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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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  • July 8, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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