The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
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Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark”

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Børge Rosenbaum was born into a musical family in Copenhagen in January of 1909.  A child prodigy, Rosenbaum took his first piano lesson at the age of two, gave his first recital at the age of eight, and embarked upon a brilliant concert career at the age of 17.

In 1933, Rosenbaum began injecting humorous interludes into his concerts, producing a blend of comedy and musical excellence which to this day no one (with the possible exception of Danny Kaye) has been able to match.  Rosenbaum carried his wildly popular act across western Europe in the late 1930s, incorporating anti-Nazi jokes into his topical comedy routines.

Through amazing good fortune, Rosenbaum happened to be on tour in Sweden when Nazi Germany invaded his homeland.  Rosenbaum escaped into Finland and fled Europe on the last available westbound ship out of Petsamo, Finland.  He arrived in the United States in August of 1940 carrying only $20. and knowing almost no English.

Soon after reaching the U.S., Rosenbaum was turned down for a job as a gas station attendant because of the poor quality of his English.  Within a few months, though – having learned English by watching movies – he was performing on the radio as “Victor Borge” and adapting his comedy routines for English-speaking audiences.  In 1942, Borge was named the Best New Radio Performer of the Year.  By 1946, he was the star of his own weekly radio show, in which he honed the musical comedy skits that were to delight audiences for the rest of his life.

In the 1950s, Borge enjoyed a smashing stage success in the longest running one-man show in the history of Broadway.  He appeared in films, thrilled audiences as the vamping guest conductor for symphony orchestras, and was completely at home playing for children on Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Muppet Show.

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Victor Borge performed on stage until the week before his death at the age of 91 in December of 2000.  His unique blend of warmth, deadpan humor, impeccable comic timing, and piano virtuosity produced gales of laughter and made him a beloved and respected figure around the world.

Much of Victor Borge’s repertoire is now available on YouTube.  Here are some his most famous vignettes:

William Tell Upside-down

This short skit is a typical Borge blend of music and comedy.  (Rossini would flip!)

 

“The History of the Piano”

I vouchsafe that it is impossible to watch this Borgeian history lesson without bursting into laughter.

 

“The Page Turner”

 

“Hands Off”

 

“Dance of the Comedians”

Here Borge makes life difficult for symphony musicians.

 

“Phonetic Punctuation”

One of Borge’s most famous skits!

 

“Inflationary Language”

Borge “inflates” a text by raising the value of every appearance of a number, whether intentional or accidental.  As Wikipedia describes it:

‘”Once upon a time” becomes “twice upon a time,” “wonderful” becomes “twoderful,” “forehead” becomes “fivehead,” “tennis” becomes “elevennis,” [and] “I ate a tenderloin with my fork and so on and so forth” becomes “‘I nine an elevenderloin with my five’k’ and so on and so fifth.””

I feel very fivetunate to be able to see this on YouThreebe.  (Pun inelevended.)

 

 Quote for Today

“Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” – Victor Borge

Cinematic Chestnuts: My Favorite Films for the Holiday Season

LiW_Tree Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter.

In the United States, this week marks the beginning of a five-week-long revel of holidays that opens with Thanksgiving – a day set aside every year for feasting and a celebration of gratitude – and closes with the New Year.  In between will fall St. Nicholas Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day), each of which can be rich with family traditions and history.

The cornucopia of dramatic material inherent in the winter holidays, coinciding as it has with the demand presented by generations of cold-weather filmgoers, has yielded a wealth of winter holiday films.

I offer for your enjoyment some of my family’s holiday season favorites, all of which I recommend highly.

Thanksgiving Films

There is no shortage of movies that explore emotional minefields vulnerable to exposure at family Thanksgiving dinners.

Here are two lighter offerings set in the days around Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy
Synopsis: A wealthy businessman and a traveling salesman share a series of madcap adventures as each struggles to get home in time for Thanksgiving.
Recommended for: Hilarious pratfalls and excellent timing from two of the 1980s’ best film comedians punctuate an ultimately touching Thanksgiving story.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (language).

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Stars: Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne
Synopsis: A department store Santa Claus claiming to be the real thing teaches a little girl, her divorced mother, and her mother’s young attorney suitor a lesson in faith.
Recommended for: The original film of Miracle on 34th Street is the best.  Edmund Gwenn steals the show as the enigmatic and avuncular Kris Kringle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

Christmas Films

I understand that while some of you who read this blog are Christian, others are non-Christians who celebrate Christmas, and still others do not celebrate Christmas at all.  With that in mind, I rated the religious content of each of the films listed below.

Many of the best Christmas films address the season’s important themes – hope, goodness, and generosity of spirit – without reference to religion.  Yet others are stories for which Christmas is an incidental frame of reference.

Here are several can’t-miss greats!

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: A Christmas court in 1183 erupts into an extravaganza of power struggle and diplomatic wrangling among England’s King Henry II; his wife and sparring partner, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his three ambitious sons; and the young King of France.
Recommended for: One of the best screenplays of all time.  Phenomenal acting.  The finest balance of comedy and tragedy ever committed to film.
Appropriate for: High school-aged children and older.

 

 

Die Hard (1988)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: New York cop John McClane must save the day when a Los Angeles company Christmas Eve party becomes a lethal hostage situation.
Recommended for: Highly entertaining, nonstop action.  A very funny script.  Delightful, just-this-side-of-camp performance by Alan Rickman as the film’s arch-villain.
Appropriate for: This film should be a PG-13, because of some graphic violence, a brief few adult scenes, and rampant blue language.

 

 

Die Hard 2  (1990)

Stars: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Fred Thompson, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, and Dennis Franz
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: John McClane finds himself in a race to save passenger flights held hostage by a group of terrorists that seizes control of Dulles Airport on Christmas Eve.
Recommended for: A rare sequel that lives up to the standard set by the original film.  Another engaging and very clever action plot.  Amusingly tongue-in-cheek (although rather blue) screenplay. Impressive stunts.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (a great deal of violence and strong language).

 

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Stars: Animation.
Religious Content: One character recites the Nativity verses from the Book of Luke (KJV) at a pivotal point in the story.
Synopsis: Perennial loser Charlie Brown searches for the true spirit of Christmas amidst a fog of secular commercialism.
Recommended for: This made-for-television classic never grows old.  It was groundbreaking in 1965 for its use of child voice-actors, its pioneering jazz score, and its direct invocation of a passage of the New Testament.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart
Religious Content: Minimal; some Christmas carols appear in the score.
Synopsis: The Christmas rush wreaks havoc on the personal lives of staff in a Budapest gift shop.  A Christmas spirit of patience, generosity, and forgiveness helps to set everything aright.
Recommended for: This heart-warming gem of a film is infused with gentle pre-War courtesy and innocence.  Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are terrific as star-crossed lovers courting by mail.  Frank Morgan is poignantly gruff as the lonely storeowner.  Felix Bressart plays the warm-hearted, sensible, behind-the-scenes hero whom anyone might want as an uncle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: A single career woman who impersonates a married domestic goddess for a magazine column finds herself in a bind when a war hero asks to spend Christmas in her home.
Recommended for: Very much a period piece, this film showcases the comedic talents of one of the 20th century’s best actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.  The lovable and always smiling S. Z. Sakall saves the day.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester.
Religious Content: A bishop’s crisis of faith is central to the story.
Synopsis: In the days before Christmas, an angel visits a harried Episcopalian bishop in order to restore the bishop’s faith and raise spirits in his congregation.
Recommended for: This is a beautiful movie.  Cary Grant delivers a subtle and poignant performance as an angel who has to give up the woman he loves.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Scrooge “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Stars: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Michael Hordern
Religious Content: Christmas is central to the story, but there are no overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: This outstanding version of Charles Dickens’ classic emphasizes character development and presents a tragically sympathetic Ebenezer Scrooge.
Recommended for: This is one of the two best film versions of A Christmas Carol.  I highly recommend it.
Appropriate for: The ghosts, and especially the ghost of Jacob Marley, might be too scary for young children.

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Michael Gough, Angela Pleasence
Religious Content: No overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: An excellent made-for-TV version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Recommended for: This version of Dickens’ classic is visually sumptuous.  The script and cast are strong.  George C. Scott was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge just as he was born to play General George S. Patton.
Appropriate for: The ghosts might be too scary for young children.

 

 

The Nutcracker (1977)

Stars: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Alexander Minz, the American Ballet Theatre
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: From her mysterious uncle, a young girl receives on Christmas Eve both a Nutcracker doll and a magical dream.
Recommended for: Mikhail Baryshnikov may be the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century.  His TV production of The Nutcracker with the American Ballet Theatre is a gorgeous masterpiece.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

Stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: Two ex-army buddies take their successful musical revue to Vermont in an effort to save their former Commanding Officer’s hotel.
Recommended for: White Christmas showcases its cast’s tremendous singing, dancing, and comedic skills through a series of musical set pieces.  Danny Kaye is, as always, brilliant, warm-hearted, and hilarious.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)

Stars: Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves, Jesse McBrearty.
Religious Content: Minimal, beyond Christmas carols.
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, a Welsh grandfather regales his grandson with stories of his early Christmases.
Recommended for: Deeply engaging, alternately poignant and humorous, this exquisite dramatic realization of Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem is a nostalgic celebration of Welshness and childhood.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Star in the Night (1945)

Stars: J. Carroll Naish, Donald Woods, Rosina Galli
Religious Content: This film is a clear allegory of the Nativity.
Synopsis: A mysterious stranger brings about a series of miraculous events on Christmas Eve at what had been a dismal desert motel.
Recommended for: This short (30-minute) film is a refreshing and touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is available among the Special Features on the DVD release of Christmas in Connecticut.  It is also available on YouTube (linked below).
Appropriate for: School-age children and above.

 

 

 

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Stars: Robert Powell, Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Caludia Cardinale, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Ian McShane, James Farentino, Stacy Keach, Tony Lo Bianco, James Mason, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Rey, Michael York, Cyril Cusack, Ian Bannen, and many more.

This spectacular six-hour TV miniseries is Franco Zeffirelli’s retelling of the life of Jesus, beginning with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph and ending with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Zeffirelli treated the material with great reverence and attention to detail – even thinking to have the village dogs bark at the Holy Ghost – and created an artistic triumph.

The cast is staggeringly good.  The script is spare and economical.  The narrative is well structured.  Details such as costumes and architecture are correct for the period.

Whether one views the miniseries as Biblical history or as a dramatization of a story which has been hugely important in the history of western civilization, Jesus of Nazareth is a compelling and high-quality piece of TV drama.

The Christmas story is presented in the series’ first seventy minutes with moving, rustic simplicity.  The stable is no more than a cave, and the shepherds are realistically ingenuous.

Because Zeffirelli freely depicts the New Testament stories’ violence (including the Slaughter of the Innocents), Jesus of Nazareth is not appropriate for young children.

The entire miniseries is available on YouTube.

 

Quote for Today

“What shall we hang — the holly, or each other?”

Christmas Eve 1183
Chinon Castle
Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lion in Winter

From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself

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He was born Archibald Alexander Leach on 18 January 1904, in the industrial port of Bristol on the west coast of England, to Elias James Leach, a garment worker, and Elsie Maria (Kingdon) Leach.

It is difficult today to know how many other children were born to the Leaches.  What is clear is that Archie was the only child of Elias and Elise to survive infancy.  What is also clear is that the depression Elsie suffered as a result of her losses affected her son for the rest of his life.

When Archie was nine years old, his mother disappeared one day while he was at school.  Elias first told Archie that his mother had gone on a “long holiday” to the seaside.  Some time later, Elias told his son that that Elsie had died.

(Only on his deathbed 22 years later did Elias confess that he had had Elsie committed to a mental institution.)

When Archie was ten, his father remarried.  Details of Archie’s life with his father’s new family are sketchy.  By all accounts, young Archie felt excluded and lonely.

After his expulsion from school at age 14, Archie moved to Brixton in southwest London to join the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, with whom he trained as an acrobat, mime, juggler, and stilt-walker.  The troupe sailed to the United States in 1920 when Archie was 16.  He never returned to Great Britain to stay.

Archie fell in love with the United States during his two-year tour with the Pender Troupe.  When the troupe returned to England in 1922, Archie remained behind, supporting himself with odd jobs as a vaudeville mind-reader, a necktie hawker, and a Coney Island stilt-walker.  He landed his first Broadway role in 1927, after a brief stint on the English musical stage, and never looked back.

In the autumn of 1931, 27-year-old Archie Leach drove his second-hand Packard across the United States in order to sign his first Hollywood contract with Paramount.  When pressed by the studio to rename himself, Archie suggested “Cary Lockwood,” the name of his most recent stage character.  ‘No,’ said the studio boss, ‘There’s another actor named Lockwood.  Pick one of these.’

From the proffered list of surnames, Archie chose, “Grant,” in part because Clark Gable had enjoyed so much success with the initials “CG.”  Thus was born the internationally beloved and unforgettable Hollywood personality we know as “Cary Grant.”

Over the course of 74 films from 1932 through 1966, Cary Grant cultivated an indelible and fabulously successful public persona.  The boy who began life in poverty and unhappiness became famous as an adult for his grace, beauty, wit, and glamour,

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his perfect posture, broad shoulders, and trim physique,

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and his breezy and apparently unshakeable confidence.

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Cary Grant defined the term “debonair.”  He always looked magnificent in his clothes.  People flocked by the millions to see his films.  Women swooned over him; men envied him.  Ian Fleming is said to have modeled his .007 agent James Bond after him.  As Grant himself said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Archie Leach applied himself to the development his film career (and to his concomitant transformation into Cary Grant) with conscious study, careful planning, and discipline.  He observed Hollywood’s most urbane celebrities, such as Noel Coward, and adopted some of their mannerisms and stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Possessed of a fine intelligence, he read voraciously.  He cultivated a public love for baseball, the era’s National Pastime, supporting first the New York Yankees and later the Los Angeles Dodgers.  In June of 1942, he became a U.S. citizen, in the process changing his name legally to “Cary Grant.”

A highly professional practitioner of his craft, Cary Grant became a master verbal comedy (demonstrated here as he forces his acquaintanceship upon the fiancé of his ex-wife in His Girl Friday);

 

physical comedy (shown here in a famous scene with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby);

 

character comedy (here in one of the funniest scenes of Alfred Hitchcock‘s funniest thriller, North by Northwest);

 

and drama (here again in North by Northwest, as he and Eva Marie Saint engage in mutual seduction over dinner on a speeding train).

 

Grant was capable of portraying darkness, such as in the arguably homicidal gold digger in Suspicion, but Hollywood refused to permit him to play a villain.

 

In some of his films, such as Holiday, Grant displayed his acrobatic skills.

 

Although never formally recognized during his career for his acting skill, Grant was a wonderfully subtle actor.  Because of his perfected persona, Cary Grant never disappears into his roles. One is always aware that one is watching Cary Grant, but each of his characters – from the unworldly paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, to the wartime cargo pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, to the hard-driving newspaper editor in His Girl Friday, to the charismatic jewel thief in To Catch a Thief – is different from each of the others.  In the uproariously funny Monkey Business, Grant successfully plays characters aged 35, 20, and seven.

Grant retired from films in 1966 at the age of 62, citing his belief that audiences would not want to see “Cary Grant” grow old.  In retirement, he shifted his professional attention to the business world, serving on the boards of several corporations, and devoted his personal time to his only child, daughter Jennifer, who was born to his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, in February of 1966.

Grant was a philanthropist throughout his adult life.  He donated his $137,000 salary for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to British War Relief and his $100,000 salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to U.S. War Relief.  During the War, he traveled to entertain the troops.

Publically, Cary Grant was one of the most successful American figures of the 20th century.  Privately, he was haunted for his entire life by the central trauma of his childhood: the mysterious disappearance of his mother.

When he learned, at the age of 31, that his mother was alive and in an institution, he traveled immediately to England to secure her release.  He then moved her to California and supported her for the rest of her life.

The adult Grant was plagued by insecurity and was always fearful of losing the women in his life.  He resorted to using LSD in the early 1960s – at a time when it was legal – hoping that, as he said, “it would make me feel better about myself. I wanted to rid myself of all my hypocrisies.”

It is possible to see in the histories of Cary Grant’s five marriages the long, sad shadow cast on his life by the loss of his mother.  Of his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, he said, “My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her.”  Of the four wives who divorced him, he said, “They all left me. I didn’t leave any of them. They all walked out on me.”  For explanation, one might consult the revealing memoir penned by his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, about her life with Grant.  She describes scenes of Grant’s explosions of temper and hyper-controlling behavior which, I think, can be explained – though not excused – as desperate attempts to control his personal life and thereby avoid pain.

Grant’s incompleteness did not elude frequent co-star Katharine Hepburn, who offered this insightful comment on the lacunae in his private persona: “Cary Grant, I think, is a personality functioning, a delicious personality who has learnt to do certain things marvelously well.”

Cary Grant died of a stroke on November 29, 1986, while on a speaking tour in Davenport, Iowa.  He was survived by his devoted daughter, Jennifer, and his fifth wife, Barbara Harris.

He died with a $60 million estate, a testament to his financial acumen, his determination to succeed, and decades of focused hard work.  Pretty good for a boy who started as a motherless Cockney acrobat.

Cary Grant’s cinematic legacy is a veritable treasure trove.  Many of his films are available in their entirety on YouTube.

One can hardly go wrong in selecting a Grant film to watch on a cold winter evening.  Here are ten of my favorites, listed in no particular order.

  • The Awful Truth
  • My Favorite Wife
  • His Girl Friday
  • North by Northwest
  • Gunga Din
  • Notorious
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Penny Serenade
  • Suspicion
  • The Bishop’s Wife

Quotes for Today

“My screen persona is a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.” – Cary Grant

“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” – Cary Grant

 

 

“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

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Before HBO delivered the gritty, engrossing hopelessness of The Wire, the city of Baltimore starred in Homicide: Life on the Street (or Homicide, as it came to be known informally), one of the greatest drama series ever produced for U.S. television.

Based on the book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” by Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, and co-produced by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, Homicide premiered on NBC in January of 1993 as a mid-season replacement series.  NBC renewed Homicide for a second half-season in January of 1994 and then for four complete seasons from the fall of 1994 through the spring of 1999.

If you have never seen Homicide: Life on the Street – or if you have seen it, but not recently – I strongly recommend that you find Homicide on DVD or on YouTube, select your most comfortable chair and footrest, and settle in to immerse yourself in Homicide’s gripping and thought-provoking universe.

Here are eight reasons to give the series a try.

1. Fascinating Characters

Almost unique among police dramas, Homicide is character-driven.  The show’s detectives necessarily collect evidence, interrogate suspects, and try to solve crimes, but as they do so the narratives and dialogue emphasize character development over police procedure.

Every character in Homicide, from the police department’s top brass to murder suspects, detectives, medical examiners, and city locals who serve as witnesses, is well-crafted and realistic.  Excellent casting, acting, and writing work together to offer the audience detailed insights into the various personalities.

In this scene, two detectives wax philosophical about their work and their lives while on a stakeout in a suburban home.

 

Homicide is essentially modern-day Greek tragedy.  Every character has believable flaws, and some have fatal flaws whose tragic consequences, artfully played out over many months, inevitably bring those characters down.

The series drives home the point that homicide detective work is hardly compatible with marriage.  Of the 19 main characters’ 13 marriages, 10 have ended in divorce. Two characters have been widowed. Only one main character enjoys a successful marriage, and even his wife leaves him for a few months during the series. There are also four affairs among main-cast characters, at least two of which continued off-screen.

2. Gripping Stories

Whereas police procedural dramas usually focus on one story per week, most episodes of Homicide involve at least two interwoven plot lines that subtly complement one another by offering either opposite outcomes or contrasting comedy and tragedy.  In some cases, plot lines coordinate with themes and events from the outside world, such as religious holidays or, for example, a real-life visit to Baltimore by the Pope.

Homicide broke with television precedent, and ran afoul of network bosses, by presenting some stories without happy endings.  Every season includes at least one story of an unsolvable crime or a criminal who gets away with murder.

Practicing “show-don’t-tell” instead of the more polemical style embraced by other police dramas, Homicide addresses a wide variety of topics, including AIDS, police corruption, unhealed wounds from the Civil War, Black Muslims, African revival movements, serial murderers, the legacy of the Vietnam War, dangerous dogs, alcoholism, gender politics, child physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and myriad of thorny questions related to race.  Real 1980s and 1990s crime stories pepper the series (in disguise), including the Jonbenet Ramsey case and the Gianni Versace murder.  Several episodes relate to the drug trade, but drugs are refreshingly not the show’s central theme (cf. The Wire).

Here, the mother of a murder victim becomes friendly with the mother of his young killer before either of them realizes the relationship of the other the tragedy that has engulfed her son.

 

3. Outstanding Scripts

One of the greatest film scripts of all time, James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, succeeds in part by breaking scenes of wrenching emotional anguish with perfectly timed moments of hilarity.  Homicide adopts a similar model.  Artful scriptwriting advances character development, promotes verisimilitude, and provides moments of very welcome humor. Here are just a few examples (from IMDb and Wikiquote).

SB Bolander (Ned Beatty).

Det. Stan Bolander: Sometimes I wanna call my wife just to hear the sound of her voice. But I know that five minutes into that phone call, my blood pressure is going through the roof, the phone is sailing across the room and I’m wishing that she’s on a plane falling out of the sky. It’s over. I know it’s over. But I had to replace six telephones before I, I really got the hint.

PandB Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Det. Bayliss: Frank, I work with you, not for you.
Det. Pembleton: Excuse me?
Det. Bayliss: You never say please, you never say thank you.
Det. Pembleton: Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.

CandM Cox (Michelle Forbes) and Munch (Richard Belzer).

Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Don’t you even wonder why?
Det. John Munch: Why what?
Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Why he lied.
Det. John Munch: I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth.

Det. John Munch: The only thing I have in common with Judaism is we both don’t like to work on Saturdays.

Det. Frank Pembleton: You know, sometimes you’re funny. Then there’s now.

Medical Examiner: Another drug dealer. Collect all thirteen in the series, win a set of dishes.
Det. Stan Bolander: Live stupid, die young.

Det. John Munch: From the tracks on his arms, large caliber wound, proximity to a heroin market… I’d say it was a heated dispute about the symbolism of red and blue in 18th-century French romantic poetry.

JHB Brodie (Max Perlich).  KH Howard (Melissa Leo).

J.H. Brodie: Well, you’re a girl. A woman. A woman. A woman with wild red hair. I can’t stay with you.
Sgt. Kay Howard: What are you afraid of? I’m going to chain you to the bedpost and cover you with butter?
J.H. Brodie: Only thing is, I know that you won’t.

SC Crosetti (Jon Polito).

Det. Steve Crosetti: Either it’s murder, or this library has a very strict overdue policy.

Det. John Munch: Name one miracle that’s happened in your lifetime.
Det. Stan Bolander: How ’bout the fact that I haven’t killed you yet?

ML Lewis (Clark Johnson).

Det. Meldrick Lewis: Remember kids, don’t just say no to drugs, say “No, thank you.”

GandB Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Lt. Giardello: Bayliss, where’s Pembleton?
Det. Bayliss: Uh, I don’t know, Gee.
Lt. Giardello: Don’t say, “I don’t know.” He’s your partner, you should know his every move, his every breath. Like a lover, he should never be far from your thoughts.
Det. Bayliss: That was poetic.
Giardello: I’m in no mood for sarcasm.

Det. Lewis: Nothin’s missing, so I guess we can rule out a robbery, huh?
Det. Pembleton: We don’t guess, Meldrick, we hypothesize. We infer. We extrapolate from the evidence. We do not guess.
Det. Lewis: Go easy on me, would you, Frank? It’s early in the morning, I haven’t had my first donut yet.

Detective: Doesn’t that stick in your craw?
Det. John Munch: I took the liberty of having my craw removed years ago so that I could sleep at night.

Det. Lewis: A member of the Baltimore City Police Department, Homicide unit, used the word ‘Wow’ on a crime scene?

Det. Munch: You know, Stanley, this woman, you gotta respect her. Why she goes out with you, I’ll never know. As far as I’m concerned, your good fortune hangs right there with the great mysteries of life, right alongside the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel and the true meaning to the lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Det. Tim Bayliss: Homicide, sweet homicide.

4. Superb Acting

Homicide’s ensemble cast is excellent throughout the series’ run in spite of frequent personnel changes.  New characters blend seamlessly into the cast by virtue of great writing and acting and strong chemistry among the performers.

Most of actors in Homicide were relative unknowns when the series was produced.  Several, including Melissa LeoAndre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Reed Diamond, Callie Thorne, Jon Seda, Toni Lewis, Giancarlo Esposito, and Erik Todd Dellums, made their reputations on Homicide and subsequently enjoyed great success.  Stand-up comedian Richard Belzer has built his recent career out of playing his Homicide character, John Munch, in several other television series, including Law and Order: SVU.

Here we get to see the ensemble in action as the detectives explain their interrogation procedures for a squad room documentary.

 

Detectives Meldrick Lewis and Terri Stivers demonstrate those interrogation techniques in an interview with charming and utterly ruthless drug lord Luther Mahoney, the series’ most infamous criminal.

 

5. Camerawork and Editing

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A visual trademark of Homicide is the use of a single, hand-held camera. This places the audience in the middle of the action and imparts a sense of (at times claustrophobic) immediacy.

In the later seasons, key plot moments are repeated percussively one or more times to enhance dramatic tension.

Here, the moving camera invites viewers into this confrontation between Det. Meldrick Lewis and Luther Mahoney in a neighborhood bar owned by three of the squad’s detectives.

 

6. Style

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Since Homicide was required to abide by mid-1990s network TV standards, the series builds its dramatic tension without the relentless barrage of strong language and the graphic sex and violence characteristic of more recent brilliant dramas such as Deadwood, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, and House of Cards.  The subtlety born from those restrictions renders Homicide both enthralling and easier than more recent series to watch.

7. Baltimore

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The city of Baltimore is a vivid character in every episode of Homicide.  The show’s writers carefully weave into their stories idiosyncratic traits of Baltimore’s culture, such as crab feasts, duck pin bowling, Ft. McHenry, the city’s Canadian Football League team and later the NFL’s Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe, the Orioles baseball team, Chesapeake Bay fishermen, the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, hillbilly influence, and diner waitresses who call all of their customers, “Hon.”

The series’ casting of small parts is excellent.  The production uses local actors, ensuring that most of the bit players deliver their lines in the region’s distinctive and nearly inimitable accent.

8. Music

Every episode of Homicide is introduced musically by a minimalist percussive theme in a minor key, which occasionally reappears to mark the show’s dramatic moments but generally remains in the background.  Most of the series’ incidental tunes are vocals by contemporary artists, some of whom are relative unknowns. Throughout its run, Homicide makes effective use of musical montages to advance plot lines and to develop its characters.

This montage follows detectives from their quiet squadroom New Years Eve party to a variety of murder scenes and work sites.

 

This poignant episode-ending montage shows three different men who are grieving for a murdered woman and depicts Det. John Munch’s reconciliation with his Jewish heritage.

 

Homicide: Life on the Street maintained superb quality all the way to the end of its seventh and final season.  A masterpiece of series drama, it stands up to multiple viewings and never ceases to be entertaining.

I strongly recommend that you check it out.

Quotes for Today

Det. Tim Bayliss: Fourteen years old… When I was fourteen, jeez, I was in the ninth grade, and I don’t remember much of what I was doing, but I know I was nowhere close to picking up a gun and shooting another kid.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should our shooter be?
Det. Tim Bayliss: Not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: So if he’s what, fifteen, sixteen years old, it makes any more sense?
Det. Tim Bayliss: No.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should he be then? What’s the cut off age? Seventeen? Eighteen?
Det. Tim Bayliss: I don’t know, but not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: When you find out, clue me in, awright? I’d like to know when any of this killing, at any age, from six to sixty, makes any sense. One time I want to hear about a murder that makes sense. Just one time. For any reason.

 

 

The Other “Blue Eyes” – A Brief Tribute to Paul Newman

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This coming Friday will mark the sixth anniversary of the death of Paul Newman, a multi-talented 20th-century gem with a wonderful presence and a sparkling sense of humor.  I can’t think about him without smiling.

A World War II navy veteran, race car driver, entrepreneurial gastronomer, philanthropist, political activist, father of six children, and devoted family man, Newman might be best known to today’s younger generations as the co-founder of the Newman’s Own line of food products.

He was a director, a producer (earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Rachel, Rachel in 1968), a stage actor, and a celluloid icon.

During his prime acting years, Newman was a noted heartthrob, but he was not ‘just another pretty face.’  He was a highly skilled and subtle performer who excelled at portraying complex characters and social outsiders.  He was nominated for acting Oscars nine times, winning only once, for The Color of Money (1986).

As was arguably the case for film stars Cary Grant,

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Tyrone Power,

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Peter O’Toole,

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and Elizabeth Taylor,

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Newman was underrated as an actor because of his stunning good looks.

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A film enthusiast wishing to undertake a Paul Newman mini-course would find few duds among his 64 screen performances.  One can hardly go wrong in choosing to view any of his major films.  I would especially recommend:

Hud (1963)
As the crass and Machiavellian son of a straight-arrow rancher (Melvyn Douglas), Newman’s Hud Bannon stages a power struggle with his father while attempting to seduce his father’s world-weary housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal).

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The Hustler (1961)
Two-bit pool hustler Eddie Felsen (Newman) finds himself in over his head when he tries to move up to the big leagues.

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Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Caught robbing parking meters and sentenced to hard labor on a Florida chain gang, Korean War veteran Luke Jackson (Newman) refuses to allow prison authorities to break his spirit.

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The Sting (1973)
In this nearly perfect and highly entertaining romp of a film, Newman’s washed-up grifter Henry Gondorff shepherds young con man Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) through a scheme to exact revenge on crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).  Ya follah?

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Shortly after Newman’s death, I heard a wonderful story about him.  Although the account may or may not be apocryphal, I find it plausible, in part because three of my acquaintances who happened to cross paths with Newman in the 1970s spoke enthusiastically of his personal warmth and courtesy.  (For an entertaining discussion of other serendipitous encounters with celebrities, please see my blog post of 29 July 2014, “Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.”)

A middle-aged woman walked into a small-town New England ice cream parlor, planning to treat herself to a double-dip chocolate cone.  She was surprised and flummoxed to see that the only other customer in the restaurant was Paul Newman.  Stunned by the beauty and warmth of his legendary blue eyes, she blushed to the roots of her hair and found it difficult to think or speak.  She pulled herself together, turned resolutely to the clerk, and placed her order.  While waiting for her cone, she berated herself for her schoolgirl reaction to seeing the handsome star in person.

When her ice cream cone was ready, the woman handed a few bills to the clerk and accepted the change he offered in return.  Still embarrassed by her lapse of self-control, the woman strode out of the store without a glance in Newman’s direction.

Upon reaching her car, she was shocked to find that, although she still gripped her change in her right hand, the double-dip ice cream cone was nowhere to be seen.  Fearing she had left the cone in the store, the woman rushed back inside to find neither the clerk nor the ice cream cone at the counter.

Increasingly perplexed, she turned to look at Newman.  With a friendly smile, he said, “It’s in your purse.”

Quote for Today

“After what happened to Luther, I don’t think I can get more than two, three hundred guys. ” – Henry Gondorff, The Sting (1973).

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” – A Brief Tribute to John Cazale

DDA Photo from xSlayer Movies.

On this hot and muggy late August day, I am reminded of a quintessential August film, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), set in the stifling and claustrophobic desperation of 1970s working-class Brooklyn.  A young Al Pacino earned his fourth Oscar nomination for his riveting performance as Sonny, the half-mad instigator of a bank robbery gone wrong.

Portraying Sal, Sonny’s partner in crime, was John Cazale, a 39-year-old stage actor and frequent collaborator of Pacino.

Today, Cazale is unfortunately not widely known.  He was only 42 when he died of lung cancer in 1978.

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Cazale garnered high praise for the sensitivity of his screen performances.  Most remarkable about him, though, is his nearly perfect record in script selection.

In his all-too-brief career, Cazale made only five films, each of which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture:

The Godfather (1972)

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The Conversation (1974)

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The Godfather Part II (1974)

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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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The Deer Hunter (1978).

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Three of the five films — The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Deer Hunter — won Best Picture.  Each of the five ranks among the best movies of the 1970s and of all time.

Here is Cazale in one of his most famous scenes from The Godfather Part II.

 

Fredo may not have been very smart, but John Cazale was clearly a genius at choosing movie scripts!