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  • October 13, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: PI Pictures

    by John Farr

    On the occasion of the broadcast of Reel 13 Classic The Thin Man, John Farr tips his fedora to three classic PI pictures.


    The Maltese Falcon (1941)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Humphrey Bogart is private detective Sam Spade, playing opposite Mary Astor as the shifty and cunning femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She needs help finding a jewel-encrusted statue of a bird that goes back centuries. A host of other nefarious types, including The Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), is after the same thing. Spade is locked in tight since the case has also resulted in his partner’s murder. The new three disc, special edition version includes a fresh digital transfer of this timeless classic, along with a new documentary on the making of the picture, and two prior filmings of Dashiell Hammett’s story.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    After years of playing villains for Warner Brothers, this picture demonstrated once and for all Bogart’s star quality. “The Maltese Falcon” is the definitive private eye film, where we see crooked human beings grabbing for their pot of gold in a bewildering urban jungle. An impressive debut feature for John Huston behind the camera, the film holds you in its grip throughout. Wait for that immortal ending! And-with Warner’s extra-filled re-issue, “Falcon” fanatics will have even more to sink their teeth into, including two earlier film adaptations that are fun in themselves but also point up what elevates the Bogie version. This new set is a must for any serious film fan.


    Murder, My Sweet (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Former crooner Dick Powell was first to assay the role of Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe Philip Marlowe in this screen adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely”. Here Marlowe is hired by hulking underworld figure Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend, Velma. Being versatile and money-hungry, at the same time Marlowe takes on another assignment to recover a stolen necklace. Could the two cases be linked? Marlowe endures a lot of pain finding out, but then, that’s what he’s paid for.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Edward Dmytryk’s trim, crackling detective tale has enough twists and turns to befuddle most any snoop, but that’s the whole fun of it. Powell’s gritty, bravura turn as the original Marlowe (Bogie would follow him two years later in “The Big Sleep”) opened up gritty new avenues for the actor, and the sultry Claire Trevor scorches the screen as femme fatale Helen Grayle. Packed with the patter of gunsels and molls in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms, noir doesn’t get much “noirer” than this. Hard-boiled mystery fans should pounce.


    Out of the Past (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (a young Kirk Douglas), to find the crook’s runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000. Tracking her South of the Border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie’s seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, heavy-lidded fatalist, while the white-hot Greer- radiant as Kathie-executes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. All conspire to make Tourneur’s “Past” damn close to perfect. Remade to lesser effect as “Against All Odds” (1984), with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward.


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

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  • October 7, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Masterful Joseph L. Mankiewicz

    by John Farr

    This Saturday, Reel 13 will air Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic, All About Eve, but before that,John Farr recommends you brush up on three of the master’s earlier works.


    A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    As three female friends (Linda Crain, Jeanne Darnell, and Ann Sothern) head off on a day-long boating excursion with a school group, each receives the same letter from town flirt Addie Ross claiming she has absconded with one of their husbands. Each woman then has the day to spend wondering if it’s her man who’s missing. Their individual musings take the form of revealing flashbacks into their interconnected lives.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    The legendary Joe Mankiewcz received direction and screenplay Oscars for this sharp little gem, too often eclipsed by his masterful follow-up, “All About Eve”. “Wives” uses a clever narrative device to explore the pettiness of small-town life, and the foibles and insecurities in three marriages, as the three women react to the mysterious note by taking stock of their lives, each knowing one of them is in for a big shock at day’s end. Intelligent, incisive, and adult romantic drama. Look for Kirk Douglas in an early role as one of the husbands.


    House of Strangers (1949)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Self-made immigrant banker Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) treats three of his four employee sons like dirt, reserving his favor only for Max (Richard Conte), a lawyer. When Gino’s old ways of doing business run afoul of banking regulations, only Max tries to help him, and ends up doing jail time, while the other brothers wrest control of the bank from their broken dad. Once Max is sprung, his first instinct is revenge, but time and the love of a woman (Linda Hayward) make him reconsider.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s scorching tale of a destructive family vendetta is a stylish, well-conceived outing. Though screenplay credit went to Philip Yordan, Mankiewicz’s inspired touch is evident in the film’s tight pacing and sharp, flavorful script. Robinson is masterful as an Italian-American patriarch, and the under-appreciated Conte is also aces as a slick operator who’s not quite as tough as he seems. For a gritty noir you won’t forget, enter this House of Strangers.


    No Way Out (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Wounded mobster Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is brought to a police hospital along with his brother George (Harry Bellaver), where they are treated by Dr. Luther Brooks (Sydney Poitier), a talented black M.D. whom Ray heckles with racist diatribe. When George dies, Ray blames Dr. Brooks, and begins a campaign of hate that boils over into the city’s black community.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    A tense, hard-hitting social drama that earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1950, Mankiewicz’s pioneering film looks squarely at the ramifications of racial hostility while keeping audiences on the edge of their seat. Poitier is magnificent in his debut role, the epitome of coolheadedness and quiet self-regard, while Widmark seethes in a typically explosive role. Mankiewicz builds suspense inside and outside the hospital, and the effect is riveting. Keep an eye out for actors/civil-rights activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, playing Luther’s brother and sister-in-law in a tandem debut. A potent powder keg of a film that hasn’t lost its bite–or its relevance.


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

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  • September 30, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Amazing Audrey

    by John Farr

    Audrey Hepburn led a legendary life and career. This week, Reel 13 will air her classic, “The Nun’s Story.” If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Audrey at her best, John Farr has three of her finest to recommend.


    Charade (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Parisian Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) knew she had marital problems, but when her errant husband gets mysteriously killed, she finds being a widow even more troublesome. It seems her husband was involved in hijacking some significant loot during the war, and now some of his past comrades- including Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leo (Ned Glass), want to know where the money went. H. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) is the government agent also interested in the case, and suave Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) the gallant older man who serves as Regina’s protector. But is Peter really on Regina’s side?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This Hitchcock homage provides a last glimpse of Cary as leading man. At sixty, the actor still brings off his trademark persona superbly. Hepburn is also in top form as the put-upon damsel in distress. Deftly combining mystery, romance, and humor, director Donen creates a chic, sophisticated mood via gorgeous Paris locations and a smooth Mancini score. The villains are mean enough to be taken seriously, but exhibit enough idiosyncrasies to seem human (Coburn has particular fun as Tex). As top-drawer entertainment, “Charade” is the real thing.


    Two for the Road (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    The ups and downs of matrimony are deftly explored via vacations past and present in the lives of affluent couple Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) and Mark Wallace (Albert Finney). We see the bloom of early passion recede as over time the couple adjusts to new life priorities and struggles to maintain their intimacy and affection.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This smart, knowing romance projects director Donen’s signature style, with Hepburn the essence of sixties chic, and Finney (in his prime) the epitome of a salty, rugged leading man. European locales and a memorable Henry Mancini score add the requisite zing to this mature, nuanced love story. William Daniels and Eleanor Bron are also memorable as another married couple who cause Joanna and Mark to examine the state of their own union.


    Wait Until Dark (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Blinded in an accident, Manhattan housewife Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) is terrorized by a gang of killers after a large quantity of heroin stashed in a doll her husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), unwittingly accepted from a woman on a plane trip. Led by Roat (Alan Arkin), the thugs will stop at nothing to recover the fortune, but Susy’s no pushover.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Audrey Hepburn ventures into edgy territory in Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark,” based on the stage play by Frederick Knott (writer of “Dial M for Murder”). The Oscar-nominated actress excels in the role of a sightless woman fighting for her life in a basement New York flat, and Richard Crenna is solid as her unlikely protector. Still, it’s Alan Arkin who really sets your teeth on edge playing one of the screen’s creepiest villains. This nifty suspenser starts slowly but builds to a terrifying climax. Just wait.


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

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  • September 16, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Darker Dassin

    by John Farr

    Once a successful Hollywood director, Connecticut-born Jules Dassin turned to Europe to revive his film career after being blacklisted in the years after WW2. Here are three of his darker films from his Hollywood noir days.


    Brute Force (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Tough, unsmiling inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) has spent much of his long prison term butting heads with sadistic, power-hungry Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Sentenced to a merciless work detail in the subterranean drain pipe after one of Munsey’s stool pigeons is killed in a machine-shop accident, Collins determines to hatch a breakout plan with his cellmates.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Made just prior to “Naked City,” Dassin’s gritty prison melodrama puts a twist on the archetypal bust-out scheme by revisiting, in flashback, the pre-penitentiary lives of Collins – ably played by an intense young Lancaster – and his crew, colorfully brought to life by character actors Whit Bissell, Howard Duff, and John Hoyt. In a fine performance, Charles Bickford appears as the prison’s gruff de facto leader and newspaper editor who throws in his lot with Collins. The other ace in Dassin’s deck is Cronyn, playing a corrupt, savage prison guard bent on bringing “discipline” to his inmates, while nursing a megalomaniacal ambition to replace the wimpy Warden. Aside from the ominous noir visuals, Dassin explores issues endemic to prison life and wraps them up in an ugly finale meant to evoke a Nazi bloodbath.


    The Naked City (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    When a high-class model is murdered in her bathtub on New York’s Upper West Side, veteran detective Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to solve the crime. Tediously reconstructing the previous 18 months of the young woman’s decadent social life, Muldoon, along with sidekick Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), pursues a seemingly endless string of weak leads and no-account witnesses in hopes of cracking the case.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Shot entirely on location in 1940s Manhattan, this semi-documentary police procedural offers a day-to-day look at the life of the Big Apple, its varied denizens, and the routine of two cops-old hand Fitzgerald (who quietly steals the film) and the dutiful but still green Taylor–out to catch to catch the killer of a young model. Soon the fast-talking Frank Niles, who knew the deceased and has no alibi, emerges as the prime suspect. Director Dassin handles all the action with a matter-of-fact directness, but the great achievement of “City” is its verisimilitude of character and place, along with a final chase scene on the Williamsburg Bridge that will steal your breath away. There might be “8 million stories in the naked city,” but this sinister crime drama was the first-and still the best. Trivia note: this film was said to have inspired “Dragnet”.


    Thieves’ Highway (1949)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Returning home from World War II, stout-hearted mechanic Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) is angered upon learning that devious trucking boss Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) is to blame for the accident that left his father legless. Vowing revenge, Nick colludes with fellow driver Ed (Millard Mitchell) to expose Figlia’s crooked racket, even if it means breaking the law.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Like Raoul Walsh’s 1940 film “They Drive by Night,” Dassin’s drama deals with the hard-line culture of rig drivers who transport goods and produce from state to state, often at great risk to their health and livelihood, and their connection to underworld crime. Cobb is terrific as the pitiless Figlia, and Conte is stalwart as the war vet whose quest for vengeance leads him down a dangerous path-away from alienated fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) and into the arms of prostitute Rica, played by the luscious Valentina Cortesa. Dassin’s second to last film before his blacklist-related exile in France, “Highway” is road noir at its redline best.


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

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  • September 6, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Superb Susan Sarandon

    by John Farr

    John Farr sends a salute to the star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, the superb Susan Sarandon.


    Atlantic City (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Lou Pasco (Burt Lancaster) is a remnant of the old Atlantic City, a fading numbers runner who takes care of Grace (Kate Reid), the lonely, elderly widow of a mob boss. His neighbor Sally Matthews (Sarandon) is a symbol of the city’s coming revitalization with legalized gambling – a young waitress and aspiring blackjack dealer who hopes one day to work in a Monte Carlo casino. Lou comes into unexpected money via a botched drug deal, and finally gets the chance to live the dream he’d almost given up on, one that includes a new wardrobe, a wad of cash, and Sally on his arm. But will Lou’s new reality last, and will Sally make her own dreams come true?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Hypnotic film by French director Louis Malle deals with themes of decay and regeneration in both character and setting. Lou represents the past, Sally the future, with Atlantic City itself the transitional present which makes it possible for this unlikely duo to connect. Sarandon is luminous, but Lancaster’s Lou forms the movie’s heart and soul. Top-notch script by John Guare completes this winning package.


    Bull Durham (1988)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Shelton’s winning romantic comedy is set in the special world of minor league baseball, exploring the dynamics (and rivalry) between two very different teammates – seasoned veteran Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), and rookie hot-shot Nuke La Loosh (Tim Robbins). Complicating matters further is the femme fatale that comes between them: a bewitching baseball “groupie” named Annie (Susan Sarandon). Which player will take home that prize?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This wry comedy delivers irresistible entertainment, evoking the more- shall we say, informal- atmosphere of life in the minors. Star Costner is appealingly mellow, and Sarandon skillfully plays her character as sexy, funny and wise, all at once. Still, Robbins steals the movie in showy role as the dim-bulb rookie. Director Shelton was Oscar-nominated for his salty, funny script- and no wonder. Play ball!


    Dead Man Walking (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    When Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist, receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Penn), soon to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, she resolves to pay him a visit. Though Matthew is far from sympathetic, Sister Helen agrees to be his spiritual advisor and advocate, and lobbies for a new hearing on Matthew’s sentence.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction book by actor/director Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” is an intense, harrowing account of one woman’s dogged attempt to assure spiritual (if not earthly) redemption for a condemned killer. Penn is ideally cast as the convict, but Susan Sarandon’s stripped-down performance as his spiritual guide is courageous, gut-wrenching work, fully meriting that year’s Oscar. Unavoidably depressing, “Dead Man Walking” is also very real, shedding light into spaces we could easily ignore, but shouldn’t.


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

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