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Month: February 2024

King Rat (1965)

King Rat (1965)

“I judge a man by the company he keeps.”

Synopsis:
Near the end of World War II, a savvy American (George Segal) in a Japanese POW camp rules the roost with his ability to secure much-needed supplies, and convinces a Malay-speaking Brit (James Fox) to collaborate with him on key deals, much to the dismay of rule-following Lieutenant Gray (Tom Courtenay).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bryan Forbes Films
  • Cat and Mouse
  • Denholm Elliott
  • George Segal Films
  • James Fox Films
  • John Mills Films
  • Prisoners of War
  • Survival
  • Tom Courtenay Films
  • World War II

Review:
Bryan Forbes scripted and directed this adaptation of James Clavell’s 1962 novel, based in part on his own experiences in a POW camp. Perhaps more so than any other such film, King Rat is unrelenting in its graphic depiction of the heat, starvation, despair, craziness, lethargy, boredom, and overall sense of hopelessness pervasive in these camps:

… with Segal’s preternaturally cheerful “Corporal King” a notable exception. His hustle is so successful that he’s living a relatively easy life, able to procure fresh shirts, food, and cigarettes while his compatriots wither away in misery and/or grovel at his feet. His nemesis is Courtenay’s Lieutenant Gray, with the two caught in a cat-and-mouse tussle between pragmatism and protocol.

Front and center in the screenplay, however, is the emergent friendship between Segal and Fox, who refuses to accept bribes or “gifts” from Segal and thus quickly earns his respect.

In addition to admirably capturing the overall oppressive atmosphere of the camp, the film includes numerous memorable sequences — such as Segal slyly convincing the starving men that it’s okay to eat a beloved pet:

… Segal using Fox’s translating support to trade a watch for money:

… and Segal arranging for a medic to help Fox with a seemingly incurable medical tragedy.


Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is effectively atmospheric throughout, and the supporting performances are all top-notch. This one remains well worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • George Segal as Corporal King
  • James Fox as Pete Marlowe
  • Tom Courtenay as Lieutenant Gray
  • Strong performances by the supporting cast

  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography
  • Fine sets and overall production design
  • John Barry’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful WWII-era drama.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

“When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back.”

Synopsis:
When a nameless bounty hunter (Clint Eastwood) meets vengeful Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), the pair unexpectedly team up to hunt down the leader (Gian Maria Volontè) of a vicious outlaw gang.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bounty Hunters
  • Clint Eastwood Films
  • Lee Van Cleef Films
  • Revenge
  • Sergio Leone Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of “Sergio Leone’s follow-up to A Fistful of Dollars,” Peary notes that this film “moves from a mythical age to a time when civilization (symbolized by the coming of the railroad to the West) and recorded history emerge.” He argues that the sequel is “more elaborate, more imaginatively plotted, better photographed, funnier, more brutal (the violence becomes more realistic), and more overtly adult and political than the original,” and points out that “Eastwood and Van Cleef form the first of Leone’s unholy alliances”: “whereas Eastwood’s mysterious gunfighters kill to make money rather than to achieve revenge (he has no past)”:

… Van Cleef has a very specific reason for hunting down Volontè, which we don’t learn about until the tension-filled final shoot-out.

Eastwood’s once-again-nameless, cheroot-chewing gunslinger doesn’t have much to do throughout this film other than squint and participate in cleverly choreographed gun fights:




… but of course he’s an essential component of the film’s iconography. Van Cleef (in a role which revived his later-life career) also acquits himself well — though it’s Italian actor Volontè who pulls out the most dramatic acting chops:

… and it’s Ennio Morricone’s incomparable score — filled with “twangy jew’s-harps, insanely catchy guitar riffs, iconic whistling, bell tolls, church organs” and a musical pocket watch — which ultimately steals the show.

Note: Watch for Klaus Kinski in a memorable supporting role as an outlaw enraged by being used as a human match-striking surface.

His interactions with Van Cleef lead to my favorite random exchange of the film.

Van Cleef: It’s a small world.
Kinski: Yes — and very, very bad.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Mortimer
  • Gian Maria Volontè as El Indio
  • Massimo Dallamano’s cinematography

  • Notable editing
  • Ennio Morricone’s score

Must See?
Yes, as part of an essential western trilogy.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic

Links:

Fifth Horseman is Fear, The (1965)

Fifth Horseman is Fear, The (1965)

“A man is as he thinks; you can’t change that.”

Synopsis:
In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a Jewish doctor (Miroslav Machacek) is pressured into providing care for a wounded resistance fighter, and soon finds himself searching for morphine across the city while under intense scrutiny.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Eastern European Films
  • Jews
  • Resistance Fighters

Review:
Czech director Zbynek Brynych helmed this vaguely allegorical tale of defiance during oppression — nominally about a Jewish doctor daring to treat a wounded Resistance fighter during wartime occupation:

… but perhaps really (also) about resisting repression and surveillance in a Soviet-occupied country. Meanwhile, Eddie Muller has argued on behalf of this film as a noir, given that it takes place during “one dark night of the soul” and tells the tale of difficult choices made by an individual who is tempted by fate and other forces.

While visually rich, the storyline is fairly straightforward, as described in Wikipedia’s overview:

Set in Prague during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the film follows Dr. Braun, a Jewish doctor forbidden to practice medicine. He instead works for German officials, cataloging confiscated Jewish property.


All Braun wants to do is survive, but his pragmatic mentality is challenged when an injured resistance fighter stumbles into his apartment building. A quest for morphine leads Dr. Braun through his tortured city, where fear eats away at the social structure.

Superficially, the city might appear to be normal, but hallucinations, awkward outbursts, and nervous, self-conscious behavior make it clear that society is falling apart.

It’s all very atmospherically filmed, and well worth a look as an incisive glimpse at a particular time and place (or perhaps two) in history.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine direction and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance within international cinema. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

Links:

Reflections on Must-See Films From 1964

Reflections on Must-See Films From 1964

It’s time for another reflection on a particular year in cinema! So far I’ve shared my thoughts on must-see titles from 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963 — and now I’m (nearly) done reviewing all titles from 1964. While there were certainly some cheery escapist flicks released that year — Mary Poppins, anyone? — darkness pervaded in powerful cinematic depictions of politics, war, plague, racism, romantic loss, and more.

“If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead.”
  • Out of 82 total titles from 1964, I voted 36 – or 44% – as must see. Not many are foreign (non-American) titles; I count only ten, with one French (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), one Armenian (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors), five British, one Italian, and two Japanese.
  • Of the latter, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes — about a man and woman who “form an unexpectedly sweet bond of captivity, supporting one another through work, companionship, and sensual connection” — remains “a one-of-a-kind masterpiece from mid-20th century Japanese cinema,” and is well worth a look if you haven’t yet seen it.
  • Of the five British titles, two are of special note — starting with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here, a frighteningly realistic “alternative history” of a Nazi-controlled post-WWII England. Made over eight years and with the collaborative support of countless volunteers, the directors show us an every-woman nurse who agrees to be employed by her nation’s quasi-paramilitary organization — “figuring it’s better to work towards social stability of some kind (any kind) than to be part of continued violent resistance” — and whose passive acceptance of an openly Fascist government gives us a “frightening reminder of how easy it is for humans to simply accept the reality around them as normal.”
  • On a much lighter note, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night remains a cult favorite which hasn’t dated in the slightest. While “the young Beatles’ infectious enthusiasm for life and music… is the biggest draw by far,” “I also love the sly supporting performances…; the ‘mod’ sets; the consistently creative camera moves and angles; and the wonderful subplot provided to ‘poor Ringo’.”
  • Speaking of cult titles, I revisited and wrote my review of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death in March of 2020, pointing out at the time that this “film about an evil nobleman and his willing compatriots denying refuge to plaintive villagers provides a potent cautionary tale about the need to continuously support one another through the hardest of times, across all boundaries: social, economic, racial, and religious.”
  • Political thrillers were dominant in 1964 cinema. John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May — with a script by Ray Sterling — remains freakily relevant to current politics, reminding us that “when a group of individuals is convinced they’re right and the well-being of their nation is at risk, we know they will stop at nothing.”
  • Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb deserves its continued status as a classic favorite, with tour-de-force performances by Peter Sellers (as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove) and memorable turns by both Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott in key supporting roles.
  • As a more serious counterpart to Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet’s nuclear thriller Fail Safe — featuring stand-out performances by Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman — creates and maintains “tension across the various inter-connected spheres of the storyline (primarily the president’s office, the War Room, and the pilots’ cockpit),” and “is a literal nailbiter in terms of what will come next, with nothing less than the fate of our planet in the balance.”
  • Emile De Antonio’s political documentary Point of Order rounds things out politically by “taking more than 180 hours of television footage from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings” and providing a “fascinating glimpse at the crash and burn of America’s most infamous ‘Commie witch hunter,'” Senator Joe McCarthy.
  • In addition to Seven Days in May, John Frankenheimer and Burt Lancaster teamed up that year for The Train. True to its title, it’s “set almost entirely in, on, or around trains” and tells a gripping cat-and-mouse tale involving priceless art being shipped away for safety during World War II. As I note in my review, “With no models used (all action was real), the film possesses a consistently heady air of real-life danger, with one expertly filmed action sequence after the other.”
  • Nothing But a Man was the best of the race-related films to emerge in 1964. As I note in my review, “By telling the story of ‘everyman’ Duff Anderson (Ivan 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 it’s “undeniably rough to watch,” this docudrama “remains a powerful neo-realist depiction of Black Southern communities in the 1960s.”
  • Sergio Leone’s seminal “spaghetti western” A Fistful of Dollars brought us Clint Eastwood with a cheroot and poncho, a “highly distinctive score” by Ennio Morricone, and an odd sense of déjà vu for anyone who’s seen Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which it copied from heavily while building up a strong mythos of its own).
  • I have a couple of personal cult favorites from this year. One is George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient, a delightful dark comedy featuring “a marvelously droll turn by Peter Sellers” (it was a good year for him!) and “sparkling performances by its two unknown leads (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker),” who perfectly capture “the hyper compulsion of teenage female friendship.”

    The other is Viva Las Vegas (Elvis Presley finally met his on-screen match in Ann-Margret!), which is “directed with flair by George Sidney and featur[es] vivid sets and costumes, rousing song-and-dance numbers, nice use of Vegas locales, and a super-fun romantic rivalry (with plenty of genuine sparks flying).”
  • Speaking of personal favorites, I was very pleasantly surprised to revisit Cary Grant and Leslie Caron in Father Goose, an enjoyable romantic comedy which “goes in surprisingly delightful and quirky directions.” Watch for “numerous memorable moments, both humorous and frightening,” with interplay between the two providing “much authentic tension.”
  • John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana — based on a Tennessee Williams play — features a storyline that “merits nearly endless discussion and debate,” “crisp and gorgeous” cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa, inspired location sets (in Mexico), and “top-notch” performances across the board” — including from Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Grayson Hall, and Sue Lyons.
  • Speaking of such luminaries, there were numerous standout female performances in 1964 — including from Ann-Margret as Jodi in a Kitten With a Whip; Joan Crawford in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket; and Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s Marnie.


As always, happy viewing!

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

“That sand just ruins everything, doesn’t it?”

Synopsis:
When an amateur etymologist (Eiji Okada) searching for rare bugs on the beach misses his train home, he stays overnight in the shack of a widow (Kyoko Kishida) eager for companionship, and soon realizes he’s trapped down in the dunes with her.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Japanese Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Psychological Horror
  • Widows and Widowers

Review:
This collaboration by director Hiroshi Teshigahara, writer Kobo Abe (basing the screenplay on his novel), and composer Toru Takemitsu remains a one-of-a-kind masterpiece from mid-20th century Japanese cinema. We are quickly immersed in the living nightmare of protagonist Okada’s dilemma — stuck at the bottom of a sand dune with no way to scramble up and out; thus, the man who came in search of bugs to probe and examine:

… is soon trapped under the gaze of those (the villagers) who watch and taunt him for their own amusement.

Okada — likely best known to film fanatics from co-starring in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) — is entirely believable as a man convinced he can find a way out of his dilemma, only to eventually be beaten down by forces beyond his control.

Kishida is equally effective as a young widow who seems slightly delusional (and is most certainly manipulative), but is simply responding to her own dire circumstances.

The pair form an unexpectedly sweet bond of captivity, supporting one another through work, companionship, and sensual connection.


In some ways, the less said about this movie the better, given that it unfolds in an eerily suspenseful way — and we’re not sure until the very end what will happen to the protagonists. It’s possible to enjoy this film either on its surface (albeit surreal) narrative level, or by probing into its thematic layers: Is the omnipresent gritty sand a stand-in for nuclear fallout dust? Are we all trapped in a menial existence filled with hard labor under the scrutiny of others? Regardless of how you choose to approach the story, the visceral impact of living with these individuals in their gritty, nightmarish existence is unlike what I’ve experienced with any other movie.

Note: This film made Teshigahara the first Japanese director to be nominated for an Oscar for directing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Eiji Okada as the Entomologist
  • Kyoko Kishida as the Woman
  • Hiroshi Segawa’s cinematography
  • Fine use of location shooting
  • Many memorable moments and sequences
  • Toru Takemitsu’s haunting soundscape

Must See?
Yes, as a truly unique and absorbing foreign film. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

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

Links:

Ipcress File, The (1965)

Ipcress File, The (1965)

“I want you to do a job for me.”

Synopsis:
A British army sergeant (Michael Caine) is enlisted to support a major (Nigel Green) in learning what happened to a scientist who has been kidnapped off a train.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Kidnapping
  • Michael Caine Films
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Spies

Review:
Sydney J. Furie directed this adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy thriller, featuring an unnamed protagonist who was given the cinematic name “Harry Palmer” simply to call him something. Although I haven’t read Deighton’s novel, the synopsis on Wikipedia sounds duly meaty and complex — which would explain why this film feels the same way, narratively speaking. Perhaps appropriately, we’re never quite sure what’s going on, who is on which side, or what will happen next — which feels right for a spy thriller, though Furie’s infamous choice to frame nearly every shot in either a semi-obscured, askew, or severely foregrounded fashion is, to be honest, super-distracting.

I found myself losing track of the storyline due to being preoccupied by wondering what weird and cool new shot would be coming next.

To be clear, I adore innovative camerawork — but watching The Ipcress File made me realize that it actually has its limits. To that end, an extended quote from Caine’s memoirs — as cited in TCM’s article — seems worth quoting here:

“Sid (Sidney Furie) … decided to shoot it as though the camera were someone else watching while hiding behind things. Thus there always seemed to be something between me and the camera, or else it would be very close and at an unusual angle, often shooting straight up my nose. Sid and [producer] Harry (Saltzman) had a lot of rows, with Harry’s temper living up to its reputation. I sometimes feared that he would have a heart attack, while the rest of the unit were hoping that he would — Sid, in particular. The climax to all these rows came one day when we were on location in Shepherd’s Bush, a rundown area of West London. The first I knew of it was when Sid came running round a street corner and knocked me flying. To my astonishment, I saw that he was crying. He stared at me for a moment and then screamed through his tears, ‘F*ck it, I’m off this picture,’ and with one bound jumped on a number 12 bus that was just pulling away from its stop, and disappeared in the direction of Oxford Circus.” Luckily, Furie was coaxed back to the set and completed the picture.

With all that said, this film is notable for giving Caine his second significant role (after Zulu), and he expertly embodies the cerebral, bespectacled protagonist with a criminal past.

This flick remains worth a look, though it’s not must-see viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Michael Caine as Harry Palmer
  • Innovative (though perhaps overly so) cinematography and direction


Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for those who enjoy complex spy thrillers.

Links:

That Man From Rio (1964)

That Man From Rio (1964)

“That’s no ordinary statue: it’s priceless, the relic of a lost civilization.”

Synopsis:
While visiting his girlfriend (Françoise Dorléac), a private (Jean-Paul Belmondo) on leave from the army becomes unwittingly caught up in a kidnapping tied to a deeper plot involving a professor (Jean Servais) with obsessive ties to a Maltec figurine.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Films
  • Jean-Paul Belmondo Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Search

Review:
Philippe De Broca directed this Bond-inspired action-adventure (with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Ariane Mnouchkine, Daniel Boulanger and de Broca) that became the fifth highest earning film of the year. It’s fast-paced, colorful, and entirely innocuous thriller taking us from Paris to Brazil, with suave but goofy Belmondo performing many of his own stunts, and Dorléac perfectly cast as his carefree girlfriend.

As noted in Jeff Stafford’s article for TCM, “The James Bond film craze of the early sixties inspired an endless stream of pale imitations and parodies but occasionally a gem could be found amid the rubbish heap” — including this “tongue-in-cheek adventure tale that spoofed 007-like heroics while paying homage to everything from matinee serials like The Perils of Pauline to movie icons like Tarzan and Harold Lloyd.” The influence of Belgian cartoonist Hergé (creator of Tintin) is clear, and the final scenes — taking place in the jungles of Brasilia — evoke vibes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984).

Watch for French movie icon Jean Marais in a crucial supporting role as sinister Professor Catalan, who is bound and determined to locate a specific historic figurine at any cost.

While this one isn’t must-see, it’s recommended if you’re curious to see well-crafted adventure fare from this era.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jean-Paul Belmondo as Private Adrien Duforquet
  • Françoise Dorléac as Agnès
  • Numerous well-crafted gags and stunts
  • Fine use of location shooting

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended if this is your cup of tea. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links: