Thursday, November 5, 2009

Favorite Films, Part IX

Part nine of ten of my 100 favorite movie series, in chronological order. We finally make it to the 1970s, considered by many to be one of the greatest decades in film history. Maverick directors abounded in this decade. So what do I have but a lot of horror movies and westerns. What can I say, I have low brow tastes.
“True Grit” (1969). I said this in a previous blog and it bears repeating. Whenever there are articles about past Oscar winners who didn’t deserve to win, John Wayne’s Best Actor win for this film invariably comes up. People say he was just playing himself, they proclaim or it’s the worst Oscar ever handed out. To which I say: Bull. And. Crap. Wayne’s performance as the eyepatch-wearing Rooster Cogburn is a winner all the way. We watch his character evolve from a crude, mean U.S. Marshall to a caring (though still unsentimental) father figure to young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), who is tracking her father’s killer. It’s not contrived either, but we witness the character’s evolution over the course of the movie. Besides, who should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar that year, those two mopes from “Midnight Cowboy”? No, the Academy made the right decision that year.

“The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971): One of my favorite horror movies ever is this stylish entry starring Vincent Price, as the title character who exacts revenge on the surgical team who he feels caused the death of his beloved wife on the operating table. He exacts his vengeance on them by basing their demise – in very ingenious fashion - on the 10 plagues of Egypt as related in the Book of Exodus. There’s a great deal of humor to this movie too, especially in the befuddlement of Scotland Yard Inspector Trout, who for the life of him can’t figure out what’s going on. Robert Fuest’s direction and the film’s 1930’s Art Deco set design are of the highest order.
“Big Jake” (1971). One of the meanest outlaw gangs in movie history, headed by John Fain (the great Richard Boone), kidnap a young boy from a wealthy ranch and hold him for $1 million ransom. They think his grandfather Jake McCandles (John Wayne) is dead. He isn’t. The Duke takes his estranged sons (Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum) into Mexico to hunt down the Fain Gang and bring his grandson home alive. Probably my all-time favorite John Wayne movie. Not his best, mind you. I even know that. But it was the first John Wayne movie I ever saw, back as an impressionable nine-year-old one summer evening at the Dolton Theater. It’s been almost 40 years, but I can still remember the cheers and applause from a packed house when the movie ended with the freeze frame of Wayne and his family and that triumphant Elmer Bernstein music cue kicked in. I can understand when younger people say watching something like “Star Wars” (1977) or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) changed their lives, because it happened to me watching “Big Jake.” I’ve been a Wayne fan ever since that night, and it instilled a love for the western genre that has never abated over the years.
“Tales from the Crypt” (1972): I’ve always been a big fan of the horror anthologies that England’s Amicus Studios produced in the 1960s and 1970s, and this is probably the best. It’s actually a very moral film…if you do bad things to people, then bad things will come back to you a hundredfold. Each of the five stories here are good, but my favorites are the third, starring kindly Peter Cushing against a very nasty neighbor, and the final episode where residents at an institute for the blind extract a most ingenious vengeance on the callous and miserly new manager. The first segment, set on Christmas Eve featuring an escaped lunatic in a Santa Claus costume, makes for ideal holiday viewing. Ho Ho Ho.

“That’s Entertainment” (1974): Not really a documentary, but a magnificent overview of M-G-M musicals. In those pre-video and pre-cable days, those clips of musicals rarely revived or shown on TV were absolutely mouth-watering. The early 1970s was a huge feast for nostalgia buffs, and this was the cherry on the sundae. If you’re feeling down, put this on, settle back, watch, and marvel. The blues will be lifted within minutes.
“Breakheart Pass” (1975): I love westerns, mysteries and stories set on trains. This happily combines all three. Charles Bronson is arrested for murder and placed on a train traveling west through the snow-covered wilderness to bring much needed medical supplies to a fort. Someone on the train doesn’t want the train to reach its destination, what with murders and acts of sabotage occurring on a regular basis. Bronson takes it upon himself to investigate. (Hint: he’s really not a murderer). There’s gorgeous scenery on display here, with that beautiful steam engine hauling that train through vast mountain gorges and across bridges. There’s a great fight scene on top of the moving train between Bronson and ex-boxer Archie Moore. This was the last assignment for legendary stuntman/coordinator Yakima Canutt and he went out with a bang with the expert staging of the action scenes here. A terrific cast too, full of such pros as Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, David Huddleston and Bill McKinney. This is a perfectly satisfying evening’s entertainment, and the type of fare that contemporary Hollywood has no idea how to make anymore.

“The Man Who Would Be King” (1975): One of the greatest adventure films ever made, and features what are arguably my favorite performances of two of my favorite actors, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling (who is played in this movie by Christopher Plummer), two cashiered British soldiers in 19th century India decide to travel into the wilderness and find a country where they can set themselves up as kings. One can see the film as a look at greed and man’s driving ambitions, but director John Huston doesn’t allow the message to swamp this marvelously entertaining movie. The Moroccan locations are stunning.

“Race with the Devil” (1975). Another childhood favorite, and one that holds up really well. Two vacationing couples (Warren Oates and Loretta Swit, and Peter Fonda and Lara Parker) drive across Texas in an RV on their way to a skiing vacation in Colorado. One evening they pull over to a clearing to rest for the night and find themselves witnessing a Satanic ceremony, including the ritual murder of a young woman. The rest of the movie is a chase across Texas, with the Satanists seemingly around every corner. The car stunts in this are sensational, and there’s a twist ending they likely would not do today. I saw this on a Saturday afternoon at the Dolton Theater, and I think every kid in my class was there that afternoon. The TV commercials had us drooling to see this title…no way where we going to miss this. It did not disappoint. Leonard Rosenman, of all people, did the score.

“The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977). Roger Moore’s best outing as 007, and one of the best Bond films ever. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still offers some of the best action scenes in the series’ history. For years I thought the large specially fitted tanker that scoops up American, British and Russian nuclear submarines (thus leading to WW III) was a real tanker that the producers purchased, retrofitted with a new special hull, and then blew it up at the end. I was floored when I read it was a miniature. I would have sworn it was the real thing, strong evidence that CGI is not the be all and end all of special effects. This came out the same summer as “Star Wars” and I couldn’t understand the furor over that when the best Bond movie in years was also playing. High school hormones also likely led me to play favorites here. “The Spy Who Loved Me” gave us Barbara Bach and Caroline Munro. “Star Wars” gave us…Carrie Fisher and her cinnamon roll hair style? No contest.

“Superman” (1978). The best comic book movie to date. You know you’re in the hands of something special when you realize that the build-up to the first Superman appearance – the Krypton and Smallville scenes, the introductory scenes at the Daily Planet – are every bit as good as the Superman spectacle and action in the film’s second half. The film also offers my favorite title credit sequence of all time. Though I’m a huge fan of George Reeves from the TV show, I have to admit Christopher Reeve is the ideal Clark Kent/Superman.


Anonymous said...

I love the movie Breakheart Pass. Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors. This is a great mix of a mystery western theme. The plot keeps you guessing and the music is good. My favorite Charles Bronson western is Red Sun.

Kevin Deany said...

You have good taste in actors. I love "Red Sun" too. It's probably my number one pick for title I would love most love to see released on DVD.

Love "Breakheart Pass" as well, and you're right about the Jerry Goldsmith score for it. It's one of my favorites of his many superior scores.