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  • December 15, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Darker Jimmy Stewart

    by John Farr

    Following World War II, James Stewart decided he needed to pursue roles that reflected the darker atmosphere of the Atomic Age. He found them in westerns.


    Winchester ’73 (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Lin McAdam (James Stewart) is roaming the prairies, looking to settle an old score with one Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Unfortunately, when the two meet up, they’re in Marshal Wyatt Earp’s jurisdiction and must surrender their weapons. The two do compete in a shooting contest for a brand-new Winchester ’73 rifle, the finest firearm made. McAdam wins, but through an act of treachery, loses the rifle. McAdam goes after Dutch Henry again, only this time, he wants his rifle back too.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    James Stewart wanted a change from his folksy, everyman roles, and in a risky move, chose a western to give his image a harder edge. Director Anthony Mann and he would collaborate on four more oaters after this outing, which proved a huge success. “Winchester” brought a new complexity of character to the Western form, literally resuscitating a fading genre. This role also revived Stewart’s career by displaying the actor’s impressive range: Stewart’s McAdam is a dark, conflicted, angry fellow, far removed from the Mr. Smiths and Elwood P. Dowds of the world. Film also features sterling support from Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, and a comely Shelley Winters as a sweet-natured showgirl. Also look fast for Rock Hudson playing an Indian brave.


    The Naked Spur (1953)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Kansas rancher-turned bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) faces a stubborn obstacle in his effort to return fugitive killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for a $5,000 reward: old timer Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) turn up at an opportune moment to help Kemp corner Ben and his feisty gal, Lina (Janet Leigh), and now they want a share of the money. But it’s a long way from the Indian-inhabited Colorado mountains to Kansas, and everyone, it seems, is watching out for number one.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Filmed in Technicolor in the gorgeously rugged Rocky Mountains, Mann’s gritty, thrilling Western hinges on the hidden motives of its five protagonists, each of whom is running from a sordid past. In a none-too-wholesome role, Stewart is brilliant as a bitter war veteran whose fiancee abandoned him while he was away at the front-and made off with the title to his ranch. Mitchell’s no-luck miner and Meeker’s unsavory, no-account soldier vie with Kemp as Ryan, cackling like a jackal, sets all parties against each other while plotting his escape. The radiant Leigh rounds out the cast playing Lina, a misguided gal longing for a new life in California who falls for Stewart. “Spur” is a tough, bristling horse drama by noir director Anthony Mann.


    The Man from Laramie (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Laramie native Will Lockhart (James Stewart) rolls into Coronado, N.M., with a wagon train of goods he aims to deliver, but his real motive is to find the person responsible for selling rifles to the Apaches who killed his brother. Lockhart soon learns the town is part of a vast empire owned by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), an aging patriarch trying to decide whether to leave his vast holdings to Vic (Arthur Kennedy), his right-hand man, or his only son Dave (Alex Nicol), a dangerously unhinged cretin. Lockhart’s dust-up with Dave soon puts him into conflict with the Waggomans and town authorities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Anthony Mann’s first picture in CinemaScope was also his last with frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart, terrifically gritty here playing a former Army captain with a chip on his shoulder who becomes embroiled in a family’s Shakespearean conflict. Shot on location in New Mexico desert, “Laramie” has a stark visual flair to match its tough cattlemen (Kennedy is great as Waggoman’s cunning second in charge) and dark psychological themes of vengeance and greed. Saddle up!


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more reviews of the best movies.

  • November 21, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Berlin + Astaire

    by John Farr

    The music of Irving Berlin and the fancy footwork of Fred Astaire combined for some of the finest musical cinema of the century. John Farr selects his favorite three.


    Top Hat (1935)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    It’s love at first dance for performer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) and the stunning Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) , until, for reasons I won’t disclose, Dale gets the wrong idea that Jerry is already married. This case of mistaken identity leads to a series of comic shenanigans, punctuated by Irving Berlin songs and stunningly choreographed dance numbers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Finally, the long-awaited Astaire-Rogers classics are being released on DVD, and “Top Hat” (arguably the best of the series, along with “Swing Time”) has never looked or sounded better. The plot is soufflé-light, but runs on the divine hilarity of its ensemble players, in particular Eric Blore as persnickety butler Bates, and Erik Rhodes as Beddini, rival to Dale’s affections. Beyond that ineffable Astaire-Rogers chemistry, the real stars are the buttery Berlin score (highlight: “Cheek to Cheek”) and dancing sequences that define beauty and grace in motion. Heaven-I’m in heaven!


    Holiday Inn (1942)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    After a painful bust-up with his girlfriend, song-and-dance man Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) decides he’s had it with the big city and retires to a farm in New England, which he converts into an inn, complete with floor shows, but open only on public holidays. Friend and co-headliner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) wants to make a film about the inn, but things get complicated when he tangles with Hardy over lovely leading lady Linda Mason (Debbie Reynolds).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Conceived from an idea by composer Irving Berlin, Mark Sandrich’s “Holiday Inn” is a humorous, festive Crosby/Astaire musical that finds both performers in tip-top crooning and toe-tapping form. Famous for introducing “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time and an instant favorite with troops overseas, “Inn” is consistently tuneful and entertaining, with a sublime Irving Berlin score that covers not just Christmas, but all major holidays. Watch for the July 4th rave-up “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” one of many musical highlights.


    Easter Parade (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Dumped on Easter by longstanding dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) rashly wagers he can still draw crowds even teamed with the greenest of chorus girls. Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) is his pick, and Don begins grooming her for stardom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    In this joyous musical romp, MGM producer Arthur Freed paired Garland with the recently “retired” Astaire after original lead Gene Kelly injured his ankle. Combining Astaire’s moves and Garland’s pipes with a phenomenal Irving Berlin score adapted by Johnny Green and Roger Edens, highlights include the vaudevillian duet “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Astaire’s excellent solo to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”. The movie was a big success in 1948, and no wonder! By all means, step out with this title.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more reviews of the best movies.

  • November 11, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Serious Slasher Cinema

    by John Farr

    Follow-up this week’s suspenseful Reel 13 Classic, Dressed to Kill, with three of the greatest slasher films ever made.


    Psycho (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) wants to make a new life for herself, and flees hometown Phoenix with a stolen bag of cash from her employer. She then makes a fateful stop at the Bates Motel, run by one Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nervous, awkward but seemingly innocuous man. Marion learns too late he is anything but, and soon her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Marion’s lover Sam Loomis (Gavin) have teamed up to discover what happened to her.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Made at the peak of his career in 1960, “Psycho” was suspense master Hitchcock’s last and most famous black-and-white picture-and a film that inaugurated the sub-genre of slasher movie. By the standards of today’s gore-fests, it’s a fairly restrained murder mystery, but disturbing nonetheless, achieving its chills more by what is withheld than shown. Hitchcock knows just how to heighten our dread of who or what might be at the top of the stairs, or beyond that shower curtain. The terrifying “Psycho” stands above most any psychological thriller made since.


    Black Christmas (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    As their Pi Kappa Sigma peers begin to leave for the Christmas break, sorority sisters Jessica (Olivia Hussey) and bawdy Barbie (Margot Kidder) stay behind for a Yuletide party. The cheerful mood is marred, however, by a series of frighteningly obscene phone calls. The girls get nervous enough when their friend Clare (Lynne Griffin) fails to meet her dad for the ride home, and then a teenage girl is found murdered in a local park, prompting a concerned visit by police lieutenant Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon). Is a psychopath loose, or could this be more personal?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Three years before the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” brought the term “slasher film” into our movie lexicon, Bob Clark (the director of “Porky’s”!) helmed this Canadian-made psycho thriller starring Hussey, Kidder, and ubiquitous ’70s character actor John Saxon, playing a detective who suspects Jessica’s jilted boyfriend (Dullea) is a killer. With its menacing atmosphere and see-less-scare-more dictum, “Christmas” avoids all the clichés that were to follow in gorier films to come. When the shrill ring of a telephone makes your nerves jump, you know Clark’s dread-and-distress horror film has gotten under your skin.


    Halloween (1978)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Michael Myers, who butchered his sister when he was six, has escaped from an asylum and returned to his small Illinois hometown just in time to wreak more carnage and mayhem on Halloween. Baby-sitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is unlucky enough to fall in Michael’s path, which interferes with her trick-or-treating. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s psychiatrist, is frantically tracking his patient, but how much blood will get spilled before he finds him?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    John Carpenter’s first and best entry in a long series, this movie gives the slasher pic a good name (that is, until you sit through all those pale re-treads). This lean feature works because it’s both original and daringly basic: Laurie is a young teenage girl up against a monster, with only her wits and her two feet to protect her from the wrong end of a large butcher knife. Will Laurie and her young charges make it to Thanksgiving? You’ll remain on the edge of your seat finding out.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more reviews of the best movies.

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