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Saturday, January 5, 2008

On the Road, Part 2 (originally published 3/02)

I pointed out last week that road pictures, like the current Britney Spears vehicle, "Crossroads," have long been a favorite of filmmakers. This, it seems to me, is only natural. In a medium called "movies," what narrative strategy could be more instinctive than to get your main characters on the road and keep them on the move throughout the film? So many filmmakers have taken that approach, in fact, that it was impossible to do more than make a start at listing them in last week's column. Here, then, are some additional classic road pictures to look for on home video.

"Easy Rider" (1969). At a time when Hollywood was struggling to connect with audiences, sinking more and more money into white elephant epics that only became bigger and bigger flops, along came this strange little road picture. It was made for less than half a million dollars, yet it became one of the biggest moneymakers of the year. Producer Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper co-wrote the script, along with Terry Southern, and played the leading roles. As Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), they cross America from California to New Orleans on motorcycles. Their characters are among the earliest sympathetic portrayals of the Sixties counterculture in a major studio release. Hollywood, dubious but impressed with the box office receipts, would spend the next couple of decades trying to duplicate the film's success.

"The Reivers" (1969). The title derives from a variant spelling of the archaic word "reave," meaning to rob. It survives in common usage only in the word "bereavement," which we use to refer to the scythe-wielding thief who sooner or later robs us all. In this adaptation of William Faulkner's last novel, the reivers are car thieves. In the rural South of 1905, two men, one white and one black, take a young boy for a ride in a "borrowed" car so that he can "learn a little something about life." The joyride turns into a journey all the way to Memphis, where the youngster learns more about life than his companions had originally intended.

"Harry and Tonto" (1974). Art Carney gives a virtuoso, Oscar-winning performance as Harry, an old man forced out of his condemned New York apartment. With nowhere in particular to go, he and his cat Tonto hit the road, traveling from New York to Los Angeles by bus because the airlines cannot accommodate Tonto. Along the way, he encounters a fascinating and amusing collection of characters, played by a top notch cast that includes Larry Hagman, Ellen Burstyn, and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Writer-director Paul Mazursky is one of American cinema's cleverest satirists. In this film you can see him at the top of his form.

"Fandango" (1985). Once upon a time, writer-director Kevin Reynolds made a promising student film called "Proof," which Steven Spielberg liked so much that he helped Reynolds expand it into a real live feature film. The result was "Fandango," an engaging look at five college buddies who decide to hit the road for one last fling before graduation. The film is set in the Vietnam War era, which explains the sense of dread from which the boys are seeking escape in their wild road trip across the Texas Badlands.

"Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956). I've saved the ultimate road movie for last. It's based on the Jules Verne novel about Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman of the 1870s who is so impressed with modern advances in transportation that he is moved to make the startling claim that he can circumnavigate the globe in a mere 80 days. Backing his boast with a sizable wager, he sets out with Passepartout, his manservant, to accomplish the remarkable journey. In 1946, Orson Welles had mounted a huge, elaborate stage production based on Verne's book. Ten years later, producer Michael Todd picked up the idea, creating an equally elaborate film version. He shot it in a 70mm widescreen process called "Todd-AO," and recruited an astonishing list of top stars to do cameo appearances throughout the picture. David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg, along with Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the faithful Passepartout. Reproduced below is a promotional trailer for a 1960s re-release of the film, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

Needless to say, I'm still leaving out reams of outstanding road pictures. In particular, I haven't mentioned the legendary series of road movies made by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. That's another column for another time.

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