Cool Hand Luke (B). I think it’s hard to rate a movie that is well-made and interesting but also bleak and depressing. That’s how I found Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 film starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and co-starring George Kennedy (The Naked Gun) in an Oscar-winning supporting performance. Newman plays the title character, a decorated war veteran who lands himself on a prison road gang in the deep South after drunkenly vandalizing a bunch of parking meters. Luke’s blasé attitude and ability to absorb punishment make him an object of suspicion among the prison guards but admiration among his fellow prisoners, who are led by a loud-mouthed fellow called Dragline (Kennedy). In Luke’s shoes, I’d do my best to keep my head down and survive my two-year sentence, but after his ailing mother dies he starts the shenanigans that will get him in increasing amounts of trouble with the sadistic Captain (who has the famous line “What we have here is failure to communicate”) and his goons. What’s Luke’s deal? He’s plainly made out to be a Christ figure, and the movie kind of plays like a drawn-out Garden of Gethsemane sequence. But what’s his message? Love thy neighbor doesn’t seem to fit. Resist authority? What about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Even if Luke’s punishment was excessive, he did vandalize public property, after all. And why is he so rebellious? He alludes to having grown up without a father, and maybe his wartime experience affected him somehow, but I still didn’t really get his motivation. I guess some people are just ornery by nature.
Watch for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Harry Dean Stanton (Escape from New York), and Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H) in small parts as fellow prisoners. Apparently Joe Don Baker (Mitchell) was in there too, but I didn’t spot him.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932). I read this classic dystopian novel a long time ago and was inspired to re-read it by an episode of the National Review podcast called “The Great Books.” It is a weird story, much weirder than I remembered it. Huxley set his tale in the distant future and predicted a caste-bound society in which people are created in laboratories and subjected to extensive physical and psychological conditioning so that they will be perfectly adjusted to their eventual caste and status in life, whether the lowly, semi-intelligent worker class or the higher classes who do the finer work in the bio-factories and conditioning centers. (The caste descriptions are, unfortunately, pretty racist.) Everyone, save only the tiny group of world-governing Controllers, is kept mindlessly content with a feel-good drug called soma, constant entertainments, and endless recreational sex. But off in the wilds of New Mexico is a reservation of people who still live the old way, and the action of the tale is sparked when a reservation dweller called the Savage makes his way into modern society and questions everything he sees. Definitely worth a read. The volume I got also featured a subsequent Huxley essay called “Brave New World Revisited,” but I found it very tiresome and couldn’t finish it.
Destry Rides Again (B). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this 1939 Western starring Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) and Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution)—I had never heard anything about it and saw it pretty much on a whim. But I must say that I rather enjoyed it—much more than the Dietrich movies in “The Glamour Collection” that I watched so long ago. It’s rather tongue-in-cheek, as Westerns go. It’s set in a typical rough-and-tumble Western town, with a typical villain, his typical gang of ruffians, and an atypical saloon songbird named Frenchie (Dietrich) who helps the villain fleece people in crooked card games. When the town’s sheriff disappears under not-very-mysterious circumstances, the new sheriff sends for assistance in the person of Tom Destry (Stewart), son of a well-known lawman now deceased. But Destry quickly becomes a town laughingstock when he refuses even to carry a gun. Can he defeat the bad guys with nothing more than his wits? And maybe woo Frenchie on the side? It’s sort of goofy, but enjoyable. Worth a look, especially since it’s only 95 minutes long!
Lolita (B). This past Tuesday evening I took in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita at the Magnolia Theater. I’ve never read the book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but of course I knew the gist of the story, so I was prepared for a squirm-inducing experience. A snooty, middle-aged British academic named Humbert Humbert (James Mason, A Star Is Born) moves to a small American town for a summer, and he immediately falls into a lusty obsession with his landlady’s under-aged daughter, who is named Dolores but nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon, The Night of the Iguana). I read on the internet that she’s 12 in the book, but Lyon was 15 when the movie was filmed and looked older to me. Skeezy things ensue, and Humbert and Lolita wind up traveling across country together. Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank) is memorable as Lolita’s pathetic, desperate, and widowed mother. Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) turns in a scene-stealing performance as a bizarre character named Clare Quilty. I hardly know what grade to give this odd movie about an untouchable subject, but I will say I was never bored and didn’t squirm all that often.
The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub (2017). The complete works and then some – this volume contains not only the ten “books” Caesar wrote about the Gallic Wars and the civil war he fought with Pompey, but also four other books about Caesar’s campaigns that were written by other authors. The translation is very readable (I’m in no position to judge its accuracy), and the stories are generally quite interesting. Sure, I occasionally got lost among the many proper names for places, tribes, and people I’d never heard of before, but I didn’t sweat that. One thing was a hoot – Caesar mentions the two soldiers at the center of the HBO miniseries Rome, by name, for their courage during a particular battle in the Gallic Wars! They were real people! Anyway, this edition is a massive chunk of a book because it contains lots of introductions, footnotes, maps, pictures, and appendices. I read the introductions and lots of the footnotes, and they added a lot to the stories. If you’re into the swords-and-sandals genre of history, this is a must-have.
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
The Movie Snob checks in with a new review of an old movie.
Gaslight (B+). This 1942 classic stars the beauteous Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as Paula Alquist. In the opening scene, we see a very young Paula being escorted away from the London townhome where she has just discovered the body of her murdered aunt (her guardian since birth). Flash forward a few years, and Paula is living in Italy. She has followed in her aunt’s footsteps by studying music and singing, but we learn she has just been swept off her feet by a debonair foreigner named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer, Fanny). Anton is strangely eager to move to London, and into the townhouse Paula inherited from her aunt. And once they are ensconced there, Paula seems to start to lose her grip on her sanity, and Gregory becomes ever more controlling. What is happening? Straight-arrow Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten, The Third Man) senses something is amiss, but can he figure it out in time to help Paula? I quite enjoyed this classic old noir. Watch for a young Angela Lansbury (TV’s Murder, She Wrote) as a saucy housemaid.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (originally published 1927). I had never read any of Willa Cather’s work before, but I found this novel very moving and very beautiful. In the mid-1800s, the United States is consolidating its control over the area that would eventually become the State of New Mexico. The Catholic Church responds to these developments by sending a new missionary bishop to take charge of the area—a Frenchman named Jean Marie Latour. His life-long friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, accompanies him, and together the two clerics (who had previously been toiling in the mission fields of Ohio) experience the beauty and the mystery of the southwestern desert and its Mexican and Indian inhabitants. Michael Dirda sums it up well: “The most serenely beautiful of [Cather’s] books, it seems scarcely a novel at all, more a kind of New World pastoral, evoking the beauty of the desert Southwest, lamenting the passing of traditional Native culture, and glorifying the lives of two saintly Catholic missionaries as they spread their faith in a harsh land.” (Classics for Pleasure 255.) For my part, I add this book to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as my favorite “Catholic” novels.
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I had never read this famous book before, but when I signed up for a vacation trip to Amsterdam I figured I should read it first. I got about halfway through before my trip rolled around, but that was enough to help give me some context when I visited the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam. I finished the book over the course of the trip. Anyway, it is an interesting book, and Anne comes across as a lively, spirited, and strong-willed teenager. It does get a little repetitive, perhaps, but how could it not, given that Anne lived in hiding in a tiny space with the same group of people for two years?
Five Easy Pieces (C). I caught this 1970 release at the Magnolia this past Tuesday night, knowing really nothing about it except that it starred Jack Nicholson and featured a famous scene in which his character tries to order toast at a diner. It’s okay, but I didn’t think it was so great. Nicholson (The Shining) plays Bobby Dupea, a malcontent who works on oil rigs somewhere in California and is generally rude to his countrified waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black, Nashville). What’s eating him? Well, you find out about halfway through the movie that he has fled a more genteel life, and he decides to go back to the family home in Washington state and see his father, who has had a debilitating stroke. He doesn’t fit in there any better than he does among the commoners. Movies about misfits aren’t really my thing, so I didn’t particularly warm up to this one. Watch for small roles for Sally Struthers (TV’s All in the Family) and Toni Basil (singer of the pop gem “Mickey”). It was nominated for four Oscars®, including best picture, best actor (Nicholson), and best supporting actress (Black), and it’s only 98 minutes long, so check it out and see if you agree with me.
Bonnie and Clyde (B+). I recently got to see a special screening of this 1967 release, directed by Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker) and starring Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy) and Faye Dunaway (Chinatown). It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was still very interesting and entertaining. Beatty and Dunaway play Depression-era outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The fellow who hosted the screening said the movie should be considered “historical fiction,” but, if wikipedia is any guide, one thing this film gets right is that the Barrow Gang didn’t hesitate to shoot people, even (or especially) police officers, who got in their way. It was considered an unusually violent and graphic movie back in the day, and I thought it was still a little shocking at times. I was also shocked to see Denver Pyle in a small supporting role. I knew him only from TV’s Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and especially The Dukes of Hazzard; I didn’t know that he had ever been an actor. It also co-stars Gene Hackman (Heartbreakers), Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) in his film debut, and a kid named Michael J. Pollard who had recently appeared in the original Star Trek episode “Miri.” It’s one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies.” Definitely worth seeing, unless you really don’t like shoot-em-ups.
The Movie Snob submits a new review of an old movie.
Laura (B). Who killed Laura Hunt? That’s the question that drives this classic 1944 film noir. Laura (Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven) was a beautiful and successful advertising executive (long before the Mad Men era!). She was the frequent companion of a venomous and snobbish newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb, Three Coins in the Fountain), the lover of a shiftless cad (Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth), and the niece of a wealthy, frosty aunt (Judith Anderson, Rebecca). And now she’s dead, slain with a shotgun in her own apartment. It’s up to sharp-eyed detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives) to find the clues and solve the case. It’s a fun and twisty little movie, and only 88 minutes long, too. Check it out!
Shane (C). I guess this is considered a classic Western—and it got six Academy Award nominations—but I didn’t think it was anything special. Shane (Alan Ladd, The Great Gatsby (1949)) is a wandering gunfighter who accidentally wanders into a Wyoming range war between a big rancher named Ryker and a bunch of homesteaders who want to fence and farm the valley. Shane throws his lot in with the sodbusters, led by stalwart Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma (1957)), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur, You Can’t Take It With You), and his annoying son Joey (Brandon De Wilde, Hud). A very young Jack Palance (City Slickers) got a supporting-actor nomination for his performance as an evil gunslinger the rancher brings to town to deal with the farmers. Roger Ebert calls it a great movie, but I thought it was only passable.
The Music Man (B). Greetings, loyal readers, and my apologies for the long delay since my last post. Alas, this new review does not involve a new movie. Last week I saw the movie of The Music Man for the first time, and I thought it was very nice. Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!) is just beautiful as Marian the librarian. Robert Preston (How the West Was Won) was previously unknown to me, but I thought he turned in a fine performance. As you probably already know, the story is about a con man whose scam is to blow into a small town, puff up excitement for a new boys’ marching band, sell everyone uniforms and musical instruments, and then skip town without teaching any of the kids to play a note. The Simpsons once did an homage to The Music Man in which the great Phil Hartman voiced a con artist whose racket was to sell monorail systems to towns that didn’t need them. But I digress. I liked The Music Man a lot, but it could have been improved; 2 1/2 hours is way too long, and a few of the songs are so corny that they would not be missed. Still, I enjoyed it.
2001: A Space Odyssey (A). I had seen this 1968 Kubrick masterpiece only once, many years ago, so I jumped at the chance to see it again at the Magnolia this past Tuesday night. It was just as long and as trippy as I remembered it. Basically, it’s about man’s first contact(s) with extraterrestrials. There’s a prologue in which a black monolith of alien origin appears to our ape-like ancestors and (apparently) gives them the idea to start using tools. Then we jump to the near future of 2001, when an identical monolith is discovered on the moon. Finally, the bulk of the film is devoted to an ambitious space mission to Jupiter, led by astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, The Thin Red Line) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood, Kitten with a Whip) and aided by the superintelligent computer HAL9000. The special effects stand up amazingly well for their age. See it on the big screen if you ever get the chance.
Witness for the Prosecution (B+). This 1957 classic was directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and based on a short story and play by Agatha Christie. Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a celebrated London barrister with a knack for winning impossible cases. While he is convalescing after a heart attack, just such a case shows up on his doorstep—a murder case against a charming WWII vet named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power, Rawhide). His icy German war bride Christine (Marlene Dietrich, Morocco) is his only alibi, but she seems to have a secret agenda of her own. It felt like the murder trial itself took up about half the film’s 116-minute running time, but the trial scenes are well done, and my interest never flagged. Definitely worth seeing, Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Oscars, including a best supporting actress nod for Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as Sir Wilfrid’s overbearing nurse. The DVD’s extras include the movie’s trailer and some moderately interesting footage of interviews with Wilder about the movie.
Rebecca (B). This is the 1940 classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and starring Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) and Laurence Olivier (Clash of the Titans). I quite enjoyed it. Fontaine plays a rather naïve young woman who is traveling through Europe as a companion and personal assistant to a rich American woman. In Monte Carlo she meets Maxim de Winter (Olivier), a wealthy Brit whose wife Rebecca has died only about a year earlier. They marry after a whirlwind romance . . . but Maxim seems to be tormented by memories of his deceased wife, and back at his fabulous estate Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter finds that Rebecca still seems to haunt the place. Why won’t Maxim talk about Rebecca? And what is the deal with the creepy head maid Mrs. Danvers? See the movie (which won the best picture Oscar and a raft of other nominations) and find out!
Oklahoma! (C). Well, this 1955 musical didn’t really do it for me, as you can tell by my grade. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it more, because the songs are undeniably catchy, and Shirley Jones (TV’s The Partridge Family) makes a very cute Laurie. The story is paper-thin, but that’s not really a valid objection to a movie musical. It isn’t Crime and Punishment, after all. I think what turned me off were the several extended dance interludes, which seemed to go on forever. The balletic dance that goes on in Laurie’s mind after she takes a whiff of the traveling salesman’s perfume was a particularly long and psychedelic sequence that went on interminably. Still, the songs really were top-notch. I was surprised to learn that Oklahoma! was directed by Fred Zinneman, who also directed From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, and High Noon.
I Married a Witch (B). This is a 1942 comedy starring Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives) and Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels). I had never heard of it before, but I saw that it was in “The Criterion Collection,” a fancy-shmancy series of DVDs “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality.” Plus, it was on sale, and I was curious to see what Veronica Lake actually looked like. (You’ll recall that Kim Basinger played a supposed Veronica Lake look-alike in L.A. Confidential.) Anyhoo, I Married a Witch is an enjoyable, if offbeat, little movie. The opening scene establishes that back in Puritan times, a witch and her warlock father were burned for, well, witchcraft. The witch (Lake) puts a curse on the Puritan fellow who accused her such that he (March) and his descendants will always marry unhappily until the curse is lifted. Fast forward to 1942, and the father-and-daughter team are on the loose. The Puritan’s descendant Wallace Wooley (also March) is running for political office and about to marry an obvious shrew played by Susan Hayward (Garden of Evil). The witch decides to torment Wallace a little bit, and the movie goes on from there. It’s a quirky little movie; the DVD booklet says that director Rene Clair was one of the early innovators of the cinema. The TV show “Bewitched” seems to owe a little something to this film, and it also bears a certain resemblance to the much-worse movie Kitten With a Whip. Worth seeing if the opportunity presents itself.
Strangers on a Train (B+). I caught this 1951 Hitchcock film at The Magnolia, and I quite enjoyed it. Two strangers meet on a train somewhere on the east coast. One is Guy Haines (Farley Granger, They Live by Night), a professional tennis player who wants a divorce from his unpleasant and uncooperative wife so he can be with his true love, a senator’s daughter. The other is Bruno Antony (Robert Walker, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo), a creepy socialite who seems to know an awful lot about Guy and his problems. When Bruno casually proposes that he could murder Guy’s wife if Guy would murder Bruno’s father, Guy brushes him off. He quickly learns that he shouldn’t have done that. In short, Strangers is a well-plotted little suspense movie. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (Psycho) has a small but important role as the senator’s other daughter. Check it out if you get the chance.
Forbidden Planet (B). I saw this 1956 cult classic many years ago, but I just got the chance to see it again as part of The Magnolia Theater’s classic movie series. I remembered it as being pretty good, and indeed it was. It’s a sci-fi flick about a spaceship sent from Earth to Altair IV, a remote planet where a group of earthlings were supposed to establish a colony some 20 years earlier. Alas, only one of the original colonists is still alive—a mad-scientist type named Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea)—but he is kept company by his lovely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis, Funny Girl) and an amazing automaton named Robbie the Robot. What malignant force killed the rest of the colonists, and can the dashing Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen, Airplane!) protect his crew from meeting the same fate? Although cheesy in some ways, it is fairly sophisticated in others. (It is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.) Gene Roddenberry supposedly drew some inspiration for Star Trek from this movie, and the movie does play a lot like an extended episode of Trek. (That’s a good thing.) In fact, the fellow who played the ship’s doctor in Forbidden Planet (Warren Stevens, The Barefoot Contessa) eventually guest-starred on a 1968 episode of Star Trek. And Robbie the Robot went on to much greater fame on TV’s Lost in Space. Anyway, it’s well worth checking out if you ever get the chance.
Double Indemnity (B). Yes, it was classic movie night at The Magnolia again last Tuesday night, and I just had to take a gander at this classic film noir I’ve heard so much about. Fred MacMurray (TV’s My Three Sons) plays Walter Neff, a talented but amoral insurance salesman. He calls on a wealthy client and finds that the client isn’t home but his sultry wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve) is. Sparks fly, and before long Walter is hatching a scheme with Phyllis to insure her husband’s life and then off him. It’s a pretty good movie, but the effect was slightly spoiled in the early going by the audience’s frequent outbursts of laughter during some of the excessively hard-boiled dialogue. And I didn’t quite buy the ending. But still and all, I enjoyed the movie. Edward G. Robinson (Soylent Green) co-stars as the insurance claims investigator who can smell insurance fraud a mile away.
The French Connection (B). I have a love-hate relationship with Dallas’s Magnolia Theater. The parking situation is terrible, and I hate having to pick my “assigned seat” at the kiosk when I buy my ticket. How is this an improvement over walking into the theater and picking your seat then? On the other hand, some movies don’t play anywhere but the Magnolia, and it does have a great running series of classic films. Tuesday night I saw their showing of this 1971 film, which won five Oscars including best picture, best director (William Friedkin, The Exorcist), and best actor (Gene Hackman, Heartbreakers). I thought it was pretty good. It’s a cop movie in which Hackman plays Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a loose-cannon NYC cop on the narcotics beat. He’s in the doghouse for some past screw-up that got another policeman killed, and when he hears rumors that a massive shipment of drugs is coming into New York from France, heaven help anyone who threatens to get between him and the bust. Roy Scheider (Jaws) plays his calmer partner. The movie is famous for an extended car chase, and it was good, but what struck me was the tedium of the cops’ job. They do a lot of surveillance, which means a lot of following suspicious characters, losing track of the suspicious characters, and sitting in cars overnight watching to see what the suspicious characters are going to do next. It is decidedly low-tech, and it does not look like a lot of fun. Anyway, I enjoyed the film.