Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (performed by Patrick Stewart)

 A Christmas Carol (Audiocd) - Patrick Stewart, Charles Dickens   A Christmas Carol

A “Christmas Carol” for the 21st Century

Part of my annual Christmas ritual – and since this year I’m indulging by way of Patrick Stewart’s splendid audio version and the TV adaptation it inspired, here’s my review of the latter … with the added note that my comments on Stewart’s performance in the movie also apply to his reading, where he also does a splendid job getting under the skin (or whatever it is that ghosts have) of all the story’s other characters.

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Given the enormous potential for failure, it takes either a lot of guts or a big ego to remake a classic and step into a pair of shoes worn so well by the likes of George C. Scott and Alastair Sim — you don’t have to have grown up in an English speaking country to take those two names and their portrayal of Dickens’s miserly anti-hero for granted as part of your Christmas experience. And I suspect a good part of both guts and ego was at play in this production; but let’s face it: after years of bringing Scrooge to the stage in a much-acclaimed one man show and after also having recorded the audio book version of “A Christmas Carol,” a movie adaptation starring Patrick Stewart was probably due to come out sooner or later. Yet, while it does sometimes have the feel of another huge star vehicle for Stewart (even without the self-congratulatory trailer and brief “behind the scenes” features included on the DVD), his experience and insight into the character of Scrooge allow him to pull off a remarkable performance, and to make the role his own without letting us forget who originally wrote the tale. From a “humbug” growled out from the very depth of his disdain and his audible desire to boil “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips” with his own pudding and bury them with a stake of holly through their heart, to the “splendid” and “most illustrious … father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs,” coughed up and spit out after years of having been out of practice, this is the Scrooge that Dickens described; and Stewart obviously has the time of his life playing him.

This made-for-TV production is sometimes criticized for its use of special effects; I don’t find those overly disturbing, though — in fact, they’re rather low-key and for the most part used to show nothing more than what Dickens actually described. (This is a ghost story, remember?) Scrooge really does see Marley’s face in his door knocker; we all know that Marley’s ghost does indeed walk through Scrooge’s doubly locked door … and last but not least Dickens himself describes the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” (Granted, no gleaming lights for eyes, though.) The script could have spared a modernism here and there, but again, mostly the lines are exactly those that Dickens himself wrote. Even where the characters don’t actually speak them, they are part of their reflections — such as Marley being buried and “dead as a door-nail” (which, after all, is the tale’s all-important premise) and Scrooge’s rather funny musings how the Ghost of Christmas Past might be deterred from taking him for a flight (where citing neither the weather nor the hour nor a head cold nor his inadequate dress would do). Richard E. Grant, known to TV audiences as Sir Percy Blakeney in the recent adaptations of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” moves to the opposite end of the social spectrum in his portrayal of gaunt, downtrodden Bob Cratchit; and he is a very credible caring father and husband, albeit a bit too well-educated — unlike the rest of his family, who speak and come across as decidedly more cockney. Joel Grey, whose Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret” stands out as one of those “one of a kind” performances that are few and far between in film history, is almost perfectly cast as the Ghost of Christmas Past, combining the spirit’s wisdom of an old man with his child-like innocence, frail stature and luminous appearance. A great supporting cast and solid cinematographic and directorial work round out an overall very well done production.

Many actors are remembered either for one career-making role or for a certain type they have cast. No doubt Patrick Stewart, who as a teenager had to face an ultimatum between a steady job and the theater and chose the latter, will go into film history as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Treck’s “Next Generation.” But I would not be surprised if the other major role he will always be remembered for will be that of Ebenezer Scrooge — on stage, in audio recordings and in this movie adaptation, which successfully brings Dickens’s timeless tale of bitterness, sorrow, redemption and the true meaning of Christmas to the 21st century, and which before long, I think, will attain the status of a classic in its own right. I know that I, for one, will be watching it again with renewed pleasure next Christmas.

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“Yes, the setting is a worthy one. If the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men ––”

The Hound of the Baskervilles - Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Perry     

 

“I have been in Devonshire.” “In spirit?” “Exactly … After you left I sent down to Stamford’s for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit has hovered over it all day. I flatter myself that I could find my way about.”

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Having loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles longer than I can remember (kooky “penny dreadful” style screen adaptations notwithstanding), I of course insisted on a visit to Dartmoor when we visited Devon and Cornwall a few years ago.  And oddly, during a vacation otherwise set to the tune of bright blue skies and Mediterranean temperatures, the weather cooperated even on the day when we set off to the moor … by regaling us, on precisely that day only, with the suitable atmosphere composed of increasingly dark skies, culminating in torrential rain fall and a veritable storm!  So, here’s some of what I imagine Holmes and Watson (and the residents of Baskerville Hall, Merripit House etc.) would have seen and experienced:


OK, so it’s a village church and not a manor house, but pretty much every major historical building in Dartmoor seems to be made of this sort of stone, and built in this or a similar style.  So just imagine the belflry isn’t a belfry but just another wing (with a roof on the same level as the other parts of the building), and you have a pretty good impression of what Baskerville Hall would presumably have looked like.

 


“Mind you call it Baskerville Arms …”

(Sir Henry’s response to Barrymore’s giving notice and explaining that he and his wife intend to “set up in business” in a small way.  The above quote is not actually in the novel – I’m borrowing a minor addition from my favorite screen adaptation here.)

 

Princetown prison – the infamous Dartmoor penitentiary.


Background on the prison and the nearby quarry, where convicts were made to work (right-click on the image and select “display image” to see a larger version and read the text)

 


Dartmoor ponies

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GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM

Wakeup Call, Williams Style

1965 was the year when, as a result of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American military buildup in Vietnam began in earnest, and troop strength grew by a factor of no less than eight; from 23,000 at the beginning of the year to roughly 184,000 at the end. 1965 was also the year when a new AFN DJ arrived in Saigon, which over the course of that same year would transform itself from a sleepy French-Vietnamese colonial town into the nightmare it has since come to be in the memory of countless vets.

The new DJ in question was Adrian Cronauer; fresh from an assignment in Greece.

While the idea for a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience was Cronauer’s own, fueled by the popularity of M*A*S*H, the script for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam was ultimately penned by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz with only some input from Cronauer himself, who has since gone out of his way to underline the fictional nature of the account and stress that his true stance was not so much anti-military as “anti-stupidity.” Thus, the film has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt; both as far as the portrayal of 1960s’ armed forces radio and as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less poignant; nor does it take away one iota of Robin Williams‘s performance as Cronauer: Indeed, the role of an irreverent, unstoppable DJ seemed tailor-made for Williams, who had burst onto the scene with his inimitable brand of lightning-quick ad-libbing ten years earlier in Mork & Mindy – and of course, all of Cronauer’s hilarious broadcasts in this movie are ad-libbed, too.

The film follows Adrian Cronauer from his arrival in Saigon in the spring of 1965 to his forced departure about a half year later (although the real Cronauer in fact stayed for a year and was not forced out but left when his regular tour of duty was over). While a comedy, and although not trying to be anywhere near the “definitive” take on Vietnam, it does take a close look at the year when the conflict escalated and, in particular, at the resulting toll on human relations. Robin Williams earned his first of to date four well-deserved Academy Award nominations for this role (the others were for Dead Poets Society [1989], The Fisher King [1991] and Good Will Hunting [1997], the movie for which he finally scored on Oscar night). And in his inimitable way he provides pointed comic relief not only over the microphone but also, and always with a unique ear for the situation’s mood, whenever the script would otherwise threaten to veer off into melodrama; such as after his discovery that his Vietnamese friend Tuan is actually a Viet Cong fighter named Phan Duc To (“It’s unbelievable. Five months in Saigon, and my best friend turns out to be a V.C. This will not look good on a resume!!”); and in scenes that would otherwise be burdened with a bit too much cliché and / or deliberately funny writing, such as the conference after Cronauer’s first broadcast, where Bruno Kirby (Lieutenant Hauk) gets to deliver such gems as “Don’t say that the weather is the same all the time here, because it’s not; in fact, it’s two degrees cooler today than yesterday” and “I hate the fact that you people never salute me – I’m a lieutenant, and I would like salutes occasionally. That’s what being a higher rank is all about.” Even if Kirby himself gets to make up for these a little later in the same scene with the comment “We are not going to escalate [Vietnam into] a whole war so we can get a big name comedian” (Bob Hope who, as the men have informed him, does not “play police actions”), it takes Williams‘s/Cronauer’s final weaving of the lieutenant’s preferred abbreviations into a single sentence to truly put the finishing touch on the scene.

Although Good Morning Vietnam is clearly first and foremost a star vehicle for Robin Williams, he is joined by an outstanding supporting cast, including inter alia, besides Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker as Cronauer’s good-natured sidekick PFC Montesque Garlick, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh as his second great nemesis, Sergeant Major Dickerson (whose stock character of a straight-laced white middle class guy would probably not have come off convincingly as a villain vis-à-vis anybody but Robin Williams) and, in particular, Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan and Chintara Sukapatana as his sister Trinh: Her plea with Cronauer not (even) to seek her friendship, let alone more, because for her such an association with a man (particularly a foreigner) is culturally unacceptable, is one of the movie’s most quietly powerful scenes. Exceptional is further Peter Sova’s cinematography, which convincingly captures the daily realities of a city and a country on the brink of an all-out war, and is brilliantly complimented by the editing, which in turn also uses the soundtrack – more or less a mid-1960s “greatest hits” compilation – to maximum effect; be it in framing daily military routine, the soldiers’ enjoyment of Cronauer’s style of broadcasting or combat action: Indeed, hardly any image could make a more powerful statement on the cruel absurdity of war than seeing a village blown up to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.

Thus, Good Morning Vietnam is in its own way as poignant a wakeup call as any other movie about Vietnam – or about World War II, or any other war for that matter. It deservedly netted the Political Film Society’s 1989 Peace Award, in addition to Robin Williams‘s Oscar nomination and his Golden Globe and American Comedy awards, as well as the movie’s ASCAP soundtrack award. And it certainly bears revisiting – for its overall quality, for Robin Williams‘s performance, and also for lessons learned and deserving never to be forgotten.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1987)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Producers: Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Peter Sova
Cast
  • Robin Williams: Adrian Cronauer
  • Tung Thanh Tran: Tuan
  • Chintara Sukapatana: Trinh
  • Forest Whitaker: Edward Garlick
  • Bruno Kirby: Lieutenant Steven Hauk
  • J.T. Walsh: Sergeant Major Dickerson
  • Robert Wuhl: Marty Lee Dreiwitz
  • Noble Willingham: General Taylor
  • Richard Edson: Private Abersold
  • Juney Smith: Phil McPherson
  • Richard Portnow: Dan ‘The Man’ Levitan
  • Floyd Vivino: Eddie Kirk
  • Cu Ba Nguyen: Jimmy Wah

 

Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1988)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical: Robin Williams
Political Film Society (USA) ( 1989)
  • Peace Award
  • Special Award
American Comedy Awards (1988)
  • Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role): Robin Williams
Grammy Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Best Comedy Recording: Robin Williams
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1989)
  • Top Box Office Films: Alex North

 

Links

 

DEAD POETS SOCIETY

And what will your verse be in the poem of life?

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden.)

Hands up folks, how many of us discovered Thoreau after having watched this movie? Really discovered I mean, regardless whether you had known he’d existed before. How many believe they know what Thoreau was talking about in that passage about “sucking the marrow out of life,” cited in the movie, even if you didn’t spend the next 2+ years of your life living in a self-constructed cabin on a pond in the woods? How many bought a copy of Whitman’s poems … whatever collection? (And maybe even read more than Oh Captain! My Captain!?) How many went on to read Emerson? Frost? Or John Keats, on whose personality Robin Williams‘s John Keating is probably loosely based? To many people, this movie has a powerful appeal like few others and has proven inspirational far above and beyond the effect of an ordinary movie experience. And justifiedly so, despite the fact that charismatic Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), one of the story’s main characters, tragically falters in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wake of apparent triumph. Because although Neil’s story is one of failure, ultimately this film is a celebration of the triumph of free will, independent thinking and the growth of personality; embodied in its closing scene.

Of course, lofty goals such as these are not easily achieved. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) in particular, the last scene’s triumphant hero, is literally pushed to the edge of reason before he learns to overcome his inhibitions. And Thoreau warned in Walden: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Anyone who takes this movie’s message to heart (and Thoreau‘s, and Whitman’s, and Emerson’s, Frost’s and Keats’s) knows that success too easily won is often no success at all, and most important accomplishments are based on focus, tenacity and hard work as much as anything else. And prudence, too – dashing Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) pays a terrible price for his spur-of-the-moment challenges of authority; although of course you just gotta love him for refusing to sign Keatings’ indictment. “Carpe diem” – live life to its fullest, but also know what you are doing. You won’t enjoy this movie if you are afraid of letting both your mind and your feelings run free.

Shot on the magnificent location of Delaware’s St. Andrews Academy, Dead Poets Society is visually stunning, particularly in its depiction of the amazingly beautiful scenery (where the progression of the seasons mirrors the progression of the movie’s story line), and as emotionally engaging as it invites you to reexamine your position in life. Robin Williams delivers another Academy Award-worthy performance (he was nominated but unfortunately didn’t win). Of course, Robin Williams will to a certain extent always be Robin WilliamsAladdin‘s Genie, Good Morning Vietnam‘s Adrian Cronauer and Good Will Hunting‘s Professor McGuire (the 1997 role which would finally earn him his long overdue Oscar) all shimmer through in his portrayal of John Keating; and if you’ve ever seen him give an interview you know that the man could go from hilarious and irreverent to deeply reflective in a split second even when it wasn’t a movie camera that was rolling. Yet, the black sheep among Welton Academy’s teachers assumes as distinct and memorable a personality as any other one of Williams‘s film characters.

Of its many Academy Award nominations (in addition to Robin Williams‘s nomination for best leading actor, the movie was also nominated in the best picture, best director [Peter Weir] and best original screenplay categories), Dead Poets Society ultimately only won the Oscar for Tom Schulman’s script. But more importantly, it has long since won it’s viewers’ lasting appreciation, and for a reason. – As the Poet said: “Camerado! This is no book; Who touches this, touches a man” (Walt Whitman, So Long!), this is no movie; who watches this, watches himself!

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1989)
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Producers: Steven Haft / Paul Junger Witt / Tony Thomas
  • Screenplay: Tom Schulman
  • Music: Maurice Jarre
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: John Seale
  • Casting: Howard Feuer
Cast
  • Robin Williams: John Keating
  • Robert Sean Leonard: Neil Perry
  • Ethan Hawke: Todd Anderson
  • Josh Charles: Knox Overstreet
  • Gale Hansen: Charlie Dalton
  • Dylan Kussman: Richard Cameron
  • Allelon Ruggiero: Steven Meeks
  • James Waterston: Gerard Pitts
  • Norman Lloyd: Mr. Nolan
  • Kurtwood Smith: Mr. Perry
  • Carla Belver: Mrs. Perry
  • Leon Pownall: McAllister

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1990)
  • Best Original Screenplay: Tom Schulman
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 100 Inspiring Films: No. 52
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 95th: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
National Board of Review Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Top Ten Films of 1989: No. 6
Political Film Society (USA) (1990)
  • Democracy Award
BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) (1989)
  • BAFTA Film Awards, Best Film: Peter Weir / Steven Haft / Paul Junger Witt / Tony Thomas
  • BAFTA Film Awards; Best Original Film Score: Maurice Jarre
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1990)
  • Top Box Office Films: Maurice Jarre
Golden Screen (Germany) (1991)
  • Golden Screen
Jupiter Awards (Germany) (1990)
  • Best International Film: Peter Weir
  • Best International Actor: Robin Williams
Guild of German Art House Cinemas (1991)
  • Guild Film Award – Gold, Ausländischer Film (Foreign Film): Peter Weir
César Awards (France) (1991)
  • Meilleur film étranger (Best Foreign Film)
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1990)
  • Miglior Film Straniero (Best Foreign Film)
Nastro d’Argento (Silver Ribbon) (Italy)
  • Regista del Miglior Film Straniero (Best Foreign Director): Peter Weir
Online Film & Television Association (USA) (2015)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame, Motion Picture
Artios Awards (Casting Society of America) (1990)
  • Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama: Howard Feuer
Young Artist Awards (USA) (1990)
  • Best Motion Picture, Drama

 

Links

DEAD MAN WALKING

Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”

 

Links

THE CLIENT

Reggie to the Rescue

You gotta hand it to John Grisham: Nobody has the various lawyer clichés down pat as well as him – in fact, it almost seems as if he invented or at least, reinvented many of them. As in most of his thrillers, we get a whole handful in The Client: the slimy mafia lawyer, the power-hungry politician-to-be, the self-aggrandizing ambulance-chaser, the grandfatherly judge and, of course, the motherly family law practitioner who turned to legal practice after overcoming a few troubles of her own. I think that leaves only the greedy corporate attorney, his cousin the corrupt judge and their perpetual antagonists, the starving public interest lawyer and the inquisitive student prodigy unrepresented here; but still, not a bad collection for a single thriller, even by Grisham. (And that doesn’t even include the count of dumb and / or malicious cops, slick tabloid journalists and ruthless mobsters running around in this story.) But never mind: The Client is one of John Grisham‘s best-ever novels, and this movie surpasses many another big-screen adaptation of his books by several leagues. For Grisham at the top of his game is also an excellent storyteller, and in the hands of director Joel Schumacher his tale of beleaguered eleven-year-old Mark Sway who gets in trouble by becoming the reluctant last confidant of suicidal defense attorney Jerome “Romey” Clifford comes to life in spot-on and truly gripping fashion.

Although not even a teenager yet, Mark (Brad Renfro) is as tough as they come – a Memphis trailer park kid who gets most of his education on life’s really important aspects from TV, has already helped his mom (Mary-Louise Parker) get rid of the wife-beating guy he now calls his “ex-father,” and since then has been the man in the house, taking care of his eight-year-old brother Ricky whenever their mother is at work (i.e., most of the time). So Mark doesn’t scare easily; and even if he really is afraid, he’d rather drop dead than admit it. But with both the mob and the feds on his trail – the former out to kill him before he can share the dirty little secret they suspect Romey has spilled before blowing out his brains, the latter hell-bent on making him share that very secret – even Mark has to face the fact that he is in way over his head … and yes, he’s scared, too; and not just a little. Worse, his brother is out cold, in hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder because watching Romey’s suicide was more than his delicate eight-year-old soul could take, and their mother is in hospital with Ricky on the doctor’s orders because Ricky might need her when he wakes up. (Consequently she’s also out of a job, because her sweat-shop employer doesn’t take kindly to this sort of family emergency). Reluctantly, Mark therefore concludes that he needs an attorney. And in short order, he lands on the doorstep of Regina “Reggie” Love (Susan Sarandon), middle-aged but only a few years out of law school, through which she put herself after her husband left her for a younger woman, not without depriving her of their children’s custody and branding her an unfit mother. But what starts as a hesitant relationship at best on Mark’s side soon turns out his one stroke of luck, because Reggie is probably the only lawyer in town not afraid to take on even powerful U.S. Attorney “Reverend” Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) and the FBI, and ultimately willing to put her own job at risk for her client.

While condensing some of its elements, the movie’s screenplay follows Grisham‘s novel fairly closely, taking part of its dialogue straight from the book. Yet, The Client lives not only from John Grisham‘s gripping story but also – and primarily – from its characters and outstanding cast, including the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh (FBI Agent McThune), William H. Macy (Ricky’s doctor), Anthony Edwards (Reggie’s assistant Clint), Ossie Davis (Judge Roosevelt) and Walter Olkewicz (“Romey” Clifford). Unquestioningly most memorable, however, is the quintet at the movie’s center. Brad Renfro was selected by Schumacher for his first-ever screen appearance as Mark because he had a somewhat similar background as the story’s hero and thus, an intuitive understanding that, along with his innate toughness, ultimately proved more convincing than the acting skills of more experienced child actors; and indeed, he so compellingly carries his part that he deservedly garnered a 1995 Young Artists Award. Susan Sarandon earned another Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Reggie, who actually listens to her clients and makes sure even those of their desires that may seem trivial to others are taken care of; such as Dianne Sway’s wish for a walk-in closet. (Sarandon‘s Academy-Award nomination was her fourth after Atlantic City, Thelma and Louise and Lorenzo’s Oil; but although she had to wait yet another year to finally score an Oscar with Dead Man Walking, The Client at least won her a BAFTA Award). Tommy Lee Jones plays the bible-quoting Foltrigg with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and thus, although occasionally terrifying, makes him a more complete and almost even likeable character; much more so than he is in Grisham‘s novel. Mary-Louise Parker’s Dianne Sway truly brings to life the young besieged trailer park mom desperately trying to get a grip on her life, and Anthony LaPaglia finally is simultaneously frightening and unintentionally funny as the slick but not overly bright mob killer Barry “The Blade” Muldanno, the source of Clifford’s (and consequently everybody else’s) problems.

So, watch this for the outstanding performances of the five central characters as well as the fine ensemble cast, for one of John Grisham‘s most gripping yarns, and for Joel Schumacher’s excellent editing and sense of place. This may not be a major milestone in movie history (except regarding Brad Renfro’s career of course), but it’s without question one of the best thrillers of the past 25 years and easily recommended on that basis alone.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Brothers (1994)
  • Director: Joel Schumacher
  • Producers: Arnon Milchan & Steven Reuther
  • Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman & Robert Getchell
  • Based on a novel by: John Grisham
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Reggie Love
  • Tommy Lee Jones: Roy Foltrigg
  • Brad Renfro: Mark Sway
  • Mary-Louise Parker: Dianne Sway
  • David Speck: Ricky Sway
  • Anthony LaPaglia: Barry Muldano
  • J.T. Walsh: Jason McThune
  • Ossie Davis: Judge Harry Roosevelt
  • Anthony Edwards: Clint Von Hooser
  • Anthony Heald: Larry Trumann
  • Bradley Whitford: Thomas Fink
  • Micole Mercurio: Momma Love
  • Will Patton: Sergeant Hardy
  • William Sanderson: Wally Boxx
  • Dan Castellaneta: Slick Moeller
  • Ron Dean: John Sulari
  • Kim Coates: Paul Gronke
  • William H. Macy: Dr. Greenway
  • Kimberly Scott: Doreen
  • Walter Olkewicz: Jerome “Romey” Clifford

 

Major Awards and Honors

Young Artist Awards (1995)
  • Best Performance by a Young Actor Starring in a Motion Picture: Brad Renfro
ASCAP Awards (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
BAFTA Awards (1995)
  • Best Leading Actress: Susan Sarandon

 

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

 

A FEW GOOD MEN

Unit – Corps – God – Country

How much critical thought can the military allow its rank and file? Certainly most orders must be followed unquestioningly; otherwise ultimately the entire Armed Services would collapse. But where do you draw the line? Does it matter how well soldiers know not only their military but also their civic duties? Does it matter whether trials against members of the military are handled by way of court-martials, or before a country’s ordinary (civil) courts?

I first saw A Few Good Men as an in-flight movie, and after the first couple of scenes I thought that for once they’d really picked the right kind of flick: A bit clichéd (yet another idle, unengaged lawyer being dragged into vigorously pursuing a case against his will), but good actors, a good director and a promising storyline.

Then the movie cut from the introductory scenes in Washington, D.C. to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessup) inquired: “Who the fuck is PFC William T. Santiago?”

And suddenly I was all eyes and ears.

Director Rob Reiner and Nicholson’s costars describe on the movie’s DVD how from the first time Nicholson spoke this (his very first) line in rehearsal he had everybody’s attention; and the overall bar for a good performance immediately rose to new heights. Based on my own reaction, I believe them sight unseen. Or actually, not really “unseen,” as the result of Nicholson’s influence is there for everybody to watch: Never mind that he doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, his intensity as an actor and the personality of his character, Colonel Jessup, dominate this movie more than anything else; far beyond the now-famous final showdown with Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee. Nobody could have brought more power to the role of Jessup than Nicholson, no other actor made him a more complex figure, and nobody delivered his final speech so as to force you to think about the issues he (and this film) addresses; and that despite all the movie’s clichés: The reluctant lawyer turning out a courtroom genius (as lead counsel in a murder trial, barely a year out of law school and without any prior trial experience, no less), the son fighting to rid himself of a deceased superstar-father’s overbearing shadow, and the “redneck” background of the victim’s superior officer Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland, who nevertheless milks the role for all it’s worth).

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who adapted his own play, reportedly based the story’s premise – the attempted cover-up of a death resulting from an illegal pseudo-disciplinary action – on a real-life case that his sister, a lawyer, had come across in the JAG Corps. (Although even if I take his assertion at face value that assigning the matter to a junior lawyer without trial experience was part of the cover-up, I still don’t believe the real case continued the way it does here. But be that as it may.) Worse, the victim is a marine serving at “Gitmo,” the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where any kind of tension assumes an entirely different dimension than in virtually any other location. In come Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and co-counsels Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), assigned to defend the two marines held responsible for Santiago’s death; Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and PFC Louden Downey (James Marshall), who claim to have acted on Kendrick’s orders to subject Santiago to a “code red,” an act of humiliating peer-punishment, after Santiago had gone outside the chain of command to rat on a fellow marine (none other than Dawson), attempting to obtain a transfer out of “Gitmo.” But while Kendrick sternly denies having given any such order and prosecuting attorney Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon) is ready to have the defendants’ entire company swear that Kendrick actually ordered them to leave Santiago alone, Kaffee and Co. believe their clients’ story – which ultimately leads them to Jessup himself, as it is unthinkable that the event should have occurred without his knowledge or even at his specific orders.

By the time of this movie’s production, Tom Cruise had made the part of the shallow youngster suddenly propelled into manhood one of his trademark characters (see, e.g., The Color of Money, Top Gun and Rain Man); nevertheless, he manages to (mostly) elevate Kaffee’s part above cardboard level. Demi Moore gives one of her strongest-ever performances as Commander Galloway, who would love to be lead counsel herself in accordance with the entitlements of her rank, but overcomes her disappointment to push Kaffee to a top-notch performance instead. Kevin Pollack’s, Kevin Bacon’s and J.T. Walsh (Jessup’s deputy Lt.Col. Markinson)’s performances are straight-laced enough to easily be overlooked, but they’re fine throughout and absolutely crucial foils for Kaffee, Galloway and Jessup; and so, vis-à-vis Dawson, is James Marshall’s shy, scared Downey, who is clearly in way over his head. The movie’s greatest surprise, however, is Wolfgang Bodison, who, although otherwise involved with the production, had never acted before being drafted by Rob Reiner solely on the basis of his physical appearance, which matched Dawson’s better than any established actor’s; and who gives a stunning performance as the young Lance Corporal who will rather be convicted of murder than take an unhonorable plea bargain, yet comes to understand the full complexity of his actions upon hearing the jury’s verdict.

“Unit – corps – God – country” is the code of honor according to which, Dawson tells Kaffee, the marines at “Gitmo” live their lives; and Colonel Jessup declares that under his command orders are followed “or people die,” and words like “honor,” “code” and “loyalty” to him are the backbone of a life spent defending freedom. Proud words for sure: But for the “code red,” but for the trespass over that invisible line between a legal and an immoral, illegal order they might well be justified. That line, however, exists, and is drawn even in a non-public court-martial. I’d like to believe that insofar at least, this movie gets it completely right.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1992)
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Executive Producers: William S. Gilmore & Rachel Pfeffer
  • Producers: Rob Reiner / Andrew Scheinman / David Brown
  • Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
  • Based on a play by: Aaron Sorkin
  • Music: Marc Shaiman
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Cast
  • Jack Nicholson: Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC
  • Tom Cruise: Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, USN JAG Corps
  • Demi Moore: Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, USN JAG Corps
  • Kevin Bacon: Captain Jack Ross, USMC, Judge Advocate Division
  • Kiefer Sutherland: Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick, USMC
  • Kevin Pollak: Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, USN JAG Corps
  • Wolfgang Bodison: Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, USMC
  • James Marshall: PFC Louden Downey, USMC
  • J.T. Walsh: Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson, USMC
  • J.A. Preston: Judge (Colonel) Randolph, USMC
  • Noah Wyle: Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes, USMC
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Corporal Carl Hammaker, USMC
  • Matt Craven: Lieutenant Dave Spradling, USN JAG Corps
  • John M. Jackson: Captain West, USN, JAG Corps
  • Christopher Guest: Dr. (Commander) Stone, USN MC
  • Michael DeLorenzo: PFC William T. Santiago, USMC

 

Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute (AFI)
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Dramas: No. 5
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 29th: “You can’t handle the truth!” (Colonel Nathan R. Jessup)
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Jack Nicholson
ASCAP Awards (1994)
  • Top Box Office Films: Marc Shaiman
MTV Movie Awards (1993)
  • Best Movie

 

Links

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

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

“It’s not the jury’s judgment that worries me. It’s mine.”

“No more murder cases,” is the doctor’s strict prohibition upon reluctantly releasing renowned barrister and recent heart attack survivor Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) from hospital. (Although even the word “release” seems to be a matter of some dispute here, because according to Sir Wilfrid’s nurse Miss Plimsoll [Elsa Lanchester], he was “expelled for conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient.” But let’s leave that aside for now.) And following the doctor’s orders, Sir Wilfrid’s staff have lined up an array of civil cases: a divorce, a tax appeal, and a marine insurance claim – surely those will satisfy their hard-to-please employer’s demands?

Err … not likely.

So, try as he might to be a good patient, Sir Wilfrid needs only little encouragement to accept the case of handsome drifter and small-time inventor Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of murdering his rich benefactress Emily French (Norma Varden). Of course, the very circumstances that most disturb the famous barrister’s colleagues Mayhew and Brogan-Moore (Henry Daniell and John Williams) – Mrs. French’s infatuation with Vole, his visit to her on the night of the murder, the lack of an alternative suspect and his inheritance under her new will – just make the matter more interesting in Sir Wilfrid’s eyes. Most problematic, however, is Vole’s alibi, which depends entirely on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), an actress he had met when stationed with the RAF in WWII-ravaged Hamburg. Troubling, insofar, isn’t only that Christine is her husband’s sole alibi witness and that – Sir Wilfrid explains – a devoted wife’s testimony doesn’t carry much weight anyway. The real problem is that Christine isn’t the loving, desperate wife one might expect: far from that, she is cool, calculating and surprisingly self-controlled; so much so that, worried because he cannot figure out her game, Sir Wilfrid decides not let her testify at all, rather than risk damaging his case. That, however, seems to have been one of his illustrious career’s few major miscalculations – because now he and his client suddenly have to face Christine as a witness for the prosecution. And her testimony on the stand is only one of several surprises that she has in store.

Witness for the Prosecution is based on a concept that Agatha Christie first realized as a four-person short story (published in the 1933 collection The Hound of Death) and subsequently adapted into what she herself would later call her best play, which opened in London in 1953 and in 1954 on Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle citation as Best Foreign Play. Throughout the adaptations the storyline was fleshed out more and more, the focus shifted from the work of solicitor Mayherne (whose name changed to Mayhew) to that of QC Sir Wilfrid Robarts, and the screenplay ingeniously added Miss Plimsoll’s character, utilizing the proven on-screen chemistry of real-life spouses Laughton and Lanchester, for whom this was an astonishing eleventh collaboration, and whose banter bristles with director / co-screenwriter Billy Wilder’s dry wit and the fireworks of the couple’s pricelessly deadpan delivery, timing and genuine joy of performing together.

Perhaps most importantly, the story’s ending changed: not entirely, but enough to give it a different and, albeit very dramatic, less cynical slant than the short story’s original conclusion. – To those of us who have grown up with Christie‘s works, those of her idol Conan Doyle and on a steady diet of Perry Mason, Rumpole of the Bailey and the many subsequent other fictional attorneys, the plot twists of Witness for the Prosecution (including its ending) may not come as a major surprise. At the moment of the movie’s release, however, the ending was a much-guarded secret; viewers were encouraged not to reveal it both in the movie’s trailer and at the beginning of the film itself; and even the Royal Family were sworn to silence before a private showing. Similarly, features such as the skillful, methodical unveiling of a seemingly upstanding, disinterested witness’s hidden bias in cross-examination have long become standard fare in both real and fictional courtrooms, and any mystery fan worth their salt has heard more than one celluloid attorney yell at a cornered witness: “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” (Not recommended in real-life trial practice, incidentally.) Yet, in these and other respects it was Witness for the Prosecution which laid the groundwork for many a courtroom drama to come; and herein lies much of its ongoing importance.

Moreover, this is simply an outstandingly-acted film; not only by Laughton, Lanchester and a perfectly-cast Marlene Dietrich but by every single actor, also including Torin Thatcher (prosecutor Mr. Myers), Francis Compton (the presiding Judge) and, most noteably, Una O’Connor (Mrs. French’s disgruntled housekeeper). This is true even if Tyrone Power’s emotional outbursts in court may be bewildering to today’s viewers – and even if one wonders why an American-born star was acceptable for an Englishman’s role without even having to bother trying to put on an English accent in the first place, whereas Dietrich and other non-native English speakers of the period, like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, were routinely cast as foreigners. (Yes, yes, I know. Redford and Out of Africa come to mind somewhat more recently, too, but that’s a can of worms I won’t reopen here.)

Witness for the Prosecution won a Golden Globe for Elsa Lanchester, but unfortunately none of its six Oscar nominations (which undeservedly didn’t even include Marlene Dietrich), taking second seat to the year’s big winner Bridge on the River Kwai in the Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Actor (Alec Guinness) and Best Editing categories, and to Sayonara for Best Supporting Acress (Miyoshi Umeki) and Best Sound. No matter: with the noirish note resulting from its use of multiple levels of ambiguity – in noticeable contrast to Christie‘s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries – it fits seamlessly next to such Billy Wilder masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity; and it has long since become a true classic, courtroom and otherwise.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: MGM / United Artists (1957)
  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
  • Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Harry Kurnitz
  • Adaptation: Laurence B. “Larry” Marcus
  • Based on a play (and short story) by: Agatha Christie
  • Music: Matty Malneck
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Russell Harlan
Cast
  • Tyrone Power: Leonard Vole
  • Marlene Dietrich: Christine Vole
  • Charles Laughton: Sir Wilfrid Robarts
  • Elsa Lanchester: Miss Plimsoll
  •  Henry Daniell: Mayhew
  • John Williams: Brogan-Moore
  • Torin Thatcher: Mr. Myers
  • Francis Compton: Judge
  • Norma Varden: Mrs. Emily Jane French
  • Una O’Connor: Janet MacKenzie
  • Ian Wolfe: Carter
  • Philip Tonge: Inspector Hearne 

 

Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globes (1958)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Drama: No. 6

 

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