1976 – Bound for Glory

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Bound For Glory – 1976

David Carradine stars as Woody Guthrie, the famous American folk singer in this biopic film that chronicles the beginnings of his career as a musician.  The movie was good enough, I suppose, except that I have never been a fan of Guthrie’s music, nor have I ever been a fan of politics and activism.  However, I will still call Bound for Glory a good movie.  I enjoyed it because of its beautiful cinematography, and its competent acting.

The film was based on the auto-biography of the same name, written by Guthrie.  However, certain small things were omitted.  For example, the movie leaves out 2 of his 3 wives, and 6 of his 8 children.  But I’ll give it credit for leaving the extra-marital affairs in. But it’s alright.  The key points are all there, and I think a lot of that happened after the film’s stopping point.

Guthrie was a sign painter living in the dust bowl era, otherwise known as the Dirty Thirties.  He had a certain amount of wanderlust that drove him to leave his wife, Mary, played by Melinda Dillon, taking with him his paint brushes and a guitar.  He became a vagabond and a boxcar hobo, making his way from Texas to California, constantly looking for work in exchange for food.  Along the way, he becomes a part of the poor migrant culture, and is affected by the terrible conditions caused by extreme poverty.

He uses his music to speak out against the social injustice and inequality.  Eventually, he is noticed by a man in a position to get him a job as a radio singer.  He becomes popular and gains money and status.  He uses his newfound wealth to bring Mary and his children to California.

But here is where I felt the real drama of the movie showed its face.  The sponsors of his radio program wanted him to stop singing about the horrible conditions of the working class migrants.  Mary urges him to give in to the corporate sponsors so that he can keep his job.  His friend, singing partner, and fellow activist, Ozark Bule, played by Ronny Cox, also begged him to follow the rules.

But the plight of the working class affected Woody too much and he refused to do as he was told.  But then Mary, seeing that the money would soon be gone, left him.  And she was right.  He gets fired from his job.   Finally, in order to stay true to his principles, he goes back out on the road so that he can sing to and support the poor workers to bring them hope.  He says he is headed for New York, and of course, that is the point where Guthrie’s career really takes off.  But it is also where the movie ends.  The last shot is the image of Guthrie sitting alone on top of a train boxcar, playing his guitar as he rides off into the sunset.

One of the best things about the movie was its wonderful cinematography.  The realistic depiction of the dry and dusty town of Pampa, Texas was appropriately depressing and colorless.  The dust storm was particularly impressive.  In fact, Best Cinematography was one of the two Academy Awards the movie won, the other being Best Music, Original Song Score.

Carradine did a good enough job, as did Dillon and Cox.  I have no complaints about the acting.  I think if the movie had any real failings it was the pacing.  It was just way too slow.  The trick is that I believe that the problem was inherent in the era in which the story took place.  It was the middle of the Great Depression.  It was a time of unemployment, frustration, and emotional depression.  Such a story doesn’t easily lend itself to a quick, energetic pace.  Unfortunately, it sometimes came across as just dull, especially for someone like me who is not interested in twangy folk music or social activism.

And another thing.  Guthrie was portrayed as a hero of the working class, the common man.  But he was a terrible husband and an irresponsible father.  I suppose it all depends on one’s personal philosophies.  Is it alright to abandon your family if you are serving a greater social good?  As far as I’m concerned, no, it is not.  If a man chooses to have a family, his first responsibility should be to them if he has any say in the matter.

And as a last thought, I have to mention two other actors with smaller parts that I thought actually did very well, creating memorable characters.  First was a fellow migrant worker with a wife and child, Luther Johnson, played by a very young Randy Quaid.  The other is Pauline, a very wealthy woman who Woody has an affair with, played by Gail Strickland.  They both played their parts well and deserve to be recognized.

1976 – All the President’s Men

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All The President’s Men – 1976

On the surface, this film might seem like a political drama.  It deals with the Watergate Scandal that took place in 1971.  However, it is not about the actual break-in at the infamous hotel, but the shady aftermath of the crime which grew and grew, culminating in the resignation of the President of the United States.  The story, as it is presented, is almost like a detective story, except that the investigators are newspaper journalists.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  Woodward is a young, green reporter, and Bernstein is an experienced newspaper writer.  The two men are assigned to work together investigating the scandal, and the information they gather consistently leads to more questions than answers.  They become obsessed with following the conspiracy to its end, talking to everyone they can, asking all the questions that people are afraid to ask, and using any resource available, reputable or not, to put all the pieces together.  It was interesting how the two reporters were able to get people to talk, despite the extremely sensitive nature of the questions.

Obviously the plot of the film is a fictionalized telling of true events.  But as with all films based on real stories, I have to do a little research and try to determine how accurate the film was able to be.  In this case, the script was based on the first half of the book that was the source material, written by the two reporters.  They were interviewed by William Goldman, the man hired to write the screenplay.  I found nothing saying that the events weren’t true to life.  Apparently, Woodward was very helpful to Goldman, but Bernstein was not.

The movie ends with the two reporters making a mistake which lets the man they are after get away, the White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman.  Their executive editor at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, has put his own neck out on the line to trust them, and their blunder brings him under negative attention.  But then, the movie just ends with Woodward and Bernstein in the dog house.

Then a few seconds are allotted to show a teletype headline montage which tells the viewers what happened next.  For those of us who do not know the story, we are told that Haldeman and several other suspects implicated in the Watergate cover-up are arrested, none of whom spend as much time in prison as I would have thought.  The brief montage ends by telling us that Nixon has resigned and Gerald Ford has been inaugurated as the President.

The plot was a little confusing for me to follow simply because I was not familiar with the characters.  And speaking of the characters, it was interesting to note that the names of the characters were not changed for the film.  In most movies based on true events, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”  But not here.  The only name that was never really given in the film was the name of the mysterious informant, Deep Throat, played by Hal Holbrook.  But I have learned that the name of that informant was kept secret until 2005, when, after his death, it was revealed that he was Mark Felt, the man who had been the Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the time of the scandal.

There were a few other notable actors in the cast such as Martin Balsam, Ned Beatty, and Stephen Collins.  Everyone did a fine job, but if I had to pick some stand-outs, they would be Jack Warden as Harry Rosenfeld, the editor in charge of local news at the Washington Post who backed Woodward and Bernstein in their investigations, and Jane Alexander, a reluctant informant who is clearly afraid for her safety when being interviewed.

The movie was alright, but it was a little confusing at times.  There were so many names being thrown around that I sometimes found the plot hard to follow.  But that being said, I don’t know how else they could have done it.  They couldn’t take out any characters or combine any, as movies often do, especially since the real scandal was only a few years old and most people would have known the real story, and it was nothing if not topical for its time.  I’d even say that it holds up well for a modern viewer, if you are interested in learning about the Watergate scandal.

1975 – Nashville

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Nashville – 1975

I was only 2 years old in 1975, so I wasn’t aware of the world politics.  So today, it is difficult for me to gauge just how serious the political climate was.  All that being said, I don’t really understand why this was such a beloved movie.  It certainly painted a picture of the Country & Western music subculture in the mid-70s, but beyond that, I can’t see why Nashville has gotten such great reviews.

It felt to me like it was trying too hard to be socially significant and poignant.  It was a movie that had a large cast and a lot of stories being told at the same time, though I was only intrigued by a few of them.  There was a climax that was never really explained to my satisfaction, so it was difficult for me to feel passionate about it.  I’ve never been a huge fan of C&W music, especially from that era, so I was a little bored by that aspect of the film that was supposed to be one of its biggest attractions.

The movie did have several names that I recognized like Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Shelly Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, and Lily Tomlin, though none of them played a character that was more important or more central to the overall film than any other character.  If the film had any lead, I would have to say that it was Ronee Blakley in her first film role.  She played the sweetheart of Nashville, country singer, Barbara Jean.  She is fragile, both physically and emotionally, and much of the movie’s drama revolves around her.

The film’s climax is the most interesting thing that happened in the film, but even that was only mildly engaging, and I’ll explain why.  Throughout the movie, a running political commentary is drilled into the viewer about how the current government of the time needed to be supplanted with a new party called the Replacement Party.  A van with loudspeakers affixed to its roof is constantly roaming the city, spouting this new party.  The film’s climax takes place at a political rally where many of the characters who aspire to be country stars are ready to perform.

Except that the point is made that almost none of these performers have any interest in supporting the candidate’s politics.  They each have their own reasons for performing at the rally.  Barbara Jean is cornered into performing in order to salvage her faltering career.  Sueleen Gay, played by Gwen Wells, is a talentless singer who just wants to perform on the same stage as Barbara Jean.  Haven Hamilton is a star of the Grand Ole Opry, and Barbara Jean’s friend, though he has his own political aspirations.

Anyway, after Barbara Jean sings a few songs, Haven joins her on the stage.  Suddenly, a character, who, up until this point, has been so unimportant as to be unnecessary, Kenny Fraiser, played by David Hayward, pulls out a gun and shoots Barbara Jean and Haven, presumably killing her and wounding him.  Unfortunately, it is never revealed whether the shot that hit Barbara Jean was fatal or not.  The issue is left unresolved.

It was supposed to be tragic, poignant, and dramatic, but unfortunately, it was none of these things to me.  Kenny’s motives were never explained.  He had obviously come to Nashville with the intent to murder, but why?  Was it an act of violence aimed at the music industry, or was the political party the target?  Or was there a personal reason why Barbara Jean or Haven Hamilton might have been the target?  Another unanswered question.  And when it came down to it, there were so many different stories being told, and so little time was given to developing any one character, I just didn’t really care either way.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Many of them were just plain annoying.  For example, Shelly Duvall played Martha, the niece of an old man whose wife was dying in the hospital.  Martha dressed weird just to be weird, adding to the already weird and unattractively skinny appearance of the gawky actress.  Geraldine Chaplin played Opal, a celebrity-obsessed BBC journalist who is so rude that she, in stereotypical reporter style, barges into any situation in which she might get an interview with a star, as if anyone would drop everything they are doing to answer her ridiculous questions.  One of the only characters I actually liked was Bud Hamilton, Haven’s son and lawyer.  He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, but once again, he had very little screen time and was vastly unimportant to any of the plots.

I think that if I was more knowledgeable about the politics of the mid-70s, I would have understood more of the film’s social agenda and significance.  Maybe the film would have been more palatable if the various stories had more interaction with each other.  Sure, the different characters often showed up peripherally in other people’s plots, but not in any important way.  For my tastes, the separate tales were just too isolated and underdeveloped to be very impactful.

1975 – Jaws

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Jaws – 1975

Ok, it is difficult to decide where to begin with one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.  I know, it is nowhere near being the biggest, but it is up there.  And as such, there are so many things I’d like to say about it.  First and foremost, I need to call this movie a suspense thriller.  It’s a monster movie done right.  And it is the most effective kind of monster movie there is, because the monster, a giant-sized great white shark, could very easily be real.

According to the film’s director, Stephen Spielberg, the star of the film is really the shark.  Its costars, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, each did a great job, but they all had to take a back seat to Jaws.  One story after another is told about how the mechanical shark caused such serious problems during filming that it nearly shut down the production.  But really, it is what we have all come to see.  Even though we know the shark, at times, looked pretty fake, we love believing that it is real.

The film is about the shark as it terrorizes the waters of the fictional town, Amity Island, in New England.  The town depends on tourism and Mayor Vaughn, played by Murray Hamilton, refuses to close the beaches, stubbornly claiming that the monster poses no threat to anyone’s safety.  Scheider plays Police Chief Brody.  He is constantly trying to get the Mayor to close the beaches.  Enthusiastic young oceanographer, Matt Hooper, played by Dreyfuss, arrives to assess the situation.

Eventually, after one too many bloody deaths, the beaches are closed, and professional shark hunter Sam Quint, played by Shaw, is hired to kill the beast.  Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint go to sea on a wooden boat called the Orca to do battle with the leviathan.  The first half of the movie is all set-up for the hunt.  Until then, we have barely seen the shark, which many say, and I agree, is part of the film’s genius.  I think that it is human nature to be the most scared of what we cannot see.  That is what makes that opening scene so frightening!

The shark’s first victim is a young woman who is swimming naked in the moonlight.  Actress Susan Blacklinie played Chrissie Watkins.  Anyone who has seen that opening sequence will understand just how scary it really is.  We can only see and hear what is above the water.  We see her terrified face, hear her quick, short breaths, see her get dunked as Jaws begins to devour her.  Then, as he grabs her and begins thrashing her around in the water, her blood-curdling screams for help are like a knife to the heart of the viewers.  And then the sudden, ominous silence, as he pulls her under for the last time, is enough to make anyone afraid to get into the bathtub.

But despite the film’s suspense-thriller tone, there are plenty of dramatic moments, and even light-hearted scenes which do a wonderful job of humanizing the characters and making us afraid for them as they face the monster shark.  The scene where the mother of a dead child, eaten by Jaws, publicly accuses Chief Brody of allowing the beaches to stay open when he knew that there was a dangerous shark in the water is poignant and well played.  Quint’s unexpected and dramatic little speech about how he was one of 1,100 men who were stranded in the ocean during WWII, was one of the best scenes in the movie.  He told of how they were attacked by sharks and he was one of the 316 survivors.

Spielberg has been quoted as saying that the movie wouldn’t have been half as good as it was if it were not for the incredible soundtrack by his friend, composer, John Williams.  Just hearing those two simple notes is enough to strike fear in the heart.  The music has become synonymous with more than just shark attacks, but with unseen danger, in general.  John Williams is known for writing some of the most memorable movie themes in history, and Jaws was, according to the composer, the one that really jumpstarted his career.

If I had any complaints about the film, it would be a mild one concerning the ending.  The ending was changed from the original book for a very understandable reason.  Jaws still died, but in the source material, it was just from extensive wounding.  For a film, it would have been a bit anticlimactic.  Spielberg wanted an exciting and visually stunning ending.  Well, he certainly got that.  He placed an oxygen tank in the shark’s mouth which Chief Brody shot with a rifle.  The tank exploded, blowing up the beast in a shower of blood and shredded shark parts!

Ok, let’s take a quick look at this.  Could it work?  Maybe, but unlikely for the simple reason that when the tank was put into the shark’s mouth, one of two things would probably have happened:  Either the giant shark would have swallowed the tank down its gullet, thus making it impossible for Brody to shoot it, or it would have ejected the tank, rendering it useless as a means of killing the shark.  It probably would not have kept it in its mouth like a toothpick in the mouth of a gangster.  Oh, who am I kidding?  It was an awesome and exciting ending, and I loved it!

1975 – Dog Day Afternoon

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Dog Day Afternoon – 1975

This was an unexpected movie.  I knew next to nothing about it before watching it.  I knew that it starred Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon, and that everybody who has seen it seemed to like it, but that was about it.  I have never been a huge Al Pacino fan, so I would have never watched Dog Day Afternoon, which is unfortunate because it really was a very good movie.  I wouldn’t call it great, but it was very good.  Either way, Pacino impressed me.  He played a multi-layered character that was complex and realistic.  Of course, the film was based on real events and people, so the script writer, Frank Pierson, had a natural base from which to work.

The film follows the failed bank robbery attempt that took place in 1972 in Brooklyn, NY.  A man named John Wojtowicz and his partner Salvatore Naturale were the perpetrators who held 7 employees of the bank at gunpoint for 14 hours.  According to the film, whose accuracy is somewhat in question, their ineptness as bank robbers alerted the police to the situation, and a full-blown hostage crisis developed which had the nation watching.  According to the article I read, the film covered all the key points of the event.  But when the real Wojtowicz was interviewed, he claimed that the movie was only about 30% true, though he did praise Pacino and Sarandon’s portrayals as accurate.

Pacino played Sonny Wortzik, a man whose sanity is unstable.  Those who know him say he has always been a good man, but then they go on to tell how he is subject to fits of anger and violence.  The film portrays him as a somewhat religious man, a Catholic, but also reveals that he has several distinctly un-Catholic-like traits, the most obvious of these being his homosexuality.

However, the film was very hands-off about the touchy subject.  They kept it in because it established the real reason behind the bank robbery, but didn’t explore whether it was the reason behind his fragile mental state or his explosive temper.  His preoperative transsexual wife, Leon, played by Sarandon, was in a mental institution after a failed suicide attempt.  He said that he was trying to “get away” from Sonny.  But the bank robbery was Sonny’s way to get money for Leon’s sexual reassignment surgery.

However, after further research, I have learned that in the real story, the money for the surgery was only a secondary reason for the heist.  The primary reason was that John Wojtowicz was involved with the Mafia and the whole thing was a well-planned operation that had gone horribly wrong.  The movie left that entire angle out.  But I guess that wouldn’t have been as shocking or controversial as a homosexual relationship and a sex-change operation.

The film’s director, Sidney Lumet, did a great job of keeping the pace quick, though not frantic.  The moments of negotiations between Sonny and the Police officer, Sergeant Moretti, played by Charles Durning, were engaging and played out very well.  The tension inherent in a dangerous hostage situation started the film off in a way that drew me in and kept me hoping for the safety of the bank employees.  But it wasn’t until the FBI arrived to take over the negotiations that the kid gloves really seemed to come off.

Agent Sheldon, played by James Broderick, did an impressive job as a man who was in complete control of the situation.  Sergeant Moretti did a good job, but the games were over when Agent Sheldon arrived.  Fellow FBI employee, Agent Murphy, played by Lance Hendrickson, was also memorable, and really seemed like a man who knew what he was doing.

Other notable actors in the film were John Cazale as Sonny’s partner, Sal, Penelope Allen as senior bank teller Sylvia “Mouth”, and Sully Boyer as the stout-hearted bank manager, Mulvaney.  I have discovered that Cazale is really a great actor.  He is consistently good in everything in which I’ve seen him, and this film is no exception.  His character was played as slow-minded, strangely religious, easily manipulated, and completely loyal to Sonny.  Cazale created a very memorable tragic character.

Here is a little quote from Wikipedia that I found interesting.  “The original inspiration for the film was an article written by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore for Life Magazine in September 1972. The article included many of the details later used in the film and noted the relationship which Wojtowicz and Naturale developed with hostages and the police. Bank manager Robert Barrett said, ‘I’m supposed to hate you guys but I’ve had more laughs tonight than I’ve had in weeks.  We had a kind of camaraderie.’  Teller Shirley Bell said, ’If they had been my houseguests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious.”

1975 – Barry Lyndon

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Barry Lyndon – 1975

Barry Lyndon was a film by Stanley Kubrick, and as such, it was slow, but never boring.  It was a period piece that took place in the 1700s, and followed the life of a handsome Irishman named Redmond Barry, played by Ryan O’Neal.  The story begins when he is a teenager and falls for his first love.  She spurns him to marry a rich soldier.  He challenges the man to a duel, kills him, runs off and joins the army.  He deserts his post, gets conscripted into the Prussian army, and then recruited to become a spy after the war is over.  He escapes Prussia with the man on whom he is spying, settles in England, becomes a successful gambler, marries a wealthy woman for her money, spends most of her fortune, is challenged to a duel by her high-born son, and gets shot in the leg which must then be amputated.  He finally returns to Ireland with his mother.

That’s the entire plot, in a nutshell.  Of course, it took Kubrick 3 full hours to tell the story.  Fortunately, the film was visually interesting and engaging the entire time.  The characters were well developed, the sets and costumes were flawless, and the cinematography was incredible.  That’s the thing with Kubrick’s films.  He is never afraid to really take his sweet time when telling his story, but he also never leaves you bored.

My first thought, when learning that Ryan O’Neal was playing the lead in a period drama was that his face was too modern.  I also thought, when I found he was playing an Irishman, that his face was too American.  Fortunately, I was wrong on both accounts.  He did a very good job and didn’t seem out of place at all, except for one thing.  His Irish accent was very inconsistent, coming and going throughout the film.

But that was easy enough to overlook.  The trouble I had with his character is that he was not a very likeable man.  But it’s alright.  I don’t think he was supposed to be likeable, exactly.  Redmond Barry was a self-centered opportunist who had no problem hurting other people if it got him what he desired.  More than once, he betrayed those who loved him for personal gain.

He loved his mother, Belle, played by Marie Kean, and in Act II, his son Bryan, played by David Morley.  His love for his first girlfriend, his cousin Nora, played by Gay Hardin, was the selfish and obsessive love of a youth.  He loved his Commanding officer in the English army, Captain Grogan, played by Godfrey Quigley, and he loved his gambling partner, Chevalier du Balibari, played by Patrick Magee.

Everyone else, he seemed to step on as easily as breathing.  This included his commanding officer in the Prussian army, who was always very kind to him, Captain Potzdorf, played by Hardy Kruger.  He so badly mistreated his wife, Lady Lyndon, from whom he gained his new last name, played by Marisa Berenson.  And he rarely showed any kindness to her son Lord Bullington, played by Leon Vitali.

The film was beautifully shot and was awarded 4 Academy Awards.  It took home Oscars for Best Art Direction, which is set design, Best Cinematography, which is camera-work, Best Costume Design, and Best Musical Score.  Kubrick went out of his way to make every detail look as realistic as possible.  He used as much natural lighting as he could.  He also found a way to successfully film by candle light since the story took place before the age of electricity.  He used filming locations that were perfectly suited to the opulence and grandeur of the time period.

While the original novel on which the film was based had a much more playful feel, treating the character of Barry Lyndon as a fortune-hunting Irish rogue, Kubrick’s film treated it as more of a dramatic tragedy.  And no character was more tragic than Lady Lyndon.  The way Redmond wantonly ignored her and squandered her fortune was nearly enough to make me despise him.  Fortunately, her son, who never believed that Barry loved his mother, rebelled.  True, Lord Bullington wasn’t a likeable character either, but at least I thought he was justified in the way he got rid of his step-father, and he was even generous, giving him an annuity for the remainder of his life.  He saved his mother, though perhaps at the cost of her happiness, except that she had never truly been happy with her husband.

The tragic and melancholy ending was indicative of the entire film.  The whole thing had very little joy in it.  The story was told with a perfunctory coldness that, at times, felt too sterile and passionless.  But I think that was the style that Kubrick was trying to achieve.  Even the constant narration that helped to propel the story from beginning to end, was told from an omniscient, third-person perspective, establishing a detachment from the events taking place.  The tone of the narrator was the same whether Barry was being robbed or married, whether his son was dying or his leg was being amputated.  Incidentally, it also had a hand in causing the film’s slow pace.

1974 – The Towering inferno

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The Towering Inferno – 1974

OK, I can’t start this review without mentioning how much of a badass Steve McQueen is.  He kicks but and looks sexy doing it.  Just had to get out of the way.  But the movie had many more big name stars than just McQueen.  It also starred Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, and Susan Blakely.  That’s some real star power.  Even O. J. Simpson had a role.

The title pretty much tells you exactly what the movie is about.  The Towering Inferno is considered one of the best examples of the disaster movie genre.  It features a 138 story high-rise called the Glass Tower which houses businesses and luxury apartments.  Its construction is nearly complete and a ribbon cutting party is taking place in the Promenade Room.  Because of the tower’s greedy builders, costs were cut using substandard electrical equipment and insufficient safety measures.  While 300 people have their swanky party on the 135th floor, an electrical fire breaks out on the 81st floor.

Newman was arguably the main character of the ensemble cast, but McQueen had the meatier role.  Newman played Doug Roberts, the building’s architect.  McQueen played Mike O’Halloran, the Battalion Fire Chief.  Dunaway played Doug’s fiancée, Susan.  Holden was the Builder, Jim Duncan, and his sleazy son-in-law, the building’s electrical engineer, Roger Simmons, is played by Chamberlain.  Aside from that, the only other significant roles were the aged con-man, Harlee Claiborne, played by Astaire, and Lisolette Mueller, the woman he is attempting to con, played by Jones.

There were definitely plenty of impressive things, though there were also plenty of things which were embarrassingly disappointing.  First, I’ll go over the good things.  The technical achievements involved in making such a spectacle as the Towering Inferno were amazing.  There was fire everywhere, explosions, suffocating smoke, characters dying in horrible ways, actors being nearly drowned in massive amounts of water, helicopter heroics, and daring stunts.  It was visually stunning.  Understandably, setting a stunt man on fire is incredibly dangerous, and it was done several times.  It will be a while before I forget the shocking image of Jennifer Jones, falling to her death from a glass elevator, bouncing off of burning wreckage on her way down.

It was all so engaging that I was almost able to overlook the film’s glaring failures. The film’s biggest flaw, in my opinion, was the implausible, nay, impossible solution that the script writers came up with to douse the fire.  Mike and Doug blow up the massive water tanks on the top floor of the high-rise and the floor below the tanks so that the water drains through the fire-engulfed building, putting out the flames as it descends.

Nope!  Not buying it!  First, the few men left in the Promenade would be dead if that much water dumped directly on them.  Second, half the water was shown pouring out the windows, missing the fires completely.  Third, the only way that all the fires in the tower could have been extinguished is if the building was submerged in water flooding every room and hallway.  The falling water may have doused flames in the stairwells and elevator shafts, but there were floors and floors of blazing hallways and apartments which the falling water would never have touched.  End result?  The plan would have failed and Doug and Mike would be dead.

My second biggest problem with the film was Newman’s poor acting.  There!  I said it!  Newman looked like he was phoning it in.  Half the time he seemed disinterested, whether he was kissing Dunaway or rescuing kids from a burning apartment.  But at least I found a reason.  Apparently, during filming, Newman was quoted as saying, “For the first time, I fell for the goddamn numbers.  I did this turkey for a million and 10% of the gross, but it’s the 1st and last time, I swear.”  Sorry Paul, but it looks like it.

And as a final interesting fact, I have to return to Steve McQueen’s badassery.  During filming, McQueen was conferring with two fire chiefs at 20th Century-Fox when word came that Goldwyn Studio was in flames.  Steve and his wife, actress Ali MacGraw, accompanied the chiefs to the scene to observe firefighting techniques.  As the flames grew, McQueen put on a helmet and protective gear and began to fight the fire along with the real firemen.  He remained in the front lines, helping to battle the blaze.  At one point, a fireman was startled to see the famous actor at his side and shouted in amazement, “Steve McQueen!  My wife will never believe this!” to which McQueen replied, “Neither will mine!”  How frickin’ awesome was he?!?

1974 – Lenny

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Lenny – 1974

This movie must have been pretty topical for its time, and it isn’t that I don’t think it could be relevant today.   It’s just that it was a slow and plodding movie about a historical figure that, quite honestly, very few people remember today.  I’ve heard the name Lenny Bruce associated with the counter-culture movement of the 60s.  But I had no idea who he was or what he stood for.  This movie is dramatized documentary about his rocky career.

Apparently, Lenny Bruce, played by Dustin Hoffman, was a stand-up comedian.  At least, he started out as one.  But as his career progressed, his comedy turned into pure social commentary which he occasionally made funny.  Eventually, he stopped being funny and became nothing more than a mirror, showing how people in the 1960s were hypocrites who allowed social injustices to be commonplace.  He showed us how greed, corruption, and worst of all, the apathy of the society in which he lived were responsible for social atrocities.

Was he right?  Yes, he was, but he seemed to have forgotten what made him popular in the first place.  When his comedy act became a rant on the ills human nature, people stopped wanting to see him.  Then, the crowds he drew in were only there to see if he would say something obscene or be arrested.  And his frequent drug use didn’t seem to help either.  Neither did the great love of his life, his wife, Honey, played by an actress I have never even heard of before named Valerie Perrine.  She was a stripper, but he called her his “Shiksa goddess.”

The only other two significant roles in the film were his mother, Sally Marr, played by Jan Miner, and his manager, Artie Silver, played by Stanley Beck.  The movie was, as I mentioned, a dramatized documentary.  The film cut back and forth, and was told through interviews with Lenny’s wife, his mother, and his manager.  There was also plenty of Bruce’s stand-up material, performed by Hoffman.  The film’s climax was the comedian’s death by morphine overdose.

Now, this isn’t a review about the career of Lenny Bruce.  It is about the film.  The real life of Bruce may have been fast-paced and interesting.  But I’m sorry to say that the film was slow and plodding.  And while Hoffman’s performance was very good, I think he was upstaged by Perrine.  Her acting was incredibly good.  She carried much of the film’s emotional drama.

Honey, like Lenny, was a drug addict and she played that part of the character amazingly well.  There was one scene, in particular, in which she is strung out on heroine of some other drug, and calls Lenny to ask for money.  She was so real and it was almost heartbreaking to watch.  Perrine did a fantastic job and really deserved the Oscar nomination she received, though she lost to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

So, as with any film that is based on a true story, I looked into the story of Lenny Bruce’s life and found that the movie followed all the key points, but glossed over others.  For example, when Lenny and Honey were divorced, there was actually a custody battle for their daughter, Kitty, which the film didn’t mention.  Or even the first time the comedian was arrested was ignored, which was for impersonating a priest as part of a get rich quick scheme.  And just as a side note, his scheme worked.  Dressed as a priest with a stolen collar, Lenny Bruce solicited over $8,000 in donations for a leper colony in British Guiana.  He gave #2,500 to the real colony and kept the rest.  Not surprisingly, the film also really played up the romance between Lenny and Honey.

Another scene that caught my attention was Hoffman’s portrayal of Bruce’s final performance.  At least, it was his final performance showed in the film.  He was sick and high, and dressed in two items of clothing: a raincoat and a sock.  He was pathetically dazed and incoherent.  He was clearly having a very difficult time putting any kind of understandable thoughts together.  He could barely stay on his feet.  It was an awkward scene that was uncomfortable to watch, and it was very well played.

My main complaint about the film was its slow pacing, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that it was a biopic about a man in whom I was never personally interested.  Still, it had its moments which held my attention.  But not far behind that was the fact that it was filmed in black and white.  Most black and white filming went away in the 60s, and I completely understand why director Bob Fosse chose to make it a black and white film.  It was because of the movie’s biopic documentary angle.  Filmed footage of the real Lenny Bruce would have been taken in the 60s, and at that time, most low-budget documentary footage would have been black and white.  But I don’t think the film would have lost anything if it had been filmed in color.  Then again, it wouldn’t have enhanced it either, so I guess that one is just a personal preference.

1974 – The Conversation

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The Conversation – 1974

This was a fascinating little movie.  It didn’t seem like it would need a big budget, a large cast, or a lot of different sets or costumes.  It was a small story that delved in the mind of its main protagonist.  One might call it a psychological thriller, though the plot’s real suspense only showed up in the last half an hour or so.  Actually the suspense began at the beginning of the film, but the build-up was so slow and gradual that I didn’t even realize it was there until it was too late.

Gene Hackman starred as Harry Caul, a professional private surveillance man.  He spied on people for money, and apparently, he was the best in the business.  As you might imagine, it takes a certain kind of personality to violate the privacy of unwitting victims for a living, but Harry seemed to have just the right combination of social and emotional dysfunctions to enable him to excel at his trade.  However, it also ensures that he is a very lonely man who cannot competently interact with his fellow human beings, as is evidenced by his failing relationship with a woman named Amy, played by Teri Garr, a woman who would love him if he could only allow himself to tell her anything about his personal life.

He was naturally paranoid, profoundly suspicious, emotionally crippled, and intentionally detached from normal society.  He would use any trick he could to record private conversations, then sell the secrets he learned to other unscrupulous people who were willing to pay.  The trade-off is that he spends so much time spying on strangers, he is terrified about being spied upon, himself.

The conversation we see him recording at the start of the film is between Mark and Ann, played by Fredrick Forrest and Cindy Williams, as they wander through a crowded, noisy, outdoor environment.  We hear it only in bits and pieces.  But then, as Harry and his associate, Stan, played by John Cazale, study the tapes, we slowly begin to get a better sense of what was said and the order in which it was spoken.  Afterword, he takes the incriminating recording of the conversation to the men who hired him, a man known only as The Director, and his assistant, played by Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford, respectively.

Now, here is where the tension really starts to ramp up.  At one point, a piece of the conversation cannot be heard because it took place near a loud band playing music.  But when Harry is able to filter out the ambient noise, he hears something that curdles his blood.  He hears Mark say, “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” and knows that someone is contemplating murder.  What should he do?

The movie explores certain themes such as the morality of covert surveillance, and paranoia.  The character of Harry Caul is a wonderful study in both of these things.  He tells himself that he is alright with his profession because he doesn’t get emotionally involved in the cases on which he works.  Unfortunately, when the secrets he learns lead to murder, he cannot maintain his emotional distance.

It was the film’s ending, that last half an hour, which boosted the film from average to fascinating.  The conversation, which we hear over and over again throughout the movie, yields the name of a hotel, a room number, and a date where something is supposed to happen.  We the viewers, start to become emotionally involved right along with Harry.

Harry, however, paranoid and suspicious as he is, doesn’t go to the police with the secrets he has learned, but goes to the hotel himself, possibly in hopes of preventing the murder.  He drills through the wall in the bathroom to listen in on what is going on in the room, but abandons his surveillance equipment when the screaming starts.  He can hear what is going on through the thin walls of the hotel with his own ears.

But the film throws us a curve ball.  We have been led to believe that Mark and Ann are going to be murdered, but they, themselves, turn out to be the murderers.  And Harry can do nothing to stop it.  It was a very well written plot twist and Hackman really did a great job.  In fact, Hackman did a fantastic job in general.  I have always liked him as an actor and his character could very easily have been over the top or border on ridiculous.  Instead, he made me feel for him and even like him, at times.  And as you might imagine, it is not always easy to like a character with so many negative qualities.

The last scene in the film was creepy and poignant, laying bare Harry’s psyche and showing just how deeply his paranoia is a part of his personality.  The murderers have learned that Harry knows what happened and they bug his apartment.  They let him know that he, the one who is always the watcher and the listener, is now the victim of an invaded privacy.  The knowledge drives him insane.  It was a creepy and perfectly executed ending to a movie that I found surprisingly engaging.

1974 – Chinatown

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Chinatown – 1974

I have been looking forward to seeing this movie for a while, and I was not disappointed.  I really enjoyed it!  The acting was excellent, the direction was interesting and captivating, the sets and costumes were spot-on, and the plot was engaging.  It was a modern film noir starring Jack Nicholson as private eye, J. J. Gittes, and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray.

Gittes is the classic gumshoe, played along the same line as Sam Spade, and it even follows several common tropes of the genre.  He is a private investigator with an office and a secretary.  And he’s in it for the money.  He is mostly hired by women who want proof of their husbands’ cheating.  When a wealthy woman calling herself Mrs. Mulwray, wife of Hollis Mulwray, the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, asks him for such evidence, he takes the job.  He follows the woman’s husband and takes some photos of his rendezvous with a beautiful young woman.

But then, once the incriminating photos show up in the newspaper, the real Mrs. Mulwray, Dunaway, shows up and threatens to file a law suit against Gittes.  Unfortunately, Hollis Mulwray soon turns up dead and his mistress goes missing.  And there’s the setup.  So while it is certainly a who-done-it mystery, it has a bit of an intellectual edge, because the crime isn’t one of passion.  The reason for the murder is money, which is a byproduct of shady deals taking place at the Department of Water and Power.

The plot is complex but not too difficult to follow.  It draws you in and holds your attention.  The mystery moves at a good pace and has several twists and turns, as one might expect from a crime drama.  And the script was so well written, that as the list of murder suspects starts to take shape, each potential killer is believable.  Was it Evelyn, the victim’s jealous wife?  Or was it Noah Cross, played by John Huston, Evelyn’s father and Hollis’s former business partner?  Or maybe it was Russ Yelburton, played by John Hillerman, who stood to inherit Hollis’s high profile job.  Or perhaps it was his missing mistress.

I’ve always seen Nicholson as a good actor, and his performance in Chinatown helps to bolster that opinion.  He seemed quite natural in the skin of his character.  He was bold and brash, yet cool and calculating at the same time.  He had brains and a quick wit, and yet his reckless and impulsive behavior often got him in a little over his head.  Nicholson made it all look effortless.  His character hints at a checkered past, working in Chinatown, which helps to give the movie its title.

And I have to give a special thumbs-up to Dunaway.  She was set up to be a fem-fatale, and she played it incredibly well.  She was mysterious and secretive when she needed to be, but vulnerable and alluring when she started to fall for Gittes.  In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that she was sometimes a bit of a scene-stealer, though Nicholson was certainly able to hold his own opposite her.

Houston also did a fine job.  Spoiler alert:  he was the villain, and though he was clearly a cold-hearted criminal, he could have easily played his part as just a run-of-the-mill, evil bad-guy.  But he didn’t.  He was charming, and had a likeable personality.  There was a heart beating inside him, twisted as it was, and Houston did a great job of letting it show at just the right times.  And his voice sounded so familiar that I had to look it up.  He was the voice of Gandalf the Gray in the 1977 Rankin Bass animated feature, The Hobbit.

But I think that the real stars of the film were Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, the film’s screenwriter and director, respectively.  They really did a fantastic job of creating a cast of characters that were well-developed and believable, even while they adhered to the stereotypes of the genre.  That alone was pretty impressive.  One of the biggest reasons the movie was so good, was that they successfully fought with the producer, Robert Evans, on the film’s ending.

Evans wanted a watered down, Hollywood ending.  He wanted the bad guy to die and the beautiful woman to end up with the hero.  But sometimes, bad guys win, and good guys die.  Towne and Polanski kept the ending they wanted, and it was not only appropriate, it gave extra weight and a sense of tragedy to the plot that fit in perfectly with the private eye stereotype.  Wonderful writing!

And as an interesting note, watch out for the little cameo of Roman Polanski as the thug who slices Gittes’s nose.  His screen-time was short but memorable.  All in all, the film was both fascinating and fun to watch.  It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, which included both Nicholson and Dunaway for Best Actor and Best Actress, and Best Director for Polanski.  Unfortunately, it only won one:  Robert Towne, took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I’d say it was well-deserved.