A Very Bright Noir – Night Moves (1975)

nm1I’ve said it before: Gene Hackman is one of those actors who truly deserve more credit than they are usually given, and whose presence in a movie is usually enough to cause me to at least give it a chance. It’s certainly the sight of his name in the credits that caused me to give 1975’s Night Moves a look, and he definitely didn’t disappoint. Fortunately, the film has much more going for it than just Mr. Hackman.

nm2At its heart, Night Moves truly fits into the tradition of the best films noir, despite its outwardly sunny settings of Los Angeles and the Florida Keys. Like the best examples of the genre, there is a certain sense of despair and inevitability to the proceedings that pervade every moment of what occurs onscreen. That’s not to say that the film is somehow gloomy, far from it, but there is definitely the feeling that no matter how hard Hackman’s character, private detective Harry Moseby might try, he simply cannot escape the doom that fate has in store for him, and in actuality he doesn’t really seem to be trying all that hard to escape as to simply accept and perhaps forestall what is coming long enough to perhaps at least save a few of the lives around him.

nm4Director Arthur Penn – also known for 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1970’s Little Big Man shows in this movie just how much he had his finger on the zeitgeist of the time, as the film he has crafted here fits well not only in his own personal oeuvre, but into the atmosphere that was pervading cinema in the mid 70s. Coming out of the Vietnam War, it seemed that everything was unsettled and that there was a sense of displacement, not just for retuning veterans who were struggling to find their place in the world they were retuning to, but in the nation as a whole which was reeling from and dealing with revelations of scandal and corruption that reached even the highest office in the land and left everyone with a feeling of distrust and questioning that made the time right for a film of just this sort.

Special note should also go to a very young Melanie Griffith – she was only 17 at the time the film was shot -who portrays Delilah “Delly” Grastner, whose disappearance from the mother’s home is the catalyst for everything that follows. Though young, Ms. Griffith shines in the role, showing not only the charm that would soon bring her much greater fame, while also not shying away from the racier aspects of the character. Also of note in the movie is James Woods who, though he had been acting in theater and on Broadway for quite a while at this point, was only really beginning his transition to the silver screen.

nm3Earlier I noted that along with this movie fitting into the time that it is set, it also, for me at least, fits into the tradition of the films noir of the late 40s and early 50s, and while I know there are traditionalists who would debate my use of that term as outwardly the movie – since it takes place largely in the daytime, is in color, is not set in the heart of the big city – seems to defy many of the accepted conventions of the genre, my argument for describing it that way comes largely down to the atmosphere and tone of the film. Of course, it really doesn’t matter what tag you wish to put upon it, if you’re looking for good, suspenseful dark detective fiction, well played by its stars and well directed by Mr. Penn, then I think you’ll be well satisfied with this somewhat hidden dark gem.

 

Quickie Review: The French Connection (1971)

fc1It really is all about the chase.

Really.

It’s certainly not about the plot. If that were the case, The French Connection would qualify as a 30 minute short film.

Nor is it about the acting. Even though stars Gene Hackman (who won the Best Actor Oscar for the film) and Roy Scheider (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) turn in their usual stellar performances. (And maybe that’s part of the problem. I expect them to be this good, so their work in this film doesn’t particularly stand out as anything better than what we usually get from them.)

So why did this film receive The Best Picture Award (becoming the first R-Rated movie to do so after the introduction of the MPAA’s film rating system), and director William Friedkin win Best Director, and why did it also garner Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing? Why is it consistently hailed as one of the all-time great crime dramas?

It’s all about the chase.

Of course, the funny thing is that as pivotal as that grand car vs elevated train chase sequence is, it didn’t even go as planned, since there weren’t actually supposed to be any crashes.

Nonetheless, yeah, it’s all about the chase.

And that ain’t a bad thing at all.

Classic Television Thursday #026 – That Was The Week That Was (UK 1962-1963) (US 1964-1965)

tw31For many folks, including myself, Jon Stewart‘s The Daily Show is just that – a daily dose of laughter and news parody which I do my best not to miss. Of course, the recent news of his imminent departure from the show has a lot of people guessing not just what’s next for him, but who can possibly fill his shoes. Sure, there’s been a lot of turnover and rearranging of seats on the late night talk show circuit recently, but The Daily Show is something that has become something so unique to Stewart and his interviewing skills have proven so superb (along with his obvious passion and at times barely-controlled outrage at certain of the topics that he covers) that it’s hard to imagine anyone – except perhaps for John Oliver who can’t be considered a real candidate for the slot since he now has his own HBO show – even wanting to take the job on.

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other news parody shows, and specifically one that could definitely be considered a classic, even though I suspect most of my US readers have never heard of it. That show is That Was The Week That Was.

tw32That Was The Week That Was, otherwise known as TW3, was a comedy news parody show which actually began in the UK in 1962. The show was created, produced and directed by Ned Sherrin, and was hosted by David Frost – yes, the same David Frost who would go on to be one of the preeminent interviewers of his time, with his most famous (or some would say infamous) interview subject being Richard Nixon, as recounted in Frost/Nixon.

One of the most interesting aspects of TW3 was the panel of writers who were involved with the show. Just take a look at this Partial list of names: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, Richard Ingrams, Gerald Kaufman, Frank Muir, David Nobbs, Denis Norden, Dennis Potter, Eric Sykes, Kenneth Tynan, and Keith Waterhouse.

The show was incredibly well received by the public, and was also highly praised by critics. As Graham McCann wrote in his 2006 book Spike and Co.,

TW3…did its research, thought its arguments through and seemed unafraid of anything or anyone…. Every hypocrisy was highlighted and each contradiction was held up for sardonic inspection. No target was deemed out of bounds: royalty was reviewed by republicans; rival religions were subjected to no-nonsense ‘consumer reports’; pompous priests were symbolically defrocked; corrupt businessmen, closet bigots and chronic plagiarists were exposed; and topical ideologies were treated to swingeing critiques.”

Hmmm… sounds somewhat like a more recent show, doesn’t it?

Interestingly, this being the “swinging sixties”, the show didn’t just go in for the “guy sitting behind a news desk” type of satire. It also incorporated song and dance routines, sketches, and other ways of skewering its targets.

tw34Of course, any show that wore its agenda on its sleeve like TW3 was bound to have its opposition, especially among those it sought to skewer. Nonetheless, it did last for two series, but in the end, the BBC chose to cancel it in 1964, citing as its ostensible reason the fact that it was an election year, and strict restrictions on the broadcast of political material too close to the election was against its rules and could jeopardize its reputation for impartiality.

So given all of this, why isn’t the show better known? Well, of course, part of the reason is that it was doomed by its own topicality. After all, today’s news is yesterday’s history, and as anyone who has sat through even recently-relevant just-a-couple-of-weeks-old rebroadcasts of TDS will tell you, those episodes age very quickly. Plus, the show was aired live, and many of the episodes were not recorded. It’s actually something of a wonder that any of them survive at all, though as it turns out, there are only two episodes from the run that appear to be missing. Here’s an episode that was first broadcast on Feb 16, 1963:

After TW3 finished its run in the UK, it then migrated to this side of the pond, along with presenter Frost, and a US version began airing in 1964. This version was a bit more star-studded in front of the camera, with the pilot, for instance including performers such as Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan, guests Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and supporting performers including Gene Hackman. The recurring cast included Frost, Morgan, Buck Henry and Alan Alda, and Nancy Ames sang the opening song The writing staff on  this version was just as strong as its British counterpart had been, including such luminaries as Gloria Steinem, William F. Brown, Tom Lehrer and Calvin Trillin.

Unfortunately, this version of the show also only lasted for a couple of seasons, and unlike its British counterpart, most of the episodes have been completely lost, remaining only in amateur audio recordings and a few acetate archive recordings such as the one below. Fortunately these serve to at least give us a taste of what the show was like.

So what will happen to The Daily Show after Jon Stewart leaves his post? Obviously, I have no idea. But one thing we can all be sure of: As long as there are stupid politicians making stupid statements and stupid decisions, someone will be out there ready to call them out, and stupid politicians and other public figures are a commodity we will never run out of.

 

 

 

 

 

Top 250 Tuesday: #198 – The Conversation (1974)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #198 on the list. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.

conversation1To say the least, I found Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation a very curious film. For a lot of its running time, I found myself wondering just exactly what it was about it that put it on critics “Top 10” lists enough times for it to rank in the greatest 250 movies of all time. Certainly it was good, but was it great? That, of course, is why one shouldn’t judge a movie until the final frame has unspooled.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, the short version of the plot synopsis is that Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a wiretapper who  aappears to be at the top of his game. He has his own business, is considered one of the, if not the, best in hid field by his peers, and he has just pulled off a job that perhaps no one else in his profession could have.

Unfortunately, Caul is also a haunted man. I’m not going to go into why he is haunted, because that might be too much of a spoiler, but then again, if you want at least a partial clue, all you really have to do is look at the poster at the right.  This, combined with an overwhelming sense of Catholic Guilt and suspicion about what he has just recorded, and  the effect it might have on the lives of the two people involved in the conversation from which the film takes its title, leads Caul down a very dangerous path where ultimately he doesn’t have any idea who he can or can’t trust, and that includes himself and his own multiple interpretations of the aforementioned recording.

conversation3The Conversation is in no way a simple movie. Instead, it is a movie that continues to circle around itself, continuing to cause the viewer to reinterpret what we are seeing, just as Caul is continually made to reinterpret what he is hearing. At each pass through the conversation we are given more information about what may or may not actually be going on, just as each time Caul cleans up the recording a bit more his own perspective changes.

This is actually a movie that seems to be walking a tightrope, and without the strong guiding hand of director Coppola and especially the bravura performance of star Gene Hackman, it could have fallen flat at any given moment. Coppola actually takes quite a few chances with this film, as in, just to give one example, a couple of scenes where Hackman, who has been the focus of our attention, is allowed to actually walk off the screen with the camera trailing after him then catching up a few seconds later. For that matter, even the simple act of repeating so many scenes over and over, with only a slight deviation from what we have seen before indicates a director who not only has confidence in his own skill, but is willing to trust his audience to keep up with the information as he is presenting it to us.

conversation2Y’know, I’ve often considered Gene Hackman to be one of America’s most under-rated actors. I have to admit that I’ve not read many interviews with the man (and actually, perhaps that’s exactly the point, as I don’t know that I’ve really even seen that many in-depth interviews with him) but he seems to have been one of those people who are more interested in being an actor, in giving himself over to and putting everything he has into the role, no matter how uninteresting or “small” it may seem rather than being celebrated as a celebrity, and Hackman’s portrayal of Caul, like Coppola’s direction, is actually quite daring, especially when one considers the film’s denouement. I really don’t want to give too much away, but if Harry begins the film seemingly at the top, well, we all know there really is only one way to go from there, and as I noted at the beginning of this article, it wasn’t until the final few moments of the film that I was truly convinced that what I was seeing, good and entertaining though it had been, truly was one of the greats. And one that will actually, I think, reward and reveal more in multiple viewings, which, again, in light of the way the film progresses, only seems all too appropriate.

There’s a lot more that I could say about this film. I haven’t even touched on any of the supporting actors, such as John Cazale, Cindy Williams, and even a very young Harrison Ford, nor have I touched upon how watching the movie now and thinking about how much the technology has changed, or the resonances it has with the current NSA wiretapping revelations affects the viewer’s relationship with the film, but perhaps those are essays unto themselves, and I’ll leave them for someone else to consider.

Generally at this point, I’d leave you with a trailer, but to be honest, I really think that the official trailer that I was able to find online gives just a bit too much away, so instead I’m going to leave you with this short clip that I think really serves well to illustrate just what I was saying above about the skill that Coppola displays in this film. At about the 1:30 mark in this clip we see Harry pick the lock on a hotel room door and peer in, but then rather than simply watching him enter, the camera pans down and ahead of Harry, giving us a shot of the room until it eventually pans back up and reveals that Harry is now already in the room and is, like us, taking a look around. It’s a small scene, yes, but it is also a superb bit of film making.

So, The Conversation. I keep wanting to draw this little article to a close by bringing it full circle to the beginning, where I said I was wondering until the end whether it really belonged on this list of the greatest movies, but really I’ve already answered that. Or I want to elucidate my comment about not judging it until the final frame has unspooled, but I’m finding it hard to do that too. So perhaps, in tribute to that final shot I’ll simply let this find its own ending right here…

Saturday Double Feature: The Call (2013) and…

So here we are: Saturday and time for another Double Feature. Once again the basic idea is to take a movie that is out in theaters now, and pair it up with another movie from the 1980s or before for a Saturday Double Feature. Sometimes the connection will be obvious, and sometimes it’ll be a little less so, but that’s part of the fun.

Okay, while I was thinking about The Call which opens in theaters this weekend, two very different films came to mind, both of which could make for good Double Feature picks. So this week you get a choice. You can either pick either one of the two for a Double Feature, or just go “all in” for a full blown movie night triple. First, to set things up, here’s the trailer for the new Halle Berry flick:

So, what to pair that up with? Well, considering that it has to do with things heard or overheard and how someone reacts to that led to a number of contenders, but ultimately I narrowed it down to these two:

First, and most recent, Brian DePalma‘s Blow-Out, starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen from 1981

and second, from 1974, The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman

So what do you think? What are your ideas for movies that would go well with The Call? I mentioned before that I had a couple of other contenders that ultimately didn’t make the cut and I’m curious to see if anyone else comes up with those same connections. And don’t forget to pass along any ideas about other new releases that you’d like to see paired up with something from the past. Just hit that comment button below. I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, Happy Viewing!