Josh Olson is the Academy Award Nominated screenwriter of A History of Violence (2005), and a remarkable cinephile to boot. His commentaries over at Trailers From Hell are always among my favorites. Spend an hour and go through all of the films he's covered and I guarantee you'll come away with additions to your watchlist:
MY SON JOHN (1952; Leo McCarey)
What a bizarre artifact this is. The great Leo McCarey trying to deliver some Cold War era Commie paranoia, but being hampered by both a ludicrous script and the tragic death of his star Robert Walker before filming was finished. The movie was clearly shot in sequence, so it’s about 90 minutes before it becomes apparent that they’re shooting around a missing leading man. Copious use of voice overs, and long shots, and one sided phone conversations, culminating in the dramatic finale in which a rapt group of teenagers listen to Walkers speech about the evils of communism coming from a tape recorder on a podium (Walker is voiced by McCary himself). A real artifact from a sad, strange time in our history.
SONNY BOY (1989; Robert Martin Carroll)
Brad Dourif, Paul L. Smith, Conrad Janis, Sydney Lassick and other great character actors all take a back seat to David Carradine’s committed and bonkers performance as Pearl, the transgendered wifed of Paul Smith’s malevolent patriarch. The two of them came into receipt of an accidentally kidnapped infant many years ago, and have been raising Sonny Boy in captivity ever since. Now he’s a man, and now shit gets weird. Not for everyone, but if that description doesn’t turn you off, then this one’s for you.
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970; Joseph Losey)
If Samuel Beckett wrote an action movie, it would be this astonishingly good chase flick from director Joseph Losey and screenwriter and star Robert Shaw. Shaw and Malcolm McDowell play two men on the run across a desert landscape. What they’re running from is never made clear, nor is the identity of the men in the helicopter that chases them.
Some astonishingly great cinematography, and gripping performances from the two leads. I went into this expecting a little oddity, and was genuinely and happily surprised by how entertaining it was.
MAN IN THE WILDERNESS (1971; Richard C. Sarafian)
Revenant was actually the second time the amazing story of Hugh Glass has been brought to the screen. This version - starring Richard Harris as the Glass character - distances itself by changing the name of the character to Zachary Bass, and presenting it as entirely fictional, but is - curiously - WAY more faithful to the actual events of Glass’s journey than the DiCaprio version, which fabricates pretty much everything.
Richard Sarafian - director of the amazing Vanishing Point, among many others - delivers some brutal action and you can almost feel the suffering Harris goes through in his single minded quest.
And if you watch this terrific movie and are still hungry for more Hugh Glass, you can check out my pal Dave Anthony’s incredible podcast The Dollop, which did a terrific episode on him:
THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989; Brian Trenchard-Smith)
How could I have come so late to this party? Brian Trenchard-Smith’s directed an ugodly number of movies, most of them delightful grindhouse fare done with way too small budgets. Gloria certainly doesn’t suffer from too large a budget, but it’s a gritty, smart and tough little war movie that avoids falling into any drive in pitfalls. R. Lee Ermey and Wings Hauser are both terrific, and it’s a fascinating exercise in moviemaking to run music from Apocalyse Now over some of the scenes in Gloria where the unfortunately obligatory cheap 80s synth score is running. All of a sudden, the movie doesn’t feel quite as cheap. But that’s a small gripe - this is a tight, taut, and powerful little war movie.
(Full disclosure - BTS is a friend, but I wouldn’t steer you wrong here. If I didn’t think the movie was terrific, I wouldn’t have put it on my list.)
FLAME (1975; Richard Loncraine)
Made about ten seconds before punk rock would blast the old world away in a mighty, cleansing fire, this cold-eyed look at the music business is the last thing you’d expect from a good time party band like Slade. But apparently, the band was insistent that if they made a movie, it would show the underbelly of the music business, and not glamorize anything.
The guys in the band are all solid performers, and Tom Conti turns in a terrific performance as the new slick corporate manager who takes the blue collar Flame into the big time. He reeks of genteel malevolence. Some great music spices things up, and don’t worry if you can’t make out half of what anyone’s saying. You’ll get the picture if you just let it all wash over you.
And one small aside - there are a lot of reasons to seek out old, obscure movies. Aside from just the sheer pleasure of stumbling across something like Slade in Flame, there’s this - there’s a hilarious scene early on in which the boys in Flame prank the band that’s going on after them. It’s very, very funny, and there is literally no way the folks who made Spinal Tap didn’t see this movie before concocting their masterpiece.
PITFALL (1948; Andre De Toth)
Dick Powell. Lizabeth Scott. Andre DeToth. Absolute greatness. Powell plays a working stiff insurance man who has one weak moment, then pulls back from the edge, but still has to pay for it. The sexual tension oozes off the screen, and Raymond Burr’s never been a nastier heavy. Pure, uncut Noir for both the casual partaker and the hardcore junkie.