Film Review: The Big Sleep (1978)

Also known as: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (UK)
Release Date: March 13th, 1978 (new York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Winner
Written by: Michael Winner
Based on: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Music by: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark, Joan Collins, Edward Fox, James Stewart, Oliver Reed

Winkast Film Productions, ITC Entertainment, United Artists, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!” – Philip Marlowe

I never saw this film until now but I had assumed that it was a proper sequel to Farwell, My Lovely, a film that came out three years earlier and also starred Robert Mitchum as the famous literary private dick, Philip Marlowe.

However, this is its own thing, as this takes place in a contemporary setting, as opposed to being a period piece like the previous movie.

Still, this makes Robert Mitchum the only actor to play Marlowe more than once in a feature film.

Overall, this is a star studded affair with James Stewart, Richard Boone, Oliver Reed, Joan Collins, Sarah Miles and Candy Clark in it. And honestly, everyone does a pretty fine job with the material and you do become invested in most of the characters.

This film is pretty harsh, though. Especially when compared to other films about Marlowe, especially the older version of The Big Sleep, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And while this is a modernized noir, it’s grittiness is over the top and it loses some of the luster that the Marlowe movies had when they were traditional film-noir from the ’40s.

I did like this for what it was and it’s worth checking out at least once for fans of noir and Mitchum. However, it seems like it is trying to be edgy while not fully committing to the bit.

This isn’t bad and it has a few memorable moments but it’s far from Mitchum’s best and nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to Marlowe pictures.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: the other Robert Mitchum movie where he plays Philip Marlowe: Farewell, My Lovely, as well as other ’70s neo-noir.

Film Review: Vertigo (1958)

Also known as: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (complete title), From Among the Dead, Illicit Darkening (working titles)
Release Date: May 9th, 1958 (San Francisco premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor
Based on: D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones

Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, Paramount Pictures, 128 Minutes

Review:

“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.” – Madeleine

This is the only one of Alfred Hitchcock’s ’50s and ’60s “masterpieces” that I have never seen. I’m not sure why I haven’t seen it over the years, as I’ve seen all the other films from this era multiple times. However, I wanted to save this one for a rainy day so what better time is there than just before a hurricane?

Having now seen it though, I’d say that it is probably my least favorite of the films considered at the top of Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

The reason being, is I just can’t buy into the plot. There are multiple things that make the plot kind of messy and for a film with a twist, I was able to figure it all out with a half hour to spare. It was kind of disappointing though, because I expected more than what I thought was the ending. But it ended, as I suspected, without any extra flair to put the end result ahead of my expectations.

The problem could be my own, however, as I’ve seen so many Hitchcock films, multiple times, that I can kind of see the tropes from top to bottom and thus, am able to get a pretty accurate sense of where the story is going. I may have had a different view of the film had I seen it a few decades ago like I did most of Hitchcock’s work.

Additionally, the film’s title and it’s plot revolves around a gimmick. The centerpiece of the film is James Stewart’s fear of heights but this is shown through what was a new technique at the time, the dolly zoom. While it’s a shot that has been used to death since this film, it’s a technique that has lost its effect on modern audiences. But that’s certainly not Hitchcock’s fault in 1958.

Apart from all that though, this is still a finely acted film. James Stewart was one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading men and for good reason. The two made magic together. And while this isn’t my favorite film of their pairings, it certainly isn’t a picture that is hindered by anything that Stewart did or the direction of Hitchcock for that matter.

Now while I mostly always love Kim Novak in film-noir, she did feel like she was out of her depth here. Not to knock her, she’s a good actress, but she lacked that extra something special that Hitchcock’s female leads usually bring to a film. She also didn’t have as good of a chemistry with Stewart as Grace Kelly or Doris Day.

One thing that did keep this movie very energetic and also assisted in keeping it well above water was the dynamite score of Bernard Hermann. It fit well with the tone of the picture, especially in that fantastically shot opening scene.

Vertigo is definitely a competent film, technically speaking, but the plot was too wonky. I guess you could get away with faking a death from a fall off of a tower in the late ’50s but I’m pretty sure they’d need to go deeper than a few eye witnesses to identify the body, even back then. Maybe I’m wrong but this just felt sort of thin and a bit daft.

Still, this is pretty enjoyable and even if the mystery fell flat, it was a fun ride until it wasn’t.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Hitchcock’s other thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s.

Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Release Date: July 1st, 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Based on: Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Music by: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Duke Ellington (cameo)

Carlyle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 160 Minutes

Review:

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.” – Parnell Emmett McCarthy

If you ever told me that I’d watch a courtroom drama that’s nearly three hours long and that I’d love it, I’d call you a liar. Nothing is more boring to me than court movies. They’re overly talkie, use an abundance of legal jargon I don’t care to know and they just sit there, in one room, seemingly forever. Hell, I hate when television shows I love go into some multi episode courtroom story. I hate courtrooms, I hate jury duty and I thought Court TV was something that old people watched, hoping it would kill them sooner.

Yet, Anatomy of a Murder is to courtrooms what 12 Angry Men is to jury duty. It took something that I have less interest in than dusting sand and made it compelling, engaging, entertaining and hooked me emotionally. In short, it’s a spectacular film that I was glued to from start to finish.

I have become a fan of Otto Preminger’s work, especially his film-noir stuff. While this isn’t noir, it has that distinct Preminger touch and visual allure. It’s clean, crisp, warm and has a strange magnetism that pulls you in. Preminger really was a master of the silver screen, as his films always looked immaculate yet lived in with a sort of grandiose aura about them.

The absolute highlight of this film is seeing two legendary actors: James Stewart and George C. Scott, go head to head as rival lawyers during the trial that is the focus of the story. And really, I think that it is the incredible performances by these two that lured me in, even more so than this being a Preminger film. James Stewart just owns this role and his mere presence prevented this film from having a dull moment. George C. Scott was a great accent to Stewart, giving him a powerful foil to play off of. Stewart was like a 24 oz. bone-in tomahawk ribeye while Scott was the best Béarnaise sauce you could ever hope to taste.

The film also dealt with very controversial subject matter for the time. The trial involved a murder that was committed in defense of the killer’s wife being raped. This was taboo stuff for the 1950s and there’s even a scene in the film where the judge has to explain to the people in the court that he won’t permit any giggles or snickering at the mention of the word “panties”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a long film but it doesn’t feel like it. The set up and investigative stuff before the trial is probably the slowest part of the movie but that doesn’t take too long and once you are in the courtroom, this picture just takes off and doesn’t come back down until the credits roll.

This is a pretty perfect film for its time and its subject matter. It goes to show what kind of magic Hollywood can produce when you have a premier director and two paragons of pure acting talent.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: 12 Angry Men, Orson Welles’ The Trail and two of the James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock collaborations: Rope and Rear Window.

Film Review: Rope (1948)

Release Date: August 26th, 1948 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents
Based on: Rope by Patrick Hamilton
Music by: Leo F. Forbstein, David Buttolph, Francis Poulenc
Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson

Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 80 Minutes

Review:

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a film I am on the fence with. Generally, I like the picture but it has some issues, mostly with the narrative, that bothered me.

It certainly isn’t as refined and near perfect as Rear WindowNorth By NorthwestPsychoVertigo or The Birds but it does display some of the same stylistic approaches and tropes of those films. Rope also predates the youngest of those films by six years.

My real issue with the narrative is that the overall plot is just kind of silly. To surmise, two Ivy League students murder their friend in an apartment. Their motive is to commit the perfect murder with no real motive because without a motive, they can’t be discovered. It is also revealed that the two boys have strong elitist attitudes in which they believe that they exist in society on a level above all others. Therefore, any sort of suspicion against them, in their minds, is impossible.

The murderous boys then hide the body in a trunk and cover it with a table cloth where they plan to hide it, as party guests are on their way to the apartment. The rest of the movie deals with philosophical discussions about social classes mixed in with the realization that the murder victim is late to the party and that he’s a responsible person and always on time. This makes James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, a housemaster at the boys’ school, very concerned and later, suspicious.

As the film moves on, one of the boys acts so blatantly guilty and strange that it is a dead giveaway that something happened. It is almost too convenient how much the boy gives away and points the finger at himself. As the party goes on, the boy stupidly provides clues and eventually loses his grip completely. While leaving the party, Cadell is mistakenly given the victim’s hat and thus, he knows something is definitely awry.

Ultimately, the story is really just a device to examine some philosophical points. Rope gives us some good debates in regards to social classes and morality and how the two interact. It also leads us to a point where Cadell’s words and lessons to the young students come back to haunt him in a way he never theorized. Rope is essentially a film about how words can take on very different meanings in the minds of other people. In the case of this film, those people happen to be evil.

From a technical standpoint, the film is comprised of a series of long takes and the entire film takes place in one confined space: the apartment of one of the killers. The film is comprised of just 11 takes over its 80 minutes, two of those takes being ten minutes long: the length of a reel of film at the time. A few of the edits are very noticeable for their deliberate attempt at cleverness but they feel a bit hokey, most notably the cut where the camera zooms into a suit jacket only to cut as the suit jacket then moves away from the camera. Ultimately, I feel as if this was more of an experiment in style for Hitchcock.

Rope is a compelling picture in regards to its philosophical tones but it falls short of Hitchcock’s later films. That isn’t to say that it isn’t a fairly fabulous movie, it is. Unfortunately, it seems like a rough cut of what could have been a much better picture.

I tend to hold Alfred Hitchcock to a specific standard; Rope just falls short of that standard.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Release Date: April 22nd, 1962
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck
Based on: a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman
Cast: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan, Ken Murrary, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef

Paramount Pictures, 123 Minutes

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceReview:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is regarded as one of John Wayne’s best westerns. It is hard to argue against that point because truthfully, I think just about every John Wayne western is one of his best, as making bad films was something he never seemed to do. Okay, maybe there are a few.

In this movie, he’s teamed up with legends James Stewart and Lee Marvin, as well as Lee Van Cleef and John Carradine in minor roles. That’s a lot of bad asses to share one screen and it is almost like an Expendables film for its era, except for the fact that it’s actually a good movie.

This is one of my favorites when it comes to the role John Wayne plays. As usual, he is the suave manly man but this time he plays somewhat of a protector to James Stewart’s pacifist lawyer character. This is one of my favorite James Stewart performances, outside of his work with Hitchcock, and he almost steals this picture away from John Wayne. Lee Marvin is also at the top of his game here, as he plays a classic black-wearing western villain that you can’t not love to hate.

This film has a lot of layers to it and it isn’t just a straightforward cookie cutter western film. That is why it stands above most of the westerns of that time. There are a handful of John Wayne films I like better but not by much. This is a stupendous movie and it shows off the acting mastery of three greats.

There is a bigger message with this movie than just being a shoot ’em up affair or a typical western revenge flick. There are multiple social commentary threads running through this film and they are all well executed and presented. While light-hearted at times, this film also comes with a very dark vibe, as the evil and corruption that must be overcome feel very real and very threatening.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Rear Window (1954)

Release Date: September 1st, 1954
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Based on: It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Kathryn Grant (uncredited)

Patron Inc., Paramount Pictures, 112 Minutes

rear_windowReview:

Even though I have been a pretty big film buff for my entire life, I honestly didn’t see this Alfred Hitchcock classic until recently. In my high school film studies class, back in the 90s, we watched a bunch of Hitchcock stuff. This one was not on the docket however and I almost wish I could go back and ask my teacher “why?”

Rear Window is legitimately a masterpiece. That isn’t a word I can easily throw around. While I love The Birds and Psycho is pretty flawless, Rear Window is a motion picture on a level that very few have ever reached. I consider Hitchcock to be the “best of the best” alongside Kubrick, Leone and Kurosawa. And this is possibly his magnum opus. Granted, there are a few Hitchcock films I need to rewatch.

James Stewart may be the greatest actor that ever lived and very few women have ever been as classically beautiful as Grace Kelly, which is probably why she married into royalty. Not to mention, that she was a damn good actress, in her own right. But the thing that stands shoulders above these two legends’ talent, is their chemistry together. It is hard not to fall in love with both characters but especially, the two of them together. I really hope that they lived happily ever after but based off of how Jeff’s (Stewart) feelings and respect grows for Lisa (Kelly), I’m sure they did.

But this isn’t a love story, it is a mystery and a thriller.

Rear Window uses a single gigantic set. The movie is predominantly set in the apartment of Stewart’s Jeff, as he sits near his rear window looking out into a courtyard that ties several apartment buildings together. The fact that this almost two hour movie can be so intense and engaging, moment to moment, from the view of a man in his wheelchair staring out a window is quite remarkable. There have been many other films that have used a single set but none have ever been this effective.

To give a brief rundown of the story, we start with Jeff in a wheelchair, sitting in his apartment during a heatwave. He is a renowned photographer but he broke his leg in an accident while photographing an auto race. On his seventh week of being stuck in his apartment, he’s grown irritable and tiresome of his situation and finds himself watching his neighbors out of his rear window. Across the courtyard there are all sorts of interesting characters. Soon, Jeff is drawn to a married couple where the wife constantly nags the husband. The woman is also an invalid and needs constant care. As the days roll on, Jeff notices the wife missing, the man cleaning a large knife and saw, as well as other suspicious behavior. He alerts his friend, a New York detective. He enlists the help of his girlfriend and his caretaker. It all unfolds into some of the most intense moments in motion picture history.

I have to applaud Raymond Burr’s ability to play the object of Jeff’s voyeurism in a way that really left you questioning whether or not he was normal or evil, up until the very end. His presence, once it needed to be, was damn intimidating. And he did all of this without barely speaking a word throughout the film, until the big finale. The shots of him, sitting in pure darkness with the ember of his cigar pulsating with each puff was brilliance.

Alfred Hitchcock shot one of the greatest films ever made. Okay, he shot several of the greatest films ever made. Rear Window, however, to me, is the one film I can point to and ask any naysayers, “Show me something better than that?” While they may know something that is fairly equal, it is a movie that is damn near impossible to top.

Rating: 10/10