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Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Flick Clique: June 17-23

The Artist (2011). A film that we strangely avoided in the theaters; was fortunate enough to review it on disc for DVD Talk (I just filed it today, actually). I was expecting it to be a little cute and self-aware, which it is to some extent, but the sheer sincerity and craftsmanship on display is what ultimately won me over. Loved Jean Dejardin and Beatrice Bejo, and that little dog is quite a talent. My full review!
Brute Force (1947).This was actually quite a surprise – a gritty, unsparing noir prison drama with a great cast and an exciting story that’s kinda like the male counterpart to one of my personal faves, Caged (1950). A sullen Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, a prisoner who, along with his cell-mates, plans not only to escape but to exact revenge on the sadistic assistant warden played by Hume Cronyn. This has an interesting structure with Lancaster and most of the other guys in his cell having flashbacks to what they did to get there. Lancaster was involved with the mob, another (John Hoyt) was done in by a double-crossing femme fatale, a third (Whit Bissell) embezzled $3,000 from his employers, etc. This is all done as a lead-in for Lancaster’s eventual break-out, which is nicely staged. An unexpectedly hard-edged film in which all of the participants (except a few of the women in the flashbacks) are reprehensible, weak-willed, or annoying (the calypso singer from I Walked With A Zombie, appearing here as a fellow inmate). That might make the film hard to get through, but I found it absorbing all the way. My favorite characters were Lancaster’s and Cronyn’s, but I also enjoyed Jeff Corey (who has one of the most expressive faces in all of cinemadom) as Lancaster’s ultimately disloyal cell-mate and Sam Levene (who was in the original cast of Guys and Dolls) as the salt-of-the-earth dude of the group. Fantastic film!
Circus of Horrors (1960). One of two vintage horror flicks that we checked out on Netflix streaming (now that the TV season is over, we’ve had lots more time for movies). Circus of Horrors is a wild colorfully photographed British yarn that plays something like Joan Crawford’s Berserk with better plotting and more beautiful gals. It concerns Anton Diffring as a twisted plastic surgeon who, coming across a disfigured little girl in post-WWII France, decides to help her family out by a) repairing her face, and b) buying up her family’s struggling traveling circus. As a circus proprietor, he takes it upon himself to beef up the circus by recruiting prostitutes and other undesirables, repairing their faces, training them on various circus activities, and making them stars of the ring – whew! Of course, since they eventually see opportunities to escape the circus life, Diffring devises different “accidents” to prevent them from escaping. Pure hokum, but the widescreen color photography is nice and there are several grisly/campy death scenes to recommend it. This film is also apparently known to be very influential on a generation of young boys’ libidos, with its cast-full of stacked, overly made-up ladies. This also contains the popular (in the U.K.) pop song “Look For A Star”, an early Tony Hatch composition which gets played ad nauseum throughout the movie.
Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965). The other ’60s Brit horror “masterpiece” we saw on Netflix is an anthology which revolves around a group of men who share a train compartment with a shady stranger (Peter Cushing). Tarot deck in hand, the man proceeds to tell each guy his sorry fate for the near-future, which involve a vampire, a werewolf, a voodoo cult and a killer creeping vine. More cheesy than scary, with some segments more successful than others. My favorite one had Christopher Lee as a snobby art critic who is undone by the disembodied hand of an artist that he dared to piss off. Wasn’t this one fodder for a Simpsons “Treehouse Of Terror” episode? Unlike Circus Of Horrors above, the streaming version of this one was merely okay with the widescreen film cut off into 4×3 proportions and a muddy picture.
Plan B (2009). Bland, modestly budgeted Argentinian gay flick about a guy who decides to take revenge on his ex-girlfriend by becoming friendly with her current boyfriend (who doesn’t know he’s the ex). He ends up falling for the guy, however, which is where this snail-paced film’s title comes from. Decent performances from the leads, with a nice, casual feel which verges on the snoozy at times. The story goes in strange, unexplained directions sometimes, however. Although this got some good reviews on Netflix, it’s not one of the better same-sex dramas I’ve seen.

Flick Clique: August 14-20

Blackmail Is My Life (1967). This Japanese gangster drama caught my eye on Netflix instant. Actor Hiroki Matsukata plays a yakuza who gathers his three best pals to blackmail a businessman. Initially all goes as planned, but as their deeds get exposed to the rival yakuza gangs it leads to death and what was previously a benign snow job becomes a dark revenge fantasy. The first half of this film is a riot, directed in a wild, stylized manner by Kinji Fukasaku. The daring use of quick cuts, color/black & white and still photos make it a trippy must-see — up until the more conventional second half, that is. I also enjoyed the tight interplay within Matsukata’s gang, which includes a lug, a pretty woman, and a part-black boxer. At times their exploits play like a groovy Japanese mashup of Mission: Impossible and The Monkees. The film becomes more incomprehensible and less zippy as it moves along, however. Even with a letdown of a closing scene, Blackmail Is My Life is the kind of flick that grabs you by the lapels and never lets go.
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979). I TiVo’d this live action comedy from the Hanna Barbera studio when it popped up on the ThisTV schedule one recent Saturday morning. One can be forgiven for thinking this film about a robotic, crime fighting dog came from the Disney studio — superficially it has the same feel as stuff like The North Avenue Irregulars, but with a more “wacky” and cartoonish vibe. The story revolves around a young inventor (Wesley Eurie of Land of the Lost) who has just been fired by the disapproving head of a security company (played by Conrad Bain of Diff’rent Strokes) despite the fact that he’s dating the boss’s daughter (One Day at a Time‘s Valerie Bertinelli). Eurie’s ace-in-the-hole is the animatronic Canine Home Protection System (C.H.O.M.P.S.) he devised, an unassuming dog-bot that fights off intruders so well it prompts the head of a rival company (Jim Backus) to hire two bumbling henchmen (Chuck McCann and Red Buttons) to acquire the plans for the wonder pooch. A little too shrill and cheesy for my tastes; my advice is to only show this to a kid if you secretly loathe him or her. Apparently this was the only time Hanna Barbera ventured into live action films — the score by longtime H.B. composer Hoyt Curtin certainly hews to a Saturday Morning Cartoon formula (the doggie’s “take charge” theme will rattle around in my brain for weeks to come). Hanna Barbera’s midcentury modern studio building in Studio City, California stands in for Bain’s security company headquarters here.
Downhill Racer (1969). Interesting if flawed high octane sports drama with Robert Redford as a cocky skier. Redford plays an aspiring Olympian from the sticks who is lured by the glory and commercialism that comes with being a winner, despite the efforts of his pragmatic coach (played by a young Gene Hackman) to keep him in line. Taking on the business of sports is a rather novel theme, and in that respect the film succeeds. It also has some excitingly filmed ski scenes and great atmosphere of the athletes and the local color in Germany. The film was directed in a quasi-documentary style by Michael Ritchie, who would more successfully team with Redford in The Candidate a few years later (he was also at the helm of a personal fave of mine, 1975’s Smile). To be honest, I’m not sure why this film was selected as part of the Criterion Collection. Despite the stunning outdoor photography, the film suffers from poky pacing and an expendable romantic subplot. I also take issue with the casting of Redford, who is too old and not the right type. At least the DVD has some nice extras, including a vintage making-of featurette that demonstrates how those stunning skier p.o.v. shots came to be (with lots of trial and error, it turns out).
Frisco Jenny (1932). Another quick ‘n tasty William Wellman pre-Code flick from my Forbidden Hollywood DVD set. I saw this one once before, in 2000, and was even compelled to write a mini-review of it for the Internet Movie Database at the time. Here it is (they cut off the end, for some reason):

Ruth Chatterton was a fascinating early ’30s leading lady – she was quite average looking and somewhat chubby, with a brittle, theatrical acting style that hasn’t dated very well. And yet, there’s something in every one of her performances that’s worth watching. She specialized in hard-edged, independent women of the type that Bette Davis would later do with much more depth and sympathy. “Frisco Jenny” was typical of Chatterton’s Warner Brothers vehicles, with a shopworn “women’s picture” storyline that gave her plenty of opportunities to grit her teeth and snap off at characters who got in her way. Nice direction by William Wellman, with a well-placed earthquake to add

That earthquake scene is a real pip, by the way — excitingly constructed and very sophisticated for 1932. I loved Chatterton’s performance and found her very touching during her final scenes. A Pre-Code gem, worth seeing and re-seeing!
I Walk Alone (1946). A surprisingly plush, very involving melodrama with noir elements that I stumbled across in Netflix’s instant offerings. I Walk Alone is the first film that teamed Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, with a sultry Lizabeth Scott in support (what stars!). Burt plays an ex-con who just got sprung from a long sentence (“Fourteen years!” as he repeatedly grunts through gritted teeth) for an alcohol smuggling incident that allowed fellow criminal and pal Kirk to escape punishment. For his pain Lancaster is seeking the payment he was promised from Douglas, now the operator of a swanky nightclub where chanteuse Lizabeth Scott sings. Problem is, Douglas is not sentimental and feels he has no other obligations for his now ex-buddy. A nifty film which kept me interested all the way, even factoring in the youthfulness of the two actors for the characters they’re playing. Burt, Kirk and Lizabeth are all great. The script plays out in a routine manner, but it’s aided by the lushest photography, costuming and set designs that Paramount could buy. I especially enjoyed the dinner scene with Burt and Lizabeth serenaded by a jazz quartet. The scene below has a dubbed Scott doing a torch song, pretty indicative of its luxe aesthetic:

Limitless (2011). Another current, CGI-aided thriller that Christopher rented recently. I enjoyed it, up to a point. Limitless follows Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra, a struggling New York City writer with a dingy apartment to match his unkempt appearance. A chance encounter with his ex-brother in-law leads him in to possess a cache of potent, experimental memory-boosting pills. In short order, he completes the brilliant novel he was attempting, learns a few languages, and impresses his pretty girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and others with his seemingly inhuman perception. As he grows more dependent on the pills, he becomes a Wall Street trading whiz and a business savant, which attracts the attention of mogul Robert De Niro. Nefarious baddies want the pills, however, and Cooper must elude them while battling the devastating side effects of his addiction. This was actually a pretty well-done film — the results of Cooper’s magic pills are effectively conveyed through CGI, color changes, fish eye lenses and other tricks (I wish the trippy zoom effect wasn’t used on the opening credits, however, since its impact is dulled when it comes up again later on). I liked Cooper’s performance, too, especially in the early stages when he finds out just how powerful the pills are. Once he becomes a stereotypical Yuppie Douchebag the film goes somewhat South, however. The problems of a cushy Wall Street investor don’t interest me, no matter how hard the film tries. One intriguing scene has the Cooper character meeting with his ex-wife, nicely played by Anna Friel, who is now battling a pill addiction of her own. The scene hints at the depth that this otherwise silly (but very fun) flick could have explored.
Pornography: A Thriller (2009). From the IMDb’s plot description: “A gay porn star’s mysterious disappearance becomes an obsession for both a writer and another adult film star, leading them into dark supernatural corners that were never meant to be explored.” A low budget indie that held some promise, and succeeds if you dial your expectations way down. Is the cast attractive? Not really. The acting is spotty and the budget is non-existent, but the movie does have a semi-interesting premise. One’s enjoyment of the film depends on whether one can swallow the colossally huge coincidence that a gay porn history researcher winds up living in the very same apartment where the disappeared actor whose work he’s investigating once resided. The film takes on a different, lighter tone in the second half, almost becoming a meta-comment on itself.

Flick Clique: March 13-19

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009). This sad telling of a gorgeous Akita dog’s loyalty to his owner is the ne plus ultra of Heartwarming Dog Tales, but don’t hold that against it. Richard Gere stars as a college professor who happens upon the pup, abandoned at his hometown’s train station where he commutes every day. The two forge a bond despite the protests of his wife, Joan Allen. Director Lasse Hallström fashions the story in a simple, straightforward way which includes shooting (somewhat unsuccessfully) from the dog’s viewpoint. It’s manipulative as all get out, but damned if we didn’t get teary-eyed near the end. The dogs used in this production are beautiful creatures, and good actors as well. I was especially touched by the scene in which Allen comes across the now elderly Hachi at the station, waiting for the long deceased Gere to return (sniff, sniff). This was based on a real, revered dog in 1920s Japan, one whose statue at his Shibuya train station attracts visitors to this day. The story probably would have worked better as a period piece with Japanese actors, but this is an okay substitute. The only unfortunate choice was the overly loud, unsubtle soundtrack.
poster_mister880Mister 880 (1950). An appealing, underrated light drama with Miracle on 34th Street‘s Edmund Gwenn as a cuddly old man who prints up counterfeit dollar bills to make ends meet. His handiwork comes to the attention of federal investigator Burt Lancaster, who traces the bills to Gwenn’s kindly neighbor Dorothy McGuire. A crystalline print of this Fox production ran on This TV; I found it to be a pleasant surprise, despite Gwenn’s character being milked for all the maudlin, sticky sweetness it can possibly get (a piano “Aud Land Syne” accompanies every scene he’s in!). Lancaster is a delight in a role much lighter than what we usually think of for him, and the smart McGuire is a good match for manly Burt. This is supposedly based on a real life story, although like Hatchi the events were likely embellished with about ten pounds of maple syrup.
The Thin Blue Line (1988). Pioneering documentary that I shockingly haven’t seen until this past week. Erroll Morris’ examination of a 1976 police officer’s shooting in Dallas still seems startlingly fresh — it has a distinct point of view and gives its points in a way far removed from the standard “talking head” style of the day. Morris focuses on one Randall Adams, a drifter who was wrongly accused and given the death penalty for the officer’s shooting death. Although most of the evidence pointed to the troubled teen whose car Adams shared that fateful night, local law enforcement and the Texas judicial system basically steamrolled Adams into a hasty conviction. Morris uses reenactments, close-ups of documents and newpaper clippings, and a pounding Philip Glass score to prove that faulty memories and eyewitness accounts can be shaped to whatever point of view the stronger side can obtain — often to tragic results. Adams is an appealing, aw-shucks kind of guy, but I also enjoyed the colorful and very Texan cast of supporting characters. These include a defense attorney who is a vocal clone of Roseanne Barr and a trashy blonde who describes herself as a helpful busybody while footage from an old Nancy Drew-esque b-movie is playing. Although the film ends before the full Randall Adams story has played out, it’s still an interesting film in itself. I couldn’t imagine things like Bowling for Columbine or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room being made without having paid a partial debt to The Thin Blue Line.