THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (February, 2020)

Running behind again, obviously, but here goes (I may do one for March just to catch up. We’ll see):

February 10-Witness for the Prosecution (1957, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of Billy Wilder’s fetching entertainments but mostly for one of Charles Laughton’s great fun showcases. He gets to play a barrister…who’s just had a heart attack! Double the fun for real-life spouse Elsa Lanchester as his now-domineering, now-conspiratorial home nurse. Everyone else, including Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, are turned into bystanders, but really it doesn’t matter.

February 10-Eraser (1996, d. Chuck Russell, 4th Viewing)

I wasn’t in a heavy mood so decided to re-visit this one from the nineties. By this time, Ah-nold could do these in his sleep but he gave them what he had and the ones that worked, like this one, worked pretty darn well. I had forgotten Jimmy Caan’s really despicable bad guy and just how shockingly gorgeous Vanessa Williams was and now that I remember all these things I think this one will go into semi-heavy rotation. Perfect popcorn movie and, really, from the nineties onward, what else is left?

February 13-Clear and Present Danger  (1994, d. Phillip Noyce, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, are we getting an idea that I wasn’t exactly in a heavy mood in February? This one still plays well. Harrison Ford’s lock-jawed good guys never get old with me. I wonder if he’s still the all time box office champ? I’d hate to think somebody replaced him because whoever it was or is or will be, they won’t be as good.

February 13-The Racket (1951, d. John Cromwell–Nicholas Ray assisting, 2nd Viewing)

Because I have about eight or nine box sets of films noir sitting around and, every once in a while, if I’ve been eating too much popcorn, I figure it’s time to pull one down I haven’t seen in a while: Go to my “no comfort” zone so to speak. This is a good one. Robert Ryan’s the bad guy, Robert Mitchum the good guy, Lizbeth Scott the dame. It’s all very atmospheric and corrosive and convincing. You could watch this straight through and almost convince yourself some bad guys get what’s coming to them! Not a bad feeling to have actually…while it lasts.

February 16-The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, d. Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Peter Lorre’s unmatched villainy. For emotional resonance I actually prefer Hitchcock’s 1956 remake (Hitch and I are in the minority among film buffs but there it is). This one moves along, though, and nobody could bring dimension to a terrorist the way Lorre could (hell, he was coming off giving dimension to a child molester in M, this was child’s play). His reaction to the death of his faithful female assistant, the one true believer among his cabal, is one of Hitchcock’s few truly moving scenes and the only one that is bound to make a sane person uncomfortable. The victimized family is likable in the stiff-upper-lip style of old fashioned Britain, the one that was going to always be in 1934 and ceased to exist within a generation. You can observe the depth of the fall by contrasting Leslie Banks here to the likes of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson.

February 16-Breakdown (1997, d. Jonathan Mostow, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, it’s back to popcorn by the bucket. But this one has a genuinely disturbing edge for anyone who has ever been stranded a million miles from nowhere without a cell phone (and this was made at the last minute before everybody had one). Kurt Russell’s too good an everyman (after James Garner the best Hollywood ever had) for this not to feel more plausible than it has any right to–and too good an action hero for Mostow’s impressive action sequences to go to waste. Better than I remembered and I remembered it getting under my skin.

February 17-Under Siege (1992, d. Andrew Davis, 5th Viewing)

For the scenery chewing by everybody except Steven Seagal (who thankfully doesn’t try), for Andy Davis’s always great action scenes and to watch Erika Eliniak come out of that cake.

February 17-Tight Spot (1955, d. Phil Karlson, 2nd Viewing)

For Ginger Rogers’ last great role, in which she cast back to her pre-Fred, Anytime
Annie (“the only time she said no, she didn’t understand the question”), days of the early thirties. B-movie master Phil Karlson keeps things crisp and tight. Brian Keith has a good early role and Edward G. Robinson a good late one. Nothing new really, but everything is in place, including a couple of good plot twists you might recognize without necessarily seeing them coming. Nice to remember how often Hollywood could do that once.

February 18-The Three Musketeers (1993, d. Stephen Herek, 3rd Viewing)

For a slick and satisfying update of the indestructible plot. For Rebecca DeMornay, who I’ll watch in anything. For Tim Curry’s great Cardinal Richelieu. And to once again wonder whatever happened to the delight that was Oliver Platt. You have to put up with poor Chris O’Donnell’s drip of a d’Artagnan, but it’s worth it. I was clearly on a 1990’s kick in this little stretch and I’ll pause to note that these modestly performing action films are miles better than the CGI-blockbusting head-pounders of the new century. It’s amazing how soon we forget.

February 19-The 39 Steps (1936, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 5th Viewing)

To see if I could get through it this time. For some reason this one always puts me to sleep because I have trouble following the plot. To be fair John Buchan’s novel had the same effect when I read it. I could sense I should be getting more out of it, but could never put my finger on what I was missing. Anyway, I finished it, but I nodded off at least twice. I’m not sure that should be happening in a thriller.

Great poster though! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Til next time!

EAST AND WEST(ERN) (Book Report: 12/17)

Last month’s reading was an all-time great spy novel, a treatise on the “Custer controversy” and another of the Louis L’Amour novels I began picking up last month…All proof that the past never ceases to speak to the present and the present never ceases to ignore the past.

Judgment on Deltchev (1951)
Eric Ambler

Ambler was the twentieth century’s greatest spy novelist. He took John Buchan’s basic premise (ordinary Englishman caught up in larger events he barely comprehends: see The Thirty-Nine Steps) and wound it tighter, gave it more dimension.

Never more than here, in what might be his masterpiece (there’s heavy competition from any of the five novels he wrote between 1937 and 1940). Deltchev was his first novel in more than a decade and his first since the War.

The War had changed things. Though perhaps never as deeply committed as the typical idealist, Ambler had been what was known as a Man of the Left (i.e., pro-Soviet). He was soured by Stalin’s duplicity in his dealings with Hitler and wound up a Man of the West (despite being in his thirties, he volunteered for the Royal Artillery when the War came…as a private). Judgment on Deltchev is his judgment on the police state, one that rings truer and is far more entertaining than say, 1984. Perhaps for that reason, those who had followed wherever Stalin led never forgave him.

History certainly has. On a re-read, I didn’t feel this had quite the tragic weight of Dystopia’s two real stomach-punchers: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. But it still induces plenty of dread and–given the long arc of history no one could have foreseen with any confidence in 1951–may not be the lesser achievement for ending on a note of earned optimism.

Earned or not, Ambler paid a price. He was a different writer after Deltchev. He had stared into the abyss and the abyss had stared back. The Cold War had changed things, too.

Essential.

Custer and the Great Controversy (1962)
Robert Utley

Robert Utley is one of the great historians of the American West. This is an early work, basically an extended monograph on the cult of celebrity that rose around George Armstrong Custer and had already sustained for nearly a century when this was published.

Utley just about defines the term “sober historian,” so he’s a good man to tackle the legacy of Custer and the Little Big Horn Massacre.

That is was, for decades after, known as “the Custer fight,” is a testimony to Custer’s force of personality, living and dead. Very few commanders get their name attached as an honorific for leading their men into an unmitigated military disaster. The book is not after debating Custer’s military acumen (though Utley doesn’t short-shrift it), but simply detailing the steps by which Custer and his “fight” passed into legend. On that level, it’s hard to imagine a better treatment of the subject. It’s a book by a cautious and fair-minded man, and, despite its brevity, has more than a little to say about the ways in which history and myth are forever destined to shape each other no matter how often we tell ourselves we’re past all that.

Heller With a Gun (1955)
Louis L’Amour

An early effort and solid. I have no idea what the title means. Once I figured out no one named Heller was going to show up, I thought I might run into some old coot saying somebody or other (hero or villain) was “A heller with a gun!” That didn’t happen either so I’ll assume it was implied.

As per usual, the gunman–heller or not–is reluctant to use his gun, or to be drawn into helping tenderfoots (in this case a second-rate theatrical company barnstorming the wilds) who have bitten off more than they can chew and fallen in with bad company to boot.

L’Amour’s style wasn’t yet fully formed. But he could already pack a lot into a phrase:

Then one night when drinking, Forrest bragged. He knew what a reputation could do to a man, but he was drinking and he bragged. A tough puncher from down on the Pecos started hunting the kid to prove Forrest wrong.

They buried the tough puncher on a windy hilltop near old Tascosa...

It doesn’t get any cleaner or swifter than that.

Anyway, the basics are here and well-managed. Notable for a complicated love quadrangle which–against odds I had decided were insurmountable long before the denouement–sustains interest to the last sentence and works out beautifully. Never underestimate a pulp master.

JULY BOOK REPORT (7/12)

Our Kind of Traitor (John le Carre, 2011)

Cautiously recommended.

My few attempts to engage the old spymaster since the Smiley days have met with disappointment. Nothing exactly wrong with Our Game or The Tailor of Panama. Just sort of meh, as if le Carre had forgotten all the qualities that set him apart from John Buchan to begin with.

I picked this up because it was touted as a comeback and, for once, the crit-illuminati wasn’t selling an entire bill of goods. There’s an intriguing set-up and a degree of Jamesian force in the ending. The degree could have been a lot higher if le Carre had also been able to recapture his old delight in post-Victorian language and mid-Victorian character development, but at this moment in literary history, I’ll take what I can get.