Little Fugitive (1953)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Ya shot him, Joey! Ya shot your brother!”

Little Fugitive Poster

Synopsis:
A little boy (Richie Andrusco) who mistakenly believes he’s murdered his older brother (Ricky Brewster) flees to Coney Island, where he survives on his own until his brother finds him.

Genres:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Childhood
  • New York City
  • Runaways
  • Siblings
  • Survival

Review:
It’s difficult to understand how Peary missed listing this unique little film in his book as must-see, given its significance on several levels — its cinematic influence on the French New Wave, its status as a “cultural window” into New York’s Coney Island in the 1950s, and its Oscar-nominated screenplay. The story of how husband-and-wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin — with the assistance of a few friends and colleagues — made this cinema verite film on location in New York with a shoestring budget and amateur actors has gone down in cinematic history, as has Francois Truffaut’s quote that “our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, Little Fugitive“. Most importantly, however, it is an enjoyable, finely crafted story, told simply but well.

It’s remarkably easy to forget that Little Fugitive (an exemplar of American neo-realism) is a fiction film, given how fully “invested” unknown Richie Andrusco is in the central role of Joey; it’s his ease in front of the camera that propels the story through its mostly wordless screenplay. Richard Brewster as Joey’s brother Lennie does a fine, natural job as well, as does Jay Williams (playing himself?) as Jay the Pony Man at Coney Island, who becomes Joey’s closest pal. At times the film’s ultra-low budget is glaringly apparent, especially when it comes to sound; indeed, the entire film was shot without sound, to save money, with dialogue dubbed in later, and Foley artists providing ambient sound. However, once you accept this limitation, it simply adds to the film’s overall charm. Another low-budget concession — Lester Troob’s harmonica-rich score in place of a “traditional” orchestral score — is a winning element as well, and quickly becomes a defining aspect of the film (I love how Joey later finds an abandoned harmonica on the beach, thus creating an additional meta-narrative tie to the score).

There are many memorable moments sprinkled throughout the movie: my favorites include Joey fooling around with an old-fashioned view camera while its operator is away processing a still (I love the cameraman’s reaction when he comes back to find Joey under the camera’s hood — he’s bemused rather than annoyed), and Joey carefully convincing an Asian baby on the beach to give up the glass bottle he’s been using as a sand toy. (Given that Engel and Orkin used “real” extras, the cultural mix of visitors is refreshingly authentic.) Equally fascinating, however, are the many “time capsule” shots — functioning as ambience rather than to propel the narrative — which simply show Coney Island as it once was, with lovers and families of all kinds out for a good time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments: (check out the Morris Engel photo archive for some lovely stills from the film)

  • Richie Andrusco as Joey
  • Richard Brewster’s as Joey’s brother Lennie
  • Jay Williams as Jay the Pony Man
  • Fine on-location, hand-held cinematography
  • Many memorable, amusing sequences
  • An invaluable time-capsule view of Coney Island in the 1950s
  • Lester Troob’s harmonica-driven score

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance as an Oscar-nominated, groundbreaking, influential independent film — and as an all-around good show! It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1997.

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M*A*S*H (1970)

“Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines…”

MASH Poster

Synopsis:
During the Korean War, two irreverent surgeons (Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould) and their colleagues in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital try to distract themselves from the horrors of the battlefield.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “rare anti-war film to make money during a time the U.S. was at war” is “best known for radically diverging from conventional narrative techniques” by doing away with a linear storyline and focusing instead on “establishing [a] uniquely absurd ambience”. Most Americans will simply know it as the precursor to the wildly popular television series (which ran for 11 seasons), but it holds special interest for film fanatics as the movie that first established Robert Altman as an auteur with a unique vision for feature-length filmmaking. As a comedy, it’s held up remarkably well over the years, with most vignettes remaining bitingly funny (though I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the final, hectic football game). The ensemble cast members — particularly Sutherland, Gould, and Sally Kellerman (as “Hot Lips” Houlihan) — are all “first-rate”, and “deservedly became stars as a result of their performances”. As Peary notes, Altman’s greatest challenge in M*A*S*H was “to get us to believe that such irreverent characters… really are sensitive about the men being killed in the war”, but he achieves this by showing us that “their zany, childish antics are just an emotional release — while performing surgery, they come through.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as Captains Hawkeye and Trapper John
    MASH Gould Sutherland
  • Sally Kellerman as “Hot Lips” Houlihan
    MASH Kellerman
  • A fine ensemble cast
    MASH Ensemble Cast
  • Many darkly humorous sequences
  • Johnny Mandel’s instantly hummable theme song (which carried over to the T.V. series, but without 14-year-old Mike Altman’s dark lyrics)

Must See?
Yes, as a groundbreaking Altman film, and as a cult classic.

Categories

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

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Sixteen Candles (1984)

“This is the single worst day of my entire life.”

Sixteen Candles Poster

Synopsis:
A teenager (Molly Ringwald) who is upset that no one in her family remembers her sixteenth birthday lusts after a hunky classmate (Michael Schoeffling), but must deal instead with the attentions of an insistent geek (Anthony Michael Hall).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his directorial debut, writer-director John Hughes is, as Peary notes, moderately successful in “making a comedy out of teenage angst, pain, and insensitivity”. Ringwald is “absolutely fantastic [at] presenting a real, special teenager” — and while she’s not always likable (she “can be cruel — as she reveals in her insults toward Hall”), most will be able to relate to at least one of her many pressing adolescent dilemmas. Equally enjoyable is Anthony Michael Hall as The Geek — a larger-than-life comedic foil who emerges as an empathetic character, and is someone we can’t help liking and rooting for; his interactions with Ringwald are the highlights of the film. Unfortunately, much of the screenplay is far too sophomoric to appeal to anyone but younger audiences — all scenes featuring Gedde Watanabe’s infamous Asian exchange student, Long Duk Dong, for instance, are particularly cringe-worthy. However, Sixteen Candles should probably be seen once by all film fanatics simply for its historical relevance as the first of Hughes’ series of groundbreaking teenage films.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Michael Hall as “The Geek”
    Sixteen Candles Hall
  • Molly Ringwald as Samantha (Peary nominates her for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year)
    Sixteen Candles Ringwald
  • Paul Dooley as Samantha’s father

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance as Hughes’ directorial debut.

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Femmes Fatales (1976)

“As soon as my eyes are closed, they barge in…”

Femmes Fatales Poster

Synopsis:
A gynecologist (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and a pimp (Jean Rochefort) trying to flee from the world of women find themselves pursued by a militant army of sex-crazed females.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this mind-bending “cult comedy” (a.k.a. Calmos) by director Bertrand Blier, Peary’s first wry comment is that it “would probably cause more arguments if anyone could figure out what it’s about.” He argues that the film has a “promising beginning”, but then “takes an odd, foolish turn, moving out of a rudely funny, believable realm… into a confusing surreal fantasy”. He takes issue with Blier’s decision to have the men “become sexual objects to be used and humiliated” by women who “become the aggressors [and] think that men are only good for one thing”, and notes that Blier still “treats his actresses in the old-fashioned way, as impersonal sexual entities”. What Peary fails to recognize, however, is that Blier (as usual) is simply taking his bizarrely conceived scenario to the ultimate limit, without concern for either reality or propriety. This is, after all, a film about “misogynistic, gross, irresponsible, superior” men, and it’s their warped world view we’re seeing on display here; everything that happens — a true living nightmare — is told from their perspective, and while it may not be “believable” by any stretch of the imagination, it’s far from confusing.

Instead, scene after scene will simply leave you gaping in wonderment at the sheer audacity of Blier’s vision: Marielle (who keeps loaves of bread in his desk drawer at work, and accepts gifts of pate from his patients) finding his pre-appointment snack ruined by a gorgeous female client loudly scratching her genitalia; Marielle comforting Rochefort (the closest they get to homoerotic love) as he wakes up from a nightmare about women (“They bug me even in my sleep!”); Marielle and Rochefort gorging on rich food and wine with some local priests who have temporarily taken them under their wing; Brigitte Fossey (Marielle’s beautiful wife) trying in vain to tempt him into bed; and countless others. The final sequence — which goes above and beyond the film’s prior level of perversity — is guaranteed to leave you floored, if not mildly queasy (which, I imagine, may have been Blier’s intent). Ultimately, Femmes Fatales is a film which needs to be seen to be believed; and while it certainly won’t be for all tastes, it’s unique enough to be must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean-Pierre Marielle as Paul Dufour
    Femmes Fatales Marielle
  • Jean Rochefort as Albert
    Femmes Fatales Rochefort
  • Brigitte Fossey as Marielle’s wife
    Femmes Fatales Fossey
  • Blier and Philippe Dumarcay’s boldly satirical script
    Femmes Fatales Script
  • Countless memorable sequences
    Femmes Fatales Memorable
  • Claude Renoir’s vibrant cinematography
    Femmes Fatales Cinematography
  • Georges Delerue’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes, as a most unique and entertaining film.

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Karate Kid (1984)

“We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you, you promise learn. I say, you do, no questions.”

Karate Kid Poster

Synopsis:
A New Jersey teenager (Ralph Maccio) moves to California and falls in love with a beautiful blonde (Elizabeth Shue) whose thuggish ex-boyfriend (William Zabka) bullies him mercilessly. To prepare for fighting back, Danny (Macchio) is given karate lessons by an elderly handyman (Pat Morita) in his building, who teaches him that strength comes from within.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately describes this popular cult film as a “likable fairytale” about a “very likable teenager” who encounters “a few obstacles along the way before [he and his girlfriend] can live happily ever after.” He notes that, like Rocky (also directed by John Avildsen), this “extremely pleasing” film “has wit and sentimentality”, and makes you want to “cheer the underdog”, who will “do the impossible because he has a lot of heart and character”. The elements of the film that don’t work so well (i.e., Zabka’s one-dimensional “Aryan” baddie) are overshadowed by those that do — including fine central performances by Macchio and Morita (who was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor), nice supporting work by Shue and Randee Heller (as Macchio’s mom, who Peary wishes “had a more significant part” — me, too), and countless memorable scenes (“Wax on… Wax off.”).

P.S. Interestingly, Peary notes near the end of his review that he wishes “Morita would dump Zabka’s sadistic coach in the garbage” — which is exactly how The Karate Kid, Part II (1986) (not listed in Peary’s book) begins…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi
    Karate Kid Pat Morita
  • Ralph Maccio as Daniel
    Karate Kid Maccio
  • Elizabeth Shue as Ali
    Karate Kid Shue
  • Randee Heller as Danny’s mom
    Karate Kid Heller

Must See?
Yes, as a pleasing cult film.

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Supergirl (1984)

“Such a pretty world; I can’t wait until it’s all mine.”

Supergirl Poster

Synopsis:
Superman’s cousin (Helen Slater) is sent to Earth to retrieve a missing talisman known as an Omegahedron, and finds herself confronting a power-hungry witch named Selena (Faye Dunaway).

Genres:

Review:
This fourth installment in Ilya and Alexander Sarkind’s Superman franchise is a tedious disappointment. Beautiful, feisty Helen Slater is perfectly cast as Superman’s cousin (known as “Linda Lee” on Earth), but she’s saddled with such an inane, uninteresting storyline that she never really has a chance to shine. None of the plot developments in the movie make much sense or are even remotely plausible: for instance, while we somehow believe that Superman’s crash landing in Smallville and adoption by the kindly Kents was “meant to be” (and part of the scope of his larger legacy), Supergirl’s descent onto a girls’ boarding school (where Lois Lane’s younger sister happens to attend — how convenient) is simply sloppy screenwriting. Meanwhile, Dunaway’s obsession with getting a hunky gardener (Hart Bochner) to fall in love with her rather than Supergirl merely perpetuates the stereotype that what all women really want is a “good [sexy] man” (and Bochner himself is such an uninteresting clod that we never really think he’s good enough for Supergirl, anyway). Dunaway’s over-the-top performance is unintentionally campy, but there’s little humor to be had at her expense — and Brenda Vaccaro as her sidekick fares even worse. Unfortunately, Supergirl is a disappointment all the way around.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Helen Slater as Supergirl
    Supergirl Slater
  • The impressive sets of Argo City (Supergirl’s home planet)
    Supergirl Sets

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see viewing for diehard Superman fans.

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4D Man (1959)

“Nothing can stop him… A man in the fourth dimension is indestructible!”

4D Man Poster

Synopsis:
A scientist (James Congdon) experiments with an amplifier that would allow objects to pass through solid matter into the “fourth dimension”; but when his scientist brother (Robert Lansing) discovers that he possesses this “lifeforce” power himself, dire consequences ensue…

Genres:

Review:
Irvin Yeaworth is best known for directing The Blob (1958), a low-budget surprise hit which gave Steve McQueen his first leading role. Yeaworth’s next film was this equally engaging sci-fi horror flick, which — in its treatment of mad scientists, megalomania, and dual personalities — evokes numerous other classic genre films, most notably The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The storyline, while occasionally cliched and overwrought, is mostly compelling, primarily thanks to the fact that the screenwriters take their time establishing the film’s central characters: first we’re introduced to “wild child” James Congdon’s relentless pursuit of his scientific passion, which brings him to his more “established” older brother’s laboratories; next, a potentially rocky love triangle emerges between Congdon and feisty Lee Meriwether (Lansing’s assistant, who he’s about to propose to); finally, the story shifts to its central premise — the surprise powers possessed by Lansing, who becomes the film’s conflicted protagonist. By the time Lansing begins to experiment with his “4D” abilities (the film’s special effects are low-budget but effective), and discovers the hideous truth that he is sapping his own “lifeforce” at an astonishing rate, we care about him as an individual, and feel sorry for the inevitable mess he’s gotten himself into. For a much more detailed analysis of the film (giving away additional plot spoilers), see DVD Savant’s thorough review.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Lansing as Scott Nelson
    4D Man Robert Lansing
  • Fun visual effects
    4D Man Special Effects

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended, and definitely must-see for sci-fi fans.

Links:

Southern Comfort (1981)

“We don’t know the enemy’s strength or his disposition — and while he may have the advantage of familiar terrain, we have the advantage of military training.”

Southern Comfort Poster

Synopsis:
A group of Louisiana National Guardsmen (including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, and Peter Coyote) find themselves lost in the bayou, fighting for survival against militant local Cajuns.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “extremely intense, violent” film by director Walter Hill “can be seen as a metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam”, given that “we see the parallels between these initially arrogant guardsmen and those American soldiers who trespassed through Vietnamese jungles and… acted with condescension toward the illiterate peasants”, often being “blown away” as a result. Indeed, the allegory is hard to miss, and occasionally comes across as heavy-handed; as Roger Ebert accurately points out, the characters in Southern Comfort never fully come alive — we only get to see one of the Cajun militants (an effective Brion James), and, in classic cinematic platoon fashion, the guardsmen are racially and socially diverse “types” (trigger-happy punk, loose cannon, fatherly leader, etc.) rather than individuals.

With that said, the film has much going for it: it’s beautifully shot (the seemingly endless bayou is all muted greens and grays and browns); Ry Cooder’s score is a “good” one; Powers Boothe gives a fine, enigmatic performance; and there are many genuinely tense sequences — particularly the “nerve-wracking” finale, “in which [Carradine and Boothe] nervously party with seemingly friendly Cajun villagers while looking over their shoulders for the vengeful backwoodsmen”. This extended sequence, shot with dozens of seemingly authentic locals, makes one intensely curious to learn more about this mysterious segment of American society.

P.S. The film’s tone and subject immediately bring to mind Jon Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), but film fanatics may also be reminded of the little-seen Peary title Shoot (1976).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powers Boothe as Cpl. Hardin
    Southern Comfort Boothe
  • Effective location shooting
  • Ry Cooder’s score

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

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Dial M for Murder (1954)

“People don’t commit murder on credit.”

Dial M Poster

Synopsis:
An ex-tennis pro (Ray Milland) carries out an elaborate plan to have his wealthy philandering wife (Grace Kelly) killed by a former classmate (Anthony Dawson); when Kelly manages to kill Dawson instead, Milland schemes to have Kelly indicted for murder — and it’s up to her American lover (Robert Cummings) to discover the truth in time to save her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Dial M for Murder — based on a stage play by Frederick Knott — is far from “prime Alfred Hitchcock”, but it’s nonetheless a “passable suspense film” with “intricate plot twists” and a “superbly directed” (if not entirely convincing) scissors-murder scene. It’s much stagier than most of Hitchcock’s films, and relies an awful lot on dialogue to further the plot, but Knott’s story is so cleverly constructed that it’s easy to remain engaged till the end, despite the relatively static action. Milland, Kelly, and Cummings are fine in their respective leading roles; however, the most enjoyable performances are given by Anthony Dawson as Milland’s unwitting “hired hand” (as DVD Savant notes, he’s “really the victim of the piece”), and John Williams as a mustache-twirling Inspector, who has more than one card up his sleeve.

P.S. Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, but looks just fine in its “flat” version as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever, suspenseful screenplay
    Dial M Plotting
  • Anthony Dawson as Charles Swann
    Dial M Dawson
  • John Williams as Inspector Hubbard

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable flick by a master director.

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Laura (1944)

“I must say: for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”

Laura Poster

Synopsis:
A hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of a woman (Gene Tierney) loved by both an arrogant newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb) and a spoiled dilettante (Vincent Price).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “cult classic” is among “the best of [director] Preminger’s somber excursions into psychological melodrama, stories with brutal intonations but dealing primarily with the perversity of the mind.” The fact that it presents “the screen’s first movie hero to fall for a dead woman” has won it a lasting spot in cinematic history; indeed, it remains the definitive film about “necrophilic” love. Details of the plot itself (essentially a flashback murder mystery) are oddly forgettable; what one remembers instead are both the film’s classic theme song (which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar!) and the oh-so-odd love quadrangle at its core.

In his most iconic role, Dana Andrews plays a “tough, crude police detective who is… totally out of his element” in Laura’s upper-crust milieu; meanwhile, Gene Tierney will always be equated with her performance in the film’s title role as an ambitious woman who is ultimately “attracted to men because of brawn rather than brains”. But it’s Laura’s two primary rivals — Clifton Webb and Vincent Price — who easily steal the show. The much-older Webb (as Waldo Lydecker — what a name!) never emerges as a viable sexual partner for 20-something Laura (in the book, he’s impotent; here, he’s merely posited as a companion), but it’s clear she would be nothing without him: he is her Svengali, and he is literally obsessed with making her his personal “project”. Webb delivers many of the film’s most memorable lines with droll aplomb (“I don’t use a pen; I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”), and never apologizes for his view of the world: “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” Meanwhile, Price — looking “weak and hungry” — is hilariously snivelly and self-absorbed as Laura’s two-timing fiance (“I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.”); fans of his later work in campy horror flicks will likely be surprised by his early turn here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker
    Laura Webb
  • Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter
    Laura Webb Price
  • Dana Andrews as Detective McPherson
    Laura Andrews
  • Gene Tierney as Laura
    Laura Tierney
  • Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s clever, immensely quotable screenplay
  • David Raksin’s classic title song

Must See?
Yes, as a classic noir murder mystery. Nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as best film of the year, and discussed at length in his Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

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