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Movie of the Day

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Silver Streak, and to a slightly lesser extent Stir Crazy, are films I have have loved since seeing them on TV as a kid. And so I was expecting to be somewhat disappointed by the the later films of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. I got what I expected. Wilder and Pryor play a deaf newstand manager and a blind gambling addict who together see and hear a crime being committed and get embroiled in a plot by some very ’80s villains played by Kevin Spacey and Joan Severance. At least we get to hear Richard Pryor say “asshole” a lot, something at which he excels.

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The Woman in Red

This Gene Wilder-directed film was made at a time when romantic comedies could still actually be good, albeit at the very end of that era, just before the whole genre became completely formulaic. The film opens with shots of the San Francisco skyline that eventually pan over to a shot of Gene Wilder standing on the window ledge of a penthouse in a luxury apartment building (where Madeline lived in Hitchcock’s Vertigo), wondering how he got there. The story rewinds four weeks, to the day this advertising executive first spotted the titular character. Although Wilder casts himself, pal Charles Grodin and wife Gilda Radner,this is by no means a mere vanity project. Wilder crafts an engaging study of a mid-life crisis with characters the audience can care about. Wilder’s character deliberates over plunging into an affair with the woman in red while his two best friends go through marital strife and his own wife reveals her high-strung jealous side, making one of the better films ever on the mid-life crisis.

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The Great Train Robbery

This Sean Connery vehicle was directed by Michael Crichton and based on his own novel, which in turn was loosely based on a real train robbery that captured the imagination of Victorian England in 1855. Victorian life and the criminal underbelly of England were obviously meticulously researched by Crichton, who delights in adding his own details to the historical thieves who remorselessly hid behind a thin veneer of respectability. As a crime/suspense film, it is not particular shocking, and other than a few masterfully filmed sequences, it is not especially suspenseful. But there is something delightful in watching Connery and Donald Sutherland play dress up and talk in Victorian criminal slang, a light approach to the crime drama complemented by Jerry Goldsmith’s mischievous score.

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The Honeymoon Killers

So much has already been written about this cult classic, the real-life serial killers whose story the film closely follows, and the shoestring production, with director Martin Scorsese fired shortly into filming as he was spending far too much time on each shoot. As there is not much new to say, at least I can add that I am thankful that there is enough interest in cult films for them to get rediscovered, restored, re-released and eventually find their way onto a screen in front of me.

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The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Even though I never saw it, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas made a strong impression on me when I was a kid.

Colin Higgins is best known for the script of the cult classic Harold & Maude (1971), which he wrote as his masters’ thesis in screenwriting. Higgins sadly died young  of AIDS in 1988, but not before writing and later directing a handful of films that, in my mind at least, define the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Silver Streak (1976), Foul Play (1978), Nine to Five (1980), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I remember seeing the cover for the BetaMax video of this film on the top shelf of the video store I was sometimes taken to as a kid, and later not being allowed to see it when it played on TV.

Finally seeing it for the first time, it lived up to my expectations. The staging of the musical numbers is campy almost beyond belief, the dialogue is corny, and when a few serious topics are touched upon, they are dealt with in the most superficial of ways. What can I say? I love this film. As in 9 to 5, Dolly Parton does her best to put in a professional performance, and Burt Reynolds was at stage of his career when he actually still had some charm.

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Haunted Honeymoon

This Gene Wilder-directed oddity falls into the genre of ’80s comedy-horror films such as Transylvania 6-500 (1985) and The Private Eyes (1980). Haunted Honeymoon, set in the 1940s and filmed in England, is clearly the best of the bunch, with excellent cinematography and an atmospheric score. The fact that Wilder previously starred in the greatest comedy-horror film of all time, Young Frankenstein (1974), can make this seem like a pale imitation, but there is plenty to enjoy here. Dom Deluise’s turn as Aunt Kate is completely over the top in each and every scene, but far from being a defect, his campy performance is actually the highlight of the film.

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Outrageous Fortune

I have no idea what possessed me to actually get my hands on a copy of this film and then sit through it, but it was pretty bad. This was made at the height of Shelley Long’s fame for “Cheers,” and the height of Bette Midler’s fame for being Bette Midler. The producers obviously thought that having Midler play a street-smart New Yorker and Long play an uptight, prissy actress thrown together in a plot involving CIA operatives would lead to instant hilarity, but there is really nothing funny here. Even George Carlin arriving two thirds into the film couldn’t do much to save this disaster.

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His Girl Friday

What can be said about His Girl Friday that has not already been said a thousand times over? The dialogue by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur was at the time the best ever written for the screen, and that claim probably still holds true today. For the first time in Hollywood history, the writers dared to have more than one character speak a true people, and director Hawks dared to allow more than one actor to speaks at the same time, making the dialogue more realistic than anything that had proceeded it. Each and every line in this film is infused with so much wit and verbal acrobatics, that each line fits into the whole but can also stand on its own. The fact that lines from this film are still recycled in the likes of Kill Bill prove that this is a milestone in screen writing after 70 years.

Cary Grant is at his peak playing charismatic comedic roles here, but this is really Rosalind Russell’s film. Based Hecht and MacArthur’s play The Front Page, director Howard Hawks had his secretary read the then male part of Hildy Johnson in audition, and found he preferred the role as a fast-talking dame, and went after Carole Lambard and a bevy of other actresses before finally settling on Russell. Of course today it is impossible imagine this role played by anyone other than Russell, who is perfect in her role as a fast-talking newspaper writer and actually manages to upstage the always smooth Cary Grant in scene after scene.

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I Was a Male War Bride

This film is based on the memoirs of Henri Rochard, a Belgian member of the French Army who married a female member of the American expeditionary forces and made a successful, but very trying attempt go with her back to the US. Although countless members of the US military married European women, very few married European men and so Rochard (Cary Grant) must go through endless red tape in a system set up for war brides. Ann Sheridan is excellent as a tough, brassy WAC lieutenant. Grant, while never seeming especially French, is at his comedic best, and  the final scenes in which he has to don drag and pass as an army nurse to board a ship have to be seen to be believed.

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Witness for the Prosecution

The courtroom drama has to be one of the most challenging genres for directors, given the basic necessity of creating a dramatic situations that stay in one location, and having to create a narrative structure that sticks to the basic manner of legal proceedings. Hitchcock tried and later admitted he had failed in the Paradine Case (1947), which coincidentally also starred Charles Laughton. Many other directors have foundered in Hitchcock’s wake.

Billy Wilder succeeds, indeed triumphs, with the genre in Witness for the Prosecution, thanks in no small part to a bravura performance by Charles Laughton, as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a master barrister who is suffering from heart problems and takes a difficult case against the orders of his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Sir Wilfred’s antagonist is not a brilliant prosecuting attorney and not even the surprise witness they call to the stand, but the importance of him remaining calm for the sake of his heart during a trial that has him genuinely intrigued.

In the trailer Laughton filmed in 1957, he asks that no one give away the ending of the film, and so I’m not about to.

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Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time starts with a prologue befitting its fairy tale title:

Someone told us a story the other day that sounded fantastic. But in a world that is so trouble today and where reality is so grim–fantasy was a welcome relief. Thinking you might feel the same way about it–we are passing this yarn on to you. Relax and pull up a chair. Once upon a time—

This intro succinctly sets the tone for this light movie, which is an early example of what today would be called a “family film.” The story opens with theater owner Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant), who has suffered flop after flop and suddenly in need of $100,000 dollars in order to save his theater. Throwing a coin over his shoulder for good luck, he meets the two boys who pick it up, and becomes the first person who actually listens to their claim to fame, namely that they have a caterpillar who dances to the tune of “Yes, Sir That’s My Baby.” Seeing dollar signs, Flynn forms a partnership with the boy, hoping to build a show around the bug and save his theater. Flynn and his right hand man Moke (character actor James Gleason in a bigger role than usual) call in the press corps who are at first unimpressed. But then a sentimental radio show on the bug touches a nerve with the greater public and then Curly the caterpillar becomes an overnight sensation and Walt Disney agrees to buy it for the 100 thou that Flynn needs for his theater. Meanwhile Flynn and the boy bond, fight, and reconcile, while his older sister (Janet Blair) serves as the romantic interest on the sidelines.

It is not really clear what Grant is doing in this film which seems to be have been made more with a kid audience in mind, but he might have simply wanted a break after the seriousness of Destination Tokyo (1943). As expected,  Grant does a fine job playing an incurable optimist who can win anyone over to his point of view. The constant tugging at the heartstrings gets a bit tiring at times, but this is enjoyable for what it is–a little scoop of cinematic ice cream.

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Dr. No

Other than snippets I happened to catch on television, I have never actually seen a single James Bond film. I have often considered watching the series starting with the first and progressing until the films lost their appeal for me. After watching Dr. No, I found I could pretty much end after the first one. I was somewhat interested in the series after reading a biography of Hitchcock, who bemoaned the fact that the Bond films ripped off his North by Northwest. Indeed, Bond creator Ian Flemming famously created the super spy with Cary Grant in mind for a film adaptation, although the first novel in the series was actually published a few years before the Hitchcock-Grant collaboration.

In my opinion, Hitchcock needn’t have worried. Although Sean Connery’s Bond has the same cool, collected charm under distress that Grant perfected in North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s sense of suspense and excitement are missing. Ken Adam’s production design, especially the kitsch sets in Dr. No’s underwater lair set the tone for the first two decades of the series, and was one of the few things to make the film interesting for me.