50s, as I love the craftmanship as well as entertaining stories of so many of those works.

Last week I picked up The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a 1946 film directed by Lewis Milestone. I was intrigued by the title, but what drew me in was the fact that Barbara Stanwyck was one of the stars. I’ve always loved her work and just can’t resist watching her work; to me she was one of those actors like James Cagney who took control when they were on the screen; in my mind, she was as sultry and as mesmerizing an actress as has ever emerged from Hollyood.

Anyway, I am so glad I made this selection, as Martha Ivers is one of the most entertaining, wickedly ironic and just sheer delightful movies I’ve seen in some time. It’s a complex story, with two sets of main characters, whose lives intertwine in strange, sometimes convoluted ways and it winds up as a insightful look into the deception of love and the question of absolute power. While over films have dealt with this subject, few have done it as stylishly as this one.

The films opens up in the fictional city of Iverstown in 1928 with a sequence of two teenagers, Martha and her friend Sam who are running away from home. Martha has a special reason for doing so, as she is living with a cruel rich aunt whom she despises for her dominating presence. Sam is a poor kid and wants to run off to join the circus, a situation Martha finds entrancing.

They hop aboard a freight car in the station, but are immediately discovered by the police. They take Martha back home, but Sam mangages to escape. Martha is brought back to her house and after being scolded by her aunt, goes to her room where Walter, a boy her age who happens to be the son of Martha’s tutor, listens to her plans to escape.

Meanwhile, Sam arrives in Martha's room, planning on taking her away. A violent thunderstorm hits, the power in the house goes out and we soon see the aunt climbing the stairway to check on everyone in the house. When she sees Martha’s kitten that she despises, she starts to hit the feline with a fireplace poker. Martha sees this and in the darkness, grabs the poker from her aunt and starts to beat her, eventually causing her death when her aunt falls down the staircase and fractures her skull. Seconds later, the power in the house comes back on and Martha’s tutor sees that her aunt is dead. Martha, standing next to Walter, makes up a story about an intruder who supposedly caused the woman’s death. Walter, who saw Martha beat her aunt, confirms her version. All of this only a few minutes into the movie!

We then flash forward eighteen years where we see Sam (Van Heflin) driving by Iverstown with a sailor he picked up as a hitchhiker. He has an accident and has to take his car into town for repairs. Little does he realize at that moment how long it would be for those repairs to take place!

Killing time, he walks through town where he meets Antonia “Toni” (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful, mysterious woman who is on her way back to her hometown, assuming she can get to the bus station on time. Both take a taxi and when she is late for the bus, he reserves rooms for himself and her in a local hotel. Soon the truth comes out that she is avoiding her return trip home, due to her passionate dislike of her father.

We then meet Martha (Stanwyck) who married Walter (Kirk Douglas, excellent in his screen debut), who is now the local district attorney. This is a marriage of convenience for her, as she stayed with Sam, thank to his keeping his mouth shut about the murder. Sam is now guilt-ridden and spends much of his time at night with a bottle, as he can’t honestly face the public and talk about the law, given his previous behavior. Neither can really leave the other, as their secret might emerge.

This is the setting then for all sorts of intrigue and double crosses, as Walter soons discovers that Sam is in town; thinking he must have returned for a blackmail scheme, as he was a witness to the murder years ago, he does his best to send Sam away. Martha meanwhile, sees that Sam is with Toni; her feelings for Sam return and she is now determined to get him back and away from this new woman in his life.

I won’t give any more of the plot away, except to say that it is constantly full of twists that you don’t expect. You’re never really sure if Sam cares much for Toni or is only spending time with her, given his forced time in town. Once Sam sees Martha, will he fall in love with her or resist her charms?

The original story by John Patrick was nominated for an Academy Award (the category of original story no longer exists), which was well-deserved. At the beginning of the film, we see Sam running away. We find out bits and pieces of his later life and discover that he is a gambler who is constantly running out of and then winning money. He’s a restless drifter, so we don’t think that he’ll fall for either woman, but this time might be a little different, given the allures of Toni and Martha.

For me, it is Robert Rossen’s screenplay that is among the greatest achievements of this film. Rossen was an immensely talented craftsman who could write and direct with great passion; after his work in the early and mid-1940s as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (I wrote about his adapted screenplay for The Sea Wolf in a previous post), he directed several of his screenplays, including All The King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961).

I recently wrote a post about some of my favorite movie quotes; there are enough in this screenplay for a separate post. Rossen had a great ear for dialogue and for this film, his words were as sharp and acerbic as ever. Here are a few examples:

- Early on Martha talks to her husband Walter about the murder she committed and how they conspired to convict someone else:
“The man they executed was a criminal. If he hadn’t hanged for that, he would have been hanged for something else.”

- Later, Walter discusses Sam with Martha:
Walter: “You know what’s on my mind, Martha? About Sam?
Martha: “ I think I do and that’s where it will stay, in your mind. Unless I tell you differently.”

- In a scene when Sam goes to see Martha in her office:
Martha: “What do you want?”
Sam: “I think I’ve got what I want. I think I’ve got a gimmick. A gimmick is an angle that works for you to keep you from working too hard for yourself.”

- And perhaps the film’s most famous exchange, when Toni admits to Sam that she deceived him:
Toni: “Go ahead and hit me Sam. I’ve got it coming.”
Sam: “The only thing you’ve got coming kid, is a break.”


Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in a publicity shot for the film



Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) directed this film with a nice energy and composer Miklos Rosza cranks up the strings when things get a bit melodramatic. The acting is uniformly good, with Heflin cooly playing all the angles, Scott offering a nice combination of innocent and sexy, Kirk Douglas sneering as only he could sneer and Barbara Stanwyck giving us another of her icy, domineering females who just won’t take no for an answer. Whether you’re a lover of film noir or just someone who likes an old-fashioned, steamy potboiler, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is for you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jerry Goldsmith - 3 Scores from 1966

“Music is supposed to enhance the emotional reaction of the audience. These are things you can’t mechanically place in a film – the emotional elements, no matter how wonderful the actors are. Music brings emotions to a higher level. I think that’s what music basically should be used for.” – Jerry Goldsmith speaking about the role of music in film.


In the summer of 1970, at the tender age of 14, I went to see the movie Patton with my grandmother in a large theater in Chicago’s Loop. I recall the opening scene quite vividly with the huge American flag and George C. Scott’s inspiring speech. I can’t honestly say that at that age, I understood much of the ironic humor of that monologue (my grandmother said that movie had a lot of “salty language,”), but I loved the visuals.

I also recall the rousing musical theme that followed as well as much of the rest of the score, which was at times reflective and very quiet (especially for a war film) and at times, quite lively and dramatic in its nature. It was the first time that I realized the power an original score could bring to a movie (I had been also thrilled by Stanley Kubrick’s marvelous use of classical and modern music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, just two years earlier).

The score for Patton was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who had a decade of feature film scoring experience at the time, but he was just getting his composing talents in second gear. Dozens of other great scores would emerge from the pen (piano?) of Goldsmith over the next 30 plus years, from Chinatown, The Wind and The Lion, MacArthur, Islands in the Stream and The Boys from Brazil in the 1970s (what a remarkable decade for Goldsmith!) to Poltergeist, Under Fire and Hoosiers in the 1980s to Basic Instinct, Rudy and L.A. Confidential in the 1990s to The Last Castle, The Sum of All Fears and the brilliant unused score for Timeline this decade, evidence that Goldsmith was clearly one of the finest film composers who ever lived. He passed away in 2004 after a long battle with cancer; all film and music lovers can be grateful that Goldsmith’s applied his brilliant talent over such a long period of time and that we can continue to listen to these remarkable, moving compositions.

In this post, I will deal with a few of Goldsmith’s early scores. Born in Pasadena, California in 1929, he studied film composition with the great Miklos Rózsa (composer of such classic scores as Ben Hur, Julius Caesar and Quo Vadis) at the University of Southern California. Goldsmith was soon writing for television; his early resumé includes work for such series as The Lineup, Gunsmoke and Thriller. He also composed the music for seven different episodes of The Twilight Zone in 1960 and 1961; among those are his sensitive scores for "Back There" and "The Big Tall Wish."

More television work followed and Goldsmith composed several famous themes including Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (He would go on to write music for many more well known television series in the 1970s, including The Waltons, Police Story and Barnaby Jones.) Film work began in the early 1960s with Goldsmith receiving his first Academy Award nomination for John Huston’s biopic Freud in 1962.

Goldsmith soon became an in-demand composer and was becoming known as someone who could deliver almost any type of score; listen to his bittersweet, touching score for A Patch of Blue and then contrast it with his bravura work of In Harm’s Way, both from 1965. The former earned the composer his second Oscar nod, while the latter is best remembered for the stirring end theme which beautifully complemented Otto Preminger’s vision of the apocalypse in the closing titles. Also worth recalling in this score are the passages of brass that accompany the scenes of military planning; these cues call to mind several moments of his future score for Patton. A note of trivia about In Harm’s Way: Goldsmith made his only screen appearance here (uncredited), he is seen in the opening sequence at the evening dance, leading the band, seated at a piano.

Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s


It was in 1966 that Goldsmith truly reached new heights with scores for six feature films; the three I will discuss are The Sand Pebbles, The Blue Max and Seconds. For The Sand Pebbles, he composed a lengthy score, as this was one of those old-fashioned road show films that made a big splash back in the 1960s. The score features an overture (one of the few in the composer’s career) as well as an entr’acte and even a love theme that became a hit song, known as “When We Were Lovers,” with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, no less (while the theme is heard in the film, the song is not).

The Sand Pebbles, though a bit overly serious and too long at three hours’ running time, remains a solid treatment of a little known moment in American history in 1926 when U.S. Navy gunboats were assigned to China to keep the peace. The composer at times went for the Oriental effect in his music, though in a subdued fashion. (According to Jon Burlingame in his article on the Film Music Society’s website, Goldsmith used a variety of instruments, including Chinese temple bells, wood drums and even a mandolin to achieve the eastern-sounding effects.) The opening theme is dissonant and quiet, featuring strings, woodwinds and percussion. Midway through the theme, the mood becomes more strained with brass taking over; this is a fine introduction to the struggles the characters will face in the film.



One of the most memorable cues in the score is a simple four note passage that Goldsmith wrote for the chilling scene in which Po-Han (Mako), the head coolie hand-picked by Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is being cut by Chinese rebels just a few hundred yards from the ship. Holman, seeing his newfound friend being brutally tortured, grabs a rifle and shoots him, putting him out of his agony. This is a beautifully directed scene by Robert Wise, who builds up the suspense brilliantly; at the very moment Holman kills Po-Han, we are relieved of the tension, as though the air has gone out of a balloon.

Goldsmith wisely decided not to score much of the scene, as there is plenty of sound between the roars of the angry mob, the horrific screams of Pan-Ho and the barking orders of the ship’s captain (Richard Crenna). Holman pulls the trigger – the sound of the gunshot is like a punch to the stomach – and there is silence for a few seconds as Holman lowers his head in sorrow and disbelief. The composer then introduces his sad, somber theme and continues it as we follow Holman down to the engine room where he breaks down for a brief moment. We will hear this same theme again much later in the film when Holman is forced to brutally murder in self-defense; the music here is both ironic and a brutal reminder of Po-Han’s death. Goldsmith’s use of this theme revealed a complexity in his scoring ability that had elevated him to the top of his profession’s ranks at that time and these moments are still among the most effective of his distinguished career. (Goldsmith would work with Wise again for one of his most memorable scores for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.)

Goldmsith also composed the score for another military film in 1966: The Blue Max. The story of ace aviators in the German army of World War 1, the main plot focused on one pilot Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), who sought to win the coveted medal of the film’s title by shooting down enough enemy planes. Beautifully photographed, the film is often quite riveting, despite some of the less than enthralling subplots. Goldsmith’s main theme is majestic with a strong brass line and a sweeping melody played by strings. It is remarkable how unknown this theme is, as it is one of the most powerful of all themes for war films.

His passage for the aerial attacks is a driving piece with strings, percussion and brass all combining in slightly dissonant fashion to convey the whirlwind, confusing, pulsating nature of this specialized combat. A superb piece, with a definite Germanic influence, this is a marvelous part of the score that stands magnificently on its own; it is no wonder that many symphony orchestras have performed it over the years. Goldsmith’s score is definitely one of the strongest components of this uneven film; all the way through to the lush orchestrations of the closing sequence, the composer is at his best.

The other first-rate score of 1966 by the composer was for Seconds, the fantasy film directed by John Frankenheimer, about people who would pay to be transformed into a new personality through radical plastic surgery (they are given a second life, hence the film’s title). Feauturing stunning black-and-white photography by James Wong Howe, the film has become a cult classic and is one of the most intense science fiction films of all time. Goldsmith’s title theme is appropriatley eerie, with strings and organ (a particularly wonderful touch) combining to create some of the composer’s creepiest music, perhaps only rivaled by The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and his Oscar-winning score for The Omen (1976).



He also wrote one of his simplest, most nostalgic themes for a later scene in the film, when the main character Wilson (Rock Hudson) goes to visit the widow of one of his recently departed friends. It is a very touching moment, made all the more so by the quietness of this music in contrast to the frightening sounds of the remainder of the score. This same peaceful theme is repeated in the film’s final ironic scene, as we see a vision of a dream of a man on a beach carrying his young son and walking with his dog; this image quicky goes out of focus, as the haunting music perfomed by solo piano is a 180-degree reversal of the film’s opening music.

Given the quality of these scores in 1966, the Academy certainly could have rewarded Goldsmith with three Oscar nominations; while this was unlikely, he might have been given two nods (as Seconds was a box-office disaster, that score had little chance). As The Sand Pebbles was a bigger success at the box office than The Blue Max, it is no surprise that the former film was the one for which Goldsmith was nominated.

In what would be an all too recurring theme, he did not win the Oscar that year; the admired, but less than excellent score of Born Free by John Barry won the trophy (that film’s title song which was a pop hit was certainly a factor in the voting decision). Looking back, it would have made more sense if Alex North for his touching, achingly beautiful score for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have been the one to edge out Goldsmith, but popular music has always tended to win awards. (Note: while Goldsmith was robbed on at least three occasions of an Academy Award, he did at least win for The Omen; North – one of the seminal film composers of all time - amazingly never won for one of his scores. The Academy, no doubt embarassed by this, did give North a lifetime achievement award late in his career.)

Two years later, Goldsmith would write his wildly famous score for Planet of the Apes; Patton, also for director Frankin Schaffner, would follow in 1970. His career soared after that, but perhaps it was in 1966 that Jerry Goldsmith laid the groundwork for what would become one of the great catalogues of fim music Hollywood has ever heard.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Great Movie Quotes - A Different Take

Claire Trevor and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948)


Back in 2005, the American Film Institute presented a television special based on the greatest movie quotes of all time; the 100 best selected for that program were chosen from a list of 400 finalists. It is a fun list with the usual famous movie lines we’ve all heard at one time or another; lines such as, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Gone with the Wind); “Rosebud” (Citizen Kane); “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact) and “Here’s looking at you, kid” (Casablanca) among those that headlined this selection.

They’re all great quotes (as are the other 300 that didn’t make the final cut), but we all know how many terrific lines have been spoken by so many of our favorite characters through the years. So in this post I’ll present 10 of my favorite movie quotes (in chronological order) that didn’t make the AFI’s roster. It’s by no means a Top Ten list, as I’m constantly discovering some great new zingers from older films as well as new releases. So from time to time, I’ll add to the list until evenutally I have my top 100.

Roll ‘em!




“What’s wrong with you?” – Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart)
“Nothing you can’t fix.” – Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) – The Big Sleep (1946)


“If I’d have known you was going to act this way, I wouldn’t have come here.” – Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor)
“If I’d have known what you were like, you wouldn’t have been asked.” – Johhny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) – Key Largo (1948)





“Now listen, this is a cross-examination in a murder case, it’s not a high school debate. What are you and Dancer trying to do? Railroad this soldier into the clink?” –Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) to District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) – Anatomy of a Murder (1959)



“People say I’m just nervous.” – Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe)
“If it weren’t for the nervous people in the world, we’d all still be eating each other.” – Guido (Eli Wallach) – The Misfits (1961)




“Son, this is a Washington, D.C., kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying and also knows you know he knows.” – Robert Lefingwell (Henry Fonda) – Advise and Consent (1962)


“You know Ben, it’s a terrible thing to hate your mother.” – Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey to Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


“Don’t be too proud, Henry. Never be too proud to go on your knees before God.” – Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) to Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) – Nixon (1985)


“Well sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch. You just shot an unarmed man” – Little Bill (Gene Hackman)
“Well he should have armed himself, if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”- William Munny (Clint Eastwood) – Unforgiven (1992)


“I’m an attorney, you’re a barber. You don’t know anything.” – Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) to Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) – The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)




“I have never thought of myself as a correspondent, just a reporter. I offer no point of view, I take no action. I don’t get involved. I just report what I see.” – Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) – The Quiet American (2002)



Do you have some favorite quotes? I'd love to "hear" them!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dissecting Film

I’ve just discovered a marvelous new book on film written by David Thomson, one of the most insightful of all film critics. It’s entitled Have You Seen… A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (published in 2008) and it’s one of the most perceptive, intelligent and astute commentaries on many of the most famous movies ever made.

Wisely, Thomson did not make this a Top 1000 book, merely listing his favorites; instead he made this project into an analysis of films both great as well as disastrous (disastrous in their execution, not necessarily in their performance at the box office) Along the way, he reminds us how often movies carry a particular impact due to the moment they are made. This is both a positive and a negative for the author, as evidenced by his thoughts on how some films have aged beautifully, while others seem today to be only a reminder of the past, while others still reveal new layers not seen at first glance.

For example, when writing about such films as Rocky and Rain Man, he discusses the momentary impact these films had, despite their obvious shortcomings (his comments on the fight from the first film are “it’s not just implausible, it’s not far from slapstick ballet,” while his slings against the latter are more devastating; “it’s little more than a commerical for itself.”)

As for films that look and feel great today, Thomson points to such works as The Godfather, “still as beautiful as it is mysterious”; Bringing Up Baby, “it still feels as if it were made last night,” and Taxi Driver, “I watch the film again and again, unsure where it will take me this time.” He has special praise for such works as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “the strength of the film is the unsentimental approach to the three treasure seekers,” as well as Blue Velvet, “(David) Lynch wrote it and directed it with an implaccable assurance that he has never quite matched since.” He includes dozens of foreign films, not only such classics as The Rules of the Game and Open City, but also such lesser-known works as La Ronde (1950) directed by Max Ophuls and Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a Luchino Visconti film that Thomson labels as “a shattering experience” when he saw the film’s premiere.

As for directors, he has his favorites, yet he rarely gives them a free pass. He praises Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo, “ a masterpiece and an endless mystery,” and for Rear Window, “ a great film and a great entertainment,” but takes Hitchock to task for such works as Marnie and Spellbound (the former “feels contrived” to Thomson, while he labels the latter as “one of the most expensive vanity pictures ever made in America.”) He commends John Ford for his work on such films as The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath, but has a mixed review for Stagecoach, which he praises for its visuals and message about an outlaw who seeks redemption, but writes that it is “a marinade of cliché.”

Thomson saves some of his greatest praise for the works of Otto Preminger. He finds his best films to be quite intelligent, noting for example, the complexities of the world of Washington, D. C, in Advise and Consent, especially as compared with the similar trappings of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He considers Preminger’s Laura a “masterpiece” and offers wonderful observations about Anatomy of a Murder, which he labels “perfect”. One quote in particular displays Thomson’s admiration for Preminger’s direction in Anatomy;  “As always in such things, Preminger’s camera style prefers deep space and groups of people, so that we have to decide where to look while clinging on to every word.”

Along the way, Thomson is quick to point out the remarkable work done by cameramen, costume designers, composers, editors, screenwriters et al as well as the efforts of the actors. This isn’t just about famous performances such as Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath or Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty; Thomson also singles out actors such as Sterling Hayden (The Killing, Dr. Strangelove), Ida Lupino (They Drive by Night) and Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels) for their work. If you didn’t know it before, you know after reading only a few detailed entries (usually about 500 words for each film) that Thomson doesn’t just watch a film, he dissects it.

I do have to fault Thomson regarding a few entries, however. Why does he include The Sopranos in this book? I can understand a distinctive made-for-TV- movie, but why a television series? Another strange topic is the film Sweeney Todd, which he pans. But why include merely a negative review of this film? Thomson takes Oscar-winning Best Pictures such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music to task, but those films were monumental successes at the box office and at awards time. Todd did poorly with the public and while it did win one Oscar (set design), it was not a film bestowed with many honors.

I also fault the editor of this book for not including a table of contents or an index at the end. The films are arranged in alphabetical order, but I’m certain there are many film buffs who would want to check and see how many films in this book were directed by John Ford, Orson Welles or any number of famous directors; still others might want to read about the films from Italy or France. There’s just no way to do that without looking at every entry and it’s a bit frustrating. (Thankfully, there is a chronology at the end of the book so the reader can at least reference films by the year they were created; the oldest film Thomson writes about is from 1895.)

Still, this is a marvelous book thanks to engaging writing and keen observations. Much of Thomson’s best prose is about films that he sees as works that not only entertained, but also held up a mirror to the times, such as 1998s The Truman Show. “No other American film was clearer that the greatest threat to our existence was ourselves, and above all our decision to be cheerful, amiable and pleasant,” he writes.

Growing up in World War ll in England, Thomson equated America with the characters and situations he saw in its films. Now living in San Francisco, he still sees the charms and excesses of America represented in its best (and sometimes worst) films. He writes about the neo-realism of Italian films, the French New Wave and silent films just as creatively. His talent as a chronicler of movies is unquestionable; film enthusiasts can be thankful for the author’s decision to undertake this labor of love.


Have You Seen…?
By David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY
2008, 1007 pages, $39.95



- On a slightly different note.

Air One has become my favorite new airline. Why? Well, on a recent flight from Chicago to Rome, the airline showed two of the greatest cartoons ever made: What's Opera Doc? (1957) and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953). Both were directed by the genius Chuck Jones during his heyday at Warner Brothers. There's no need for me to talk about these amazing cartoons, expect to say they are as enjoyable today as when I first saw them many years ago. Thanks, Air One!