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  • August 18, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Magisterial Lee Marvin

    by John Farr

    John Farr digs into three films featuring one of his true cinematic heroes, Lee Marvin, star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, The Dirty Dozen.


    The Professionals (1966)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    When a lawless Mexican revolutionary named Raza (Jack Palance) abducts the gorgeous Maria (Claudia Cardinale) for ransom, wealthy Texas rancher Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires the only men he knows have a chance of rescuing his wife: horse trainer Hans (Robert Ryan), tracker and longbow expert Jake (Woody Strode), and stoic leader Fardan (Lee Marvin), who posts bail to recruit his womanizing best pal, explosives pro Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), for this tricky job. The trek is dangerous, with bandidos in the canyons and Raza’s trigger-happy watchmen on patrol, but with $10,000 each on the barrelhead if they bring Maria back, the men are highly determined.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Richard Brooks’s self-penned, high-energy Western, set in the waning years of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, is a tense, gritty and exciting horse drama. The teaming of Marvin and Lancaster, playing Raza’s disenchanted ex-amigos, works brilliantly, while Strode and Ryan offer fine support as talented sidekicks. Italian bombshell Cardinale, in her first English-speaking role, provides plenty of fiery va-va voom, too, especially in league with Palance’s rough-riding Raza, who proves to be quite a romantic himself. Filmed on location in Nevada, “The Professionals” is a rousing, thoughtful action movie that deals with questions of money versus morality, and the last gasp of noble frontier idealism.


    Point Blank (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    It’s not a good idea to double-cross Walker (Lee Marvin), but the Organization, a far-reaching crime syndicate, actually thought they could get away with it. Leaving him mortally wounded (they thought) and without his cut of a lucrative heist, they become understandably rattled when Walker is suddenly back in their midst, wanting his money and not taking “no” for an answer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Director John Boorman’s peerless crime drama endures as one of the signature films of the 1960′s. Marvin is a walking, talking time bomb as the obsessed Walker and Lloyd Bochner looks and acts the part of slimy chief betrayer Frederick Carter, a man we dearly want to see get what’s coming to him. Angie Dickinson is her sexiest as wily femme fatale Chris, who hops between men (and beds) with ease. And just wait for a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O’Connor in a pivotal role as Brewster, the big syndicate boss. One of my personal favorites, and endowed with a swingin’ sixties look and feel, this one really hits the bull’s eye. Pounce, action fans.


    The Iceman Cometh (1973)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    At a grungy New York ale house in 1912, a group of down-and-out alcoholics gather to celebrate the birthday of bar owner Harry Hope (Fredric March), including Larry Slade (Robert Ryan) and Hickey (Lee Marvin), a perennial loser who believes he has alighted on the proper attitude toward a wasted life. As Hickey berates the assembled for clinging dearly to their never-to-be-realized pipe dreams, his orations unleash a torrent of ill feeling and heart-rending catharsis.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Star Lee Marvin delivers the goods in the demanding central role of Hickey, the loutish sermonizer who attempts to convince his fellow losers that admitting to being a failure is the only possible redemption. In the last role of a long and distinguished screen career, March also shines as the aptly named Harry Hope, a widower who numbs his grief with work. Still it’s tough guy Ryan who gives the film’s most towering performance as the dying, laconic intellectual Slade (Ryan was also terminally ill when the film was shot). Frankenheimer, normally a director of high-wire political thrillers, directs Eugene O’Neill’s raw, devastating play with confidence and sympathy for the plight of his characters. Look for a very young Jeff Bridges as Parritt, Slade’s tragic young friend.


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

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  • July 26, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Masterful Muni

    by John Farr

    This week’s Reel 13 Classic, Angel on My Shoulder, stars the inimitable Paul Muni, an actor whose brilliant chops shone particularly bright in the three films John Farr highlights here.


    Scarface (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    In Prohibition-era Chicago, a power struggle is underway: mobster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is charged with killing the reigning mob boss, but manages to beat the rap. Tony is nothing if not ambitious: soon enough he’s seized control of the whole bootlegging racket, through sheer cunning and good ol’ fashioned homicide.Though his rise is meteoric, we sense Tony’s fall may be just as dramatic.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Hawks’s film was the most violent America had ever seen (with 30+ on-screen deaths), but the visual energy he brought to the production proved intoxicating, making a big star of Muni, one the meanest criminal maniacs in screen history. Hawks upped the ante in other ways, too, like giving Ann Dvorak a central role as the slinky sis Camonte is perversely jealous of, despite having the sexy Karen Morley on his arm. And George Raft earned himself a studio contract playing Muni’s loyal, kill-happy sidekick, Guino. De Palma’s tongue-in-cheek remake has its own dirty charms, but Hawks’s vicious gangland biopic will never be topped for sheer bravado. Bonus: Boris Karloff as a North Side boss. Don’t miss this one!


    I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang(1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Sentenced to ten years on a chain gang for a restaurant holdup he was forced to participate in, hard-luck WWI vet James Allen (Paul Muni) sees his dreams of becoming an architect vanish. Unable to take the vicious, dehumanizing prison routine hes been condemned to, Allen escapes, holes up in Chicago, and begins a new life. But his past will not desert him so easily.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Anchored by Paul Muni’s gut-wrenching performance, Mervyn LeRoy’s socially outraged “Gang” is based on real-life escapee Robert Elliott Burns’s Depression-era memoirs. In fact, LeRoy’s gritty, unflinching depiction of the sadistic brutality of chain gangs proved so unpopular in Georgia, where the practice was perfected, that the state’s governor banned the film! Burns himself helped out with the script, and was eventually pardoned after the film’s release. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1933, “Chain Gang” set the bar high for future prison movies, and its influence, which extends down to “Cool Hand Luke,” can’t be overstated.


    The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Living in Paris with his impoverished painter friend Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), budding novelist Emile Zola (Paul Muni) encounters one frustration after another when his writings are repeatedly stymied by government censors unhappy with his penchant for depicting prostitutes and other persons of low character. Zola eventually makes a breakthrough, but faces his biggest challenge defending Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), whose trial for treason became one of the most controversial news events of the late 19th century.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Part film biography of France’s great writer, part riveting real-life story of justice, Dieterle’s well-mounted production is a triumph all around, especially for Muni and Schildkraut, who won an Oscar playing Dreyfus, for whom an aging Zola penned his now legendary tract “J’accuse.” Harry Davenport is also a compelling presence as the leader of the anti-Semitic officers presiding over Dreyfus’s fate. Winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1937, “Life” is a splendidly acted, rousing historical film.


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

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  • July 20, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Power & Tierney

    by John Farr

    This week’s Reel 13 Classic, The Razor’s Edge, features a pair of stars in Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney destined to share the screen, but don’t stop there. John Farr has three other films for fans of Power and Tierney.


    The Mark of Zorro (1940)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Disillusioned by his experiences as a WWI pilot, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) returns to Chicago skeptical of American values and fixated on discovering the true meaning of life. This doesnt play well with his fiancee, Isabel (Gene Tierney), a society doyenne, whod like Larry to be more practical and stay put. So Darrell must embark alone on a spiritual quest that takes him first to Paris, then Nepal. Years later, the former lovers meet again

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    You can’t be faulted for balking at the misbegotten 1984 adaptation of this Somerset Maugham novel starring Bill Murray, but don’t pass on Goulding’s original-it’s a gem. Shepherded to the big screen by Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, “Edge” is the story of a personal odyssey that catches up to its cast of characters ten years on, finding them much changed. Apart from Power’s unusually affecting performance as a war vet who finds solace with a Hindu mystic, the film’s cast includes Clifton Webb and Oscar winner Anne Baxter in a blowout performance as Darrell’s blowzy, alcoholic wife. “Edge” is a poignant, finely wrought exercise in soul-searching.


    Nightmare Alley (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Stanton Carlisle is a carnival employee who over-reaches in his quest for fame and fortune. He picks up a mind-reading technique (which boils down to a bunch of sophisticated code) from trusting colleague Zeena (Joan Blondell), then discards her for a younger woman and appropriates the code for himself. Now hitting the big-time in night-clubs, Stanton feels he can’t lose, but the higher he gets, the farther he’s bound to fall.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Edmund Goulding creates one of the screen’s most indelible noirs, with the seamy carnival world providing an ideal setting. Power excels against type as the sleazy Stanton (a role he loved playing), and Blondell brings the perfect cheap, faded quality to small-timer Zeena. Jules Furthman’s hard-boiled script keeps us guessing just how Stanton will eventually tumble. Dripping with a deliciously dark mood and atmosphere, mystery fans will find “Nightmare” right up their alleys.


    Night and the City (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    In post-war London, small-time hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) ekes out an existence steering customers to the Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub owned by the oily, obese Phil Nosseross ( Francis L. Sullivan). Wily and manipulative in his unquenchable drive to advance his fortunes via various shady schemes , Harry even stoops to stealing from his devoted singer-girlfriend, Mary (Gene Tierney). He finally gets his chance at the big time when he cons retired Greco- Roman wrestling star Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbysko) into a new promotional scheme, only to face the wrath of Gregorius’s well-connected and dangerous son, Kristo (a young Herbert Lom, later Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the “Pink Panther” series).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    The noirish name of Jules Dassin’s classic thriller says it all: Widmark, here in the role of penny-ante loser more than hardened criminal, manages to be at once hateful and pathetic as conniver Fabian, running through dark, dank back alleys to flee those he’s fleeced. Lom and Sullivan are also stellar as the underworld kingpins he inevitably stings-and who mete out punishment accordingly. Vivid camerawork, frenetic pacing, and a palpable sense of anxiety drive Dassin’s final, pre-blacklist Hollywood picture to a heart-pounding finish.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 13, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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