December wasn’t as active as November, but I still put up some respectable numbers. And the month’s not finished yet, so here we go:
The Pink Panther (1963) Blake Edwards
The Great Movies library showing (1:53)
Peter Sellers steals the show in his first performance as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, out to capture the mysterious Phantom, who recently nabbed the “Pink Panther,” the world’s largest diamond. Set primarily at an exclusive ski resort in Cortina d’Ampezzo, The Pink Panther is a very visual comedy (as are all the subsequent Pink Panther films) with excellent staging, sight gags and near-misses. Some of the gags get a bit worn as if Edwards just can’t help himself, but Sellers is the reason to watch and keep watching these films. Don’t miss the next film in the series, A Shot in the Dark (1964).
Cop Car (2015) Jon Watts
Universal DVD – library (1:28)
Cop Car is one of those low-budget surprises that you’d probably have missed if it hadn’t starred Kevin Bacon. You might have missed it anyway; lots of people did. It’s a pretty good movie and could’ve been a great one, the kind you’d never, ever forget, if only…
Well, let’s get to that later. Two young boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are walking through a field, taking turns experimenting with curse words. Climbing through a barbed wire fence, they soon come upon an abandoned cop car. They dare each other to touch it, then to open the driver’s door and get in, then to…
To tell you any more would be cruel. Let’s just say that the boys get a little carried away and the cop whose car this is (Kevin Bacon) is out doing something he shouldn’t be doing. The film contains wonderful tension, some great acting from the two boys (Freedson-Jackson’s first film, Wellford’s second), and a good performance by Bacon. Unfortunately the film suffers from a terribly weak ending, but it’s still worth seeing. Director Jon Watts has previously made short films, TV movies, a horror thriller called Clown (2014) and is being catapulted into the big time directing Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). He’ll certainly have a bigger budget than what he had with Cop Car, but even though that film had a pathetic showing at the box office (a dismal U.S. gross of $128,000), enough people saw it and were impressed with it to land Watts a big gig. Cop Car is definitely worth a look. Thanks to my friend Kristina over at Speakeasy for recommending it.
Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood (TV 2009) Karen Thomas
Warner Archive DVD – library (1:55)
Originally a PBS documentary, Cinema’s Exiles charts the journeys of several European filmmakers and actors to America to escape Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. Classic film lovers will see such familiar names as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Robert Siodmak, Franz Waxman and others. Their stories are fascinating, yet so are the ones of people you may never have heard of. For all the ones you have heard of, there were many who simply could not earn a living in Hollywood.
One of the most moving moments in the film comes when Casablanca (1942) is examined, taking a brief look at many of the film’s actors who were highly regarded in Europe before the war, now reduced to playing bit parts in Hollywood. Some of those stories turned out to have happy endings; others did not.
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, the film is mostly effective but sometimes stumbles in its playing of clips, unable to find good stopping points and/or transitions. Still its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Anyone interested in history and film history will want to see it. (I watched the film on the Warner Archive DVD which had a running time of 1:55, although IMDB places the running time at 1:30.)
Destiny (1921) Fritz Lang
Netflix streaming (1:38)
When a young couple in love stop at a small village inn, Death (Bernhard Goetzke, left) takes the young man (Walter Janssen). The woman (Lil Dagover, right) urges Death to allow her to save him. He gives her three chances, permitting her to go to three different settings during three different time periods in history in which she must rescue her man from similar circumstances to those she has just faced with Death.
The film is simply stunning in every way, certainly visually, but also in its manner of storytelling. German Expressionism (which can often mean different things for different people) is on full display here with gorgeous sets and wonderful experimental photography. I could tell you more, but just see it. It’s a wonder. The film is currently streaming on Amazon, but Kino has just released a Blu-ray edition that looks quite impressive.
Phantasm (1979) Don Coscarelli (3x)
Well Go USA Blu-ray (1:30)
Let’s face it: Phantasm is not a great movie. It’s ultra-low budget and contains some pretty bad acting, but I still love it. (My rating might only be a 3.5 out of 5, but my love for the film is a solid 5.) While it may not be great, it’s not really striving for greatness, but rather fascination and awe. It is inspired, compelling and uniquely weird.
I shouldn’t even bother telling you about the plot, but I will (at least a little). A young teen named Jody (A. Michael Baldwin) notices some weird things going on at a local graveyard and later at a local cemetery involving a really creepy tall man (Anguss Scrimm, who sadly passed away back in January). That’s really all you need to know, other than you’re in for a strange ride that involves horror, science fiction and just a bit of comedy. Coscarelli’s visuals range from interesting to incredible, especially during the film’s last 20 minutes. Everyone remembers the silver sphere, but what really caught my attention was the shot above. I’m not going to tell you what it is or what it means (I’m not even sure I know after watching the film for the third time), but any filmmaker who can come up with something that weird in 1979 is a filmmaker to watch.
I’m not sure if Phantasm tanked upon its initial release, but I remember seeing it on HBO in 1979, the same year the film was released theatrically. I was glued to the screen, but dismissed the ending as a cop-out. I saw the film again about ten years ago and really can’t remember a thing about that viewing, other than the fact that the DVD edition I saw had different special features than are present on the Go Well USA Blu-ray. This time around, I appreciated that Coscarelli somehow made an utterly compelling film with such a meager ($300,000) budget. (The film eventually earned $12 million.) I was able to (mostly) look past the bad acting and budget limitations to appreciate the fact that Coscarelli (who directed, wrote, photographed, co-produced and edited the film) has created something unique and amazing. This restoration was helped along by J.J. Abrams, a fan of the movie and its sequels. The other films in the series are also being restored. If you like Phantasm, try another Coscarelli film, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) starring Bruce Campbell as an Elvis impersonator and Ossie Davis, who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy. Both men are determined to fight an evil Egyptian god haunting their East Texas rest home facility. Tell me that’s not original.
711 Ocean Drive (1950) Joseph M. Newman
This and the next several films borrowed from K.D. (1:42)
Edmond O’Brien plays Mal Granger, a repairman for the telephone company who has a weakness for betting on the horses. Granger discovers an opportunity to put his electronics expertise to use in helping a local gangster (Barry Kelly) increase profits in his illegal racing wire operations. Then Granger starts to get greedy and power-hungry.
I’ve seen Edmond O’Brien in so many movies where he plays the “everyman,” the good guy, but here he’s clearly not on the up-and-up. It was a bit jolting seeing him play the criminal in Shield for Murder (1954, listed below), but after watching 711 Ocean Drive, I’m feeling more comfortable with O’Brien on the other side of the law. He’s an effective actor no matter which side he’s on.
Follow Me Quietly (1949) Richard Fleischer (and Anthony Mann, uncredited)
I’m beginning to think that Bosley Crowther (film critic for The New York Times from 1940 to 1967) either didn’t “get” film noir or just plain hated it. It seems every time I research a film noir, he usually comes up giving it a negative review. Some of his thoughts on Follow Me Quietly include the following:
“There is no intelligent reason why anyone should heed the proposal of ‘Follow Me Quietly’….” “this utterly senseless little thriller is patently nothing more than a convenient one-hour time-killer between performances of the eight-act vaudeville bill.”
Lighten up, Bosley…
Okay, so it’s not Citizen Kane, but Follow Me Quietly is an effective thriller with people you’ve mostly never heard of featuring a couple of really nifty scenes. An elusive killer known only as “The Judge” has taken it upon himself to kill anyone he considers evil or worthless. In one of the notes he leaves for the police, he states, “I have been ordained to destroy all evil.” Looks like the Judge will be working overtime on this movie…
The Judge has murdered seven people and Detective Harry Grant (William Lundigan, who also starred in The House on Telegraph Hill ) and Police Sgt. Art Collins (Jeff Corey) are hot on the trail. Their second biggest problem (after the Judge himself) is Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick, who appeared in noirs High Wall  and House by the River ). Ann is new in town, trying to make a name for herself as a reporter and she just won’t leave Grant alone until he gives her the whole story on the Judge.
Neither Lundigan nor Patrick were probably ever headliners in any other film, but they work well together in this one. Follow Me Quietly is a far better thriller (and film noir) than Bosley Crowther gives it credit for. Do check it out.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) Felix E. Feist
If there ever was a devil in film noir, it was Lawrence Tierney. Here he plays Steve Morgan, a sociopath who’s just robbed and killed a cashier, looking for a way out of town. Unsuspecting good guy Jimmy “Fergie” Ferguson (Ted North) gives Morgan a lift to Los Angeles but before they can reach L.A., they stop at a gas station and pick up two women. The fun’s just beginning when Morgan talks everyone into stopping for the night in an unoccupied beach house. As the cops begin to follow Morgan’s trail, murder and mayhem begin to mount.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride is a little too much comic relief to make it as hard-edged as it could’ve been, but it’s an effective little thriller and a great role for Tierney as he cunningly and ruthlessly works his charms on everyone he meets, caring only about himself. Good stuff.
Pickup (1951) Hugo Haas
Many have forgotten Hugo Haas, a Czech refugee from Nazi Europe who came to America to act and direct as he did here in his first American film. Like many of his movies, Pickup is about a clueless middle-aged man (Haas) who’s ruined by a much younger femme fatale (Beverly Michaels in this case). Haas plays a railroad dispatcher who lives and works in the middle of nowhere until he meets a young blonde named Betty (Michaels) who marries him for the money he’ll get upon retirement, which should be any day now. After the man goes deaf, Betty and her lover Steve (Allan Nixon) plan to do him in, talking about their scheme right in front of him. After all, he can’t hear them, right? Pickup is a fairly standard film noir and although you’ll never find it on anyone’s Top 10, it’s certainly worth your time.
Carol (2015) Todd Haynes
Library DVD (1:58)
Carol: “Would you like to marry him?” (referring to Therese’s boyfriend Richard)
Therese: “Well… I barely even know what to order for lunch.”
At this point early in the film, Carol (Cate Blanchett) has just met Therese (Rooney Mara) at Frankenberg’s, a Manhattan department store where Therese works. Carol is several years older than Therese, but is clearly attracted to the younger woman and Therese seems initially curious. What develops is a powerfully dramatic love story with exquisite period (1952) detail, costumes, music and extraordinary performances. Haynes is obviously a master craftsman and the film is wonderfully compelling, but I had some issues involving one or two plot points (that I can’t discuss without approaching spoiler territory) that bothered me a bit. You can read more about the film and how it was snubbed by the Oscars here.
Better Call Saul: Season Two (TV 2016) Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould
Sony Pictures Blu-ray
Previously discussed here
That’s about half of December, depending on what I watch over the next three days. Stay tuned.
Photos: The Man Movie Man, A Cloister of Wolves and Fire, Crash! Landen