The Killers (1964)

I had to watch the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. After all, it was in the same DVD set. I didn’t have great expectations, but this powerful film captivated me.

Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, with Ronald Reagan in a smaller role, The Killers begins at a school for the blind. Two hit men enter looking for Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The rough up the blind secretary and plow their way into North’s class for mechanics. They shoot North dead and make their escape. The contrast between a school for the blind and ruthless criminals is powerful.

After killing North, Charlie Storm (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are on a training Charlie can’t help ruminating over why Johnny didn’t try to evade his murder. He completely accepted it. Johnny was so unlike every other victim. Why?

Another question is Who? Who paid Charlie and Lee $25K when they’d never been paid more than $10K for a hit. Again, why? Why so much?

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So Charlie and Lee switch trains in Chicago and go down to Miami and begin to find out all they can about Johnny North. They soon learn that Johnny was a race car driver, that he fell head over heels for Sheila (Dickinson), a beauty who loves racing and Johnny. She keeps her sugar daddy Micky Farmer. Wining and dining Sheila leaves Johnny ill prepared for the big race. Not only that Micky is in the stands and is not pleased with what he sees with his binoculars. Disaster strikes when Johnny loses control of his car and winds up losing.

It’s clear that Johnny should avoid Sheila at all costs, but he just can’t and she winds up entangling him in Micky’s plan to rob a mail truck that’s carrying a million bucks.

Though the story’s been told before and it’s all done in flashback, The Killer’s kept my attention. The characters are cold blooded, yet passionate. Not one is able to walk away from danger. They have to play the game out to the bloody end. This film has 1960’s cool and a gripping plot. I do recommend seeing both the 1946 and 1964 versions. While you’re at it check on the Tarkovsky short.

Fun Facts

  • The Killers (1964) was supposed to be a TV film, but it had too much violence and sex so it was released in theaters.
  • It was the only film with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy and he hated the film.
  • The director Don Siegel was supposed to direct the 1946 one.
  • Siegel wanted to call the film Johnny North, but the bean counters at Universal said no film with a direction like “North” ever made much money.
  • They shot the last scene first as was usual for a Universal film. Lee Marvin was dead drunk and came 5 hours late. Despite his state, he nailed the scene.
  • This version doesn’t contain a single line of dialog from the short story.

 

The Killers – Tarkovsky (1956)

As a student, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky collaborated on a short film based on Hemingway’s The Killers, which I found on YouTube. At 19 minutes long it packs a punch just as the 1946 version does.

Tarkovsky directed the first and third scenes. He also plays a customer who whistles a tune while he’s in the diner. According to a Criterion Collection essay that tune was common on Voice of America and in Russia came to represent freedom.The Killers is a good introduction to Tarkovsky whose masterpiece Andrei Rublev is over 3 hours long.

The Killers (1946)

Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”

Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.

The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.

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The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966) stars Paul Newman and Julie and kept me engaged from start to finish. Newman plays nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong who’s at an academic conference with his assistant cum fiancée Sarah Sherman. Sarah keeps asking him to commit to a wedding date, but Michael brushes this away. He’s got something else on his mind.

Suddenly Michael tells her he’s going to Sweden and someone else can give his presentation. Sarah’s baffled and later learns that Michael’s going to Berlin. She follows him and he’s furious when he sees her on his plane.

Sarah’s arrival is a surprise to the East Germans who welcome Armstrong. They’re confused about what to do with her. They move forward with their plan and Armstrong announces at a news conference that he’s defecting. Sarah’s shocked.

Now what? She’s come to East Germany and discovered she knows nothing of her fiancé, who’s going to give American military secrets to the enemy.

Little does she know that Michael’s a double agent. Spies give him instructions on where to go to get information on his operation, which soon goes off track.

The film’s a fast-paced thriller which will keep you guessing. Reviewing some other blogs I’ve seen it’s gotten some criticism for not being emotionally convincing, but I was more than satisfied with the twists and turns of Sarah and Michael’s romance just as I was with those of the Cold War enemies’ chases. Great climatic scene in a theater.

Torn Curtain earned a thumbs up from me.

Swearing: None

Violence: A bit, but not so bloody.

Sex scenes: one, nothing too graphic.

 

Miss Juneteenth

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When she was a teen, Turquoise Queen won the Miss Juneteenth beauty contest. Now she’s a single mom and her daughter is old enough to compete in the contest. The high point of Turquoise’s life, which hasn’t turned out how she expected, was this pageant. She had such promise, but here she is approaching middle age, working at a restaurant, cleaning toilets, no glamor, no excitement.

If her daughter were gung ho about the pageant that would be one thing, but Kai doesn’t care that much about becoming Miss Juneteenth and she’s outright against her mom’s idea for the talent portion of the competition.

The film is a slice of life and offers a touching, geniune relationship between a mom and a daughter. I saw the film at Sundance. Now you can see it via Amazon Prime.

The film doesn’t revel in foul language or gratuitous violence. It’s great for family viewing.

Heaven Can Wait

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Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1944) could never be made today. Comedy, marriage and courtship have changed too much.

When the courtly, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in the foyer of hell, he presents his life story to a debonaire devil. Henry goes all the way back to his childhood when he’s brushed off by a cute little girl he’s sweet on and continues trying to impress girls all his life. He’s well heeled, warm hearted and witty. Yet he doesn’t have all that much luck with women.

His luck changes when he glimpses Martha (Gene Tierney) and falls head over heels. He follows her into a book shop and pretends to be a clerk, just to get a chance to talk to her. A blushing beauty, she’s stand-offish but interested, despite being engaged to another. Soon it turns out that Martha’s fiancée is Henry’s uptight cousin. Henry continues to pursue Martha till she decides to follow her heart.

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The bickering, country in-laws

Lubitsch shows time passing and alludes to Henry’s infidelity in a very subtle way. Still the point’s made and we see a witty, poignant view of marriage. The extended family is a cast of comical, albeit stereotypical characters. But Heaven Can Wait shows that a lovable stereotype like the straight-laced cousin or the frisky, lenient grandpa do entertain when done right.

Hud (1963)

Starring a young Paul Newman, Hud riveted me. Lon Bannon’s mission is to track down his uncle Hud Bannon, who’s hot footing it out of his lover’s house just before her husband gets home. Lon’s got to bring his prodigal uncle home. A heifer has mysteriously died and grandpa, Homer Bannon, has called in the county vet, who soon confirms his worst fear the herd has foot and mouth disease. They’ll all have to be put down.

Straight-shooter Homer’s life work is about to be totally wiped out, yet his cavalier son Hud maintains his que sera sera attitude. Just when the family needs wisdom and prudence, Hud keeps carousing, sometimes with his teenage nephew in tow. Lon looks up to Hud, even though he can see his failings.

Father and son constant argue and judge each other, though Homer has more wisdom than Hud. Hud believes their conflict dates back to the night he got into a car accident that killed his beloved brother, Lon’s dad. Homer disagrees. That resentment has been buried, Homer insists. His contempt comes from Hud’s values, or lack of.

Patricia Neal plays a sharp-tonged housekeeper, whom both Hud and Lon admire.

Hud’s a compelling film that made me care about every character and the survival of the traditional family ranch.

Giant (1956)

Love at first sight has its challenges as Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Jordan (Rock Hudson) find to when they rush into marriage. Texas rancher/tycoon Jordan visits Maryland to check out a horse he wants to buy. He returns to Texas with not only a horse, but a wife. Neither is easily tamed.

Now some men love strong women, who question big ideas, but Jordan wasn’t like that. He’s a traditionalist and a bigot. His charm and good looks, attracted Leslie, but through most of the film it seems like his notions of keeping poor people in their places, including a sick baby of Latino heritage has to go without a good doctor, drives a wedge between his wife and him.

A fish out of water, Leslie tries to fit in. She’s not warmly received by Jordan’s sister who has run the house and ranch for years. The townspeople have never met anyone from out East so they don’t know how to accept an outsider and Jordan’s little help as he just figures Leslie should fit in.

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Jordan loathes Jett Rink (James Dean), a young handsome ranch hand who inherits a small plot of land from Jordan’s sister. Leslie needs people other than her husband to talk to and she sees no problem befriending Jett. This makes Jordan’s blood boil. He also disapproves of Leslie’s friendliness with the Latinos who live in the village. He wants her to stay home and not make waves, which is just not in Leslie’s nature.

The film jumps ahead to the time when Jordan and Leslie’s children are grown enough to be choosing careers and spouses. As in most families, the children have minds of their own. Jordy, their son, marries a lovely Latino woman, but both parents, particularly Jordan are prejudiced against her. What’s more Jordan disappoints his father by choosing to become a doctor rather than manage the vast ranch that’s been in the family for generations.

One daughter marries a fine man, who wants to ranch, but he wants a small ranch so Jordan’s ranch is unwanted. The other daughter becomes smitten with Jett, who’s become incredibly wealthy. Of course, this leads to major trouble.

The western landscape is grand, but dry and brown. Leslie surprised me with her ability to get Jordan to see that she does love him, but will often disagree with him. As the years passed, Jordan’s development in terms of opening his mind to other ethnicities or women’s roles changed very little. I was surprised that Leslie put up with him, but the story’s from another era. A more modern character would have given up on a husband, who was so stubbornly biased.

When the film shifts in time by 20 years or so, the main characters all get gray, but their skin doesn’t age and their bodies are still hard and fit.

All in all, while the film features big stars and has romance and action, I felt I just had a superficial view of this family. There was never a point where I felt the family was on the brink of disaster. Jet was, but he’s not the central character. He was an outsider, who wanted social acceptance and success. Yet, I didn’t feel I knew enough about him. I felt the characters were all more distant than most. Thus it’s not a film I’d watch again and again.

Lost Girls

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Lost Girls resembles a made-for-TV-movie more than a feature film. Working class single mom, Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan of The Office, tries to reach out to her estranged daughter. The girl goes missing and  when numerous bodies are discovered in Long Island, Mari presses the police to find her daughter. The first officer in charge sees Gilbert as an annoyance. He’s got a smarmy demeanor and seems fishy. Gilbert’s only help is the Police Captain played by Gabriel Byrne, yet Gilbert doesn’t trust anyone.

Based on a true story, Lost Girls is a moving story, but there’s nothing that distinguishes it from say a Law and Order: SVU. 

Seen at Sundance

Force Majuer

On a family ski vacation in the Swiss Alps, Ebbe, Tomas and their two children Harry and Vera. They’re a young, attractive family with what people’d expect is a wonderful family. As they’re eating lunch after a morning of skiing. As they take in the view, an avalanche, a controlled avalanche moves down the mountain. Soon the avalanche doesn’t look so controlled and viewers panic. While Harry and Vera scream for their parents, Ebbe protects them while Tomas grabs his phone and seeks to save his own skin. All this is captured on video.

The avalanche doesn’t hit the deck. No one’s really hurt — except Ebbe’s trust in Tomas and their marriage.

The rest of the film explores Ebbe’s new distrust of Tomas and his coping with crumbling self-esteem. Every time they share a meal with another couple Ebbe must retell the story and each time Tomas comes out looking like a horrible man.

The film looks at what it means to be a real husband and father and how distrust cuts to the quick. It’s a fascinating exploration of marriage and masculinity. Can this marriage be saved?

I found the film absorbing and didn’t know what to expect. I’m not sure what I think of the end, though I would call it a satisfying conclusion. My only criticism of this quiet, intense film is that the children were so on the sidelines. Perhaps they just are in Swedish families, but while Harry did have moments of realism, Both children’s characters could be more developed.