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Category: Original Reviews

Responses to Peary’s “must see” movie reviews, as well as my own “must see” movie reviews up to and after 1986 (when Peary’s book was published).

Ugly American, The (1963)

Ugly American, The (1963)

“You always make dictators strong, then wonder why you are not loved!”

Synopsis:
An American ambassador (Marlon Brando) in the troubled southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan is surprised to learn that his former war buddy (Eiji Okada) is now a Communist, though Okada professes he is simply longing for national self-determination on behalf of his people.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Pat Hingle Films
  • Political Corruption

Review:
This unusual entry in Marlon Brando’s oeuvre — directed by his friend George Englund — is loosely based on a 1958 political novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, about “the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia.” Indeed, the fictional country where this film takes place (shot largely in Thailand) is a thinly veiled depiction of Vietnam, and the tale aptly showcases the complexity of politics in such a nation, which is far from as black-and-white (i.e., Communism vs. Democracy) as Ambassador MacWhite naively believes. Some of the initial sequences are quite effectively done — as when an American foreman overseeing construction of “Freedom Road” is murdered by said object while giving a patronizing lesson to a local about the difference between a wrench and a “lench”:

… and the scene when Brando’s arriving car at the airport is seriously mobbed by a crowd of violent anti-American agitators.

Brando’s friendly reunion with an old war buddy (Okada) is less convincing, and quickly turns melodramatically sour, as we get to the gist of the narrative: Brando is convinced Okada has “turned Commie”, while Okada tries to explain that the construction of Freedom Road simply represents power for the prime minister, Kwen Sai (Kukrit Pramoj), courtesy of “the tanks that Wall Street sells.”


Meanwhile, we see do-gooding Americans like Pat Hingle’s Homer Atkins and his wife Emma (Jocelyn Brando) attempting to bring Western medical practices to the poverty-ridden nation:

… and Brando’s loyal wife (Sandra Church) ready and willing to provide him whatever support he needs.

DVD Savant describes this Universal Studios-produced film as “a noble stab at reality”, and that just about sums it up; it’s not must-see viewing but will likely be of interest to Brando fans.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Ambassador MacWhite
  • The impressively filmed riot sequence

Must See?
No, though Brando fans will likely want to check it out.

Links:

This Sporting Life (1963)

This Sporting Life (1963)

“She’s the one thing that makes me feel wanted; I can’t lose her.”

Synopsis:
A miner-turned-rugby player (Richard Harris) aggressively woos a young widowed mother (Rachel Roberts) whose house he’s boarding in.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Domestic Abuse
  • Flashback Films
  • Lindsay Anderson Films
  • Richard Harris Films
  • Sports
  • Widows and Widowers

Review:
Lindsay Anderson’s feature-length directorial debut was this adaptation by David Storey (a one-time professional rugby player) of his own novel, starring Richard Harris in his breakthrough role as a pugnacious player struggling to manage his newfound fame. The first half of the film is structured as a series of flashbacks, with Harris sitting in a dentist’s chair reflecting on the beginning of his new career (he’s recruited after participating in a nightclub fight):

He quickly shows his tenacious merit on the field:

… and is soon aggressively pursued by the predatory wife (Vanda Godsell) of the team’s owner (Alan Badel).

He remains obsessed, however, with winning over his landlady (Roberts) — a depressed and seemingly unflappable widow who he eventually rapes. It’s challenging to feel much sympathy for Harris after this scene, given that he clearly feels the world is his to take, and his violent nature shows no sign of abating. Indeed, Harris’s character is most certainly an “angry young man” of his cinematic era; interestingly, this film marked the end of the “kitchen sink” drama, perhaps because it was simply too challenging to relate to these authentic but decidedly unlikeable protagonists.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Richard Harris as Frank Machin
  • Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Hammond
  • Denys Coop’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing for Harris’s performance if you can stomach it. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963)

“He can’t say two words to anybody without telling a lie.”

Synopsis:
A young man (Tom Courtenay) with a verbally abusive father (Wildred Pickles) and a worn-out mother (Mona Washbourne) lives a rich fantasy life, nurturing grandiose dreams of being a famous writer while romancing two young fiancees — Barbara (Helen Fraser) and Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) — at the same time. When his old flame (Julie Christie) suddenly arrives in town, will Billy (Courtenay) find the courage to leave for London?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • John Schlesinger Films
  • Julie Christie Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Tom Courtenay Films
  • Womanizers

Review:
John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of a novel-turned-play by Keith Waterhouse, about an undertaker’s assistant in Yorkshire who dreams of a much more glamorous life, and routinely retreats into fantasies, both grandiose and gruesome.


From its opening scenes in Billy’s oppressive household (he still lives with his parents and grandmother), we can see how and why Billy might want to find an escape route — and also why his parents are fed up with him.

His delusions are a way to cope — but the mess he makes of his job and love life show how wide an impact his dysfunction is having. The fact that his tale is told with an overall air of insouciance — and that his girlfriends are either shrewish (Watts) or dim-witted (Fraser) — makes it a bit easier to feel some sympathy for him:


… though he’s still undeniably an immature cad who has a lot of growing up left to do. Fans of British New Wave cinema will want to be sure to check this one out, but it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Tom Courtenay as Billy
  • Helen Fraser as Barbara
  • Julie Christie in her brief screen debut as Liz
  • Denys Coop’s cinematography

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

Links:

Fine Madness, A (1966)

Fine Madness, A (1966)

“To hell with his poetry! I want to make him a useful, social human being.”

Synopsis:
The abused wife (Joanne Woodward) of a violent would-be poet (Sean Connery) hires a shrink (Patrick O’Neal) to try to cure him — but Connery’s womanizing ways and raging temper continue to wreak havoc on himself and the world.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Domestic Abuse
  • Jean Seberg Films
  • Joanne Woodward Films
  • Psychotherapy
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Womanizers
  • Writers

Review:
This inexcusable mess of a “comedy” is one of three GFTFF-listed films director Irvin Kershner made from 1964 to 1970 about delusional and/or self-absorbed men who cause misery for those around them; the other two are The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) (featuring a noteworthy performance by Robert Shaw) and Loving (1970) (featuring an insufferable performance by George Segal). While it’s understandable that Connery wanted to continue to break away from his James Bond persona in the 1960s, this was a definite shift for the worst: his Samson Shillitoe (what a name!) is like a warped Bond on steroids, with none of the charm and all of the cockiness.

Poor Woodward receives the brunt of Samson’s anger at all turns — and watching the domestic violence taking place in their home is harrowing. It’s infuriating to see her portrayed as a resolutely loyal (albeit gritty and resilient) dame willing to put up with it all given her husband’s supposed “genius”.

Indeed, everything about this dated film smacks of misogyny and juvenile glorification of sex and violence, from an early scene in which Samson seduces a (what else) ditzy secretary (Sue Ane Langdon) while allowing a carpet cleaning machine to fill up an office with suds (funny – not):

… to his belittling words and demeanor at a women’s social event for which he’s being paid to present:

… to numerous sequences in which he either swings at or literally knocks out his wife:

… to his break-in and destruction of the office of the surprisingly unfazed therapist his wife has paid.

Naturally, he also manages to seduce women left and right as he continues to avoid being served process papers and being taken out by a few hitmen; among his conquests are Colleen Dewhurst’s silver-haired Prussian nurse:

… and O’Neal’s neglected, sexually frustrated wife (Jean Seberg).

This is all really a mess, and worth skipping.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Some fine location shooting

Must See?
No; stay far away from this one. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Darling (1965)

Darling (1965)

“Your idea of fidelity is not having more than one man in bed at the same time.”

Synopsis:
A fun-loving model (Julie Christie) in Swinging Sixties London has an affair with a BBC writer (Dirk Bogarde), then turns to bedding a handsome playboy (Laurence Harvey) before meeting an Italian prince (José Luis de Vilallonga) while on a work trip with her photographer-friend (Roland Curram) — but will she ever find lasting personal happiness?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • Infidelity
  • John Schlesinger Films
  • Julie Christie Films
  • Laurence Harvey Films
  • Models

Review:
Julie Christie won an Oscar as Best Actress for her breakthrough leading role in this film by John Schlesinger, with a screenplay by Frederic Raphael based on an idea by British journalist Godfrey Winn. According to TCM’s article, Schlesinger noted that the story “started with the idea of the ghastliness of the present-day attitude of people who want something for nothing,” with “Diana Scott, the principal character, emerg[ing] in the script of Darling as an amalgam of various people we had known.” Unfortunately, while Christie does indeed effectively embody a beautiful, vapid, seemingly compass-less young woman, there isn’t a whole lot of inherent interest in seeing someone like this on screen for two-hours+.

We’re actually filled with distaste for both her and Bogarde — her first “conquest” in the film — from the beginning, due to both of them wantonly abandoning their spouses (and, in Bogarde’s case, two young kids). Perhaps Bogarde can be “excused” for (foolishly) following his lust and ego, but Christie simply comes across as spoiled, jealous, and even a bit vindictive.

Soon Christie seems meet her “match” in the equally arrogant “Miles Brand” (Harvey), and he does indeed take her down a notch.

However, once Christie settles down with a gay friend she happily refers to as her “brother” (Curram), she continues to exhibit ample signs of selfishness and careless disregard — as exemplified in the scenes in which she shoplifts, and then the pair kill her pet goldfish.

When in Italy (the location shooting is beautiful), Christie seems to finally have landed in a space where she feels at home: everything is regal, beautiful, and driven by surface values. However, her eventual acceptance of a role as de Vilallonga’s token wife (perhaps unsurprisingly) does nothing to eradicate the emptiness she feels at the core of her being. While I understand audiences at the time being charmed by Christie’s beauty — and perhaps appreciated feeling vicariously immersed in the hipness of her lifestyle — she’s no longer worth spending time with anymore.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dirk Bogarde as Robert Gold
  • Julie Christie as Diana Scott
  • Ken Higgins’ cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its historical relevance (i.e., Christie’s Oscar win).

Links:

Nothing But a Man (1964)

Nothing But a Man (1964)

“It’s hard to know how to talk to the white folks these days.”

Synopsis:
When a railroad employee (Ivan Dixon) marries the daughter (Abbey Lincoln) of a preacher (Stanley Greene) in a small Southern town, their life as newlyweds quickly becomes increasingly complicated as Dixon struggles to stay employed due to pernicious racism.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Deep South
  • Marital Problems
  • Newlyweds
  • Racism and Race Relations

Review:
German-born documentarian Michael Roemer helmed this groundbreaking look at the impacts of systemic racism on Black Americans in 1960s Alabama. By telling the story of “everyman” Duff Anderson (Dixon), we see what occurs when a person is unable to secure reasonably paid work that allows them to maintain dignity and self-respect.

While there may be plenty of work to be had, it’s low-paid and always comes at some psychological cost: Lincoln’s successful father (Greene), for instance, is shown acquiescing to the white church elder he reports to:

… while Dixon’s co-worker is openly demeaned by their white foreman (who is clearly pissed off that Dixon won’t similarly kowtow to him).

Women in this world, meanwhile, are relegated to roles as either a prostitute:

… a loyal wife and mother, a caretaker, or a classroom teacher (Lincoln’s position).

Lincoln is clearly attracted to and intrigued by the smart, independent man (Dixon) who is courting her, and boldly decides to take a chance on him against her father’s wishes. However, Dixon’s attempts to convince his co-workers they’re being mistreated (“You know… if you fellows stuck together instead of letting them walk all over you, they might not try it.”) quickly leads to not only his expulsion from the company, but a smear campaign and an inability to find any work at all that pays more than survival wages.

Perhaps most powerfully, we see the ripple effect of unjust treatment in the workplace on families and communities: when an employee is shamed by their boss or customers, that almost inevitably trickles down to loved ones at home, who must take the brunt of the person’s shame and anger.

Lincoln is eventually put into this position — but first we see Dixon witnessing this first-hand himself while visiting the home of his alcoholic father (Julius Harris), where his father’s girlfriend (Gloria Foster) is holding up their meager household on every front.

We also learn that Dixon may have fathered a young boy being cared for by an overwhelmed woman (Helen Lounck) who shares that the boy’s mother has run away to get married, and she herself ain’t “got no use for him, neither.”

An ongoing question throughout the film is whether Dixon will reject his father’s cowardly way of being and choose to “do the right thing” by his son, his wife, and his unborn new child (though what this “right thing” is remains elusive other than simply not abandoning them). All of this is undeniably rough to watch — but the film remains a powerful neo-realist depiction of Black Southern communities in the 1960s, and is must-see viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Ivan Dixon as Duff Anderson
  • Fine cinema verite cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique American independent film. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1993 by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Two for the Seesaw (1962)

Two for the Seesaw (1962)

“You do all the giving — because what I have to give, you don’t want.”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (Robert Mitchum) separated from his wife back in Nebraska begins dating a quirky young woman (Shirley MacLaine) he meets in New York City, and the two begin a rocky, unconventional romance.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Divorce
  • New York City
  • Play Adaptation
  • Robert Mitchum Films
  • Robert Wise Films
  • Romance
  • Shirley MacLaine Films

Review:
Robert Wise directed this adaptation of a play by William Gibson (originally starring Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft) about an unconventional couple whose relationship is tinged throughout by doubt. The story is a simple but nicely told tale of two adults who value one another while recognizing their challenges and differences — and we’re left in suspense about how things will end for them.

It’s not must-see viewing, but it’s worth a one-time look for fans of the stars (who embarked upon a three-year romance in real life after meeting on this set, and demonstrate some genuine chemistry).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Shirley MacLaine as Gittel
  • Ted McCord’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Becket (1964)

Becket (1964)

“One can always come to a sensible little agreement with God.”

Synopsis:
When King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) appoints his best friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury, he soon finds that Burton’s loyalty to God is stronger than their friendship.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Friendship
  • Historical Drama
  • John Gielgud Films
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Religious Faith
  • Revenge
  • Richard Burton Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Peter Glenville’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s French play won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (by Edward Anhalt), and was nominated for 11 other awards. It remains a surprisingly compelling character study of friendship, loyalty, leadership, politics, revenge, and spirituality, with King Henry’s toxic narcissism — he needs to be on top, and considers himself more important even than God — as a driving thematic force. One watches with deep discomfort during the first portion of the film as Henry conscripts Becket into his every whim, including planning to bed a young courtesan (Siân Phillips) he knows Becket is romantically involved with:

… and culminating with his insistence that Becket take on the role of Archbishop despite no training or qualifications, simply to suit his own political purposes. What ensues is a fascinating exploration of a concerted attempt to combat evil through integrity:

… and how a petulant tyrant may respond (which, of course, remains as relevant as ever). Watch for Pamela Brown as a put-upon Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine:

… Martita Hunt as Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda:

… Felix Aylmer as the aging Archbishop of Canterbury, who will soon be replaced:

… John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France:

… and Niall MacGinnis as one of the king’s barons.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as King Henry II (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Richard Burton as Lord Becket
  • Fine sets, costumes, and cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s well worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

“The English have a great hunger for desolate places; I fear they hunger for Arabia.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, British officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent by his commander (Donald Wolfit) to the Middle East, where he is tasked with convincing Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to fight against the Turks in the Arab Revolt. Once he arrives, Lawrence befriends a local man (Omar Sharif) and convinces a tribal chieftain (Anthony Quinn) to join their cause — but will Britain honor its promise that Arabia will eventually become free and independent?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • Anthony Quayle Films
  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Character Studies
  • Claude Rains Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Deserts
  • Historical Drama
  • Jack Hawkins Films
  • Jose Ferrer Films
  • Middle East
  • Omar Sharif Films
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • World War I

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning historical drama in his GFTFF, though he selects Peter O’Toole as the Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he writes that Lawrence of Arabia is “the rare epic that has exciting adventure, visual grandeur, and interesting psychological complexity.” In describing O’Toole’s performance, he notes that this character is the first of his “brilliant, bigger-than-life, flawed heroes (some would be royalty) who walk the fine line between humanity and godhood, and struggle to rationalize their godlike actions and attitudes.”

Indeed, O’Toole’s vibrant conception of T.E. Lawrence so thoroughly grounds the film that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role (though both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney were seriously considered). We see Lawrence evolving throughout the film, from an inexperienced would-be explorer (in real life, Lawrence had already done a walking tour across the Negev Desert) to someone radically shaping the course of history in the Middle East.

Lawrence’s fearless sense of right-versus-wrong serves him well when first meeting Sharif, who has the choice to kill him immediately, but doesn’t.

Their odd-couple friendship remains a powerful throughline in the film, underscoring the screenplay’s mild but clear homoerotic undertones — which are brought to a much more sinister level when Lawrence is held captive by Jose Ferrer’s evil Turkish Bey.

An equally prominent theme — one that disturbed many who knew the real Lawrence and other figures portrayed in the movie — is Lawrence’s growing discomfort with his own sadistic impulses. However, this is actually handled remarkably well in terms of showing us a man who recognizes the glee he takes in violence, yet feels an appropriate level of shame. How often do we see that portrayed on film? Not enough.

Indeed, for a wartime adventure flick with plenty of heart-stopping moments — including Lawrence shooting a man (I.S. Johar) he just risked his life to rescue:

… a train being blown up:

… one of Lawrence’s assistants (John Dimech) drowning in quicksand (a truly horrifying sequence):

… and a particularly bloody battle at Damascus:

… this film provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on Lawrence’s character arc, particularly as he travels back and forth to England.

It’s refreshing to see Egyptian movie star Sharif giving such a fine performance in his Hollywood debut as a fictionalized amalgam of various Arabs Lawrence befriended and worked with; meanwhile, well-played supporting roles (of both real-life and fictional figures) include Alec Guinness as Price Faisel (Guinness purportedly spent a couple of hours talking with Sharif, and gleaned an accent from him):

… Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi:

… and Arthur Kennedy as a fictional journalist named Jackson Bentley (based on Lowell Thomas):

There are a lot of players in this film, and chances are most viewers won’t be familiar with the nuances of this particular historical milieu — so don’t be embarrassed to pause and go read FilmSite’s detailed overview of the movie if you ever feel lost; I’ll confess to doing this. And be forewarned that as much as Lawrence was a champion for Arab independence, he inevitably comes across as a sort of white savior; this is very much a film made from a western perspective to glorify a British folk hero.

Note: There isn’t a single speaking part for a woman in this entire ~4 hour film; it couldn’t even take the Bechdel Test, let alone flunk it.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence
  • Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali
  • Numerous exciting action sequences
  • Stunning cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic epic.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

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

Links:

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

“There are two kinds of women — and you, as we well know, are not the first kind.”

Synopsis:
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, a doctor (Omar Sharif) married to the kind daughter (Geraldine Chaplin) of family friends falls in love with a young woman (Julie Christie) who is being abused by her older lover (Rod Steiger), and whose fiance (Tom Courtenay) is becoming an increasingly radical Bolshevik.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Geraldine Chaplin Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • Julie Christie Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Omar Sharif Films
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Revolutionaries
  • Rita Tushingham Films
  • Rod Steiger Films
  • Tom Courtenay Films
  • Writers

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this epic film by director David Lean — based on Boris Pasternak’s 592 page 1957 novel — in his GFTFF, but he does mention it briefly in his Alternate Oscars, where he asserts that it “comes across as lumbering, pedestrian, and artificial” and notes that “Omar Sharif’s heart attack sequence” is among “the most wretched in film history” (!). Upon my first rewatching of this Oscar-nominated historical drama since my teenage years, I was, unfortunately, also not very taken in. The sets and cinematography (by Freddy Young) are stunning, but the multi-faceted storyline — so complex in Pasternak’s novel that an intricated character map has been created — perhaps inevitably covers far too much territory, without digging meaningfully into character motivations.

Zhivago himself, for instance, is a cipher, with Sharif simply staring out of his liquidy brown eyes most of the time:

… and while it’s clear that Christie’s character (Lara) has gotten herself enmeshed with a sociopathic monster (Steiger), we don’t really understand her back story, including her relationship with Courtenay (whose character is only very loosely limned).

Meanwhile, a major narrative challenge is that Sharif is married to kind Chaplin, and we can’t help disliking him immensely for harming her through infidelity.

While we’re supposed to root for this couple (Zhivago and Lara, who gets her own theme song), we simultaneously feel terrible about it. The gorgeous visuals are the primary reason to check out this phenomenally popular film, which is “the eighth-highest grossing movie of all time”.

Note: Watch for Klaus Kinski in a brief but memorable role as a haunted soldier.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Rod Steiger as Komarovsky
  • Beautiful sets, costumes, and location filming
  • Freddy Young’s cinematography
  • Maurice Jarre’s instantly memorable score

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a one time look for its historical relevance.

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

Links: