Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Twilight Time - THE FORTUNE and BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ on Blu-ray ""

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Twilight Time - THE FORTUNE and BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ on Blu-ray

THE FORTUNE (1975; Mike Nichols)
"During the 1920as in the United States the law known as the Mann Act was much feared. It Prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Because of the Mann Act, a man who wanted to run off with a woman and was unwilling - or unable - to marry her, would sometimes go to unusual lengths."
Above is the opening card from Mike Nichols' 1975 comedy THE FORTUNE and it sets up the premise pretty well. Warren Beatty plays a Nicky, a rather dopey ladies man with a scheme up his sleeve. His simpleton ex-embezzling bank teller partner is Oscar (played by Jack Nicholson). Nicky has Oscar marry Freddie (a rich girl played Stockard Channing) in a quickie ceremony so they can take off across state lines to ol California whilst waiting on Nicky's divorce (maybe). 
I've always enjoyed Jack Nicholson in this kind of schnook role and I think his abilities at playing a schmoe like Oscar have been underrated over the years. There's just something ever so entertaining about seeing an actor who is, in some respects, the epitome of "cool" taking on a character that is anything but savvy. Oscar's wide-eyed, mouth-agape demeanor is truly delightful. Beatty's comic talents are not to be underrated here either. His version of Nicky is one of those guys who thinks he's intelligent and clever, but is really just a few IQ points above your average barnyard animal. The two make a formidably disorganized and slapsticky duo of oafs. And Oscar is just smart enough to annoy Nicky in the perfect way. It's easy to see why Joel Coen is such a fan of this movie. I first came across it on a list of his favorites that was submitted for the Sight and Sound poll years ago. At the time, Joel rated it his number one film and Ethan slotted it at number five. High praise from two of the greatest contemporary filmmakers working. Anyway, I was sold by their high ranking, but also by Mike Nichols and the cast. I think this movie has been greatly overlooked by many for a long time and I'm not sure why. It was a remarkably fertile time for those involved - not the least of which was Mr. Nicholson. He had four films released in 1975 Antonioni's THE PASSENGER, TOMMY, THE FORTUNE and little movie called ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (for which his acting netted him an Oscar of course). THE FORTUNE hit theaters in October of 1975 and CUCKOO'S NEST in November. It could be speculated that one film overshadowed the other especially because THE FORTUNE may seem slighter in comparison. That's unfortunate though and I would encourage fans of 1970s American cinema to give it a shot as it is really well made and quite funny (in this man's opinion). It's interesting to see what a Mike Nichols' take on a broad comedy looks like. He's certainly a subtle guy when it comes to humor. THE GRADUATE is very very funny in parts, but some may not pick up on it if they aren't paying attention. THE FORTUNE is much bigger in terms of the laughs it goes for in comparison, but thanks to a great trio of actors and Nichols sensibilities, it's really well crafted and observed. It may end up being too broad for some folks, but I guess I'm just a goof who goes for this kinda stuff. It certainly reminds me of the screwballs of the 30s in some ways. The transfer looks quite nice too by the way and I also like that it's a comedy that's been shot in Panavision (2:35 to 1). I miss the days when a lot more films (even comedies) were shot this way. It really does affect how things play out onscreen and it's nice to see the performers afforded more room to do their thing. Though it's not a Panavision comedy, THE FORTUNE would make a solid double-feature with Elaine May's A NEW LEAF I do believe.
Last quick thing - be on the lookout for Dub Taylor and Scatman Crothers in a perfect cameos.

"Pardon me for saying this but, your fiddle case is open."

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962; John Frankenheimer)
The more I dig into John Frankenheimer's filmography, the more I see him as something of an Howard Hawks-esque auteurish type. He really made quite the variety of movies over the years. He certainly made a lot of thrillers and made of lot of them quite well (SECONDS, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE TRAIN), but he also made his fair share of excellent dramas (AL FALL DOWN, I WALK THE LINE, THE GYPSY MOTHS). He wasn't quite as all over the place as Hawks in terms of the types of films he put out (no musicals or westerns to be found really), but I have accumulated a great deal of respect for the fact that he could do a few kinds of movies pretty well. GRAND PRIX is another of his that I love and that is more of a drama with some racing thrown in. By many accounts, Frankenheimer was something of a dramatic guy so it kinda makes sense. He was a man, like Burt Lancaster, who took his craft quite seriously and didn't seem to suffer fools all too well. Lancaster and Frankenheimer being the consummate professional artists that they were, it stands to reason that they would make good films together. They worked together many times -their first film was THE YOUNG SAVAGES in 1961. Then came BIRDMAN and later SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and THE TRAIN (both in 1964 - a great year for them to be sure). They'd get together again in 1969 to make the underrated GYPSY MOTHS as well. I should mention here that THE TRAIN is not only my favorite film from both Lancaster and Frankenheimer, but it is one of my very favorite movies ever on top of that. It's simply amazing. I wrote about Twilight Time's terrific Blu-ray from earlier this year a while back. Regarding BIRDMAN, it's not difficult to observe the rationale behind it being among Lancaster's best performances. It's always sad for me to watch movies about people in prison who can be rebellious and stubborn in their ways. Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is one of those characters. There's this duality wherein I really understand the rebellious tendencies some prisoners exhibit, and yet I of course realize that said tendencies will only cause them problems. In the case of Stroud, his actions end up putting him on the radar of the warden of Leavenworth prison (Karl Malden). Stroud is an emotional but stoic man and as prison is certainly a place where emotions can be bottle to the point of explosion on a regular basis, I can absolutely understand why he does what he does despite the consequences. That's one of the things about prison films that always gets to me. You're watching a character be put in a position to be quite dehumanized and treated rather terribly and when they inevitably act out, it always ends badly and makes for a tension of sadness throughout. I can even see the point of view of the warden characters in some prison films and BIRDMAN is one of them. While I'm not a fan of Malden's Warden Shoemaker, he plays it humanistically enough to give a little something in the way of perspective. BIRDMAN does a nice job of showing the arc of Stroud's incarceration from a dramatic point of view (apparently many liberties where taken with the story). It's really a powerfully affecting tale to see a violent man who is a murderer find a new path for his life and an untapped genius via caring for birds. In the hands of the wrong director and lead actor it could be very cloying and overly sentimental, but Frankenheimer and Lancaster bring it the poetic subtlety this kind of character study deserves. It is quite a remarkable thing to realize that a pretty young Frankenheimer (he was only 32 at the time) churned out not one, but two films that are now considered American cinematic masterpieces in the same year. BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE were released in theaters about three months apart (BIRDMAN in July, MANCHURIAN in October) back in 1962. That's one hell of a year for sure and a fact that I hadn't observed and let properly set in until watching this viewing.

Special Features:
-This Twilight Time Blu-ray features another in a long line of outstanding commentary tracks featuring Paul Seydor, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. I've praised these tracks a lot in previous reviews so I obviously love the dynamic that this trio brings to a commentary and this one is no exception. Informative, entertaining and the kind of thing that reminds you why you love movies and how neat it is to listen to passionate people speak about something as fascinating as this film and the stories behind it.
-An isolated score track featuring Elmer Bernstein's no-less-than stellar score for the movie is included on the disc as well.
Here's a short but great Lancaster profile narrated by Frankenheimer for Turner Classic Movies:

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