THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December 2019 and January 2020)

December’s always a good time for revisiting old favorites so there was a lot of that…Excluding re-watches of Gettysburg and A Perfect Murder, both of which I’ve commented on several times in the past here, and Knives Out and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which I hope to be commenting on in my At the Multiplex category soon!

December 16-The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it had been a while, and, when it’s been a while, it’s even more marvelous than when it hasn’t been a while. “You got types?” “Only you my darling.” Who doesn’t want to spend time with that? William Powell and Myrna Loy were always priceless. And here, at the beginning, even the mystery part was good!

December 22-The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, d. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Umpteenth Viewing)

Truth be told, I like at least a couple of other versions just as much, but there’s a lot about this one that can’t be beat, starting with Olivia De Havilland, Technicolor and Golden Age Hollywood, all at their most ravishing. The costumes alone would make this worth regular viewing. Interesting at this distance to note that Old Hollywood has become nearly as mythological as the Robin Hood tales themselves. Perhaps more than any movie of its era, this one carries a tinge of melancholy–where else can one count the cost of so many things modernity has destroyed in one place? Errol Flynn’s offhand charm, De Havilland’s impeccable grace, Eugene Pallette’s foghorn voice, Basil Rathbone’s swordsmanship, Claude Rains’ arched eyebrow. Which of those things could even be faked now, let alone replicated? And who would dare leave them in a movie if the world permitted them to exist in the first place? We are further from them than they were from the Crusades that started this whole thing….at least the other fave versions (with Richard Todd or Patrick Bergin) don’t beat me over the head with that mournful stick!

December 23-The Big Heat (1953, d. Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest of all thrillers: peak Lang, peak noir, and the shock of its  mostly unseen violence still strikes deep decades after Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch have become film school exercises. And because I’ve shown it to several friends, male and female, down through the years and the response to Gloria Grahame’s entrance has always been the same: Who is that?

December 24-The Mark of Zorro (1940 d. Rouben Mamoulian, Umpteenth Viewing)

The Adventures of Robin Hood put me in a swashbuckling mood, so why not? A lot of the elements are the same. Zorro’s just Robin Hood gone to Spanish California after all and never mind Basil Rathbone with a sword, it’s even got Eugene Pallette as Friar-Tuck-of-the-West. But it’s not lesser. Tyrone Power was Flynn’s only match for this sort of thing and the story’s just as good, as are the direction, script, and overall Old World craft. It moves! No better way to say Merry Christmas to yourself!

December 24-Duck Soup (1933, d. Leo McCarey, Umpteenth Viewing)

Unless maybe it’s this. After all, even Flynn or Power against Rathbone is no match for Chico vs. Harpo! With Groucho as the referee. I hadn’t watched this for years and I was a little trepidatious because the last time I tried to watch A Night at the Opera, I didn’t make it half-way through. I was probably just in a bad mood because this one had me rolling again. And was it the most significant historical cultural achievement in the year Hitler rose to power? I don’t know but I sure don’t like to think about what sort of response we’ll have when he comes ’round again. Hail Freedonia!

December 25-The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, d. Steve Binder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Reviving a Christmas tradition from the days when this was only available on bootleg video cassettes. I only have two standards for American film-making: this and The Searchers. There are at least a half-dozen performers here who would have been the best thing ever if only James Brown hadn’t showed up. That includes the Rolling Stones, who “won” the argument over who was going to follow who.

December 26-Sabrina (1954, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Roman Holiday was such an across the board success Audrey Hepburn was bound to be the point of whatever she did for the next twenty years, let alone her next picture. One of the many things I really like about this charming trifle is that Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who famously didn’t get along, had an odd kind of on-screen chemistry, while she and Bill Holden (who was enough in love with her to promise he would get drunk in every port in the world if she didn’t marry him, a promise he kept after she told him not to be silly) had none. It works so well for the improbable story that I sometimes wonder if Billy Wilder saw how the land lay and planned it that way.

But you can have a lot of fun watching it even if you don’t know any of that. I promise!

December 29-Witness (1985, d. Peter Weir, Fourth Viewing)

A modern updating of Angel and the Badman that’s just as great as the original. Possibly Harrison Ford’s finest hour and peak 80’s Hollywood even if they had to import an Australian director to pull it off. It has grown with time. The only reason I haven’t watched it more over the years is that it was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother….maybe enough time has passed for the association to soften. In any case it’s a great movie. How Hollywood kept Kelly McGillis from becoming a star would be a real interesting story for someone to tell. I guess keeping her name and face off posters that promoted the feakin’ soundtrack was a start.

January 1-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Diana Rigg, a bunch of great action sequences, a thousand small touches that enhance the atmosphere of a satisfying formula and to remind myself that George Lazenby may not have been Sean Connery…but he came closer than anyone has since.

January 3-Day of the Outlaw (1958, d. Andre De Toth, Second Viewing)

The greatest weather movie ever? Maybe. I can’t think of a better one and it’s certainly in the DNA of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Where Eagles Dare and Runaway Train among many others. Turn the central heat up full blast and you can still feel the Wyoming winter biting into your bones. The atmosphere is intensified by Robert Ryan and, especially, Burl Ives, who provide chilly performances to match the mood. For a surprise, Ryan is the sort of hero and Ives the definite villain while Tina Louise gets a turn that suggests Gilliagan’s Island really was beneath her. The rest of the cast is impeccable, including David Nelson, Ricky’s now forgotten big brother, as The Kid torn between two strong men, nagged by the idea that he may have chosen the wrong one. De Toth’s final western and one of Golden Age Hollywood’s finest….about which I’ll have more to say when I do my Non-canonical Golden Age westerns some time in the new year.

…Til then!

DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (April, 2018)

April 15-Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see how I felt about this chilly masterpiece in the first age when Hollywood, at least, would have to be circumspect about celebrating its statutory rapist director. I feel pretty much the same. It’s chilly and it’s a masterpiece. One thing I noticed, though, is that Faye Dunaway brought a human quality it’s hard to imagine coming from any other actress of the age–just like she did in Bonnie and Clyde. Two Egg strikes again.

April 16-Patriot Games (1992, Phillip Noyce, 4th Viewing)

To see if Harrison Ford–even Harrison Ford–could improve how I feel about the CIA. He couldn’t. Not even in this helluva entertainment (the thing moves) where he has at least one brilliant moment that transcends craft or star power. His response when he finally kills the rogue IRA terrorist (a menacing Sean Bean) who has been after his family is worthy of a Golden Age western. Too bad nobody thought to remake High Noon with him.

April 16-Robin Hood (1991, John Irvin, Umpteenth Viewing)

To be reminded of how superior this nearly forgotten take is to the contemporaneous box office smash with Kevin Costner. To revel in Patrick Bergin’s definitive Robin Hood. To marvel at the strong cast and excellent direction and script overcoming poor Uma Thurman (is she the only actress to have been both Weinsteined and Tarantinoed?) being so badly miscast as Marian. And, of course, to hear Friar Tuck greet the worst of the villains with a hale and hearty “Welcome….to Hell.”

April 17-No Name on the Bullet (1959, Jack Arnold, 5th Viewing)

To see Audie Murphy play, without a wasted word or gesture, a man who killed more men than Audie Murphy.

April 18-Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see a modern comic masterpiece (and perhaps be reminded that making a comedy is the only way to make a masterpiece in a fallen culture–absent absurdity, the old tropes required for any kind of drama or heroism or mythos simply don’t hold). And, however great DeNiro and Grodin are (neither was ever better), the whole cast is operating at the same level. Dennis Farina you’ll have remembered, even if you only saw it once…but don’t sleep on Yapphet Kotto’s FBI agent. He’s like a slow-burning cigarette that can’t quite be extinguished. Only if that were funny.

April 19-The Searchers (1956, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, I don’t need a reason to watch The Searchers for the fiftieth time. But here’s a challenge: Try picking one image, just from what’s available online. Is is even fair that every frame of the greatest narrative film looks like a classical painting? Or that you can take a frame like this one and spin a hundred stories out of it that have nothing to do with what actually happens in The Searchers? Or that, in this one frame, the doll, the dog, the rocking chair and the child’s dress will all play a vital part in the story that does get told? Or that you might have to watch it fifty times to notice this?

Just asking.

April 22-Life of Crime (2013,  Daniel Schechter, 4th Viewing)

For what I’m starting to think might be the best adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard’s crime stories (not prepared to go all the way there yet–the competition is tough). This is the first time I really understood it as an absurdist comedy first and foremost. I gave myself permission to laugh out loud five minutes in and then I couldn’t stop. Every performance is a comic gem. On the commentary track the director says he asked Jennifer Aniston on the set why she didn’t do more movies like this. He didn’t record her answer so I’ll give it for her: Because it’s not the seventies anymore. I don’t know whether recognizing how far out of her time she is should make her accomplishments as the last true persona actress more impressive, or just make us all sad.

April 23-Rob Roy: Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French, 3rd Viewing)

Mostly to see if this entry was worthy of inclusion in a potential “Handy Ten” of Disney Adventure films. I was lukewarm on past viewings. This time, I started to think it just might make the cut. The action scenes aren’t all they might be–French was clearly no Ken Anakin. But there’s a scene of a Highlands wedding that would be grand even if the bride and groom were less fetching than Richard Todd and Glynis Johns. And there’s another of a Highlands funeral that might have been just as striking if Sir Walter Scott hadn’t insisted on it being broken up by the bloody English. Also, I hadn’t quite caught how much better the backbiting politics were played than the battle scenes.

Worthier than I thought then.

And it’s always refreshing to recall that, from the beginning of Hollywood to the toadying present, Disney was the only studio that wasn’t afraid to kill Redcoats–or pretend to forget that the British Empire was the first in history upon which–as the proverb and the wag had it, respectively–the sun never set and the blood never dried.

April 23-Heat (1995, Michael Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the action scenes. For the way two of the three main “family/personal” angles work, mostly because of sensitive, convincing performances from a pre-Weinsteined Ashley Judd (Appalachian girl playing an L.A. street tough) and Amy Brenneman (New Englander playing an Appalachian transplant, so far adrift in the L.A. wilderness it’s really not that unlikely DeNiro’s brooding sociopath could win her over with simple acts of kindness–or that she could transform him with kindness in return). For the way Judd’s street tough refuses to give up her powder keg of a husband (Val Kilmer) because she knows he would never give her up.

For all of that, I’ll put up with a lot of Al Pacino chewing scenery in between not insignificant stretches where he reminds you he can also act.

…Til next time!