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But This Isn’t a Detective Story: Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, the Film

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I’ve loved detective fiction since I was 6 and discovered the Nancy Drew mysteries in the bookmobile, preferring Nancy and her pals to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. Later, I dove into Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories without even realizing that Poe is credited with the invention of detective fiction in English, with his 1841 publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which appeared before the word “detective” even existed. Without even knowing that I was reading a specific genre, I tore through all the works of Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie, loving the casts of strange and fascinating characters even more than I cared about “whodunnit.” Little did I realize that Agatha Christie was considered the star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1949) when the whodunnit was the primary genre of crime fiction. Nor did I realize that Christie was one of the bestselling novelists of all time: I just knew she wrote lots of books and the bookmobile seemed to have all of them. Most importantly, I liked her books very much.

Gillian Anderson as Magda, and Julian Sands as Philip, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

I wasn’t as interested in Christie’s plots as much as I was in her flawed but vitally interesting characters. I often guessed whodunnit and was unimpressed with many of the detectives, not realizing that the amateur or inept investigator is one of the tropes. Gosh, I didn’t even know what a “trope” was, let alone that genre authors used recurring types of characters, themes, or plot devices in their books. And I certainly didn’t realize that many of the detective stories I read had “several classic features,” such as a large, rambling country estate where a group of equally suspect characters distracted the sometimes amateur investigator (and readers) while the least suspicious character continued to commit the murders. I did, however, learn to ignore “red herrings” before I realized there was a term for it, if only because I concentrated instead on the characters themselves, little caring who had actually committed the crime. It wasn’t the murder or the initial victim that I was interested in. I liked all the people involuntarily pushed together after the crime, where they flailed and fought against their lives, against fate, and against each other.

Crooked House, First British Edition, 1949 ©

I still read mystery fiction, though these days I prefer the hard-boiled or noir genres. Again, it’s the characters that interest me, not the crimes or even the process of solving the murder. So it was with great surprise that I saw a 2017 film version of one of Agatha Christie’s classics, Crooked House, which she herself listed as one of the favorites of her own works. I’d heard of the book, and have it on my TBR list, but I hadn’t heard of the film, and I tend to notice films that are adapted from books pretty quickly, especially when the screenwriter is Julien Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame since I so love his work. With a cast of excellent actors playing atrociously selfish and seriously flawed characters, Crooked House is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because I had not read the Agatha Christie novel of the same name on which it is based, I came for the actors and stayed for the characters, watching it again immediately afterward to see all the delightful ways the author — and the screenwriter — give clues, scatter red herrings, and create the kind of ambivalent characters that I adore.

Stefanie Martini as Sophia Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Dark and moody, the film begins with the detective’s office, where an unnamed lady is waiting, without an appointment, and where viewers immediately learn that she and the private investigator have some prior relationship. Beautiful, young, vastly wealthy Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) requests that her former lover Charles Hayward (Max Irons) come to her family’s estate because she believes her grandfather’s recent death may have been murder. Further, she is afraid that the murderer is still in the house.

Max Irons as Investigator Charles Hayward, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because the investigating business is not going so well and he needs the money, because Charles doesn’t want to work at Scotland Yard in the shadow of his own famous father’s career nor under the eye of his father’s colleague, Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp),

Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

who constantly reminds Charles of how his father sat, leaned forward, looked, acted; and perhaps because he’s never gotten over being summarily and without explanation abandoned by the lovely Sophia, Charles goes to the house — the big and gorgeous country estate house — to talk to the Leonides family members.

What a group! Charles immediately meets the family matriarch, Aunt Edith aka Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close) who wields s shotgun like a pro and laughs at Charles’ delusions that he “saved Sophia” when the two were in Cairo.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Aunt Edith came to the Leonides’ English estate years ago, from America, to nurse her dying sister. After her sister’s death, Edith stayed on to run the household, and raise the murdered man’s two sons, Philip and Roger.

All grown up, with wives and children, the boys still live at their father’s home, on their father’s money, though each has his own reasons for doing so.

Julian Sands as oldest son Philip Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Sophia’s father Philip (Julian Sands) is an author and a playwright, who had some minor financial troubles that forced him to return home and live under his father’s controlling and manipulative domination.

Gillian Anderson as Philip’s wife Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Philip’s wife — Sophia’s mother — Magda (Gillian Anderson) is a once-glamorous, heavy-drinking, stage actor who has delusions of grandeur and talent. She’s convinced she could become a film star if only her father-in-law would give them the funds to produce her husband’s brilliant screenplay, written specifically for her as the lead. Now that her father-in-law is dead, however, she fears that she will continue to wither away in relative obscurity on the estate, albeit in the company of her husband Philip, her eldest daughter Sophia, her disgruntled and angry teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman, below), and her youngest daughter Josephine.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, and Preston Nyman as Eustace Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Twelve-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who loves ballet and wanted to become a dancer, welcomes Charles to the estate because she loves to read detective fiction almost as much as she loves to spy on family members via a telescope from her treehouse.

Honor Kneafsey as Josephine, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because she then writes everything down in a journal that she never shows to anyone, her family is convinced that she is writing down their secrets.

Christian McKay as younger brother Roger Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Youngest brother Roger (Christian McKay) also lives at his father’s home, ostensibly because it is he, rather than his older brother Philip, who runs his father’s business.

Amanda Abbington as Roger’s wife Clemency, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Roger is an angry young man, and though his prickly wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) attempts without success to keep her husband’s outbursts under control, it is soon clear that both of them resent their father’s new wife more than anything else.

Christina Hendricks as the new, much younger wife, Brenda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Of course, the new, much younger wife is everything you’d expect in a story like this. A former Las Vegas showgirl, Brenda (Christina Hendricks) is naïve, voluptuous, and rumored to be having an affair with Laurence (John Heffernan),

John Heffernan as the tutor, Laurence, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

the tutor of Philip’s children Eustace and Josephine, as well as the ghost-writer of the deceased patriarch’s memoir, the only copy of which seems to have been stolen.

Roger Ashton-Griffith as the family attorney, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Now, just for fun, throw in a bumbling family attorney (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s no doubt best known as the bumbling Mace Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who suddenly realizes that, inexplicably, the Old Man Leonides’ will most recent will, where everyone in the family was equitably and reasonably provided for, was never actually signed. That means everything — the estate, the businesses, the vast fortune — goes to the widow. That American, that dance-hall trollop, that Brenda, who probably — insists virtually everyone in the family — knew all about the unsigned will and so had the most motive of anyone to commit the murder in the first place.

Jenny Galloway as Nanny, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

And for even more fun and intrigue, stir in old Nanny (Jenny Galloway), who fears that she’s soon to lose her comfortable job and home because the widow, who is without children, won’t need a nanny, and because Nanny’s youngest charge, Josephine, is now too old to have a nanny anyway. Now make Nanny obsessed with getting that nasty journal away from Josephine because… well, just because… it’s a nasty, dirty book. And Nanny hasn’t even read it.

The family dinner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

By the time Charles’ third-hand car won’t start and he has to stay the night and we get to the family dinner — the first time we actually see all the family members in the same room actually interacting with each other — this party is roaring dangerously, combustibly hot.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith de Haviland, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

When Lady Edith asks Charles to tell them what a murderer is really like, he rather smugly lists a murderer’s traits as “vanity, distorted morality, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to believe they’re above the rules that govern others.” The rest of the family’s rather bored expressions, along with Lady Edith’s boisterous laughter as she quips “that description fits every member of this family,” are no surprise. After all, no one knows villains so well as their fellow villains.

A few critics felt that the cast of accomplished actors in Crooked House  “promised… more than it could deliver” or that the the film was “flawed” though a “top-notch period piece.” Emily Yoshida of Vulture described the the film as “directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style” and said that, ultimately, Crooked House knew what its job was and did it: “to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.”

Stefanie Martini as Sophia, Julian Sands as her father Philip, and Gillian Anderson as her mother Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

From the bumbling, naïve, inept investigator to the thoroughly despised former-showgirl young wife, from the two bickering, resentful, completely spoiled brothers to their angry or utterly vain yet bewildered wives, it is this tangled web of deliciously twisted characters that makes Crooked House worth watching. If you haven’t read the novel on which it was based, even better: then everyone in the film can surprise you.

Like me, you may find that you don’t actually care who committed the murders. Yes, murders, because, as detective-fiction fan Josephine points out, there’s always another murder. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll be both delighted and horrified when you finally learn who, actually, done it all. And while the younger stars are certainly talented, it is Glenn Close, as Lady Edith, and Gillian Anderson, as Magda, who shine as hot and bright as their characters’ falling stars.

Unfortunately, although this film is free to watch for Amazon Prime members, it is not yet available via rental, only purchase ($14.99) from Amazon, YouTube,and GooglePlay. If you do buy it, you won’t regret it.

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Maybe It Was the Heat of the Sun, Maybe It Was Something Much Hotter: Hombre, the Film

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If you’re not a fan of Elmore Leonard, you should be. He’s one of the best storytellers around, renowned for his gritty realism, his succinct and highly memorable dialogue, his intense characters, and conflicts that turn audience expectations upside-down and backward before rolling those expectations down a steep hill. Twenty-six of Leonard’s stories and novels have been turned into films or television series, and you can always pick out the original dialogue because, as he memorably quipped, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” and “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip” (Ten Rules of Writing).

Whether you’re a fan of his early Westerns or his later crime fiction, you can never go wrong reading one of Elmore Leonard’s pieces of fiction or watching one of the dramatic adaptations of his work. “Edgy” and “unexpected” are probably two of the best adjectives to describe his fiction, although he’d no doubt object to my using so many adjectives, since he was famous for describing his characters as little as possible, letting their dialogue and their actions reveal all that was essential in their natures.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Diane Cilento as Jessie, and Margaret Blye as Doris, Hombe ©

Based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard, Hombre (1967), the film is everything you’d expect from Elmore Leonard, but nothing you’d typically expect from Hollywood, espcially in the 1960s. If you were to see the advertisement, you’d think it was just another white man raised by Indians trying to return to white society where nobody wants him kind of movie. “Ah, yes,” wrote Roger Ebert in his original review of the film, “we know the characters well from a thousand other Westerns”:

The good but indecisive Mexican, the decisive but bad Mexican, the thieving Indian agent, his cultured wife, the desperado, the lady boarding house operator with a heart of gold, and the Kid.

While those are, indeed, some of characters in this story, Hombre goes far beyond the Western tropes and clichés to become an examination of morality, human nature, and the struggle to survive.

Some critics call Hombre a “revisionist Western” because it shows Indians — or, at least, a white man who was raised by Indians — in a way that’s different from the shrieking savages riding circles around burning covered wagons that Hollywood typically portrayed. But the film is not really interested in the conflict between the races, although racism certainly is a significant part of the characters’ natures and contributes to many of the film’s conflicts. Instead, Hombre is about human conflict, no matter the race, the gender, or the age of the character. And that’s what makes this film a classic.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Hombre opens with a blue-eyed Indian (Paul Newman) and a band of fellow Apaches patiently waiting for a group of horses to come down to a waterhole, which they have fenced off in order to capture them.

Peter Lazer as the Kid, Hombre ©

A Kid (Peter Lazer) comes down and tells the blue-eyed Indian, whose adopted name is John Russell, that Henry Mendez wants to see him about an important matter.

Martin Balsam as Mendez, and Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

When John Russell goes to see Mendez (Martin Balsam), a half-Mexican, half-white stage driver, he tells Russell that his adopted father has died and left him a boarding house that actually makes money. Mendez encourages Russell to “accept” his own half-white heritage and take ownership of the boarding house, which would make his life easier. Mendez also encourages Russell to cut his hair so that other whites will accept him more easily.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Meanwhile, at the boarding house, the woman who has been running it for years is nervously anticipating the new owner’s arrival.

Diane Cilento as Jessie, Hombre ©

Jessie (Diane Cilento) even tosses her sheriff-boyfriend Frank (Cameron Mitchell) out of her bed, sending him back to his own room in the boarding house, since she isn’t sure how the new owner will take such “immoral” relations. She gets the house ready for John Russell’s arrival, even polishing the silver, causing Mendez to laugh, telling her that Russell “eats with his fingers,” so she’s going through a lot of work for nothing.

Cameron Mitchell as Sheriff Frank, Hombre ©

Russell doesn’t want the silver because he doesn’t even want the boarding house. He intends to sell it, leaving Jessie out of a place to live and of an income. After she attempts to convince her boyfriend — Sheriff Frank — to marry her, she decides it’s time to leave and start a new life somewhere else.

Margaret Blye as Doris, and Peter Lazer as the Kid (Billy), Hombre ©

At the station, two other boarding house residents are also waiting to leave so they can start a new life: the Kid, whose name is Billy, and his wife Doris (Margaret Blye), who apparently married Billy to escape a brutal, unhappy life with her father, only to have an equally unhappy life with her new husband. She believes if they start their life somewhere else, their relations will improve, and Billy hasn’t much choice except to go along with her.

Barbara Rush as Audra Favor, and Fredric March as Reverend Dr. Alex Favor, Hombre ©

While this group is waiting for the stage’s departure, an obviously wealthy woman (Barbara Rush) and her older husband (Fredric March) come into the station. When Mendez informs them that they cannot hire the stage to get to their destination in three days, Mrs Favor buys the stage, horses and all, to ensure that she and Favor are able to make their trip.

Richard Boone as the Bad Guy, Hombre ©

Later that night, the Bad Guy (Richard Boone) comes into the station and insists on taking one of the passengers’ places on the stage. After he intimidates an army officer into giving up his seat, he joins the rest of the passengers on a journey that, rather than being merely the trope of strangers on a journey in a stagecoach who are forced to form a community, albeit a temporary one, becomes, instead, a journey that will show the racial, cultural, and economic tensions that divide everyone in the group.

All the gang in Hombre ©

When the stage driver Mendez attempts to go a different route to avoid three strangers that he fears are highwaymen who want to rob the passengers, the group is attacked by some people they never expected to fear. Stranded in the desert with the money the outlaws want, they attempt to return to the town they left. The outlaws, who have a hostage and some of the water, follow the group, willing to kill any and all of them for the fortune they stole from the stage.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

As if an abundant stolen fortune and a serious lack of water in the desert weren’t enough for a group of clashing personalities to deal with, the group members turn on each other for every reason imaginable, revealing the greed, misogyny, racism, and elitism that makes this Western more than a cowboys vs. Indians, white men vs. non-white men, good vs. evil tale. Virtually everyone in this story is selfish and ugly, everyone wants something he can’t have without hurting someone else, and everyone seems ready to betray everyone else in order to survive.

Hombre is an “excellent example of how violence is more effective the less it’s used,” and the emotional and cultural violence is more important to the story than any of the physical violence, most of which, including the murders, is not graphic. With outstanding performances by Newman (John Russell/Hombre), Boone (Bad Guy), and Cilento (Jessie),  Hombre‘s messages are far more brutal than its shootouts.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), GooglePlay, YouTube (not available for iOS), and Vudu. Always free for Starz or DirecTV subscribers.

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Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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When Legend Becomes Fact: John Ford’s Classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Westerns are an “indigenous American art form,” romanticizing and nostalgically eulogizing the geographical territory west of the Mississippi before it was “tamed.” Set in eras when the West was wild, rough, and wooly, the major protagonists in Westerns are typically divided into easy-to-identify categories of Good Guy and Bad Guy, complete with white and black hats, respectively, and these protagonists often fall into the most dreadful stereotypes. Law and order, or the lack thereof, is a typical theme, and these films are often set at isolated forts or homesteads, or in small towns that are just beyond the reaches of Eastern “civilization,” towns that have not yet been dramatically changed by the arrival of the railroad. Most Westerns feature “romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain,” all filmed in gorgeous technicolor.

When famed director John Ford decided to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a Western adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Ford chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, and he did so on a Paramount stage-set. Critic David Courson believes that these artistic decisions about location and film choice stemmed from Ford’s fundamentally “re-imagined” vision of the mythic West; a vision that was now “pensive and thoughtful,” according to film critic (Roger Ebert); a vision which, according to fellow Westerns director Sergio Leone, who was influenced by the film, revealed that Ford had “learned about something called pessimism.

James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Whatever the reason for Ford’s newly imagined, more pessimistic vision of the West, his artistic changes were a critical and financial success. The film’s budget was $3.2M, and it earned $8M when it was released. Edith Head’s surprisingly understated costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few Westerns ever nominated for this category. With a cast of great stars and loads of marvelous character actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a one of the best classic Westerns. Despite its almost claustrophobic setting, the film examines the more expansive issues of frontier independence vs. civilization; social equality of men vs. that of women, children, and non-whites; and legal vs. moral justice vs. common sense, all while doggedly examining the role of myth in both culture and art.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as his wife, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The film opens with a Senator Ransom (Ranse) Stoddard (James Stewart) returning, unannounced, to the frontier town of Shinbone for a funeral. While he’s there, the local reporters doggedly question the “famous man’s” return to the wilderness, which they believe must have some other purpose than his attending a mere funeral. Senator Stoddard agrees to tell them the story of his past, taking viewers into the flashback that will form the bulk of the film.

Lee Marvin (center) as Liberty Valance, with his gang members, played by Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin (R ), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Ranse, a young attorney who goes West as a young man, hopes to bring civilization as well as law and order to whatever town he settles in and sets up his legal practice. He’s a greenhorn and a dude with an education, and when the stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, above center) and his gang (Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin(R), above), the idealistic and naïve Ransom Stoddard is beaten and whipped, almost to death.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon (Donovan), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

A local rancher, Tom Doniphon (pronounced “Donovan”) (John Wayne) finds the badly injured Ranse and takes him to town for help.

Vera Miles as Hallie, and Woody Strode as Pompey (foreground), Jeanette Nolan as Nora and John Qualen as Peter (background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

While his injuries are being tended by Hallie (Vera Miles) and her Swedish-immigrant employers Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen), Ranse urges them to send for the local Marshal (Andy Devine, below L) so that Valance can be arrested.

Andy Devine as the Marshal, and Woody Strode as Pompey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Everyone present, but most notably Tom, tells Ranse that Liberty Valance has no respect for the law, understanding only violence, brute force, and retaliation, but Ranse refuses to listen, insisting that he can get justice for his injuries and the stagecoach attack.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as Hallie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Without any money, Ranse is forced to accept the hospitality of the restauranterus Nora and Peter, so he does kitchen chores to repay them for lodging and meals. When Ranse learns that waitress Hallie can neither read nor write, he offers to teach her — and anyone else who wishes to learn.

Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, and Lee Marvin (L-R) as Liberty and his gang The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Then Liberty Valance and his gang come into the restaurant, mocking the apron-wearing “dude” Ranse, and setting up a violent confrontation among Ranse, Liberty, Tom, and the newspaper editor Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).

James Stewart as Ranse, Edmond O’Brien as Peabody, and John Wayne as Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

As a sort of unofficial protector of the townspeople due to his own shooting skills, which are at least equal to those of Liberty Valance, Tom teaches Ranse to shoot, expecting that Ranse will be able to defend himself against the notorious Valance.

John Wayne as Tom, and James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Meanwhile, Hallie, who is being courted by Tom, begins to have feelings for Ranse as well as for Tom, setting up yet another arena for disaster and tragedy in Shinbone. To make matters even worse, the Territory in which Shinbone is located wants to be granted Statehood, to help protect itself against the cattle barons, who have apparently hired the notorious Liberty Valance to sabotage the town’s efforts.

James Stewart as Ranse, Lee Marvin as Liberty, and John Wayne as Tom, (with Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Liberty’s gang, background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The initial conflict among Ranse, Liberty, and Tom intensifies and becomes political, endangering not only Ranse’s life but the physical safety and the lives of everyone who has befriended him in the town. Liberty Valance is not going to step aside without a gunfight, and Ranse, who’s not much of a shootist, is the man in Liberty’s sights.

Star-studded entertainment, with just enough humor to keep the film a drama without turning it into a tragedy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz subscription), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and is always free for Starz subscribers.

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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

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Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, feature psychologically complex, morally dubious, and world-weary male protagonists who are unable to escape their pasts, even if they did not actually commit any crimes. Contemporary crime films, whether drama like The Usual Suspects and The Godfather, or a dark comedy like In Bruges — all of which were Oscar-winners — often feature protagonists who are hardened criminals themselves. Viewers are sometimes outraged by such sympathetic portrayals of criminals, as some audience members were when they saw Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, in which the protagonist Frank White, played by Christopher Walken, insists to the detectives pursuing him that he is “just a businessman.”

The 1999 crime film 8MM (Eight Millimeter), directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), doesn’t present viewers with an already world-weary protagonist who is unable to escape his morally dubious past, nor with morally ambiguous criminals. In 8MM, the protagonist is initially a nice guy just trying to make a good living for him and his family, and the bad guys are really terribly bad bad guys, although they have some great lines. This crime film concentrates instead on its male protagonist, a private investigator searching for a missing teenage girl, as he descends into the dark world of underground, illegal pornography, only to dissolve into violence and criminal acts himself.

Nicholas Cage as Tom Welles, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage, in his best dramatic role) lives with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and their baby daughter in a totally suburban, midwest neighborhood, from where he runs his home-based “surveillance” business, i.e., private investigations.

Catherine Keener, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

For some reason never clearly explained, the Welles family is having a difficult time financially, despite his steady employment taking photos of adulterous spouses and other misbehaving family members.

Enter wealthy, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), who has discovered something horrific in her late husband’s safe: an 8mm film that seems to portray a young girl being murdered. Though Welles reassures Widow Christian that “snuff films” — illegal pornographic films where someone is actually killed for the express purpose of the viewers’ sexual titillation — are more an “urban legend” and are usually faked, she offers unlimited funds to prove that the film is fake and the girl still alive. Welles explains that if he treats the girl as a “missing person,” he could gain more access to her identity, family, and whereabouts.

Though the family lawyer Longdale (Anthony Heald) is present at this initial meeting and has already seen the film in question, Welles tells Widow Christian that he will deal directly with her, and only with her. Welles believes that the money he earns proving this horrific “snuff film” is fake will enable him and his family to live comfortably and “happily ever after.”

Mother, Janet (Amy Morton) and Welles (Nicholas Cage) in runaway daughter’s room, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale, and the illegal porn film leads Welles into the desolate and horrifying world of runaway and abducted children. Once he identifies the girl in the film as Mary Anne Mathews (Jenny Powell), who left home after a fight with her still-grieving mother Janet (Amy Morton), he is able to track Mary Anne’s movements. When he finds her abandoned suitcase in a shelter, Tom begins to suspect that Mary Anne, who wanted to be a film star, may have ended up a victim of the porn industry.

Not the legitimate porn industry, however: the illegal one, where people in the films are actually raped, severely assaulted against their will, and sometimes, apparently, killed.

Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In an adult film rental / bookstore, complete with “battery-operated vaginas,” Tom meets the wise-cracking cashier Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who once aspired to be a musician but lost his band, and who reads Capote’s In Cold Blood at work by disguising the book with the cover of another, sleazier work. Max is quick-witted and intelligent, and because Tom looks so much like a law enforcement officer, he quickly learns that it would be impossible for him to learn anything about the darker side of the porn industry without Max’s help.

Nicholas Cage as Welles, and Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Even with Max at his side, however, Welles begins to learn just how dangerous the illegal porn industry is: the two are constantly assaulted and threatened with death themselves as they attempt to find “snuff films.”

James Gandolfini as Eddie, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

When Welles finds a sleazy talent scout, Eddie (James Gandolfini), who seems to recognize the missing Mary Anne from a photograph but who denies knowing her, Welles goes after Eddie by insinuating that he knows what Eddie and his pals did to the girl.

Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Eddie leads Welles and Max, now going by the code-name “Max California,” to New York and to an infamous illegal pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). Velvet makes unique films for private viewing for healthy commissions, and his films always include the hooded man known as “Machine” (Chris Bauer), who appears in the 8mm film found in Mr. Christian’s safe and who seems to have killed the missing girl.

Chris Bauer as Machine, and Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In increasingly dark, sordid, and haunting environs, Welles pursues the missing girl and the men who made the purported “snuff film.” Plunging ever deeper into the dark world of illegal pornography, drifting away from his wife, daughter, and the mundane security of his former life, Welles is changed in ways he could not have imagined. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about the missing girl and disturbing film, the more endangered he is himself, as is everyone connected with him, including his “partner” Max, as well as Welles’ wife and baby daughter.

Many critics felt Cage was “miscast” as Welles, and most professional reviewers disliked 8MM intensely, accusing it of being “nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it… condemns” or of being “a relentlessly murky odyssey… [emerging] as a secondhand Seven” (the same screenwriter wrote both films). Janet Maslin of the New York Times found Cage’s character “unrelievedly drab,” but added that “[though the film] includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are “relatively discreet.

Roger Ebert was one of the few professional reviewers who actually admired 8MM, writing that it “raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another,” making 8MM a “real film

that deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill… It is a real film. Not a slick exploitation exercise with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences. Not a film where moral issues are forgotten in the excitement of an action climax.

Intense and edgy, 8 MM, is not a film for the faint-hearted. Though the film never graphically portrays the pornographic aspects of its subject matter, the disintegration of its protagonist from quiet and respected family man into desperate and violent avenger is disturbing: it may be uncomfortable for some viewers. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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All the Great, Grand, Glorious Heroes of the Revolution: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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Director Sergio Leone is credited with re-inventing the western film genre by presenting a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Despite his never having visited the United States and not being able to speak English, Leone created western heroes, villains, and films that changed the genre forever. Paying tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them, Leone’s characters, heroic or villainous, are dirty, sweaty, and unshaven. It is often difficult to determine which are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all his characters are “morally ambiguous… [either] generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” The relationships of Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” and are emotionally, rather than politically, driven.

In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker (also titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, or A Fistful of Dynamite); and Once Upon a Time in America, the setting is not always the American Old West, and Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence than on the violence itself.” In Leone’s first trilogy of Westerns, the Dollars Trilogy, the protagonist doesn’t change, although those around him often do, if only because of his violent acts. In the Once Upon a Time trilogy, instead of there being a single protagonist, who is most often considered the “hero” of the story though he is neither moral nor “good,” there are at least two protagonists, and they do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters.

Though they might initially oppose each other, these protagonists are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain or even protagonist/antagonist. The female, who was intimately connected with the two protagonists’ battle in Once Upon a Time in the West, has completley disappeared in Duck, You Sucker (1971): the story focuses only on its male protagonists.

The moral journey of the emotionally complex protagonists in Duck, You Sucker occurs despite — or perhaps because of — all the guns, explosions, and battles during a revolution, but Leone’s protagonists are not even conscious of their changing behavior or natures.  These two men are trying to survive outside the political situation around them. For them, and for the film’s viewers, the Mexican Revolution is mere backdrop. Duck, You Sucker is, instead, a biting examination of racism, class differences, imperialism, and the violence that is sometimes used in an futile attempt to achieve permanent social and moral equality.

Rod Steiger and James Coburn, as Juan and John, respectively, in Duck, You Sucker ©

Despite the film’s constantly being edited to remove scenes considered too politically sensitive, too violent, or filled with too much profanity; despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns rather than as a drama; and despite its rather strange original title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa (Duck your Head), and its subsequent release under various other titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, this film is one of Leone’s best. Its exploration of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor vs. obligation to fellow man, and private vs. political justice is moving and powerful.

Rod Steiger as Juan Miranda, Duck, You Sucker ©

In a rural desert, a dirty, barefoot, obviously poor Mexican peasant waits at an isolated stop for the stage. Though the driver is intially reluctant to allow the peasant to board, despite his offering to pay for this passage, the driver decides it would be a good joke to put the dirty man aboard with the wealthy patrons. Inside, the others immediately insult and criticize the peasant, talking about him as if he were unable to hear or understand what they are saying. Along the road, the stage is ambushed by armed bandits, and the peasant is revealed as their leader, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who immediately takes revenge against the wealthy, upper-class patrons.

Rod Steiger (forefront) as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

Before Miranda and his gang have left the scene with the stolen stagecoach, they are distracted by explosions and the subsequent arrival of a motorcyle-riding stranger. Miranda disables the motorcycle and attempts to rob its driver, but is confronted by a man more cool-headed and cold-blooded than himself: Irish political terrorist turned mercenary, Seán (John) Mallory (James Coburn).

James Coburn as Seán (John) Mallory, Duck, You Sucker ©

In the violent struggle that ensues, the two men vainly attempt to outwit and physically master each other. When it’s clear that Irish John cannot be intimidated or emotionally manipulated, Juan decides he can use John’s skills to fulfill his own life’s dream of succesfully robbing the biggest bank Juan’s ever heard of, the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Romolo Valli as Dr. Villega, Duck, You Sucker ©

In Mesa Verde, the two begin working together, although unbeknownst to Juan, John’s motives are quite different from his own. In a secret meeting, Juan is introduced to one of the revolutionary leaders, Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli, above), who wants to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical local governor, Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi, below), and change Mexico’s entire social structure.

Poster of Franco Graziosi as Governor Don Jaime, Duck, You Sucker ©

Enter, stage-right: an even more powerful and dangerous opponent, Colonel Günther Reza —Gutierez Ruiz in English versions — (Antoine Saint-John), the ruthless German leader of a detachment of Mexican Federales.

Antoine Saint-John Colonel Günther/Gutierez Reza/Ruiz, Duck, You Sucker ©

Though sometimes considered the film’s antagonist, Reza/Ruiz’s character is completely undeveloped, which makes it clear that he is not important enough to be the antagonist. Reza/Ruiz functions merely as a catalyst for the evolution and moral development of Juan, John, and, in a minor capacity, Dr. Villega. Even Villega, though his character is important enough to be slightly developed, is really only vital to the story because of his treachery toward the major protagonists, Juan and John, and how his betrayal changes them.

James Coburn as John, and Rod Steiger as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

The story of this brief moment in the Mexican Revolution is interwoven with flashbacks revealing John’s time in Ireland fighting the British government. Featuring a former comrade and the women whom both men loved, these flashbacks have no dialogue: only a musical soundtrack.

John’s former comrade Nolan (David Warbeck); Colleen (Vivienne Chandler), the woman they both loved; and Seán/John (James Coburn, in Ireland, in flashbacks only, Duck, You Sucker ©

 

Apparently, this time, in Mexico, John wants to get the revolution right. Meanwhile, Juan only wants revenge against everyone for his own poverty and illiteracy. The story’s violence increases, but begets nothing except more horrific violence, more betrayal, more death.

Rod Steiger as Juan, and James Coburn as John, Duck, You Sucker ©

When finally offered a chance to take hold of his dreams, “Chicken-Thief” Juan and “Firecracker” John each realizes that he no longer wants what he once most desired. Each discovers that he is not the man he once was, and that he must now make different moral and political choices, difficult and surprising as those choices may be.

The chemistry between Coburn and Steiger, as “John and Juan,” who eventually form a bond that forces each of their characters to evolve, is one of the things that makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best films ever made. The intellectual political terrorist John (Coburn) begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan (Steiger) stops thinking only of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care more about his family members as individuals, his relationship with his fellow man, and his country. From a relationship built on fear, intimidation, and coercion rises a relationship built on love, respect, and empathy.

Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger, and James Coburn, taking a break on set, Duck, You Sucker ©

Duck, You Sucker is available for rent ($2.99-$3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon,  iTunes, and Vudu.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Searching for the Meaning of Life on the Danish Island of Dr. Moreau: Men & Chicken, the Film

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H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a memorable tale of horror and misguided human aspiration to create a perfect race or, at the very least, an improved kind of human-animal. Moreau, a medical doctor forced to leave England because of questionable experimentation, lives on a remote Pacific island where he continues his morally dubious experiments trying to turn animals into humans — The Beast Folk — or turning humans into animals when they interfere with Moreau’s “research.” Whether or not such a thing is actually biologically possible, even with the introduction of human DNA into the animal surgeries as portrayed by the 1996 film version, the novel was published at a time when the discussion around the morality of vivisection (experimenting on living creatures) was becoming more vocal and public.

The Island of Dr. Moreau explores not only vivisection and Darwinian evolutionary theory but imperialism at its most rudimentary level. Though Moreau, an educated, white Englishman, is not colonizing the island or exploiting its natural products to enrich himself or his countrymen, he clearly considers himself superior to most other humans and certainly to any animal. His attempts to make the island population of beasts into “improved” human-like animals backfires, however, because he fails to take each species’ own inherent natures into consideration. For example, Moreau teaches his Beast Folk that it is bad to go on “all fours” and to hunt, kill, or eat anything else that goes on four legs, thoroughly ignoring the Beast Folk’s primary drives to survive. Though Wells himself called the novel “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” it is a powerful exploration of human attempts to interfere with nature, cruelty to non-human species, and moral responsibility, especially in the matter of genetically “improving” a native culture or species.

Brothers Gregor, Franz, and Josef (back row), with Elias and Gabriel (front), Men & Chicken, Photo courtesy of Danish Film Institute

In the dark Danish comedy, Men & Chicken (Mænd og Høns, 2015), written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, viewers are taken to the island of Dr. Moreau’s geneticist counterpart long after he has successfully completed several experimental atrocities. Beginning and ending with narration reminiscent of a fairy tale, the film depicts five brothers’ unsettling discovery that they have the “most twisted family tree since Hamlet” (Variety). Though its premise is sinister and “suggests a cult horror movie,” Men & Chicken is, instead, a “staggering account of family dysfunction, secret-hoarding, and tragedy.”

The film has a “dry eccentricity that is entertaining and absurd,” with terrific ensemble acting. Though at least one critic found the film “creepy, weird, and condescending,” resembling The Island of Dr. Moreauvia Kierkegaard,” the film’s broader comedy eventually settles down into an intense investigation of the meaning of life, the purpose of civilization, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Men & Chicken begins as almost atrocious slapstick but ultimately becomes a poignant exploration of the meaning of life, family, community, and love.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken, © Danish Film Institute

The film begins on simultaneously tragic and comedic notes. Gabriel (David Dencik, above R) sits at his dying father’s side in the hospital, waiting for his brother. By the time brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen, above L), arrives, talking more about his blind-date with a psychologist he met online than their dying father, the old man has passed on, leaving his two sons a videotape that reveals he is not their biological father.

As if that weren’t distressing enough, Dad tells them that they did not even have the same mother. Elias, a sensitive thought slightly dim-witted compulsive masturbator, is more concerned about being abandoned by his little brother Gabriel than he is about learning that Dad was not their biological father. Gabriel, a professor and author with an uncontrollable gag reflex who has just been abandoned by his latest girlfriend because he cannot have children, wants to go meet their biological father, who is said to be alive and working at a sanatorium on the island of Ork.

On the trip, we learn more about their personalities, including Elias’ short temper and hatred of being interrupted, and Gabriel’s loneliness for a wife, along with his seemingly infinite patience. When the two brothers arrive at the appropriately creepy sanatorium where their father supposedly lives and works, they meet three other men, all of whom have harelips,* as do Gabriel and Elias. In no time, the three other brothers prove that they are siblings in personality traits as well as biological heritage.

Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Franz (Søren Malling), who carries around his taxidermy animals, has the same type of temper as Elias. The only brother with pronounced facial scarring beyond the harelip, Franz is also the only other brother with enough education to be a teacher, as is Gabriel.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Nicolas Bro as Josef, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Despite having no formal education, Josef (Nicolas Bro, above R) is as intellectual and philosophical as Gabriel, but rather shy, more like Elias.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

And Josef (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, above L) is as affectionate and desperate to have sex with women as Elias, but as brave and independent as Gabriel.

David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Because Gabriel is injured in the initial meeting with the three siblings at the sanatorium, he and Elias are invited to stay, at least until Gabriel recovers. Though the two brothers cannot see their father, ostensibly because he is ill, the two quickly become interested in staying on.

Bedtime stories with (L-R) Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, Nicolas Bro as Josef, Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Elias becomes emotionally attached to the three siblings, playing badminton in tennis whites, and hunkering down in beds pushed close together so the brothers can listen to bedtime stories.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Meanwhile, Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering why all the brothers look so much alike, despite their having different mothers, and why there are so many animals living in the sanatorium with the younger three brothers who were raised by the biological father. Gabriel is determined to meet their father, Dr. Thanatos, and to learn about his genetic research, despite Franz’s warning that Gabriel will end up “in the cage” for misbehavior or other infractions of the rules.

Ole Thestrup as Mayor of Ork, Bodil Jørgensen as daughter Ellen, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

When the brothers finally do learn about their biological heritage, along with their father’s mysterious and terrifyingly illegal behavior, their fragile emotional connection to each other is strained to the breaking point, causing the island’s fellow residents to get actively involved in the brothers’ personal drama.

Absurd, darkly comedic, and ultimately surprising, Men & Chicken is a poignant exploration of what it means to be human, to be in a family, and to truly love others. Though the ending might be considered happily-ever-after by some viewers, the conclusion of the film has very tragic undertones. After all, what goes on in the basement is the dark lining that makes this film a drama rather than a comedy of grotesque errors.

In Danish with English subtitles, Men & Chicken was one of three films shortlisted for Denmark’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Films: its ensemble acting is outstanding, as is its satire and irony.

Available for rent ($1.99-2.99, SD/HD, but $4.99 from iTunes) from Amazon (free for Prime members), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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* The harelips caused some viewers to remark that Jensen was mocking people with disabilities or different appearances.

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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