The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Plane Crazy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

James Stewart’s career in the 1960’s was characterised by below average westerns, a contrast to his amazing run of diverse and ambitious films in the 50’s. The Flight of the Phoenix and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are the two films which broke this mould.

I’m not an aviation expert so I can only speak as a layman but the method in which the men escape from the desert by building a new plane out of the remains of their downed plane doesn’t feel implausible, even if the man who spearheads the project designs toy planes for a living. After Frank Towns (James Stewart) and Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) learn that Heinrich Dorfmann does not actually design real planes he makes a convincing argument that the principals of model plane design are the same and in many aspects of models require much more exacting designs as there is no pilot to fly them.

Hardy Kruger is the big show stealer here as the reserved loner Heinrich Dorfmann. He doesn’t conform to the rest of the group often physically separated from them nor does he appear to care what they think of him. He is someone who deals in cold, hard logic and shows little emotion throughout most of the film until he finally warms up towards the end. The intense dislike Towns has for Dorfmann is never explained. Ok it is established Dorfmann gets on Towns’ nerves but the contempt he has for him is clearly something more than that; in fact on my first viewing of The Flight of the Phoenix I found myself puzzled as to why he was taking such a dislike to him. Although it’s never stated the dislike could be due to post war bigotry. Although Dorfmann claims to have not been involved in the war he does hold some Nazi like characteristics such as his lack of compassion for those unnecessary or hindering the survival of the greater good (the greater good!), not to mention the blonde hair and blue eyes wouldn’t help Towns’ perception of him.

It’s no secret that James Stewart was an aviation enthusiast, thus no surprise this role would have appealed to him. As a pilot during the war he bring an extra degree of levity to the role, however this is no nice guy Stewart. Frank Towns is a man with a violent temper – nor did Stewart ever appear in a movie with a face so beat up (kudos to the makeup department for all those nasty looking side effects on the character’s faces.). The shot in which he threatens to kill the unknown person stealing water if they do it again as his face goes in and out of the light more than once is intimidating stuff. Likewise The Flight of the Phoenix is piloted by a superb international cast with characters whom have different levels of adjustment to surviving the wilderness. It’s a surprise seeing Dan Duryea playing a softie as Standish the account; a total contrast to his other roles as a no good weasel.

“The little men with the slide rules and computers are going to inherit the Earth.”

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Eyes Without a Face [Les Yeux Sans Visage] (1960)

A Woman’s Face

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Eyes Without  A Face is the type of horror film which earns more respect than your average film of the genre, thanks in part to its class and sophistication. It’s essentially a glorified B-movie but one which turns archetypes found in the mad scientist genre on its head. After all, horror stereotypes are not actually scary; normal people acting in an abnormal way is what’s truly frightening.

Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) has the look of a potential madman even resembling the maniac John Barrymore yet remains subdue throughout the film as a man wrestling with his conscience. His assistant isn’t a hunchback but rather a manipulative woman Louise (Alida Valli) who kidnaps young girls of the doctor’s behalf; much like in William Wyler’s The Collector, in which victims can be so easily kidnapped and taken to a secluded house without a trace. Without the creepy carnival like music she would appear a different character – not so manipulative and eerie; ah the power of editing.

Eyes Without a Face presents by far the best combination I’ve ever seen of a movie which is unsettling yet beautiful at the same time; the two keywords which sum up the viewing experience. I’m not a massively squeamish person yet the thought of plastic surgery makes my body muscles tighten. Watching any scene with the facially disfigured Christiane (Edith Scob) makes me feel uneasy but simultaneously enraptured at the same time creating a unique combination of viewer emotion. Even with the absence of a woman’s most important physical asset, Edith Scob is the pinnacle of femininity in Eyes Without a Face. The manner in which she walks and moves in that white coat-like dress couldn’t be more angelic and I haven’t even mentioned the mask.  If there is ever a cinematic image more implanted into one’s mind, it’s Edith Scob wearing that mask. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, it’s emotionless, yet it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen more so than most flesh and blood faces. The masks used in the film where moulded to fit Edith Scob’s own face, could that be the contributing factor to its beauty? Or is it the angelic figure which carries the mask, whose surrogate mother still brushes her hair despite the disfigurement.

Equally as eerie and hauntingly beautiful is the only scene in which Christiane appears without the mask. Out of context it wouldn’t entirely seem this way but the very idea that this face has been transplanted onto her from another girl is so uncanny to watch. This is also helped in part of Scob’s stunning piece of facial acting in which the Christiane is not yet used to her new face with the limited, almost robotic like display of facial movements.

My only issue with Eyes Without  Face are two plot contrivances. At the beginning of the film when Dr Genessier identifies the remains of a recovered body as those of his missing daughter, the authorities at the morgue don’t even bother asking the other man they asked to come along to look at the remains to view the body for himself. Likewise when the character of Paulette goes missing after leaving the hospital to investigate Dr Genessier on their behalf, the police don’t follow up on her disappearance. Are these plot contrivances for the connivance of the plot or did the filmmakers deliberately set out to portray the authorities as being that incompetent?

Regardless, such plot contrivances are only minor annoyance in a movie with such startling scenes, imagery and set design from the painting of Christiane’s mother to Dr Genessier’s chamber. I’ve long felt that a medical or laboratory like aesthetic is one of the most effective surroundings to capture in glorious black and white. This beauty culminates in the film’s ending in which Christiane performs a simple undoing of everything her father has been working on. This is not a Charles Foster Kane style destruction of a room but rather she gracefully stabs her surrogate mother and symbolically sets dogs and birds used for Genessier’s experiments free. Aside from the doctor getting mauled by the dogs, the ending is intense yet peaceful. Some films stick with you more than others: Eyes Without a Face is one of those which I found myself thinking about its visual images for days after seeing and they won’t be leaving me soon.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Olympus Has Fallen

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer they are at least.

Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personal with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.

The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.

John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.

Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal are never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired, until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).

Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

Every Sperm Is Sacred

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Frank Beardsley’s (Henry Fonda) opening narration tells of how his children feel he neglected his wife and their mother; an interesting parallel to real life in which Fonda told his wife Frances Ford Seymour in 1949 he wanted a divorcee so he could remarry after an unhappy 13 year marriage; a confession which drove her to suicide. Not to mention Fonda was a man who was “emotionally distant” to his children starring in a movie like Yours, Mine and Ours, but being the great actor he is, never is he out of place.

Yours, Mine and Ours doesn’t have a massive amount of substance but has just enough to keep it afloat. It’s not the most advanced comic material for the likes of Lucille Ball but she makes the most of it. Apparently Fonda became deeply in love with Ball during film and the two became very close; always a benefit to the on screen chemistry. Likewise sex references still manage to slip into a family film (“He’ll bring me home in plenty of time for dessert”). The cinematography is also surprisingly advanced for a movie of this kind such as seen in the very opening shot of the film in which the camera pans back from a close up of Fonda to a battle ship in its entirety. Likewise there are plenty of effective shots of San Francisco.

The old fashioned family ideals in Yours, Mine and Ours were not in tune with a changing America of the time. The film was originally to be made in the early 60’s but was delayed due to various setbacks but the fashions present here are clearly of the late 60’s. With the film’s inclusion of battleships and planes the movie clearly has US Navy endorsement and I can see this pro-military aspect of the film not going down well during the days of the Vietnam War. Likewise at the end of the film the eldest son Michael Beardsley joining the armed forces; so I guess that’s off to Nam! This is the aspect of Yours, Mine and Ours which I find the most interesting; it’s a film which the product of before it’s time, clinging onto bygone values. For example the movie has Van Johnson in a supporting role whom I’ve always pictured as being an archetypal 50’s actor. But more importantly Frank Beardsley can’t be a stay at home father, he’s clearly a man’s man as evident from his high ranking position in the navy.

Topkapi (1964)

Mission Unpossible

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Topkapi is one of those movies in which it is fun to look in the background at the colourful array of gadgets and gizmos. The film’s sets are a thing of beauty, full of beautiful, understated colours. This is the kind of movie to watch to watch on a hot summer’s day, or to escape the winter blues. The movie was filmed on location and acts like a time capsules for 1960’s Turkey and Greece, and capturing in a documentary like for the nitty, gritty street corners of Istanbul.

The production code was all but gone in 1964, thus the movie is able to explain and able to show in detail how they are able to commit their crime with explanations of the security system in place and how to bypass them, as well as their undercover scheme and the heist plan; I just delight in that kind of exposition. There were the days before security cameras, therefore they aren’t an obstacle to get around. I also imagine they probably could have chosen to have the criminals get away scot free if they had desired.

Peter Ustinov steals the show, in one of those performances which brings me levels of respect towards an actor playing a loveable sucker and the most unconvincing conman who can’t fool anyone to save his life. Oh the other hand I’ve heard reviewers criticise the casting of a 44 year old Melina Mercouri as a flirt who is not very attractive, I disagree. I find it’s an interesting character dynamic to have a somewhat maniacal nymphomaniac who isn’t particularly attractive yet has a lover who appears to legitimately sees something in her.

Topkapi may have the best heist sequence I’ve seen in a film. By this point in the film I’ve already attached a strong emotional interest in these characters, but during the heist itself the characters played by Ustinov and Maximillian Schell develop an unexpected emotional bond which raises the stakes higher than they are. With a clumsy fool who is afraid of heights, a lighthouse being controlled from afar by other operatives and precise rope movements to moving an entire glass enclosure, I’m left with that glorious feeling of clenching your hands when something almost goes wrong.

Sex and the Single Girl (1964)

Natalie & Tony & Henry & Lauren

A mainstream movie with sex in the title, even pre code didn’t do that. I could only find two films which precede Sex and the Single Girl; Sex (1920) and The Opposite Sex (1956). Although I imagine after this a movie having with “Sex” in a movie’s title wasn’t such a big deal but here they sure take advantage of it with the animated opening which puts alot of emphasis on the word ‘SEX’ in big capital letters. Perhaps the movie may have something interesting to say on its subject with Natalie Wood playing a psychologist who is a 23 old virgin (which characters in the film viewed as a compliment) or something about sleazy journalism but the movie becomes too dull to bother deciphering.

From what I’ve seen I get the impression that Richard Quine is a lousy director. He’s done a number of movies with great casts and interesting premises but are let down by flat, uninspired direction. The opening scene of Sex and the Single Girl is a gem with 1930’s comedy actor Edward Everett Horton giving a speech on how proud he is of his publication becoming “the filthy rag it is today”. Sadly it goes downhill from there. Even with the movie’s madcap finale it is hard to care what’s going on.

Henry Fonda was ashamed of this movie stating in an interview that he agreed to star in the film as a comprise to do a box office picture so he could indulge in doing movies which interested him such as 12 Angry Men and The Ox Bow Incident. There are worse movies you can do but why did he hate it so much? I doubt he would have an issue with appearing in a sex comedy as he himself starred in the sexually charged comedy The Lady Eve years earlier or is it because of the movie’s sleaze factor? Who knows…

Although I would be lying if I didn’t say I still got some superficial enjoyment out of the film. I am a sucker for the 60’s aesthetic with the bright, colourful sets (the stocking factory is very amusing) and the cool, breezy music by Neal Hefti. Likewise I do like the contrast between two generations present between Tony Curtis & Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda & Lauren Bacall. Sex and the Single Girl could have been a neo-screwball gem. In the end it’s a movie which looks appealing from the outside but is hollow on the inside.

Madigan (1968)

Bad Cops, Bad Cops

Madigan is my kind of cop movie, why? Everything about the movie feels so classic. So many classic cop movie tropes are there; the one officer who is determined to play by the book, police corruption, guys in suits who show off their identification, one liners galore and aided by the aura of cool Richard Widmark brings to the screen. Plus is there a more cop name than Madigan? Many of the men in the film wear suits and fedoras with this being the late 60’s and the final days in which it was common for working men to do so; although there is a sense of New Hollywood creeping in with the criminals in the movie appearing in that 1970’s archetype. Madigan is also one of the best uses of location, never has the grit and grime of the New York streets been captured so vividly.

The opening credits are a fantastic montage of New York in the early hours of the morning. This should come as no surprise as director Don Siegel had been a montage creator before becoming a director. I could happily have this movie playing in the background just to listen to the music. The score by Don Costa itself is one of the most underrated film scores I’ve heard; it’s so motivating and makes you want to go and kick some ass. Much of my appreciation of Madigan is due to the film’s aesthetics. The film’s plots are good if not entirely exception but men are those some fine aesthetics.

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)

Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cooking?

Man’s Favorite Sport? would have to be my favourite neo-screwball comedy (does such a term already exist or can I claim to have invented it?), and perhaps the last screwball directed by one of the original masters of the genre, Howard Hawks.

The factor which by far most surprised me in Man’s Favorite Sport? was Rock Hudson. My previous encounters with the actor left me unimpressed, leaving me classify him as one of classic Hollywood’s duller leading men. However the fact that I not only enjoyed his performance in this film but found him hysterically funny was such a shock that I was demanding answers. Did Hudson acting abilities improve by 1964? Is he better than comedy than drama or had he just grown on me? It just goes to show that there are very few classic Hollywood stars who can’t impress me in at least some small way or another, even if my previous impression of them where not very good. Paula Prentiss is also entering my books as a one hit wonder actress; I’ve yet to see her in another film in which she is as joyous and energetic as this. Being a semi remake of Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, the two leads could have just done impressions of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn but the avoid doing so and make the roles their own but like Grant and Hepburn, their chemistry truly is electric.

This movie exemplifies in the early to mid 1960’s aesthetic with its fashion, the cars and overall appearance showcasing the final days of old Hollywood glamour. I want to know who the set designer in this film was; the revolving bar alone has to be one of the most unabashedly 60’s sets ever. Even the less “out there” sets such an office, or a fishing shop, have a certain beauty to them. The film’s colorful visuals help give it the appearance of a live action cartoon, partly due to the fact that many of the outdoor scenes take place on obviously fake sets but then again isn’t a live action cartoon one of the definitions of screwball comedy. I also don’t normally go for those cheesy opening credit songs from the 50’s and 60’s often sang by the likes of Doris Day but this one if dam catchy.

Unlike the manic intensity of its sister film Bringing Up Baby, Man’s Favorite Sport? is surprising a very relaxing film to watch, aided by lake side resort setting and Henry Mancini’s music score, which is so mellow. I just love the juvenile innocence of the gags present in this film, such as a bear riding on a motorcycle to many variations of William Powell’s fishing scene from Libeled Lady. The common screwball comedy theme of crises of masculinity permeates the film. Hudson’s Rodger Willoughby (a name which feels straight from a 1930’s comedy) is an icon of masculinity from writing books about fishing, yet he is secretly a phony who has never fished in his life and completely fails at his attempts at his attempts at outdoor living while being made the foil of two hyperactive women. Man’s Favorite Sport? shows by the 60’s it was still possible to make these kinds of movies with the same velocity they had back in the 30’s.

Gambit (1966)

Expectation/Reality

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Like the other notable twist laden Michael Caine movie Sleuth I can’t say much about Gambit without spoiling it. During the first 25 minutes I was doubting if I was even going to enjoy the film. The characters appeared to be forgettable and two dimensional. Michael Caine outwits everyone but in an uninteresting manner while Shirley MacLaine never speaks nor shows any emotion or vulnerability with Herbert Lom plays an unimaginative caricature of a reclusive, eccentric millionaire. Like Sleuth on first viewing I thought that film was making a mistake during a certain section; with Gambit I felt the same way about the first section of the movie.

However when it is revealed these first 25 minutes are just the idealised scenario for a heist played out in Michael Caine’s head I had the biggest smile on my face and the reaction of “You clever bastards!”. All of a sudden this seemingly boring film became fascinating with the scenario I had just seen played out now occurring again with a welcome sense of realism and with interesting, flawed characters, with much of the humour stemming from the differences between fact and fiction. It reminded of that popular internet meme ‘expectation/reality’ and came off to me like a satire of sorts on unimaginative writing and characters. Watching the film a second time I can now spot the moment of foreshadowing such as Michael Caine saying to his accomplice “Now pay close attention”. Of course it wouldn’t be a heist movie without suspense and does the third act deliver, full of nail biting moments and clever solutions.

Released in 1966 just prior to the rise of the New Hollywood movement, Gambit sees the final days of that distinctive old Hollywood glamour. Gambit is a very exotic movie at that with Shirley MacLaine being presented in the image of a goddess throughout and even her more common looking attire during the heist at the end is exceedingly stylish. Plus who can look more dapper as a cat burglar than Michael Caine? The back and forth between Caine and MacLaine is pure heaven. There are few other actresses with as playful an on screen persona as Shirley MacLaine while Caine gets annoyed by her giddy, child like attitude. I don’t care how many films I see which contain the “the hate each other but secretly love each other” dynamic, as long as it’s between a screen pairing with superb chemistry then I’ll never tire of seeing it.

The Swimmer (1968)

This Is My Wagon, Man!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***
It takes a lot for a movie to make feel legitimately depressed and to the point that I would have difficulty bringing myself to watch it again. I can say The Swimmer is one of two movies I’ve to date which have managed to have this impact with me, the other being Watership Down.

The Swimmer is what I like to call a jigsaw puzzle movie. It leaves the viewer confused at various characters’ actions and the unexpected dramatic shifts in emotion but at the very end Lancaster’s swimming pool equivalent of a pub crawl starts to make sense. This gives The Swimmer much re-watch value as it is such a deep film, both as a character study and a commentary on the falseness of the American Dream, coming at the end of a decade which saw such values become disenfranchised. However, I would have difficulty bringing myself to watch again because it’s just so tragic beyond words. I’ve seen few other movies with an ending as pessimistic, unforgiving and unbearable as that of The Swimmer. No character redemption, just bang in your face, life sucks, deal with it. View before your eyes in horror at a human being who degrades to such a pathetic level and his lame attempts to defend himself against the scourge of others. When the movie however is not a tragic punch to the face, the characters act in such a bizarrely cheery manner and I found myself enjoying the essence of just being there among them in their idyllic yet somewhat unsettling surroundings.

I’ve yet to see Burt Lancaster deliver a performance that hasn’t impressed me and The Swimmer is no exception. One scene for example involves him becoming emotional over a hot dog wagon (yes, a hot dog wagon). With an actor of lesser talent, this scene would likely be laughable but Lancaster pulls it off effortlessly. Not to mention he remains shirtless throughout the entire movie, yet still retains his dignity as an actor. Lancaster’s character of Ned Merrill is character filled with so much regret by past experiences that he blindly acts as if nothing has happened, the movie’s portrayal of this is about as extreme and disturbing as it gets. The scene in which he gives a child a piece of bad life advice that “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you”, is a perfect piece of foreshadowing the movie’s conclusion. When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?