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Monday, October 29, 2007

Creature From the Black Lagoon Movies (originally published 5/97)

I'm sure we all remember that scene near the beginning of "Jaws," in which a young woman is swimming in the ocean shallows alone. When the camera angle cut to an underwater view of her legs and that ominous music intoned its Stygian warning, we all shivered together. Spielberg was tapping into one of our primal fears - the fear of what might be lurking just below the surface of natural bodies of water. When we dangle our unclothed legs in the ocean or in a lake, in the back of our minds we can't help wondering what might touch them, and whether we would scream if something did.

Actually, that memorable "Jaws" scene had, in fact, been done once before, and even better, in a fifties horror film called "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." The creature referred to in the title, the Gill-Man, was an amphibious life form, possessed of legs with which to walk on land and yet equipped with gills for breathing underwater. Knowing that Spielberg had borrowed from "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" for his adaptation of Peter Benchley's "Jaws," I felt as if some sort of circle had closed when I heard about a TV-movie based on a Benchley book called "Creature" in which there is an amphibious monster. If you caught the Benchley TV-movie and are interested in seeing the films that undoubtedly inspired it, look for these titles on home video.

"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954). When a fossil hand is discovered in the Amazon area bearing indications that the hand was webbed, an expedition is sent up the Amazon to follow up. What they're hoping for are more fossil remains. Instead, they stumble across a living specimen. Its form is roughly humanoid, and yet it breathes through gills. The Gill-Man is none too happy about having the solitude of its sleepy lagoon disturbed by these human intruders, and generally reacts with hostility. On the other hand, the creature seems fascinated by the expedition's female member, Kay (played by Julia Adams). Before the danger is known, Kay dons her bathing suit and goes for a swim in the lagoon. Director Jack Arnold uses this sequence to create the creepy scene I referred to earlier, the one Spielberg would pay homage to years later in "Jaws." As we watch Kay swim from underwater, we see the creature swimming along underneath her. He doesn't attack, just keeps pace with her and watches her, entranced. Eventually, as King Kong had done with Fay Wray, the beast steals away the beauty, thus sealing his doom.

"Revenge of the Creature" (1955). Actually, of course, the creature didn't really die. Only poor box office numbers can truly drive a stake through the heart of a good movie monster. In the sequel, a second expedition to the Black Lagoon succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man and bringing him back to civilization. He is held in captivity to be studied by ichthyologists. Needless to say, he eventually gets away, leaving a trail of havoc in his wake. Once again, the poor old thing finds his head turned by a pretty face, this time a female researcher played by Lori Nelson. He has her in his clutches and is making tracks for the ocean and safety when for the second time he is gunned down by humans who are willing to put up with anything from the scientific find of a lifetime except stealing their women.

"The Creature Walks Among Us" (1956). The Gill-Man didn't really die, but of course you knew that. The third and final film in the series presents us with a truly offbeat variation on the original premise. When the creature's gills are burned away in a fire, it is discovered that he does have lungs after all. The remainder of the film shows us how the creature becomes increasingly "humanized," with a nasty piece of work played by Jeff Morrow reminding us that being human is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be.

By the way, the first two films of this series were shot in 3-D. You won't find them that way on video, but if you ever have the opportunity to attend a theatrical screening of either in 3-D, don't miss it. Underwater photography and 3-D make for a fascinating combination.

Weissmuller as Tarzan (originally published 5/97)

It's frustrating sometimes, the degree to which the contents of this column are dictated by what is actually available on video. This month, for example, I wanted to do a column on Tarzan movies, prompted by the recent release of "Tarzan and the Lost City." I was going to pick one representative film from each of my favorite movie Tarzans, commenting along the way on the different interpretations each had brought to the role. To my dismay, when I went to the catalogs and reference books to see what had been released, it turned out that in just about every case, it was the best examples of each Tarzan's work that were unavailable, leaving only grossly unrepresentative dregs to be seen.

The one exception was Johnny Weissmuller, whose Tarzan pictures are fairly well represented on home video. The upside of this, I decided, is that Weissmuller is after all just about everybody's favorite Tarzan. So, rather than give up on the idea entirely, I thought I'd just go with the flow by limiting myself to the Weissmuller Tarzan films.

Having been a champion Olympic swimmer, Weissmuller was recruited for the role on the grounds that a trained athlete would come closer to looking the part than a trained actor. Weissmuller certainly qualified on that score. Better yet, his facility with yodeling allowed him to furnish the memorable jungle yell that would be appropriated, through the magic of dubbing, by many subsequent Tarzans. For a sampling of Weissmuller's classic screen appearances as Tarzan, look for these titles on home video.

"Tarzan, the Ape Man" (1932). If you've come to think of Tarzan films as cheesy, low budget B-movies on the late late show, this classy, high-gloss production may surprise you. It was produced by MGM at a time when that studio was not in the habit of doing anything halfway. This version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel abandons the whole idea of Tarzan being a son of English nobility who came to be raised in the jungle by apes through misadventure. Here he's just a mysterious jungle man who wins the affections of Jane Parker (Maureen O'Sullivan), an English woman on safari with her father and soon-to-be former fiancee. Tarzan, although fluent in Chimpanzee and Elephant languages, is able to master only the rudiments of English, very convenient for a role played by a non-actor.

"Tarzan and His Mate" (1934). The sequel to the first Weissmuller film is generally regarded as the best of all his films, possibly the best Tarzan movie ever. It has also earned a certain amount of notoriety. Jane by this time has gone completely native, running around with scarcely more on than Tarzan. What's more, they are living in what appears to be a state of conjugal bliss, as the title makes clear, without the benefit of any sort of marriage ceremony. The keepers of the Motion Picture Production Code were not happy.

"Tarzan Finds a Son" (1939). By the time of the third Weissmuller-O'Sullivan Tarzan outing, "Tarzan Escapes" (1936), the Production Code had acquired new teeth, including the ability to fine violators. That was the beginning of the familiar Tarzan treehouse, which at least allowed for the possibility of separate sleeping quarters. Naturally, the only way for this unorthodox couple to legitimately have a child was through adoption, the alternative being unthinkable under the Code. So it was that they took in "Boy" (Johnny Sheffield), the orphaned survivor of a jungle plane crash.

"Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942). The title speaks for itself: take Tarzan out of his familiar African jungle and turn him loose in the very different jungle of New York. Tarzan and Jane make the trip in pursuit of the men who have kidnapped their son to display him in a circus. The conceit worked well, but it marked the beginnning of the end for the series. This was O'Sullivan's last appearance as Jane, and with her gone the subsequent sequels began a slow descent into the cheesiness that you recall from the late late show. But despite their relatively ignoble end, the Weissmuller films continue to represent a touchstone for latter day Tarzans. Weissmuller had given Burroughs's creation a face and, more importantly, a voice. No one who has followed him in the role has ever entirely emerged from his shadow, nor is it likely that anyone ever will.

Doppelganger Movies (originally published 5/97)

You've heard it lots of times: everybody has a double somewhere in the world. But why should that belief be so widespread? The complexity of the DNA molecule allows for such an astronomical number of combinations that the probability of actual duplication is vanishingly remote. In the absence of factors loading the genetic dice, such as the birth of twins, the likelihood that you or I have an actual double is virtually zero.

So why are we so fascinated by the prospect? Psychologists speak of a syndrome in which unbearable guilt feelings can lead people to create a fictional alter ego, a doppelganger (German for "double walker"), who then receives the blame for those actions that inspired the feelings of guilt in the first place. Whether you buy that explanation or not, the fact remains that storytellers have long been intrigued by the premise of the double. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, exploits the idea in a story called "William Wilson," in which a disturbed young man hunts down and kills a man just because the unfortunate fellow shares his name. As his victim expires, Wilson is horrified to discover that the man is his exact double. Filmmakers also discovered the doppelganger premise long ago. The most recent example is the current Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, "Sliding Doors." For a sampling of earlier doppelganger films, look for these titles on home video.

"The Student of Prague" (1913). In this early silent classic, German filmmaker Paul Wegener combines the doppelganger theme with a Faustian bargain with the devil to create one of the seminal works in the history of the horror film genre. In it, a university student sells his mirror reflection to the devil in return for earthly riches. Since the reflection no longer belongs to him, it walks right out of the mirror and takes on an independent existence, eventually becoming its former owner's nemesis. This one isn't easy to track down, but it does exist on video. Facets Video (, for example, lists the film in its massive catalog.

"The Man Who Haunted Himself" (1970). Flash forward 57 years, and the reverberations of "The Student of Prague" can still be seen. That's how influential it was. This variation on the story concerns a businessman named Harold Pelham (Roger Moore) who nearly dies in an automobile accident. When trauma surgeons revive him, somehow his double is brought back to the land of the living along with his original self. As he begins to hear reports of people seeing him in places where he knows he hasn't been, Pelham gradually realizes that someone has begun to take over his day to day existence, effectively pushing him to the margins of his own life. Most disturbingly of all, it seems that this mysterious doppelganger is doing a better job of being Harold Pelham than the original ever had.

"Julia and Julia" (1988). This interesting little nightmare of a movie stars Kathleen Turner as Julia, a woman whose existence alternates between two versions of her life. In one version, she is a desolate widow whose husband was killed in an automobile accident on the day of their wedding. In the other, she is happily married and has a lover on the side. Director Peter Del Monte and his co-screenwriters Silvia Napolitano and Sandro Petraglia have taken the traditional doppelganger narrative and turned it inside out. Instead of one clear-cut main character and a shadowy, mysterious other, we are made to identify with both halves of the doubled pair simultaneously.

"The Double Life of Veronique" (1991). The untimely death of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski some two years ago robbed international cinema of one of its most potent voices. One of the works he left behind is this striking film, one of the most artful variations on the doppelganger theme in recent memory. Irene Jacob stars in the dual role of a French woman named Veronique and a Polish woman named Veronika. Although leading separate lives in separate places, the film shows us how their lives are inextricably intertwined. Although Kieslowski had previously announced his retirement from filmmaking, he had nevertheless begun working on a new project at the time of his death. If only he could have left us his own doppelganger to enrich us with the films that will now remain forever unmade.

Merlin in the Movies (originally published 4/97)

People have been fascinated by stories about wizards for centuries, dating back to a time when that constant glow in the living room came not from a television set but from an open fire. That, apparently, was good enough for the folks at the NBC network, because their recent mini-series "Merlin" represented a significant investment. Taking no chances, they based their program not on just any old wizard, but rather on the most potent single name in the annals of sorcery.

Last week I recommended a few films featuring wizards as major characters, and yet I didn't mention a single film in which Merlin himself appears. Is that because the producers of the NBC show were the first ever to think of using Merlin as a character? Not on your magic wand. Just the reverse, in fact. With so many Merlin movies to choose from, it seemed worthwhile to devote an entire column to the old boy's various screen incarnations.

Many of the most prominent Camelot films, incredibly enough, relegate Merlin to a minor role or leave him out altogether. Lerner and Loewe's famous musical disposes of Merlin virtually as the first order of business, leaving Arthur to mope about on his own, wistfully wondering what advice Merlin would have given him about this or that. In MGM's 1953 big budget epic, "Knights of the Round Table," Merlin seems more like Arthur's attorney than anything else, stepping forward to plead the case for installing Arthur as King of England before an assembly of rival lords and then receding to the background. The same is true of the ineffectual Merlin of Cornel Wilde's "Sword of Lancelot" (1963). For a more interesting sampling of Merlin interpretations, look for these titles on home video.

"The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Walt Disney's animators offered their take on the legend of King Arthur with this unfairly neglected little film. Since their target audience consisted of kids, the Disney crew decided to focus on Arthur's childhood, especially his education at the hands of Merlin. Played by the voice of Karl Swenson, this Merlin is a proper wizard. When he wants to teach young Arthur what it's like to be a fish or a bird, he simply changes him into one for a time. At the same time, this Merlin draws a bit on the stereotype of the university greybeard, his wisdom tempered by endearingly dotty forgetfulness.

"7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964). One of my favorite Merlins is to be found in this delightful fantasy from producer/director George Pal. The languid monotony of a small western town is broken when a marvelous carnival comes to town. Operated by an engaging old chinaman named Dr. Lao (played by Tony Randall), the circus features genuine wonders such as Medusa, Pan, the Abominable Snowman, and Merlin (each of which is also played by the versatile Randall). Merlin, naturally, is the magician of the show, but the cruel irony is that his genuine magic is hooted down by the crowd of small town yokels, who only want to see card tricks.

"Knightriders" (1981). George Romero's fascinating take on Camelot transposes the story's courtly trappings into the 20th Century. Romero's knights hold jousts and strive to live by the ideals of Camelot, only they joust on motorcycles rather than on horseback. Their Merlin is a former medical doctor, who has dropped out of society to join their way of life. Played by storyteller Brother Blue, this Merlin is a hip and imperturbable counselor to the group's "king."

"Excalibur" (1981). Of all the movie Merlins to be placed squarely within the traditional King Arthur story, the most interesting is probably this one, ably played by Nicol Williamson. He is a true sorcerer, a weaver of spells and foreseer of the future, and a living repository of vast stores of arcane knowledge. It is clear from the beginning that the miracle of Camelot is Merlin's doing. Arthur and his knights are merely the tools he employs to realize his dream.

Let's not forget, by the way, that a character can partake of the Merlin tradition without necessarily going by that name. The next time you see "Star Wars," take another look at Obi-wan Kenobi and see if you don't see an ancient wizard peeking out from behind the science fictional mask of the old Jedi master.

Wizard Movies (originally published 4/97)

If the NBC network's elaborate production of "Merlin" is any indication, the technological society in which we live has done little to diminish our age-old fascination with wizards. We may have evolved over the years from getting our spirit messages by holding hands around a table to an ongoing electronic séance called the Internet, but when it comes to magic spells and minor miracles made to order, it is still the imposing image of the old fashioned sorcerer that catches our interest.

Needless to say, moviemakers have been aware of the drawing power of wizards from the very beginning. French film pioneer Georges Melies liberally sprinkled his early efforts at trick photography with wand waving conjurers. Since that time the screen has seen hundreds of portrayals of sorcerers, both evil and benevolent. Many of them, sad to say, have been rather uninspired characters woven into stock, formula plots. Nevertheless, there have been a few memorable portrayals of wizards down through the years. In honor of old Merlin, let's look back at some of the better ones that are available on home video.

"The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). Special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, a wizard in his own right, recreates the world of the Arabian Nights right before our eyes. Sinbad's adventures begin when an evil sorcerer named Sokurah tricks him into facing an island full of living skeletons and dragons and giant birds to retrieve the magic lamp that is jealously guarded by a ravenous cyclops. A superior piece of entertainment, this captivating fantasy has long been a favorite among Harryhausen's legion of admirers.

"The Magic Sword" (1962). Basil Rathbone, who was one of the movies' great bad guys before donning a deerstalker cap to become Sherlock Holmes, returns to the dark side with a vengeance as the evil sorcerer Lodac. Saint George (Gary Lockwood) must overcome Lodac's seven curses to rescue Princess Helene, whom Lodac has imprisoned. George is armed with an enchanted sword and a supernaturally swift horse, but the curses he must face range from a giant ogre to a two-headed dragon. Rathbone hams it up a bit, but he does it so well that it's hard to object.

"Captain Sinbad" (1963). Existing as it does in the shadow of Harryhausen's "Seventh Voyage" and its two sequels, this Sinbad movie has almost been forgotten over the years, but I still like it. Guy Williams, television's Zorro, plays Sinbad opposite Pedro Armendariz as the wicked El Kerim. Lots of people would like to cut out El Kerim's heart, but it can't be done. His heart is kept in a tower guarded by fire-breathing monsters where no opponent's sword can pierce it. Apparently this doesn't inconvenience El Kerim in any way. That's black magic for you.

"The Raven" (1963). In the early sixties, B-movie producer Roger Corman released a series of low budget films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. To his credit, he hired some of the best fantasy screenwriters in the business to write the scripts. Richard Matheson, who wrote some of the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone" for television, was hired to adapt "The Raven." It was clear that Matheson would have to stray far afield from the original material, since Poe's work is a poem, not a story. Having already written a couple of straight Poe adaptations for Corman, Matheson decided to take a different approach this time, going for comedy instead of horror. He invented three characters, all wizards, and set them at each other's throats, playing the whole thing tongue in cheek. Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre) has been turned into a raven by a more powerful wizard, the forbidding Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Bedlo turns to Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) for help. Craven manages to return Bedlo to his original form and together they set out to confront Scarabus. The highlight of the film is a full blown wizard's duel between Craven and Scarabus. Matheson's script is consistently clever, and the trio of veteran horror actors seem to be having a wonderful time poking gentle fun at their own screen images.

I haven't yet mentioned old Merlin himself. The shadow he casts over fantasy movies is long indeed, and has resulted in a wide range of interpretations over the years, the current television version being only the most recent. Next week we'll look at a sampling of movie Merlins.

Nightmare Movies, Part 2 (originally published 4/97)

Last week we gathered our courage and ventured into the world of nightmare movies. These are films, like the recently released "Dark City," in which the filmmakers largely jettison the rules of conventional plot development, opting instead for the disturbing irrationality of our darker dreams. When done well, this unorthodox approach to cinematic storytelling can produce fascinating and challenging screen entertainment. Here are a few more examples of movies available on video that evoke the mood of a nightmare.

"The Trial" (1962). Although Franz Kafka's novel was written back in 1925, it presents a situation that seems even more relevant to our own conspiracy-conscious time. Joseph K. is a low level clerk who is accosted one day in his own home by men who place him under arrest. Despite his protests they are unrelenting, refusing even to tell him what his crime is. The situation deteriorates from there, with the hapless K. eventually finding himself before a vast roomful of accusing faces, vainly attempting to defend himself against a charge of which he is still totally ignorant. The recreation of Kafka's nightmare world would be a daunting task for any filmmaker. Fortunately, it was the dauntless and peerless Orson Welles who took on the challenge. The result was one of Welles's most impressive cinematic achievements, easily ranking with such classic Welles films as "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil."

"Neighbors" (1981). This demented and ultimately disturbing comedy belongs to a class of films that begin in an atmosphere of normality, then gradually slide into the bizarre. Somewhere around the middle of the picture we realize that we are caught in a nightmare, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where we left the real world behind. John Belushi and Kathryn Walker play a suburban couple whose mundane existence is enlivened by the arrival of their quirky new neighbors, played by Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty. Larry Gelbart's wild and crazy script should have been an ideal vehicle for Belushi and Aykroyd, but director John Avildsen seems uncomfortable with the eccentricity of the material. Even so, this comic nightmare is well worth seeing.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984). Amid the plethora of sequels that have eroded the impact of the premise through endless repetition, it is easy to forget that Wes Craven's original tale of the nightmarish Freddy Krueger was one of the most imaginative horror films of its time. It is an inspired premise: a bogeyman who literally inhabits your dreams. If you've only seen the sequels, you owe it to yourself to discover the original.

"After Hours" (1985). Director Martin Scorsese is never more in his element than when telling stories about New York City. Here he shows us the bizarre side of New York nightlife as we follow Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) through a wild night in SoHo. Having lost all his pocket money, he is unable to afford transportation back to his apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Temporarily trapped in the unfamiliar environs south of Houston Street, Paul encounters a host of eccentric characters, each more way-out than the last.

"Brazil" (1985). Once upon a time director Terry Gilliam was best known, to the extent that he was known at all, as the guy who did those outlandish animated segments for "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Since then he has proved to be one of this generation's most gifted fantasy filmmakers. The promise he showed in "Time Bandits" (1981) came into full flower with "Brazil," a dark comedy that follows the misadventures of a petty bureaucrat through a nightmare vision of the future. The script, written by Gilliam along with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, evokes the mood of a Kafka story by painting a portrait of a claustrophobic, paranoid society in which no individual can hope to avoid being swallowed up by an oppressive bureaucracy. Visually, Gilliam's eclectic style reflects a multitude of influences ranging from the inspired silliness of his Monty Python days to the stunning pictorial style of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

I began last week by suggesting that filmmakers create the dreams that we experience while awake. It now occurs to me that some of those waking dreams, especially those we've been considering here, might ultimately influence the content of our nighttime dreams as well. To those who say that artists are irrelevant in our society, I say...dream on.

Nightmare Movies, Part 1 (originally published 4/97)

Watching a movie may be the conscious mind's nearest equivalent to the dream state. Sitting in the dark with a flood of images washing over your visual field can, if those images have been skillfully crafted, create the same mesmerizing sense of wonder as a particularly intense dream. At the same time, movies are generally more reassuring than dreams. Having seen lots of movies in your life, you can usually guess where a particular plot is going. Failing that, you can at least be confident that the story will resolve itself in some way that makes sense. Dreams, on the other hand, have a disturbing way of spiraling right out of control, leaving all logic and reason behind. Movies, we might say, are like dreams that have been tamed, domesticated, and made presentable for the conscious mind.

Occasionally, however, a particularly audacious filmmaker will cast off the usual restraints to create a film that leaves behind the safe haven of traditional narrative conventions to simulate the dream state in all its messy, disturbing outlandishness. If you've been to see "Dark City," which is currently playing at your local multiplex, you know what I'm talking about. Writer/director Alex Proyas has given us a movie that captures the feel of one of those vivid, creepy dreams that causes you to wake up with a start to find yourself in a cold sweat. In short, his movie is a filmed nightmare. If you'd like to see how earlier filmmakers have handled the idea of recreating the feel of a nightmare, look for these titles on home video.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919). The venerable grandfather of all cinematic nightmare visions is this classic example of German expressionism. Werner Krauss plays the malevolent Caligari, proprietor of a carnival sideshow attraction with decidedly sinister overtones. The inhabitant of his cabinet, Cesare the somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) appears to exist in a perpetual state of trance, under the complete control of Caligari. Is Caligari sending his slave out by night to commit the unsolved string of murders that have plagued the town since the carnival arrived? Both Krauss and Veidt were veterans of the expressionistic stage productions of Max Reinhardt. Under him they had learned an acting style that had little to do with the naturalistic reproduction of human behavior patterns and everything to do with expressing such intangibles as emotions, ideas, and character traits. Even the set design conforms to the radically anti-naturalistic expressionist style. With its stairways leading nowhere, rooms with no right angles, and shadows painted on where no shadows should exist, this prototypical horror tale looks for all the world like the landscape of our nightmares.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943). For years, the grande dame of American avant-garde filmmaking was Maya Deren. Originally a dancer, she brought a lyrical visual imagination to the creation of experimental cinema. In this, her first film, she immerses us in a woman's nightmare, complete with Freudian symbolism. The images are disorienting and disjointed, and yet they have a terrifying internal logic. This is one of those film experiences that leaves you drained and quivering the first time through, then grows on you with every successive viewing. It isn't easy to find, but a home video version does exist on a collection from Mystic Fire Video called "Maya Deren Experimental Films." It's worth searching for.

"The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T." (1953). Young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) hates being made to practice the piano. He hates it all the more because his piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), is a domineering slave driver. Falling asleep at the piano, the youngster has a nightmare about Dr. Terwilliker as the master of a dungeon where hundreds of children are imprisoned and forced to play the piano (five hundred, to be exact - hence the 5000 fingers). This incredible fantasy picture was co-written by none other than Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. It's hard to imagine the fragile fantasy of Geisel's work surviving the transition to the screen intact, but producer Stanley Kramer and director Roy Rowland achieved the miracle with style and grace.

We've only begun to tap the wealth of nightmare visions conjured up by movie makers over the years. Next week we'll look at a few examples of more recent vintage. Pleasant dreams...

Bank Robber Movies, Part 2 (originally published 3/97)

Last week we were looking at movies featuring bank robbers as lead characters. Like the current release "The Newton Boys," most bank robber movies take advantage of the curious fact that such outlaws have traditionally had an undeniable appeal for movie audiences. Whether this reflects a broad-based distaste for banks among movie patrons or is merely a way of tapping into deep-seated fantasies about thumbing one's nose at society is a question for the sociologists. Whatever the explanation, moviemakers have understood for years that using bank bandits as sympathetic main characters can earn an enterprising filmmaker more money at the box office than most real bank robbers can steal in a lifetime. Here are a few more examples of bank robber movies available on home video.

"The Getaway" (1972). Jim Thompson was one of those fascinating writers produced by American literature from time to time who labor in the literary ghetto of paperback genre fiction producing high quality work that goes largely ignored by the critics. Some of these overlooked masters get their due years later when an English professor, slumming at the beach with a quick read from the secondhand paperback store, discovers an unexpected gem between the lurid covers, but by then they're usually dead and gone. Thompson, a master of psychological crime fiction, did live to see a couple of his novels adapted by Hollywood, most notably "The Getaway," which was directed by another great eccentric master, Sam Peckinpah. Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw star as a pair of lovers who become partners in crime, one of the most enduring icons of the crime genre.

"Dillinger" (1973). Director John Milius may not be as familiar a name as Francis Ford Coppola or George Lucas, but he was very much a product of the same background. Each of them belonged to the generation of "movie brats" who came charging out of film schools in the seventies to infuse Hollywood with some badly needed new creative blood. Steeped in the classics of cinema, these young turks loved to pay homage to the directors whose work had inspired them. Milius, in retelling the story of John Dillinger, made a conscious effort to evoke the poetic imagery of the films of John Ford. Warren Oates gives an outstanding performance in the role of Dillinger.

"Big Bad Mama" (1974). Through much of the sixties and seventies, producer Roger Corman reigned as the undisputed "King of the B's," Hollywood's most consistently successful purveyor of exploitation films. But the thing that makes Corman memorable, and deserving of respect, is that he gave dozens of talented young actors, writers, and directors a start in the industry at a point in their careers when no one else would have. Among others, he gave us Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Ron

Howard. One of the genres that Corman successfully exploited was the violent crime genre. Sandwiched in between "Bloody Mama" (1970) and "Crazy Mama" (1975) was "Big Bad Mama," in which Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) and her daughters make ends meet by getting into the bank robbing business.

"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). One of director Sidney Lumet's very finest hours -- in a career that's been filled with them -- was this incredible exploration of how common bank robbers can become media darlings. Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) are just a couple of hoods knocking over a New York City bank until they find themselves barricaded in the bank, surrounded by police, with a crowd gathering to watch and local TV cameras springing up like mushrooms to take in the unfolding drama. Sonny plays to the crowd, preening for the cameras and making outlandish demands in return for the safe release of the bank employees he is holding hostage. Even some of the hostages get into the spirit by putting on a show for the cameras. Everything seemed to come together just perfectly in this remarkable film. Screenwriter Frank Pierson's outstanding script received an Academy Award, and Pacino and Cazale have never been better.

With all the hoopla surrounding the release of "The Newton Boys," all indications are that movie audiences' affection for bank robbers remains undiminished. On the other hand, it may be the theaters that really love these bandits the most. At six and seven bucks a pop for tickets, they certainly seem to share a common business philosophy.

Bank Robber Movies (originally published 3/97)

Every filmmaker who has had some success at making action movies knows the importance of an appealing hero. After all, car chases and gunplay can get awfully monotonous if we don't care about the people whose lives are being jeopardized. That being the case, it's a bit startling to note how many action pictures over the years have won broad audience appeal by centering their story around characters who don't qualify as heroes in the usual sense at all. Bank robbers, for example, seem to make excellent movie protagonists despite their general unpopularity in real life. "The Newton Boys" is the latest film to capitalize on this paradox, but there have been many others. If you enjoy the vicarious thrill of following the exploits of bank robbers on the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"Gun Crazy" (1949). Not to be confused with the 1992 film starring Drew Barrymore, this was an important forerunner of "Bonnie and Clyde," telling the story of two young lovers on a reckless crime spree. John Dall and Peggy Cummins star as Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr, a doomed couple if ever there was one. They are drawn to each other largely by their common interest in firearms. She's a carnival sharpshooter and he was a gunnery specialist in the army. Goaded by Laurie, Bart agrees to put their combined artillery skills to use in knocking over banks for kicks. Shot on a shoestring by director Joseph Lewis, this tale of perverse love has influenced untold numbers of filmmakers since its release.

"They Live By Night" (1949). Farley Granger stars as a naive young man whose downfall is guaranteed from the moment he allows himself to be talked into being an accomplice to a bank holdup. Tragically, he falls in love with a young woman, pulling her into his fatally tainted life. Inevitably they end up alone, pursued by the law, out of luck and out of hope. This was legendary director Nicholas Ray's first film. It was remade in 1974 by director Robert Altman as "Thieves Like Us," which was the title of the Edward Anderson novel from which "They Live By Night" was adapted.

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967). Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway light up the screen in a stylized portrayal of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as bank robbing folk heroes. Almost everything about this remarkable film was calculated to shake up the industry, from director Arthur Penn's modernistic techniques to Beatty's frank and straightforward allusions to Clyde's impotence. A powerhouse at the box office and with the critics, its influence continues to be felt some thirty years later.

"The Wild Bunch" (1969). One of the many accomplishments of "Bonnie and Clyde" was pushing the envelope of the onscreen portrayal of violence. Two years later, Sam Peckinpah took movie violence to yet another level, creating visual poetry out of the horror of violent death. The focus of Peckinpah's story is a band of outlaws in the waning days of the wild and woolly West. To their consternation, this wild bunch has begun to realize that the West is settling down. A burgeoning civilization has taken root, displacing the rugged, lawless frontier where men such as they could thrive. To tell his story effectively, Peckinpah needed a cast that combined a high testosterone level with consummate acting skills. William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and Ben Johnson more than fill the bill.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969). In contrast to the dark world of "The Wild Bunch" and the neurotic flakiness of "Bonnie and Clyde," this pleasant little picture presents us with as likable a pair of outlaws as you're ever likely to meet. Sundance, as played by Robert Redford, may be a bit moody at times, but that's offset by Redford's boyish good looks and winning smile. As for Butch (Paul Newman), his single most salient characteristic is his likability. Even the lawmen who have arrested him seem to like him. In fact, sometimes he manages to establish cordial relations with the people he robs. Newman and Redford were so successful at playing appealing rogues that they were reunited as a pair of con men in "The Sting" (1973).

Next week we'll look at a few more movies featuring sympathetic bank robbers. Until then, keep an eye on your valuables, especially if you find yourself in pleasant company.

Rock Groups as Themselves (originally published 3/97)

In these multimedia times the idea of being a star in only one medium seems quaintly archaic. You can't just be a rock star nowadays; you also have to come across well in a music video if you want to claim a spot on the charts. And yet, believe it or not, there was a time before MTV when pop stars mostly had to make it on the sound of their tunes alone. Still, even in the olden days a few forward looking groups managed to parlay their music stardom into a brief moment of glory on the silver screen. As if to commemorate those long-ago times, the Spice Girls recently took some time off from making music videos to make an old-fashioned pop star movie vehicle.

When a movie is made to showcase an individual performer, as in the case of Elvis Presley's films, it is easy enough to cast the star in a fictional role and build a story around that character. It isn't so easy to create a fictional film around a musical group, however. A character must be invented for each member of the group, and each member must receive a fair share of screen time. The easy way out is to forget about creating a storyline and just make a documentary about the group. "Spice World" splits the difference by telling a fictional story but having the group members play themselves rather than invented characters. It's a sensible compromise that has been used effectively by pop groups of the past. Here are some earlier examples of that same formula. Each is available on home video.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964). Director Richard Lester's classic showcase for The Beatles is, needless to say, the granddaddy of them all. Bringing his experience with British comedy to bear, Lester keeps the mood light and the gags coming thick and fast. He also had the foresight to take out a bit of insurance by casting a veteran comic, Wilfred Brambell, as Paul's grandfather just to make sure the laughs would be there when he needed them. The result goes far beyond the modest goal of keeping audiences amused until the next song comes along. In the oft-quoted words of critic Andrew Sarris, this is indeed "the 'Citizen Kane' of jukebox movies."

"Having a Wild Weekend" (1965). Other pop groups were not long in following The Beatles' example. The Dave Clark Five, as it happened, already had a foot in the movie studio door. That's because Dave Clark's day job was movie stunt work. This film presents him and his group in that capacity. We follow them as they take off for a wild weekend in the company of an actress they have befriended. Like The Beatles, they were fortunate in their choice of director. John Boorman, who made his directorial debut with this film, would go on to become a highly respected filmmaker, numbering among his credits the excellent film adaptation of James Dickey's "Deliverance" (1972).

"Head" (1968). By the time The Monkees got around to making a movie, they had already had all the exposure they could stand on their popular television series. The series had, in fact, already been cancelled, leaving the group free to poke a little fun at their own image. Legend has it that director Bob Rafelson and his buddy Jack Nicholson went into seclusion with The Monkees for a weekend of heavy dope smoking and emerged with a completed screenplay. There's no way to verify the story, but this was the sixties after all, and Nicholson does share screenwriting credit as well as a co-producing credit.

"Abba: The Movie" (1977). At the height of their reign, the monarchs of Europop took their act to the big screen. In the film, they are pursued throughout their concert tour of Australia by a disc jockey from Sidney (played by Robert Hughes) whose assignment is to get an interview with the group for his station. He's not taken seriously because he doesn't have his press card with him, but he's been told to get the interview or else.

Abba's foray into filmmaking was one of the last such ventures before MTV signed on in 1981. From that point on, singing for the camera became the norm, not the exception, which is why "Spice World," although undoubtedly intended to be hip and happening, can't help having a decidedly retro feel.

Alexandre Dumas Movies (originally published 3/97)

It's amazing how much the writers who create the stories we enjoy on the screen have in common. Consider the following example, a writer whose work is playing right now at your local multiplex. Much of his early work was condemned by critics for its lurid, prurient content. One particularly nasty drama, in which the main character murders his married lover, was described as "the most daringly obscene piece that has appeared in even these days of obscenity." Still, if the propriety of his stories was open to question, their popularity was not. The success of his writings combined with his prolific output to finance a profligate lifestyle distinguished by a shocking degree of licentious debauchery. In fact, there were those who questioned whether one who so studiously pursued the pleasures of the flesh could possibly have the time to produce such a volume of work. Rumors abounded to the effect that he was running a literary sweat shop, claiming the work of uncredited collaborators as his own.

Sounds like a typical modern writer gone Hollywood, right? Except that the scribe in question is Alexandre Dumas, who died in 1870, a quarter century before the birth of the motion picture. Even so, Hollywood knows one of its own, even across the decades. Dumas's much-beloved stories have consistently been favorites of filmmakers through the years, as witness the current adaptation of "The Man in the Iron Mask." If you're interested in how earlier movie adaptations have treated the stories of Dumas, look for these titles on home video.

"The Iron Mask" (1929). Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the man who invented the swashbuckler movie, had made a screen version of Dumas's "The Three Musketeers" back in 1921, in the heyday of silent movies. Now, with talkies taking over Hollywood, the great silent star was beginning to sense that his day had almost passed. He brought his characterization of D'Artagnan to the screen one more time in one final silent epic, this time playing a D'Artagnan who was himself nearing the end of an illustrious career. For the first and only time, Fairbanks allowed his character to die onscreen.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" (1934). Like any good storyteller, Dumas understood primal emotions. He knew, for example, that few passions are more primal than the desire for vengeance. When the wrongly imprisoned Edmond Dantes manages to escape, then comes into a fortune in pirate loot on the island of Monte Cristo, who among us can resist taking vicarious pleasure in the ruthlessness of his revenge on those who wronged him? Robert Donat turns in a spectacular performance as Dantes.

"The Corsican Brothers" (1941). Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., following his father's tradition of adapting Dumas for the screen, here plays the dual role of twins. Born as Siamese twins and separated surgically at birth, the pair are raised separately to protect them from the persecution of the evil Baron Colonna, who had massacred their family when they were children. Reunited as adults, they swear vengeance on the hated Colonna family.

"Black Magic" (1949). In his novel "Memoirs of a Physician" Dumas fictionalized the life of an 18th Century rogue named Calgiostro, changing his name to Joseph Balsamo for the novel. Cagliostro is reputed to have been a Svengali-like hypnotist who prospered by bending European noblemen to his will. In this film version of the Dumas novel, Balsamo is played with dark menace by the very imposing Orson Welles.

"The Three Musketeers" (1974). We can't forget Dumas's most famous story, of course. There have been several excellent movie versions, dating back to Fairbanks's own version, but for an interesting twist on the classic I recommend this quirky interpretation from director Richard Lester. The story is tinged with the inimitable British style of humor, but without compromising the action-adventure aspects of the plot one whit.

Lest you thought I was exaggerating about the lurid nature of some of Dumas's dramas, I should mention in passing a rather nasty little movie called "Tower of the Screaming Virgins" (1968). It is every bit as salacious a piece of exploitation as it sounds, but the fact is that it is an adaptation of sorts of Dumas's play "The Tower of Nesle." Had there been a Hollywood when this seamy drama was produced in 1832, no one would have doubted that its author would end up writing for the screen. And, in a manner of speaking, so he has.

Political Scandal Movies (originally published 3/97)

Once upon a time you had to plunder the magazine racks at supermarket checkout counters or tune in an edifying television program like "Hard Copy" if you wanted to wallow in the latest rumors about which prominent people might be doing what with other consenting adults behind closed doors. How times have changed. These days you can see network news anchors gravely repeating rumors that would have made Louella Parsons blush, while the sober columns of our leading daily newspapers overflow with the rankest kind of speculation about presidential infidelities that may or may not have occurred.

Although this particular mud puddle is relatively new to practitioners of what they are pleased to call "serious journalism," it is familiar territory to moviemakers, who have, after all, been in the entertainment business from day one. Hollywood's understanding of the marketability of a good political scandal is currently on display in "Wag the Dog," which will soon be joined at the local mutliplex by "Primary Colors." If you're interested in how earlier filmmakers wove entertainment out of political scandals, both real and fictional, look for these titles on home video.

"Chickens Come Home" (1931). Mayoral candidate Oliver Hardy is busy putting his best foot forward for the voters, when an old flame, played by Mae Marsh, turns up to blackmail him. If he doesn't pay up, she threatens to crash a dinner party at Hardy's home and tell a few stories that will ruin his reputation for good. Hardy makes the mistake of giving the job of keeping her away to his inept friend, Stan Laurel. Another fine mess, indeed.

"The Gorgeous Hussy" (1936). During Andrew Jackson's tenure in the White House, he became involved in one of those squalid little scandals for which Washington remains famous to this day. Peggy O'Neill, a local innkeeper's daughter, married John Henry Eaton, Jackson's secretary of war, in 1829, shortly after the death of her first husband. Immediately rumors began to fly around Washington social circles to the effect that she had been romantically involved with Eaton even before her late husband's demise. As a result, she was ostracized even by the wives of other cabinet members. Jackson took her part, even to the point of dismissing several cabinet members for their participation in snubbing Peggy. In this fictionalized account, Joan Crawford plays Peggy, supported by Lionel Barrymore as Jackson and Franchot Tone as Eaton.

"The Senator Was Indiscreet" (1947). William Powell stars in this delightful political satire as a senator with very little on the ball. Nevertheless, despite his incompetence, his colleagues are careful not to cross him. It seems that he has been indiscreet enough to keep a diary over the years. If that diary were to fall into the wrong hands, those of a journalist, for instance, half the Congress could kiss their careers goodbye. Just about the time our hero decides to make his bid for the presidency, the diary disappears, throwing Washington into a state of panic. Senators and congressmen begin leaving the country in droves in anticipation of what might be revealed when the diary turns up.

"Blaze" (1989). Paul Newman gives a virtuoso performance as three-time Louisiana Governor Earl Long, brother of the infamous Huey Long. The eccentric Long handicapped himself politically by carrying on an affair with Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr, portrayed here by Lolita Davidovich. What makes this such a fascinating story is that this liaison, which one would naturally assume to be a brief fling, turned out to be a long term relationship based on genuine devotion.

"Scandal" (1989). If British eyebrows have recently been raised over allegations leveled at America's chief executive, the shockingly personal nature of the charges certainly wouldn't be the reason. On the contrary, they are most likely amazed that such a small matter could command such extensive press coverage. By British standards, we Americans are pikers when it comes to political sex scandals. This film recounts the story of an infamous example of English superiority in this arena. In the early sixties, John Profumo, while Minister of War, was accused of dallying with Christine Keeler, a woman of scandalous reputation who was also romantically linked to an accused Soviet spy. Now that's entertainment. By contrast, American journalists' attempts to squeeze a juicy story out of Kenneth Starr's endless parade of subpoenas doesn't stand a chance.

Positive Images of Clergy (originally published 2/97)

One of the most common raps against television and movies is that they portray religion and religious leaders, especially Christians, in a bad light. Negative religious stereotypes can certainly be found on both the big screen and the small screen, but, to be fair, they don't represent the entire picture. The Warner Brothers Network, for example, offers a series called "Seventh Heaven," in which the main character, a minister played by Stephen Collins, presents a role model that's hard to object to. And just recently at the movies we've seen the release of "The Apostle," a pet project of its producer, director, writer, and star, Robert Duvall. The story's main character is a charismatic revivalist preacher, undoubtedly the easiest kind of minister to make fun of, but Duvall scrupulously avoids ridiculing his character's faith. The man himself may have feet of clay, but his religion is not held up to scorn in Duvall's film.

In point of fact, moviemakers have traditionally been more inclined to treat religious leaders with reverence than with disdain. For every unsavory Elmer Gantry in the movies, there are many more kind, self-sacrificing clerics to be seen. For a small sampling, look for these titles featuring exemplary men of the cloth on home video.

"Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938). There's no better place to begin than with Pat O'Brien. He was one of the most recognizably Irish Hollywood actors of his time, with the inevitable result that he was repeatedly cast as cops and priests. By common consent his finest role as a priest was in this vehicle for the "Dead End Kids" (later to be known as the "Bowery Boys"). James Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a small time criminal who becomes the idol of the would-be delinquents in his old neighborhood. O'Brien is Father Jerry Connolly, the local priest. It seems that Jerry and Rocky were childhood chums. One took the low road to reform school while the other took the high road to the pulpit. Their struggle for the hearts and minds, and, yes, the souls of the neighborhood kids makes for some great cinema.

"Boys Town" (1938). The other great movie priest of the period was Spencer Tracy. Here he takes on the role of a renowned real life priest, Father Edward Flanagan. Armed with nothing but his faith and his belief that "there's no such thing as a bad boy," Flanagan set up a community for boys in trouble as an alternative to reform school. Flanagan's chief antagonist in the film, an incorrigible kid named Whitey Marsh, is memorably played by a young Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy days. Tracy and Rooney's scenes together rank with the best work of their long and distinguished careers.

"Going My Way" (1944). Looking for a laid-back cleric with an unflappable good nature? Bing Crosby had a corner on the market for affable, good natured characters, so it was only fitting that he be cast as Father Chuck O'Malley in this lighthearted entertainment from director Leo McCarey. As the new priest on the block, he inevitably comes into conflict with the older, more rigidly traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). In the end, of course, the charming Father O'Malley wins over the staid Father Fitzgibbon, and a gang of neighborhood kids to boot. The film won an Academy Award as Best Picture as well as garnering Oscars for Crosby, Fitzgerald, and McCarey.

"A Man Called Peter" (1955). Peter Marshall was a Scottish Presbyterian minister whose calling took him to America, where his distinguished career in the clergy culminated in his being named chaplain to the United States Senate. Following his untimely death in 1949, his wife, Catherine Marshall, published the biography of her late husband on which this film is based. Richard Todd is excellent in the title role. It is refreshing to note that the filmmakers devoted significant screen time to Marshall's sermons rather than trying to squeeze in more drama. Perhaps they sensed that someone was looking over their shoulders and that they would be wise not to mess this one up.

It's interesting to note that the trend in screen portrayals of the clergy doesn't turn significantly negative until the advent of televangelism, with its rogue's gallery of poster boys for conduct unbecoming. Could the negative trend be nothing more than the movie screen in its perennial role as a cultural mirror? Just asking.

Undersea Adventure Movies (originally published 2/97)

For a good, rip-roaring adventure movie, it's hard to beat the exploration of a raw and untamed new frontier, fraught with mystery and danger at every turn. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of frontiers left these days. There's outer space, of course, but, as the name implies, space is composed mostly of miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. To really get anywhere at sub-light speeds you'd have to spend most of your life just in transit, playing solitaire with the onboard computer and listening to your arteries harden, which is why the space opera writers have had to come up with fanciful conceits like the Star Trek "warp drive."

Fortunately for adventure filmmakers, there remains one last homegrown frontier, still brimming with mystery and largely unexplored: the ocean depths. As the currently playing film adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Sphere" demonstrates, we can still be prodded into awe-struck speculation about what wonders might be lurking under the sea. Naturally enough, filmmakers have been exploiting our fascination with the undersea world for decades. Here are a few of the underwater adventures that are available on home video.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954). In the 19th Century, before the term "science fiction" had even been coined, no one had a more finely tuned knack for spinning rattling good adventure yarns around futuristic gadgetry than Jules Verne. The classic novel that inspired this classic Disney film features Verne's most inspired character study, that of the mad, doomed Captain Nemo. He's a kind of Ahab, except that the object of his obsessive rage is not a white whale, but rather the human race, on whom he has contemptuously turned his back. In the submarine he has constructed he roams his undersea kingdom, surfacing just long enough to destroy passing ships when a vengeful mood strikes him. James Mason plays Nemo, ably supported by Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, and Peter Lorre as his unwilling (and unwelcome) guests on board the Nautilus.

"Atomic Submarine" (1959). The title vessel is dispatched to the waters under the North Pole to investigate a series of unexplained maritime disasters in the area. There they discover an underwater UFO (shades of "Sphere") inhabited by a decidedly creepy alien. This is not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good, solid little action flick made by veterans of the Saturday morning serials.

"Around the World Under the Sea" (1966). It's tempting to call this lightweight but entertaining picture a TV-movie. It wasn't made for television, but its ties to the tube are legion. The cast features Lloyd Bridges from "Sea Hunt," Brian Kelly from "Flipper," Marshall Thompson from "Daktari," and David McCallum from "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," all popular television series of the period. The connecting link is executive producer Ivan Tors, who produced "Sea Hunt," "Flipper," and "Daktari." The storyline involves a crew researching underwater volcanoes in a specially designed submarine. Their adventures along the way include being attacked by a giant eel.

"Gray Lady Down" (1978). Charlton Heston stars as the captain of the U.S.S. Neptune, a submarine in trouble. The Neptune is disabled, stuck at the edge of a precipitous dropoff. If it topples over in its crippled state, the pressure will crush the ship, killing all on board. Their only hope of survival is an experimental rescue vehicle piloted by its inventor, played by David Carradine.

"DeepStar Six" (1989). When a team of scientists and military personnel investigate a mysterious cavern beneath their newly established undersea missile base, they unwittingly release an extremely nasty sea monster. The good news is that it likes them. The bad news is that it likes them for dinner. It's a variation on "Alien," to be sure, but bug-eyed monsters have been common currency among science fiction filmmakers since long before "Alien" came along. When following in the slimy footsteps of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and other bug-eyed monsters of the past, the only real question is whether a film delivers the goods. This one is as good as most and better than many.

I haven't forgotten about James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989), by the way. I just feel that sea-going dramas by Cameron have gotten more than enough press lately in view of his current hit and its titanic box office numbers.

Charles Dickens Movies (originally published 2/97)

The idea of creating an updated version of a classic story is not new. Last year's film version of "Romeo and Juliet," in particular, follows a tradition of chronologically transposed Shakespeare that dates back at least as far as the modern-dress stage production of "Julius Caesar" presented by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater in 1937. Since that time, it has become almost more commonplace to see time-shifted Shakespeare productions than to see a period production. The fact that such treatment succeeds so well is a testament to the timelessness of Shakespeare's themes.

The works of Charles Dickens, on the other hand, are so deeply rooted in their times that an updated version would seem to be inherently self-defeating. And yet it has been done. "Scrooged" (1988), for example, brought "A Christmas Carol" into the modern era. Now, an even more ambitious project has been attempted - a contemporary rendering of "Great Expectations." Although the updating of Dickens is relatively new to the movies, period productions of his novels have been a screen staple since the silent film days. For a sampling of earlier adaptations of Dickens, look for these titles on home video.

"David Copperfield" (1935). Dickens's mammoth novel sprawls across 64 leisurely chapters. Compressing it into a movie of watchable length is a feat akin to putting a ship in a bottle. Producer David Selznick did not shrink from the challenge, however. Four years later, as an independent producer, he would tackle a similar task in adapting "Gone With the Wind" for the screen. In this M-G-M production, the title role is played by child star Freddie Bartholomew as a youngster, then by Frank Lawton as an adult. But it is W.C. Fields in the role of Mr. Micawber who steals the show. This is the role that Fields was born to play, and play it he does. It is a performance for the ages, one that would have guaranteed his immortality even if he had never made the comedies for which he is best remembered.

" A Tale of Two Cities" (1935). Boasting "more stars than there are in the heavens" and specializing in big budget, high gloss adaptations of prestigious material, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had long since reached the top of the pyramid as Hollywood's tiffany studio. It is a measure of their determination to maintain their reputation for quality that this was the studio's second major Dickens adaptation in one year. Dickens's tale of love and sacrifice during the French Revolution gets the full M-G-M treatment here. Once again, Selznick produced. Ronald Colman heads the stellar cast as Sydney Carton, who gallantly lays down his life on the gallows for another.

"Great Expectations" (1946). Despite the yeoman efforts of Selznick at M-G-M, few would dispute that the movies' greatest interpreter of Dickens was director David Lean. In addition to being Lean's first Dickens adaptation, this film represented the beginning of Lean's long and productive collaboration with Alec Guinness. In his first appearance as a featured player, Guinness shines in the role of Herbert Pocket. The lead role of Pip is played by Anthony Wager in Pip's younger days, with John Mills taking over as the adult Pip.

"Oliver Twist" (1948). Lean followed the triumph of "Great Expectations" with another outstanding Dickens adaptation. Again he called on the extraordinary talents of Guinness, this time in the role of Fagin, the corrupter of young street urchins who leads young Oliver astray. Instead of going with an established child star for the lead role, Lean cast an unknown, John Howard Davies, as Oliver. Davies would later move behind the camera to work on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" for the BBC.

"Little Dorrit" (1988). One of the most intriguing Dickens adaptations ever produced, this six-hour marathon was made in two parts. The first part tells the story from the viewpoint of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi). Part two then repeats much of the action, this time from the viewpoint of Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering). Their improbable attraction for each other is thus seen from both perspectives, one at a time, each colored by the impressions of one of the principle characters. Somewhere in the difference between the two lies the story. The film is obviously a labor of love, made by a husband and wife producer-director team with, to my knowledge, no other significant film credits. As Sidney Carton might have said, it is a far, far better film than they had ever made.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Demonic Possession Movies (originally published 2/98)

Back in the sixties, comedian Flip Wilson was a wellspring of popular catch phrases. One of his most popular sayings of all was, "The Devil made me do it." Although Wilson's cheery disclaimer was intended purely facetiously, we know that the idea of the supernatural possession of an unwilling host by an evil spirit has been taken quite seriously down through the centuries. On the screen, it has been the basis for a number of thrillers, including this year's "Fallen." For a sampling of earlier screen treatments of possession, look for these titles on home video.

"The Innocents" (1961). Henry James's classic novel, "The Turn of the Screw," is a masterpiece of subtlety. It may be a horrifying story of the possession of two young children by the malevolent spirits of their former governess and her lover. On the other hand, there may be nothing more at work than the fevered imagination of their current governess. The book slowly but inexorably ratchets up the disquieting mood without ever really resolving the ambiguity for the reader. Adapting such a carefully crafted literary work for the screen was a tall order, but director Jack Clayton and screenwriters Truman Capote and John Mortimer came about as close as anyone could have to capturing James's elusive atmosphere of dread. Deborah Kerr as the governess turns in one of her finest performances.

"Diary of a Madman" (1963). Vincent Price stars as a 19th Century French magistrate who is compelled to kill a condemned man in self-defense. In the process, the evil spirit that made the man a murderer enters the magistrate's body, causing him to go on a killing spree of his own. Gradually the unfortunate magistrate comes to realize that there is no way to destroy the evil that dwells within him without taking his own life in doing so. This shivery little tale was adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant.

"Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Ira Levin's novel about modern-day witchcraft in New York City was blessed with a top-notch team of creative personnel in making its transition to the screen. Mia Farrow leads the excellent cast in the title role, a woman whose pregnancy is co-opted by a Manhattan coven so that she can bear the child of Satan himself. Director Roman Polanski, with his lively visual imagination and affinity for the bizarre and horrific, executes the dramatic escalation from apprehension to abject terror with consummate skill.

"The Exorcist" (1973). The one that everyone remembers, of course, is director William Friedkin's vivid realization of screenwriter William Peter Blatty's tale of contemporary possession and exorcism. Blatty's original novel had been a runaway best seller, as a result of which he found himself in charge of the film adaptation as producer, a privilege not often accorded a writer. Linda Blair made a career for herself on the strength of her portrayal of Regan MacNeil, the twelve year old victim of an ancient demon. Max von Sydow, a veteran of numerous Ingmar Bergman films, brings a certain gravity to his portrayal of Father Karras. The elderly priest has exorcised this demon once before, but that was when he was a much younger man, and even then the strain nearly killed him.

"Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn" (1987). In 1983 writer-director Sam Raimi stood the horror film world on its ear with the release of "The Evil Dead," a shoestring production in which the body count and buckets of stage blood were exceeded only by the inventiveness and sheer energy of the visual style. The sequel, however, is an even better way to experience Raimi's special brand of madness. It isn't so much a sequel as it is a remake. This is the film Raimi would have made in the first place had he had a budget to work with. The action is precipitated by a reading of the Sumerian Book of the Dead in a remote backwoods cabin. Roused by these charmed words, an evil spirit takes possession of the cabin's luckless inhabitants and all hell breaks loose. It's not for the squeamish, but if you can get past the gore you'll find that Raimi and his cast aren't taking any of this seriously. They're having a smashing good time tearing the screen to rags and tatters. It's almost as if they were as possessed as their characters, joyously helpless vessels of the spirit of cinema.

Unpleasant Protagonists (originally published 1/98)

Filmmakers, like all dramatists, know that the secret to keeping our attention is to get us to identify with their characters. Generally, that means that they're going to have to make the main character of their story a fundamentally likable sort, since we all tend to think of ourselves in that light and are therefore unlikely to identify with a thoroughly rotten protagonist. Occasionally, however, a filmmaker will take on the challenge of presenting us with a genuine louse as a main character. Winning our sympathy for such a character requires a virtuoso effort from both the screenwriter and the actor playing the role.

The most recent team to attempt this high wire act was writer-director James L. Brooks and Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets." Nicholson plays a total jerk whose only claim on our sympathy is the fact that he is caught in the grip of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that limits the quality of his life severely. Sadly, he seems to have taken this as a license to impair the quality of other people's lives. Judging by the popular and critical response, it seems that Brooks and Nicholson have met the challenge successfully. For a look back at some earlier films that seek to win our sympathy for decidedly unsympathetic characters, look for these titles on home video.

"Svengali" (1931). John Barrymore, who was widely touted as a matinee idol under the sobriquet "The Great Profile," ironically posted some of his most memorable film roles as rather ugly and unsavory characters, ranging from Mr. Hyde to Captain Ahab. Here he plays the unsavory lead in an adaptation of George du Maurier's novel "Trilby." Svengali is a music teacher who specializes in giving singing lessons to wealthy matrons, then using his quasi-mystical hypnotic powers to lure them into his arms. When he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young model named Trilby (Marian Marsh) he focuses all his attention on making her an international singing star. Ultimately, however, he is frustrated because the one thing that is beyond the reach of his hypnotic spell is the very thing he wants - Trilby's love. Barrymore plays Svengali as a complete reprobate, refusing to take the easy road to winning our sympathy. He even makes it clear that Svengali seldom bathes, making him a character who literally stinks.

"My Little Chickadee" (1940). Comedian W. C. Fields spent virtually his entire career creating and developing for himself a screen persona as a total misanthrope. Drunken, slovenly, self-centered, and repulsed by children, his screen character was a virtual catalogue of human moral failings. In this classic film he teamed up with Mae West, who had built her own career on a cheerful disregard for accepted moral standards on the screen. The misanthrope and the bad girl joined forces in "My Little Chickadee" to lampoon the Western genre within an inch of its life.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941). Monty Woolley heads a top-notch cast as the acerbic Sheridan Whiteside in the film version of the celebrated play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Whiteside is an acid-tongued radio celebrity on a lecture tour through the hinterlands. Accepting a dinner invitation from some locals, whom he clearly sees as beneath him, he has the misfortune to slip on a patch of ice at his hosts' home. Confined to a wheelchair by the resulting injuries, Whiteside takes up what appears to be permanent residence in the home of the luckless family, forcing them to endure a nonstop barrage of tantrums, demands, and insults, punctuated by the arrival of a parade of eccentric hangers-on.

"Hobson's Choice" (1954). Charles Laughton stars as Henry Horatio Hobson, the thoroughly reprehensible proprietor of a successful English bootery. The firm's unassuming bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills) crafts the boots for a pittance while Hobson's daughters run both the business and his household, all without financial reward of any kind. Hobson himself spends the proceeds of the business down at the local pub without ever lifting a finger to earn the money. He's a thoroughly unpleasant blowhard, but his crafty daughters have a proper comeuppance waiting for him.

As you can see, playing an unsavory leading role is a job generally reserved for the brightest lights of the thespian trade. It is a tribute to Nicholson's consummate skill that he has successfully joined that exclusive fraternity.

Irish Troubles Movies (originally published 1/98)

Given the time-honored premise that conflict is the heart and soul of drama, there must surely be few real world situations that can foster drama more readily than the climate of hatred and terror that has reigned in Northern Ireland for decades. Dating back to the "Easter Rebellion" of April, 1916, the "troubles" are nearly as old as the movies themselves. Not surprisingly, they have been the subject of dozens of motion picture dramas down through the years. In recent years, we've seen such Irish rebellion pictures as "In the Name of the Father" (1993), "Michael Collins" (1996), and this year's "The Boxer." For a sampling of earlier treatments of the troubles, look for these titles on home video.

"The Informer" (1935). The movies' greatest poetic champion of all things Irish must undoubtedly be John Ford. Although he was known primarily for Western movies, some of Ford's very best films were set in Ireland, the homeland of his immigrant parents. In this adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's novel, Victor McLaglen stars as the hapless Gypo Nolan. During the 1922 Civil War, Gypo happens across a poster offering a 20 pound reward for information leading to the capture of Frankie McPhillip. Although Frankie is Gypo's best friend, the impulsive Gypo yields to temptation and turns Frankie in. Having done the deed, however, Gypo finds himself a hunted man. He manages to elude the IRA, but is ultimately hounded to his death by the inescapable censure of his own tortured conscience.

"Odd Man Out" (1947). British director Carol Reed is best known for "The Third Man" (1949), and justly so, but this remarkable story of a wounded IRA leader's odyssey through the Belfast underground deserves to be right there on the shelf beside it. James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, whose participation in a payroll robbery goes tragically wrong, leaving him bleeding and desperate, on the run with nowhere to turn. Following him from place to place, we can only watch in fascinated horror as his wounds cause him to sink gradually into delerium. It is a virtuoso turn by both Mason and Reed.

"Cal" (1984). One of the more obvious ways of exploiting the dramatic potential of the troubles is through a variation on the tried and true Romeo and Juliet theme, with the Protestants and Catholics as modern day Montagues and Capulets. Create a pair of lovers with ties to opposite sides of the conflict and you are guaranteed a story line brimming with dramatic possibilities. There are plenty of movies based on this premise, but one of the best is this excellent adaptation of Bernard MacLaverty's novel. Cal McCluskie is a young man who has been involved in IRA activities, although his heart isn't really in it. He's much more interested in a local librarian, but it seems that she is the widow of a policeman who was killed in an IRA bombing. Cal didn't kill the man directly, of course, but it seems that he did drive the getaway car.

"Hidden Agenda" (1990). If you're familiar with the political thrillers of director Constantin Costa-Gavras, like "Z" (1969), "State of Siege" (1973), or "Missing" (1982), you'll have some idea of the look and feel of director Ken Loach's approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Just as Costa-Gavras has done in the past, Loach takes a notorious real life event and fictionalizes it in order to comment on it without having to get caught up in sorting out the particulars of the actual case. The story is based on British official John Stalker's investigation into a shooting in Northern Ireland by British security officers. In the middle of his investigation, Stalker was summarily removed from the case, allegedly because he had turned up evidence of British wrongdoing that proved embarrassing to the Thatcher administration. The film features a Stalker surrogate, played by Brian Cox, but the main protagonists are a pair of American investigators, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif, who learn the hard way just how thorny and knotty the political tensions between Northern Ireland and England really are.

Judging by recent headlines, it would be folly to expect this particular political Gordian knot to be unraveled any time soon. Movies on the subject will no doubt continue to be made as long as the bloodshed continues, but it's a high price to pay for good drama.