Archive for March, 2012


“Violent Saturday”

Take a dash of pulp fiction, add a large dollop of melodrama with a hint of film noir and that just about sums up “Violent Saturday”. I had often read about Richard Fleischer’s 1955 movie but only got around to watching it recently.

This is a movie that keeps things simple – three robbers posing as travelling salesmen (Stephen McNally, J Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin) roll into a one-horse copper mining town with plans to hit the poorly guarded bank on a Saturday. And as they case out the bank and the town, we get a glimpse into the lives of the local residents.

There’s the solid mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) with a perfect wife and home, the only kink being that his 10-year-old son (Billy Chapin) resents the fact that his dad isn’t a war hero like the father of his friend. While the other men went off to fight World War II, Martin was made to stay back home to keep the mine working.

Martin’s boss Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan) has turned to the bottle because his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) is running around with other women. Fairchild has his eyes on nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith), who is also the object of the fantasies of bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan), a peeping Tom who stalks her and watches her apartment at night. 

Then there’s Sylvia Sydney as a librarian who’s being squeezed by the bank to repay a loan and Ernest Borgnine as the head of an Amish family (yes, I know, a bit of a stretch) on whose farm the robbers intend to switch getaway vehicles after the heist.

Director Richard Fleischer, the son of famous animator Max Fleischer, keeps the pot boiling as he juxtaposes the robbers making plans for their robbery with the colourful, and at times sordid, lives of the townspeople. Nurse Linda Sherman is on the verge of stealing Boyd Fairchild away from Emily when the mine owner decides to give his wife another chance, while bank manager Harry Reeves gets tangled in all sorts of problems due to his obsession with the nurse.

But it’s the robbers who stand out – especially a young Lee Marvin as a Benzedrine-addicted cold-blooded killer who thinks nothing of stomping the hand of a child simply because the kid bumps into him and makes him drop his inhaler, and J Carrol Naish as a silent and mean criminal who says little but makes an impression.

When it first appeared in 1955, The New York Times dismissed “Violent Saturday” as a film with “no other purpose than to titillate and thrill on the level of melodrama and guarded pornography (!)”. But stick with this one because it has its moments.

Paul Newman played private detective Lew Harper twice but the two movies are so far apart in tone and spirit that it’s hard to fathom that they centre round the same character. Both movies were adaptations of novels by Ross MacDonald featuring the detective Lew Archer. (Newman reportedly had the detective’s name changed to Harper due the success of other movies in which he played characters with a name beginning with H.) 

The first of the two movies – “Harper” (1966) – is very much a film in and of its times, the Swinging Sixties, with Newman playing a wise-cracking but down-on-his-luck gumshoe. At times, his performance comes very close to hamming, with exaggerated gestures and over-the-top exchanges with the other actors.

Paul Newman in "Harper"

The film has one of the finest openings seen in a private eye movie – Harper waking up in his cramped office (his wife, played by Janet Leigh, has separated from him and thrown him out of their home) and making a cup of coffee from the previous day’s grounds scrounged from the dustbin.

Harper is hired by wealthy socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing husband, though she doesn’t seem very concerned about the fact that he might have been kidnapped. Harper is put in touch with Mrs Sampson by family lawyer Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), who has a thing for her daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin).

Paul Newman in "Harper"

Harper’s search for the missing man brings him in touch with a bunch of colourful characters – the Sampsons’ pilot Allan Taggert (a very young Robert Wagner), over-the-hill movie starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), her nasty husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), a night club singer with a drug habit, and fake spiritual guru Claude (Strother Martin), who runs a human smuggling ring from a “temple” on a mountain top property that was given to him by Mr Sampson.

William Goldman’s script fleshes out the characters very nicely but is light on plot. Face it, this movie is all about the characters and not really the search for the missing Mr Sampson. The movie channels the vibe of the detective movies of the 1940s but is too brightly photographed by Conrad Hall to pass off as film noir. 

Nine years after “Harper”, Newman returned to the character in “The Drowning Pool” (1975), a very different film directed by Stuart Rosenberg from a script by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr and Walter Hill. An altogether darker and grimmer sequel, it almost seems as if Harper has grown up and realises the gravity of the deadly serious stuff he’s usually mixed up in.

This time out, Harper (portrayed by a very fit-looking 50-year-old Newman) jets off to a small town in Louisiana to take on the case of a former girlfriend, Iris Devereaux (played by Newman’s real-life wife Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed for her philandering ways.

Once again, Harper’s attempt to get to the bottom of things brings him up against a set of colourful characters – Iris’ man-hungry daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith), the Devereaux family’s former chauffeur Pat Reavis (Andy Robinson of “Dirty Harry” fame), local police Broussard (Anthony Franciosa) who has a mysterious connection with Iris and Schuyler, Richard Jaeckel as a crooked cop, and Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), an eccentric oil baron who breeds pit bulldogs and will stop at nothing to get the Devereaux’s land as it has large oil deposits.

Paul Newman and Gail Strickland in "The Drowning Pool"

Harper’s search for the blackmailer leads to murder, conspiracy and the “drowning pool” in the title – a hydrotherapy room in an asylum where Kilbourne was once a patient and which features in the suspenseful climax of this movie.

“The Detective”

It’s a little difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea of Frank Sinatra as Dirty Harry Callahan, but that’s what the suits at Warner Brothers originally had in mind. The script for “Dirty Harry” was bought by the studio for Sinatra, who had to drop out after he was unable to wield the large handgun that was the San Francisco cop’s favourite weapon due to a hand injury.

Perhaps the reason why Sinatra was considered for the role of Dirty Harry was that he had played hard-boiled cops or private detectives in a string of movies in the 1960s, including “Tony Rome” and “The Detective”. 

“The Detective” (1968) has Ole Blue Eyes playing Joe Leland, who is investigating the brutal murder of a high society homosexual who has had his head bashed in and his genitals cut off. Leland and his colleagues soon zero in on the homosexual’s psychopathic roommate and he gets what seems to be confession out of the man.

The man is sent to the electric chair and Leland and his fellow detectives soon move on to other cases, including the suspicious suicide of an accountant married to a woman named Norma McIver (Jacqueline Bisset). As Leland digs deeper into the suicide, he uncovers a network of corruption involving politicians but learns that any further investigation could jeopardise his chances of being promoted.

“The Detective” tries a little too hard to be a movie about big issues in the US in the tumultuous 1960s – homosexuality, race relations, drug abuse, psycho-analysis (which Leland being the strong silent type doesn’t approve of) and corruption in the system.

Add to that the fact that Leland is separated from his nymphomaniac wife Karen (Lee Remick, who has little to do except mope and look troubled). A few minutes into “The Detective”, viewers are pulled completely out of the main story by a long flashback that traces Leland’s troubled relationship with Karen.

One of the strengths of “The Detective” is its ensemble cast, including Jack Klugman as Leland’s partner Dave Schoenstein, Horace McMahon as the captain of the detective squad, Robert Duvall as a mean-spirited detective (whose character is used to highlight the prejudice towards homosexuals) and Lloyd Bochner as psychologist Wendell Roberts, who has crucial information about the accountant’s suicide that links up with the initial murder of the homosexual.

Director Gordon Douglas seems to be painting by numbers as he makes his way through the various plots and sub-plots of this film. A firmer hand and some tighter editing could have made “The Detective” more compelling.

Okay for a rental on a rainy afternoon.

By the way, here’s some nice bits of movie trivia: a) An early advertisement for Sinatra as Dirty Harry. 

b) “The Detective” was based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, who wrote a sequel that has Joe Leland trapped in a skyscraper taken over by German terrorists. That novel was adapted for the silver screen as one of the biggest action flicks of the 1980s – “Die Hard”.

Go here for Clint Eastwood talking about how he got the role of Dirty Harry.

“Absence Of Malice”

Having been a journalist for over two decades, I usually find much to laugh about in the depiction of reporters in the movies. Hacks on the silver screen usually go running from one scoop to the next, without ever having to do any of the hard work or put up with the mundane stuff that is always involved in digging out a “story”.

They always have sources who materialise just in time in an underground parking lot, and hand them big brown envelopes with photos and documents that help them put together that big story just ahead of the newspaper’s deadline. If only life were that simple.

For me, only a handful of movies have captured the true spirit of the newsroom, the drudgery, the dilemmas and the dangers that are associated with journalism and the hunt for the elusive scoop. That short list would include “All The President’s Men”, “The Killing Fields”, “Zodiac” and the film that is the subject of this post – “Absence Of Malice”. 

Directed by the veteran Sydney Pollack in 1981, “Absence Of Malice” is a fine and nuanced study of the ethics of journalism and the question of how far a reporter can go in search of a story.

Megan Carter (Sally Field) is the journalist who’s suckered by an investigator into running a fake story – what we hacks would call a “plant” – about a mob boss’s straight-arrow son, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), being the suspect in an investigation into the disappearance of a labour union leader.

The investigators are hoping that Carter’s report will put the squeeze on Gallagher and force him to cooperate in the investigation. Gallagher obviously has connections to relatives who are in the mob but runs a business that is above board. As Gallagher’s world comes crashing down after Carter’s report – the labour union forces its members not to work at his firm and his contracts suffer – he complains to the newspaper but no one is willing to hear his side of the story.

Carter is obviously attracted to Gallagher and dates him before spending a night with him. When Gallagher’s troubled friend Teresa Perron (Melinda Dillion), a devout Catholic, comes forward to tell Carter that Gallagher was with her, helping her with an abortion, at the time the labour union leader, Carter thinks nothing of printing up the story for another page one byline, despite Perron telling her that she doesn’t want her name in the papers.

On seeing her story in the newspaper, Perron takes a desperate step that soon has Gallagher concocting an elaborate scheme to clear his name and set things right.

The film features fine performances from Bob Balaban as investigator Elliot Rosen, who is willing to bend the rules to get things done his way, and Wilford Brimley, who surprisingly was playing his first important role in a film despite being 47 at the time. Brimley’s character, a senior prosecutor, is on screen for just one scene that lasts less than fifteen minutes but he makes a huge impression.

Other major strengths are the film’s smart screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, a former newspaperman, and the score by Dave Grusin, who often collaborated with director Sydney Pollack. In fact, the film’s opening, which features a newspaper being put together in the early era of computers, brought back many happy memories. Some reviewers have criticised the depiction of the reporter in this film, but all I can say is I have met a few journalists in my career who were willing to plumb the same depths as Megan Carter.

Highly recommended, especially if you are a journalist or in any way interested in journalism.

* For two other interesting takes on this movie, go here and here.

“Day Of The Outlaw”

Andre de Toth is probably best known as the one-eyed director who made one of the first 3D movies from a big studio, “House Of Wax”, though he was responsible for a string of Westerns and thrillers that continue to be watchable to this day.

De Toth’s “Day Of The Outlaw” is a nicely paced film that somehow slipped through the cracks when it was released in 1959, despite having a fine cast that included Robert Ryan and Burl Ives and a moody script from Philip Yordan that placed it more in the realm of psychological Westerns.

This is one of the few Westerns set in a snow-bound town, with the weather playing a key element in the story. Ryan is now best remembered for his supporting roles in some of the biggest Westerns and war movies made in the 1960s, including “The Professionals” and “The Dirty Dozen”, and here he’s the leading man but not quite the man with the white hat.

Blaise Starrett (Ryan) rides into a town that he helped set up to face off with farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) over the latter’s plans to fence off the open range. Starrett’s antagonism to the farmer may not be as simple as a matter of protecting his way of life – he had an affair with Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise) in the past and still seems to carry a torch for her.

Things build up to the inevitable shoot-out between Starrett and Crane but before any guns can be drawn, the town is taken over by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his band of murderous outlaws, who are on the run from the army after having stolen $40,000. Bruhn, who is wounded, forces the local veterinarian to operate on him and holes up in the town to rest.

As the weather takes a turn for the worse and Bruhn’s men get restless over his orders not to touch liquor or any of town’s women, Starrett claims he can lead them over the nearby mountains so that they can escape the troops pursuing them.

“Day Of The Outlaw” has its share of Western stereotypes – Bruhn, who seems to care little for the men in his gang, treating them with contempt because of their baser instincts; fresh-faced gang member Gene (played by singer Ricky Nelson’s older brother David) who goes out of his way to protect a young woman and her brother; the scared residents of the town who aren’t willing to stand up to the outlaws. 

But De Toth’s skilful direction, Russell Harlan’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the taut script and the snow-bound setting – with many scenes filmed on location in winter, horses and men struggling against the force of nature – help keep things moving at a cracking pace.

Recommended for all fans of Robert Ryan and psychological Westerns.

For more on the films of Andre de Toth, go here.

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