Witness (1985)

“It’s not our way.”

Witness Poster

Synopsis:
When an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) witnesses a brutal murder in a train station bathroom, the policeman (Harrison Ford) assigned to the case does whatever he can to protect the pair from harm.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Australian director Peter Weir’s… fascinating meditation on violence/peace is extremely well made”: it’s “gorgeous to look at” (John Seale’s cinematography is “excellent”), “very suspenseful”, and features “truly memorable performances by the two leads” (though I’m equally impressed by Haas’s child performance as the wide-eyed “witness”). He points out the “delicately sensual sexual content”, including “beautiful, radiant McGillis standing bare-breasted and unembarrassed as she exchanges stares with [Ford] in the next room” and “the two danc[ing] in the barn” together. However, Peary concedes that “the Amish people’s protest that this film didn’t represent them properly seems to have foundation”, given that “we learn little about them except for their abhorrence of violence (which at times seems like a convenient plot device) and their sense of community” (he accurately notes that “the film has the best communal building scene since the one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers“).

Peary further notes that “the major problem with the film is that it has trouble mixing commercial Hollywood elements with the mysterious elements that usually dominate Weir’s films”, specifically in its glorified emphasis on “violent action sequences” — though I believe this is intentional; indeed, Weir and “screenwriters Earl W. Wallace and Bill Kelley” seem to bank on audiences’ shock at the collision of these two radically different cultures (Amish country life and an urban homicide squad). Witness is ultimately a romantic thriller, pure and simple — and my primary complaint is that its stock villains (sociopathically corrupt cops) are too predictably one-dimensional. However, what’s primarily at stake here are the lives of Haas and McGillis — and to that end, the film cleverly keeps us in suspense, all while bathing our senses in a uniquely pastoral late-20th-century setting.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lukas Haas as Samuel
    Witness Haas
  • Kelly McGillis as Rachel
    Witness McGillis
  • An authentic sense of culture and place
    Witness Barnraising
  • Joan Seale’s cinematography
    Witness Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a taut, well-crafted thriller.

Categories

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Kentucky Fried Movie, The (1977)

“The popcorn you are eating has been pissed in. Film at eleven.”

Kentucky Fried Movie Poster

Synopsis:
A compendium of irreverently satirical commercials and T.V. snippets bookend a spoof of Bruce Lee movies.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “very funny, off-the-wall sketch comedy spoofing movies, commercials, old TV scenes and newscasts” is “still the best of the comedy revues”, and features “imaginative direction by John Landis and writing by Kentucky Fried Theater members”. He asserts that “the best routine is [the] lengthy takeoff of Enter the Dragon called ‘A Fistful of Yen’, with Evan Kim doing a remarkable impersonation of Bruce Lee (as well as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz)” — indeed, this section does contain some of the most hilarious moments in the film (see stills below). Peary names some of his other favorite bits in the revue — including one scene showing “a young black couple following the bizarre instructions on a how-to sex record” — and notes that there are “many hilarious sight gags”.

However, he concedes that the movie “gets laughs by having characters surprise us with vulgar language”, and notes that “some of the humor is too juvenile or tasteless”. The quote selected for this review gives an indication of how “vulgar language” is used for supposed-humor, but instead simply falls flat. As with all episodic films, the quality of each segment is variable — in this case, highly variable. Indeed, while I chuckled at a few select scenes, I’m ultimately not enamored with this early outing by producers Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, who hit true comedy gold with Airplane! (1980) a few years later. Still, fans of Zucker et al. will likely be curious to check this one out, simply to see what portions might appeal.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Intermittently amusing segments and gags
    Kentucky Fried Movie Newscaster
    Kentucky Fried Movie Sex Ed Record
    Kentucky Fried Movie Spoof1
    Kentucky Fried Movie Spoof2
    Kentucky Fried Movie Death

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless it’s your cup of tea.

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Caveman (1981)

“Atouk alounda Lana.”

Caveman Poster

Synopsis:
During prehistoric times, a caveman (Ringo Starr) lusts after the bodacious girlfriend (Barbara Bach) of the bullying tribe leader (John Matuszak) while ignoring the romantic interests of a sweet new acquaintance (Shelley Long).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while “most critics mocked” this “funny prehistoric spoof done on the cheap”, “fans of the genre will get a kick out of the humorous dinosaurs created by David Allen”, as well as the “silly 15-word caveman vocabulary… created by director Carl Gottlieb and his co-writer, Rudy DeLuca”. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself genuinely amused when revisiting this cult favorite, which is filled with “hilarious sight gags” — including Peary’s favorite, in which “a giant insect land[s] on sleeping Dennis Quaid’s face, whereupon the concerned Starr squashes it, causing this gooey mess to pour over Quaid”. It’s all unbelievably silly stuff, but it’s impossible not to giggle (for instance) when watching the group’s attempts to fry an enormous egg (the “special effects” in this scene are impressive), or listening to the gaggle of misfits making nifty improv music together around a campfire. My main complaint is with how badly Starr treats poor Long, who sticks by his side no matter how many times he boots her in favor of obnoxious Bach; Starr’s character wins a prize as one of the most bone-headed, least appealing cinematic protagonists ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several amusing and/or clever sequences
    Caveman Back Straightening
    Caveman Fried Egg
    Caveman Dinosaur
    Caveman Music
  • Lalo Schifrin’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one time viewing, given that it may be to your liking.

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Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

“Even though he disgusts me, I did save his life.”

Boudu Poster

Synopsis:
A well-meaning bookseller (Charles Granval) rescues an indigent man named Boudu (Michel Simon) from drowning and brings him to his house, where his wife (Marcelle Hainia) and mistress-housekeeper (Severine Lerczinska) are both initially perturbed by Boudu’s uncouth presence, but slowly seduced by his animal-like “charms”.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “comic tribute to Paris’s bums” — directed by Jean Renoir, and based on a play by Rene Fauchois — is “not great Renoir” but remains a “perceptive social comedy” which isn’t “nearly as bad as critics contended in 1967 when it received its first American release”. He points out that “Simon’s movements remind some of Charles Laughton”, and notes how interesting it is that Boudu “is such an unsentimentalized slob — rather than the lovable tramp of the Chaplin tradition”. However, while modern critics delight in the way Boudu subverts expectations by anarchically refusing to express appreciation for what he’s given, he ultimately comes across as simply an annoying cipher. We learn nothing about his background, and — because he’s such a lout — we care little about him or his future. In fact, this is a rare instance where I prefer the remake — Paul Mazurky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), starring Nick Nolte — to the original, given that both Nolte’s character (as scripted) and performance are more nuanced. While the cinematography in Boudu… is beautiful (see stills below), this one is only must-see viewing for Renoir fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lovely cinematography and framing
    Boudu Cinematography1
    Boudu Cinematography2
    Boudu Cinematography3

Must See?
No, though film fanatics interested in Renoir’s work will likely be curious to check it out.

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Ordinary People (1980)

“When I let myself feel, all I feel is lousy.”

Ordinary People Poster

Synopsis:
In the aftermath of his brother’s accidental death, a teenager (Timothy Hutton) with a repressed mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and a loving father (Donald Sutherland) seeks help from a therapist (Judd Hirsch) as well as solace from his sweet new girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “Best Picture Winner” — Robert Redford’s debut as a director — is “an extremely successful adaptation of Judith Guest’s prizewinning first novel about the deterioration of an [upper] middle-class family due to the death of the firstborn teenage son and the inability of the mother — the symbol of the family — to love anyone else”. He argues that at times, Redford’s direction “is so precise and cold that the mother… might have directed it”, yet notes that “he’s sensitive toward his actors, and gets several outstanding performances” — particularly from Hutton, “who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar although he is the film’s star”. He writes that the “Oscar-winning script by Alvin Sargent is perceptive, powerful, emotionally resonant” and “also tender”, with “the scenes between McGovern and Hutton… particularly sweet”. However, he asserts that while “Moore received much praise for her cinema debut as a woman who has repressed her emotions for so long that they no longer exist”, “it has turned out that she plays most of her movie characters with extreme restraint” — indicating that he’s not terribly impressed with her work here.

Interestingly, in his Alternate Oscars, Peary writes that he’s a bigger fan of “the now underrated Ordinary People” — which “received much praise from critics and moviegoers when it was released” — than the critical darling Raging Bull (which he nonetheless gives the Best Picture award to in his book). He notes that while Ordinary People‘s “reputation has… diminished, so that it’s now thought of as a mainstream family drama”, it actually deals “with difficult ‘mother-love’ themes not handled in other films”. I’m in full agreement with this latter assessment. Redford’s direction — despite Peary’s (incorrect) assertion that at times it’s too “precise and cold” — is simply masterful: he captures the dynamics of this deeply troubled family in such a way that we immediately sense the depth of their hurtful dysfunctions. Regardless of Moore’s future roles, her work here as a cold, narcissistic mother is spot-on; scene after scene between Moore and Hutton is heartbreaking in its bitter authenticity. We’re left with no doubt that she openly preferred her older (deceased) son, that she resents her younger son for being the survivor, and that she is solely interested in maintaining a life of appearances and surface pleasures (with her husband, not her child) while repressing any trace of genuine emotion.

As Peary writes, Hutton does indeed offer a powerful, Oscar-worthy lead performance. He portrays a young man not only dealing with immense survivor guilt, but a lifelong legacy of being “second-best” in his mother’s eyes. Redford’s judicious use of brief flashback scenes — showing Hutton’s smiling, blonde, god-like brother (Scott Doebler) interacting with his adoring mother, as well as the tragic boating accident — help us to understand exactly why Hutton was damaged enough to attempt suicide (only to learn that his mother was primarily distressed about her bathroom rug being destroyed by his blood). This type of intense subject matter shouldn’t be easy to watch, yet Sargent’s masterful screenplay carefully balances heavier scenes with uplifting ones — such as Hutton beginning to date McGovern (wonderfully natural in her debut), and Hutton receiving loving, realistic support from his new therapist (convincingly played by Hirsch).

Sutherland also does impressive (if less front-and-center) work; as DVD Savant points out in his review, he makes “you forget all of his previous performances” in his portrayal as “a caring and sensitive father whose tolerant nature may not have been the best thing for his relationship with his wife”. Savant’s review nicely summarizes many of the film’s overall strengths, so I’ll cite him some more. He notes that the film “has some good lessons to teach about divorces and messed-up families, which in real life come less from cruel betrayals or sinful transgressions, but simply grow from our basic natures.” He further writes that “psychological movies have tried to show the miracle of the psych cure, usually with dismal or laughable results” (see my recent review of The Three Faces of Eve for a case study of this cinematic tendency), “but through a lot of give and take, we do see something of a credible turning point occur for Timothy Hutton’s character”, who “recognizes truths he hadn’t before, and sees that though he’s not cured, things are not hopeless.” While the film ends on a somewhat downbeat note, the final scene serves as a valuable reminder that challenging family dynamics are not “a rationalization for chucking all relationships as worthlessly fragile”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Timothy Hutton as Conrad
    Ordinary People Hutton
  • Donald Sutherland as Calvin
    Ordinary People Sutherland
  • Mary Tyler Moore as Beth
    Ordinary People Moore
  • Judd Hirsch as Berger
    Ordinary People Hirsch
  • Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine
    Ordinary People McGovern
  • John Bailey’s cinematography
    Ordinary People Cinematography
  • Alvin Sargent’s screenplay
    Ordinary People Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful, finely directed family drama.

Categories

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

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Color Me Blood Red (1965)

“What kind of a vampire are you, painting with blood? Are you a painter or a butcher?”

Color Me Blood Red Poster

Synopsis:
A mediocre but well-known painter (Don Joseph) finds himself gorily inspired by the use of human blood in his works.

Genres:

Review:
This third entry in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “blood trilogy” — preceded by Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) — is a vastly inferior homage to Roger Corman’s B-grade classic Bucket of Blood (1959), and offers nothing of interest to those not smitten with the uniquely tasteless genre of “splatter films”. Given that the directorial and acting skills here are superior (it’s all relative) to those shown in Blood Feast, its camp potential is much lower — though you may chuckle a bit at how truly terrible Joseph’s paintings are (and for a humorous blow-by-blow analysis by a critic who refers to this as Lewis’s “worst film”, click here). Be forewarned that whenever a tedious Beatnik duo (Patricia Lee and Jim Jaekel) show up on screen, presumably for comic relief, you’ll need to have your fast-forward button easily on hand.

Note: Of mild interest is the incorporation of Aqua Cycles into several sequences; this sporting activity is something you just don’t see anymore, in real life or the movies, probably for good reason.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A glimpse at (now antique) Aqua Cycles
    Color Me Blood Red Aqua Cycles

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one unless you’re a fan of Lewis’s work. Listed as a Cult Movie and Trash (a.k.a. non-essential viewing) in the back of Peary’s book.

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Blood Feast (1963)

“Well, we’re just working with a homicidal maniac — that’s all.”

Blood Feast Poster

Synopsis:
A detective (William Kerwin) seeks clues to a mysterious rash of bloody killings across Miami, while the mother (Lyn Bolton) of his beautiful girlfriend (Connie Mason) arranges to have a party catered by a crazed Egyptian (Mal Arnold), who is obsessed with reenacting a sacrificial feast for the goddess Ishtar.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this first entry in “goremeister” Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “blood trilogy” — followed by 2000 Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) — as “vile trash” and “one of the sickest, most inept films ever made”. He notes that “the acting is ghastly”, “the casting abominable”, and the “camera work clumsy”. (He also adds that “ex-playmate Mason wears too much clothing”, but I’ll let that opinion pass.) He writes that “ten minutes into the film [he] stop[s] laughing at the picture’s badness and start[s] to get a migraine”, and he argues that while the “picture has camp value, to be sure” he “wonders about Lewis cultists who thrill to no-holds-barred violence and disgusting images”. He ends his review by noting that “if you detest horror films that show how many shocking ways a creative sadist can do away with young women, then Lewis is the man you’ll want to blame and this is the film you’ll want to burn”.

While Peary’s points are all valid, I believe this flick holds more camp value than he gives it credit for. Its ineptitude on multiple levels is so extreme that personally, I couldn’t help giggling throughout its short (60-minute-plus) running time; and while the graphic violence against women is reprehensible, it’s all so shoddily done that — unlike with more recent/modern fare — you simply won’t believe any of it for a second. Along those lines, I’m genuinely puzzled by Peary’s assertion that cultists “want to know exactly how Lewis accomplishes the famous effect” — considered to be “the picture’s highlight” — in which “Ramses rips a tongue out of a woman’s mouth”, given that we simply see Ramses (Arnold) putting his hand in a screaming woman’s red-paint-filled mouth, then a separate shot of Ramses holding up a (sheep’s) tongue covered with red paint. Where’s the mystery, exactly, in how this shoddy “effect” was achieved?

Ultimately, this movie is on a par with what today’s 12-year-olds could easily achieve — and whether it should still be considered “must see” viewing is a point of debate. However, I’m leaning on the “yes” side simply due to its historical relevance for ushering in the era of “splatter films” (a dubious distinction to be sure, but a notable one). For much more information on the film’s Z-grade production history, be sure to listen to the director’s commentary on Something Weird’s DVD release — or, as I did, read the copious notes taken by the reviewer at B-Movie Central.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laughably terrible acting, special effects, and direction
    Blood Feast Tongue
    Blood Feast Lecture
    Blood Feast Letter
    Blood Feast Face Cast

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status and historical relevance.

Categories

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Mask (1985)

“Hey, kid — why don’t you take off your mask?”

Mask Poster

Synopsis:
A teenager (Eric Stoltz) with extreme facial disfigurement is raised by his loving but drug-abusing mother (Cher) and her gang of motorcyclist friends.

Genres:

Review:
Peter Bogdanovich made a short-lived directorial comeback with this affecting tale of a deeply disfigured yet preternaturally optimistic teenager (based on the real-life story of Rocky Dennis and his biker chick mom, Rusty). Stoltz — perhaps best known by film fanatics at the time for his role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) — is marvelous if unrecognizable in the lead role; we can’t help feeling authentically inspired by this resilient kid’s ability to joke about his appearance and then quickly move on to demonstrate his wit, intelligence, and all-around likability. The script is primarily concerned with showing Rocky’s everyday life: he argues with his mom (a sad-eyed, feisty Cher) about her drug use; dreams of going on a motorcycle tour of Europe with his best friend (nicely played by Lawrence Monoson); bargains for tutoring money from his classmate; and, in the movie’s most touching scenes, falls in love with a beautiful blind girl (Laura Dern) he meets at summer camp. We watch him struggle with his appearance and his disability (which, he’s been told for years, means imminent death), but it’s remarkable how many of his daily concerns could easily be those of other teens in a slightly different context.

Unfortunately, Bogdanovich — working from a script by Anna Hamilton Phelan — pads his storyline with extraneous material regarding Cher’s romance with a stoic biker named Gar (Sam Elliott, wasted in an undeveloped role) and Rocky and Rusty’s participation in a close-knit motorcycle community. While it’s refreshing to see motorcyclists portrayed in such a positive light — I particularly like the scenes showing a biker named Dozer (Dennis Burkley) dropping Stoltz off at school like a protective mama bear — their presence ultimately eats up too much screentime. With that said, more scenes could easily have been prioritized for Stoltz’s touching romance with Dern, who does a fine job portraying a sweet girl deserving of Rocky’s affections. This one remains worth a one-time look for Stoltz’s performance, as well as the impressive, Oscar-winning make-up (which seems to emulate the real Rocky’s face quite accurately).

Note: Click here to read an archived People magazine article about the film’s real-life inspirations. Also, be sure to check out TCM’s article for more insights into Bogdanovich’s struggles during the making of this film, particularly regarding his fight to include songs by Bruce Springsteen; they’ve been restored in the recent Director’s Cut, though they don’t really come across as integral to the storyline.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Eric Stoltz as Rocky
    Mask Stolz
  • Excellent make-up
    Mask Makeup
  • The touching romance between Stoltz and Dern
    Mask Romance

Must See?
Yes, once, for Stoltz’s performance and as a sweet tale of a remarkably empowered young man. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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My Dinner With Andre (1982)

“We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.”

My Dinner With Andre Poster

Synopsis:
When a struggling playwright (Wallace Shawn) meets an old friend (Andre Gregory) for dinner, a surprisingly rich conversation ensues.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this Louis Malle-directed film (co-written by Shawn and Gregory) by admitting he’s “0 for 2 at staying awake through the entire talk-a-thon”, but he eventually admits that “the two men are engaging, and much [of the] conversation is funny and/or incisive”. He writes that “anyone who has been to a party of artistes can identify with Shawn”, who at first “feigns interest” and “asks follow-up questions so he doesn’t have to contribute to the conversation”, but eventually “joins the intellectual discourse”. I’m only partially in agreement with Peary that it’s “hard to maintain interest through Gregory’s long monologues”, and in general am more enthusiastic about the film than Peary seems to be. The friends’ conversation feels both authentic and provocative, representing the type of perspective-shifting discourse that one occasionally longs for. Gregory’s soul-searching adventures (oh my, the stories he tells!) are perfectly indicative of the Baby Boomer “me” generation run amok, and nicely balanced by Shawn’s more grounded philosophy of finding joy in seemingly mundane moments. By the end of this meaty discussion, you can’t help feeling like you’ve been asked to take a deep look at your own perspective on life, happiness, and the search for meaning.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fine screenplay and natural, engaging performances
    My Dinner With Andre Gregory
    My Dinner With Andre Shawn

Must See?
Yes, once, as an oddly compelling cinematic venture.

Categories

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Dr. No (1962)

“East, West — just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other.”

Dr No Poster

Synopsis:
British secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the mysterious death of a colleague, and soon learns that a villainous Chinese scientist named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is secretly working on a plan to prevent American rockets in Cape Canaveral from launching.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “the James Bond series started in great style with this cleverly conceived adaptation of Ian Fleming’s enjoyable spy thriller“, directed by Terence Young; in hindsight, seeing “how much the series has changed” over the years, it’s clear (as Peary notes) that “bigger isn’t better”. Peary points out that “little-known Sean Connery became a superstar as the dashing, debonair British agent 007″, who was “a great new type of hero”, a man who “knew judo; was a well-educated gentleman; had great taste in clothes, food, and wine; … traveled to exotic locations; didn’t panic when the fate of the world rested on his shoulders; [and] had charm and a subtle sense of humor” — all in addition (naturally) to bedding beautiful women and causing “John Barry’s famous Bond theme song to play just by giving his name”. Indeed, Connery is — as many have argued over the years — simply the best (and perhaps the most handsome) Bond around; he’s consistently compelling to watch onscreen.

The film itself — despite what Peary refers to as a “slow stretch in the middle” (I’m not sure I agree) — is great fun and “works marvelously”; it may be “material for an old-style serial” but never deteriorates to a “juvenile level”, and marvelous use is made of location settings in Jamaica. With plenty of “sex, violence, wit, terrific action sequences, and colorful atmosphere”, one can’t help staying happily engaged throughout — especially since “Connery, bikini-clad Andress (who became a sex-symbol star), and Wiseman all give memorable performances”. In his review, Peary accurately points out some of the film’s most notable highlights, which “include the ‘three blind mice’ opening, Bond having a tarantula crawl on him, Honeychile’s [Andress’s] first appearance, [and] Dr. No’s demise”. Speaking of Honeychile, bodacious Andress in her skimpy white bikini is a true stunner — a cinematic goddess whose character may be a bit too calculatedly primitive, but is ultimately a fitting companion for Bond as he navigates his way through Dr. No’s lair. Though Bond beds two girls before her — including the alluring Eurasian “Miss Taro” (Zena Marshall) — she wins full points as the first official “Bond girl”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Connery as James Bond
    Dr. No Connery3
  • Ursula Andress as Honeychile
    Dr. No Andress
  • The iconic title sequence
    Dr. No Opening Sequence
  • The tense “three blind mice” opening sequence
    Dr. No Three Blind Mice
  • Monty Norman’s unforgettable theme music

Must See?
Yes, of course — for its historical relevance and cult appeal.

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