When I lived in New York City, I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan every workday. The ride from where I lived to 23rd street in Manhattan took about forty-five minutes to an hour each way. It was perfect reading time. There was nothing else to do but stare at other passengers and that could only get you in trouble. I cannot count the number of books I read during that daily trek. One of them was John Godey’s bestselling urban thriller, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. Both the book and the 1974 film exploit the always present fears New Yorkers internally experience when they find themselves caught in enclosed spaces and escape is out of your hands. Continue reading
For many years, around the holiday season, the Catholic Church had a pledge they brought forth to their parishioners. The oath was for “Good” Catholics not to attend any film considered morally objectionable, that is, the big C word was applied…Condemned!For years, the Church’s list of objectionable films was a dominant force that changed filmmaking. Many directors, among them Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) and Billy Wilder (The Seven Year Itch), edited their films, eliminating scenes found objectionable. While it’s true most of the films on the list were foreign that received the condemned rating there were exceptions. In 1953, Otto Preminger’s lightweight romantic comedy, The Moon is Blue was given the dreaded C rating, this after the Hays Office refused to give the film its seal of approval and Preminger and United Artists refused to make what today seem like ridiculous deletes.
Considering the subject matter, it’s amazing that the low budget, Who Killed Teddy Bear was released in 1965. The film is a smorgasbord of Production Code taboos broken one after another: incest, masturbation, homosexuality and more. It all set in the seedy lurid world of 1960’s slime filled Times Square. It’s an oddity for sure, and a definite bump up above the typical sexploitation movies that decorated the deuce and Times Square back in the day, if for no other reason than the cast includes Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Jan Murray and Elaine Stritch. One other reason to watch is due to the gritty, noirish cinematography provided by Joseph C. Brun (Odds Against Tomorrow, Edge of the City). One word of warning. Though over fifty years old and not as graphic as films today, Who Killed Teddy Bear may still be unsettling for some. Continue reading
Don Siegel released two films in 1968, films bookending the changes that were happening in Hollywood, the first film representing the ending of one era and the second beginning of another. Both films are police dramas based in New York City and both films involved law officers who are troublesome renegades to their superiors. They also have some similar casting with actors, Susan Clark and Don Stroud, in both films, yet in “Madigan” starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, we are saying goodbye to Hollywood’s old guard, while with “Coogan’s Bluff” we are welcoming the future in the cool, silent gaze of Clint Eastwood. Director Don Siegel himself was kind of turning a corner in his own career going from a “B” film director to the “A” list along with what would turn out to be the start of a fruitful and professional relationship with Eastwood.
Siegel teamed up for the first time with Eastwood who just completed his first starring role in an American film, “Hang em’ High” and was now looking to move on to his next project, “Coogan’s Bluff,” based on a screenplay by Henry Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman. The film is a fish out of water story, a culture clash of East meets West, city slickers meet small town country boy. Call it what you will but when the boy is Clint Eastwood the shit is going to fly. Continue reading
I always thought “His Girl Friday” was one of the most acidic screwball comedies to ever hit the screen until I watched “Nothing Sacred.” The cup runneth over in this sharply written film and it isn’t with love. For this you can thank Ben Hecht who co-wrote the original source material for the prior film, the Broadway hit, “The Front Page” and was the only credited writer for the latter (Producer David O’Selznick handed Hecht’s script over to George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker and Ring Lardner Jr. among others. Despite all these other hands in the pot, Hecht’s sour look remained intact). Hecht may be more the auteur of these two films than either of the two directors. Both are driven by aggressive, cynical newspaper reporters who will exploit and outright lie to sell newspapers and make a buck for themselves. If anything stops “Nothing Sacred” from being a full blown masterpiece of prickly comedy, it has to do with two components. The first, the part of Wally Cook, the cynical newspaper reporter screams out for Cary Grant. Instead, here we have Fredric March. Now, it’s not that March is bad, he’s not. He just seems like he is wound up a little bit too tight for the role. He cannot let himself let loose like Grant would have. The second factor is the treatment of the film’s black characters which I will get into in more detail a little further on.
For Ben Hecht, it not just the newspaper reporters who are nasty, evil and corrupt, it’s the entire cast! Carol Lombard’s Hazel Flagg is an unscrupulous liar willing to carry on a charade just so she can get out of her hick New England town and visit New York City. The folks from Warsaw Vermont, Hazel’s small hometown are monosyllable, unwelcoming and suspicious of outsiders. Even the kids are nasty; one youngster (Billy Barty) bites Wally on his leg while others pelt him with stones after he arrives in town inquiring about the unfortunate Hazel Flagg.
I should talk a little about the plot before going any further. As I said, Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a small town girl from Warsaw, Vermont, where people don’t take kindly to strangers, especially slick New York City newspaper reporters. Factory worker Hazel was misdiagnosed by her doctor (Charles Winninger) who informed her she was going to die due to exposure from radiation poisoning at the factory. Her fellow co-workers collected $200 dollars to send Hazel on her dream trip to see New York before she dies. However, just before she is about to leave, she receives even worst news from her doctor. You see, he made a mistake, she’s going to live! Upset, she cries out “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice…and both times in Warsaw!” Continue reading
Okay, first let me say that “Night Falls on Manhattan” is not a bad movie; it is just by 1997 we had seen it all before and better. Lumet is on familiar territory here, political fraud, crooked cops, and ethical dilemmas. It is a road he has traveled on many times and at a far better speed. What was once shocking in “Serpico” is now old hat, been there, saw that last night on “Law and Order” or some other TV police show.
Life isn’t black and white; there are always shades of gray, that’s the theme running through this political drama. Based on the novel, “Tainted Evidence” by Robert Daley, author of “Prince of the City” and “Year of the Dragon” among others, high values are thwarted, the good guys are not all good, the villains are victims of life, and all are casualties of their owned flawed behavior. Lumet made movies for adults, his characters were not cardboard cutouts, they were real three dimensional people in difficult situations, and never perfect. No matter how hard they tried, they would get caught up life’s complicated twist and turns. Continue reading
“The Panic in Needle Park” is raw unnerved New York filmmaking from the 1970’s. Its locations reek with the underbelly of city life, the subways, dirty streets, and the infamous Sherman Park aka Needle Park. Al Pacino in his first leading role is on fire, gum chewing, chain-smoking and wired. This is Pacino, pre-Godfather, unadulterated and hungry.
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, a well-known photographer, who spent the early part of his career taking portraits of Bob Dylan, including the cover of his “Blonde on Blonde” album, Faye Dunaway, The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Schatzberg would go on to direct other downbeat works like rarely seen “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” and “Scarecrow.”
“Panic” opened in 1971 and died a quick death at the box office. It remained mysteriously missing from the world of video for 36 years until finally released on DVD in 2007. The 1970’s was a time when filmmakers made statements, provoked and were passionate about what they did. You could make a small art film and not worry about the commercial viability, at least not completely.
The film is a disturbingly beautiful piece of work. An uncompromising bleak vision as filmed by Schatzberg whose use of improvisation and cinema verite style filmmaking puts you right there on the grimy streets with the protagonists. Unlike most drug themed films from this period “Panic” does not cater to the counter-cultures glorification of drug use, part of the reason it did not do well at the box office, as portrayed in such films as “The Trip”, “Psych Out”, “Wild in the Streets”, “Easy Rider” and “Head.” That said, the day after “Panic” opened in New York City another hard-core film about drug addicts opened also, this time the location is on the west coast, the little known “Dusty and Sweets McGee.” Continue reading
Apparently back in 1947 Hollywood thought it was a good idea to release Christmas films in the middle of the year instead of the holiday season. In June of that year, two films were released within a week of each other. Both placed ads in the New York Times weeks before they opened as if it were a preliminary for the main bout. Who will grab the public’s imagination and more importantly their dollars? The two contenders were the now almost forgotten “It Happened on 5th Avenue” and a film that would become a perennial holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”
While the stories are different, the two films do have some similarities. Both take place in New York during the holiday season, both feature kindly cherubic older men and both spread philosophies, though very different, on the goodness of man. Continue reading
“American Hot Wax” may not be totally accurate (it’s not) but it does capture the favor, the spirit, the recklessness and the music of the early days of Rock and Roll. It does this through an excellent performance by Tim McIntire and the music by many of the great artists of the day including Frankie Ford, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Kenny Vance, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. The films center is Alan Freed credited incorrectly with coining the phrase rock n roll, a term whose original meaning was a slang term for sexual intercourse and had been used in a few songs going as far back a 1922*. Freed started in Cleveland, put on live shows, moved to New York on 1010 WINS then to WABC Radio before being fired when he refused to sign a statement certifying he never accepted a payola payment. Payola was rampant with DJ’s throughout the U.S. but Freed was one of the main targets, and a symbol of investigators and whose career would suffer the most. After he was fired by WABC, Freed never was able to find work with a major radio station again but like the screen Alan Freed tells the police toward the end of the movie “you can stop me, but you can never stop rock and roll.”
The movie plays loose with the facts, director Floyd Mutrux admits that he took some artistic license with the storyline in the film including changing the sequential order of Freed’s final days as a New York DJ. The screenplay unfortunately lacks any depth only skimming the surface of Freed’s character also making him much more of a saint than he really was. You don’t learn much about him except for his passionate rebellious love for rock and roll, his willingness to play black music along with the fact that he smoked and drank too much. Mutrux does not even touch on Freed’s sharing of songwriting credit as a form of payment. This co-writing credit was not limited to just Freed, it was common practice among top DJ’s and popular singers. Dick Clark was well known for sharing copyright credit. Even Elvis Presley received songwriting credit receiving royalty for songs like Heartbreak Hotel among others early in his career.
The film gives us a glance of Freed’ s days filled with eager young singers hanging outside the radio station attempting to “audition” for their big break as they sing popular songs of the day, or in a recording studio watching Frankie Ford record his one monster hit, “Sea Cruise”, or watching record producer Richard Perry play a fictitious music producer working with a fictitious doo-wop group (The Planotones lead by Kenny Vance former of Jay and the Americans) recording “Come Go With Me”, a real hit by the Del-Vikings in 1957. The Planotones, as mentioned, started out as a fictitious group for the film. Some years later Vance would reform the group and they have been performing around the country singing doo-wop ever since.
The films real strength is in the performances with McIntire doing a splendid job as Freed and a young Fran Drescher who is engaging as Freed’s high pitched girl Friday. Also in the cast are Lorraine Newman as a Carole King songwriter wannabe and Jay Leno as Mookie, Freed’s chauffeur. Most interesting are the performances by the great Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other early rock and roll singers who appear along with the recreation of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. “American Hot Wax” is a highly enjoyable low budget film.
John Garfield has always been one of my favorite actors probably ranking in my top ten if I were to create such a list. He was always at his best when he played a guy from “the wrong side of the tracks”, scrappy, always behind the eight ball like say, Joe Bell in “Dust Be My Destiny” or Frank Chambers in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” In a film such as “East of the River” he manages to rise above the mediocre material making the film more interesting than it has a right to be. When Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers eventually ended he formed his own production company, Enterprise Productions, his first film for his new company was “Body and Soul” directed by Robert Rossen with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky. Continue reading