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Friday, February 29, 2008

Surf's Up, Part 2 (originally published 8/02)

Incredible as it seems, for a period of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s people all across the United States became fascinated by a recreational activity that could only be actively pursued by a tiny fraction of the population. If only "everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A.," the Beach Boys lamented, then everybody could go surfing. Alas, only those lucky enough to live in or near coastal areas actually had any hope of regularly shooting the curl, and yet millions of landlocked Big Kahuna wannabes contented themselves with the vicarious thrill of reading about surfing in magazines, listening to songs about catching a wave, and watching Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello hanging ten on the big screen. Such is the power of popular culture.

As we saw last week, Hollywood was quick to cash in on the surfing craze. Even now, some forty years later, the white-hot surfing mania having long since settled into its emeritus years as retro nostalgia, Hollywood still occasionally goes to the well. The recent release of "Blue Crush" can trace its line of descent right back to "Gidget" (1959), along with all the other Hollywood surfing movies I recommended to you in last week's column.

These Hollywood versions of the surfing lifestyle, however, represent only a small part of the totality of surfing cinema. The early days of the surfing boom in the United States predated home video by decades, but home movies, shot in the 16 millimeter format, were widespread. Inevitably, a few surfers got their hands on these home movie cameras and, naturally enough, they used them to make movies of their friends riding the waves.

By the time they had collected enough footage to add up to a presentation of some length, it occurred to some of these seaside cinematographers that people might actually pay to see their movies. They knew, of course, that Hollywood wouldn't buy their product to show in traditional movie theaters - Hollywood was quite capable of filling those screens with its own material, thank you - so they pursued another exhibition route, known in the trade as "four-walling." Entrepreneurs like Bud Browne and John Severson would rent any sort of hall, from high school gymnasiums to civic centers, then put up posters all over town advertising a one-night showing of films with titles like "Hawaiian Surfing Movie" (Browne, 1953) and "Going My Wave" (Severson, 1962). They would sell the tickets, run the projectors while providing live narration, then pack up the whole show and move on to the next town.

The filmmaker who took this form of entertainment further than anyone else was a surfer named Bruce Brown. His films were based on a simple formula: lots of spectacular surfing footage narrated in a lighthearted style laced with endearingly cornball humor. Brown would make roughly one such film per year, using the profits to finance the next film, as well as a year's worth of surfing.

In 1964, however, he struck gold. Along with two surfing buddies, he embarked on a trip around the world in search of the perfect wave. The underlying premise was that if you circle the globe in just the right way you can experience a full year of nothing but summer. The resulting film, called "The Endless Summer," was Brown's most successful film of all. It was so successful on the four-wall circuit that he was eventually able to persuade a theatrical distributing company called Cinema V to release the film nationwide in 1966. Audiences in movie theaters were every bit as enthusiastic as the four-wall crowds, and Brown's fortune was made.

Most of Brown's early films can be found on home video, although it may take some searching to track them down. Look for such titles as "Slippery When Wet" (1958), "Barefoot Adventure" (1961) and "Surfing Hollow Days" (1962). They are all great fun to watch, even if you've never been on a surfboard in your life. The surfing scenes are fascinating, and listening to Brown's good natured narration creates the feeling that you're sitting in his living room watching his home movies as he sits beside you on the sofa and describes it all. That feeling, in turn, engenders in the viewer a level of intimacy with the surfing culture that Hollywood's surfing films, with all their comparative sophistication and polish, will never be able to match.

Surf's Up (originally published 8/02)

Here in the 21st Century, America has at last become a place where nearly everybody surfs. First we channel surfed the waves upon waves of programming flowing into our living rooms over cable TV, and now we regularly shoot the curl on the wildest and most untamed ocean of all, the Internet.

All this, of course, is mere metaphor. And yet there was a time, some fifty years ago, when actual surfing on the actual ocean threatened to become as big a craze as surfing the web is today. Back before the term "extreme sports" was coined, slightly demented thrill seekers were making pilgrimages to places like Southern California, Australia, and Hawaii for the privilege of gliding down massive, 25-foot-high walls of water while standing precariously on a fragile board. The intensive surfing culture was, of necessity, confined to coastal areas, but in time curious journalists began to write about it, spreading the fascination to the inland states. Then, pop groups like "The Beach Boys" and "Jan and Dean" began to sing about surfing, bringing its culture into the popular mainstream. Ultimately, of course, movies were made about surfing as well. In fact, notwithstanding the current cybernetic spin on the term, movies are still occasionally made about that original kind of surfing, as witness the recent release of "Blue Crush." To see how earlier films have portrayed the surfing culture, look for these titles on home video.

"Gidget" (1959). This lightweight romantic comedy aimed squarely at the lucrative youth market was among the earliest Hollywood films to incorporate the surfing culture into its storyline. Terminally perky Sandra Dee stars as Francie Lawrence, whose diminutive stature has earned her the nickname "Gidget," short for "girl midget." Still, she's growing up fast, as evidenced by a growing competition for her attention between two local surfer boys, Moondoggie (James Darren) and The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson). The character created by Dee was sufficiently popular to spawn a number of sequels and television spin-offs over the next twenty years. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, featuring Dick Clark giving his benediction to the new teen craze.

"Beach Party" (1963). I have to mention this one, the first of many featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, or else you'd think I wasn't paying attention. Honestly, though, there isn't a lot of surfing going on here. Still, the surfing culture provides a picturesque backdrop to this tale of fun, sun, and teenage libidos. The latter, in fact, is what anthropologist Professor Sutwell (Bob Cummings) purports to be studying at the beach, using Frankie and Annette as the subjects of his investigation of the "mating habits of teenagers."

"Ride the Wild Surf" (1964). This low budget picture represented a reaction against the relentless silliness of the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. The plot is a standard one for surfing movies: three California guys make the trip to the surfing Mecca of Hawaii to test their mettle in a surfing contest at Waimea Bay. Along the way, each finds romance.

"Big Wednesday" (1978). Made long after the surfing craze had receded from the national spotlight, this elegiac film looks back with nostalgia on the evolution of the surfing culture, using it as a symbolic backdrop for the story of three surfing buddies. Written and directed by John Milius, who wrote the screenplay for "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Big Wednesday" follows its main characters as their lives periodically intersect over a period of 12 years. Naturally, it is always the beach that draws them back together. Their devotion to surfing remains largely unchanged, but each time they reunite it is clear that time and circumstance have altered them. The period of time covered by the film is the early 1960s to the early 1970s; the Vietnam years. Few were left unscathed by that era, and Milius's characters bear the scars of its turbulence as surely as they bear the scars of a decade of wipeouts in the surf.

These Hollywood versions of the surfing life are enjoyable enough, but I should point out that they do not by any means represent the totality of surfing cinema. Next week, by way of dropping the other shoe, we'll take a look at the work of the filmmaker who has been called "the Bergman of the boards" and "the Fellini of the foam," and at his most enduring legacy, the film that many surfers still regard as the ultimate cinematic expression of their lifestyle.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cloak and Dagger Comedy (originally published 8/02)

One hit movie based on a comic persona might be a fluke. Two hits might be a lucky streak. A third hit in a row, however, must be conceded to be a trend, and the character in question must be acknowledged as a genuine crowd-pleaser. With the runaway success of "Goldmember," Mike Myers has firmly established Austin Powers as a bona fide box office gold mine.

For all the originality of these films, however, they are by no means unique. Myers has based his Austin Powers series on a formula with a long tradition of commercial success. In fact, films poking fun at the espionage genre have been around almost as long as the movies they lampoon. For a sampling of the forerunners of Austin Powers, look for these spy parodies on home video.

"All Through the Night" (1942). Spy films, and therefore the films that seek to parody them, fall into two broad categories: pre-Bond and post-Bond. This wartime spy spoof is a prime example of the pre-Bond era, poking gentle fun at such World War II espionage dramas as "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939). Like its more straight-faced cousins, this light thriller takes as its bad guys a group of Axis fifth-columnists infiltrating the United States. However, instead of a G-man pursuing the enemy spies, in this picture we have a New York City bookmaker and racketeer, played by Humphrey Bogart, finding himself mixed up with the Nazi infiltrators through a bizarre series of events. Bogie handles the comedy well, supported by a first-class cast of character actors, including William Demarest, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"My Favorite Blonde" (1942). Bob Hope plays a second-rate vaudevillian who falls in with a beautiful blonde British agent played by Madeleine Carroll. They travel across the country together, she to deliver secret plans to the Lockheed plant in Los Angeles, and he to take a booking with the penguin to whom he plays second banana in the act. Along the way, they are pursued by Nazi agents, played by the always menacing George Zucco and the exotic Gale Sondergaard.

"Our Man Flint" (1966). With the screen premiere of James Bond in "Dr. No" (1962), the look and feel of spy movies changed for good. The adventures of 007 presented parodists with a challenging target. Parody, after all, is based largely on exaggeration. When the original material is as far out as the original Bond films, it takes some doing to exaggerate it enough to create a comic effect. This lampoon rises to the challenge admirably, with James Coburn as Derek Flint, superspy extraordinaire. Somehow he manages to out-sleuth, out-gadget, and out-womanize 007 himself. A sequel, "In Like Flint," was released in 1967.

"Casino Royale" (1967). Here is another Bond parody, this time featuring Bond himself. Before Ian Fleming sold the movie rights to the entire Bond series to Cubby Broccoli, he had sold the rights to "Casino Royale" individually. That made it fair game to be acquired for parody purposes. The impressive cast includes David Niven, Peter Sellers, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen.

"What's Up, Tiger Lily?" (1966). Speaking of Woody Allen, leave it to him to come up with a whole other approach to spy movie parody. For the sum of $66,000, he simply bought out the rights to a low-rent Japanese spy picture. Then he replaced the original dialogue with new lines dubbed in by American actors in English. The combination of cheap visuals, shot in deadly earnest, and Allen's relentlessly silly dialogue makes for a fun show.

"The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe" (1972). This entertaining French film mixes genre parody with satirical social commentary, pointing out in an amusing way the debilitating effects of the paranoia that espionage necessarily breeds. When a simple, innocent fellow is mistaken for a secret agent, he becomes the center of a fruitless web of intrigue. The absurdity of the situation reminds us that absurdity lies at the heart of all espionage movies. Even the serious ones are based on an existential joke, having to do with the use of deceit and guile in the advancement of noble ideals. Some of them just work a little harder at making the joke funny.

Undersea Warriors (originally published 7/02)

Military dramas naturally lend themselves to effective action and suspense scenes. By their very nature, they tend to tell stories in which the protagonists spend much of their time in harm's way on a grand scale. If you take those characters and enclose them in a claustrophobic environment under the ocean, isolated and utterly dependent on their own resources to deal with whatever misfortune comes their way, the tension can sometimes become unbearable.

Small wonder, then, that filmmakers through the years have made a number of military pictures set on submarines. "K-19: The Widowmaker," currently in release, is the most recent such film, but its forebears are numerous and distinguished. To see how earlier filmmakers have used submarines as the setting for martial drama, look for these titles on home video.

"Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958). This World War II submarine classic mirrors the central conflict of "K-19" in that it revolves around a clash between a sub captain and his executive officer. Clark Gable plays Commander Richardson, whose last command ended in humiliation when his sub was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. This sets up a plot device that is used in lots of submarine movies, borrowing the theme of obsessive revenge from "Moby Dick." Richardson's one desire is to get command of another sub so that he can sink the destroyer that sank his own ship. When he does get another command, he is confronted with a resentful executive officer (played by Burt Lancaster) who had thought that the command would go to him. Much of the dramatic action of the film flows from the conflict between the two officers. Gradually, the crew seems to side with the executive officer, especially when their captain ducks a confrontation with an enemy vessel in order to save himself for the object of his personal vengeance. Gable was, at the time, a second generation movie star nearing the end of his career, while Lancaster was a third generation star in his prime. It's fascinating to watch them play off each other.

"The Enemy Below" (1957). Robert Mitchum stars as Captain Murrell, commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer. Virtually the entire film is devoted to a protracted duel between Murrell and Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), the captain of a German U-Boat. Murrell's ship detects and stalks the U-Boat, attempting to destroy it with depth charges. There is no quick and decisive outcome, however, because both Murrell and Von Stolberg turn out to be experienced and crafty sailors. What might have been a brief and violent encounter, therefore, turns into something more like a chess game, with subtle moves and countermoves. And with each exchange of tactical moves, the two captains' respect for each other grows. Interestingly, Von Stolberg is portrayed quite sympathetically. It's clearly established that he is a career navy man who doesn't particularly approve of the Nazi party. This would have been unthinkable in a film released during the war.

"Destination Tokyo" (1943). In this film, which did come out during the war, the portrayal of the enemy is very different. The Japanese are presented as subhuman vermin whose total extermination really wouldn't have any significant downside. Cary Grant plays Captain Cassidy, commander of the USS Copperfin. Having been ordered into the heavily mined Tokyo Bay on a special mission, the Copperfin encounters more than its share of heart-stopping crises. As if dodging mines and depth charges weren't enough, one of the crewmen develops appendicitis, necessitating an undersea appendectomy under conditions not entirely conducive to successful surgery. Especially inconvenient is the lack of a qualified surgeon on board. They don't make them much more suspenseful than this one.

"We Dive at Dawn" (1943). The British perspective on sub warfare is ably represented here by director Anthony Asquith. Borrowing from the documentary techniques pioneered by fellow Englishman John Grierson, Asquith chronicles the exploits of the submarine Sea Tiger and her crew. Asquith's understated approach makes for an interesting contrast with "Destination Tokyo."

Speaking of contrasts, just to show that not all submarine war movies are white-knuckled suspense dramas, you might also want to take a look at Cary Grant's second role as a sub commander, in the Blake Edwards comedy, "Operation Petticoat" (1959). There aren't any undersea appendectomies in that one, but there are a couple of births.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Second-Stringers (originally published 7/02)

Of all the plum roles that an actor can luck into, one of the juiciest must certainly be that of the leading character in a continuing series of movies. As long as the movies in question maintain their popularity, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Even so, actors do occasionally tire of repeating a particular characterization or become unable to continue in a role. If that happens while the box office potential of the series is still robust, as with Harrison Ford's departure from the current series of Jack Ryan movies, then it becomes necessary to look for a replacement actor. Those of us whose closest brush with acting is buying a ticket to the show can only imagine how daunting it must be to replace an actor who has established himself in a popular role. For a look at how some of Ben Affleck's forerunners have handled this problem, look for these titles on home video.

"Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). Boris Karloff established the role of Frankenstein's monster for Universal Pictures and played it in two sequels. By the time the studio initiated a fourth film in the series, however, Karloff was tied up with an ongoing stage commitment in "Arsenic and Old Lace" on Broadway. In any case, Karloff had grown weary of the role, especially in view of the marathon makeup sessions. For "Ghost," Universal passed the neck bolts on to Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of the versatile silent film star who had incarnated "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Chaney's performance as the monster is much less subtle than Karloff's, more like the familiar lead-footed, stiff-armed stereotype of the monster. This doesn't mean that Chaney was a poor actor; in fact, he was excellent as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" three years earlier. Instead, it reflects the studio's lack of interest in developing the monster's characterization, which is why Karloff wanted no part of it.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932). Even before Karloff relinquished the Frankenstein monster to Chaney, Karloff himself was asked to take over for another performer in an established role. Warner Oland had appeared three times as Dr. Fu Manchu, a Chinese physician who is obsessed with avenging the deaths of his wife and child in the Boxer Rebellion by persecuting the family of an English officer. Oland had played the part more or less straight, but Karloff and his co-star, Myrna Loy, opted for a tongue in cheek interpretation. This campy approach serves to soften what is essentially a virulently racist story, thereby salvaging some entertainment value.

"Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum" (1940). Warner Oland moved on from the role of Fu Manchu to become forever identified with the role of Chinese detective Charlie Chan. He was not the first film actor to play the role, but it wasn't long before he made it his own. Oland's genial portrayal of the self-effacing Chan had enormous audience appeal. When Oland died in 1938, character actor Sidney Toler drew the unenviable assignment of following him in the role. Toler's Chan was a bit edgier than Oland's; not quite so resolutely humble. Of the few Toler Chans available on video, "Wax Museum" is the most popular. What better place to solve a murder than in a wax museum, surrounded by the images of Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard?

"The Falcon's Brother" (1942). One of my favorite examples of one actor passing the torch to another occurs in the "Falcon" series. In the tradition of suave, aristocratic amateur detectives, the Falcon blithely solves mysteries that baffle the plodding and ineffectual police detectives. After three outings in the lead role, however, George Sanders had had enough. In "The Falcon's Brother," Tom Conway was brought in as the main character's brother. Later in the film, the Sanders Falcon is killed off, leaving his brother to carry on in future films of the series. What makes this on-screen passing of the baton so interesting, however, is that George Sanders was Tom Conway's brother in real life. Conway went on to do nine more Falcon pictures.

If you want to compare these latecomers to their predecessors, I recommend Karloff in "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Oland in "Charlie Chan at the Opera" (1936), and Sanders in "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942).

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Courts-Martial (originally published 6/02)

Playwrights have always been drawn to the portrayal of trials. The most likely explanation for this, it seems to me, is that trials by their very nature are structured like dramas. Playwrights, after all, spend their lives taking life in all its complexities, contradictions, and nonlinear unruliness and trying to mold it into clearly defined conflicts that move toward clear-cut resolutions. Most of the time, it's devilishly difficult work.

But dramatizing a trial is another matter. Trials are predicated on conflict, and they move from the exposition of relevant information to the struggle against opposing forces, and then to a climactic and decisive resolution of that struggle. If you're a playwright, what's not to love? And if there's anything more fun to write than a civilian courtroom drama, it must surely be its hard edged, spit and polish cousin, the military courtroom drama. If you enjoyed "High Crimes," the latest release in this genre, here are a few earlier titles to look for on home video.

"The Caine Mutiny" (1954). Director Edward Dmytryk's film of Herman Wouk's novel and play is the granddaddy of the genre. Humphrey Bogart is outstanding as the psychotic Captain Queeg, whose junior officers see fit to remove him from command in a crisis situation. Queeg's nervous habit of rolling a pair of steel balls in his hand when upset or preoccupied has become as much a part of the Bogart mythos as Rick's Café in "Casablanca." But Bogart doesn't give the only memorable performance. Jose Ferrer is equally brilliant as the defense attorney who must expose Queeg's instability. The scene in which he takes Queeg apart on the witness stand is world-class theater.

"Paths of Glory" (1957). Stanley Kubrick's grim anti-war film is set during World War I. In the lead role, Kirk Douglas defends three men who are being tried for cowardice under fire. In point of fact, the men are scapegoats for commanding officers who are unwilling to admit that they ordered a pointless, suicidal raid on a clearly impregnable position. Kubrick relentlessly contrasts the cigar smoking, wine sipping officers with the wretched, mud drenched foot soldiers, leaving no doubts as to who he thinks ought to be on trial. This was the film that unmistakably marked Kubrick as a major force in world cinema.

"The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" (1955). Stoic Gary Cooper portrays the controversial general who commanded the airplane squadrons during World War I and went on to become a leading advocate of air power as a military priority. When his recommendations regarding the urgency of developing a credible air force went unheeded by his superiors, he went public with his grievances. This earned him a court-martial for insubordination and a five year suspension. The reason Mitchell's court-martial makes for good drama is that almost all of his predictions regarding the importance of air power to future warfare were subsequently proved accurate. This film will therefore resonate with anyone who has ever had to deal with an intransigent boss who wouldn't listen to reason.

"Sergeant Ryker" (1968). Lee Marvin stars as a Korean War soldier who was ordered to carry out a secret intelligence mission by temporarily pretending to defect to the enemy. Returning to U.S. lines, he is caught in an enemy uniform and tried as a traitor. Unfortunately, the general who gave him the assignment has died in the meantime, having mentioned the assignment to no one, and having left behind no written record of it. This film began its life as a television show, airing as a segment of "Kraft Suspense Theater." They simply added a few exteriors that weren't in the TV budget and released the newly enhanced version to the theaters. Fortunately, the expansion did little to impair the tightness of Seelig Lester and William Gordon's script, which packs a lot of storytelling into 85 minutes.

"Sergeant Rutledge" (1960). Legendary Western filmmaker John Ford deals with the issue of military justice and the black soldier in this remarkable film. Woody Strode stars as an African-American cavalry sergeant falsely accused of a double murder. Released a quarter century before "A Soldier's Story," at a time when the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, this moving study of racial prejudice in the military is one of Ford's most remarkable films. It's a pity that it isn't better known.

Doing Hard Time (originally published 6/02)

When asked why he was so attracted to morbid subject matter, Alfred Hitchcock used to tell a story, probably apocryphal, but nonetheless revealing, about his childhood. At the age of 6, Hitchcock explained, he was caught misbehaving. His father sent him down to the local police station with a note for the desk sergeant. The officer read the note, then locked the youngster in a cell for five minutes, saying, "This is what we do to naughty boys."

The truth is that most of us, with or without childhood traumas, are fascinated by crime and punishment. It is a perverse attraction that is older than either Hitchcock or Dostoyevski. The history of the movies is rich with both crime and punishment, but some of the most interesting films have been those that focused mostly, or entirely, on punishment.

With that in mind, it's not so surprising that HBO launched its experiment in hour-long series drama with a prison show, paving the way for "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." After five successful seasons, the producers of "Oz" have now begun production on a sixth and final season. If you're a fan of this groundbreaking prison drama, here are some classic prison movies you might want to look for on home video.

"I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932). Paul Muni, one of the most respected actors of the 1930s and 1940s, plays the part of James Allen. Arrested for a crime he didn't commit, Allen is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. The treatment of the prisoners is portrayed as unbelievably brutal and sadistic. In a time when many movies tried to take people's minds off hard times, the Warner Brothers studio earned a reputation for tackling social issues. This unblinking expose of reprehensible penal practices is a prime example.

"Each Dawn I Die" (1939). By the end of the 1930s, Warner Brothers had very nearly cornered the prison movie market with pictures like this James Cagney vehicle. Cagney plays a crusading reporter who is framed on a manslaughter charge when his investigations point to corruption in the district attorney's office. Once he's inside, the prison system inexorably strips him of ideals, hope, and dignity.

"White Heat" (1949). It's Cagney again, this time as a gangster named Cody Jarrett. While he's doing a penny-ante prison stretch to avoid a more substantial rap, the police decide to send in an undercover man to be Cody's cellmate. Edmond O'Brien plays the cop whose job it is to ingratiate himself with Cody to try to get him to spill the beans. Most of the gangsters that Cagney had played in the past were just average street hoodlums with above-average mean streaks, but Cody is different. He's a full-blown psychopath. Cagney made the most of the dramatic potential of the role, creating one of his finest and most enduring performances.

"Riot in Cell Block 11" (1954). This grimly realistic chronicle of a prison riot was something of a pet project for producer Walter Wanger. He had recently seen prison conditions firsthand while serving a prison term for shooting and wounding a man who was fooling around with his wife. Director Don Siegel shot the film inside Folsom Prison, using actual convicts as extras.

"Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). Burt Lancaster gives a virtuoso performance as Robert Stroud, the real-life murderer who became an authority on birds while serving his sentence and published an ornithology textbook from prison. When he subsequently tries to publish a book on penology, the authorities confiscate the manuscript. The parallel between caged birds and caged men is clear.

"Cool Hand Luke" (1967). One of the pillars of the Paul Newman film persona is his performance as Luke Jackson, the chain-gang convict who can take everything that The Man can dish out without losing his cool. The supporting cast is also uniformly excellent, especially Strother Martin as a particularly nasty guard. His immortal line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate," is familiar even to people who have never seen the film. Indeed, the memorable phrase loomed large in the advertising for the film, as you can see in the picture's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

By the way, unless your cool is as unshakeable as Luke's, I don't know that I'd recommend seeing more than one of these films at one sitting. To tell you the truth, I'm a little stir-crazy just from writing about them.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The American Version (originally published 5/02)

The movie industry has been called the world's biggest floating crap game, with every new release a high-stakes roll of the dice. Because the ante is so high and the risk so great, studios are constantly on the lookout for anything that can give them an edge.

One trick that seems to work is to look for a movie that has already been made and enjoyed success in a foreign country, then remake it domestically. The recent release of "Insomnia," a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller, is the most recent example. This transatlantic version of the sincerest form of flattery is not, however, unique to the entertainment conglomerates that control modern studios. The practice was alive and well even in the old days of the studio system. If you're curious about how we borrowed movie plots from overseas in the old days, here are some titles to look for.

"Intermezzo" (Sweden, 1936) and "Intermezzo" (USA, 1939). It would perhaps be a bit of a stretch to call Swedish director Gustav Molander the Ingmar Bergman of his day - that title probably belongs to Victor Seastrom - but he was a significant and influential figure nonetheless. His single most enduring influence on world cinema, however, came by way of the Swedish actress who starred in this sentimental tale of love and sacrifice. The main character is a pianist who falls in love with a renowned concert violinist. Although the violinist is married, he asks the young woman to tour with him, acting as his accompanist. Knowing that he will leave his family to be with her if she asks him to, she must decide if she can live with the guilt of breaking up a happy home.

The actress who played the lead role was a striking beauty named Ingrid Bergman. American producer David O. Selznick was so taken with her performance that he brought her to Hollywood to star in the 1939 remake. Her costar was Leslie Howard, who would also appear that same year as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind."

"Pepe le Moko" (France, 1937) and "Algiers" (USA, 1938). Director Julien Duvivier's "Pepe le Moko" is a fascinating precursor to the film noir tradition of the cinematic femme fatale, which would be taken to extraordinary heights (or depths, perhaps) in the American cinema of the forties. The setting is Algiers, during Algeria's period as a French colony. Pepe, played by Jean Gabin, is a local gangster who operates out of the Casbah, or native quarter. As long as he remains within the Casbah, he is untouchable, but the wily Inspector Slimane has noticed his fascination with an alluring woman named Gaby, who is visiting from Paris. If only Gaby can be used to lure Pepe from his safe haven, justice can be served.

The part of Pepe was originally offered to Charles Boyer, who turned it down. When the American remake was cast, Boyer was again approached, and this time he accepted. And yes, this is the film that inspired the famous line, "Come with me to the Casbah." But, like the equally famous Casablanca line, "Play it again, Sam," it's never actually said in the movie.

"The Wages of Fear" (France, 1952) and "Sorcerer" (USA, 1977). Henri-Georges Clouzot's existential suspense tale involves four down and out men languishing in a rotten South American backwater. An American oil company needs four drivers to transport nitroglycerin to the site of an oil well fire, but the fire is some three hundred miles away over wretched, bumpy mountain roads. Our protagonists, enticed by the large wage being offered and with nothing much to lose, take on the job. This is an unspeakably tense film, not for the faint of heart.

Director William Friedkin's remake, "Sorcerer," features Roy Scheider as one of the drivers. Hardly anyone seems to like this film, but I've never understood why. No, it isn't as good as the original, but the suspense still works, and Friedkin's affection for Clouzot's classic is unmistakable. That, it seems to me, is the single most important factor distinguishing "Sorcerer" from my other examples. "Algiers" and Selznick's "Intermezzo" were, primarily, economically motivated. "Sorcerer," on the other hand, was homage, one filmmaker saluting another. Personally, I'm pretty clear on which type of remake I'd rather encourage.

The Movie Hostages (originally published 5/02)

In most movies built around the taking of hostages, the hostage taker is the villain of the piece. The recently released "John Q," starring Denzel Washington as a frustrated father whose child has been failed by the health care system, reverses that convention by aligning our sympathies with the hostage taker. Either way, a hostage situation is ideal as a basis for engaging drama, since it usually involves, one way or another, an act of desperation. Here are some earlier hostage movies to look for on home video.

"The Petrified Forest" (1936). Humphrey Bogart, in the breakthrough role that launched his career in Hollywood, plays Duke Mantee, a gangster who holds a group of people hostage in a lonely desert café. Based on a play by Robert Sherwood, the film stars Leslie Howard, who insisted on Bogart for the role of Mantee after seeing him play the part on Broadway. Screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves sensibly left Sherwood's excellent dialogue largely intact, allowing the intriguing cast of characters to carry the film rather than relying on suspense alone. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Desperate Hours" (1955). Some twenty years later, Bogart again played a hostage taker. In the role of escaped convict Glenn Griffin, he holds a terrified family hostage; not in a desert café, but in their own quiet, suburban home. Fredric March and Martha Scott play Dan and Eleanor Hilliard, two perfectly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the midst of a crisis with which they are completely unprepared to cope.

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974). Robert Shaw plays the leader of a gang of men who hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers for ransom. Walter Matthau plays the city transit cop who has to try to manage the situation. Shaw and Matthau are excellent, playing off each other by radio communication for much of the film. Director Joseph Sargent does an admirable job of keeping the suspense taut and the action thrilling.

"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). Frank Pierson's Academy Award-winning script looks at hostage taking as a media event by loosely recreating an actual incident from August of 1972. Al Pacino and John Cazale star as a couple of inept bank robbers. Their attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank quickly degenerates into a standoff as they are forced to hold the bank employees hostage to keep at bay the police waiting outside to apprehend them. As the standoff drags on, a crowd gathers outside, along with the inevitable television cameras. Soon both the robbers and the hostages are playing to the cameras, milking their fifteen minutes of fame. This remarkable film represents one of the most outstanding achievements of Hollywood in the seventies. Pacino and director Sidney Lumet were both operating at the top of their game, taking what could easily have been a bland, cliched movie of the week and turning it into a fascinating, entertaining slice of life with rich, full-bodied characterizations.

"The Delta Force" (1986). Director and co-scripter Menahem Golan based this Chuck Norris vehicle on the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the subsequent hostage situation in Beirut. Although names are changed, the recreation of some of the most dramatic moments from that event leave no doubt as to the intended reference. By fictionalizing the story, however, Golan allows himself to tack on a wish-fulfillment ending, in which an American anti-terrorist squadron swoops in and saves the day.

"Cadillac Man" (1990). Fast talking car salesman Joey O'Brien (Robin Williams) is having a bad day. He's in dutch with his ex-wife, his boss, and the mob. The last thing he needs on top of all that is a jealous husband to deal with. That's when Larry (Tim Robbins), the husband of a secretary at the dealership, crashes through the showroom window on his motorcycle, brandishing a gun and looking for his wife's lover. The situation quickly gets out of hand, with Larry holding everyone hostage and Joey calling on his persuasive skills to try to talk Larry out of doing anything permanent.

There are plenty of other good hostage movies I could tell you about, but if you want their titles you'll have to meet my list of demands, starting with the release of my comrades in arms in the Disney dungeons at Orlando.