1973 – The Exorcist

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The Exorcist – 1973

OK, here we go.  This is a very famous movie, one that is often considered one of the scariest movies of all time.  I’m generally not a big fan of horror films, but I realize that they definitely have a place in our culture.  There are plenty of people who love them and even I can enjoy that rush of adrenalin that they can bring.  So I have to ask, what is it about The Exorcist that made it so frightening?

At first I thought that it was because it was inspired a true story, but that’s not it.  It is a supernatural horror story that transcended that true story and became something more.  Maybe it was because of the profane and hideous imagery.  There certainly was plenty of that, but I think it was more than just that.

After watching the film, I think I finally understand why it is so scary.  It is because it deals with one of the most personal subjects possible: religion.  I look at several other films, the ones that frighten me the most, and I see the common thread.  The Omen, which came out in 1976, Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, The Amityville Horror of 1979, and Prince of Darkness from 1987 each had that religious angle in which Satan or the son of Satan made an appearance.  Everyone has an opinion about religion, and no matter what your personal beliefs are, they are generally deep and strong.  It can be very frightening when the darker side of those instinctual beliefs are brought to the light of day.

In The Exorcist, a beautiful little 12 year old girl named Regan, played by Linda Blaire, is possessed by an evil spirit claiming to be the devil himself.  Her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, takes her to a parade of doctors and psychologists before she is finally driven to seek the help of a Catholic priest.  She makes contact with Father Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller, a trained psychologist, who is having a crisis of faith.  The aged priest, Father Lankester Merrin, played by Max von Syddow, is called in to perform the exorcism.

The strange events begin small.  Loud sounds can be heard from the attic.  Regan finds and plays with a Ouija board.  Then things quickly escalate to violent behavior and profanity.  But it is not long before the situation goes over the top with a horrifying physical transformation, violent grotesqueries, flying objects, demonic voices, projectile vomiting, murder, and death.

Wait… murder?  Well, yes.  When the possessed Regan murders a man by twisting his head around and throwing him out a high window, police investigator Lieutenant Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb, begins to ask questions.  However, I almost felt that his character was extraneous to the plot.  The movie wouldn’t have lost much if the character had been cut.  He didn’t really do anything to effect the events taking place.

This is actually the 3rd time I have seen the film, and to be honest, I wasn’t as frightened of it this time as with the first 2 viewings.  There were things about the movie that I honestly didn’t remember from before, like the film’s first scene which took place in Iraq with Father Merrin.  But through my research, I have discovered how important this was to the plot.  As part of an archeological dig, the priest finds an amulet of an ancient Assyrian demigod named Pazuzu.  Apparently this is the very demon that possesses Regan, and the exorcism is something of a grudge match between Merrin and Pazuzu.

But the film never really explains this in any detail.  In fact, it never even names the demon.  It mentions, in passing, that Merrin had once performed a successful exorcism in Africa, but according to my research, that one had apparently involved the same demon.  Then when Merrin dies of a heart attack, Pazuzu is infuriated because the battle is not yet over and he had been winning.  Maybe this is more fleshed out in a director’s cut or one of the sequels, but not in the version I watched.

And I also have to mention, the one image that frightened me the most when I first saw the film.  The image of Regan, shown in silhouette with a demonic statue next to her, a statue of Pazuzu, which had been shown in Iraq in the first scene, actually made more sense and consequently wasn’t as scary as when I first saw it.  But now, what scared me the most were the few times in the movie when the ghostly, white face of Pazuzu was flashed onto the screen, sometimes superimposed onto Regan’s face.  That was super creepy!  The flashes were always on the screen long enough for you to know you had seen it, but never long enough to get a good look.

And finally, I have to really give a lot of credit to Linda Blaire.  She had such a demandingly physical role and was really put through her paces, both emotionally and psychologically.  It was quite an impressive feat for the young actress.  She really deserved being nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

1973 – Cries and Whispers

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Cries and Whispers – 1973

I have no idea what I just watched.  I’m not sure I fully understood it.  It was like a film that was trying too hard to be deep and artsy.  It isn’t that what actually happened in the plot was hard to follow.  It’s just that the characters were strange, their motivations were confusing, and the directing style that was used was, for lack of a better word, creepy.

This was a foreign film directed by Ingmar Bergman, and as such, was in Swedish with English subtitles. The plot was a bit eerie, delving into the psyches of four women.  Harriet Andersson played the part of Agnes, a young woman dying of cancer.  She is in constant pain and endures terrible suffering.  Her two sisters, Maria and Karin, played by Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulan, are watching over her death bed, waiting for her inevitable demise.  The fourth woman is the maid/nurse, Anna, played by Kari Sylwan.  Hers was, at times, the strangest character of them all, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

In order to give a clear idea of how the characters were portrayed and developed, it is important to spend a moment talking about the choices Bergman made as a director.  First, I’ll mention the use of the color red.  The color permeated almost every aspect of the film.  Everything from the sets to the costumes seemed to be saturated with the color with healthy smatterings of white and black.  It gave the film a very striking look, bringing up images of passion and blood, while at the same time giving everything a feeling of sterility and detachment.

The music was sparse, furthering the surrealistic mood.  The pacing was slow though I wouldn’t say plodding.  While Agnes lay dying, each of the other three women are given their little moments of flashback, revealing how her death was affecting them, or at least how they were emotionally dealing with it.  Each time these flashback sequences began, the camera would show a close-up on a woman’s face and the image would turn blood red before fading to black.  Then when the memory would end, the black screen would become a red image of the woman’s face, which would then return to normal color.  It gave everything an intensely ominous feel.

The use of silence was also a very prominent feature of the film.  The first 6 or 7 minutes of the film has almost no sound at all: no dialogue, no music, and very few sound effects other than a ticking clock.  It was all very mysterious and uncomfortable.  Why use dialogue as a way of displaying emotion when long, silent, drawn-out shots of distressed facial expressions will do it better?

During these flashback segments, a few other characters are introduced.  During Maria’s story, we meet two men: her husband Joakim, played by Henning Moritzen, and her lover, the doctor, David, played by Erland Josephson.  David spends several minutes studying Maria’s face, explaining why she is more beautiful than ever, and yet less desirable.  Joakim, when he begins to suspect his wife’s infidelity, attempts suicide.  While he is bleeding, he begs Maria to help and she callously refuses, showing how shallow and calculating she is.

During Karin’s story, we meet the husband Fredrik, whom she despises, played by Georg Arlin.  He is focused on his career and turns a blind eye to his wife’s unhappiness.  But Karin is apparently dead inside, and the only way she can feel anything at all is to cut her vagina with a piece of broken glass.  Then she goes to bed, bleeds all over the sheets and wipes the blood across her mouth.  I’m not sure what this was supposed to mean.

And then there is Anna.  She has been the family’s maid for many years, and the way she chooses to comfort the dying Agnes is to kiss her intimately, then remove her own clothes and press the sick woman’s face to her breast.  This was very confusing.  She is never shown to have been Agnes’s lover, so why would she do this?  But it is all done with such gentleness and tenderness that there had to have been some kind of special connection somewhere.

Anna’s special scene, which took place after Agnes’s death, wasn’t a flashback, but a strange sequence in which each of the three women are called, in turn, by the ghost of Agnes who is begging for comfort.  Karin, who cannot feel emotion, rejects the shade, claiming that she does not care that she is dead.  Maria tries to embrace the spirit, but becomes overwhelmed with grief and fear.  She runs from the room screaming.  Only Anna is able to comfort her, undressing for her one last time.

At the time of its release, this movie was lauded as a “magnificent, moving, and very mysterious new film,” and maybe it was.  Maybe I’m being shallow calling it unnecessarily slow, confusing, pretentious, and melodramatic.  Still, there was real emotion in it, something that is not always easy to achieve.  If you like artsy, depressing films, you’ll enjoy Cries and Whispers.

1973 – American Graffiti

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American Graffiti – 1973

Everyone remembers American Graffiti because it was Harrison Ford’s first film, except that it really wasn’t, and because it was one of George Lucas’s early films.  But ask the average person who else was in the movie and they wouldn’t be able to tell you.  It actually had some actors in it that are pretty famous today.  Richard Dreyfuss arguably played the lead, Curt Henderson, alongside Ron Howard, known back then as Ronny Howard, playing the part of Steve Bollander.  I say arguably because the movie didn’t really have a central plot, and so there was no real lead… but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The movie also had a pretty good supporting cast, some of whom I remember, some of whom I don’t.  Cindy Williams, who most people know from her role of Shirley Feeney on the hit TV show Lavern and Shirley, played Steve’s girlfriend and Curt’s sister, Laurie Henderson.  Curt and Steve had two close friends, each of whom seemed to have equal weight in terms of the film’s plot.  Paul Le Mat played the greaser, John Milner.  Charles Martin Smith played the nerd, Terry “The Toad” Fields. .  Harrison Ford, played the part of Bob Falfa, a racer looking to race John.

The Toad meets Debbie, played by Candy Clark, a blonde girl looking for fun.  Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, played the part of Carol, a young girl who rides with John up and down the strip.  Curt spends time trying to find the mysterious blonde woman in the T-Bird who caught his eye, played by Suzanne Summers.  This film was clearly all about the cast.

But that was part of the film’s genius.  It was a character driven movie.  Unfortunately, it was also part of the film’s weakness.  There was very little cohesive plot.  The movie followed the various adventures of its diverse characters over the course of a single night, never lingering on any one of them for too long.  Not only did the different actors have completely separate story lines, they each had multiple story lines that were almost episodic.  It was like a series of barely related scenes that helped to paint an overall picture of the era rather than to tell a specific story.

For example, at one point, Curt is seemingly forced to join a greaser gang called the Pharos.  He is pressured into a criminal initiation rite which involved him hooking a chain to a police car, causing its back axle to be torn off.  It had nothing to do with his decision whether or not to go to college, nothing to do with him searching for the mysterious blonde woman, and nothing to do with him meeting Wolfman Jack.  It was just another random adventure that could have happened to any other character in the film.

But I think Curt and Steve could be called the main characters because the film starts off with the two of them discussing their upcoming departure to college.  Curt doesn’t know if he will go and Steve is eager to go.  However, at the end of the movie, after they each have unique experiences, Curt decides to leave for college while Steve decides not to go.

The film seemed to be one big nostalgia trip taking us back to the 1950s and early 60s, the days of classic cars, cruising, sock hops, greasers, and rock and roll.  But I could also call it a coming-of-age film as it showed the subtle transition of four young men, Curt, Steve, John, and Terry, as they grew from teenagers to young adults.  They all seemed to learn significant lessons about themselves during that one eventful night, lessons that made them grow a little.  And I will say that the characters were all developed well enough that I really got to know them by the end.

Now I’m going to mention one thing about the film, about which I have to throw up a huge red flag!  OK, so the film’s climax is a big hot rod race out on Paradise Road between John Milner in his 1932 Ford Deuce Coup, and Bob Falfa in his 55 Chevy.  Laurie is riding shotgun with Bob.  The race starts and just before they reach the finish line, Falfa blows a front tire and loses control of the car.  It flies off the road and crashes, rolling over several times before landing on its roof.  Bob and Laurie jump out and run away from the wreck before it explodes into flames.  WRONG!  WRONG!  Bob and Laurie are dead or at the very least, injured, or even shaken up!  But no!  They both walk away without so much as a bruise.  Nope!  Not buying that one!

Another important part of the film, maybe the most important part that helped to paint that portrait of the 50s and early 60s is the music.  The music actually never stopped.  There was always music of the era being played in the background of every scene.  Forty-one songs were used, ranging from the Beach Boys to Buddy Holly, from Chuck Berry to The Diamonds, from Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids to The Platters, and everything in between.  The music from that time had a very distinct and easily recognizable style that really helped set the right tone for the movie.

1972 – Sounder

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Sounder – 1972

This was a very well-made movie.  The casting was great, the story was inspiring, the cinematography and art direction were wonderfully realistic, and the social significance was important.  It was a film which celebrated the triumph of the human spirit.  It confronted issues of racism in a positive way, and did so without being preachy or accusatory.  It wasn’t dark or depressing, though it certainly wasn’t fun or light-hearted.

Child actor Kevin Hooks played the part of David Lee Morgan, the eldest son in a poor family of sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression.  The film opens with him and his father, Nathan, played by Paul Winfield, hunting in the woods for a raccoon so that the family will have meat to eat.  With them is their dog, Sounder, so named because of his loud barking.  Waiting for them at their tiny cabin is Nathan’s wife, Rebecca, played by Cicely Tyson, and the two younger children, Earl and Josie Mae, played by Eric Hooks and Yvonne Jarrell.

Well, to make a long story short, the family is starving, so Nathan steals food to feed them.  He is arrested and sentenced to a year of hard labor.  The film’s main plot is about how David Lee must become the man of the house and how Rebecca and her three children must band together to sharecrop the land without Nathan.

I learned that there were two big differences between the book upon which the movie was based and the film.  First, the dog, Sounder, is cruelly and casually shot during Nathan’s arrest.  The main body of the book focuses how the family rallies around Sounder to keep him alive, just as they hope for Nathan’s survival and safe return.  The film is focused on the family struggling to keep the farm and themselves alive.  Second, in the book, when Nathan is eventually released and returns home, both he and Sounder die within a few months.  In the film, they both live.

But in both mediums, the remarkable story of the character of David Lee growing up and becoming a man remains the same.  Both Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.  True, those nominations were deserved, but I thought Kevin Hooks also did a pretty good job, especially since he was really the main character of the film.  Everything seemed to be told from his perspective and Hooks did a fine job of keeping the emotional content of the film moving forward.

As I mentioned, the subject of racism was given its fair share of the plot.  The simple act of thievery should not have been worthy of the unusually harsh sentence that the character of Nathan was forced to endure.  But the fact that he was a colored man being sentenced by a racist, white judge, seemed to guaranty unfair treatment.  After he was taken to prison, they would neither let his wife have any contact with him, nor would they tell the family what prison camp he would be assigned to.

After a kindly white lady named Mrs. Boatwright, played by Carmen Matthews, breaks the law to learn where Nathan is being sent, David Lee goes on a journey to find his father.  Along the way he meets and starts a friendship with a black school teacher who takes him in and takes an interest in his education.  Janet MacLachlan played the school teacher, Camille Johnson, and did a wonderful job.

For the most part, the movie kept with the trend of the time in film-making in that it seemed to prize realism.  Director, Martin Ritt, did a great job of keeping the plot and the art direction grounded in the real world.  The characters were well-written and believable, and the actors were all very well-cast.  I’d like to give a special shout out to Cicely Tyson for a great performance.  She really seemed to embrace her character and gave her a strength that was inspiring to watch.

And speaking of being inspired, the message that the end of the film left me with was both uplifting and powerful.  David Lee has been invited to spend the school year with Miss Johnson and attend her school.  He almost refuses to go because with his father’s return, he wants to stay and help him with the farm.  But Nathan’s little speech, telling David Lee to go was emotionally stirring.  He says, “That’s what I’m gonna do with this trouble in my leg.  I’m gonna beat it.  Ain’t nothing left for me to do but to beat it.  But that’s what I want you to do.  I want you to beat the life they got all laid out for you in this place, cause there ain’t nothing, there ain’t nobody here but them bastards that sent me… Son, don’t get too used to this place, cause wherever you is, I’m gonna love you.”  I’ve always liked those scenes in films that say “My life is here because I have responsibilities, but you have a chance to make a better life for yourself.  I mean to see you get that chance.  If you do, you’ll make all my hard work mean something.”  If that isn’t inspirational, then I don’t know what is.

1972 – The Emigrants

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The Emigrants – 1972

Before I started watching The Emigrants, I was not aware that I already knew the story.  I am familiar with one of the most gorgeous musicals it has ever been my pleasure to hear, Kristina fran Duvemala, a Swedish musical that premiered in Malmo, Sweden, in 1995.  It was written by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the two men in the pop group, ABBA.  The Emigrants is a film that was based on the same series of four novels by Vilhelm Moberg:  The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers, and The Last Letter Home.  The movie covers events that take place in the first two novels.

Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play the leads, Karl Oskar Nilsson and Kristina Nilsson, extremely poor farmers working themselves to the bone on a rocky and unproductive farm in Korpamoen, Sweden.  Karl Oskar’s brother Robert, played by Eddie Axberg, is a dreamer who is physically abused by his employer when he hires himself out as a farmhand.  Pierre Lindstedt plays Arvid, Robert’s best friend and fellow worker.

Poverty and no hope of a better future cause both Robert and Karl Oskar to contemplate moving to America, where the streets are supposedly paved with gold, and the land is good for farming.  After the death of one of her children, Kristina agrees to go and plans are made.  It isn’t long before a large party of people, including Danjel, played by Allan Edwall, and Ulrika, played by Monica Zetterlund.  Danjel is fleeing from religious persecution, and Ulrika is an ex-prostitute who is one of his followers.

The second leg of the film is about the hardships the group endures while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a 10 week voyage on a filthy boat, under horrible conditions.  Then, when they finally reach America, they decide to make their way to unclaimed land in Minnesota. When the finally reach their destination, what we now know as Chisago Lake, they stake their property claims and begin to build the budding nation of America.  That is where the film ends, but it is important to know that there was actually a sequel, Unto a Good Land, which brought the entire surviving cast back to reprise their roles.  In it, we learn the fates of the main characters.  We follow the hardships they endure, some setting down their roots and thriving in the new land, and others traveling on to new adventures.

The film has a wonderful and inspirational story and the acting was very good.  Unfortunately, the film was a little hard to watch.  The picture quality was horrible, the camera work was frequently shaky, the cinematography was rough, and the music was jarring and disjointed.  The color quality was always washed out so badly that I might as well have been watching a film in black and white.  There were times when I think the colors were supposed to be vibrant, which would have enhanced the mood and feel of scenes, but the dim and muted colors seemed to suck all the joy out of the movie.

I’m having trouble determining if it was all on purpose or not, because if it was, I don’t understand why it was nominated for Best Picture.  I mean, really, it looked like it was filmed on an old Super 8, hand-held camera.  Scenes which took place in bright sunlight were so overexposed that sometimes the screen actually burst into pure white.  Maybe the faded colors were supposed to enhance the drab and dismal circumstances of the characters, but then I think they might have gone a little overboard.

And I mentioned the music that didn’t always seem to blend with the action taking place on the screen.  Half the time it was barely noticeable, and then it would flare up to a distracting volume at unexpected times.  For example, when the party of Emigrants is leaving Korpamoen for the last, the music turns into something that might have made more sense in a melodramatic horror film as the monster finally reveals itself to the screaming damsel.  Music is supposed to enhance the action on the screen, not distract from it.

If it weren’t for things like this and the questionable picture quality, I think this movie had the potential to be a spectacular telling of the epic story.  Instead, it just looked like a low-budget film that could have been so much more than it was.  But there were 3 things that saved this film from mediocrity.  The inspiring story with its wonderfully written characters that were never presented as cultural stereotypes, the capable cast of believable actors, and the down-to-earth, gritty, and realistic sets and costumes.

Though the film was made in Swedish, the only version that I could find was dubbed in English.  I would have rather seen it in its original language with subtitles, but I didn’t really mind the dubbed voices.  They did a good job of matching the dialogue to the lip movements of the actors.  There were times when it actually looked like they were just speaking English.

1972 – Deliverance

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Deliverance – 1972

In the 1970s, movies seem to have taken a turn towards realism, as if audiences were tired of fantasies and were ready for more serious kinds of entertainment.  Well, maybe that statement is only half true.  They seemed to have wanted films that were dynamic and maybe even shocking.  They wanted more in–your-face action and more drama.  And while realistic characters, sets, costumes, and props became more common, realistic plots and premises seemed to take a back seat.  Still, gone were the happy musicals and screwball comedies of the previous decades.  Deliverance was certainly a perfect example.

This movie contained graphic violence, mild nudity, rape, murder, deceit, and mangled bodies.  Fortunately, I can’t see where any of it was gratuitous.  The problem was that the plot was slightly unrealistic, which was actually ok.  I’ll explain.  Deliverance was about four friends who were all city boys.  Their leader was Lewis Medlock, played by Burt Reynolds, though the main character was really Ed Gentry, played by John Voight.  With them are Bobby Trippe and Drew Ballinger, played by Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.

The film is praised by critics as a man against nature drama, but that was only part of the plot’s conflict.  Lewis is a kind of militant tree hugger who is angered by the fact that a river in a remote area of northern Georgia is going to be dammed, destroying the natural environment.  So he convinces his three friends to go on a camping and canoe trip down the river.  The problem is that Lewis is the only one of them that knows anything about canoeing.

Still, it is all fun and games until they run afoul of two backwater hillbillies who, upon meeting Ed and Bobby, immediately decide they want to rape them.  Ok, here is where the premise of the film gets unrealistic for me.  True, it made for some intense drama and the graphic nature of the rape scene is appropriately difficult to watch, but in reality, what is the actual likelihood of them running into insane rapists?

But alright.  This is not the story of four men who didn’t run into insane rapists.  So now, instead of man against nature, the film is about man against man.  In a famously violent and graphic scene, Bobby is sodomized by the Mountain Man, played by Bill McKinney as his buddy, the Toothless Man, played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward watches, his shotgun at the ready.  Bobby’s pathetic grunts of pain and humiliation as it is happening really drive the horrible action of the scene home.  Plus there is the fact that it doesn’t end quickly.  It goes on long enough to make the viewer feel really, really uncomfortable.

Ed, who has been made to witness the whole thing, is forced to his knees as the Toothless Man utters that famous line, “He got a really pretty mouth, ain’t he?”  But then there is the awesomely satisfying moment when Ed looks behind the hillbillies and sees Lewis carefully aiming his bow and arrow at their backs.  He shoots and kills the rapist while the other man gets away.

Then the focus shifts again, and the film becomes one about man against his own nature.  There is an argument about the morality of hiding the body of the dead man and running, which is exactly what they do.  But then everything goes wrong.  The escaped hillbilly starts to hunt them and kills Drew.  The inexperienced canoeists fall over a waterfall, destroying one of the boats and horribly breaking Lewis’s leg.  And to make a long story short, Ed hunts the Toothless man and, defying his own nature as a man of peace, kills him.

It was a memorable film, which was well-acted with some intense drama and some exciting action.  Sure the premise was just a little far-fetched, but that made it no less enjoyable to watch.  Just don’t watch the movie and think that every mountain man in Georgia will rape you at gunpoint.  Some citizens of Georgia were actually offended by the movie, saying that it gave them and the state a bad reputation.

And finally, I have to mention the famous and fun Dueling Banjo scene in the beginning of the movie.  Lewis, who had brought his guitar, is playing a few chords, when a young boy, apparently a severe idiot savant, starts responding to the music with his banjo.  If you’ve never heard the song Dueling Banjos, look it up on YouTube.  The creepy, young, inbred boy was played by Billy Redden, an actor who was neither inbred, nor an idiot.  But he sure was an amazing banjo player!  Just watch his fingers fly over the frets of that banjo!

Anyway, this film also has the virtue of showing just how dangerous and unforgiving nature can be to the unprepared.  And camping, like all dangerous things in life, should be actively avoided if at all possible.  Now squeal like a pig!  Weeee!  Weeee!

1972 – Cabaret

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Cabaret – 1972

Here we have a very famous musical, one that was based upon an original book called The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood.  Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb wrote the famous stage show, but when Bob Fosse was signed on to direct and choreograph the film, he took the show in an entirely different direction.  He went back to the original source material and radically shifted the focus of the plot.

Characters that were taken out for the stage musical were brought back and given prominence.  Other characters had their parts reduced or eliminated.  Fosse took a bit of a risk, but it totally paid off.  He removed all the music that didn’t take place on the stage of the cabaret show known as the Kit Kat Klub, (the KKK…  Coincidence?) and actually had Kander and Ebb write a few new numbers to maintain that focus.  The result was a musical that had a great amount of realism because though there was plenty of great music, nobody broke out into song outside the cabaret, except for once, and even then it would have made sense in a real-life situation.

Liza Minnelli took the lead as Sally Bowles opposite Michael York as Brian Roberts.  In contrast to the stage musical, which focused on several characters from the cabaret and several characters from the boarding house in which the performers lived, the film really focuses on Sally and Brian.  It is the story of their tumultuous romance set against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis before WWII.

Two of the re-installed characters had a really great storyline.  Fritz Wepper played the part of Fritz Wendel, a handsome young gigolo who falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy young Jewish woman named Natalia Landauer, played by Marissa Berenson.  When the Nazis begin terrorizing the Jews, Natalia tells Fritz that she cannot marry him because of their different religions.  But then a love-sick Fritz reveals that he is actually a Jewish man who has been hiding his religion out of fear.  It is such a great little subplot.

Now, I have to give the film credit for being quite daring on several fronts.  The look and feel of the cabaret show is very specific and distinct.  The costumes worn by the dancers are highly sexual, some of them wearing nothing more than bras and panties.  They are all portrayed as trashy hookers.  Then there is the ménage a trois between Sally, Brian, and the dashing Baron, Maximillian von Heune, played by Helmut Griem.  And a strictly homosexual affair between Brian and Max is also explored.  Pretty daring material for 1972!

And I would be remiss if I did not mention the character of the Emcee, played by Joel Grey.  The only time he is ever on the screen is during the cabaret show sequences.  As such, he did about half of the singing and dancing in the film, performing most of the comedic or risqué numbers.  The other half were the torch songs wonderfully performed by Minnelli.  The two of them were fantastic, and really knew how to sell their characters.

And it was that bawdy cabaret show that was the main genius of Bob Fosse’s film.  The darkly humorous music that was performed on the stage was always like a commentary on the horrific or dramatic action that took place outside the Kit Kat Klub.  For example, the dancers on the stage did a traditional German slap-dance, which was inter-cut with images of Nazi thugs beating a man to death.  Or before the threesome scene at the Baron’s mansion, the Emcee and two dancers performed the song Two Ladies.  Or again, when Sally sings the song, Maybe This Time, the stage number is mixed with her budding relationship with Brian.

The music, even the new songs written for the film, was wonderful and memorable.  Great songs like the opening number Willkommen, Mein Herr, Maybe This Time, Money, Money, If You Could See Her, and the finale, Cabaret, are easy to sing along with.  Kander and Ebb are really masters of their craft.  So was Fosse, for that matter.  His choreography was so uniquely his own.  Interviews with the cast of Cabaret confirmed that he was very specific in what he wanted.  Every single movement, the look in the eyes, the precision of each step was rehearsed and rehearsed until he got what he wanted.  I particularly liked the choreography for the song Money, Money, which, again, reflected what was happening in the real world, as Max began lavishly spending his money on Sally and Brian.

But I have to close by talking about that one song that was sung in a beer garden, and not in the Kit Kat Klub.  It is a song that has a wonderful melody and powerful lyrics, though every time I hear it I am nearly brought to tears.  The song Tomorrow Belongs to Me is sung by an angelic young man, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy.  But as the camera pans back, the youth is shown to be wearing the red, white, and and black swastika on his arm.  The song is a Nazi pride anthem, and after the music hooks you, the horror of what it represents sinks in.  I call that fascinating and intelligent writing.  All in all, a very well-constructed film.

1971 – Nicholas and Alexandra

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Nicholas and Alexandra – 1971

This was, without a doubt, an epic film that dramatizes the final days of the Russian monarchy.  It begins with the birth of Tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexei, and ends with the execution of the Romanov family.  I did the research and found that the film, while up-playing the romance story between Nicholas and Alexandra, was fairly true to history.

The film covers the key events that led to the collapse of Russia: the decimation of the military in several wars, including WWI, Bloody Sunday, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the political damage done by Rasputin, the rise of Lenin, Nicholas’ abdication of the throne, the imprisonment of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and deaths of the royal family.  The film was just over 3 hours long, and really covered a lot of ground.  There were so many historical details that the filmmakers got right.  Director, Franklin J. Schaffner ought to be commended.

The film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, though the only two it won was Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction.  And it certainly deserved those particular honors.  The opulent sets and costumes were incredible.  The costume designers, Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castillo, really came up with some spectacular designs.  The clothes worn by the Emperor and his family were incredible, as was the palace in which they lived.  In fact, they found the perfect actors to play the two leads.  They looked very much like the real characters they were portraying.

Michael Jayston played Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, or “Nicky.”  His wife, Alexandra, or “Sunny,” was played by South African actress, Janet Suzman.  Their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, were played by Ania Marson, Lynne Frederick, Candace Glendenning, and Fiona Fullerton, respectively.  The heir to the throne, Alexei, was played by Roderick Noble.  And finally, Tom Baker, of Doctor Who fame, played the megalomaniac monk, Rasputin.  The large production also boasted a few other recognizable names like Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, and Ian Holm in smaller roles.

Suzman was nominated for Best Actress, though she didn’t win, and yes, she turned in a good performance.  But I though Jayston’s performance was much better, and I was surprised to learn that he was not nominated for Best Actor.  I thought his character was much more complex and required a more dynamic emotional range.  He is portrayed as a good man, a loving husband and father, but an incompetent ruler.  The scene in which he returns home after abdicating the throne and breaks down into a sobbing emotional wreck in front of his wife was just heartbreaking to watch.

And while I’m on the subject, I learned something in my research about the real Tsar Nicholas that I round fascinating.  Apparently his inability to rule Russia was not his fault.  Here is what Wikipedia had to say about it.  “The Russian Empire was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government – to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father – and who, lacking the intellect, energy or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat. His father, Alexander III, who deliberately intended to keep his son uneducated in statecraft until the age of thirty, unfortunately miscalculated his own life expectancy, and died when Nicholas was twenty-six. The new Tsar had learned nothing in the interval, and the impression of imperturbability he conveyed was in reality apathy – the indifference of a mind so shallow as to be all surface. When a telegram was brought to him announcing the annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, he read it, stuffed it in his pocket, and went on playing tennis.”

But the film actually never mentioned anything like that.  The film blamed his weak will as the main reason behind his failure as a Tsar, not lack of training and apathy.  In fact, the film showed him as a man who passionately cared about his country but who was unable to stand up to his wife, or anyone else, for that matter.  He made some very bad decisions, ruling his empire with his heart instead of his head.

I would also like to mention Tom Baker’s inspired portrayal of Rasputin.  He played the character as a larger than life egomaniac.  His questionable involvement with the Romanov family and his assassination scene were powerful.  Baker did a great job of capturing the spirit of the infamous monk, always just on the edge of religious madness.  It was his crazy eyes that really sold the character.

And finally, I have to mention the wonderfully handled final scene in which the royal family is put to death in Yekaterinburg.  They are all awakened in the middle of the night and taken to a room which was completely empty except for two chairs.  The family huddles together as if posing for a portrait.  They seemed to know what was about to happen, and yet they waited for death with a calm serenity.  The slow and silent zoom in to the door, through which their executioners would come seemed to put me in the room with them.  Brilliant cinematography!

1971 – The Last Picture Show

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The Last Picture Show – 1971

The title of the film, The Last Picture Show, refers to the closing of a small movie theatre.  It shows its final film, indicative of the death of the town.  You can tell, right from the beginning of the film, that the sleepy little town with its dreary inhabitants, its poor and failing businesses, and its general feeling of malaise and regret is in danger of becoming extinct.  Its few surviving citizens feel little hope for the future, and look at the past with nostalgia tinged with a mixture of fondness and bitterness.  The fact that it was filmed in black and white seemed to enhance the dismal and desolate feel of the film.

Sure, there were young people, but even they were growing up and longing to leave in search of something better.  There is nothing new to experience, and no interest in improving anything.  This is evidenced in the subtle little fact that the high school football team keeps having the same problem every year.  The adults complain that the boys don’t know the fundamentals of the game.  They don’t know how to tackle.  It might seem insignificant, but I thought it was a clever way to show the general feeling of apathy in the young men of the town, their lack of drive or even enthusiasm for not only the sport, but for life in general.  But such boredom can easily turn to delinquency.

Playing the lead was a handsome young man named Sonny, played by Timothy Bottoms.  His best friend, Duane, played by Jeff Bridges, was not really a nice person, but then again, neither was his girlfriend Jacy, played by Cybill Shepherd.  A running theme in the film is the transition of these students from teenagers into adults.  Part of that is their sexual awakenings.  Duane is very possessive of Jacy, even after she breaks up with him, at which point, she becomes sexually promiscuous.  Sonny starts having an affair with his football coach’s wife, Ruth, played by Chloris Leachman, who is sexually frustrated by her homosexual husband’s disinterest.

But there were two characters who, for me, stood out as having the most interesting story line.  Actor Ben Johnson played the part of Sam the Lion.  He owned three major establishments in the desolate little town: the pool hall, the diner, and the cinema.  As long as the three businesses kept running, the town was able to hold on to its reason to exist.  But that is only part of what made his character so interesting.  In a fit of nostalgia, he tells Sonny of an affair he’d had in his youth with a beautiful young woman who was now married.

Sonny later learns that the unnamed woman was Lois Farrow, Jacy’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn.  More than once, Lois tells of how she is bored and dissatisfied with her life and how she regrets her choice of husband.  She is having an affair with a man who eventually has sex with Jacy.  Both Burstyn and Johnson stood out to me as exceptionally good actors.

There were two members of the cast who won Oscars for their performances: Ben Johnson and Chloris Leachman, and I thought they were very well deserved.  Their performances were brilliant, each played with passion and poignancy.  Johnson had both gentleness and strength, and Leachman had fragility and vulnerability.  The each took home awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

While Sam lived, the town lived, but everything changed when he died.  In his will, he left the pool hall to Sonny, the diner to its only waitress, Genevieve, played by Eileen Brennan, and the cinema to the popcorn lady, Miss Mosey, played by Jessie Lee.  After Sam’s death, all three businesses seemed to fail, and as they died, so did the town.  It was actually very sad.  But the final nail in the coffin was when Sam’s mentally disabled son was hit by a truck and killed in the street, and nobody but Sonny seemed to care.

The film was a wonderful portrait of a dreary Texas town in its last days coupled with the last days of youth and innocence for the three main characters, Sonny, Duane, and Jacy.  Jacy elopes with Sonny, but the two of them are separated by her parents.  The marriage is strangely ignored after that.  Duane joins the Army, and Sonny has no idea what to do with the rest of his life.  The last picture shown at the cinema is the John Wayne movie, Red River.  After going to see it with Sonny, Duane gets on a bus to go fight in the Korean War.

The ending was sad and depressing, but also believable.  Director Peter Bogdanovich did a fine job of painting a stark but vivid picture that is hard to ignore.  He shows us that while growing up is inevitable, it rarely happens without the pain of regret and lost innocence.  The film, as a whole, was a good enough movie, though maybe a bit slow for my tastes.  In 1990, a sequel called Texasville was made which brought most of the cast back to reprise their roles.  Unfortunately, it got mixed reviews and did not do well at the box office.

1971 – Fiddler on the Roof

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Fiddler on the Roof – 1971

I am generally a fan of musicals, however, in my opinion, there haven’t been many good ones in recent years.  As a result, I have somewhat lost my love for them.  But then I see this one.  I haven’t seen it in a very long time, and suddenly I am reminded why I enjoy them so much.  Sometimes music is the best way to convey powerful emotion.  If the music is good, if it is well-written and well-performed, it can take the emotion of a character beyond what simple words are able to.  Music sometimes has the uncanny ability to touch our hearts in a way that words cannot.  The masterful musical arrangements by none other than John Williams, himself, didn’t hurt.

The music for Fiddler on the Roof was done right.  It is beautiful, and at times, surprisingly powerful.  Over the course of the story, it ranged from exciting to fun, from hopeful to depressing, from joyful to solemn.  The actors who performed the songs were, I’ll admit, were a bit of a mixed bag.  Some of them were very good, but others had voices that were not.  But strangely enough, even this was appropriate, adding to the realism of the film.

The casting was spot on.  The film follows the story of the main protagonist, Tevye, played by Israeli actor, Topol.  He is a hard-working, but extremely poor man with a sharp-tongued wife named Golde, played by Norma Crane.  They have five daughters, but really, only the eldest three are important to the plot.  They are Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, played by Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, and Neva Small, respectively.

They live in the poor village of Anatevka.  It is 1905 and the village is made up of a small section of Orthodox Jews, and a larger section of Russian Orthodox Christians.  For the most part, the two groups leave each other alone, but eventually the peace is broken by the Russian Revolution of 1905.  But all that is just a backdrop for the real drama of the plot.  The Jews live their lives according to the strict traditions handed down to them by their ancestors.  The main issue is the tradition of matchmaking.  The father is supposed to have the final say on who his daughters will marry.

However, Tevye’s daughters each have ideas of their own.  Afraid of being matched to old men, they want to marry for love.  The each choose husbands of their own, and Tevye is forced to give up his fatherly rights to make way for a more modern way of thinking.  He is a religious man, and often prays to God, discussing his problems.  When he does, it seems like he is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience.

Tevye arranges for his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to marry the old but wealthy town butcher, Lazar Wolf, wonderfully played by Paul Mann.  Instead, she convinces him to let her wed her childhood sweetheart, the poor tailor, Motel Kamzoil, splendidly played by Leonard Frey.  Hodel falls in love with Perchik, played by Michael Glaser, a radical Marxist from Kiev, and after his arrest at a workers’ rally and subsequent exile to Siberia, she leaves home to be with him.  Chava falls in love with a Christian Orthodox peasant named Fyedka, played by Raymond Lovelock, and elopes with him against the strict wishes of her father.  For her act of defiance and betrayal, Tevye disowns her.

The realism of the sets and costumes was incredible.  The dim and gritty color palette used by the production designers enhanced the film’s authenticity.  The only really bright color I remember seeing was the red tapestry in the Jewish temple, displaying the Star of David, and the lush greens of the glade in which Motel and Tzeitel’s love for each other is allowed to bloom.  Aside from those things, the gray skies and the muddy streets dominated the screen.

The songs were wonderful and memorable, some showing off a decidedly Jewish flare.  The dancing in the song To Life was really exciting and fun to watch.  Great songs like If I Were a Rich Man, Matchmaker, Miracle of Miracles, Sunrise, Sunset, Do You Love Me, and even the depressing Anatevka, which closed the film, are easy to listen to.  And while I’m on the subject, the bleak and sad ending was enough to bring a few tears to my eyes.  And yet, it held a glimmer of hope for a better life as well.  Director Norman Jewison really knew what he was doing.

The whole cast did a fine job, but I have to mention two stand-out performances.  Leonard Frey was wonderful as Motel, the young boy struggling to become a man.  He had an innocence about him, but also a strength that was endearing.  But really, Topol’s portrayal of the main character, Tevye, stole the show.  The part seemed to be written for him.  True, that might be because he was the only character whose inner thoughts were ever given voice, but he played his part so well and believably, that he was really amazing to watch.  As a viewer, I really felt like I got to know his character intimately.  Well done Topol!