Top Ten: Guilty Treasures
The following are 10 of my personal favourites that cannot in good conscience be fully recommended to everyone. That's not to say these films don't possess some positive qualities, for example in originality or how their stories are crafted. They all have, however, inherent flaws; perhaps it's a subject matter too limited in value, or overly simplistic characters given too much unwarranted attention. At the very least the ten listed suffer from a self-imposed lack of "universal appeal". Below, I will attempt to take an objective look into why these movies fail to reach a higher artistic level while describing my own thrills when viewing them.
(They are listed in alphabetical order)
Dirty Harry (1971, U.S.A.)
Director: Don Siegel
Upon its release, famous film critic Pauline Kael basically denounced this as politically fascist and immoral. Then, somewhere in the middle of her review, she suddenly switched gears by acknowledging how well crafted the film was. Well, she got the second part right at least. Her criticism centres on Inspector Harry Callahan's circumvention of laws (established to protect ordinary citizens) in his quest to stop a psycho killer holding the city for ransom. All of Harry's reactions are in keeping with his well established character especially considering some of the highly volatile situations he's faced with. The results of his actions are quite believable as well and usually not what Harry intends, so it's definitely not the film makers' bias that's showing. Besides, as the story develops, there are enough strong and credible arguments voiced against Harry's disregard for a suspect's rights, to make Kael's criticism fallacious. A somewhat less apparent flaw to the film does exist however, and unfortunately, once uncovered, it's as big as Harry's 44 magnum: There's simply no precedent (in real life or established in this film) for a psychotic killer (especially the one so expressively portrayed here) who kills for money. To make this premise even more fanciful, he continues to murder and make threats while raising his financial demands, even after the authorities know who he is! This doesn't stop me from enjoying Dirty Harry though, because of Siegel and Company's vivid characters, highly inventive situations, tight pacing, and pitch perfect performances. Each and every scene scores a knockout even when very little is happening to advance the plot. Lalo Schifrin's propulsive score is a huge asset. The sequels went steadily downhill not having the dedicated craftsmanship demonstrated here.
Freebie and the Bean (1974, U.S.A.)
Director: Richard Rush
Talk about credibility, this film has barely any... plot, characters, you name it. What it does have is this whacked-out albeit engaging relationship between these two cops that wreaks havoc all over the streets of San Francisco. All of the creativity has gone into this politically incorrect "buddy" pairing of James Caan and Alan Arkin (portraying the title characters respectively) resulting in an electrifying display of chemistry between the two. Additionally, the lead actors' performances are so inspired they even manage to imbibe their parts with a little sympathetic quality. Their cartoon-like antics might be too outrageous to fully enjoy while they're happening but trust me: Thinking about them later will leave you in stitches. They out banter those Lethal Weapon cops, that's for sure.
Let it Ride (1989, U.S.A.)
Director: Joe Pytka
This little known film doesn't quite make it as a "Hidden Gem" because of a tendency to shrug off some serious issues concerning vices, focusing instead on its naive "dream come true" results. One of the characters is named "Looney" but they might as well all be, considering the eccentric behaviour on display. I doubt, however, you'll ever see a more lovable bunch of weirdos cheering on their even more lovable hero in his quest to have a "very good day" at the races.
Marathon Man (1976, U.S.A.)
Director: John Schlesinger
When this film was released I had to watch it twice in a row just to figure it out (the second viewing was more fun than the first). Problem was that when I finally made sense of it, the plot didn't. Improbabilities abound when one looks back but there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had while taking this roller coaster of a ride. Suspense never had it so good and to say this movie is thrilling would be a criminal understatement. Enhancing the unexpected is the ever changing power hierarchy due to the plot machinations and its clever juxtaposition of characters. Adding to the film's full on immersion effect is its brilliant polish: Everything looks so damn good. This is achieved by complete synchronicity between Conrad Hall's silky smooth photography (the first film released theatrically to use the brilliant Steadicam), Jim Clark's perfectly timed editing and Michael Small's haunting, conspiratorial music. So much has been said by others about the scenes between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman concerning dentistry, that I'd just like to "put in a good word" for the super cool presence of Roy Scheider. In his Paris hotel room, clad only in undershorts, his tanned muscular frame doing push-ups from the foot of his bed to the floor, then sipping on orange juice before taking in the view from his balcony, he's truly a sight to behold. This happens right before he magnificently defends himself against a most brutal attack. Later, we see him in a fabulous high-end restaurant in New York City dressed to the nines cleverly tricking Hoffman's new girlfriend Marthe Keller into admitting to lies covering up her German heritage. Finally it's his brisk, confident walk over to the former Nazi Olivier, impatiently waiting with his two henchmen by a large sculpted water feature, that impresses. After Olivier inquires about his safety, Roy's deep voiced "May I be candid...?" remarks are abruptly cut off. For myself, these are the scenes from Marathon Man that are the most exciting to watch.
The Music Lovers (1970, U.K.)
Director: Ken Russell
When directing his previous film, the excellent Women In Love (1969, U.K.), Ken Russell managed to subdue his usual tendency to self indulge in his characters' more wild, ostentatious behaviour. However with this, his next theatrical feature, the gloves are off, all restraints in fact. Simply describing The Music Lovers as a bio-pic on the life and times of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky would be suggesting it has an undeserved dignity. At the same time that description would fail to recognise its primary quality: a true sense of "joie de vivre". We're practically participants when Tchaikovsky rollicks in the snow and enthusiastically plays his Piano Concerto No. 1. We vividly grasp the terror he feels (because of his closeted homosexuality) witnessing his nymphomaniac bride writhing naked on the floor of their train compartment. Finally, we are wondrously aghast at a fantasy of those in Tchaikovsky's life having their heads blown off by the cannon fire heard during his 1812 Overture. Any serious, dramatically dull scenes that may slow the proceedings are quickly jettisoned in favour of fully experiencing the ensemble's heightened displays of passion. If you're looking for something resembling stately historical truth, forget it. If on the other hand you want to truly experience the imagined fears and desires of this brilliant composer and those who were close to him, all perfectly wedded to that glorious Tchaikovsky music, you've come to the right place.
No Way to Treat a Lady (1968, U.S.A.)
Director: Jack Smight
Even when seen today this black comedy/deadly crime-drama/fairy tale romance, may make some viewers uncomfortable as it keeps shifting between moods. Personal taste will probably determine how well the filmmakers handle these transitions. When I think of some contemporary television shows, and how many people enjoy their ever-changing tones, perhaps there is a wider appreciative audience for this film. Rod Steiger plays Christopher Gill, a serial killer with a mother fixation who also happens to run a legit theatre in New York. He's a theatrical producer with ready access to disguises and a talent for conjuring up a wide variety of ethnic/personality types and impersonations. This gives Gill some credibility for the outlandish way he toys with his victims before strangling them. Steiger totally submerges himself in this part providing loads of fun as long as one appreciates the blackest of humour. George Segal is Morris Brummel, a cop who lives with his very Jewish mother, a faultlessly cast Eileen Heckart. He's attempting to catch the strangler while simultaneously trying to romance Kate Palmer (a deliciously lovely Lee Remick), a neighbour to one of Gill's victims. This all works because of how the filmmakers ingeniously connect these characters, then involve them with one another as the plot unfolds. Actor Michael Dunn has a very funny bit part and Stanley Myers' hauntingly beautiful theme provides a perfect calming effect while lending some important sentiment to the proceedings. And what a spectacular pay off at the finish: Steiger's last stage performance will blow you away.
The Outside Man a.k.a. Un homme est mort (1972, Italy/France/U.S.A.)
Director: Jacques Deray
Like the movie mentioned directly above, this film, as it plays out, keeps shifting its tone depending on which genre is being represented in the moment. There's romance, crime thriller, character study... a lot's going on. It's even a little rough around the edges pertaining to how it's put together. This movie does, however, contain some strikingly original qualities. First and foremost is its point of view: a U.S. crime drama that's being told from a "French perspective" (directed and mostly written by French film makers) which gives all of the proceedings a unique and refreshing twist. Then there's the brilliant concept: A French assassin is brought to Los Angeles to quickly fulfil a contract and then leave back to France, only he can't leave because his passport has been stolen by the same people who hired him. So he's stuck in L.A. having killed a mob boss. He's a foreigner in strange, unfamiliar surroundings. To make matters worse for him (but fascinating for us) there's an American hit man dispatched to kill him so that the original contract our French protagonist performed is far less likely to be exposed. Now the French guy has to dodge this very determined, single-minded assassin, not to mention the L.A. cops, still try to figure out who set him up, get his revenge, and then make his way out of the country! After all that, do I really need to add why I like this film so much?
Putney Swope (1969, U.S.A.)
Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Some films are best savored after they're over and this is one of them. Putney is just too insane while he's taking you for a ride. Offensive to everyone and anyone in his wide-angled sights, Robert Downey Sr. indulges his each and every whim. He even puts "a prince" after the director's credit and completely dubs his own voice over his lead actor Arnold Johnson. His performers constantly repeat phrases throughout, e.g. "How many syllables Mario?", "The Borman-Six girl has gots'ta have soul" and "Lay some bread on us." It's as if one didn't find it amusing the first time, maybe you will after a few more. On the other hand, in a "theatre of the absurd" kind of way, it is pretty funny since none of the characters are paying any real attention to what others are saying. If the reason you like television's Mad Men is because it takes place at a New York advertising agency in the '60's you may... no, actually, I can't even recommend this to that audience since the film exaggerates and trashes everything about the subject: the company's clients, the people who work there and the commercials they produce. Continuing along the path of destruction, Downey targets The President of the United States who's a midget with a former Nazi adviser, along with some guy who sits next to them repeatedly telling bad jokes, and a photographer who when he can't get any work decides to climb into bed with the President and his wife who's also a midget. I really can't go on with this. It's just too ridiculous and downright hilarious.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967, U.S.A.)
Director: John Huston
If this movie was a soufflé you'd have to say it was burnt. Is this Tennessee Williams on steroids? No, it's Carson McCullers directed by the great John Huston. Why then does it teeter on the edge of camp? My guess is that the filmmakers wanted to embellish the proceedings, to make it more dramatically significant than its simple narrative could withstand. This is symbolised by the decision to present the film in a dreary golden tint. Not all aspects of this melodrama are over-heated, however. Many critics have mistakenly skewered the performances confusing the actors with the admittedly idiosyncratic characters they so authentically inhabit. To this reviewer, the restrained performances by its talented cast make their actions believable, and are the primary reason this motion picture is so enthralling and fascinating to watch. Consider the movie's lead, Major Weldon Penderton: a complacently bored officer with a ditzy wife (Elizabeth Taylor) living on an Army base in the deep South who also happens to be a latent homosexual. He's involved in murder but aside from some wild camerawork, the act is treated as incidental whereas the incidental happenings are mistakenly over dramatised. In conclusion, there's simply not enough genuine depth in the material needed to fully raise our concerns. But hold on, this Army officer is being played by the great "method to the madness" (and vice-verse) Marlon Brando. He consistently displays an ability to communicate a most sincere depth of feeling by injecting his patented style of nuanced psychological traits. In addition, Brando successfully conveys his character's deeply rooted personality disorder, not unlike the one suffered by Marcello Clerici, Bernardo Bertolucci’s primary subject of interest in The Conformist released just 3 years later. This provides an excellent example of why so many of his fellow thespians describe Brando as the best actor they've ever worked with or witnessed. It's not just Maj. Penderton's homosexuality that's repressed. His military environment does not provide a single outlet for any of his tightly held-in emotions. This is very convincingly expressed by the great actor in varying ways. For example during his soliloquy to his enlisted men on leadership what Brando conveys inside as an occurring nervous breakdown, he outwardly exhibits as a temporary distraction. Then there's the scene with the stallion Firebird, his wife's most prized possession. Penderton chooses him for a solo ride to prove his manhood after being out-ridden and virtually ignored on a previous outing with his wife and her secret lover Lt. Col. Morris Langdon. The horse bolts and takes its inexperienced rider on a terrifyingly fast interminable journey through the woods with the Major unable to slow its speed. He sustains multiple cuts by tree branches before finally falling off. The horse stops and Brando tellingly reveals the complex inner rage for not only the injuries and humiliation suffered during the ride but for all of his past pent-up frustrations and disappointments. This is a most captivating display of emotional intensity that the Major is only able to express when it's just the horse and himself out there in the woods... or so he thinks at first. Furthermore, the actor skilfully suggests his character's sudden fear that for every brutal lashing he's unleashed on his wife's most coveted horse he will have to answer for from his dominating Mrs. Co-star Elizabeth Taylor insisted on Brando's casting when others were being sought. As a result there seems to be a lift in everyone's game especially Brian Keith's heartfelt Lt. Col. Langdon. Keith elicits so much unsolicited sympathy over his deteriorating relationship with his neurotic wife Alison (Julie Harris), the actor's accomplished performance here may even outshine that of Brando's.
Strange Cargo (1940, U.S.A.)
Director: Frank Borzage
The "cargo" isn't the only strange thing on this journey. The title does, however, symbolically refer to its most unusual factor: a rather too obvious Christ-like figure, Cambreau, played by Ian Hunter. He tags along with some other prisoners attempting an escape from Devil's Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. One might suspect that this character's persistent appearance in the storyline would become an annoyance yet that's really not the case. He's rarely judgmental. His remarks about the others are always creatively intelligent, often unexpectedly helpful. Cambreau is even forgiving given these inmates' sordid backgrounds and especially after witnessing their self-centred actions during the long and difficult escape. One of his surprising responses occurs when a very close relationship ends between two of the convicts: Moll and his younger companion Dufond (portrayed by Albert Dekker and John Arledge respectively). The younger Dufond dies. Moll, not being able to cope without his friend (lover?) decides to take his own life. Yet Cambreau neither condemns the suicide or the rather obvious homosexual feelings between the two. Instead he only reinforces the idea to Moll that it's not too late for a spiritual awakening. Besides, this religiously symbolic figure is not just an observer he's a participant: Cambreau goes to great lengths (sometimes miraculous) to help the other criminals remain free! His presence right through to the end of this story will remain mysteriously, and perhaps awkwardly, ambivalent. All of these characters are unique and multidimensional. Most are depicted as ruthless, albeit creative, opportunists. Foremost is Paul Lukas' serial killer Hessler whose past includes disposing of his many wives for purely financial gain. Hessler cynically but respectfully rejects Cambreau's religious overtures including when they part company, bringing further realism to the proceedings. Now did I mention this film stars Clark Gable as one of the convicts and Joan Crawford as a thinly disguised prostitute? No? Well then I saved the best part for last. Their on and off again relationship (not to mention their dialogue which is snappier than a busload of Japanese tourists) is priceless. Add the weird Peter Lorre as a prison informer who vies for Crawford's affections and you have one mismatched, strange, yet highly enjoyable and fascinating motion picture.