REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • July 13, 2011

    Bette Davis’ Brilliance

    by John Farr

    This week’s Reel 13 Classic, All About Eve, marked the high point in the illustrious career of Bette Davis, but here John Farr reminds us of three other unforgettable films she made.


    The Petrified Forest (1936)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a penniless, drifting writer in despair over his lack of relevance, stops by a remote Arizona café run by the owner’s gorgeous daughter, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis). The two fall in love over some poetic verses, which only stimulate Gaby’s desperate desire to flee her dead-end existence. Then, all too suddenly, they and their motley group, including cynical Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin), and bone-headed gas attendant Boze (Dick Foran), find themselves held captive by escaped killer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Reprising his role from Robert E. Sherwood’s smash Broadway play for this sterling adaptation, Howard plays the anguished intellectual to the hilt, especially in his scenes with the menacing, monotone Bogart, who modeled his Duke Mantee after celebrity criminal John Dillinger (on the run and “most wanted” at the time of filming). Jack Warner had no interest in casting Bogie in the role that would propel him from supporting roles to high-wattage fame, but was convinced-or perhaps blackmailed–by Howard, who owned the rights to the story. Davis positively glows in an early role as the chipper, wide-eyed dreamer longing for escape. Their spirited performances make this “Forest,” a film about death-in-life, anything but wooden.


    Now, Voyager (1942)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Charlotte Vale, a young spinster (Bette Davis, never better), has one hope for happiness: to get loose from the psychological stranglehold imposed by her rigid, controlling mother (Gladys Cooper). Director Irving Rapper’s melodrama of transformation follows Charlotte’s struggle to break free, inspired by an unexpected on-board romance with the dashing Jerry Durrance (Henreid, of “Casablanca” fame).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Sentimental and sometimes gloriously soapy , this film still tugs mightily at your heartstrings all these years later. Given the full-blown Warner Brothers treatment– with Max Steiner score, and both Henreid and the predictably fabulous Rains supporting Bette– how can you lose? Also, Cooper’s icy turn as a mother from hell is one for the ages. Henreid’s cigarette-lighting routine also remains a classically seductive moment.


    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was a highly successful child performer in vaudeville, but sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) overtook her in adulthood, becoming a huge movie star before a freak accident ended her career. Now years later, Jane takes care of her wheelchair-bound sister, but as Jane’s sanity drifts away, her long-simmering jealousy erupts into truly unhinged, sadistic behavior.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Aldrich’s campy cult classic still chills, thanks to a deliciously creepy premise which borrows from “Sunset Boulevard” in exposing the mental disintegration of a one-time star. Still, this is a more ghoulish affair, with Jane finding a variety of sinister ways to torture poor Blanche. Leads Davis and Crawford had parallel Hollywood careers, and their rivalry was famous, yet they’d never worked together before this (nor would they again!). Davis in particular is fearless as demented harridan Jane, and corpulent Victor Buono adds a revolting touch as Jane’s smarmy accompanist.


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  • July 8, 2011

    How about Hackman?

    by John Farr

    John Farr indulges in three films from one of his favorite actors, Gene Hackman, star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Mississippi Burning.


    The Conversation (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Made before he began work on “The Godfather, Part II,” Francis Ford Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, played by Teri Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, mysterious, and ultimately, completely unnerving.


    Under Fire (1983)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    During an excursion to Chad, combat photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte) meets Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a dogged American radio journalist who’s on her way to war-torn Nicaragua, where Sandinista rebels are fighting to overthrow the corrupt, US-backed Somoza regime. Attracted to Claire, whose ambitious boyfriend Alex (Gene Hackman) is returning to the States and a possible TV-anchor job, Russell decides to tag along. Together, they enter the crossfire of a conflict that will change them both in unexpected ways.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    An engrossing, still timely drama about the role of the news media in covering violent political conflicts, “Fire” asks us to consider the ethics of objectivity, dramatizing the political transformation of a man who, in an act of journalistic deception, chooses to choose sides. Nolte is excellent as Price, the rugged veteran who experiences a change of heart behind rebel lines, while Cassidy, Hackman, and Ed Harris, playing a steely soldier-for-hire, add further fuel to this “Fire” with gutsy supporting roles. A tense object lesson in the dangers of eyewitness reporting.


    Get Shorty (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a gifted film producer trapped in the body of a loan shark. When he goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt from movie schlock-meister Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), he ends up pitching him a story instead. Soon he’s also wooing Harry’s frequent star, B-movie queen Karen (Rene Russo), who’s known as the best screamer in the business. Chili’s start in show business seems auspicious, but then gets slowed somewhat by the arrival of some shady figures from his day job. Still, for us viewers, this only makes his odyssey more colorful.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Barry Sonnenfeld gets the credit for helming the best screen adaptation of any Elmore Leonard work to-date. Scott Frank’s Golden Globe nominated script vividly brings to life the author’s hysterically low-life characters, while recreating the unique cadences of Leonard’s imcomparable dialogue. The result is a flashy, fast and funny outing which lampoons Detroit goombahs and La-La land fringe-dwellers with equal abandon. The players are all in top form: Hackman has never been funnier, and Dennis Farina almost steals the picture as a disgruntled mobster who has an axe to grind with Chili. Look fast for a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini as a hapless bodyguard.


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  • April 12, 2011

    Ernst Lubitsch Love Stories

    by John Farr

    Ernst Lubitsch, director of this week’s Reel 13 Classic Heaven Can Wait, previously helmed two other pictures that set the standard for romcom dialogue.


    Trouble in Paradise (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Parisian jewel thieves Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) fall in love over dinner-trying to pick each other’s pockets. With a wealthy widow, Mme. Colet (Kay Francis), as their latest mark, they craftily install themselves as her secretary and typist, respectively. But things get complicated when Gaston must pretend to fall for the beautiful heiress (or is he pretending?) and she returns the compliment. Careful, Gaston- you’re playing with fire!

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This sublime, soufflé-light farce ranks as one of the director’s finest outings. The film pokes sly fun at conventional mores, and cheerily touts the marvels of sex, riches, and the little games we play with both. All the signature ingredients you’d expect from the Master are here in abundance, including rarefied atmosphere, snappy dialogue, and witty ripostes. Marshall and Hopkins create a striking comic chemistry- he the epitome of English coolness, she wonderfully feisty, but no fool. And Ms. Francis makes a stunning complication! If you like your chuckles with a touch of class, here’s your movie.


    The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) uses her wily sales technique to impress Hugo (Frank Morgan), a Budapest gift-store owner, she is hired to work alongside clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), but the two don’t hit it off. No matter: Alfred is secretly hoping to meet a woman with whom he’s had a promising written correspondence via the personals. Klara, meanwhile, begins to fall for an anonymous man she’s been writing to as well. So it’s a big surprise-to them, not us-when they discover the true identities of their respective pen-pals.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    They don’t make romantic comedies like they used to, and no one made them quite like director Ernst Lubitsch, whose famed “touch” lights this wry, poignant, perennially charming film. Veteran players Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonelyhearts, conveying their characters’ vulnerabilities with a delicacy too often missing from the tepid Hanks-Ryan remake, “You’ve Got Mail”. Rich subplots involving the wonderful Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming, boastful employee, let Lubitsch impart further nuance to this modest but wholly pleasing tale. A delight from start to finish, this is one “Shop” you’ll want to dally in.


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  • April 5, 2011

    Early Olivier

    by John Farr

    Chances are you’re familiar with these two Laurence Olivier classics, but if you haven’t seen them, or just haven’t in a while, go back and revisit a pair of 1940 pictures that put Olivier (star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic The Entertainer) on the movie map.


    Rebecca (1940)

    Rebecca

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After meeting on the Riviera, a demure young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and returns to his sprawling English manor at Manderley. But Maxim’s battalion of servants instantly regard her with undisguised hostility, referring reverentially to the deceased Rebecca De Winter, whose death is veiled in secrecy. Bit by bit, she uncovers the truth about Rebecca’s demise…

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Produced by the great David O. Selznick, Hitchcock’s multiple Oscar-nominated domestic mystery, sort of a cross between Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier (who penned the novel it’s based on), was Hitch’s maiden outing in Hollywood. And he couldn’t have asked for a better cast: Fontaine is exquisite as the innocent new bride who narrates the film, and super thesp Olivier is masterful as ever playing the urbane tycoon with a secret. But Judith Anderson has the choicest turn as a sadistic housemaid, Mrs. Danvers, who has it in for the timid Fontaine. To top it all off, George Barnes’s expressive black-and-white camerawork marries beautifully with Hitchcock’s inimitable atmosphere of psychological menace.


    Pride and Prejudice (1940)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    IIn 1835 England, wealthy, class-conscious couple Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (Edmund Gwenn and Mary Boland) have five daughters who are of marriageable age, and they have decided to match them with appropriate suitors. Of all the eligible men in their social circle, the arrogant, dashing Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier)-despite his haughty airs–is the real catch, and independent-minded Elizabeth (Greer Garson) might be the only daughter worthy of his attention.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Penned by Aldous Huxley, this splendid adaptation of Jane Austen’s satirical novel seamlessly translates her barbed criticisms of upper-class mores to the big screen. Under MGM journeyman Leonard’s guiding hand, Olivier and Garson are a joy to watch as romantic interests whose strained rapport matures from mutual disdain to honest affection. Karl Freund’s magnificent cinematography captures all the period details-like a lawn-party archery lesson-beautifully, while Aldous Huxley’s witty dialogue preserves the spirited flavor of Austen’s text. And I do mean to “Prejudice” you: Avoid the botched 2005 version! .


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  • March 30, 2011

    Leaner David Lean

    by John Farr

    David Lean is known for his sprawling epics, like this week’s Reel 13 classic Doctor Zhivago, but here John Farr recommends a few of his earlier, tighter works.


    Brief Encounter (1945)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Based on a play by Noel Coward, this is the simple, wrenching tale of two people married, but not (maddeningly) to each other, who meet by chance in a train station and embark on a short, intense romance. We can tell Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is an honorable sort, and Laura Jesson seems settled and content in her married life, so their sudden, very powerful feelings for each other throw them both for a considerable loop. How they navigate these tumultuous emotions and regain their equilibrium forms the heart of the story.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This subtle, heartfelt British gem will still drench most anyone’s Kleenex nearly seven decades after its release. Performances by Howard and Johnson are impeccable; she was rightly Oscar-nominated for her restrained, all too believable performance as a loyal wife bewildered by emotions she thought long dead. Direction and script, both of which received Oscar nods as well, are suitably understated, and the use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto throughout the film further heightens the sentiment. Even with the British reserve much in evidence, the overall effect is intensely moving. Don’t miss this one.


    Great Expectations (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In British director Lean’s superb rendering of the Dickens classic, we follow the changing fortunes of Pip, an orphan who reaches young manhood (as John Mills), only to discover he has an anonymous benefactor intent on making him a real gentleman. With his new friend Herbert Pocket (Guinness), Pip sets out to make his mark in bustling, 19th-century London. But just who is Pip’s mysterious sponsor?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Perhaps the finest Dickens adaptation ever, this rich, fascinating film about chance encounters and changing fortunes begins with a nerve-rattling sequence in a graveyard that’s one of the finest moments in British film. Both Mills and Guinness are a trifle old for their roles, but their virtuosity fully compensates. Guinness, in his first significant screen appearance, is particularly striking as pocket, giving us a tantalizing taste of things to come. A bona-fide classic.


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  • February 2, 2011

    Stellar Peter Sellers

    by John Farr

    Peter Sellers was one of the 20th Century’s most gifted comedic actors. This week, he appears in the Reel 13 Classic, The Pink Panther. John Farr’s got three other stellar Sellers pictures you should check out for the first time or watch again.


    Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this satirical doomsday thriller, a U.S. bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) receives a signal to release its nuclear payload on Russia. When the unfortunate Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) seeks out Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to learn why he ordered the drop, and why he’s placed his Air Force base on lockdown, it’s quickly evident the general has lost his marbles. Meanwhile, President Muffley (Sellers again) meets with senior advisers, including a hawkish general (Scott) and the oddly sinister nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), to review their limited options to save the planet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever and one of the screen’s supreme black comedies, Kubrick’s 1964 “Strangelove” confronted jittery audiences in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not long after the advent of the H bomb. With Kubrick’s twisted genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and peerless performances by Peter Sellers (in three roles), Scott, and the unhinged Hayden, the film is unbearably funny and extremely disturbing all at once. The blackest of pitch black comedies, this “Dr.” really hasn’t aged one bit.


    The Party (1968)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A fat-cat Hollywood producer decides to throw a splashy dinner party (“Anyone who’s anyone will be there!”), and as bad luck would have it, Indian-born actor Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers) mistakenly makes it onto the guest list. Though Bakshi knows few of his fellow guests, they will certainly get to know him before the night is over.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sellers inhabits another accident-prone character in his continuing partnership with Blake Edwards. Bakshi is a gentle person, but his innocent curiosity about his surroundings (or is it bewilderment?) manages to wreak havoc most everywhere he goes. Though detractors claim the comic momentum flags by picture’s end, Sellers’s brilliant characterization and some sublime set-pieces make this worthy viewing. In particular, the dinner sequence is one of the funniest sequences on film. French actress Claudine Longet is adorable as the party’s prettiest guest, who befriends Bakshi. A sixties bash!


    Being There (1979)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sellers’s second-to-last film proved to himself and the world that when called upon, he could be a superb serious actor. Ingenious tale written by Jerzy Kozinski tells of Chance, a child-like gardener in Washington, D.C., whose only education has come through television. Through a twist of fate, after his old employer dies, Chance (re-dubbed Chauncey Gardner) ends up in the home of powerful wheeler-dealer Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his lonely younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Rand sees the stuff of genius in Chauncey’s simple pronouncements, and soon the humble gardener has the ear of some even more powerful people.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Top “70′s director Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kozinski’s original black comedy is a triumph, due to Sellers’s bravura lead performance and terrific turns from supporting players Douglas (who netted an Oscar), MacLaine, and the gravelly Jack Warden as the President. Smart, funny and thought-provoking, the film’s enduring poignancy comes from the fact that Sellers had only one year to live when he made the film. If you love Peter Sellers, you’ll love “Being There”.


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  • January 25, 2011

    Carole Lombard, Comedienne

    by John Farr

    The star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Carole Lombard, left us tragically, but she made her mark with comic genius.


    Twentieth Century (1934)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), then alienates her, causing a decline in his own fortunes. He happens upon Lily (now embarked on a Hollywood career and on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train) and while she is a captive audience, attempts to woo her back into the Jaffe fold.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the great early screwball comedies, and an opportunity to see Barrymore in his funniest performance as the desperate, histrionic Jaffe. As Lily, Lombard is leading lady gorgeous, but also possesses unmatched comic flair. The screenplay, by partners Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, moves as fast as that train. Get on-board.


    My Man Godfrey (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Through a contest only the idle rich could invent, a daffy family hires a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their zany household. Younger daughter Irene (Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. Godfrey (Powell), however, is not precisely who, or what, he seems.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Gregory La Cava’s sublime “Godfrey” blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term debonair was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably, and remained good friends). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé”, along with the rotund Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family’s frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.


    To Be or Not To Be (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Husband-and-wife thespians Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) are minor stage celebrities in their native Warsaw, where they’ve been rehearsing an anti-Nazi play in addition to nightly performances of “Hamlet.” Then Hitler invades, and the house lights go dark. But when an ardent fan of Maria’s, Polish fighter pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), secretly returns from the Allied side in England, he sets in motion some juicy off-stage intrigue, whereby the Turas and their troupe must outwit a Gestapo spy with plans to crush the Resistance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Criticized for satirizing the raging war in Europe on its release in 1942, Lubitsch’s clever, spirited, often side-splitting farce doubled as a tribute both to the Polish resistance and, quite ingeniously, to the mighty art of play-acting. Benny, in his best-remembered film role, is terrifically funny as “that great, great actor” Joseph Tura, especially playing opposite Sig Rumann (as a Nazi colonel), and a young Robert Stack, the love-struck lieutenant whose cue to tryst with Maria is the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Tragically, this marked Carole Lombard’s final screen appearance (she was killed in a plane crash flying home from selling war bonds later that same year). This gifted comedienne gives a grand farewell performance under Lubitsch’s inspired direction.


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  • January 18, 2011

    Winning Walter Huston

    by John Farr

    Walter Huston made so many films, it’s hard to pick favorites. But John Farr does it.


    Dodsworth (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam’s financial success has only increased Fran’s latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife’s weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.


    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fred Dobbs, Bob Curtin and Howard, three motley down-and-outers in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, respectively), pool their meager resources and set off to search for gold. When they find some, they must decide how best to protect it and thus the seeds of distrust are sown.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This potent film delivers savage human drama wrapped up in an adventure film. Containing humor, suspense and action, ultimately “Treasure” is a striking meditation on the nature of greed. This masterpiece marked the first time a father and son took home Oscars the same night: John for his peerless direction and his father Walter for his indelible performance as the crusty old prospector. “Treasure” is just that- cinematic gold.


    The Furies (1950)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Blustery ranch owner T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) intimidates everyone around him, except his fiercely independent daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he has an intensely close (and stormy) relationship. Her father’s engagement to gold-digging socialite Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) grates on Vance, and when T.C. moves to undercut her romance with noncommittal gambler Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), she finally explodes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Dealing with revenge, obsession, racism, and hints of incestuous jealousy, Mann’s dark, psychological Western was a fine showcase for Stanwyck, here a mix of fiery passion and resolute determination, and the towering, formidable Walter Huston in his final film appearance. “The Furies” is Shakespearean in its depiction of a father-daughter conflict that curdles into hatred, but adds a taste of the grotesque, too, namely in a scene involving a well-flung pair of scissors. In the hands of Mann and his volatile leading players, 1870s New Mexico was never quite the same.


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  • January 10, 2011

    Serious Stanley Kramer

    by John Farr

    As Reel 13 prepares to air the Stanley Kramer Classic, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, John Farr selects three of the late director’s most intense works.


    The Defiant Ones (1958)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When convicts John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape a chain gang manacled together, they must put aside their mutual antipathy. Jackson’s an uneducated Southern bigot who doesn’t hide his contempt for Cullen, while Cullen exhibits his own well-earned hatred of “crackers”. Still, given the circumstances, they must rely on their combined resources to survive.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Another of maverick producer/director Kramer’s consciousness-raising social films, this tale proved a potent metaphor for race relations in 1958. Virtually simultaneous with the rise of the civil-rights movement, this progressive adventure eloquently presented the case for racial harmony in the story of a gutsy prison-break film. Poitier-who at age 30 was set to go where no black actor had gone before–more than holds his own with Curtis, then a big star, who plays the despicable “Joker” to perfection.


    On the Beach (1959)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After learning that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity, U.S.S. Sawfish sub commander Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) finds a group of survivors near Melbourne, including lovely Moira (Ava Gardner), guilt-ridden scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), and newlyweds Peter (Anthony Perkins) and Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson). Knowing that slowly creeping radiation from the northern hemisphere will eventually kill them all, each deals with the impending doom in their own way.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A stark wake-up call in its time, Kramer’s blunt, unswervingly bleak doomsday classic was based on a popular novel by Nevil Shute and premiered in major cities around the world on the same day in 1959. Though hardly subtle, “Beach” does boast fine performances by Peck, Gardner, a young Perkins, and Astaire in his first purely dramatic role, playing wildly (and confidently) against type as an intellectual with a heavy conscience.


    Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This dramatization of the famous Nuremberg trials centers on Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who’s sent to Germany as chief Allied judge (Haywood’s character was based on real-life jurist Robert Jackson). Prosecutor Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) tries a group of top-level Nazis for complying with Hitler’s inhumane edicts, facing off against defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Max Schell). As Haywood presides over the historic trial, he ponders where the great nation went wrong, and how to apportion the blame.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Long but brilliant, “Judgment” was a box-office sensation, due to director Kramer’s sensitive, socially conscious approach, which examines the degree to which people should be held responsible for following orders. The movie includes a host of sterling performances: Schell stands out as the impassioned defense attorney (the part netted him an Oscar), as do Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, whose tragic characters poignantly mirror the consuming sadness in their real lives. “Judgment” is an absorbing, true-to-life reckoning with the infamous Nazi legacy and the nature of modern justice.


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  • January 4, 2011

    Early Billy Wilder

    by John Farr

    Billy Wilder’s early films, like this week’s Classsic, One, Two, Three, launched a brilliant career. Here are three other gems.


    The Major and the Minor (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unable to pay for a train ticket back home to Iowa, big-city office worker Sue Applegate (Rogers) decides to pose as a 12- year-old girl for a reduced fare. On the train, kind Major Kirby (Ray Milland) takes “Sue-Sue” under his wing, but her scheme is danger of exposure once Kirby’s fiancee (Rita Johnson) and her in- the-know 12-year-old sister (Diana Lynn) enter the picture. Also, little Sue’s developing a not-so-little crush on the Major .

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leave it to legendary director Billy Wilder to turn what could have been a dunderheaded studio comedy into a first-rate howler with satirical overtones. With puckish irreverence, Wilder –in his directorial debut-shouldered a potentially dicey subject (a blossoming romance between a soldier and a minor) and lathered it with just enough intelligence, wit and compassion to please Hollywood audiences! Rogers and Milland play their roles with an insouciant innocence, too, under his peerless direction. You’ll love “The Major and the Minor,” a madcap Lolita story like no other!


    The Lost Weekend (1945)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Struggling writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) has a nasty drinking problem that worries his brother, Nick (Phillip Terry), who’s reluctant to leave his sibling alone. Don convinces Nick and his own girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take in a concert without him, promising to do some serious work on a novel. Instead, Don hunts for a hidden stash of booze, finds money, and goes on a hellish, two-day alcoholic binge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Billy Wilder’s searing look at the “problem” of alcoholism was harsh, unpleasant stuff for audiences to swallow in the ’40s, but Paramount execs-who nearly shelved “Weekend” over pressure from temperance and liquor lobbyists-were thrilled when it became a huge hit. That’s due entirely to Milland’s riveting, Oscar-winning portrayal of Don, a man so hysterically self-destructive that he sacrifices his dignity and others’ goodwill to keep himself in a state of perpetual stupor. Cheery it’s not, but “Lost Weekend” is a landmark work, showcasing Wilder at his gut-wrenching best. Wyman also excels in an early role as the concerned Helen.


    Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ducking into the garage of a decayed Hollywood mansion to evade his creditors, heavily indebted screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) encounters Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging star of the silent screen who recruits Gillis to work on her hopeless comeback script. Penniless and cynical, Gillis agrees to help the wealthy, barely remembered star, and eventually becomes Norma’s kept man.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Recently remastered by Paramount, “Sunset Boulevard” is finally getting its due. One of the all-time great Tinseltown satires, this noirish tale of an opportunistic, down-and-out young writer and the nostalgic, delusional film luminary who ensnares him takes a harsh look at an industry that eats its own. Holden, whose character narrates from beyond the grave, is impeccable as the sardonic Gillis, but the show belongs to real-life silent star Swanson, an ideal choice to play the creepy, twisted Norma. Great support form Nancy Olson (as Joe’s appalled girlfriend) and Erich Von Stroheim (as Norma’s protective chauffeur) round out this shocking, sordid gem. Are you ready for your close-up?


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  • December 28, 2010

    Classic Costner Characters

    by John Farr

    As Reel 13 airs what may be Kevin Costner’s most celebrated role, John Farr takes a look back at three more memorable Costner performances.


    Silverado (1985)

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    Click to purchase

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The plot of this Western charmer is strictly boilerplate, but it hardly matters. Four unlikely heroes (Kevin Kline and Danny Glover, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner) are thrown together to save the town of Silverado from corrupt Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), and some other unscrupulous types, including McKendrick (Ray Baker), the man who’s pulling all the strings in these here parts.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Charismatic performances and swift pacing combine to make this a rousing piece of entertainment in the grand Western tradition. John Bailey’s stunning cinematography and Bruce Broughton’s majestic, Oscar-nominated score certainly help, but in the end, it’s the cast that hooks you- they seem to be having so much fun the audience just has to get in on it. Linda Hunt registers in particular as a sympathetic saloon operator, but a young Costner steals the picture as the boyishly exuberant Jake. This was the role that made him a star.


    The Untouchables (1987)

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    Click to purchase

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    During the Prohibition era, government agent Eliot Ness is sent to Chicago to foil megalomaniacal gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who’s making a killing selling illegal hooch in collusion with corrupt local cops and politicos. Dismayed at first by Capone’s steely grip on the city, Ness eventually befriends older Irish patrolman Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), seemingly the city’s only honest lawman, who helps squeaky-clean Ness put the screws to Scarface Al.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Inspired by the 1950s TV series and scripted by David Mamet, this absorbing, operatic gangster flick-a box-office hit in 1987-explores the moral ambiguities of justice, and represents perhaps De Palma’s finest moment in the director’s chair. In a star-making turn, Costner excels as idealistic G-man Ness, schooled in the ways of the street by Connery, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for his superb portrayal of acerbic veteran cop Malone. With a teeth-clenching, tour de force shoot-out in a train station capping the action, “The Untouchables” is a nimbly directed, top-shelf period thriller.


    Field of Dreams (1989)

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    Click to purchase

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Iowa Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) obeys inner voice telling him to turn part of his land into a baseball field. “If you build it, he will come,” says the voice. And in this mystical parable of faith and hope, come he does, in the form of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s ghost (Ray Liotta), and some other spectral teammates from the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team. But Ray has some traveling to do himself to get to the bottom of what is actually happening on his field – and why.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted by the director from W.R. Kinsella’s book, this beautifully realized, old-fashioned fantasy movie that raises the spirit and touches the heart. Costner is perfect in a role originally delivered to Tom Hanks, while James Earl Jones provides magnificent support as a reclusive writer who joins Kinsella on his crusade. Ray Liotta also scores in a pre-“Goodfellas” outing playing the legendary “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. This quintessentially American classic goes down just as well on repeat viewings.


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  • November 16, 2010

    Laudable Tommy Lee

    by John Farr

    This week, one of John Farr’s favorite working actors makes an appearance on Reel 13. Here’s John’s selection of can’t-miss Tommy Lee Jones performances.


    Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Based on the life of country-music star Loretta Lynn, this affecting film traces Lynn’s rise from humble beginnings in the coal-mining hills of Kentucky to star of the Grand Old Opry. Her husband Mooney (Tommy Lee Jones) serves as muse and manager, but finds his role minimized once she hits it big. As for Loretta, the touring life is anything but glamorous. Yet through a range of conflicts which could easily demolish other unions, Mooney and Loretta’s love endures.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Apted’s affecting, flavorful biopic is the tale of a young woman intent on using her musical gift to escape an impoverished mountain life, and also the unvarnished story of a real marriage, filled with bruises and bumps, that still manages to last. Spacek won the Oscar that year for her note-perfect performance as Loretta (which included singing her own parts), but Jones is every bit as good as Mooney. Also look for an impressive take by Beverly D’Angelo on the legendary Patsy Cline.


    The Fugitive (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60′s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.


    No Country for Old Men (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Deep in the desert of West Texas, lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a $2 million cache in the aftermath of a professional drug deal gone very bad. When he returns to retrieve the money, he sets in motion a long, violent chain of events. Though he doesn’t realize it yet, an unfathomably evil killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is methodically tailing him, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Meanwhile local sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), wearied and disillusioned by his job, maintains a slow-motion pursuit.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coen brothers’ multiple Oscar winner is their darkest movie yet, featuring an outstanding performance by Bardem as an enigmatic madman whose weapon of choice is a cattle-bolt stun gun. Brolin and Jones turn in solid work, too, as men whose personal experience with violence colors their decision-making in markedly different ways. Tense and gripping, “No Country” taps into our anxieties about a world that seems to have lost its sense of moral order.


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