Shooting, The (1966)

Shooting, The (1966)

“I pretty much believe she means to kill someone.”

Synopsis:
In the desolate west, a miner (Warren Oates) and his dim-witted working companion (Will Hutchins) are hired by a strong-willed woman (Millie Perkins) to lead her to town across the desert; but it soon becomes apparent that she’s sending signals to a sharpshooter (Jack Nicholson) along their path.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Millie Perkins Films
  • Monte Hellman Films
  • Revenge
  • Strong Females
  • Warren Oates Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “puzzling but excellent existential western” — “directed by Monte Hellman in the Utah desert in 1965, in conjunction with Ride in the Whirlwind” — presents an “unusual, interesting West” that “is ugly, barren, and godforsaken.” He notes that “Oates gives a solid performance as a [former] bounty hunter” and Hutchins “is surprisingly effective as his simple-minded companion,” while Jack Nicholson — “who produced this film and wrote Whirlwind” — plays an “evil Jack Palance-like gunslinger” who “keeps threatening Hutchins,” though “we have faith that the intelligent Oates could outwit Nicholson in a fight.”

Peary discusses the film in greater detail in his first Cult Movies book, where he points out that despite Hellman presenting a “realistic” West, “the situations he places his characters in are existential in nature.” He writes that, “In The Shooting, neither Grashade [Oates] nor… Coley [Hutchins] understands why the Perkins character refuses to give her name or why she hires them“:

… and he points out that “just like the driver and the mechanic in Hellman’s modern-day ‘road’ film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the men in these two films end up taking part in journeys that go nowhere.”

Watching Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting back-to-back, it’s interesting to imagine Perkins’ character(s) somehow spanning both. Her unnamed “Woman” has a lot more speaking time than put-upon Abigail in Whirlwind — perhaps not surprising, given The Shooting was scripted by a woman (Carole Eastman); and while The Woman comes across as harsh, demanding, annoying, and even cruel (she shoots her own horse), one can easily see how things would get to that point while living in this type of unforgiving environment, with no other women seemingly around. As Peary writes, the mysterious “end may ask more questions than it answers” — but it does give some sudden and fascinating insights into what this otherwise inscrutable film may have been all about.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Oates as Willett Gashade
  • Will Hutchins as Coley
  • Millie Perkins as The Woman
  • Gregory Sandor’s cinematography

  • Carole Eastman’s authentic-sounding dialogue

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

“You know, you are not a person, Mr. Burns — you are an experience!”

Synopsis:
An unemployed writer (Jason Robards, Jr.) caring for his 12-year-old nephew (Barry Gordon) refuses to settle down and get a job, even when two social workers (William Daniels and Barbara Harris) come to warn him he’s under supervision. Will an affair with Harris — or cajoling by his responsible brother Arnold (Martin Balsam) — finally convince Murray (Robards, Jr.) to accept a job as a writer for an unfunny children’s performer (Gene Saks)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Harris Films
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Nonconformists
  • Play Adaptation
  • Raising Kids

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “cult following has nearly disappeared for Herb Gardner’s adaptation of his Broadway play,” which “was one of the first films that dealt with the theme of nonconformity, rather than merely having a nonconformist lead character.” Peary argues that “its sellout conclusion” “doesn’t sit well” and this “dated film is predictable, too chatty, and no longer funny… But it’s still a pleasure to watch the acting by Robards, Harris, and Gordon, an excellent child actor” who GFTFF fans will likely recognize from his starring role in Out of It (1969). I agree with Peary that this film hasn’t aged all that well, though I disagree that the ending is a sellout; instead, I’m relieved that Robards, Jr. cares enough for someone other than himself to finally look beyond his narcissistic desire for freedom and rebellion at all costs (that’s the responsible adult/parent in me speaking). Harris is delightful in her screen debut, and the supporting cast is all excellent — including Saks as “Chuckles the Chipmunk”, Daniels as Harris’s no-nonsense colleague, and Oscar-nominated Balsam in a rather thankless role as Robards, Jr.’s always-supportive brother.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jason Robards, Jr. as Murray
  • Barbara Harris as Sandra
  • Barry Gordon as “Nick”
  • Gene Saks as Leo (a.k.a. “Chuckles the Chipmunk”)
  • Martin Balsam as Arnold
  • William Daniels as Albert
  • Fine cinematography by Arthur Ornitz

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely worth a one-time look.

Links:

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

“Don’t make no trouble, is what’s best for all of us.”

Synopsis:
When three cowboys (Jack Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, and Tom Filer) accidentally spend the night with a group of outlaws headed by one-eyed Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), they become wanted by vigilantes, and after Otis (Filer) is killed, Vern (Michell) and Wes (Nicholson) set out as fugitives across the harsh landscape. Eventually they come upon a homestead run by a patriarch (George Mitchell) whose wife (Katherine Squire) and daughter (Millie Perkins) live a hard-scrabble existence; will Vern and Wes be able to stay safe in their home until the vigilantes have passed?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Falsely Accused
  • Fugitives
  • Harry Dean Stanton Films
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Millie Perkins Films
  • Monte Hellman Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this “existential western” by noting it was “written by its co-star, Jack Nicholson, and directed in Utah in 1965 by Monte Hellman, back to back with The Shooting.” He points out that “just as in other Hellman films, our heroes make a long journey that seems to go nowhere,” and he describes the movie as a “gritty, fascinating western with solid acting, offbeat characters, [an] intriguing setting, and odd bits of dialogue” (as during Nicholson and Mitchell’s checkers game):

He further notes that at the time of GFTFF’s publication in 1986, it remained an “unpredictable cult movie” with a “strong reputation in Europe.” Peary analyzes the film in greater detail in his first Cult Movies book, where he formally lists The Shooting but discusses it hand-in-hand with this (slightly) earlier film. Indeed, many reviews seem to take the two movies as an automatic double-billing, given their coupled production history and many similarities, with Peary even asserting that “they seem to have been written by the same person.”

In his (dual) review, DVD Savant further describes what makes Ride in the Whirlwind so unique, noting that its “finer qualities begin with Monte Hellman’s refusal to go for big dramatic effects and climaxes. We’re given no standard cues for ‘genre outcomes’ — nobody is an obvious hero, characters don’t live and die based on their billing in the credits… The crooks aren’t particularly vicious:

… the posse is honest in their duty:

… and everybody knows the score.”

Indeed, while Hellman’s two westerns have been described as the first “acid westerns” — a term coined by Pauline Kael to denote westerns that subvert earlier conventions of the genre in favor of more openly acknowledging that some western journeys are towards death rather than liberation — it’s also easy to see them as simply a more depressingly realistic look at the harshness of survival in Western times. While we watch in fascination to see how the unusual storyline will unfold, we hold out no hope that anything resembling a happy ending is in sight” — and as Peary writes, the “life endured by Perkins and her mother sticks [particularly] in the mind.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell as the lead protagonists
  • Natural and convincing supporting performances
  • A powerful depiction of vigilante justice and harsh survival in the West

Must See?
Yes, as a unique western with a cult following.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Good Show

Links:

Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil (1953)

“We simply mustn’t let anybody murder Harry.”

Synopsis:
When a British couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) in an Italian port town meet up with a group of men (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Ivor Barbard, and Marco Tulli) hoping to claim uranium-rich land in Kenya, various adventures quickly ensue — including Gwendolyn (Jones) falling for Billy (Bogart), and Billy’s wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) falling for Harry (Underdown).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Black Comedy
  • Con-Artists
  • Get Rich Quick
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Infidelity
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Peter Lorre Films
  • Robert Morley Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this “legendary lark” — “directed by John Huston, scripted by Huston and young writer Truman Capote, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, and Peter Lorre” — as “the fifties’ most peculiar A-budget film.” While it was “a flop at the box office, it immediately became known as a ‘cult film’ and has remained a favorite of movie connoisseurs ever since.” Peary points out parallels between this and “the Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon,” in which Bogart plays “a tough, morally ambiguous hero who sidesteps his way through a corrupt world of greedy, double-dealing savages, outrageous flirts, and pathological liars” — however, in the case of Beat the Devil, Capote ultimately devised “a sly, one-of-a-kind spoof of all international-intrigue pictures and populate[d] it with a cockeyed, disparate group of people,” some of whom play “the film for comedy” while others continue to play it straight.

Peary writes that in this film about a “boat trip from Italy to Africa,” “no one is happy with their station in life. Each wants what the other has” — and while “all hope the journey will result in personal happiness,” “as in most Huston films, characters fail at [their] missions” (though a few “reach some sort of fulfillment”).

Peary goes on to write that this “film has [a] unique Continental flavor (it was filmed in Ravello, a small coast town in Italy), hilarious, delectable moments, and wonderfully attitudinizing characters.” While he wishes “it had more coherence… and a couple of more serious, creepy scenes like the bit with the player piano”:

… he concedes that the film is “so disarming and so lionized by intelligent film fans that [he worries] it may be better than [he thinks].”

In his Cult Movies 2 book, Peary analyzes the film in greater depth, pointing out that the film’s “remarkable fascination” has “as much to do with its background” (including, crucially, hiring Capote to work on the script) “as with its zany characters, performances, and tone.” While it wasn’t well-received upon release, Peary argues that it has a sort of timeless, international quality, given that “the emotional, involved, chatty people in this film could mingle easily with those in a Jean Renoir film, particularly Rules of the Game (1939).”

He adds that “whatever their failings and degrees of pomposity, they believe in living life to its fullest” — yet they “have conflicting personalities” that make them a decidedly “disparate group,” with “even the married couples [not seeming] to belong together.”


The best performance of all is given by “Jones, once the sainted Bernadette but now a compulsive liar… Wearing a blond wig (!), gabbing nonstop, flirting with Billy, knitting, exercising (while Maria paints), Jones turns in a bravura performance that equals her only other comic role of note in Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946).”

All the supporting players are game as well, making this a unique trip worth taking at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jennifer Jones as Gwendolyn Chelm
  • Truman Capote’s wildly unique screenplay:

    “Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”

Must See?
Yes, as a quirky cult favorite by a master director.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Flight for Freedom (1943)

Flight for Freedom (1943)

“You’re a great guy — about all the woman there is.”

Synopsis:
When an aviatrix (Rosalind Russell) falls for a dashing pilot (Fred MacMurray) who refuses to settle down, she decides to continue her own career and becomes world-famous — but after getting engaged to her devoted flight instructor (Herbert Marshall), Tonie (Russell) must decide whether to help out with a potentially lethal mission of worldwide significance.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Fred MacMurray Films
  • Herbert Marshall Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Rosalind Russell Films
  • Strong Females

Review:
This heavily fictionalized imagining of what might have happened to Amelia Earhart (i.e., perhaps she was helping to spy on Japan) gave Rosalind Russell a chance to shine in one of her numerous “strong female” roles — in this case, an intrepid pilot who refuses to let her love for a man get in the way of her love of competitive aviation. The love triangle aspect of the film (which takes up far too much script time) is its weakest:

What we’re really waiting for is more evidence of Russell’s derring-do and patriotism.


Thankfully, Lee Garmes’ cinematography makes the entire affair enjoyably atmospheric to watch.

Be forewarned that, given the time it was released, this propaganda film posits the Japanese as sneaky and evil.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosalind Russell as Tonie Carter
  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if you’re curious. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Mission to Moscow (1943)

Mission to Moscow (1943)

“At least one European nation without aggressive intentions is ready for anything that comes — and I say, thank God for it.”

Synopsis:
Roosevelt’s second ambassador to the Soviet Union — Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) — shares his positive impressions of life in Stalinist Russia, urging the U.S. to join forces with Stalin (Manart Kippen) against Nazi Germany.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Eleanor Parker Films
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Walter Huston Films
  • World War II

Review:
This rather astonishing piece of pro-Russia wartime propaganda, produced by Warner Brothers Studios and given full approval by the Office of War Information, presents a cinematic version of Ambassador Davies’ popular 1941 memoir, wherein he asserted that the Soviet Union had been sorely misunderstood and unfairly maligned. As he (played by Huston) says directly to Stalin (Kippen) in the film:

“I’ve been greatly impressed by what I’ve seen — your industrial plants, the development of natural resources, and the work being done to improve living conditions everywhere in Russia. I believe, sir, that history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.”

DVD Savant accurately refers to the film as “an amazingly didactic speech-fest with almost zero dramatic value,” adding that “insidious is the only word for the film’s whitewash of Stalin’s actions and the motives behind them.” Indeed, critics on both sides of the political aisle — in America and Russia — took issue with the many inaccuracies on display here, perhaps most notably the one-sided view of the murderous Moscow Trials. Mission to Moscow remains merely a cinematic curiosity, and certainly not must-see viewing for film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Proud Valley, The (1940)

Proud Valley, The (1940)

“Aren’t we all black down in that pit?”

Synopsis:
When an itinerant Black laborer (Paul Robeson) arrives in a Welsh coal mining town, he soon finds himself involved in both the local choir and local labor issues, which are impacting the ability of a poor but ambitious young Welshman (Simon Lack) to marry his sweetheart (Janet Johnson).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Labor Movements
  • Mining Towns
  • Paul Robeson Films

Review:
One of Paul Robeson’s final films — other than appearing briefly in Tales of Manhattan (1942) and narrating the documentary Native Land (1942) — was this pro-labor film taking place in Wales, and directed by Pen Tennyson (who died in an airplane accident the next year at the age of 28). It’s certainly refreshing to see Robeson playing a more nuanced — and less demeaned — character than usual, though he’s ultimately relegated to the back stage in favor of the broader cause of labor issues, as well as town squabbles over money and class. Less easy to swallow is the final sacrifice he makes in the film — though at least the choice is his own, and seemingly based on age and marital status rather than race. The story covers some of the same thematic territory in another film from the same year, Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1940), which would make for an interesting — if perhaps too-depressing — double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful singing
  • Fine b&w cinematography


Must See?
No, though of course Paul Robeson fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Crack in the World (1965)

Crack in the World (1965)

“To obtain limitless energy has been a dream of mankind for thousands of years.”

Synopsis:
When a terminally ill scientist (Dana Andrews) goes against the wishes of his younger colleague (Kieron Moore) and orders a nuclear missile to be sent deep into the earth in order to release magma for energy, he unwittingly causes a life-threatening crack in the world. Can his supportive scientist-wife (Janette Scott) help them reverse the damage they’ve done?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Atomic Energy
  • Dana Andrews Films
  • Disaster Flicks
  • Love Triangle
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists

Review:
Following The Day of the Triffids (1963), writer-producer Philip Yordan made this similarly-themed apocalyptic tale about the impending destruction of the Earth, once again featuring Kieron Scott and Janelle Moore:

… though this time Scott gets to play a reasonable fellow, while Dana Andrews plays Scott’s a-hole husband:

The film convincingly shows the perils of scientists allowed too much power over the state of world affairs; in this case, Andrews’ hubris leads to an instantly disastrous effect that kills off tens of thousands of humans. To that end, this story remains ever so creepy, and possibly prescient.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography
  • Impressive special effects

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you enjoy this kind of flick.

Links:

Day of the Triffids, The (1963)

Day of the Triffids, The (1963)

“Keep behind me; there’s no sense in getting killed by a plant!”

Synopsis:
When a man (Howard Keel) recovering from eye surgery learns he is one of the few survivors of a meteorite shower that has blinded most of the world, he teams up with a young stowaway (Janina Faye) and a woman (Nicole Maurey) who can also see as they attempt to protect themselves from marauding killer plants known as triffids. Meanwhile, a married pair of marine biologists (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) living in an isolated lighthouse soon find themselves surrounded by triffids, and must find a way to survive.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Blindness
  • Horror Films
  • Howard Keel Films
  • Killer Plants
  • Post-Apocalypse
  • Science Fiction
  • Survival

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “enjoyable sci-fi” flick — based on an “exciting, thoughtful novel” by John Wyndham — is “kept from being a classic… because the triffids are foolish-looking and actually get in the way of what would have been a far more interesting storyline: how the world’s survivors cope with the end of civilization” (which is “the part of the story that was emphasized in the 1981 British TV movie”). I agree with Peary’s short review, which doesn’t provide much more than basics of the plot, and also mentions that “Freddie Francis directed the Moore-Scott scenes a year after [listed director Steve] Sekeley completed his work.” The idea of the entire world (minus a few survivors) being blinded is creepy enough that we certainly don’t need the primary plot of killer plants — which are laughably non-menacing.

The best scenes show the fallout of the meteorite-induced blindness — such as the after-effects of Keel chatting with his eye surgeon:


… the chaos of blind passengers emerging from a crashed train:

… and a plane crew’s attempt to keep passengers calm while they request help to land their doomed aircraft:

Unfortunately, nearly everything else about the film is poorly written, with the subplot about quibbling Scott and Moore (a mean alcoholic) especially jarring — though Scott does provide the film’s best scream-shots:

There’s also something inherently compelling about watching motley survivors banding together to figure out their next steps:

However, this film isn’t must-see except for those curious about its cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some creepy post-apocalyptic imagery

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

Dog Star Man (1964)

Dog Star Man (1964)

Synopsis:
A man (Stan Brakhage) walking up a snowy mountain with his dog sees visions of life and the cosmos.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Experimental Films
  • Silent Films

Review:
As noted by Wikipedia, “Over the course of five decades” experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage “created a large and diverse body of work, exploring a variety of formats, approaches and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid, fast cutting, in-camera editing, scratching on film, collage film and the use of multiple exposures.” Dog Star Man — a compilation of five short films — is likely an excellent representation of his style (at least at one point in time) given that it’s non-linear, highly experimental, and stone silent. Indeed, there was no quote available to choose from, and coming up with a plot synopsis was challenging given that the “film” was crafted as a strategic compilation of images rather than a cohesive narrative. According to Criterion’s essay, “In Brakhage films we enter into momentary perceptual transactions in which we trade unhindered assimilation of images for intensified contact with pictorial or sensory features that might otherwise go unnoticed” — in other words, his films are experiences rather than stories per se. Be forewarned. Like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), this movie will surely test your patience but perhaps make you feel a little better informed about film-as-art during the 1960s. Selected into the National Film Registry in 1992 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Innovative cinematic techniques

Must See?
No, though of course any viewer interested in the history of experimental cinema will want to check it out (and it’s easily available for viewing on YouTube these days). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, which makes sense.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links: