Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Sean Wicks ""

Friday, September 19, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Sean Wicks

Sean is the dude behind the Cinema-Scope blog ( An all-around social media rambler, he's very active on twitter (, tumblr ( facebook (, and letterboxd (
-------------This was one of the tougher lists to compile for Rupert’s Underrated series because within minutes, my list contained almost 30 titles and breaking it down to just a few wasn’t easy.

When I worked as a feature Development Executive, there were 2 types of scripts I loved getting, especially when I was tired or the pile of to-read scripts was overflowing. Those were Romantic Comedies and Thrillers.  I liked them because based on a solid tried-and-true story formula, they – like the movies themselves – sometimes were just what the doctor ordered after slogging a long day at work. Make fun of them all you like, but these formulas work which is why they get repeated so often in so many titles.

It may seem like I am giving these genres a backhanded compliment by grouping them all as “formulaic” but that is not the case at all as there are so many varieties of Thrillers to choose from and there is nothing wrong with movie that sticks to a formula. They exist for a reason because audiences love them and the best thrillers know how to either A) tinker with the formula to make it unique or B) revel in it completely to meet all the audience’s expectations by giving them exactly what they want.  

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952; Directed by Roy Ward Baker)
We know Marilyn Monroe mainly from films like GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE and of course SOME LIKE IT HOT, but here she is in this thriller that effectively taps into her vulnerability making for a very nuanced and disturbing character.

The Joneses (Jim Backus and Lorene Tuttle) leave their daughter (Donna Corcroan) with a complete stranger in a hotel room while they go out for the evening.  The Babysitter in this case is Marilyn Monroe, the troubled niece of Elisha Cook, Jr., the hotel’s elevator operator. 

Things seem to be going swimmingly, that is until she starts flirting with airline pilot Richard Widmark staying in a room across the courtyard, who has just ended his relationship with lounge singer Anne Bancroft (in her big-screen debut) and is on the rebound.

The problem is that Marilyn is a lot unhinged and has spent some time in an institution.  Her flirtations with Widmark are a trigger that makes things dicey for both him and the little girl she’s been hired to look after.
I love Marilyn in this.  She really sells the idea of a woman so confused that she gets lost in her own depression and anxiety that she completely loses her mind.  

Opposite to her is the cynical Widmark who you think is just a dude out to get laid after a breakup, but has more going for him than that.  Not to mention, you really feel anxious for the little girl who has been caught in the middle of everything and whose life is suddenly on the line.

SHATTERED (1991; Directed by Wolfgang Peterson)
Tom Berenger is an architect who is in a nasty car accident.  His wife – played by Greta Scacchi – is merely scratched while he needs reconstructive surgery done on his face and the shock has left him with amnesia.  His messed-up memory is where the SHATTERED title comes from.  Now all he wants to do is piece his life together and figure out who he is, but as usual in thrillers, not everything is as it seems.

Wolfgang Peterson directs this with a distinctive noir tone that makes a very implausible premise (it’s a wonder he survives a car plunging front-first off a cliff, directly onto some rocky terrain) completely engaging and suspenseful.  By crafting the movie around putting together the “puzzle pieces” of Berenger’s fractured mind, the movie is a tightly paced mystery that will keep you guessing at every twist and turn - and there are plenty of them. 

I remember going to see this on the Sunday night of its opening weekend, and not expecting much and was completely surprised by how much I ended up loving this movie.

THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986; Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud)
What really sets this apart from other thrillers is the setting.  The 14thCentury monastery is a cold and isolated place, taking away all the comforts of the characters (and the audience) for them to immerse themselves in their chosen life of strict religious obedience making for a very creepy and suspenseful tone. This is a movie that wasn’t well received by critics at all (Variety called it “sorrowfully mediocre"), but it’s a real gem.

Sean Connery plays a monk who along with his assistant – a VERY young Christian Slater – gets caught up investigating of a series of brutal murders at the aforementioned monastery.  Some think it’s the apocalypse happening but Connery uses his sleuthing skills (he is Brother William of BASKERVILLE after all – he left his hounds at home though) to prove otherwise.  All clues lead to a mysterious book which may or may not be the key, but Inquisitor F. Murray Abraham arrives to discredit Connery just to make things more complicated.

This is a deliberately paced movie, and doesn’t pull any punches in terms of imagery with grotesquely disfigured characters, a dark and brooding setting that is almost difficult to handle and an extremely explicit sex scene that is as erotic as it is uncomfortable.  It’s a movie that requires some patience, but that patience pays off in spades.

NO WAY OUT (1987; Directed by Roger Donaldson)
I have a confession to make – I absolutely love  NO WAY OUT. I couldn’t get enough of this movie when I was first introduced to it, and watched it multiple times and recommended it to anyone and everyone I saw.  There I said it, it’s out there.  I also have to warn you that the description may get a little spoiler-like, so proceed with that in mind.

NO WAY OUT is a modern take (well, 80s) on the 1948 Noir thriller THE BIG CLOCK that had Ray Milland racing around trying to stall an investigation that he is also leading that will ultimately expose him as a murderer, even though he’s innocent.  See the boss – who is the murderer – has  just framed a random person he knew had contact with the victim, but didn’t know exactly who that person was.

In NO WAY OUT the setting is transferred to Washington, D.C. and the victim is Sean Young.  She engages in a passionate love affair with Kevin Costner, a recently decorated Naval Officer now working at the Pentagon, but she’s also the Mistress of Gene Hackman, the Secretary of Defense.  In a jealous fit of rage, Hackman accidentally kills Young sending his overly loyal (that’s an understatement) aide played by Will Patton (who completely steals this movie) into cover-up overdrive as he concocts a plan to blame the incident on the other unknown lover by creating an elaborate story that he is a Soviet mole (cold war!).  Like Milland in CLOCK, Costner is put in charge of the investigation and spends the entire movie trying to outmaneuver his own tactics and co-workers (he’s being watched like a hawk by everyone – especially Patton) trying to find a way to clear his name before an incriminating photograph is re-assembled that will unfairly peg him as the killer.

I’ve always been a fan of Costner and considered including the 1990 Tony Scott film REVENGE – also starring Costner - on this list at one point. I find that his low-key acting style is perfectly suited for this film as he tries to appear calm in carrying out his investigation, while you can tell he’s under immense stress and freaking out internally.  Gene Hackman is well…Gene Hackman meaning that he’s awesome as usual and kudos have to be given to George Dzundza as Costner’s investigative right hand man. 

However as I mentioned above, it’s Will Patton who really knocks this movie out of the park.  He’s ambitious, conniving and loyal to a fault and it is obvious he doesn’t only work for Hackman, but is completely in love with him – an intriguing character twist and Patton sells it! 

There is a crazy twist ending that almost undermines the entire film, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it does others.

BREAKDOWN (1997; Directed by Jonathan Mostow)
I have a personal “only in L.A.” story that makes this movie extra memorable to me, which I will get to in a bit.

Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are a Massachusetts couple driving across country to California.  Their jeep breaks down in the middle of the desert and a truck driver (J.T. Walsh) gives Quinlan a lift to a nearby diner. However, when Russell gets there, nobody has seen his wife and Walsh completely denies ever giving her a lift or even meeting them. 

What follows is a taut thriller where Russell the outsider must outwit a gang of thieves holding his wife for ransom who always have the upper hand.  It’s one of those tightly wound paranoid premises where everything goes wrong for the protagonist, and everybody seems to be working against them.  The movie’s effectiveness comes from its straightforward simplicity, making for a true edge-of-your-seat movie –watching experience.

My personal story connected to this film took place months before it was to be released.  I was working at Dave’s Video – a popular Laserdisc store in Studio City frequented by celebrities, directors and other Hollywood notables.  I was also interning at Chuck Gordon’s (FIELD OF DREAMS) production company at Universal and was reading every script that entered the building.  The head of development recommended I read BREAKDOWN and did so that night, going into my shift at Dave’s the next day raving about it to all my co-workers.  Later, a customer returns a disc to me and the name on the computer pops up as Jonathan Mostow, the writer and director of BREAKDOWN.  I, not having lived in Los Angeles very long and had very little contact with celebrities, freaked out enthusiastically telling a surprised Mostow how I had read his script and loved it.  I also dragged over a couple of nearby co-workers to confirm that not only had I read it the night before, I had been extolling its greatness all morning long.  Mostow was shocked yet appreciative of my praise, and started talking about the film and how they were in post, etc.  He of course remembered me every time he returned to the store thanks to that.

A year later, when I was working at Mad Chance based at Warner Bros. and BREAKDOWN had just been released, Mostow called in for my employer as they were long-time friends and I mentioned who I was. He completely remembered me and told me he regaled many of his friends at parties with that story because as he put it “only in L.A. can you walk into a video store and the clerk has read your script.”  Only in L.A. indeed!


Jerry E said...

I really enjoyed your selection, Sean. I enjoyed all of those films except "SHATTERED", which I have never seen (or heard of) but after reading your review would really like to see it.

I would like to note your comments re Kevin Costner being an actor you like. Me too, but for some inexplicable reason he fell out of fashion somewhere down the line. I consider his film "OPEN RANGE", which he also directed, one of the best westerns of the last 50 years!

Exploding Helicopter said...

I've got a bit of a soft spot for The Costner-ator. He's got that American everyman thing in absolute spades. He reminds me of someone like Glenn Ford from way back. Someone who could do a regular Joe, but be interesting at the same time.

I don't think there's any great mystery to his fall from fashion. Waterworld and The Postman were two awful films that'd sink most actors career.

In terms of underrated thrillers which star Kevin Costner, I'd throw in Thirteen Days. Excellent film.

Will Errickson said...

Ah, Thirteen Days! Terrific, and the last VHS tape I ever rented.

Totally agree about Breakdown, glad to see somebody else digs it. Watched it on HBO while hungover years ago, totally unexpected treat, will watch it whenever it's on but some of those scenes--!. Love the background, great post.

Laura said...

I enjoyed your list, Sean! I'm a Costner fan and enjoyed checking out NO WAY OUT a couple years ago for the first time it came out. It was really interesting seeing a new spin on THE BIG CLOCK, a movie I hadn't seen the first time I saw NO WAY OUT.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Cool stories. Here's another "Only in L.A." tale to add to BREAKDOWN.

I saw BREAKDOWN at a screening. Not more than two or three days later, I found myself on the set of that brilliant TV show "Baywatch". I overhear one of the producers brag about how he's writing a new episode that will "rip off BREAKDOWN only with Mitch (David Hasselhoff)". Only in Hollywood indeed!