Classic Noir Mini-Binge

The Bride Wore Black - William Irish, Cornell Woolrich Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler, Elliott Gould Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler, Full Cast, Toby Stephens The High Window: A BBC Full-Cast Radio Drama - Raymond Chandler, Toby Stevens, Full Cast

Well, what with the last two bingo calls having given me some breathing space — “genre: horror” is not on my card, and “locked room mystery” was one of the first squares I already read books for –, I’ve embarked on a classic noir mini-binge, with Cornell Woolrich’s “The Bride Wore Black” (physical book) and a Raymond Chandler audio multi-pack — “Farewell, My Lovely” (unabridged, read by Elliott Gould) and the recent(ish) BBC full cast dramatizations of “The Long Goodbye” and “The High Window” (starring Toby Stephens … and yes, he does manage a credible enough Marlowe, accent and all).

I’ve yet to finish “The Bride Wore Black”, and if I know Woolrich there will be some fairly devilish twist at the end — but I have to say, the gem of the set so far is Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely”. There’s nothing like revisiting the mean streets of 1940s Los Angeles, Chandler’s imagery is as gut-punching as ever, and it’s just an unmitigated joy of having a classic noir novel read to me by Elliott Gould.

I suppose I could count these towards several different bingo squares (“murder most foul” and the free square in addition to “classic noir” if nothing else), but I think I’m going to count them all towards “classic noir” … I just have too many other books that I really also want to get to during the bingo. And if things don’t go the way I hope they will, I can always reassign one or two of these later on …

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1597209/classic-noir-mini-binge

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THELMA & LOUISE

A Cult Classic – Not Just for Feminists

“BOOM!!” Under fire from Thelma and Louise’s guns, the tongue-wagging truck-driver’s pride and joy (and extension of his manhood) goes up in flames. Incredulous, its owner stares at the spectacle and lets off a pitifully helpless and, in its helplessness, hilariously comical tirade against the two female outlaws; whose only reason not to shoot him, too, at this point is that it is so utterly more poignant to let him sit all alone by the road side in the vastness of the Southwest, robbed of all attributes of male potency and left to the pity of whoever is eventually going to pick him up and give him a ride back to civilization.

By the time of this incident, Thelma has mutated from a subdued and insecure housewife to a self-assured, fearless queen of the highway. (“Something has crossed over” in her, she tells Louise shortly before their final encounter with their truck-driving nemesis.) Louise in turn, who had taken the lead early on in their flight from the police, has overcome her intermittent bout of despair and is back to her old self, too. Now wanted not only for questioning in connection with the death of the rapist shot by Louise but also for armed robbery in another state, knowing that being questioned by the police will inevitably add a charge of murder for the incident which set off their run (and probably also knowing deep down inside that there is not going to be a happy ending to their weekend trip anyway), Thelma and Louise have stopped to care what is going to happen next. Thus emboldened, they make a last great run for it, which ultimately leads them to the vast, endlessly deep gorges of the Grand Canyon.

Thelma and Louise is all and none of the things as which it has been described. It is about the friendship between two women, about female independence and male sexism, but it is neither a simple “chick flick” nor a monument to feminism (although I have to admit that watching it can have an almost therapeutic effect when you’ve just about “had it” again with the male slightly-less-than-half of society). Most of the men that Thelma and Louise encounter are two-dimensional cartoon characters, but Reservoir Dogs and perpetual tough guys Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen (of all people) are cast against stereotype. The movie also features some absolutely stunning pictures of the Southwestern scenery and mostly takes place on the road, but it is not just a “road movie” (feminist or otherwise). More than anything, this is a movie about the things that shape the way we are, and about the consequences of our actions. Had Thelma learned to use her brain before and not after their encounter with Harlan the rapist, she would have seen him for what he was and avoided him from the start. Had Louise not been raped herself, she would probably not have shot Harlan at being provoked by him, after the self-defense situation was already over. Impulse? Fate? Justifiable homicide? Hardly. Thoroughly understandable? Absolutely, at least from a woman’s point of view.

It takes two extraordinary lead actresses to carry the movie’s theme, and Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are the perfect embodiment of the characters they portray. Next to them, not even Keitel and Madsen really shine (although this may be in part due to the thankless parts they play); only Brad Pitt, in the role that made him an overnight star, briefly gets to sparkle. Callie Khourie was a deserving winner of the 1991 Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay, and both Sarandon and Davis would have been equally deserving of the Best Leading Actress awards. So would have Ridley Scott for Directing, Adrian Biddle for Cinematography, Thom Noble for Editing and for the movie itself, for Best Drama – in a year that produced many extraordinary films, it might have been more just to split some of the awards among several contenders, and despite the strong competition (Bugsy, The Silence of the Lambs, The Prince of Tides, The Fisher King, Grand Canyon and Fried Green Tomatoes, to name just a few), it seems sadly underrated for a movie that has long since become a cult classic to only have won one of the awards it was nominated for, both on Oscar Night and at the Golden Globes.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: MGM (1991)
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Producers: Ridley Scott & Mimi Polk Gitlin
  • Co-Producers: Callie Khouri & Dean O’Brien
  • Screenplay: Callie Khouri
  • Music: Hans Zimmer
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Adrian Biddle
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Louise Sawyer
  • Geena Davis: Thelma Dickinson
  • Harvey Keitel: Detective Hal Slocumb
  • Michael Madsen: Jimmy Lennox
  • Brad Pitt: J.D.
  • Christopher McDonald: Darryl Dickinson
  • Stephen Tobolowsky: Max
  • Timothy Carhart: Harlan Puckett
  • Marco St. John: Truck Driver (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1992)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Callie Khouri
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 24 (Thelma Dickerson & Louise Sawyer)
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 76
  • Top 100 Inspiring Movies – No. 78
Golden Globes (1992)
  • Best Screenplay – Motion Picture: Callie Khouri
National Board of Review Awards (1991)
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis (tied)
  • Top 10 Films of 1991 – No. 4
Writers Guild of America Awards (1992)
  • Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Callie Khouri
National Society of Film Critics Awards (USA) (1991)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Havey Keitel
    – Also for “Bugsy” and “Mortal Thoughts”
  • 3d Place, Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1991)
  • 2nd Place, Best Screenplay: Callie Khouri
  • 2nd Place, Best Actress: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis (tied)
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1991)
  • Best Actress: Geena Davis
PEN Center USA West Literary Awards (1992)
  • Best Screenplay: Callie Khouri
London Critics’ Circle Film Awards (1991)
  • Film of the Year
  • Director of the Year: Ridley Scott
  • Actress of the Year: Susan Sarandon
    – Also for “White Palace.”
David di Donatello Awards (1992)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress): Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis (tied)
Nastro d’Argento (Silver Ribbon) (Italy)
  • Best Female Dubbing: Rossella Izzo (voice of Louise)
Bodil Awards (Denmark)
  • Best Non-European Film: Ridley Scott

 

BOYZ N THE HOOD

How to Survive in South Central

South Los Angeles – or South Central, as it used to be known: Where even today the overall crime rate is 23% higher than the national average,*  while at the same time average school test scores are 36% lower, over 40% of all kids don’t even complete high school; and the income per capita is 51% lower than the national average, the median household income is 40% lower, and  the unemployment rate is 39% higher than the national average.  Where decades after the Bloods and the Crips  turned city streets into a blood-soaked battlefield (and although the neighborhhood’s violent crime statistics had seen a considerable decline in recent years), as of September 2015, 80% of the area’s homicides were again related to gang violence, with a lack of employment opportunities constituting a significant  contributing factor, making for a 31% increase of people shot in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division alone the first half of 2015, and a city-wide 26% increase of shootings as well as a city-wide 18% increase of overall gang-related crimes.

South Central L.A.: Where “I’ll have my brother shoot you” isn’t just an empty threat, and guns are passed from one sibling to another when an older brother goes away to “do time.” Where owning a gun is a means of self-protection even for those who have always stayed clear of gangs. Where “where ya’ from?” is an inquiry about gang membership, not geographic origin, and wearing the wrong colors can cause you to be “hit up;” resulting in violence, and more violence by way of retaliation. Where kids learn early that a bullet doesn’t come with a name attached; and those who know the killer generally stay mum, either fearing reprisal or preferring to take care of their own, rather than leave justice to a police and a court system they’ve learned to mistrust equally early. And where crimes like burglary for the longest time only merited police attention if something actually was stolen, and were quickly sidelined upon the officers’ summons to another murder scene.

South Los Angeles
Map of South Los Angeles (source: Los Angeles Times)

South Central L.A. is the home of Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his friends, Darren (aka “Doughboy”) and Ricky Baker (Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut). We first meet them at age ten, when Tré’s mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father Jason, a/k/a “Furious” (Laurence Fishburne), who seems better equipped to raise a son in a neighborhood like this. When we see them again they’re seventeen, Tré and Ricky about to graduate from high school, while Doughboy has already graduated – from shoplifting to guns and small-time drug deals. And while Furious guides Tré towards moral choices, responsibility and (self-)respect, Doughboy and Ricky are raised by a mother (Tyra Ferrell) who lacks the wherewithal to steer them out of the ghetto. Yet, Ricky in particular is naively, fiercely resolved to make it out of there; with a football scholarship (provided his SAT scores are high enough) or if that fails, by joining the army. And in a poignant, spot-on conclusion it is ultimately Ricky who forces Tré and Doughboy to choose their own paths in life, to either be drawn into the ghetto’s spiral of violence, or conquer their inner demons and extricate themselves from that vicious circle.

Upon this movie’s 1991 release, several Los Angeles cinemas either refused to show it at all or hired extra security guards: That big, in a city that had recently seen the Rodney King beating, was about to be rocked by the Christopher Commission’s scathing indictment of its police department, and was gearing up to the riots that would ravage its inner city the following spring, were fears of the reaction to John Singleton’s partly autobiographical film. Yet, while Boyz N the Hood paints a starkly accurate picture of inner city life’s daily realities, it in no way encourages violence – much to the contrary. That it is told from a profoundly “black” perspective is a given; and with that come charges that those of us with a more fortunate childhood often dismiss as the “chip” on many black people’s shoulders (e.g. the notion that drugs, liquor and guns in the ghetto are tacitly encouraged by society’s white-dominated ruling circles to keep inner-city minorities subdued). But while neither such charges nor their typically “white” response are the be-all and end-all of the problem, there is no question that drugs, alcoholism and guns are major issues in the ‘hood, as are teen pregnancies and unemployment; and Singleton intelligently weaves all of these elements into a compelling picture.

Equally well-deserved as the praise for Singleton, who garnered “best director” and “best screenplay” Oscar nominations and several other distinctions, are the kudos to the movie’s outstanding actors. Then-23-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. came practically out of nowhere to give a fully accomplished, emphatic portrayal as Tré, caught between the lessons of ghetto life and those of his father. (Although this wasn’t his first movie, he had never before appeared in a remotely as prominent role.) Morris Chestnut’s naively determined football hero-to-be Ricky is similarly compelling; and Laurence Fishburne noticeably didn’t have to reach far for his “Furious” Styles: While based on Singleton’s father, the role was created specifically with him in mind. So, reportedly, was Ice Cube’s Doughboy; and he, too, is a perfect match, giving the teenage trio’s most troubled member a depth clearly informed by his own South Central boyhood (although despite his songs’ inflammatory lyrics, he himself stayed clear of gangs). Angela Bassett finally is the perfect foil for the movie’s male characters, exemplifying a woman who through hard work gets as far out of the ghetto as conceivable and unlike her ex-husband doesn’t avoid the moneyed upper-crust, but doesn’t forget her origins, either, and is still perfectly capable of talking tough when challenged.

The movie’s last words are Ice Cube’s, both spoken as Doughboy and rapped in How to Survive in South Central, underlying the closing credits. “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care what’s going on [here],” Doughboy comments on a TV program about exotic faraway places he’s seen shortly after experiencing the kind of violence that he knows will haunt him forever. And in his rap song, sarcastically premised on a guided tour to the “concrete Vietnam” South Central L.A. (“Have you witnessed a drive-by? Okay, make sure you have your camcorder ready!”), Ice Cube warns: “Rule number one: get yourself a gun … ’cause jackers … love to start shit. Now, if you’re white you can trust the police; but if you’re black they ain’t nothin but beasts. … So don’t take your life for granted, ’cause it’s the craziest place on the planet … This is Los Angeles.”

Boyz N the Hood was released 25 years ago. It is as topical as ever.


*And if you think today’s figures are bad, let me just mention that some ten years ago, murder rates were five times the nationwide average, or in absolute figures, double the entire U.S.’s death rate for breast cancer (L.A. Times, January 1, 2004.)  At the time, over the period of the preceding 15 years the LAPD had accumulated a staggering backlog of 4,400 unsolved homicides: roughly 3/4 of the city’s total. – In the early 1990s, when this movie was released, the murder rate was triple that of today.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1991)
  • Director: John Singleton
  • Producer: Steve Nicolaides
  • Screenplay: John Singleton
  • Music: Stanley Clarke
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Charles Mills
Cast
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Tré Styles
  • Ice Cube: Doughboy / Darren
  • Morris Chestnut: Ricky Baker
  • Laurence Fishburne: Furious Styles
  • Angela Bassett: Reva Styles
  • Tyra Ferrell: Mrs. Baker
  • Nia Long: Brandi
  • Regi Green: Chris
  • Dedrick D. Gobert: Dooky
  • Tammy Hanson: Rosa
  • Darneicea Corley: Keisha
  • Na’Blonka Durden: Trina
  • Susan Falcon: Mrs. Olaf
  • Jessie Lawrence Ferguson: Officer Coffey
  • John Cothran: Lewis Crump

 

Major Awards and Honors

American Political Film Society Awards (1992)
  • Peace Award
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Image Awards (USA) (1993)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture
National Board of Review Awards (1991)
  • Top 10 Films of 1991 – No. 7
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1991)
  • New Generation Award: John Singleton
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1991)
  • Best New Director: John Singleton
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Most Promising Actor: Ice Cube
Young Artist Awards (1992)
  • Outstanding Young Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture: Desi Arnez Hines, Baha Jackson and Donovan McCrary
MTV Movie Awards (1992)
  • Best New Filmmaker: John Singleton
BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Film & TV Awards (USA) (1992)
  • BMI Film Music Award: Stanley Clarke

 

Links

 

The “inofficial” soundtrack of Boyz N the Hood

CHINATOWN

“Forget it, Jake … it’s Chinatown.”

“Water is the life blood of every community.” With this statement, the Owens Valley History Site still does, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power‘s website once used to begin its biography of William Mulholland, the real life model of two of this movie’s characters, water department chief Hollis Mulwray (an obvious play on words) and water tycoon Noah Cross. And indeed water, the access to it and the wealth it provides, is what drives everything and everybody in this movie set in the ever-thirsty Los Angeles of the first decades of this century, a budding boom town on the brink of victory or decay … and whether it will be one or the other depends on the city’s ongoing access to drinking water.

William Mulholland (1924):
William Mulholland (1924)

Chinatown‘s story is based on William Mulholland’s greatest coup; the construction of the Owens Valley aqueduct which provided Los Angeles with a steady source of drinking water but also entailed a lot of controversy. Splitting Mulholland’s complex real-life persona into two fictional characters (the noble Mulwray who thinks that water should belong to the people and who refuses to authorize an unsavory new dam construction project and the greedy, unscrupulous Cross who will use any means to advance his personal fortune) creates the movie’s one necessary black and white conflict … other than this, the predominant shades are those of gray.

Into the wars raging around L.A.’s water supply, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is unwittingly thrown when a woman introducing herself as Hollis Mulwray’s wife asks him to investigate her husband’s alleged infidelity. Before he realizes what is going on he is drawn into a web of treachery and treason, and fatally attracted to the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Noah Cross (John Huston)’s daughter. Soon reaching the conclusion that he has been used, he refuses to drop the investigation, and instead decides to dig his way to the source of the scheming he has witnessed – the classical film noir setup.

To say that this movie is one of the best examples of the genre ever made is stating the obvious … actually, it is beyond superfluous. Few other films are as tightly acted, scripted and directed, from Jack Nicholson’s dapper-dressed, dogged Jake Gittes, who like any good noir detective is not half as hard boiled as he would have us believe, to Faye Dunaway’s seductive and sad Evelyn Mulray, John Huston’s cold-blooded and corrupt Noah Cross, Roman Polanski’s brooding direction and Robert Towne’s award-winning screen play, so full of memorable lines and the classical noir gumshoe dialogue, yet far more than just a well-done copy. And throughout it all, there that idea of Chinatown – that place where you do as little as possible, and where if you try to help someone, you’re likely going to make double sure they’re getting hurt.

Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s return to Hollywood, five years after his wife (Sharon Tate) had been one of the victims of the Manson gang. Polanski and Towne fought hard whether the movie should have a happy ending or not. Polanski won, studio politics were favorable at the time, and the version we all know was produced. Towne later admitted that Polanski had been right; and in fact, it is hard to imagine what kind of happy ending would have worked with the movie at all – too deep-rooted are the conflicts presented, none of which lends itself to an easy solution. Unfortunately, being released the same year as The Godfather II robbed Chinatown much of the Academy Award attention it would have deserved; of 11 nominations (best movie, best actor – Jack Nicholson –, best actress – Faye Dunaway –, best director – Roman Polanski –, best screenplay – Robert Towne –, best original score – Jerry Goldsmith –, best cinematography, and others), the movie only won the Oscar for Towne’s screenplay. Generations of fans, however, have long since recognized that Chinatown is a milestone in the history of the film noir and in the professional history of its participants, and one of Hollywood’s finest hours.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Paramount Pictures (1974)
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Producer: Robert Evans
  • Screenplay: Robert Towne (& Roman Polanski, uncredited)
  • Music: Jerry Goldsmith
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: John A. Alonzo (& Stanley Cortez, uncredited)
Cast
  • Jack Nicholson: J.J. (Jake) Gittes
  • Faye Dunaway: Evelyn Mulwray
  • John Huston: Noah Cross
  • Darrell Zwerling: Hollis Mulwray
  • Diane Ladd: Ida Sessions
  • Perry Lopez: Escobar
  • John Hillerman: Yelburton
  • Belinda Palmer: Katherine
  • Joe Mantell: Walsh
  • Roy Jenson: Mulvihill
  • Roman Polanski: Man with Knife
  • Richard “Dick” Bakalyan: Loach
  • Bruce Glover: Duffy
  • Jerry Fujikawa: Gardener
  • Roy Roberts: Mayor Bagby

 

Major Awards

Academy Awards (1975)
  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay: Robert Towne
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 19
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Mystery: No. 2
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 16
  • Top 50 Villains – No. 16 (Noah Cross)
  • Top 25 Film Scores – No. 9
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 74th: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Golden Globes (1975)
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Best Director – Motion Picture: Roman Polanski
  • Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama: Jack Nicholson
  • Best Screenplay – Motion Picture: Robert Towne
Directors Guild of America Awards (1975)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures: Roman Polanski
Writers Guild of America Awards (1975)
  • Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen: Robert Towne
Edgar (Allan Poe) Awards (1975)
  • Best Motion Picture: Robert Towne
BAFTA Awards (1975)
  • Best Direction: Roman Polanski
  • Best Actor: Jack Nicholson
  • Best Screenplay: Robert Towne
  • Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music: Jerry Goldsmith

 

Links

OUTBREAK

Casualties of War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).

Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.

But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”

Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.

The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease.  Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.

So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.

Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock

“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
  • Director: Wolfgang Petersen
  • Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
  • Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
  • Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Cast
  • Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
  • Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
  • Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
  • Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
  • Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
  • Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
  • Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
  • Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
  • J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)

 

Major Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard

 

Links

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

The Usual Suspects (1995)Web of Evil

“Round up the usual suspects.” And so they do – and ending up in the lineup are career criminals Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney (Stephen Baldwin, Benicio del Toro and Kevin Pollack), ex-cop gone bad gone good again Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) and small-time con man Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey).

Wait a minute … five criminals in one lineup? There’s something wrong here, right? Right …

In The Usual Suspects, not only every line but every gesture, every facial expression and every camera cut counts. Even if you distrust the story being told, you can’t exactly pin down everything that’s wrong with it. The plot unfolds through the tale extracted from Kint, one of two survivors of a massacre and subsequent explosion on a boat docked in San Pedro Harbor, by U.S. Customs agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). And at the same time as Kint is spinning his yarn, in a nearby hospital the other survivor (badly injured and fresh out of a coma) helps a police sketch artist draw a picture of the mastermind behind the scheme – “the devil,” Keyser Söze.

You can watch this movie countless times, and you will still discover new subtleties every single time. Not only will you find that it still makes sense after the story line has been unraveled at the end (which therefore is a plot twist, not a non-sequitur). You’ll also discover nuance upon nuance in Kevin Spacey‘s incredible performance. You’ll see that tiny apologetic grin on Todd Hockney’s face as attorney Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) lists a weapons truck heist – the very act which brought them together in the initial lineup, and which they have all come to believe to have been a trumped-up charge – as Hockney’s latest sin against Keyser Söze, now forming part of the debt to be repaid by participating in the suicide mission in San Pedro Harbor. And at some point you’ll also have figured out all of Fenster’s lines (not being a native English speaker, I am relieved to find that I wasn’t the only one struggling with them at first) … although the mumbling is of course part of his character, and is as excellently delivered as every other aspect of Benicio del Toro’s acting, his lines are so funny and to the point you almost wish he’d speak more clearly so you wouldn’t miss half his punch lines the first time around.

Among a cast of tremendous actors (to name just two, Gabriel Byrne in one of his best performances and Benicio del Toro, deserving much more than just an “also starring” mentioning in the opening credits), Kevin Spacey‘s star shines brightest by far. To this day it is a mystery to me how he came to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – the only things the man supports (in fact carries, almost single-handedly) in this movie are Bryan Singer’s directing and Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, and that alone makes him the movie’s lead character. But regardless of its title, the award was more than justified, and so was the one for McQuarrie’s screenplay. With infinite trust in the audience’s ability to pick up on little gestures, looks and inflections of his voice, Kevin Spacey displays all the many aspects of his character at the same time; and even the tenth time around, his performance still holds as true as the first time you watch the movie. Almost expressionless he tells his tale, always seeming to give away just about as much as he has to, and only raising his voice for a pointed (and exquisitely timed) expletive upon first being confronted with the name Keyser Söze, and for a wailing “Why me??” as agent Kujan tries to convince him that his own archenemy, Keaton, has been behind their failed enterprise all along and purposely let him (Kint) live to tell their story.

This is one of those movies which have you quote their many memorable one-liners forever: not only the one about “the devil’s greatest trick” has long since gone down in film history. To the extent that it cites other works, those citations pay homage, they don’t merely copy – right down to the name of the movie’s production company (Blue Parrot/Bad Hat); like the title containing a reference to Casablanca, the prototype of all films noir (or those made in Hollywood at least). It is one of the best modern examples of the genre and has long since become a cult classic – it’s a must in every decent collection.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Bryan Singer
  • Executive Producers: Hans Brockmann / François Duplat / Art Horan / Robert Jones
  • Producer: Bryan Singer
  • Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie
  • Music: John Ottman
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
  • Editing: John Ottman
Cast
  • Kevin Spacey: Roger “Verbal” Kint
  • Gabriel Byrne: Dean Keaton
  • Stephen Baldwin: Michael McManus
  • Benicio Del Toro: Fred Fenster
  • Kevin Pollak: Todd Hockney
  • Chazz Palminteri: Dave Kujan
  • Pete Postlethwaite: Kobayashi
  • Suzy Amis: Edie Finneran
  • Giancarlo Esposito: FBI Special Agent Jack Baer
  • Dan Hedaya: Sergeant Jeffrey “Jeff” Rabin
  • Peter Greene: Redfoot the Fence (uncredited)

 

Major Awards

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Kevin Spacey
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Christopher McQuarrie
American Film Institute
  • Top 10 Mystery Films – No. 10
  • Top 50 Villains – No. 48 (Verbal Kint)
Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1996)
  • Best Editing: John Ottman
  • Best Film: Bryan Singer and Michael McDonnell
  • Best Screenplay (Original): Christopher McQuarrie
National Board of Review Awards (1995)
  • Best Ensemble Performance
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Se7en
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, Outbreak, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Director: Bryan Singer
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Outbreak and Se7en
Edgar Allan Poe Awards (1996)
  • Best Motion Picture: Christopher McQuarrie
BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) (1996)
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Original Screenplay:Christopher McQuarrie
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Editing:John Ottman
Independent Spirit Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Screenplay (Original): Christopher McQuarrie
  • Best Supporting Male: Benicio del Toro
Empire Awards (Great Britain) (1996)
  • Best Debut: Bryan Singer

 

Favorite Quotes

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

“And like that … he is gone.”

Dave Kujan: Do you believe in him, Verbal?
Verbal Kint: Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.”

“How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?”

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”

 

Links

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

L.A. Confidential (1997)Hush-Hush

What is a good cop? One who joined the police force because he was unable to save his mother from being killed by an abusive husband, but who now uses violence not only against wife-beaters but whenever called for by his superior officers; be it to beat a confession out of a suspect or to discourage criminals from settling in town? Or one who joined the police force to emulate his father, a department legend; to go after “Rollo Tommasi” (the guy who thinks he can get away with anything), but who thereafter lets his career and department politics dictate his actions? Or, in the end, is it the one who has let corruption wipe out so thoroughly the reasons why he once joined the police force that he doesn’t even remember a single one of them, but who for once in his life still finds it in himself to go after real criminals, even at the risk of his own life? This is just one, although maybe the central question asked in L.A. Confidential, the movie based on James Ellroy‘s novel with the same name. And as does the book, the movie refuses to provide an answer to this and the other questions it asks.

The story is set up by tabloid editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who during the movie’s opening credits gleefully sums up the L.A. clichés that still hold true today: “Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, … there are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside the house a happy, all American family. You can have all this, and who knows, you can even be discovered – become a movie star or at least, singer. Life is good in Los Angeles: it’s paradise on earth.” Laughing sarcastically, however, he adds: “That’s what they tell ya’, anyway, ’cause they’re selling an image. They’re selling it through movies, radio, and television.” Then Hudgens proceeds to tell the story of crime boss Mickey C.’s arrest, which left the void in the City of Angels’s organized crime scene that sets the stage for this movie’s story, and concludes with his tabloid’s tag line: “Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first: Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush …”

And as indicated in these opening lines, nothing is as it seems in this 1950s’ version of a Los Angeles populated by hookers cut to look like movie stars and cops with more or less disreputable alternative sources of income. As the story progresses, its three heroes – career-driven and pseudo-correct Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), tough-fisted and golden-hearted Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) and nonchalant, corrupt “celebrity crime stopper” Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) – become unlikely allies in their search for their city’s most elusive commodity: the truth. Shades of gray abound, and even the end, which (unlike the novel’s) has at least some redeeming aspects, is not a happy ending by a long shot.

Just when many people longingly remembered the days of The Maltese FalconThe Big Sleep or, for that matter, Chinatown, proclaimed “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and were ready to announce the death of the noir genre, along came a group of new directors and screenwriters and breathed new life into patient. The Usual Suspects (which not coincidentally likewise stars Kevin Spacey) is one excellent example, this one is another. Unlike other noir stories’, this tale’s heroes are no private detectives; but all the classic elements of a film noir are there, from a damsel in distress (Veronica Lake-look-alike hooker Lynn Bracken, award-winningly portrayed by Kim Basinger) to crime, corruption and abuse of power, and to dimmed lights and hard boiled dialogue with many memorable one-liners. In a year overshadowed by the success of the vastly overrated Titanic, L.A. Confidential managed to at least collect the Academy Awards in the best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay categories (Kim Basinger and Brian Helgeland/Curtis Hanson, respectively; the movie had also been nominated in the best picture, best director – again Curtis Hanson –, best original score – Jerry Goldsmith –, best cinematography, best art direction and best editing categories). And while the 1990s have seen a revival of the noir genre, this one is a standout even among the new films noirs which that decade has brought us. It made the careers of its writers, director and two of its stars (Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe), and boosted those of several others of its cast members (Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey, to name just two). I am sure it will find its eternal place in the annals of Hollywood, alongside its famous predecessors. There are way too few movies like this these days – if you haven’t seen it already, do yourself a favor and remedy that soon. This is modern noir at its finest.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1997)
  • Director: Curtis Hanson
  • Executive Producer: Dan Kolsrud
  • Producer: Curtis Hanson
  • Co-Producer: Brian Helgeland
  • Screenplay: Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson
  • Based on a novel by: James Ellroy
  • Music: Jerry Goldsmith
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Dante Spinotti
  • Editing: Peter Honess
  • Art Direction: William (Bill) Arnold
  • Sound: Terry Rodman / Roland N. Thai / Kirk Francis / Andy Nelson / Anna Behlmer / John Leveque
Cast
  • Kevin Spacey: Jack Vincennes
  • Russell Crowe: Bud White
  • Guy Pearce: Ed Exley
  • Kim Basinger: Lynn Bracken
  • Danny DeVito: Sid Hudgens
  • James Cromwell: Dudley Smith
  • David Strathairn: Pierce Patchett
  • Ron Rifkin: D.A. Ellis Loew
  • Matt McCoy: ‘Badge of Honor’ Star Brett Chase
  • Paul Guilfoyle: Mickey Cohen
  • Paolo Seganti: Johnny Stompanato
  • Graham Beckel: Dick Stensland
  • Amber Smith: Susan Lefferts
  • Darrell Sandeen: Buzz Meeks

 

Major Awards

Academy Awards (1998)
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Kim Basinger
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson
Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1998)
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture: Kim Basinger
National Board of Review Awards (1997)
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director: Curtis Hanson
Writers Guild of America Awards (1998)
  • Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson
Screen Actors Guild Awards (1998)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Kim Basinger
    Tied with Gloria Stuart (“Titanic ,” 1997).
National Society of Film Critics AWARDS (USA) (1997)
  • Best Film
  • Best Director: Curtis Hanson
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1997)
  • Best Film
New York Film Critics Circle AWARDS (1997)
  • Best Film
  • Best Director: Curtis Hanson
  • Best Screenplay: Curtis Hanson & Brian Helgeland
TIME Magazine (USA) (1997)
  • Best Film of the Year
Los Angeles Times (2008)
  • Best L.A. Film of the Last 25 Years
Society of Texas Film Critics Awards (1997)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – Also for “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.
Edgar (Allan Poe) Awards (1998)
  • Best Motion Picture: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland
BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) (1998)
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Editing: Peter Honess
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Sound: Terry Rodman, Roland N. Thai, Kirk Francis, Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and John Leveque
  • Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music: Jerry Goldsmith
London Film Critics’ Circle (2009)
  • Top 10 Films of the Last 30 Years: No. 7

 

Links

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH

“I’ll be all aroun’
in the dark.”

In 1936, John Steinbeck wrote a series of articles about the migrant workers driven to California from the Midwestern states after losing their homes in the throes of the depression: inclement weather, failed crops, land mortgaged to the hilt and finally taken over by banks and large corporations when credit lines ran dry. Lured by promises of work aplenty, the Midwesterners packed their belongings and trekked westward to the Golden State, only to find themselves facing hunger, inhumane conditions, contempt and exploitation instead. “Dignity is all gone, and spirit has turned to sullen anger before it dies,” Steinbeck described the result in one of his 1936 articles, collectively published as The Harvest Gypsies; and in another piece (“Starvation Under the Orange Trees,” 1938) he asked: “Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?”

By the time he wrote the latter article, Steinbeck had already published one novel addressing the agricultural laborers’ struggle against corporate power (In Dubious Battle, 1936). Shortly thereafter he began to work on The Grapes of Wrath, which was published roughly a year later and takes its title from the first verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loos’d the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.”

Although the book would win the Pulitzer Prize (1940) and become a cornerstone foundation of Steinbeck‘s Literature Nobel Prize (1962), it was sharply criticized upon its release – nowhere more so than in the Midwest – and still counts among the 35 books most frequently banned from American school curricula: A raw, brutally direct, yet incredibly poetic masterpiece of fiction, it continues to touch nerves deeply rooted in modern society’s fabric; including and particularly in California, where yesterday’s Okies are today’s undocumented Mexicans – Chicano labor leader César Chávez especially pointed out how well he could empathize with the Joad family, because he and his fellow workers were now living the same life they once had.

Having fought hard with his publisher to maintain the novel’s uncompromising approach throughout, Steinbeck was weary to give the film rights to 20th Century Fox, headed by powerful mogul and, more importantly, known conservative Daryl F. Zanuck. Yet, Zanuck and director John Ford largely stayed true to the novel: There is that sense of desperation in farmer Muley’s (John Qualen’s) expression as he tells Tom and ex-preacher Casy (Henry Fonda and John Carradine) how the “cats” came and bulldozed down everybody’s homes, on behalf of a corporate entity too intangible to truly hold accountable. There is Grandpa Joad (Charley Grapewin), literally clinging to his earth and dying of a stroke (or, more likely, a broken heart) when he is made to leave against his will. There is everybody’s brief joy upon first seeing Bakersfield’s rich plantations – everybody’s except Ma Joad’s (Jane Darwell’s), that is, who alone knows that Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury) died in her arms before they even started to cross the Californian desert the previous night. There is the privately-run labor camps’ utter desolation, complete with violent guards, exploitative wages, lack of food and unsanitary conditions; contrasted with the relative security and more humane conditions of the camps run by the State. And there is Tom’s crucial development from a man acting alone to one seeing the benefit of joining efforts in a group, following Casy’s example, and his parting promise to Ma that she’ll find him everywhere she looks – wherever there is injustice, struggle, and people’s joint success. In an overall outstanding cast, which also includes Dorris Bowdon (Rose of Sharon), Eddie Quillan (Rose’s boyfriend Connie), Frank Darien (Uncle John) and a brief appearance by Ward Bond as a friendly policeman, Henry Fonda truly shines as Tom; despite his smashing good looks fully metamorphosized into Steinbeck’s quick-tempered, lanky, reluctant hero.

Yet, in all its starkness the movie has a more optimistic slant than the novel; due to a structural change which has the Joads moving from bad to acceptable living conditions (instead of vice versa), the toning down of Steinbeck‘s political references – most importantly, the elimination of a monologue using a land owner’s description of “reds” as anybody “that wants thirty cents and hour when we’re payin’ twenty-five” to show that under the prevalent conditions that definition applies to virtually every migrant laborer – and a greater emphasis on Ma Joad’s pragmatic, forward-looking way of dealing with their fate; culminating in her closing “we’s the people” speech (whose direction, interestingly, Ford, who would have preferred to end the movie with the image of Tom walking up a hill alone in the distance, left to Zanuck himself). Jane Darwell won a much-deserved Academy-Award for her portrayal as Ma; besides John Ford’s Best Director award the movie’s only winner on Oscar night – none of its other five nominations scored, unfortunately including those in the Best Picture and Best Leading Actor categories, which went to Hitchcock’s Rebecca and James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story) instead. Still, despite its critical success – also expressed in a “Best Picture” National Board of Review award – and its marginally optimistic outlook, the movie engendered almost as much controversy as did Steinbeck‘s book. After the witch hunt setting in not even a decade later, today it stands as one of the last, greatest examples of a movie pulling no punches in the portrayal of society’s ailments; a type of film regrettably rare in recent years.

Ev’rybody might be just one big soul
Well it looks that-a way to me. …
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m gonna be, ma.
That’s where I’m gonna be.
Woody Guthrie, “The Ballad of Tom Joad”

The highway is alive tonight,
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad.
Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox (1940)
  • Director: John Ford
  • Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
  • Based on a novel by: John Steinbeck
  • Music: Alfred Newman (uncredited)
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Gregg Toland
Cast
  • Henry Fonda: Tom Joad
  • Jane Darwell: Ma Joad
  • John Carradine: Jim Casy
  • Charley Grapewin: Grandpa
  • Dorris Bowdon: Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon)
  • Russell Simpson: Pa Joad
  • O.Z. Whitehead: Al
  • John Qualen: Muley Bates
  • Eddie Quillan: Connie
  • Zeffie Tilbury: Grandma
  • Frank Sully: Noah
  • Frank Darien: Uncle John
  • Shirley Mills: Ruthie
  • Roger Imhof: Thomas
  • Darryl Hickman: Winfield
  • Ward Bond: Policeman

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1941)
  • Best Director: John Ford
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jane Darwell
National Board of Review Awards (1940)
  • Best Picture
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1940)
  • Best Film
  • Best Director: John Ford
Blue Ribbon Awards (Japan) (1963)
  • Best Foreign Language Film: John Ford
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 6 (Henry Fonda)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 12 (Tom Joad)
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 21
  • Top 100 Inspiring Movies – No. 7

 

Links

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THE MALTESE FALCON

The Birth of Hollywood’s Original Noir Anti-Hero

Like few other actors, Humphrey Bogart ruled the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s – epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf and looking unbeatably cool in his fedora and trenchcoat, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth; endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his real life stature, and still admired by scores of women wishing they had been born 50+ years earlier, preferably somewhere in California and to parents connected with the movie business, so as to have at least a marginal chance of meeting him. The American Film Institute elected him the No. 1 film legend of the 20th century; and looking back, indeed no other actor seems to have been surrounded by the same kind of darkly magical aura as the one surrounding Bogart.

The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett‘s eponymous 1930 novel and itself also ranking in the top quarter of the AFI’s list of the 100 best 20th century movies, laid the groundwork for Bogart‘s lasting image, by transforming his on-screen persona from the tough, often two-dimensional gangsters he had portrayed before; beginning with the 1936 adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s Petrified Forest where, like in its 1934 stage production, Bogart had starred opposite Leslie Howard, with Bette Davis as the female lead. Now imbuing his tough guy shell with a softer core, in The Maltese Falcon Bogart became not only Hammett‘s Sam Spade but, moreover, the film noir anti-hero per se; a role that stayed with him throughout the rest of his career, and in which he still remains virtually unparalleled.

The movie’s long-famous story centers around the mysterious statue of a falcon made from solid gold, diamonds and other precious stones; the 16th century Maltese Knights’ immeasurably precious gift of thanks to Emperor Charles V for the protection he had granted them. Stolen by pirates, blackened on the outside in order to conceal its true value and passed on through the centuries by a number of unsuspecting possessors, it finally attracts the attention of two rivaling pairs of equally cunning, ruthless and high-flying scoundrels, who chase each other and the statue halfway around the world and finally end up in Sam Spade’s San Francisco office – not without getting both Spade’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and one of their own killed in the process; thus also causing additional grief for Spade, whom the police soon suspect of being behind the murders himself – or at least behind that of Archer – in order to make off with Archer’s widow Iva (Gladys George). And of course, it doesn’t exactly help that he has had his office sign changed from “Spade & Archer” to “Samuel Spade” within mere hours of his partner’s death.

Looking at the movie and its stars’ almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, this was originally just one of the roughly 50 films released by Warner Brothers over the course of one year. But mass production didn’t equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score and the stars’ presentation in the movie itself and in its trailer, was as responsible for its lasting success as were Humphrey Bogart and his outstanding costars; first and foremost Mary Astor as the double-crossing and now partner-less Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in their first of several appearances opposite Bogart) as Joel Cairo and Kaspar Guttman, O’Shaughnessy/Astor’s competitors for possession of the precious statue, and Elisha Cook Jr., as Guttman’s rough but inept bodyguard Wilmer Cook. Genre-defining and the first truly giant highlight of Bogart‘s career, The Maltese Falcon is an unmissable piece of Hollywood history, captivating you from the first moment you spend in Sam Spade’s office all the way to its cynical conclusion, and a thrill to watch over and over again.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1941)
  • Director: John Huston
  • Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
  • Screenplay: John Huston
  • Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett
  • Music: Adolph Deutsch
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Arthur Edeson
Cast
  • Humphrey Bogart: Samuel Spade
  • Mary Astor: Brigid O’Shaughnessy
  • Gladys George: Iva Archer
  • Peter Lorre: Joel Cairo
  • Barton MacLane: Lt. of Detectives Dundy
  • Lee Patrick: Effie Perine
  • Sydney Greenstreet: Kasper Gutman
  • Ward Bond: Detective Tom Polhaus
  • Jerome Cowan: Miles Archer
  • Elisha Cook Jr.: Wilmer Cook

 

Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 1 (Humphrey Bogart)
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 23
  • Top 10 Mystery Films – No. 6
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 26
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 14th: “”The stuff that dreams are made of.” (Sam Spade)

 

Links

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THE BIG SLEEP

Murder, mystery and the magnetism of Bogart and Bacall

They were one of Hollywood’s all-time legendary couples, both on screen and off; producing celluloid magic in the four films they made together between 1943 and 1948 as much as by their off-screen romance, which in itself was the stuff that dreams are made of. He was the American Film Insititute’s No. 1 star of the 20th century, Hollywood’s original noir anti-hero, who in addition to the AFI honors bestowed on his real-life persona also played two of the 20th century’s Top 50 film heroes (“Casablanca”‘s Rick Blaine and this movie’s Philip Marlowe); epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf, looking unbeatably cool in dinner jacket, trenchcoat and fedora alike, a glass of whiskey in his hand and cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth; and endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his physical stature. She, despite a 25-year age difference his equal in everything from grit and toughness to mysterious appeal; chillier than bourbon on the rocks, possessing more than just a touch of class whatever her role; and long since a bona fide AFI movie legend in her own right.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall met on the set of Howard Hawks’s 1944 realization of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” where an obvious chemistry quickly developed between 45-year-old veteran Bogart, who had just scored two of film history’s greatest-ever hits with “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” in the two preceding years, and the sassy, exciting 20-year-old newcomer who possessed the maturity and sex-appeal of a woman good and well 10 years her senior. They were reunited two years later for this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel “The Big Sleep” (1939), based on a screenplay written, like that of “To Have and Have Not,” by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, together with Leigh Brackett (who had not participated in scripting the Hemingway adaptation). By the time the movie was released in 1946, Bogart and Bacall were married.

Reprising Bogart’s noir gumshoe role with a character not unlike Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” the movie “The Big Sleep” is as infamous as Chandler’s literary original for its labyrinthine plot, which reportedly even the author himself couldn’t completely untangle (nor did he care to). The plot is essentially faithful to Chandler’s novel, from which it takes much of its dialogue; albeit streamlined and with some changes made to fit Bogart’s physical characteristics, and eliminating or softening a few scenes considered unfit for display to a moviegoing audience in the 1940s. The story begins when Marlowe is hired by wealthy old General Sternwood to handle a blackmailing attempt involving gambling debts incurred by Sternwood’s younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) (whom the detective has already met when she literally threw herself into his arms upon his entry into the house, sucking her thumb and coyly telling him “you’re cute”). After his interview with the dying general in the latter’s hot and humid orchid house, a disheveled Marlowe is summoned to the rooms of the general’s older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who tries to worm out of him the purpose of his engagement and who, as Marlowe quickly concludes, has more than a minor hidden agenda of her own. Soon the detective is up to his ears in the classical film noir brew of murder, damsels in distress, shady characters and a world where nothing is what it appears to be, and where he’ll be able to consider himself lucky if he gets out alive – yet, he is determined to see the case through and will neither be bought off by money nor by sweetness and seduction.

Looking back at the movie and its stars’ almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, it was originally just one of the roughly 50 movies released by Warner Brothers over the course of one year. But mass production didn’t equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score (Max Steiner) and the stars’ presentation in the movie itself and in its trailer was at least partly responsible for its lasting success. Indeed, the release of “The Big Sleep” was delayed for an entire year – and not only because its first version was completed around the end of WWII and Warner Brothers wanted to get their still-unreleased war movies into theaters first, but also, and significantly, because Lauren Bacall’s agent convinced studio boss Jack Warner and director Howard Hawks to reshoot several scenes to better highlight the sassy, mysterious new star Bacall had become after “To Have and Have Not.” And it certainly paid off: “The Big Sleep” firmly established then-22-year-old Lauren Bacall as one of Hollywood’s new leading ladies, and even more than her first film with Humphrey Bogart laid the foundation for the couple’s mythical relationship.

Bogart and Bacall would star together two more times after “The Big Sleep”: In “Dark Passage” (1947) and “Key Largo” (1948). But of their four collaborations, the first two – and in particular, “The Big Sleep” – remain unparalleled for their secretive, shadowy aura, tight scripting, snappy dialogue, cynicism and underlying seductiveness; due in equal parts to the story crafted by Raymond Chandler , its adaptation by Faulkner, Furthman and Brackett, Howard Hawks’s masterful direction and its starring couple’s irresistible chemistry. After three failed marriages, after having produced on-screen magic with Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon” and, even more so, with Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” (and although he would go on to star in such memorable pairings as next to Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” and Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina”), Humphrey Bogart had finally met his match – and while his and Bacall’s marriage was painfully cut short by the cancer to which he succumbed in 1957, the magnetism they created on screen will live on, and nowhere more brilliantly than in “The Big Sleep.”

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Brothers (1946)
  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Executive Producer: Jack L. Warner
  • Screenplay: William Faulkner / Leigh Brackett / Jules Furthman
  • Based on the novel by: Raymond Chandler
  • Music: Max Steiner
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Sidney Hickox (as Sid Hickox)
Cast
  • Humphrey Bogart: Philip Marlowe
  • Lauren Bacall: Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
  • John Ridgely: Eddie Mars
  • Martha Vickers: Carmen Sternwood
  • Dorothy Malone: Acme Book Shop Proprietress
  • Peggy Knudsen: Mona Mars
  • Regis Toomey: Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls
  • Charles Waldron: General Sternwood
  • Elisha Cook Jr.: Harry Jones

 

Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute

Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 1 (Humphrey Bogart)
Top 25 Stars (female) – No. 20 (Lauren Bacall)
Top 50 Heroes – No. 32 (Philip Marlowe)

 

Links

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