Here we are at another year’s end, a brutal one at that with too many celebrity deaths and a political atmosphere that was the most toxic ever experienced. Thankfully we have the movies to inspire us, and even when a Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice threatens to darken that horizon, along comes a Zootopia or a La La Land to remind us that good cinema is far from dead.
After a robust start with my discoveries list (the first pick I experienced on New Year’s Day) my cinema year got off to a rocky start thanks to an effort to keep up with too many television programs that had been recommended to me. I had so many on my slate that I found myself spending almost entire weekends just getting caught up with many shows that I didn’t care about, but was slogging through simply because I had started them and didn’t want to give them up. Realizing this was eating into precious cinema time, I managed to turn it around mid-year to get back on movie track. I ended up with so many discovery titles to choose from, I will easily have enough to fill up a good three posts (and more if I so desired - but I don’t). Given that this is Rupert’s inspiration (a.k.a. Bob Freelander), his blog always gets my first list. So, without further ado, here is my first batch of cinematic discoveries from the weird year that was 2016.
THE CAR (1977; Directed by Elliot Silverstein)
“There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop... The Car”
Scream Factory Blu-ray releases always have a place on my discovery lists, so why should this year be any different. The Car covers ground that would later be explored in John Carpenter’s Christine with an evil-possessed vehicle rolling into a small Utah town and killing anyone it comes across. James Brolin is a sheriff determined to stop this mechanized menace no matter what the cost.
There is a strange gravitas to this picture, regardless of the silliness of the premise, that makes it work. Brolin and the rest of the cast give solid performances, taking their roles seriously in what is an extremely suspenseful horror film. It never tries to explain what has possessed the car, although there is some hint that they believe the devil is behind the wheel. It just shows up, kills, and the Brolin-led townspeople do what they can to survive. It’s a simple and tense movie that works on many levels.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943; Directed by Billy Wilder)
“Did a Woman Start the Rout of Rommel?”
Somehow this war picture directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard) escaped me. I discovered it while strolling through the TCM listings one month and while it sat on DVR for some time, when I got around to viewing it, I was far from disappointed.
Franchot Tone is part of an Allied tank crew in Africa during WW2, and the only one to survive – and even then, barely. He stumbles into a hotel in the middle of nowhere half-dead, one that once was occupied by the British but has now been overrun by the Nazis. The owner risks his life to take in Tone who pretends to be a waiter that was killed during a recent bombing, and whose body is buried under rubble in the basement. When Nazi Erich von Stroheim appears, the stakes grow even more tense as Tone tries to first uncover the location of buried Nazi supplies which would allow for the Nazis to push forward and probably triumph, as well as report those location to the Allied forces.
During all of this, there is a clever little twist that I won’t reveal here because when it was revealed, it took me delightfully by surprise. I must admit, even with Wilder’s name in the credits, I didn’t expect much from this, possibly because of the bare mention of it when it comes to Wilder’s work (which given his other credits, it is easy to be over-shadowed). Tone, Stroheim and Anne Baxter provide layered performances that makes this more than just your standard WW2 thriller. Then again, given who is at the helm, this can come as no surprise.
DOWNHILL RACER (1969; Directed by Michael Ritchie)
“How fast must a man go to get from where he's at?”
Downhill Racer has the appearance of a typical sports movie, the sport in this case being Olympic Downhill Skiing, but in way it is an anti-sports movie that questions the strive to “be the best” and “win at all costs.”
Before he was the best Baseball player to stand next to the plate in the The Natural, Robert Redford here plays a cocky and arrogant member of the U.S. Downhill Skiing Olympic Team, who right from the moment he joins claims that he will be the best that ever was. It turns out that he is when he continues the win and is the person to beat in the next Olympic games.
Redford’s character only ever talks about how he’s going to win, and how he is the best but the question arises – so what? What’s he out to prove? Why the strive to win and be the top dog? The picture makes a big show of how this is never answered nor is it ever intended to be. Here is an individual who is in a sport where his age will catch up with him, especially given the fact that he can only really compete every four years at the Olympics. It’s not like team sports where teams live on even as the players age and retire, but Downhill skiing where I am certain that outside of niche circles, doesn’t exactly capture the hearts and minds of the populace once the games are over (although granted, multi-champions like swimmer Michael Phelps are exceptions).
There is a moment where Redford returns home to the farm to a Father who is less than impressed with what his son has accomplished. Had this been any other sports film, the father would be clearly seen in the stands cheering on his son with whom he was secretly proud of. Not here. Redford’s pursuits lack any sort of real drive or explanation, and his character is as flat and uninspired (brilliantly so), counterpoint to his skill on skis. The picture also makes a great statement on how there is always someone behind you that is faster and more skilled, and ready to dethrone with a good run down the slope. In this case, it’s literal.
THE SNIPER (1952; Directed by Edward Dmytryk)
“They were all brunettes... all under 30... and they all crossed the path of THE SNIPER"
The Sniper made it onto my Noirvember Film Noir viewing roster, and was easily one of the best pictures I viewed that month, if not the year.
The Sniper is an unassuming picture that packs a wallop. Arthur Franz plays a loner, rejected by women his entire life he has taken to killing them with a high-powered rifle from the tops of buildings. Franz knows he has issues and wants to get caught. He keeps trying to be apprehended, almost begging the police to find and bring him to justice. There is a moment where they have him in a hospital and a doctor realizes he is unstable and Franz is overjoyed that he is on the verge of being put away. Instead, he is set free (and this is a good 30 years before President Reagan would de-regulate mental health facilities), where he again picks up his rifle with murder on his mind.
The psychological themes raise what is essentially a B-picture to a much serious level of film that deserves attention. Never does it come into question that Franz’s character is messed up, nor is he ever in denial just how bad things are with him. A lone nut begging for help from a system that won’t pay attention to him – even while ironically, he openly murders woman and is the subject of a massive police hunt. This is a fine film noir title indeed.
LILI (1953; Directed by Charles Walters)
“You'll fall in love with...”
A naïve and orphaned young woman moves to the big city but finds it cold and uninviting. A place she has been led to believe will offer her shelter results in a near-sexual assault. Alone and lost, she is taken in by a circus troupe where she almost gets thrown out yet again if not for an interaction with some marionettes that makes her a star. There is also an anti-social puppeteer who hates people – that is except Lili, who succeeds in making him angrier as she pines for a handsome (and womanizing) Magician.
Leslie Caron’s performance as Lili is so magical, that some of the best moments ever put on film are of her conversing with puppets. She sells the idea that she believes the puppets to be real, and seems oblivious to the idea that there are people operating them behind the curtain – even later when she’s been with the show for some time and you’d think by now she’d be completely in-the-know. Of course, the idea of the social misfit puppeteer who can show only anger to Lili in person, but love to her through his marionette is another stellar performance in a near magical movie that will entrance you from the moment it begins.
This falls under the category of pictures that I have always intended to see – and should have seen by now. There seems to be at least one every year.
A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN (1967; Directed by Gene Kelly)
“Fourteen Famous Swingers give you the do's and don't's for the man with the roving eye and the urge to stray!”
Walter Matthau is feeling the seven-year itch, and is it overpowering. All he can think about is how he should cheat on his wife, so much so that he starts to get very intensive coaching from his neighbor Robert Morse (Mad Men) who has really thought this thing through – to a level that goes beyond obsessive and creepy. The joke is, Matthau’s wife is Inger Stevens who is beyond gorgeous. She wants to have sex with him, but he’s the one that is too tired and has a headache, even when she does very erotic stretching exercises in a skin-tight outfit right next to him on their double beds.
This is a movie very much of its time. Cheating on one’s spouse is pitched as being completely acceptable – even encouraged – while the women stay home and house make, never aware of what their husbands are up to. This picture is in on the joke and exposes that idea as ridiculous even as it pretends to promote it. Making Stevens Matthau’s wife is a stroke of genius, especially given how the picture goes out of its way just to show how sexually alluring she is (and married to schlubby Matthau at that).
Flashbacks to men getting caught with their hand in the sexual cookie jar are enhanced with big-name comedy cameos such as Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Carl Reiner, Terry Thomas and Jayne Mansfield (all credited as “Technical Advisors”).