Monday, April 30, 2012

#623. King Solomon's Mines (1950)

Directed By: Compton Bennett, Andrew Marton

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger, Richard Carlson

Trivia:  This film has no musical score whatsoever, save the drums of several native African tribes

As I mentioned in my write-up of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was the film that inspired my love of movies, stirring my impressionable imagination like no motion picture had done before. As I sat watching King Solomon’s Mines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many youngsters in 1950 shared a similar experience with this film. Like Raiders, King Solomon’s Mines is the kind of movie kids with a penchant for adventure will easily enjoy.

Famous explorer Alan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) is hired by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) to track down her husband, an adventurer who, months earlier, undertook an expedition to locate the fabled King Solomon’s Mines and hasn’t been heard from since. Rumored to contain treasure beyond your wildest dreams, King Solomon’s Mines supposedly lies in the deepest jungles of Africa, which Quatermain and Elizabeth must now brave if they're to complete this rescue operation. Along the way, the small party encounters many obstacles, including angry tribesmen and a variety of vicious animals. As if these perils weren't bad enough, Quatermain also finds himself falling in love with Elizabeth, leaving him to wrestle with the fact that, if their mission is a success, he will lose her forever.

King Solomon’s Mines was undoubtedly geared towards kids, offering enough adventure to keep their eyes glued to the screen for the duration. First off, the film features an assortment of wild animals. As the story opens, Quatermain is acting as guide to two big-game hunters, who've traveled to Africa for the express purpose of shooting an elephant (a scene that reveals, in no uncertain terms, how man is often the less noble beast). King Solomon’s Mines has it all, from crocodiles to monkeys, and everything in between. It is also beautifully shot, making ample use of the lush African landscape that serves as its backdrop. Filmed on location in Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo, King Solomon’s Mines works as a sort of travelogue, giving us the Dark Continent at its most majestic. Then, of course, the movie boasts plenty of adventure, with Quatermain and his party facing new dangers at every turn. 

With action, beauty and drama filling the screen from start to finish, King Solomon’s Mines is Tarzan, National Geographic, and The Travel Channel all rolled into one.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

#622. Jaws (1975)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

Tag line: "You yell shark, and we got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July"

Trivia:  Charlton Heston was so annoyed with being rejected for the role of Brody that he later made disparaging comments about Steven Spielberg and vowed never to work with him

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 horror/thriller Jaws has gone down in history as the cinema's very first summer blockbuster. Released in June of that year, this now-classic flick about a man-eating shark took in over $100 million at the box office in just under 2 months, a feat unheard of at the time. 

What's even more impressive is that - several decades and hundreds of summer blockbusters later - Jaws would still make most people's Top-5 list of the finest summer movies ever produced. 

In fact, for many of us, it will always be number one.

When the remains of a young girl (Susan Backlinie), the victim of a shark attack, wash up on the shoreline of Amity Island, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) takes it upon himself to close the beaches until further notice. 

Neither the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) nor the town council are happy with his decision, arguing that such an action, on the eve of the July 4th weekend, will cost their community thousands in revenue. 

Against Brody’s better judgment, and ignoring the advice of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an ichthyologist sent in to investigate the attack, the town re-opens the beaches, resulting in even more bloodshed once the shark returns. 

To destroy the creature (and salvage the rest of their summer season), Amity hires rugged fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt the beast. With Brody and Hooper in tow, Quint sets out to destroy what has already become a man-eating monster.

The shark in Jaws is as mysterious as it is terrifying, and generates tension by the mere fact that we have no idea when or where it will strike next. For the majority of the film, we barely see the creature; it's presence is noted by way of underwater shots (seen from the shark's point of view) punctuated by John Williams' brilliant score. Even the attacks are kept at a minimum early on, making them all the more horrifying when they occur. It isn't until the last 1/3 of the movie that Spielberg finally rolls out his monster, cluing us in on just how fearsome a beast it truly is.

Of course, none of the on-screen carnage would amount to much if we didn't care about the good citizens of Amity Island, and like many of Spielberg's best works, Jaws forges a bond between audience and characters that remains strong throughout. 

In the case of Robert Shaw's Quint, however, such a connection wasn't as easy to come by. Like Brody and Hooper, we approach Quint with a degree of caution; his mannerisms are often abrasive, and his motivations somewhat suspect. Then, in what is perhaps the film's most poignant sequence, we're given all we need to know about the man. 

Following a tense day of shark hunting, Brody, Hooper and Quint are unwinding in the cabin of Quint’s boat, sharing a few drinks. Quint, slightly drunk, relates a story from his days in the U.S. Navy. It was June of 1945, and the ship Quint was serving on, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, was struck by a Japanese torpedo, sinking to the bottom of the sea in under 12 minutes. Quint was one of around 900 men left floating in the shark-infested waters, watching as the swarming creatures dragged his shipmates into the abyss, one by one. He and the others waited five days to be rescued, and by the time a ship finally arrived, more than 2/3's of their number had been devoured. 

Shaw's delivery of this story is masterful, and all at once we know what it is that drives his character. Brody wants to kill the beast, Hooper's out to study it, whereas Quint is chasing the demons of his past.

Since 1975, Hollywood has released a plethora of big-budget, special-effects-laden movies during the summer months, each hoping to be crowned that year's box-office champ. Most of these films feature gobs of special effects and loud, booming soundtracks. Someday, we may even get one that approaches the same level of perfection as Spielberg's Jaws, providing a movie-going experience which will resonate with audiences for many years to come.

Perhaps someday…

Saturday, April 28, 2012

#621. The Princess Bride (1987)

Directed By: Rob Reiner

Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright

Tag line: "Heroes, giants, villains, wizards, true love"

Trivia:  Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin performed all of their own sword-fighting after many hours of training

A grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down to read his sickly grandson (Fred Savage) a bedtime story titled The Princess Bride, an epic tale of high adventure and love everlasting. 

Beautiful young maiden Buttercup (Robin Wright) falls in love with her servant, Westley (Cary Elwes). But instead of living happily ever after, Westley sets out to seek his fortune, only to be captured and killed by a bloodthirsty pirate. 

Though devastated by the loss of her true love, Buttercup eventually agrees to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon).  Yet before the wedding takes place, Buttercup is kidnapped, then saved by a mysterious stranger in a mask (also played by Elwes), who bears a striking resemblance to the deceased Westley!

With the help of swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and a gentle giant named Fezzik (Andre the Giant), this stranger hopes to prevent Buttercup from marrying the deceitful Prince, thus giving this tale the "happily ever after" it so richly deserves.

The Princess Bride is both funny and exciting, but above all, it's a great romance.  Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are a winning pair; sure, they look great together, but the two also convey a tenderness for one another that is downright essential to the movie's central theme. Right from the get-go, when Westley is working as Buttercup’s farmhand, you feel the warmth and affection flowing between them, and I bought their relationship hook, line and sinker. 

The action is thrilling, especially the swordfight between the Stranger and Inigo Montoya, a sequence so wonderfully choreographed it would be right at home in any Errol Flynn spectacle. And the humor is spot-on. Wallace Shawn , who plays the criminal mastermind Vizzini, is hilariously full of himself. The musical score, composed by Mark Knopfler, is also outstanding. Yet, bottom line, The Princess Bride is a masterpiece of romance, and that is why it's such an uplifting motion picture.

The Princess Bride continues to impress audiences to this day, and is one of those films that the entire family can enjoy. I’m sure it will prove as timeless as the fairy tales that inspired its creation, and will pass from generation to generation, guiding both children and parents to a place where, once upon a time, love could conquer all.

Friday, April 27, 2012

#620. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

Directed By: Jay Roach

Starring: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York

Tag line: "Frozen in the 60's... thawing spring '97, baby!"

Trivia:  The marching band in the opening sequence is the band from Riverside Community College in California

Austin Powers (Mike Myers), a British super spy with a hyperactive libido, became a sensation when he debuted in 1997's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Yet despite the character's popularity, it was his nemesis, Dr. Evil (also played by Myers), who got all the best lines.

A fashion photographer in 1960s London, Austin is also the grooviest agent in her Majesty’s Secret Service. When arch-enemy Dr. Evil cryogenically freezes himself, Austin decides to do likewise, leaving instructions that he's to be defrosted whenever Dr. Evil returns. 

Thirty years pass before Dr. Evil once again takes the helm of his criminal organization. So Austin is thawed out as well, and with the help of Special Agent Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), he's back on the job in no time. 

A '90s woman, Vanessa finds Austin’s sixties mentality more than a little off-putting. In fact, due to all the changes that have taken place over the last thirty years, Austin has become a relic of the past. But as Austin struggles to find his place in the modern world, Dr. Evil is busy swiping a nuclear warhead, which he threatens to detonate unless the United Nations pays him "$100 billion dollars". 

Can Austin regain his “mojo” in time to save humanity?

Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery features a number of hilarious scenes, many of which are a direct result of its title character leaving the free-love '60s behind for the more reserved '90s. At one point, Austin watches a video (provided by Vanessa) showing him everything he’s missed over the last three decades, including the lunar landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall. What single newsworthy event had the biggest impact on him? “I can’t believe Liberace was gay”, he says to Vanessa, “I never saw that coming”. 

Yet as I alluded to above, the film’s funniest moments don't come courtesy of Austin Powers. They belong to Dr. Evil, the effeminate criminal mastermind out to conquer the world. Dr. Evil also has a hard time adjusting to modern society, especially the revelation that he has a teenage son named Scott (Seth Green). Conceived by way of a sperm sample left behind before his deep freeze, Scott and his father don’t really hit it off. At one point they attempt to strengthen their relationship by attending a support group for fathers and sons, during which Scott reveals that he dreams of one day opening a petting zoo. Dr. Evil, whose only wish is to have a son that will carry on the family "business", asks, “Will it be an evil petting zoo?” The question sends Scott off the deep end.

Austin Powers International Man of Mystery was a big hit upon its release in 1997, and was followed by two equally successful sequels. Yet as funny as these two movies (The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999 and Goldmember in 2002) were, it was International Man of Mystery, with it's bawdy, over-the-top sexual innuendo, hilarious sight gags, and rapid-fire pacing, that set the tone for the entire series.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

#619. Desperado (1995)

Directed By: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida

Tag line: "He came back to settle the score with someone. Anyone. EVERYONE"

Trivia:  Steve Buscemi's character's name is "Buscemi" because the part was written with him in mind

A follow-up to director Robert Rodriguez's independent hit, El Mariachi, Desperado continues the exploits of Mexico’s most notorious mariachi player (Antonio Bandaras), who is seeking revenge for the murder of his girlfriend. The man responsible for her killing, a drug kingpin named Bucho (Joaquim DeAlmeida), is very powerful, and controls an entire border town. With an impressive arsenal, and a bad-ass attitude to go with it, El Mariachi makes his presence known in this town, never hiding the fact he intends to put Bucho out of business once and for all. With the aid of a local bookstore owner (Salma Hayek), and his trusty sidekick (Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi is convinced his thirst for vengeance will finally be quenched.

Rodriguez flexes his cinematic muscles throughout Desperado, and gets the action off to a quick start with the help of an exciting pre-title sequence. In it, El Mariachi’s sidekick walks into a Mexican bar full of unsavory characters, and asks the bartender (Cheech Marin) for a beer. He then proceeds to tell the bartender, and anyone else who'll listen, about what happened in the last bar he visited, when “the biggest Mexican” he'd ever seen walked in and caused a ruckus simply by mentioning the name “Bucho”. Shown in flashback, we watch as this “big” Mexican, who's actually El Mariachi, shoots it out with every single person in that bar. It’s obvious Buscemi’s character was spinning a tall tale (or at least embellishing what really went down) in order to get a rise out of the patrons (who, it just so happens, were also Bucho’s henchmen). Keeping in tune with this elaboration, Rodriguez constructs the flashback as if it were a dream, complete with well-placed shadows and gobs of cartoon violence. From there on out, Desperado treats us to action, laughs, a cameo appearance by Quentin Tarantino (playing a pick-up man with a warped sense of humor), and some expertly choreographed shootouts that are as “high-octane” as they come.

Holding it all together is Antonio Bandaras, who brings out El Mariachi’s charm, while mixing in equal doses of strength and charisma. His tough-as-nails approach, combined with the actor's amazing physical skills, make him the perfect fit for the role, and the reason we buy all the anarchy exploding onscreen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#618. Identity (2003)

Directed By: James Mangold

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet

Tag line: "Identity is a secret. Identity is a mystery. Identity is a killer"

Trivia:  The book seen in Ed's car as he picks up Paris is "Being and Nothingness" by Jean-Paul Sartre

Eleven people are stranded in a remote Nevada motel during a torrential rainstorm. Included among them are Ed (John Cusack), a former L.A. cop turned chauffeur who now works for a fading television star (Rebecca De Mornay), and Paris (Amanda Peet), a prostitute looking to make a fresh start. A policeman named Rhodes (Ray Liotta), who's transporting a dangerous prisoner (Jake Busey), turns up as well, as does the York family; George (John McGinley), Alice (Leila Kenzle) and Timmy (Bret Loehr), who were about to begin their family vacation when tragedy sent them scrambling to the motel. Ginny (Clea Duvall) and Lou (William Lee Scott) are newlyweds who don't seem to like each other very much, and the hotel manager, Larry (John Hawkes), is hiding a dark secret. Soon after this motley crew has been assembled, people begin to die, each murdered in a grisly fashion.

Then there's the seemingly separate story of a condemned killer named Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince). The day before he's to be executed, Rivers' attorneys learn that a key piece of evidence had been withheld from them during the trial, prompting the judge (Holmes Osborne) to call a midnight hearing in his chambers. Supported by the testimony of a psychiatrist named Malick (Alfred Molina), the defense hopes to have the death sentence overturned on the grounds that Rivers is mentally disturbed. They believe their client has no memory of the crimes he's committed, and if they can prove it to the judge's satisfaction, a stay of execution will be issued.

Exactly how do these two stories connect? You'll have to find out for yourself. I may have said too much already.

I've seen Identity twice now, and a funny thing happened when I watched it the second time. On my initial viewing, I was so wrapped up in the film's mystery, the twists and turns driving its story, that I didn't much notice anything else. Now, logic would dictate a follow-up viewing would be a major let-down, simply because all its secrets will have been revealed. Strangely enough, the opposite is true. Concentrating on the subtle clues director James Mangold scattered throughout the movie, I suddenly realized Identity was just as much an in-depth psychological study into the mind of a serial killer as it was an edgy thriller. I recommend watching Identity, then watching it again. I'm sure you'll find, as I did, that two entirely distinct, but equally engaging personalities will emerge from this one film.

Now, when watching it a second time, pay close attention to the very beginning, where...

OK, I'll shut up.

Just watch it.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

#617. Matchstick Men (2003)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell

Tag line: "lie cheat steal rinse repeat"

Trivia:  Alison Lohman went to the audition dressed and acted like a 14-year-old girl. Ridley Scott only realized her real age when she told him. She was 22 at the time

What is it about con men that audiences find so exciting? For me, it comes down to charisma; most cinematic con artists have it to spare, not to mention intelligence, cockiness, and the ability to think fast on their feet.

And then there’s Roy Waller.

Played by Nicolas Cage, he's the lead character in Matchstick Men, director Ridley Scott’s remarkable entry in the grifter subgenre. Along with his partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy has made a boatload of cash bilking middle-class couples out of their nest eggs. Yet, in spite of his success, he isn’t happy in his work. In fact, his career choice has turned him into a neurotic wreck. 

Roy suffers from facial ticks and a variety of nervous disorders, for which his psychiatrist has prescribed medication. What's more, he's obsessive compulsive, freaking out when people walk on his carpet with their shoes on, or use his telephone without washing their hands. Obviously, being a swindler doesn’t agree with Roy, but he’s making a lot of money. A lot of money! So how can he give it up?

And then life throws him a curve. 

With the help of his new psychiatrist Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), Roy discovers he has a teenage daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman), the product of his failed marriage years earlier. Before he has time to process this shocking bit of news, Angela has moved in with him, and what's more, she doesn’t adhere to his many house rules. 

Yet, despite some initial friction, Angela's presence has an unexpected effect on Roy: she makes him happy. With a new lease on life, Roy tells Frank he wants out of the con game, promising to assist in one last score before hanging it up for good. Together, and with Angela’s help, Roy and Frank dupe wealthy businessman Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) out of big bucks. But when this last job goes bad, Roy, Frank, and Angela are forced into a game of cat and mouse that none of them expected.

Nicolas Cage delivers a solid performance as Roy, accomplishing something no movie grifter before him had even attempted. With Roy, Cage has taken the usually fast-paced, exhilarating life of a con man and made it seem mundane. What’s unique about this character is he's a thief who hates stealing. While most swindlers have a certain love for - or at the very least an acceptance of - what they do, Roy is buckling under the pressure of self-loathing. Forget the fact he's a brilliant thief (the all-time best, if Frank's to be believed). For Roy, being a chiseler makes him no better than the majority of today’s workforce. He hates his job, and has no idea how to go about changing it.

As we see in Matchstick Men, running a scam can be hard work. But shutting off your conscience while doing it? For Roy Waller, that was impossible.

Monday, April 23, 2012

#616. Badlands (1973)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

Tag line: "He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people"

Trivia: Don Johnson auditioned for the part of Kit

Through the unlikely combination of poetry and random violence, Terence Malick’s Badlands weaves a singular tale of two young lovers who, as one of the film's tag lines states, set out to kill a little time, and end up killing innocent people instead. 

Based on the 1958 Starkweather murders and set against the backdrop of the American Midwest, Badlands introduces us to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a 25-year-old drifter who bears a striking resemblance to James Dean. One day, Kit meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), a baton-twirling teenager, with whom he falls instantly in love. When Holly’s widowed father (Warren Oates) objects to the relationship, Kit shoots him dead, then sets the house on fire. 

At first horrified by Kit’s actions, Holly nonetheless agrees to go with him, and the two set off on a cross-country killing spree, leaving a string of corpses in their wake. 

At the outset of Badlands, Kit and Holly appear to be kindred spirits. He is a loner who had trouble holding onto a job, while she isn’t very popular in school. “Our time together was limited”, Holly says in her dual role as the film's narrator, “and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world”. 

Yet what these initial days of their affair also made painfully clear was that Kit and Holly had little in common. They played cards and took walks, but hardly spoke a word to each other while doing so, and even their first sexual encounter was less than fulfilling. It isn’t until Kit guns down Holly’s father that their relationship finally comes alive. Excitement and danger became their constant companions the moment Kit pulled that trigger, and all at once, their life together seemed a lot more promising. 

I can’t say I was immediately impressed the first time I saw Badlands, and the reason why was the narration. To me, it felt out of place, colliding rather abruptly - even clumsily - with the story at hand. At one point, as she and Kit are hiding out in in the woods, Holly fills her days by waxing poetic about the surrounding wilderness. “I grew to love the forest, “ she says, “the cooin’ of the doves and the hum of dragonflies in the air made it always lonesome, like everybody’s dead and gone”. Certainly not the reflections you'd expect to hear from a girl on the run, let alone one in the company of a murderer. 

These asides of Holly's felt too detached to me, yet the more I saw the movie (as well as Malick's equally impressive Days of Heaven, which features similar narration), the more I appreciated this detachment, which, in reality, gives Badlands it’s center; creating a world where violence and beauty exist in perfect unison. Through bloodshed, Kit was leaving his mark on the world, while Holly, by way of her observations, created the utopia in which they both would live, if not physically, then spiritually. 

Kit and Holly spent most of their lives as outsiders, looking for a place to call home. In the end, they found that place in each other.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

#615. Year of the Dragon (1985)

Directed By: Michael Cimino

Starring: Mickey Rourke, John Lone, Ariane, Raymond J. Barry

Tag line: "It isn't the Bronx or Brooklyn.  It isn't even New York.  It's Chinatown...and it's about to explode"

Trivia:  The exterior shots of New York City were actually sets built in North Carolina

There’s a new Marshal in town”. These words are spoken by New York City Detective Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) after he’s assigned the gargantuan task of cleaning up Chinatown, which, in recent months, has been plagued by gang violence. Like Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s renegade cop from the Dirty Harry series, White occasionally operates outside the law to ensure justice is carried out. But as we learn early on in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, Stanley isn’t exactly a hero. In fact, sometimes he’s a downright bastard.

White’s investigation centers on the activities of Joey Tai (John Lone), an ambitious young gangster who’s recently taken control of his family’s vast criminal empire. With the help of reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane), the ever-persistent White disrupts Tai’s entire operation, initiating a battle of wills between the two men that, before it’s over, will cost a number of people their lives. 

Mickey Rourke was one of my favorite actors back in the ‘80s, and in Year of the Dragon he effectively snarls his way through the role of Stanley White. There are moments when we’re definitely on his side (like when the Mayor, refusing to risk the thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he gets from Joey Tai, tries to reign in the investigation). Ultimately, though, Stanley White is a hard character to like. Aside from his shocking disregard for procedure (at one point arresting hundreds of Chinese just to send Joey Tai a message), he also allows personal feelings to interfere with his job. A Vietnam war vet, Stanley often lets his distaste for all things Chinese get the better of him, and isn’t above tossing out the occasional racist remark. He ignores his long-suffering wife, Connie (Caroline Kava), and instead woos Tracy Tzu, even going so far as to force himself on her when she refuses to have sex with him. So outlandish is his behavior at times that we wonder why he wasn’t thrown off the force long ago. On the other side of the fight is Joey Tai, smoothly portrayed by John Lone. At the outset, it appears Tai’s primary interest is business. Following an attack on a restaurant owned by his uncle, Harry Jung (Victor Wong), Tai calls for retaliation, mostly because there’s very little money coming in, and they can’t afford to risk future revenue by losing face. But underneath his white suit and business savvy, Joey Tai is every bit the cold-blooded criminal, one who isn't afraid to take an active role in the killings from time to time. 

There are action scenes in Year of the Dragon that will blow your mind (the attack by two masked gunmen on Harry Jung’s restaurant is one of the film’s strongest scenes), and Cimino never shies away from the violence, which he shows in all its crimson-stained glory. But Year of the Dragon is also uneven; the love affair between Stanley and Tracy Tzu isn’t given enough time to explain itself (we have no idea what she sees in him), and there’s an extended sequence with Joey Tai in Thailand that's entirely unnecessary. These elements, combined with a lead character who’ll rub a good many people the wrong way, result in a very hit and miss film.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

#614. Tokyo Story (1953)

Directed By: Yasujirô Ozu

Starring: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama. Sô Yamamura

Trivia:  Voted #7 in Total Film's 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time list

In his classic 1953 film Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu takes aim at the family unit, focusing his camera on the conflict that occasionally arises between parents and their children. 

Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), an elderly couple living in a small Japanese community, travel to the overcrowded streets of Tokyo to visit two of their children. Their son, Koichi (So Yamamura), is a doctor, while married daughter Shige (Haruka Sugimura) owns and operates a beauty salon. Also in Tokyo is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the couple’s daughter-in-law, widowed when their son (and her husband) was killed in the war. 

Expecting to find them enjoying the high life, the couple quickly learns their offspring aren't as successful as they had hoped. The situation becomes even more complex when Koichi and Shige, who outwardly claim they are happy to have their parents with them, complain amongst themselves that the whole visit is nothing more than an unwelcome distraction from their daily routine. 

Tokyo Story delves into some serious issues, like the expectations of parents and the callous manner in which adult children sometimes treat their aging mother and father. Yet Ozu approaches it all with his patented straightforward, almost simplistic style. Never once do these characters resort to emotional outbursts; even at their angriest, they don't shout at one another, or raise their voices. What makes this simple little movie about generational differences so appealing is the fact that it is just that: a simple film, filled with subtle, yet poignantly moving moments, never once falling back on the overtly dramatic to drive its point across. There’s not a shred of artificiality in Tokyo Story. Every scene rings absolutely true. 

Tokyo Story ends with a tragedy, one that is all the more compelling when viewed within the context of what preceded it. And yet, in the midst of such heartbreak and drama, the movie is just as restrained in its finale as it was in its very first scene. From start to finish, Tokyo Story is an honest film.

Friday, April 20, 2012

#613. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Directed By: Erle C. Kenton

Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr., Ralph Bellamy

Tag line: "You've waited years for these NEW Terrifying adventures, more Thrilling than ever before!"

Trivia:  Lon Chaney Jr. was cast while he was still filming The Wolf Man

After three solid entries in a row, the Universal Frankenstein series hits a snag with 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, the first to feature a Monster not played by Boris Karloff.

The villagers, tired of the so-called “Frankenstein Curse”, take matters into their own hands and blow up Castle Frankenstein, thus ridding themselves of it once and for all. But the dynamite does more than destroy a dusty old building, and when the smoke finally clears, the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) is again among the living. Delighted to see his old friend up and about, Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who somehow survived the bullets fired into his torso in Son of Frankenstein, leads the Monster to the village of Vasaria, where Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), works as a psychiatrist. Threatening to reveal his family's dark secret, Ygor blackmails Ludwig into repairing the damaged creature. Convinced he can cure the Monster, and thus restore his family's good name (sound familiar?), Ludwig will replace the beast's criminal brain with a normal one. What he doesn't know is Ygor , with the help of Frankenstein's colleague, Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), plans to give the creature a different brain altogether...namely his own!

What Karloff meant to the role of the Monster is evident in Lon Chaney’s stoic interpretation of the creature, playing him more as a mindless brute than a being aware of his own situation. Upon his arrival in Vasaria, the Monster spots a young girl (Janet Ann Gallow) being taunted by some older boys, who kick the ball she’s playing with onto a nearby rooftop. Lumbering over to assist her, the Monster picks up the girl and carries her to the roof to retrieve the toy, all as nervous townsfolk, including the girl’s father (Olaf Hytten), look on below. Yet there’s no feeling, no sympathy in his eyes for the little girl's plight, leaving us puzzled as to why he’s even helping her in the first place (other than the flimsy notion he remembers a similar child from his past). Even after he's apprehended by the police and dragged to their station, where he’s immediately chained to a chair, the Monster doesn’t struggle to free himself, as he’s done so often in the past. Instead, he sits motionless, looking on quietly as curious onlookers surround him, staring at the oddity that’s just invaded their village. Chaney’s performance is a regrettable miscalculation, and does nothing but stir up a longing for Karloff’s emotionally charged portrayals.

By no means is The Ghost of Frankenstein a bad movie; its production value is still substantial (Ludwig Frankenstein’s laboratory boasts as many cool gadgets as his father’s and brother’s), and the story, which featured more action than the previous three films, managed to hold my attention. The cardinal sin committed by The Ghost of Frankenstein isn’t that it’s terrible; just mediocre. And with a trio of classic movies preceding it, that’s enough to make its shortcomings really stand out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

#612. Critters (1986)

Directed By: Stephen Herek

Starring: Dee Wallace, M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush

Tag line: "They eat so fast, you don't have time to scream"

Trivia:  This film was New Line's answer to 1984's Gremlins

Released two years after Joe Dante's runaway hit, Gremlins, Critters was an obvious attempt to cash in on the former's success. But that doesn't make it any less entertaining.

A species of petite, furry carnivores known as the Crites have escaped from an asteroid penal colony, and are on their way to earth in a stolen spaceship. Hot on their trail are two shape-shifting bounty hunters, with instructions to either return the Crites to prison or bring back evidence they've all been destroyed. Both arrive at their destination in the middle of the night, coming in for a landing just outside Grover's Bend, Kansas, and before the evening's out, this small farming community will be transformed into an intergalactic battleground.

All of Critter's earth-bound characters are laid out, nice and neat, at the beginning of the film. We have the Brown family: father Jay (Billy Green Bush), mother Helen (Dee Walace), daughter April (Nadine Van der Velde) and son Brad (Scott Grimes), whose farm serves as Ground Zero in the fight between the Crites and the bounty hunters. Then there's your typical small-town sheriff (M. Emmet Walsh) and his dim-witted deputy, Jeff (Ethan Phillips), and even a town drunk named Charlie (Don Keith Opper), who goes around telling everyone his teeth can pick up alien transmissions. The only one worth a damn is young Brad Brown, the lone human not injured, confused or scared when the chaos erupts, and it's he who figures out the Crites get bigger after they eat, making them all the more dangerous.

But the characters we're most interested in are the Crites themselves, the so-called "critters" of the title, and within the movie's first half-hour, they land on earth and set off in search of food (we know this because subtitles fill us in on what their back-and-forth snarls mean). The first victim is one of Farmer Brown's cattle, but next on the menu is Deputy Jeff, who swerves his police car when a furry creature rolls across the road in front of him. Thinking it's a dog, he pulls over to investigate, and is soon surrounded by Crites, which fire a poisonous quill into his leg, then drag him under his car. We don't see much of Deputy Jeff's death, yet do get a full glimpse of the Crites when they attack Jay Brown in his basement (despite being small and fluffy, their razor-sharp teeth make them anything but cute). As in Gremlins, some of the Crites on-screen antics are played for laughs (like when one swallows a lit M-80 firecracker, only to belch up smoke a few moments later), but humor aside, the Crites' nasty disposition, combined with their ravenous appetite, makes for a handful of tense moments.

The alien bounty hunters were a cool addition to the story, and the film's best effect occurs when they tap into a television signal and one of them alters his appearance to look exactly like rock superstar Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann), who he saw in a music video. In a nice twist, the other doesn't assume human identity until arriving on earth, then selects the first person he comes across: the mutilated remains of Deputy Jeff! These two add another dimension to the story, and prove just as much a nuisance as the Crites, shooting up a church gathering and doing damage to the local bowling alley.

Critters is more fun than a Gremlins rip-off has any right being, and was enough of a hit to warrant three sequels (released in 1988, 1991 and 1992). Interestingly enough, Gremlins only had one!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

#611. High Fidelity (2000)

Directed By: Stephen Frears

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso

Tag line: "A comedy about fear of commitment, hating your job, falling in love and other pop favorites"

Trivia:  Artie Lange auditioned for the role of Barry

In the late '80s, I had a pretty sweet audio system in my room; nothing state-of-the-art, but it afforded me the opportunity to mix dozens upon dozens of compilation tapes, which I created from the plethora of albums, cassettes and CDs in my collection. I spent many hours in front of that set-up, all in the hopes of stumbling upon the perfect musical mix. At one point, my turnout had reached well over 150 tapes, and the only thing they had in common was I never listened to a single one. How could I? I was too busy making them. This is the key reason I find Stephen Frear’s High Fidelity so appealing; by relating the tale of a man whose entire life revolves around music, It showed me that, at the very least, I wasn’t alone in my obsession. 

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) owns a struggling record store in downtown Chicago, one that still offers vinyl albums for sale. He passes the time between customers by discussing pop culture, and everything relating to it, with his two employees; the shy and unassuming Dick (Todd Louiso), and the loud and obnoxious Barry (Jack Black). Unfortunately, Rob’s vast knowledge of popular music hasn’t helped him accomplish much in life, and his current girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hiejle), fed up with Rob’s stagnant existence, has just left him for a guy named Ian (Tim Robbins). Faced with the heartbreak of losing Laura, Rob searches for the answer to a question that’s been hounding him for years: why do girls always dump him? 

John Cusack shines as Rob, a likeable but clueless guy who narrates his own story, breaking down the fourth wall and demonstrating how he equates everything in life to music. Right after Laura leaves him, Rob concocts a ‘top five’ list of his all-time most painful breakups, running through his entire romantic history to find the five women who broke his heart. Thinking back on each one, he remembers “important” details like which recording artists were their favorites, yet has no idea why they ultimately rejected him. When at his store, Rob often grows impatient with Dick and Barry, and we sense it's because he realizes they’re just like him. The three spend most of the day coming up with ‘top five’ lists. When Laura’s father dies, Dick and Barry compile a ‘top five songs about death’ list in his honor (my personal favorite was Dick's addition of Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald). Music is their retreat from the real world, and Rob's growing weary of the fantasy. “People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos ”, Rob says, “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss”. 

As we learn in High Fidelity, those poor souls need our help as much as anyone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#610. Minority Report (2002) - Spielberg in the 21st Century

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton

Tag line: "The system is perfect until it comes after you"

Trivia:  This is the first movie Steven Spielberg ever directed for 20th Century Fox

It's the year 2054, and the law enforcement agency known as Precrime stops killers before they get a chance to kill. Aided by three “Precogs” - beings with the ability to see into the future - Precrime has practically eliminated murder in Washington D.C. In fact, the program is so successful that it's about to be implemented nation-wide.

But when the chief of the Precrime squad, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), himself becomes a suspect in a killing that has yet to happen, the entire agency is thrown into chaos.

A well-respected cop haunted by the tragic loss of his son years earlier, Anderton suddenly finds himself on the run from his former unit, which is placed under the temporary command of Agent Danny Witner (Colin Farrell). The clock ticking, Anderton has less than 36 hours to figure out why the Precogs have predicted he is going to murder a man he has never met before.

The futuristic gadgetry on display throughout Minority Report is impressive; the Precrime lab features an interactive video screen that monitors the Precog's visions, and it is cool as hell. But as Minority Report is quick to point out, advanced technology such as this, even when implemented for all the right reasons, can have its drawbacks.

The amount of control needed to maintain the Precrime unit's firm grip on law and order is all-encompassing, and the citizens of Washington D.C. are expected to surrender a few of their rights for the "greater good". Retinal scanners have been installed throughout the city, immediately identifying people as they enter the subway or shop at the mall. Cars travel on an advanced tracking system that allows the police, if necessary, to override a vehicle's navigation system. Then there are the spiders, small electronic devices that, when released into an apartment complex, crawl under locked doors to scan the retinal patterns of every occupant, in case any criminals are hiding out there.

Along with the intrusive technology, Minority Report explores the ethical ramifications of Precrime, a law enforcement unit that apprehends and incarcerates criminals before they've committed a crime. With this film, director Steven Spielberg and company have created an amazingly advanced society, yet also a cold, impersonal one, where privacy is no longer an option. Yes, Washington, D.C. is murder-free...but at what cost?

Spielberg lets his imagination run wild t
hroughout Minority Report, creating a world of awesome gizmos and gadgets that, in the end, are nothing more than the weapons of the bureaucracy controlling them, used to strip the population of its basic human rights. It is to Spielberg's credit that we sit in awe of his vision of the future while, at the same time, being quite relieved we're not living in it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

#609. Humongous (1982)

Directed By: Paul Lynch

Starring: Janet Julian, David Wallace, John Wildman

Tag line: "It's loose... It's angry... And it's getting hungry!"

Trivia:  Writer William Gray got the idea for having Joy Boushel put the blueberries in her blouse from his girlfriend

Humongous gets off to a quick, albeit vicious start. Flashback to the year 1946, where we join an outdoor party being held at a swanky lakeside mansion. Ida (Mary Sullivan), whose father's hosting the shindig, is down by the kennel tending to her dogs when Tom (Page Fletcher), obviously drunk, stumbles towards her. He wants to talk, but Ida will have none of it, and darts into the woods to get away from him. Tom is persistent, and, after catching up with her, pins Ida to a tree. A struggle ensues, and soon they're rolling around on the ground, at which point Tom tears off Ida's clothes and rapes her. Tom gets his comeuppance a few seconds later, however, when the dogs escape from their kennel and jump him. Tom is left badly injured by the attack, but it's Ida, with the help of a large rock, who finally finishes him off. 

We then leap 36 years into the future, where five twenty-somethings: Eric (David Wallace) and his girlfriend, Sandy (Janet Julian), Eric's arrogant brother, Nick (John Wildman), and Nick's grilfriend Donna (Joy Boushel) and Carla (Janit Baldwin), Nick and Eric's younger sister, set off in a boat for a fun-filled weekend cruising the lake. Their first evening out, they meet up with a fisherman named Bert (Lane Coleman), who warns them to stay away from the jagged rocks surrounding “Dog Island”, which got its name because it's supposedly populated by an unknown number of wild canines. The five heed Bert's advice and drop anchor for the night. But when Nick has an argument with Donna, he angrily takes control of the ship and tries to navigate the treacherous waters. Naturally, the boat crashes and explodes, stranding them all on “Dog Island”.  But it isn't long before they realize the island's inhabited by more than just dogs; there's also a seven-foot tall cannibal residing there.  And what's more, he hasn't eaten for days!

The creature in Humongous, a hulking beast who staggers around and lets out the occasional blood-curdling roar, makes for an imposing monster, yet the most disturbing moment in the entire film is undoubtedly the opening rape. Other than a brief shot of her clothes being ripped off, the scene plays out from Ida's point-of-view, focusing on Tom's face as he commits this heinous crime. The dog attack is equally as savage, and when the smoke settles, Tom's leg has been stripped to the bone and there's a large gash in his neck, oozing blood. Unfortunately, this pre-title sequence sets a standard for ferocity the rest of the film never quite lives up to. There are moments when it comes close (like the scene where Nick is chased by one of the island’s dogs, which is itself grabbed by the Humongous and strangled to death), but as a whole, the movie falls well short of its initial brutality. 

That said, Humongous is still a decent enough horror flick, with the odd moment or two of genuine suspense. At the very least, I'd say it's worth a watch.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

#608. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Directed By: Arthur Penn

Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard

Tag line: "They're young... they're in love... and they kill people"

Trivia:  Thousand of berets were sold worldwide after Faye Dunaway wore them in this film

It's a lazy Texas afternoon, and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is in her bedroom, putting on her makeup. Bored and frustrated, she strolls over to the window, peering out just in time to catch Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) in the process of stealing her mother’s car. 

Hey boy”, Bonnie yells down, “what are you doing with my mama’s car?” Clyde turns and looks up at her. Their eyes lock, and he smiles. “Wait there”, Bonnie shouts, unable to contain her excitement, and rushes down the stairs.  

From that moment on, Bonnie and Clyde would be inseparable. 

In an America ravaged by the Depression, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow pulled off a series of daring bank robberies on their way to becoming two of the most notorious outlaws in American history. With the help of Clyde’s boisterous brother Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck’s prissy wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and their steady getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Bonnie and Clyde blazed a trail of crime across the American Southwest, leaving empty banks - and a few dead bodies - in their wake. 

With a depiction of violence that was no less than groundbreaking in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde set the standard for how killings would be shown on screen for decades to come. Never before had blood spilled quite as freely in a Hollywood film, and many were shocked by the movie’s brutality. 

Yet, despite its various shootouts and the thrill of the odd car chase, Bonnie and Clyde is, at its heart, the story of a love forged under the most severe of circumstances. Within hours of meeting each other, Clyde robs a small corner store, and Bonnie, weary of her quiet, humdrum life, is turned on by the excitement of it all. It was an unusual relationship in that sexuality rarely entered into it (Bonnie was willing, but Clyde was impotent). No, what ignited that spark in Bonnie Parker's and Clyde Barrow's tempestuous romance was robbing banks. 

All the chaos, all the bloodshed started the afternoon their eyes met, and it was Bonnie and Clyde’s destiny to go out in a blaze of glory. The final scene of Bonnie and Clyde is among the most celebrated in film history.  Meticulously edited, it ups the ante by taking the film's violence to yet another level. This scene, as well as the movie's many other cinematic innovations, would help usher in the era known as "New Hollywood", when young directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and, yes, Arthur Penn took Tinseltown by storm. 

But along with its cinematic achievements, the finale of Bonnie and Clyde also proved the perfect ending for its very unorthodox title characters.  When fate came knocking amidst a maelstrom of bullets, Bonnie and Clyde answered the door together.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

#607. Unforgiven (1992)

Directed By: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

Trivia:  To maintain the authentic atmosphere, no motor vehicles were allowed on the Big Whiskey set

In 1959's Rio Bravo, there’s a scene where four gunmen get the drop on Sheriff Chance, played by John Wayne. And if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of Ricky Nelson's character, Colorado Ryan, Chance would have surely been dead. Shots ring out, and when the dust settles, all four of the baddies are lying face-down in the dirt. 

It’s a scene you'll find in hundreds of westerns; the good guys shoot the bad guys dead, end of trouble and end of story. 

But what exactly does it take to shoot a man? 

How many do you have to kill before it comes as easy to you as it did Chance and Colorado? 

Are they haunted by the faces of those they’ve killed over the years?

Rio Bravo isn't the type of movie that will ask these questions. 

In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the director spends the better part of two hours trying to answer them. 

Early in life, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) was a violent outlaw, a ruthless killer who would shoot a man because he felt like it. Now, he spends his days as a quiet widower, working his farm and raising his two young children. 

Munny comes out of retirement, however, when he hears that some prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey have posted a $1,000 reward. It seems two cowhands went a little crazy and cut up a whore's face. So, along with his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young gunslinger named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), Munny sets out to do the job and collect the reward. 

But Big Whiskey’s Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), has no intention of allowing any murders to occur in his town, and plans to exact some ‘justice’ of his own if anyone is foolhardy enough to try. 

Violence touches the lives of each and every character in Unforgiven. First and foremost, we have Will Munny, played to perfection by Clint Eastwood. At one time a real hell raiser, Munny never thought twice about drawing his gun in anger. Nowadays, retired and with kids to look after, he has time to reflect on all the men he's killed. “You remember that Drover I shot through the mouth whose teeth came out the back of his head?” Munny asks Ned one night. “He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot…at least nothing I could remember when I sobered up”. 

On the flip side, we have Little Bill, the sheriff of Big Whiskey and a role that won Gene Hackman the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Bill is a law and order man through and through, yet his brand of justice is as cold-blooded as the criminals he hunts down. When the reward money lures English Bob (Richard Harris), a British gunslinger, to town, Little Bill and his deputies stop him in the streets and beat him unmercifully. 

For Bill, the beating served as a warning to anyone who may come to collect this blood money, but he's as much a part of the problem as he is the solution, and his tactics will result in an unexpected showdown. 

Unforgiven even looks at the violence from an outsider's perspective. W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) is English Bob's traveling companion, a writer from the East who has penned a book titled The Duke of Death, in which he romanticized Bob's exploits, casting him as a sort of “Robin Hood” of the West. Beauchamp himself never once held a gun, so when Little Bill’s deputies point theirs directly at him, it’s an eye-opening experience. All at once, the romance that Beauchamp has associated with gunslingers melted away. 

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man”, Will Munny says. “You take all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have”. In Unforgiven, Eastwood shows us, in a deeply dramatic way, just what that means. Not a single shooting in this film goes unnoticed, and no character fires a gun and laughs about it. Each time one of these men pulls the trigger, it’s as if a part of their soul abandons them. 

It really must be a hell of a thing...killing a man.

Friday, April 13, 2012

#606. Rio Bravo (1959)

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson

Tag line: "The fought back to back...No quarter given...No quarter asked...No way in...No way out...of Rio Bravo"

Trivia:  The last movie in which John Wayne wore the hat he had worn since Stagecoach

As I mentioned in my write-up of High Noon, director Howard Hawks was no fan of Fred Zinnemann’s award-winning western. Hawks decried High Noon as “phony”, and wondered why any self-respecting sheriff would scurry around town begging for help. 

Hawks turned High Noon over and over in his head, picking out the bits and pieces that annoyed him the most, and before long came up with a few ideas of how he would have handled the story. 

The result of all his second-guessing was Rio Bravo

John Chance (John Wayne), a Sheriff in Presidio County, Texas, has just arrested Joe Burdette (Claude Aikins) for the murder of an unarmed man, inciting the anger of Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), a wealthy and powerful landowner. To break Joe out of jail, Nathan Burdette hires a gang of outlaws and sends them riding into town fully-armed, thus putting Sheriff Chance in a difficult spot. 

You see, Chance must hold onto the prisoner for six days, at which time a U.S. Marshal will finally arrive to take him away. What's more, he has only two deputies to assist him; the usually-drunk Dude (Dean Martin) and a bad tempered old man they call Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Even with the addition of a young gunslinger named Colorado (Ricky Nelson), Chance knows he and his men have a tough six days ahead of them.

Rio Bravo boasts a number of thrilling gun battles, as well as a toe-tapping musical duet performed by Messrs. Nelson and Martin. But its the characters that make Rio Bravo such a great motion picture. A no-nonsense lawman, John Chance refuses to accept help from anyone unless it’s on his terms. It was a role tailor-made for John Wayne, and he’s terrific in the part. 

Yet as good as Wayne is, Rio Bravo belongs to Dean Martin. At the outset, Martin's Dude is the town drunk, the guy nobody pays attention to except to step over him on their way to the bar. With Chance's help, Dude gets back on his feet and becomes a sober, hard-working sidekick. When he and Chance chase the killer into a bar that's stacked high with Burdette’s men, it's Dude who takes control of the situation, to prove he can handle himself when things get dicey. Thanks to some sharp thinking and a quick draw, he doesn’t disappoint. If building strong western heroes was what Hawks set out to do, then he pulled it off in a big way. 

As for High Noon, I'm on record as being a fan of the film, and consider it a well-crafted morality tale. Now, I have another reason to like that movie: if it hadn’t been for High Noon, we wouldn’t have gotten Rio Bravo.

I’m glad Howard Hawks didn’t see things my way!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

#605. High Noon (1952)

Directed By: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell

Tag line: "When these hands point straight up...the excitement starts!"

Trivia:  In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #27 Greatest Movie of All Time

Of all the ballads that have opened a western, none is more memorable, more fitting than High Noon’s "Do Not Forsake Me O My Darlin". A somber tune, it tells of a man asking his new bride to understand why he cannot run from a fight. It is a theme that resonates throughout High Noon, and this song sets the perfect tone for all that follows.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who for years served as Marshal of a small town, hangs up his guns the day he marries beautiful young Quaker, Amy (Grace Kelly). But shortly after turning in his badge, Kane is informed that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a savage criminal he sent away for murder five years ago, is returning on the noon train. Miller has vowed revenge, and intends to shoot Kane dead.

Everyone in town is telling the former Marshal to get out while he can. But Kane refuses to run, deciding instead to stay and fight. When his hot-headed deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), abruptly quits, Kane tries to put together a posse of townsfolk to help him in the inevitable showdown. Yet no one is willing to assist. Alone and afraid, Kane can only sit and watch as the clock's hands draw ever closer to noon, and his date with a killer.

In a bit of casting brilliance, the part of Will Kane went to veteran actor Gary Cooper, who, at the time, was old enough to play the aging marshal, yet still agile enough to handle the role's physical demands. More than this, Cooper's mannerisms were flawless, exuding at all times an air of dignity, even as his character went around asking others for help. 

There’s never a moment in High Noon that we don’t sympathize with Kane, where we don’t share his feelings of betrayal as, one after another, his supposed friends turn their backs on him. When Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), who stood beside Kane at his wedding only moments earlier, refuses to even meet with him, it was like plunging a knife into Kane’s heart. Abandoned by the community he faithfully served for years, Will Kane starts to wonder if his life’s work had been for nothing.

There were those in Hollywood who reacted negatively to High Noon, including legendary director Howard Hawks. “It’s phony”, Hawks said of the film, questioning the logic of having a hero who walked through town begging like a “wet chicken”. But then, I don’t think High Noon was ever intended to be a typical western. Its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, a former Communist, had been targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and just before the release of High Noon, was forced to flee the country. 

Watching as old friends sold each other out in U.S. Senate chambers, Foreman wanted to shine a light on this "new way of thinking" in America, where personal liberties were being sacrificed for the “greater good”. High Noon was designed to hold a mirror up to Hollywood, and judging from the reactions it drew, a lot of people didn't like what they saw peering back at them.