Alley next to Pike Street Public Market, Seattle, WA

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011)

When it comes to heist films, the getaway driver usually gets the short end of the stick. Like a drummer in a rock band, the role of the getaway driver is overlooked. The flashy parts go to the brains of the operation or the muscle or the trigger man.  The driver is often portrayed as a stooge, discarded quickly after the robbery is pulled off like in Sam Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY (1972). Poor Bo Hopkins. He doesn't even make it back to the hideout after the bank robbery before Al Lettieri shoots him.

Two films have given the getaway driver his due: Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978) and Nicholas Winding Refn's DRIVE (2011).  Although not a remake (but definitely inspired by), DRIVE is like a first cousin once removed to THE DRIVER.  THE DRIVER is gritty and urban. DRIVE is slick and glossy. Both films are set in Los Angeles (makes sense with all the highways and streets available in the City of Angels). And ironically, both leading men who play drivers are named Ryan: Ryan O'Neal in THE DRIVER and Ryan Gosling in DRIVE.

It's not surprising that writer/director Walter Hill came up with the idea and made THE DRIVER.  Hill wrote the screenplay for THE GETAWAY which starred Steve McQueen.  Hill must have remembered he dispatched the getaway driver early in that film.  Without a good getaway driver, the whole robbery could be over before it started if the driver's not there on time. He needs to know all the escape and backup routes. He has to be adept at handling a car while chased by cops or double-crossing partners or mobsters. Director Hill even borrows (or steals) using a similar train station locker, bait and switched locker keys, and pursuit on a train scene in THE DRIVER that he wrote for THE GETAWAY.

Ryan O'Neal has no name in THE DRIVER. He's just the Driver (although Bruce Dern likes to call him Cowboy). The film opens with the Driver waiting for two bag men to emerge from a casino they have just robbed.  A group of casino patrons including a woman known as the Player (French actress Isabelle Adjani) watch as the Driver peels away with the two crooks.  The Driver exhibits his skills as he avoids five police cars in pursuit.  But he's done with the bag men.  They were late exiting the casino almost resulting in the Driver getting apprehended.

In pursuit of the Driver is the Detective (Bruce Dern). The Detective is obsessed with catching him. He brings the Player in to ID the Driver at a line-up but she won't give him up (the Driver has paid her off to be his silent alibi).  So the Detective tries to set up the Driver, extorting a hot head criminal named Glasses (Joseph Walsh) and his accomplice Teeth (Rudy Ramos) to hire the Driver to help them rob a bank so the Detective can catch him after the fact. Glasses reaches out to the Connection (Ronee Blakley) to contact the Driver about the job.  The Connection meets with the Driver but he doesn't want to work with shooters (aka bank robbers with guns). The Detective challenges the Driver, dares him to pull off another heist.

The Driver takes the bait. But he doesn't want trigger happy Teeth to join them.  So Glasses and the Kid (Frank Bruno) pull off the job.  The Driver takes them to a warehouse picked by Glasses but away from the Detective. The Driver smells a set up.  The Driver shoots Glasses before Glasses can return the favor. The Driver takes the stolen cash and puts it in a locker at the train station. He needs to launder the hot money. He contacts the Player. She can help him change the stolen money for new money.

The Player sends one of her accomplices the Exchange Man (Denny Macko) to switch bags and keys with her. The Exchange Man hops on a train, pursued by the Detective. Teeth steals the Player's purse with the correct bus locker key.  The Driver and the Player chase Teeth through the dark urban streets culminating in Teeth crashing his car in a large warehouse. The Driver retrieves the key.  When they return to the train station, the Detective and a gaggle of cops are waiting.  Will the Detective catch the Driver red handed this time?

Hill's THE DRIVER takes place in a stylized world.  No one has a first or last name. It's just a description: the Driver, the Detective, the Connection, or Glasses. The city is never named but it's all downtown Los Angeles (director Hill would use many of the same locations in his 1984 retro action film STREETS OF FIRE).  The Driver never appears to have any other type of job or skill besides his driving.  The Detective doesn't appear to have a supervisor or follow any laws or rules (although his partner Red Plainclothesman played by Matt Clark does have a conscience and would like to see the Detective fail). For the Detective, it's all a game.  You either win or lose. The Detective thinks he's on the winning team.

The Driver does have a set of rules that he follows (as does Gosling's Driver). The crooks he drives for need to be on time. A few seconds late could get the Driver arrested or worse killed  The Driver doesn't like gun happy robbers.  He's probably seen THE GETAWAY himself. The Driver has his code but inevitably he breaks it, risking his life and livelihood for one last big payoff. In breaking his code, the Driver endangers his very existence.

THE DRIVER is all machismo and muscle, much like the cars the Driver uses. In an impressive scene, the Driver literally wrecks a Mercedes Benz to prove to a skeptical Glasses he's good at driving. The Driver winds through a parking garage, scraping fenders off walls, breaking doors off their hinges as Glasses and his crew scream in fear.  Ryan O'Neal (BARRY LYNDON) and Bruce Dern (BLACK SUNDAY) are excellent as adversaries.  Cat and mouse. Their battle is with words and posturing, not fists. The Detective never chases the Driver once in a car. Even the female leads are masculine in THE DRIVER. French actress Isabelle Adjani (NOSFERATU and THE STORY OF ADELE H) and Ronee Blakley (NASHVILLE) could almost be male characters.  No gowns or dresses for these women. Adjani barely blinks as she bounces around with O'Neal in his various getaway cars (okay she screams once when they're shot at). Blakely as the Connection gives up the Driver's plans to Teeth at gunpoint but takes a bullet like a man for her betrayal.

Ryan Gosling also plays a getaway driver with no name (although Bryan Cranston calls him "the Kid") who lives by a code in the more recent DRIVE (2011), directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and written by Hossein Amini based on a novel by James Sallis . I had heard a rumor several years ago that French director Luc Besson (LA FEMME NIKITA) was going to remake THE DRIVER. Instead, it turned out to be Danish director Refn (BRONSON and VAHALLA RISING) who made DRIVE inspired by THE DRIVER but not a remake. Refn and Gosling would later make ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) set in Bangkok with Gosling this time as a drug smuggler.

Like the opening of THE DRIVER, DRIVE begins with the Driver (Gosling) waiting for two hooded men to break into a warehouse. "There's a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Do you understand?" The Driver evades a couple of police cars and a police helicopter before ditching the hooded men and the car in a sports arena parking lot as a Lakers basketball game ends. But the Driver does more than drive.  He's also a stunt driver for movies and he works as a mechanic for his handler/stunt coordinator/exploiter Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon dreams of owning a stock car with the Driver behind the wheel.  He goes to a mid-level gangster and former B-movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and borrows three hundred grand to do it.

But the Driver's world turns upside down when he falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who's raising her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while his father Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) finishes up a prison sentence. When Standard is released from prison, he promises to make amends. But he's soon beat up by a vicious hoodlum/pimp Cook (James Biberi) who wants Standard to rob a pawn shop to pay off protection money that Standard owes Cook.  The Driver decides to help Standard pull off the robbery, hoping this final heist will settle Standard's debts so Irene and Benicio can live safely.

Standard and his accomplice Blanche (Christina Hendricks) rob the San Fernando pawn shop while the Driver waits in the parking lot. But the robbery goes awry. Standard is shot and killed.  A second car shows up and chases the Driver and Blanche. They hold up in a motel, waiting for Cook but two killers show up. Cook and his boss Nino (Ron Perlman) have double-crossed the Driver, trying to rob the initial robbery to hide Nino's intent to steal from an East Coast mobster who owned the pawn shop. The Driver manages to dispatch the hitmen but he's injured. The Driver goes to Shannon to find a doctor to patch him up before extracting revenge.

The Driver finds Cook at a strip joint, breaking the pimp's fingers with a hammer until he tells him who ordered the double cross. Bernie learns of Nino's mistake and vows to clean up his mess. Only Shannon and the Driver can pin the crime on them. The Driver chases down Nino next while Bernie takes care of the unlucky Shannon. The Driver tries to give the one million dollars to Irene but she refuses.  The Driver and Bernie Rose meet at a Chinese restaurant to agree to a truce and an exchange but like everything in DRIVE, even that plan doesn't work out well for either men.

DRIVE is ultimately about a group of people on the fringe of normal society who have bad luck and broken dreams: a B film producer turned gangster, a stuntman/mechanic falling in love, a sweet waitress with bad boyfriend choices, a dreamer who can't buy a break, an ex-con trying to go straight. Shannon is a father figure to the Driver but he exploits the kid as well. The fact that stunt coordinator Shannon has a limp (the result of a broken pelvis courtesy of a deal gone sour) is not a good sign. The Driver is just a younger version of Shannon, another dreamer with bad luck.

Like Ryan O'Neal's Driver, Gosling's Driver is also a loner who follows his own personal code. He gives his customers a short window to complete their illegal deed.  If that deed runs past five minutes, they're on their own. With his racing gloves, tooth pick, and Scorpion emblem on his gold jacket (a nice reference to the Scorpion and the Frog fable that comes true later in the film), Gosling's Driver is a free spirit seemingly with a sweet heart.  But also like O'Neal, Gosling's Driver can be violent and vicious when provoked.  He lives life one day at a time.   But he breaks his code, trying to be a knight in shining armor, to protect Irene and Benicio's future.  This fairy tale has a bad ending. He makes a deal to drive without his mentor Shannon's involvement. This choice will have dire consequences for everyone.

Like the mentor/protégé relationship between Shannon and the Driver, gangster Bernie Rose and his partner Nino also have an interesting relationship, mirroring the Driver and Shannon.  They like to bust each other's balls but they're a team.  But then Nino tries to pull off a deal on his own, stealing from a East Coast gangster who Nino feels doesn't respect him, not consulting Bernie on the heist.  Like the Driver, Nino's actions have devastating results for him and his partner Bernie.

European director Refn brings a freshness to DRIVE making the over-filmed city of Los Angeles look new and unique.  One of my favorite new composers Cliff Martinez (CONTAGION) provides the pulsating musical score. Like directors Scorsese and Tarantino, Refn gives us brief, shocking moments of violence. A fork in a pimp's eye, a hammer breaking a pimp's fingers, the Driver stomping on the face of a hitman. Grisly moments but he doesn't linger, the point made in one or two quick shots. Refn also gives us brief flashes of happiness: the Driver spending the day with Irene and Benicio or Standard's 'Welcome Home' party.  But these feel good scenes are fleeting.

DRIVE'S cast is impressive with an array of excellent actors playing roles they're not typically cast as. Ryan Gosling as the Driver continues his stint of bouncing between tough action films like DRIVE and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013) and comedies or musicals like CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011) and LA LA LAND (2016).  Gosling plays his Driver like O'Neal's with very little dialogue and plenty of smoldering stares. British actress Carey Mulligan (FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD) surprises as the angelic Irene.  The biggest surprise is comedian Albert Brooks as the brutal boss Bernie Rose.  Brooks is better know for comedies like LOST IN AMERICA (1985) and BROADCAST NEWS (1987).  But he hinted he could play darker characters with his performance as a white collar criminal in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

Rounding out the excellent cast is Bryan Cranston as the Driver's handler and father figure Shannon. Cranston, also know for comedy early in his career (TV's MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE), shocked audiences when he revealed his darker side in the  breakthrough AMC series BREAKING BAD (2008 - 2013) as teacher turned meth maker Walter White.  In DRIVE, Cranston's Shannon is the most heartbreaking sympathetic character, at heart a good guy that can't get out of the way of his dreams and ultimate bad luck. Oscar Isaac as Irene's husband Standard, another down on his luck character, was the young hot up and coming actor when DRIVE came out appearing in small roles with Leonardo DiCaprio in BODY OF LIES (2008) and Russell Crowe in ROBIN HOOD (2010). Isaac has now exploded into leading man roles since with the Coen Brothers INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) and as Rebel fighter Poe Dameron in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  Ron Perlman (HELLBOY) as Nino and Christina Hendricks (TVs MAD MEN) also play pivotal supporting roles.

Although both THE DRIVER and DRIVE are about getaway drivers and crime, neither film has non-stop car chases.  Both films have two major car chase set pieces but they are effective scenes. Both films open with a car chase, exhibiting each Driver's skills.  Walter Hill puts the camera inside and outside the car in THE DRIVER giving it a very visceral feel.  Nicholas Winding Refn shoots the second car chase in DRIVE much like Peter Yates BULLITT (1968) with the camera speeding alongside the two cars in pursuit of one another as they hopscotch around other cars. Steve McQueen would have been proud (ironically director Hill wrote THE DRIVER with McQueen in mind. McQueen felt he had already done enough car chase films and declined). So Ryan O'Neal got the part.

Both films prove that a good getaway driver doesn't have to just drive fast either.  They have to drive smartly. At times the Driver's best choice is to stay put. Turn off the headlights and hide under a bridge or behind a parked truck until the police have gone by. THE DRIVER and DRIVE are excellent case studies for focusing on one key individual of a crime.  And our fascination of fast cars and the getaway driver has not gone away.  This summer Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER (2017) is released about another young getaway driver named Baby who teams up with criminals to pull off a heist while falling in love with a waitress. Sounds like Wright has seen both THE DRIVER and DRIVE. So fasten your seatbelts and enjoy two similar yet different takes on the life of a getaway driver.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Crossfire (1947)

Film Noir hit its stride post World War II with tales of lust, murder, gangsters, and femme fatales mixed in with the disillusionment and cynicism that followed the Great War. To be fair, there were Film Noir films before the war. The term Film Noir just hadn't been coined yet. But with the war over, there were new characters to introduce to the genre, war veterans wading through a corrupt or immoral landscape instead of a battlefield. THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) had one of the first characters who suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Edward Dmytryk's CROSSFIRE (1947) is filled with several psychologically troubled demobilized soldiers including one who may have murdered a Jewish man.

CROSSFIRE is not your ordinary Film Noir.  Written by John Paxton based on a novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks (who would later become a writer/director of films like ELMER GANTRY and THE PROFESSIONALS), CROSSFIRE deals not only with war veterans struggling to return to ordinary life but with racism particularly anti-semitism.  No stranger to the Film Noir genre, Dmytryk (who directed 1944'S MURDER, MY SWEET based on Raymond Chandler's novel) casts a who's who of Film Noir actors in CROSSFIRE including the three Robert's.  He gives us Robert Mitchum (OUT OF THE PAST, THE BIG STEAL), Robert Ryan (THE SET UP, ON DANGEROUS GROUND), Robert Young (SECRET AGENT), and my favorite Film Noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame (IN A LONELY PLACE, THE BIG HEAT).

CROSSFIRE is a taut, briskly plotted Film Noir that begins like a punch to the gut ... literally. We see a man brutally beaten in an apartment. The killer is hidden in the dark, a lamp knocked over so we can't see the perpetrator. The killer grabs another semi-conscious man slumped on the sofa and they flee the murder scene. Investigating the murder is pipe smoking police detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young).  He has few clues until a soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) shows up at the door looking for his friend Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper). Mitchell's wallet is found on the sofa. Montgomery tells Finlay that Mitchell had an argument with the dead man named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) earlier that evening at a bar.

One of Mitchell's buddies not at the bar with him is Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum). Keeley is playing cards in Mitchell's room at the Stewart Hotel. Keeley is called in to be questioned by Finlay and learns Mitchell was out with Montgomery, not one of Keeley's favorite people. Keeley begins playing detective on his own separate from Finlay's investigation. Keeley sends the rest of the soldiers playing cards out to find Mitchell. Director Dmytryk provides flashbacks and differing viewpoints of the night in question from Montgomery, another soldier Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and later Mitchell. We see soldiers Montgomery, Mitchell, and Floyd have a few drinks at a bar. The dead man Samuels is at the bar with his girlfriend Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer). Another soldier Leroy (William Phipps) spills a drink on Miss Lewis who leaves to change. Mitchell is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. He's homesick for his wife Mary Mitchell (Jacqueline White). Samuels notices Mitchell's anxiety. They talk and Samuels invites Mitchell back to his apartment for a drink. Montgomery and Floyd follow and invite themselves in.

Back in the present, Mitchell shows up at the hotel, staked out by Finlay, unaware of what's transpired. Keeley's men cause a diversion and Keeley whisks Mitchell out of the hotel to a dark movie theater. Keeley warns Mitchell that Montgomery is trying to pin a murder on him. But Mitchell can't recall the evening. Flashbacks take us on Mitchell's journey from the bar to Samuel's apartment and after. Mitchell shows up at a club called the Red Dragon where he meets a prostitute Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame) from Virginia. They dance and kiss. She feels sorry for Mitchell and gives him a key to her apartment where he falls asleep. He's awakened by a mysterious man (Paul Kelly) who turns out to be Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine. Mitchell flees Ginny's apartment. Keeley tells Mitchell to stay put at the theater.

Finley knows Keeley is also trying to find the killer and convinces Keeley to work with him. Mitchell's wife Mary arrives in Washington D.C. Keeley tells Finlay and Mary they can find Mitchell at the theater.  Mitchell recounts his night at Ginny's. Finlay and Mary go to Ginny's apartment to check on his alibi. At first, Ginny's not cooperative but she and her ex husband confirm Mitchell was at her apartment. With Mitchell's whereabouts cleared, Finlay sets a trap, cleverly tricking the killer into showing up at an apartment where he had strangled Floyd, the one eyewitness to Samuel's murder.

CROSSFIRE has many interesting angles that make it a cut above most Film Noirs. Set in Washington D.C. (home of the military and our nation's capital) it shows us demobilized soldiers, back in the real world after WWII but still serving their country, many wearing their civilian uniforms. But some of these soldiers came back with psychological wounds from the war. Arthur Mitchell is melancholy, homesick. He hasn't seen his wife since he returned and he's nervous and anxious about it, drinking himself into a stupor. Montgomery has anger issues with a racist bent. Whether Montgomery is spewing hate toward the Jewish bar patron Samuels or his fellow southern soldier Leroy for his Tennessee drawl, he's a powder keg ready to blow. Even Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine seems troubled, disillusioned. He enlisted to escape her but he can't live without her.
Dishonorably discharged, Mr. Tremaine hangs around, knowing his wife is a tramp (his words not mine).

I liked that we have two parallel detective stories going on in CROSSFIRE, one by the police and one by the suspect's friend. Capt. Finlay is calm, procedural as he smokes his pipe and methodically tracks the clues and interviews witnesses. But Mitchell's friend Keeley also begins investigating, not trusting either Finlay or the key witness Montgomery to save his friend's neck. Only when Keeley finds Mitchell and learns the truth does he need to unite with Finlay to catch the killer. Usually murders in Film Noirs are committed for lust or money. But CROSSFIRE introduces a new motive, a hate crime, a rare subject for a late 1940s movie.

Interestingly, in the novel, the victim is a homosexual, killed by a homophobic soldier. But the Hays Code which enforced decency in motion pictures protested that story point so the character was changed to a Jewish man in CROSSFIRE and the soldier a racist. You can see subtle hints of the homosexual storyline as Samuels goes over to talk to Mitchell at the bar and later invites him back to his apartment for a drink. But the filmmakers give Samuels a girlfriend (Miss Lewis). The three of them are supposed to go out for dinner but Leroy spills a drink on Miss Lewis and she leaves to change. Samuels was also in WWII (honorably discharged after getting wounded) so he recognizes Mitchell's anguish as he settles back into society after four long years of war.

Racism is still a strong theme to tackle for a Film Noir like CROSSFIRE.  The filmmakers pepper the movie with strong statements about intolerance.  When Montgomery complains to Finlay about people who played it safe (meaning they didn't enlist) "Some of 'em are named Samuels, some of 'em have funnier names" Keeley responds to Finlay "He oughta look at a casualty list sometime. There's a lot of funny names there, too."  Finlay later ruminates that "Ignorant men hate what they don't know."  But Finlay's most powerful speech comes when he tries to convince Leroy to help them catch the killer. Finlay draws from his own experience dealing with hate. "My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It's hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties."

The three Robert's -- Young, Mitchum, and Ryan - are superb in CROSSFIRE. I remember  Robert Young who plays pipe smoking detective Finlay when he was older as Dr. Marcus Welby in TVs MARCUS WELBY, M.D. (1969-1976). But Young had been a leading man in the 30s and 40s, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT even. As Finlay, Young brings a measured coolness to his character. He doesn't jump to conclusions or burst out in anger when Keeley interferes with his investigation. He waits for the facts to sort themselves out. CROSSFIRE is one of  Robert Mitchum's earlier films. Produced by RKO, CROSSFIRE may have been the springboard to leading man status for Mitchum as he would appear in his breakout role as Jeff in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Film Noir classic OUT OF THE PAST (also by RKO).

And no actor (except maybe Michael Douglas) has played more morally conflicted, agonized characters than Robert Ryan. Whether as the brutal cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) or the conflicted lawman chasing his old partners in THE WILD BUNCH (1969), Ryan was perfect at playing conflicted men.  In CROSSFIRE, it's a role of a lifetime as the racist soldier Montgomery. Ryan told the book's author Richard Brooks he would play the role of Montgomery because he knew bigots like him. In real life, Ryan was an active civil rights champion, nothing like his character Montgomery.

And then there's the beautiful, seductive Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles as Ginny Tremaine. With her pouty lips and blonde hair, Grahame could make a man do almost anything in a Film Noir film. Grahame only has a couple of scenes in CROSSFIRE but she's mesmerizing, one moment sexy and flirtatious, the next moment an alley cat with her claws out. Grahame stood out in a minor role as George Bailey's childhood friend Violet in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) and went on to bigger roles in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Vincent Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) with Kirk Douglas. in which she took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. One other actor to note is Paul Kelly as Ginny's current or ex-husband (we're never quite sure) Mr. Tremaine. In any other Film Noir, Kelly would be the man committing murder to have Grahame. In CROSSFIRE, Kelly's Tremaine is a pathetic man who watches different men come into his ex-wife's apartment. He observes but does nothing, having once been one of those men himself. But Kelly's Tremaine manages to do a decent thing amongst all the terrible things that transpire that night. It's a small but memorable role.

Director Dmytryk and his cinematographer J. Roy Hunt give CROSSFIRE the Film Noir look with a brutal murder silhouetted in black, low lighting spilling through bannisters and stairs painting the walls like prison bars, and plenty of dark streets and police offices. CROSSFIRE was a delight to discover and should be ranked higher on Film Noir lists as one of the best of the genre.  With a knockout cast and crackerjack dialogue, CROSSFIRE is a must see for its mystery as well as tackling a social issue not covered much in movies let alone a Film Noir movie in 1947.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Blow Out (1981)

If you're a fan or critic of Director Brian De Palma, you know that De Palma has spent a large part of his career making films that borrow, pay homage, or rip off some of Alfred Hitchcock's best works. For the record, I'm a Brian De Palma fan. De Palma's OBSESSION (1976) is his ode to Hitchcock's classic VERTIGO (1958). Both SISTERS (1973) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980) from De Palma have slasher plots inspired by Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). De Palma also likes to use swirling cameras and high angle shots in many of his films that would make the Master of Suspense blush with pride.

So it may come as a shock that De Palma's best film BLOW OUT (1981) which he both wrote and directed has little to do with Hitchcock and instead seems influenced by European Director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film BLOW UP. Starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, BLOW UP is about a British fashion photographer who may have accidentally photographed a murder. In De Palma's BLOW OUT, a movie soundman played by John Travolta stumbles onto a political assassination when he records what he thinks may be a gunshot that causes a presidential candidate to crash his automobile into a lake, killing the governor but not the pretty escort accompanying him.

BLOW OUT is not only inspired by Antonioni's BLOW UP (photography) but Francis Coppola's 1974 THE CONVERSATION (sound and wiretapping) and the paranoia political thrillers of the 70s like Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974). But De Palma also borrows from real life events including John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Zapruder home movie film that captured Kennedy's shocking death, and the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 when presidential hopeful and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a one lane bridge and into a tidal channel killing a young female companion riding with him on Nantucket Island. The tragic accident may have cost the married Kennedy his shot at the presidency.

BLOW OUT is the culmination of a good run of films De Palma made in the late 70's and early 80s like CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978), and DRESSED TO KILL. BLOW OUT also has a group of actors that De Palma had worked with in the past who had become his own cinematic troupe including John Travolta (CARRIE), Nancy Allen (CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL), John Lithgow (OBSESSION) and Dennis Franz (DRESSED TO KILL).

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound editor for Independence Pictures, a Philadelphia film company specializing in cheap horror films like Blood Bath and Blood Bath 2 and his latest project Coed Frenzy. Unhappy with some of the sound effects (including a coed's scream that will have dark overtones later), Jack goes out to a local park that night to record wind and other background effects. While recording, Jack hears tires squeal, a tire blow out, and then sees a sedan crash into a creek within the park. Jack dives into the water. He's able to save the passenger in the car, a woman named Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen) but not the driver. At the hospital, Jack learns that the dead driver was presidential hopeful and current Governor George McRyan (John Hoffmeister). McRyan's Chief of Staff Lawrence Henry (John McMartin) asks Jack to forget there was a young woman in the car with the Governor out of respect for his family and wife. Jack locates a drugged up Sally and they both sneak out the back door of the hospital.

But Jack won't let the accident go. He listens to his sound tape and distinctly hears what sounds like a gunshot before the tire blows. He smells a conspiracy and a cover up. A sleazy photographer Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) suddenly emerges with photos of the accident. Jack cuts out the photos from a magazine and puts them together with his sound revealing the car crash wasn't an accident. Jack discovers Manny and Sally were running a blackmail scam, hired by opponents of Governor McRyan. But McRyan wasn't supposed to be killed. Now Burke (John Lithgow), the hatchet man for the opposition, has gone rogue, trying to clean up the loose ends, erasing Jack's tapes and plotting Sally's murder to keep her quiet.

Jack stops Sally from leaving Philadelphia, convincing her to help him. Haunted by his past working with a police commission to catch crooked cops in which an informant he wired ended up murdered, Jack wants to absolve his sins and catch the people who murdered McRyan. Jack sends Sally to grab Manny's original photos of the accident. Sally manages to get the originals after knocking an amorous Manny out. Jack agrees to show his little film to Frank Donahue (Curt May), a TV news reporter. But Burke sabotages Jack's plan, blocking his phone calls and impersonating Donahue on the phone to have Sally bring the incriminating film and sound to him at Penn Station.

Sally tells the plan to Jack who suspects some thing's amiss. Jack wires Sally, confident this time he can catch the killer and keep Sally safe. But Burke whisks Sally away from the train station. Jack attempts to follow him but the Liberty Day parade blocks his route. Jack crashes his jeep trying to follow her. Fireworks explode in the night sky as Liberty Day concludes, Burke destroys the evidence and prepares to murder Sally. Jack regains consciousness, fleeing from an ambulance, following Sally's screams with his headphones as he races to save her from Burke. But will he find her in time?

If you didn't know from watching BLOW OUT, De Palma is a technical film geek. He's not afraid to experiment and try unconventional things in his films. A favorite De Palma technique is to use split screens so he can show two different actions going on in the same frame or different angles of the same action. It's his way to provide the audience more information. He will also use split screen with one object (like an owl or Travolta) close up on one side of the frame and something smaller but important on the other side of the frame. It looks like it's one shot but it's not. Both objects are in focus which normally wouldn't be possible in a foreground/background shot. BLOW OUT is full of split screens.

Travolta's Jack Terry in BLOW OUT is director De Palma's alter ego. Jack tells Sally he like gadgets and won science fairs in high school. De Palma competed and won science fairs in high school. Travolta's character Jack similar to Keith Gordon's teenage character Peter Miller in DRESSED TO KILL uses technology like sound and film to catch a killer. In DRESSED TO KILL, Peter concocts a time lapse camera to find who murdered his mother. With BLOW OUT, Jack rotoscopes photographs of the accident (animators use rotoscoping) and syncs it up with his sound, creating a mini-film of the assassination.

De Palma and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE DEER HUNTER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) introduce us to a sound editor's tools of the trade -- microphone, recorder, head phones, editing machine, and reel to reel tapes. By educating us, we are partners with Jack as he tries to solve this mystery. In one powerful sequence, De Palma and Zsigmond have the camera spin 360 degrees continuously in Jack's editing room as Jack runs around playing all his tapes, now erased by Burke, trying to find the one with the gun shot and blow out, the camera spinning like so many blank reel to reel tapes. It is dizzying and phenomenal.

BLOW OUT reveals De Palma's humorous dark side. The film opens with a killer spying on nubile college coeds, a film within our film. POV shots of the killer peeping on the girls in their rooms and shower, cheesy sound effects. It's Jack's latest project Coed Frenzy. Slasher films were the rage in the later 70s/early 80s. But then BLOW OUT becomes part-slasher film as Burke begins murdering women who look like Sally, trying to set up a fake Liberty Day strangler angle as he cleans up the governor's murder. The film's finale is De Palma's ultimate laugh as Jack unintentionally records the perfect scream, a macabre ending to this nightmarish thriller.

De Palma sets the film in Philadelphia known as the City of Brotherly Love. A fictional Liberty Day celebration looms for the city. Murals of Benjamin Franklin and other patriotic heroes are shown. But there's no brotherly love in De Palma's Philadelphia. A presidential candidate is murdered. A killer begins murdering innocent women to cover up his mistake. The killer Burke wears a red, white, and blue tie and a button with I LOVE LIBERTY on his lapel. Toward the end of the film, Jack crashes his jeep into a store front window with Liberty or Death etched on it, smashing mannequins dressed as revolutionary heroes including Patrick Henry with a noose around his neck, hanged as a spy by the British. The noose (or in Jack's case wire) is getting tighter and tighter as Jack runs out of time, rushing to save Sally from Burke.

BLOW OUT is probably Travolta's finest performance until over a decade later when Quentin Tarantino would rescue the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER star from obscurity and cast him as hitman Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION (1994). In BLOW OUT, Travolta's Jack Terry is a haunted man, reduced to working on B horror films after his wire tapping work with the police led to an informant's death. Jack has a righteous side, a chip on his shoulder against corruption and deception. He smells conspiracy with McRyan's death. He wants to right his wrong and catch the bad guys. But in doing so, he jeopardizes the one good thing in his present life Sally. He saved her once but can he save her again?

Nancy Allen plays Sally as a free spirited ingénue (with a Brooklyn accent). She's not dumb but she's not the smartest woman either. Men try to take control of Sally's life and exploit her, first Manny Karp, later Jack Terry. But she's charming and we care about her. Nancy Allen was married to Brian De Palma for five years and they made four films together. Not to be confused with Karen Allen (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STARMAN), Nancy Allen had a good career going in the mid 70s and 80s with roles in STRANGE INVADERS (1983) and ROBO COP (1987).  But like many actresses as they reach their 40s, the roles began to drop off for Allen. The last thing I saw Nancy Allen in was a bizarre cameo in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). Like a few times in De Palma's films, Allen was half-naked, this time as the wife of a criminal played by Albert Brooks. But Allen's best work was her partnership with De Palma in CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BLOW OUT.

I'd like to think De Palma discovered John Lithgow who he first cast in OBSESSION, only Lithgow's third credit but his first feature film. Lithgow would also appear in BLOW OUT and RAISING CAIN (1992) for De Palma. With his tall frame and long face, Lithgow is creepy as the heavy Burke, the assassin/cleaner in BLOW OUT. He's one step ahead of Jack, destroying evidence like the blown tire or Jack's tapes. Burke's so confident he will clean up his insane mess that we are as surprised as Burke when Jack finds him and redirects the knife meant for Sally into  Burke's chest. Lithgow's career has flourished, appearing in films as diverse as the comedy HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987) to action films like CLIFFHANGER (1993) to his performance as Winston Churchill in the TV series THE CROWN (2016).

Yes BLOW OUT is a political conspiracy thriller with overtones to the Kennedy assassination and Chappaquiddick but De Palma can't completely separate from his infatuation with Hitchcock. BLOW OUT alludes to PSYCHO with the psychotic Burke killing women. Jack's frantic attempt to save the woman he loves and has endangered hearkens back to the finale of VERTIGO as Jimmy Stewart pursues his resurrected love Kim Novak.  Fireworks n the French Rivera play a part in Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), a metaphor for the sparks flying between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as they make love.  But for BLOW OUT, the Liberty  Day fireworks have a much more somber, darker denotation. The pyrotechnics are Jack's soul exploding, his guilt and frustration erupting like so many colored rockets in his attempt to save Sally from Burke.

The opening credits for BLOW OUT seem like something that Hitchcock collaborator Saul  Bass (VERTIGO, PSYCHO) might have created, alerting us that we're about to go on a thrilling ride with the title credits speeding like McRyan's out of control car.  The music for BLOW OUT is not Hitchcock like. De Palma uses his favorite Italian composer Pino Donaggio who also did the music for De Palma's CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BODY DOUBLE (1984). Some of Donaggio's score in BLOW OUT sounds similar to another score he did for one of my favorite horror films, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING (also 1981).

With the success of small story driven films like BLOW OUT and DRESSED TO KILL, De Palma would move up to the world of big budget studio films , directing SCARFACE (1983), THE UNTOUCHBLES (1987), and the first MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (1996). As with any repeated viewing of a film, I've started to notice bits of implausibility in BLOW OUT but it doesn't matter. BLOW OUT touches a nerve and reels us in with its bravura technical work by De Palma and crew and a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

America fighting for its independence. The splitting of the atom. Henry Ford's invention of the modern automobile. Of all the historical events that have occurred in the United States relatively short history, Hollywood has been obsessed with one relatively minor gunfight involving a well known lawman and his tuberculosis ridden dentist friend against a ruthless band of outlaws. John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), John Sturges's HOUR OF THE GUN (1967), George Cosmatos's TOMBSTONE (1993), and Lawrence Kasdan's WYATT EARP (1994) all tell similar stories about the lives of lawman Wyatt Earp and his gunslinger friend Doc Holliday in the Wild West culminating in their infamous 30 second gun battle with outlaws (the Cowboys) including Ike and Billy Clanton at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881.

The two Wild West icons have been played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE; James Garner and Jason Robards in HOUR OF THE GUN; Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in TOMBSTONE; and Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in WYATT EARP. But I left out Hollywood's definitive production of the skirmish, shot in Technicolor and VistaVision, John Sturges' GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) with two of its biggest stars at the time in Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as John "Doc" Holliday. I like GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL for a lot of reasons although it's not my favorite film about Wyatt and Doc. John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (shot in black and white) is my favorite, a more mythical and idealized version of their story.

My favorite Wyatt Earp is Henry Fonda in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE followed closely by Lancaster's portrayal. Kurt Russell's moustache is too distracting in TOMBSTONE. And James Garner who played Earp in John Sturges second telling of the tale HOUR OF THE GUN is miscast. Garner is better as an extrovert but Earp is more of an introvert. My favorite Doc Holliday is Val Kilmer's roguish turn in TOMBSTONE ("I'll be your huckleberry") followed by Kirk Douglas's interpretation. Kilmer looks thin and sick like the real Doc. Victor Mature's Doc in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE seems neither from the South nor sickly. The older films show us Wyatt and Doc leading up to the gunfight. The newer films TOMBSTONE and WYATT EARP have the O.K. Corral incident as one part of their story but go on to show us what happened to the men after the O.K. Corral. I have not seen Kasdan's WYATT EARP with Kevin Costner as Marshal Earp but nothing I have heard or read leads me to believe it's better than MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL provides the dream team of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Wyatt and Doc may be the most famous legends of the Wild West since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The allure with them might be that Wyatt was good and Doc a bit shady but they were friends to the end. With a screenplay by Leon Uris (who would later write the novels Exodus and Trinity) suggested by an article by George Scullin, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL has big vistas (courtesy of veteran western cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr), the great Frankie Laine singing and whistling the title song Gunfight at the O.K Corral, and plenty of young actors as sidekicks, deputies, or villains we would become more familiar with in years to come.

It's 1879 in Fort Griffin, Texas. Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) rides into town with two other cowboys looking to kill gambler and former dental student Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), the man who killed his brother. Doc is holed up in a nearby hotel with his sometime girlfriend Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet). Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) also rides into town from Dodge City, Kansas. Earp is pursuing killers Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) but local sheriff Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) has let them pass through. Doc ends up facing Ed Bailey and kills him in self defense. Wyatt and Kate help Doc escape a lynch mob. The team of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday begins.

Wyatt warns Doc to stay away from his town of Dodge City but Doc shows up anyway (no one wants Doc in their town either). Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful red headed gambler rolls into Dodge City too. Wyatt and Doc vie for her affections but Wyatt wins out. A jealous Kate bolts town, later to hook up with Johnny Ringo. With many of Wyatt's deputies out of town on a cattle drive, Wyatt asks Doc to help him catch some bank robbers. Doc agrees, feeling he owes Wyatt a debt for saving his life earlier. The cattle drive arrives in Dodge City along with Shanghai Pierce (Ted DeCorsia), Johnny Ringo, and a host of Cowboys, causing mayhem. They even wound Wyatt's only remainng deputy Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman). Wyatt returns to town from a ride with Laura just in time to stop Shanghai with Doc and the townsfolk assistance.

Wyatt and Laura prepare to head out to California and get married when a telegram changes Earp's life. His brother Virgil Earp (John Hudson) needs Wyatt's help cleaning up the town of Tombstone, Arizona where Virgil is sheriff. Wyatt can't say no.  But Laura can. She ends their relationship. As Wyatt rides out of town, he's joined by Doc who's luck has run out in Dodge City. Doc hopes the warm climate will appeal to his health. The two men arrive in Tombstone to learn Ike Clanton is rustling stolen cattle out of Mexico along with Johnny Ringo and young Billy Clanton (a young Dennis Hopper). He needs to move it through Tombstone. Wyatt and Virgil along with brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and James Earp (Martin Milner) create a law prohibiting guns in Tombstone. The Clanton's test the law but are kicked out of town. Ike wants Wyatt dead and plans an ambush the next night but his men kill brother James Earp instead of Wyatt.

Ike sends brother Billy to set up the final showdown between the two clans at the O.K. Corral the next morning. Kate shows up in Tombstone after hanging out with Ringo. Doc is seriously ill. The odds look hopeless.  It's just the three Earp brothers versus Ike, Finn, and Billy Clanton; Johnny Ringo, the McLowery brothers, and Cotton Wilson. As the Earp's head into town, the ailing Doc Holliday joins them and the most famous gunfight in the West commences as good squares off against evil.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is like a Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah western with men following a code of honor even if they're not exactly cut from the same cloth. Wyatt is from the North, a Union man who follows the rules and upholds the law. Doc Holliday is a Southerner who gambles and whores and has killed many men not always in self-defense. Doc lives on the fringe of the law. But circumstances bring these two polar opposites together as they owe each other a debt and repay that debt. They become a team and eventually friends. Even though Doc owes no alliance to Wyatt or his brothers, he's with them to face the Clanton's at the O.K. Corral. Doc becomes like another brother to Wyatt.

Just as interesting as the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL are the relationships between Doc with girlfriend Kate Fisher and Wyatt with gambler Laura Denbow. Doc and Kate have an abusive love/hate relationship. They're like drug addicts. They try to leave each, disparage one another but they can't break the habit of their relationship. They're co-dependent on one another. Kate (in real life known as Big Nose Kate) is an alcoholic, prone to violent men like Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday. But she's tough too. She helps  Doc escape Fort Griffin and later, keeps Doc awake so he can participate in the legendary gunfight.

Laura Denbow is the opposite of Kate.  Refined, sophisticated, and a good gambler to boot, Laura doesn't expect any special favors from her male gambling competitors except for good manners and taking their money. When Wyatt Earp throws her in jail for no good reason (except he likes her), she takes it all in stride, not asking for any special favors as she enters the small cell because she's a lady. Where Doc and Kate have weaknesses, Wyatt and Laura are strong and confident.  Laura's so confident, when Wyatt receives the telegram that his brother Virgil needs his help, Laura breaks off their engagement.  She will not be dragged around from town to town like somebody else's wife.  Kate and Laura are strong female characters in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL although not in the same way. Kudos to costume designer Edith Head for her colorful green and crimson dresses that actresses Fleming and Van Fleet wear like exotic birds of paradise.

Hollywood of course takes liberties with the facts surrounding the battle in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL and its two heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. For instance, the actual gunfight was not at the O.K. Corral but in an empty lot behind the O.K. Corral (in the films, the filmmakers make sure to have plenty of signs with O.K. CORRAL visible so we know where the men are). The actual gunfight lasted 30 seconds but in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, it goes on for about five minutes.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is always portrayed as a battle of good versus evil but according to Wyatt Earp biographer Andrew C. Isenberg, Earp and his brothers actually were working together with the Clanton's and McLowery's until a disagreement led to the infamous confrontation. It was more "police officers versus informants" Isenberg states. Doc Holliday studied to be a dentist (in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE he's a surgeon). Most interesting, Wyatt Earp is shown in movies as an honest, law abiding marshal but truth is often stranger than fiction. Biographer Isenberg says Wyatt Earp was a self promoting opportunist, constantly reinventing himself. Earp was actually a professional gambler who worked as an amateur law officer for less than five years including the O.K. Corral incident.  The real Wyatt Earp would later try to rewrite his legend with various writers before he died in 1929.

John Sturges' GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL influence shows up in future Westerns. Frankie Laine's title song Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with his whistling and composer Dimitri Tiomkin's horse hooves beat may have influenced Ennio Morricone's (director Sergio Leone's favorite composer) stylish score in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966). Leone would choose two actors from GUNFIGHT for his films, making an international star out of Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Jack Elam would have a memorable cameo in the opening sequence of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969).  The climactic scene in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL where  Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp walk down a deserted street toward the O.K. Corral joined by Doc Holliday hearkens to Sam Peckinpah's bloody finale in THE WILD BUNCH (1969) as the Wild Bunch strides four across down a dusty Mexican street to battle a small army.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would act in seven films together besides GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL including John Frankenheimer's SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and their last teaming in Jeff Kanew's TOUGH GUYS (1986). Their Wyatt and Doc are the best combination of the men, a friendship that seems genuine and earned. Lancaster gives the only Wyatt performance so far without a moustache. His Wyatt is masculine, confident, yet restless. Wyatt yearns for a piece of land and a wife to share it with but he's constantly pulled back into fighting the lawlessness of the time. Kirk Douglas seems too fit and strong to play the wheezing Doc Holliday but Douglas wins you over with his charisma. His Doc plays loose with life, willing to gunfight anyone who challenges him because Doc's life is a gamble. He never knows how long he has to live with his tuberculosis.

Rhonda Fleming gets top billing as Lady Luck gambler Laura Denbow but Jo Van Fleet as Doc's on again off again girlfriend Kate Fisher has the showier role. Kate is Doc's nurse, confidant, whore, girlfriend, and fellow alcoholic. Their love is toxic. Van Fleet would also co-star in Elia Kazan's EAST OF EDEN (1955) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967) as Paul Newman's dying mother. Rhonda Fleming as Wyatt's love interest Laura Denbow is a beautiful redhead in the Rita Hayworth tradition although she never became quite as famous as Hayworth.  Fleming's Laura is just one of the guys, using her sex appeal and looks to get a seat at any saloon card table. She's not weak which makes her interesting to both Wyatt and Doc.  Fleming co-starred with Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum in the film noir OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945).

I give director John Sturges a great deal of credit for his knack of finding young interesting actors for his films.  Sturges followed his gut and cast a young Steve McQueen in two of his more well known films THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). In GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, Sturges gives us Lee Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) as the vengeful Ed Bailey, Earl Holliman (TVs POLICE WOMAN) as Wyatt's loyal deputy Charlie Bassett, Martin Milner (TVs ADAM-12) as Wyatt's doomed younger brother Jimmy, DeForest Kelly (best known as Dr. McCoy on TVs STAR TREK) as brother Morgan, and perennial western bad guy Jack Elam (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF) as Tom McLowery.

In an interesting bit of cinematic trivia, John Ireland who plays sneering gunslinger Johnny Ringo in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL appeared in the first film about Wyatt Earp as Billy Clanton in John Ford's 1946 MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Ireland would have a prolific career but often starred in Westerns including Howard Hawks RED RIVER (1948) and Sam Fuller's I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) although he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Robert Rossen's ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949), a political film. So who plays Billy Clanton in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL? None other than a young actor named Dennis Hopper. Hopper's Billy Clanton is a conflicted kid. He's not sure he wants to be a gunfighter but Ike and Finn are his brothers so he owes his allegiance to them. Hopper bounced around in supporting roles at the beginning of his career like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), and TRUE GRIT (1969) but then disappeared a bit in the 70s before making a comeback in Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Hopper's revival would take off after that with amazing performances in David Lynch's BLUE VELVET (1986) and David Anspaugh's HOOSIERS (also 1986) to name but a few.

The story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday fighting the Clanton and McLowery's at O.K. Corral is a classic American moment that resonates in our historical lifeblood. The way Hollywood tells it, it's good versus bad with good coming out on top. The truth is a little grayer but for the most part Hollywood gets the story right.  We don't want the Clanton's to win.  We want to root for the underdog. We like that two unlikely men with different backgrounds and morals would unite for a common good.  GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL gives us that story with the dynamite combination of Lancaster and Douglas as Western heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Not many people of my generation probably remember comedian Jack Benny. I knew of Jack Benny through my father who liked to do an imitation of Benny, tilting his right cheek against his open palm (like Benny) and exhale exasperatingly,"Well!" Benny was a staple on Bob Hope Specials and Johnny Carson's the Tonight Show, often playing a violin as a prop for comic effect when I was growing up in the 1970s. But little did I know that before I saw the comedian Benny on television, he was acting in movies in the 30s and 40s including the great Ernst Lubitsch's WWII comedy TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942).

Modern filmgoers might remember Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft starring in a remake of TO BE OR NOT TO BE in 1983 directed by Alan Johnson but a WWII comedy in the 1980s didn't have the same impact as 1942 when the war was actually going on. Besides a young Jack Benny, TO BE OR NOT TO BE was the last film starring the gorgeous platinum blonde actress Carole Lombard (MY MAN GODFREY). Tragically, Lombard would die in a plane crash in Nevada after filming and did not live to see the release of TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

When we think of great comedy directors of the 30s and 40s, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges usually rise to the top. But Ernst Lubitsch, born in Berlin, Germany, is beloved by many as a top comedic director (Lubitsch was Billy Wilder's favorite director) although his resume isn't as lengthy as Capra or Sturges. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is clever farce, mixing comedy and suspense and some nice jabs at Der Fuhrer.  TO BE OR NOT TO BE was written by Edwin Justus Mayer based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel. Screenwriter Mayer seemed to be good at writing comedies taking place abroad as his resume includes THEY MET IN BOMBAY (1941), A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945) set in Russia and MASQUERADE IN MEXICO (1945).

TO BE OR NOT TO BE begins in Warsaw, Poland in the summer of 1939. A Polish theater group is rehearsing a new play called Gestapo. The troupe consists of married actors Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), veteran ham performer Rawitch (Lionel Atwill), Greenberg (Felix Bressart) who longs to play an important role like Shylock instead of holding spears as a bit player, and Bronski (Tom Dugan) who plays Hitler in the stage production and tries to add a funny line (without success). Much to the dismay of the theater's producer Dobosh (Charles Halton), the Polish government has reservations about the play, concerned it will anger the real Hitler. They cancel the premiere. The troupe returns to performing Shakespeare's Hamlet. As Joseph begins the famous soliloquy 'To Be or Not to Be' a young man exits the performance, irking Joseph. The young man is Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a Polish pilot who's in infatuated with Joseph's wife Maria. Maria is flattered but not interested. Then, Germany invades Poland and everything changes.

Warsaw is bombed. The city is in ruins. Sobinski along with many other pilots flee to England where they join the RAF (Royal Air Force) to fight the Germans. A fellow Pole who has befriended the pilots Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) tells the men he's headed to Warsaw on a secret mission. The pilots ask Siletsky to pass on their regards to friends and family and give him a list of names. Sobinski asks Siletsky to give his regards to the great Polish actress Maria Tura. But Siletsky doesn't know the name. Sobinski suspects the Professor might be a double agent bent on destroying the Polish underground. With British approval, Sobinski secretly flies back to Poland, parachuting at night, chased by the Germans, to stop Siletsky from passing the names to the local Nazi commander Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).

Sobinski hides out in Maria's apartment where Joseph discovers him. Sobinski explains the dire situation. Joseph concocts a plan with the rest of the theater group. Using the Nazi army wardrobe from Gestapo and turning their Polish theater into a mock Gestapo headquarters, Joseph will pose as Colonel Ehrhardt, trying to detain Professor Siletsky while Maria tries to grab the dossier of names from Siletsky's room at the Hotel Europa. But Siletsky becomes suspicious. As Siletsky tries to escape the theater, he's shot and killed. With the spy dead, Joseph now has to impersonate Siletsky to stall Ehrhardt.

Joseph's ruse as Professor Siletsky works until the Germans discover the real Siletsky is dead. Ehrhardt tries to set up Joseph, placing him in the same room as the dead Siletsky. But Joseph manages to turn the tables and convince the Germans he's the real Siletsky. Ehrhardt announces that the real Hitler is coming to Warsaw for a reception.  The Polish acting troupe once again comes together to pull off one final charade, every player from Joseph to Rawitch and Greenberg playing their roles perfectly to rescue Maria, keep the Polish underground names from the Germans, and escape to Scotland.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE surprisingly walks a fine tightrope between comedy and suspense. As much as I laughed watching this terrific comedy, the suspense side of the film gnawed at my insides. I found myself always a little nervous that Benny, Lombard, and the rest of the theater group were going to be discovered by the Nazis and hung. Benny as Tura with his ego keeps overplaying the real life situation. As the Producer Dobosh laments, "I hate to leave the fate of my country in the hands of a ham." In fact, the spy Professor Siletsky figures out that Tura is a fake and not Ehrhardt (only to be killed before he can tell Ehrhardt). Then, the real Ehrhardt discovers the real Siletsky's body and once again Tura (now posing as Siletsky) seems destined for the gallows. But the filmmakers cleverly figure out a way for Tura (courtesy of a fake goatee) to turn the tables and make Siletsky still appear to be the imposter.

Director Lubitsch obviously condemns the Germans invading Poland but TO BE OR NOT TO BE spends as much time poking fun at actors and their insecurities then Hitler and the Nazis (although he still gets in his shots at the terrible regime). Lubitsch shows actors in every form: egotistical (Joseph Tura), scene stealing hacks (Rawitch), unappreciated bit players (Greenberg and Bronski), and diva leading ladies (Maria Tura). Benny's Tura is always looking for praise from his peers, the audience, or the Nazis but humorously never quite finds that recognition. But while his Hamlet is mediocre, Tura pulls off two of his greatest performances when he impersonates both Colonel Ehrhardt and Professor Siletsky. And the use of Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet in the story as well as borrowing the title TO BE OR NOT TO BE from Hamlet's best known soliloquy is a fond wink to the old Bard and theater in general.

Even though they're married, Maria and Joseph compete as actors whether upstaging one another on stage or trying to get top billing on the poster. Maria welcomes secret admirers like the handsome pilot Sobinski to the chagrin of her husband. Sobinski lavishes her with flowers and adulation but proves to be overly enthusiastic. Maria's frustrated with Joseph but not unfaithful. The invasion of Poland by the Germans and acting to stay alive proves to be the cure for the Tura's marital spats.  Joseph risks his life to win his wife back, event though she's never really left him.

This is the only Carole Lombard film I've seen so far and she's breathtaking. Beautiful, funny, and statuesque, Lombard is a tour de force who was taken from us way too early at the age of 33. Lombard was married to actor Clark Gable prior to her death. TO BE OR NOT TO BE was filmed just as the United States entered World War II. Ironically, Lombard was returning from her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana from a war bond rally when the plane she and her mother and twenty other people were on crashed near Las Vegas. Lombard worked with some great directors in her brief career besides Lubitsch including Howard Hawks in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and Alfred  Hitchcock in one of his few comedies MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941). She was nominated for an Oscar for MY MAN GODFREY (1936) but her turn as Maria Tura in TO BE OR NOT TO BE may be her finest role.

Watching Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE you would think he played dozens of comedic roles in the 30s and 40s. Although he also starred in the film version of the popular play CHARLEY'S AUNT (1941), Benny never really appeared in another hit comedy although he often played himself in films like LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (1940) or IT'S IN THE BAG (1945) alongside comedy partner Fred Allen.  Television is where Benny's fame would grow and endure. His own TV show THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ran from 1950 to 1965. But Benny's performance as Joseph Tura is one of the best comic performances I have ever seen. Benny's deadpan reaction as Sobinski walks out of his 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy not once but twice is priceless.

Some of my favorite supporting actors appear in TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Call it typecasting but Lionel Atwill, more familiar to horror fans from MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), is perfect as the overly dramatic thespian Rawitch. Catch Atwill in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) where he gives an incredible over the top performance as Inspector Krogh, matched only by Basil Rathbone's equally excitable Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. German born and Lubitsch favorite Sig Ruman often played Nazis like the pompous Colonel Ehrhardt in TO BE OR NOT TO BE or the seemingly sympathetic German guard Schulz in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953). Ruman has great comic timing and facial expressions in TO BE. But Ruman could play more than just commanders and guards such as part bartender, part Air Mail Express owner Dutchy in Howard Hawks ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939).

A young Robert Stack plays Polish pilot Stanislav Sobinski in one of his early film roles. Stack is handsome and charming in TO BE OR NOT TO BE in a role that's typically fluff. Stack would later become famous as Eliot Ness in the TV show THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). Later in his career, Stack would unexpectedly find a second career as a comedy actor in the Zucker Brothers spoof of airplane disaster movies AIRPLANE! (1980). And the duo of Felix Bressart (another Lubitsch regular) as Greenberg and Tom Dugan as Bronski are perfect as bit players, under appreciated until they're needed to play the roles of not only a lifetime but for their survival.

Count me as a new fan of director Ernst Lubitsch. I can't wait to check out his two other classic comedies NINOTCHKA (1939) co-written by Billy Wilder and starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart which was remade (like TO BE OR NOT TO BE) as YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998) starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Besides TO BE OR NOT TO BE having been remade in the 1980's, the influence of Lubitsch's comedy can even be seen in Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) which has a sequence involving a German actress (Diane Kruger) working undercover with a British intelligence officer (Michael Fassbender) and American soldiers, disguised as Nazis, to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Lubitsch would be pleased to know how beloved his little comedy has withstood time and remains a classic, poking fun at his theater roots while condemning a mad dictator and his murderous regime as the Great War began.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

South Pacific (1958)

It was my high school performing a musical during my sophomore year that made me realize that even in a small theater with uncomfortable seats one could be transported to Oklahoma or Siam or Paris for a couple of hours. My best friend Pete brought me to watch the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific (Pete would perform in the musical The Music Man our junior year). I came away with a better appreciation for the live performance of a musical. Coincidentally, the song Bali Ha'i from South Pacific helped explain the name of the spring formal at my high school where the girls asked the boys to the dance. Bali Ha'i in South Pacific is a mythical island, mysterious and exotic. I can never get the song out of mind.  "Bali Haiiiii.   You will finddddd...."

South Pacific the musical premiered in 1949 but it took nine years for the film version of SOUTH PACIFIC to hit the big screen in 1958. Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the musical with Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, directs SOUTH PACIFIC the film from a screenplay by Paul Osborn based on the musical which is based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. Although SOUTH PACIFIC is (obviously) set in the South Pacific, Kauai, Hawaii doubles for the fictional Polynesian islands where the story takes place.

Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) with the Marine Corps arrives on a PBY (sea plane) to a South Pacific island on a secret mission. While wandering on the beach looking for Captain Brackett (Russ Brown) with the U.S. Navy, Cable runs into a bunch of Seabees led by Luther Billis (Ray Walston). Billis is in a dispute with Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a local woman who's overpaying the Polynesian people to sell trinkets so the French plantation owners don't exploit them. When Bloody Mary sees the handsome Cable, she tries to cast a spell on Cable to lure him to her nearby island Bali Ha'i, supposedly inhabited by numerous beautiful women.

Cable finds Brackett and Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) and explains his mission. He wants to monitor Japanese ship movement surreptitiously from a couple of deserted islands called Maria Louie, reporting back intelligence to his commanders. Cable is looking for another man, someone familiar with the area to accompany him. He's interested in local French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi).  But De Becque's not interested. He's busy wooing Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor). De Becque has a mysterious past. Years earlier, De Becque murdered a bully in France and fled. De Becque also has two young children, his island wife deceased.

With De Becque turning down Cable's offer, Cable takes up Luther's invitation to go visit Bali Ha'i.  On the island, Cable falls in love with a young local woman Liat (France Nguyen) who turns out to be Bloody Mary's daughter. But Cable's prejudices get in their way of their relationship. Meanwhile, De Becque tells Nellie about his past and his young mixed race children which scares her away from committing to him.

De Becque reconsiders Cable's offer to take on the dangerous mission. Billis sneaks on board the PBY and inadvertently causes a diversion with the Japanese that allows Cable and De Becque to sneak onto the rocky island.  The two men spy on a Japanese convoy and provide other good intelligence for the U.S. to push the Japanese out of the area. But as the enemy pull out, they attack the small island. As the Navy activates Operation Alligator to rescue Cable and De Becque, only one of the men will return from the suicide mission to be reunited with his love.

Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals always surprise me with their serious themes disguised behind beautiful songs. CAROUSEL has domestic abuse and suicide. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) touches on the fanaticism of Nazism. With SOUTH PACIFIC, it's prejudice. Nellie Forbush, raised in Arkansas, has issues with marrying a man who's been married before and has mixed race children. Cable loves Liat but faces his prejudices that she's a Polynesian woman and not white. These kind of topics would pave the way for future musicals with tough subjects like Les Miserables and Rent.

SOUTH PACIFIC might be my second favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical next to THE SOUND OF MUSIC in regards to its songs. 'Bali Ha'i, 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair' and 'Some Enchanted Evening' are all fantastic, memorable songs. Except for Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston, none of the actors in SOUTH PACIFIC sing with their own voices, not unusual for film versions of musicals. Actor Ken Clark who plays Stew Pot has his singing parts dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft whose deep voice people will recognize as Tony the Tiger from Frosted Flakes commercials and who sang 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch' in the TV Christmas special THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966).

I have to admit the only parts of the play I remember from high school were the scenes with the Seabees and nurses singing to each other.  If there was a suicide mission subplot or themes about racism, it went over my head as I was too enthralled with the romantic aspects of SOUTH PACIFIC. One scene not in the musical version of SOUTH PACIFIC is an unbelievably corny sequence involving Luther Billis stowing away on the PBY taking Cable and De Becque to the rocky island Maria Louie. Billis is caught and accidentally falls out of the plane (with parachute). He then proceeds to draw the attention of the entire Japanese Navy it seems. It is too far fetched and out of place for the story.

Director Logan also fusses with colored filters in SOUTH PACIFIC to illicit moods and emotions from the audience based on different songs.  Purples, oranges, greens, and yellows fill the entire screen.  It's an interesting idea that never quite pans out. Logan would later admit he made a mistake using the filters. But I did find Logan's staging of some of the songs and dancing very naturalistic and un-Broadway like. And he uses the lush tropical location to its utmost potential.

Mitzi Gaynor is perfect as the All-American girl Nellie Forbush. I wish the perky, effervescent Gaynor was in the film more to be honest. Rossano Brazzi is handsome as the older Frenchman De Becque even though Brazzi is actually Italian. Brazzi would star with Katherine Hepburn in David Lean's romantic film SUMMERTIME (1955) and even appear in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981). John Kerr as Lt. Cable is the epitome of the supporting male actor in the 1950s. Good looking, a decent actor but stiff, following in the footsteps of other 1950s actors like Jeffrey Hunter, John Agar, and Farley Granger.  All were fine actors but cut from the same mold and never broke out as big stars.

I got to know actor Ray Walston a little bit when I worked with him on OF MICE AND MEN (1991). I only knew Walston from the TV show MY FAVORITE MARTIAN or as Mr. Hand in FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) but Walston's career took off in the1950s and 60s in films like SOUTH PACIFIC, DAMN YANKEES! (also1958), and Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT (1960). In a small but enjoyable role, Tom Laughlin plays Lt. Buzz Adams, devil may care pilot of the PBY called The Bouncing Belch. Never heard of Tom Laughlin? Laughlin would later make a career as Billy Jack, an half Indian, ex-Green Beret hakido expert fighting motorcycle gangs and Washington D.C. in films like BORN LOSERS (1967), BILLY JACK (1971), and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977). Juanita Hall who plays Bloody Mary is the only cast member in the film who performed the same part in the original Broadway production (although her voice is dubbed for the singing parts in the film).

When I compared the musical film LES MISERABLES (2012) to the non-musical 1935 version a few years ago, I liked the non-musical, literary LES MISERABLES version better.  With SOUTH PACIFIC, I think I enjoyed the high school performance better than the big budget Technicolor version which shocks me. I thought the exotic live locations would win me over.  But it didn't. Television would remake SOUTH PACIFC in 2001 with Glenn Close as Nellie Forbush and Harry Connick, Jr as Cable but that version didn't win over many fans.  SOUTH PACIFIC the film isn't terrible but if you want to really enjoy the musical, my suggestion is to catch it on the stage where the songs and characters and their dramas can be enjoyed more intimately.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

I never had a Christmas in Connecticut but I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of Christmas's in New England specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of those Christmas's was the only time I spent the holiday with just my wife and three month old son, no other family (who all lived on the West Coast). Another fond New England winter memory was going to a New Hampshire bed and breakfast that had a frozen pond for ice skating and horse drawn sleigh rides.

But those are just nostalgic memories. The CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) that I want to talk about is a delightful holiday screwball comedy released as WWII was ending. I can't think of a better film for moviegoers to see after several years of death and gloom from the great war. Comedies by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra around this time had social commentary to go with the humor but CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT directed by Peter Godfrey (who came previously from the theater) is just flat out fast paced and funny with some delicious doses of sexual innuendo. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT would make a great high school play, its humor universal. But it's an original screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini from a story by Aileen Hamilton.

This comedy begins like a war drama as a U.S. Navy ship is sunk by a German U-boat during WWII. Quartermaster Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and Seaman Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) manage to survive, adrift for eighteen days in a life raft before they're rescued. The two men convalesce in a Naval hospital. While recuperating, Jones pretends to be in love with his nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) so he can get better meals. But because Jones starved longer than Sinkewicz, he can't eat solid foods. So, Jones and Mary Lee read Smart Housekeeping to pass the time. In particular, they enjoy the stories and recipes by food writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Nurse Lee decides to write to the magazine to see if Elizabeth might cook a big meal for war hero Jefferson Jones on her Connecticut farm.

The letter arrives to Smart Housekeeping publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) who loves the idea and potential publicity. Yardley meets with the magazine's editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) to ask him to secure Elizabeth's permission. But Dudley is besides himself. The truth is Elizabeth Lane doesn't cook or live on a farm in Connecticut or have a child or husband. She writes her stories from an apartment in New York. The recipes are courtesy of her friend and restaurant owner Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). Elizabeth and Dudley will be both be fired if Yardley learns the truth.

But a plan formulates in Elizabeth's head when her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) proposes marriage to her. At first, she turns him down before realizing Sloan owns a farmhouse in the town of Stanfield, Connecticut. Elizabeth agrees to marry Sloan if he agrees to host war hero Jefferson Jones for Christmas and save her job. And so begins a holiday deception of epic proportions as Elizabeth juggles not only Navy hero Jones but her boss Alexander Yardley (who has invited himself for Christmas as well) from discovering she has no cooking ability. Sloan manages to provide a "baby" for Elizabeth as his housekeeper Norah (Una O'Connor) watches a neighbor's child while she works in a factory. Sloan keeps trying to sneak in a quick marriage ceremony with Elizabeth presided by the local judge Crowthers (Dick Elliott) but Elizabeth soon finds herself falling for Jones, complicating the charade even further.

Inevitably, Elizabeth's ruse begins to unravel. A different neighbor leaves a different baby (different sex and hair color) the next day further complicating the situation. Elizabeth manages to flip a pancake for Yardley (after practicing with Felix earlier). When Sloan attempts another quick marriage service, a representative from the town invites Jefferson and everyone to a dance in his honor, delaying Elizabeth and Sloan's marriage again. At the dance, Jefferson and Elizabeth sneak away, followed by a suspicious Yardley. Jefferson and Yardley get arrested for accidentally stealing a sleigh. When they return to the farmhouse after a night in jail (with apologies from the local authorities), Elizabeth's ruse is exposed by Yardley who fires Elizabeth briefly before having a change of heart allowing Elizabeth to keep her job (and double her salary) as well as make sweet music with Jefferson Jones instead of Sloan. Proposals are broken, weddings cancelled, people fired, egos hurt but it all works out in the end.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a Christmas film without Santa Claus or reindeer or elves. What it does have is our romanticized image of Christmas on a New England farm house covered in snow, a beautiful Christmas tree covered in tinsel, and a family gathering for the holidays.  Only there really isn't a family, just a bunch of adult orphans. War hero Jefferson Jones calls himself a "rolling stone." Publisher Yardley's wife and kids are out of town so he invites himself. Elizabeth is by herself, wooed by Sloan who also seems to be a bachelor with no family. Felix's family is his restaurant and cooking. These "orphans" all come together through a series of comedic lies and deceptions for a holiday gathering.

Many films from the 1940's were based on plays like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) or THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Director Godfrey himself started in the theater before moving to directing films. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT feels like it should be based on a play yet it's an original screenplay. The film moves so easily with effortless transitions from scene to scene. There's never a clunky moment to be had.

Barbara Stanwyck floated between dramas and comedy with ease. She enjoyed doing a comedy after working on a drama which could be draining.  In 1944, she had played the murderous femme fatale in Billy Wilder's classic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY but Elizabeth Lane in CONNECTICUT is a far cry from that viper. And her comedic roles were varied. Catch her in BALL OF FIRE (1941) as a showgirl and then watch her as a fake Martha Stewart in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and you'll marvel at her versatility.  Stanwyck and director Godfrey would also work together on the film noir THE TWO MRS. CARROLS (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and the thriller CRY WOLF (1947) with Erroll Flynn. And check out Stanwyck's big shouldered fur coats courtesy of costume designer Edith Head.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a reunion for two colorful supporting actors from 1942's CASABLANCA (also a Warner Bros film like CONNECTICUT) in Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall. In CASABLANCA, Greenstreet played the shifty fez wearing Signor Ferrari and Sakall was Rick's maitre'd Carl.  Both are scene stealers but in CONNECTICUT they have bigger parts. Greenstreet always brought some gallows humor to his dark characters in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) or CASABLANCA but Alexander Yardley is a pure comic performance from the weighty actor. The lovable Sakall worked with Stanwyck on BALL OF FIRE and they make a fine team again in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT as Sakall's Felix rescues Elizabeth time and time again from her duplicitous plan.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Morgan as war hero and love interest Jefferson Jones. Morgan is an affable actor, good looking and versatile. Morgan along with another actor I like Jack Carson would make a series of buddy films in the late 40s like TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946) and TWO GUYS FROM TEXAS (1948). Morgan would semi-retire in the 1950s. Reginald Gardiner as Elizabeth's suitor John Sloan is hilarious. Gardiner, with his trademark pencil thin moustache, appeared in many comedies including Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Robert Shayne gives a droll performance as Elizabeth's duplicitous editor Dudley Beecham. And Irish actress Una O'Connor who made a career playing hysterical housekeepers and servants in horror films like THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays (what a surprise) John Sloan's housekeeper in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

Hollywood has a love affair with a good Christmas tale set on the East Coast and often New England.  Before CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire holiday musical HOLIDAY INN (1942) was also set in Connecticut.  Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) takes place in fictional Bedford Falls which feel like upstate New York to me. Another New York Christmas film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET was set in Manhattan. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) which owes some of its plot to HOLIDAY INN moved the locale from Connecticut to Vermont. Colorado, Utah, and Montana all get as much or more snow than the East Coast (except maybe Buffalo) but filmmakers and movie fans adore the Norman Rockwell setting of Christmas at an inn or farm house or snow covered small town in the New England region.

To no great surprise, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT was remade in 1992 but as a TV movie.  What may surprise fans of the original is the TV remake had a remarkably impressive cast with Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Curtis, and Richard Roundtree. The real shocker is Arnold Schwarzenegger directed this version in his only full length directorial credit.

So find yourself a rocking chair (you'll get the joke when you watch the film), flip some flap jacks, wait for a snowy day, and sit down to watch one of the funniest warmest Christmas movies that was ever made in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.