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  • July 20, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Not-to-Miss Noir

    by John Farr

    John Farr ventures into darkness with three gritty noirs you may have overlooked.


    Raw Deal (1948)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Framed for a crime he didn’t commit by mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), tough-talking gangster Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) breaks out of prison with the help of his gutsy gal, Pat (Claire Trevor). Needing a hostage in case the cops manage to track him down, Joe kidnaps his kindly social worker, Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), and sets off to seek revenge on Coyle and his men.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This hard-as-nails potboiler was made for pennies at a Poverty Row studio by Mann and his legendary cinematographer, John Alton. Like the very best films in this genre, there’s plenty of raw dialogue, heart-fluttering suspense, and a square-jawed tough guy who isn’t afraid to blast away at his nemeses. But the sizzling love triangle that develops between Joe, Pat, and Ann is a perversely clever plot twist that contributes much to the fatalistic tone, with Trevor’s cold-hearted voiceover to top it all off. Burr’s turn as the brutal Coyle (watch out for that fruit flambeé!) is especially nasty. If you’re in the market for a visceral thriller, put your money on “Raw Deal.”


    The Narrow Margin (1952)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Tough-talking LA detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) arrives in Chicago to escort a cynical mobster’s wife (Marie Windsor) to a California grand jury, where she plans to testify against her estranged husband. The mafia has other plans for Mrs. Neall-namely, to rub her out. After his partner is gunned down leaving Neall’s apartment, Brown is on high alert, and must outwit a team of gangsters who follow them onto a sleeper train but seem to have no idea what their female target looks like.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller set almost entirely on a West Coast-bound train, “Margin” captivates thanks to its many sudden plot twists and ingenious central tension: Brown doesn’t know which of the men on-board is a gangster, and the hit men don’t know which of the female passengers to bump off. McGraw’s gritty, hardboiled cop and Windsor’s catty moll play off each other extremely well, and portly actor Paul Maxey adds a bit of mystique as an irritating, perhaps devious passenger. Snappy dialogue, crisp pacing, and even-handed direction keep Fleischer’s “Margin” flying like a bullet. Infinitely better than the 1990 remake.


    Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a female hitch-hiker in trouble one night, eventually loses her, and when she winds up dead, resolves to investigate. The twisty trail eventually leads him to an oily gangster (Paul Stewart) and a duplicitous scientist (Albert Dekker). The trail of mysteries eventually leads to the contents of a stolen box which Hammer’s secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes as “The Great Whatsit.” All bets are off as the film builds to its climax.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Aldrich comes close to noir perfection with “Kiss Me Deadly”, transferring the pulp flavor of Mickey Spillane’s books to the screen. Spillane’s battered hero represents the true noir protagonist, devoid of pretension or romance, and Meeker is ideally suited for the role. Hammer’s fundamental concern is his own-and his client’s-survival, and there’s plenty to be concerned about. Ahead of its time when released, “Deadly” is a tense, thrilling masterpiece of Cold War paranoia paranoia. (Watch closely for a young Cloris Leachman in her film debut.)


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Honoring Anthony

    by John Farr

    John Farr reviews three oft-overlooked Anthony Hopkins performances.


    The Elephant Man (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Hideously deformed by a rare disease, John Merrick (John Hurt) makes a meager living in Victorian England as a circus sideshow freak, but is routinely mistreated by his cruel employer. Rescued from this despairing existence by Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a caring, highly respected doctor fascinated with his condition, the kindly, soft-spoken Merrick reveals himself to be a person of acute intelligence. Viewed as a curiosity by outsiders, he attempts to live with dignity in spite of his debilitating, horrific appearance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed in eerie black and white by “Blue Velvet” director David Lynch, this dour, heartbreaking drama about the real-life Merrick, known as “the Elephant Man,” perfectly captures the gloomy, gothic atmosphere of late-19th-century England. But it also relates a deeply compassionate story, with Hurt delivering a pained, Oscar-nominated performance through all the heavy make-up, and an understated Hopkins equally sensitive as Dr. Treves. With an excellent supporting cast including John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, and Wendy Hiller, “The Elephant Man” is a haunting tale that asks how we define humanity.


    The Remains of the Day (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1930s Britain, “perfect” butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is hired to serve in the household of Lord Darlington (James Fox), a stuffy, arrogant man of means, alongside his frail, ailing butler father (Peter Vaughan) and new housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). Stevens is so dedicated in his service and removed from the world of human emotion that he refuses to cope with his father’s grave illness-or acknowledge his budding feelings for Miss Kenton. Meanwhile, the winds of war are blowing, and the callow Darlington appears to be throwing in his chips with the Nazis.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Remains” is a refined, elegantly crafted study of loss, regret, and the costs of emotional repression. Hopkins is masterful as Stevens, a man hiding behind an unswervingly dedicated, almost pathologically formal veneer. And the ever-charming Thompson is an excellent foil, attempting to draw Stevens out of his fortress of unfeeling. Lovingly handled by the Merchant-Ivory team, with exquisite period detail and coolly expressive cinematography, “Remains” is a cinematic gem of exceedingly good taste.


    The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    New Zealand native Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) has had a passion for motorcycles-and all fast-accelerating machines-since childhood. Tinkering endlessly with a 600cc 1920 Indian model for most of his life, the now-retired Munro decides to follow his dream to Bonneville, Utah, where he plans to break the land-speed record on the world-famous salt flats, despite his advanced age and the homemade hackery of his two-wheeled racer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Chewing his role with obvious delight, Hopkins is terrific in Donaldson’s rousing, against-the-odds road movie, which chronicles the real-life exploits of quixotic Kiwi roadster Munro in the ’60s. Initially barred from participating in the Speed Week time trials, the amiably gruff senior finally gets a shot thanks to respected pro driver Jim Moffett (played by Chris Lawford). Donaldson weaves dramatic details of Munro’s journey with plenty of spirited humor and offbeat encounters with boosters, fellow travelers, and even a transvestite motel clerk. Diane Ladd’s widow/love interest and Paul Rodriguez’s car salesman are especially memorable. Get in the driver’s seat with “Indian,” and enjoy the rickety but exhilarating ride.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 6, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Courtroom Thrillers

    by John Farr

    John Farr presents a voir dire of must-see courtroom classics.


    Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former prosecutor who’s at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney’s office, he’s a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (Ben Gazzara), an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion’s sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he’s also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (George C. Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Preminger’s crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum.


    The Verdict

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Boston lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a washed-up alcoholic, faces the battle of his life when he decides to pursue a medical malpractice suit against a powerful Catholic hospital on behalf of a young comatose woman’s family. Of course, the case he lands appears impossible to win given his tenuous condition and the array of egal forces against him, led by the shrewd and powerful attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A searing, moody courtroom drama masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet, the film earned five Oscar nominations in 1982, including one for writer David Mamet. As Frank Galvin, Newman shows a rare vulnerability as a man struggling to redeem himself before it’s too late. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its finest, with veteran player Jack Warden superb as Mickey Morrissey, Galvin’s only remaining colleague and friend.


    A Civil Action (1999)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This fact-based film tells the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a personal-injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather-production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. As Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, he wagers everything he has on a positive outcome, but his opposing counsel, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, ruthless legal minds around. Is Jan in over his head?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Produced by Robert Redford and based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, this gripping, literate enviro-action legal drama is the classic David and Goliath story – the little people versus big industry – told with gusto in a decidedly unpredictable fashion. “Action” features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and and an Oscar-nominated Duvall as Facher. William H. Macy also distinguishes himself playing Jan’s understandably anxious accountant. It may sound dry as paper, but this absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 28, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Vintage Family Classics

    by John Farr

    John Farr offers three family friendly films to accompany this week’s Reel 13 Classic, “The Little Princess.”


    March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This musical fantasy based on a Victor Herbert operetta features a variety of familiar nursery rhyme characters joining Stannie-Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie-Dee (Oliver Hardy) in Toyland. Stan and Ollie are toy-making apprentices working for no less a personage than Santa himself. Meanwhile, Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry) wants to marry Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), but evil landlord Silas Barnaby threatens to foreclose on Bo-Peep’s home unless she marries him. She refuses, and then Barnaby frames Tom-Tom, who gets relegated to Bogeyland. Stan and Ollie are around to stir up, then resolve several “fine messes” in the bargain, including the fate of Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    March”, a perennial holiday favorite produced by the legendary Hal Roach, retains its magic, thanks to a charming, refreshingly simple rendering of Toyland and its citizens, some cute songs, and the irresistible antics of Laurel and Hardy as the movie’s hapless heroes. Best for smaller kids and their parents (though more suggestible tykes might get a small scare out of Bogeyland’s denizens). In sum, this is a sweet movie that harkens back to a more innocent, fanciful time, while showcasing an immortal comedy team.


    Captains Courageous (1937)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the pampered son of a wealthy widower and tycoon (Melvyn Douglas) who has learned he can get whatever he wants if he whines, lies, and screams loud enough. On a posh cruise to Europe with his father, Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by a boat full of fishermen led by crusty skipper Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and including kind-hearted, Portugese-born Manuel (Spencer Tracy). As Harvey’s official rescuer, Manuel undertakes to teach the young Harvey about real life and the ways of humble men who work the seas.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a Rudyard Kipling story, this heartwarming adventure saga follows the transformation of a bratty pantywaist into a decent young man under the tutelage of Tracy’s gentle fisherman. Bartholomew is a natural playing the self-centered child of privilege, and really clicks with Tracy, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the sensitive Manuel (though he hated putting on an Iberian accent). Absorbing for viewers of any age, “Captains” is a rousing tale whose bittersweet climax will not leave a dry eye on deck.


    Lassie Come Home (1943)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Young Joe (Roddy McDowall) adores his collie, Lassie, and the dog returns his devotion. When hard times force Lassie’s family to sell her to a wealthy nobleman who lives far away (Nigel Bruce), the fiercely loyal and intelligent pooch cannot be deterred from returning to what she considers her true home and master.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Touching tale gets full MGM treatment, with sumptuous Oscar-nominated Technicolor and a solid cast, including Donald Crisp and Elsa Lanchester as Joe’s parents, and Elizabeth Taylor in her first MGM role. Mc Dowall’s performance is heartfelt and restrained for the time, and Lassie, of course, is the dog we’d all love to own- as evidenced by the numerous movie sequels and TV incarnations that followed.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 21, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Fritz Lang in America

    by John Farr

    Fritz Lang directed many fine films; here are 3 of his greatest shot Stateside.


    Fury (1936)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    An innocent man (Spencer Tracy) on his way to a long-awaited reunion with his fiance (Sydney) is stopped by police en-route and accused of a kidnapping he didn’t commit. The angry townspeople then take justice into their own hands, and only later is the enormity of their crime revealed in court.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Master Director Fritz Lang creates a superb showcase for a young Tracy as a random victim of mob violence. The film’s denunciation of all too common practice (particularly against minorities) was well ahead of its time. This bold, gut wrenching feature culminates in a memorably potent wind-up.


    Hangmen Also Die (1943)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), a leader of the underground Czech resistance, assassinates a prominent Nazi minister known as “the Hangman,” the surgeon seeks refuge in the home of Mascha (Anna Lee), whose own father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) is on a short list of enemies of the Reich. Seeking revenge and obedience to Nazi rule, the Gestapo begins rounding up suspected dissidents and agitators, including Novotny. Meanwhile, they issue an ultimatum to the people of Prague: Surrender the assassin or the detainees will die.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the finest anti-Nazi thrillers to emerge from the WWII period, Lang’s noirish approach to the propaganda film involves cloak-and-dagger intrigue, sinister interrogations, and plenty of light-and-shadow atmospherics, courtesy of camera great James Wong Howe. Such elements were second nature to German ex-pat Lang, director of “M” and “The Big Heat,” and his impeccable direction of numerous character actors – a cab driver (Lionel Stander) and a fruit merchant (Sarah Padden), in particular – adds to the visceral power of this story of resistance. Brennan is also excellent playing against type as a radical patriot. See “Hangmen” or die trying.


    The Big Heat (1953)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague’s suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana’s men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion’s wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by German ex-pat Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford’s portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. “Heat” is particularly memorable for two performances: Lee Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Marvin cruelly disfigures-with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, “The Big Heat” is one steamy ride.


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