Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Everett Jones ""

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Everett Jones

I re-iterate: Follow Everett on Letterboxd:
I've gotten many good film recs this way.
Here's his great Underrated Comedies list:

King Rat(1965)
It would be way too easy to mistake this 1965 WWII prison camp movie for a rip-off of Billy Wilder’s 1958 hit Stalag 17, just with William Holden swapped out for George Segal in the lead role of a scheming grafter POW, and the Japanese replacing the Germans. But where Wilder’s film emphasized attempts by the prisoners to outwit and escape from their captors which struck me, at least, as stagy and contrived, King Rat focuses on the poisonous interactions among the prisoners themselves, giving far more of a sense of what wartime captivity might be like than, say, The Great Escape (a film that I love, incidentally).Holden and Otto Preminger’s commandant were definitely Stalag 17’s headliners, Segal’s performance here is just the cherry on top of a powerhouse line-up of actors, including James Fox, Tom Courtenay, John Mills, and Denholm Elliot, and it’s a joy to see them all on top of their game.

Speaking of which, I could easily just assemble a list of underrated George Segal movies, from The Quiller Memorandum to Blume in Love, California Split to Rollercoaster, but for now I’ll just restrict myself to King Rat and this. Segal plays a New York commercial artist who can’t seem to stop himself from screwing up both his career and his marriage. The director is Irvin Kershner, who was shaping up as an interesting director (A Fine Madness, Eyes of Laura Mars) before The Empire Strikes Back sidelined him into sequels to popcorn franchises. His work typically seems to be character and performance-driven but with a strong visual sense as well, which is certainly true here –Gordon Willis shot the film just prior to The Godfather. Loving is the type of film about middle/upper-class, mid-century America, that I’d imagine more people have been seeking out since Mad Men began its run, with a strong Ice Storm vibe also entering during the unforgettably sad, boozy party that ends the film.

Tiger Bay(1959)
Hayley Mills was a mainstay of the midcentury, live-action Disney films that as a kid I loved and probably even preferred to the studio’s classic animated output, so it’s fascinating to me to see her in darker films like this and Twisted Nerve. In the latter, she seemed a bit lost in what amounted to a Swinging London take on Hitchcock, but she seems surprisingly comfortable here, in her debut at 12 years old, in the title setting of a gritty, multiethnic Welsh port town far removed from Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. The story involves Hayley’s character running away from home, her aunt’s rundown apartment, with a sailor (Horst Buchholz) who just happens to have killed her neighbor in a “crime of passion.” It’s not the thriller it might sound like, but director J. Lee Thompson keeps things very suspenseful nonetheless, while also making Buchholz’s character surprisingly sympathetic. Two other under-seen films of his are Return from the Ashes and Ice Cold in Alex (I also have a soft spot for his deranged ‘80s slasher Happy Birthday to Me).

Day of the Locust(1975)
This movie is certainly not obscure, but I still feel that it hasn’t quite gotten its deserved due–understandably, among the flood of other great movies released in 1975. John Schlesinger isn’t one of my favorites -I’ve never really cared for either Midnight Cowboy or Marathon Man-but he does pretty impeccable work here shepherding a cast – Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Donald Sutherland –that could have easily run amok. The film’s epic-scaled portrait of Hollywood sleaze, adapted from Nathaniel West’s novella, reminds me a bit of a James Ellroy novel without a plot, but if anything, the lack of (for the most part) overt violence makes this far more unsettling than L.A. Confidential. No one who’s seen this film, certainly, can ever forget Donald Sutherland’s part, and not just because his character shares a name with a certain cartoon patriarch. And the violence that does occur during the movie’s ending, in a riot at a movie premiere, puts most genre movies to shame with its power.

The late Ulu Grosbard’s straightforward style as a director doesn’t disguise what this movie essentially is, which is a vehicle for Jennifer Jason Leigh. In many of her films, good or bad, her acting – which is phenomenal, don’t get me wrong – can seem a little much, a little more than her director or fellow cast members know what to do with. This is one of Leigh’s few films that, to me, feels entirely “her”- not surprising, since she produced it, her mother, Barbara Turner, wrote the script, and Leigh’s relationship with her sister apparently inspired the story, about talentless dive bar singer Sadie’s relationship with her successful sibling, folk pop star Georgia (Mare Winningham). It could easily be seen as a self-indulgent acting exercise, except that it all works so beautifully, with some of the unforgettable moments for me including the passive-aggressive interactions between Leigh and her brother-in-law (a refreshingly cast-against-type Ted Levine) and Leigh teaching her young nieces and nephews the lyrics to that classic children’s ditty, “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Wild River(1960)
Elia Kazan directed several films that frequently turn up on lists like these – America, America and A Face in the Crowd come to mind – but this is my favorite of those films, and probably of his career in general. It’s the Depression-era story of a Roosevelt administration bureaucrat (Montgomery Clift) trying to convince an extended rural family in Tennessee, headed by a stubborn old matriarch (Jo Van Fleet), to leave their island home before a new dam floods it all. Lee Remick plays the family’s youngest member, so you can bet that she and Clift will end up together before the fade-out, butWild River’s not as obvious, preachy, and melodramatic as it might sound, nor as hysterical as Kazan’s work often was. It’s a haunting piece of work that was still fairly rare when I happened to catch it at NYC’s Film Forum; fortunately it’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

I've never seen all of GEORGIA. I rented it on VHS in 1996 and stopped watching when Leigh had some kind of breakdown on stage. It was *so* raw and overwhelming I couldn't take it. Guess that's... good? It's on Netflix but I'm afraid to go back!