Wednesday, April 27, 2016

JAWS review: 'brilliant and terrifying'


Steven Spielberg's Jaws, which was released on June 20, 1975, changed the cinema experience forever

Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a brilliant film of so much more than just short shark shocks, changed the cinema experience forever. It was the original Hollywood blockbuster, the first film to gross more than $100 million.

Nobody at the time predicted such remarkable success for Jaws. When Richard Zanuck, the Oscar-winning film producer who had been behind great films such as The Sound of Music and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, started on the project the book, by first-time novelist Peter Benchley, hadn't even been published and Spielberg's only feature film to date, The Sugarland Express, had yet to be released.

The plot is relatively straightforward: a giant man-eating great white shark starts killing holidaymakers on the waters of Amity Island, a fictional New England resort. The local police chief, with the help of a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter, goes out to sea to track it down and kill it.

The cast is magnificent but therein lies a story. Benchley had wanted Paul Newman to play police chief Martin Brody, Robert Redford to fill the role of hippy ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Steve McQueen to be grizzled shark hunter Quint. Zanuck wanted Charlton Heston, Sterling Hayden and Jon Voight respectively. In the end, the roles went to Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.

As a trio, their chemistry is superb. Zanuck said he was conscious that having no star named added to the risks for the film but his three leads could not have been better.The main problem was the demanding practicalities of making the film. Jaws was shot on the small Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard (and on the waters surrounding it) and Spielberg, who was 27 at the time, remembers long days, with about four hours of shooting film and about "eight hours anchoring boats and trying to fight the ocean and get the shark to work".

The sharks, in this era long before CGI, were a mechanical nightmare. "We were lucky to get one or two shots a day," said Zanuck. "The shark was a mechanical monster that very rarely worked. Actually, we had four of them, and they were all hydraulically operated - very crude by today's standards."They had all these rubber-hose attachments, and there were 16 different parts that had to work - the eye, the jaws, the tail, the fins and so on. We had a barge bouncing up and down in the sea, with people at all these levers, each of them controlling a particular part. It was like an orchestra with these 16 guys on the barge, and they had to play it perfectly each time."

But the mechanics just kept breaking down. For example, the shark would come out of the water with its eye closed, and we'd have to abandon the shot. It was so agonising. You'd have actors hanging around for days, waiting for just one shot."

The problems ended up working in the film's favour. The opening segment is one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Susan Backlinie was the skinny-dipping bather who takes a fateful moonlit swim, splashing about merrily. The silence is terrifying, the sea an endless dark pool.

Suddenly, the whelping starts, the helpless struggle against a sea monster we are left to image, the creature that is dragging her under. It's an utterly terrifying moment."In the script," said Zanuck, "we had the shark in that scene, but the mechanics weren't working. Steven made it so much more horrifying by having shots from underneath of the girl's legs dangling there, then the girl being ripped apart."

All without the audience getting even a glimpse of her attacker. "If we'd had a computerised shark, we would have overdone it, and a lot of that suspense and build-up, which was not really intended, would have been lost."Through the years, Steven has been praised for holding back on the shark and waiting, but it was never planned that way. We just didn't have it working."

"Jaws was my Vietnam. It was basically naive people against nature, and nature beat us every day," Spielberg later said.The terror, panic and small town politics are all brilliantly done but this is also a film about bravery and friendship and the scenes in which the trio bond as they sit out at sea waiting to fight death itself are moving and witty.

There is also a memorably great line. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” says Chief Brody when he finally realised the size of the beast they are facing.The beautifully simple and iconic movie poster, the evocative and haunting Grammy-winning score of John Williams (All together now: Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh…) and the scary moments (the head and the boat) all help make Jaws one of the great films of the 20th century.

Jaws won three Oscars - Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound - and spawned three (poor) sequels. It is as thrilling today as when it first hit cinema screens on June 20 1975. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016


The historical novel by Alexandre Dumas was adapted for the screen with this lavish French epic, winner of 5 Césars and a pair of awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Isabelle Adjani stars as Marguerite de Valois, better known as Margot, daughter of scheming Catholic power player Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi). Margot is an heiress to the throne during the late 16th century reign of the neurotic, hypochondriac King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a time when Protestants and Catholics are vying for political control of France. Catherine decides to make an overture of good will by offering up Margot in marriage to prominent Protestant Huguenot Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), although she also schemes to bring about the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, when tens of thousands of Protestants are slaughtered. The marriage goes forward but Margot doesn't love Henri and takes a lover, the soldier La Mole (Vincent Perez), also a Protestant from a well-to-do family. Murders by poisoning follow, as court intrigues multiply and Catherine's villainous plotting to place her son Anjou (Pascal Greggory) on the throne threatens the lives of La Mole, Margot and Henri. 

The American release version was cut to 145 minutes. ~ Karl Williams, Rovi


Thursday, March 24, 2016

IN COLD BLOOD - Film Review

The public hazard in the kind of random violence that is occurring in our communities these days as part of the alarming upsurge of wild, neurotic crime is envisioned in terrifying images in the film Richard Brooks has made from Truman Capote's celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood. This excellent quasidocumentary, which sends shivers down the spine while moving the viewer to ponder, opened at Cinema I yesterday.

Substantially, the film is a reenactment in electrifying cinematic terms of the essential events in the case record of that gruesome and mystifying crime in which four members of the modest Clutter family were slaughtered in their home near Holcomb, Kansas, by two ex-convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, one night in 1959.
It is a faithful and absorbing demonstration of how the police, with very few clues and no initial inkling of a motive, patiently investigated the crime while the killers were boldly making an escape into Mexico; how the case was eventually broken, the killers fortuitously caught, then tried, convicted, and executed in a Kansas prison in 1965.

Since most of this is now common knowledge, thanks to the circulation of Mr. Capote's book, and since the culpability of the murderers is specified early in the film, the excitement generated in the viewer is not over who committed the murders, but why. Why did two who had originally intended robbery, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly come to the point of slaughtering four innocent persons in cold blood? And what does this single explosion of violence indicate as to society's pitiable vulnerability to the kooks that are loose in the land?

This pervasive concern with the natures and the backgrounds of the two young men who commit the murders and are therefore the symbols of the forces of evil in this dramatic scan accounts for the considerable alteration that Mr. Brooks has made in the substance and structure of Mr. Capote's book.

With a proper disregard for the extraneous, he has dropped out much of the detail of life in the community of Holcomb that Mr. Capote so patiently inscribed, and he has swiftly introduced his two marauders and brought them to the driveway of the Clutter home on that fateful night.

Then, with a rip in the sequence that is characteristic of the nervous style of the film—it is done with frequent flashbacks and fragmentations of continuity—he cuts to the interior of the Clutter home on the morning after the crime and the discovery of the bodies by the housemaid (but unseen by the camera), to her shrieking horror.

Thus the evident hideousness and mystery of what occurred is craftily withheld until the flow of the film has encompassed the investigations by the police, the getaway of the fugitives and their visit to Mexico (during all of which we are treated to grim reflections of their blighted early years), and their capture in Las Vegas, by an extraordinary fluke.

Not until they're brought back to Holcomb do we get in a confession by Smith, a graphic reconstruction of what happened in the house that awful night, and here Mr. Brooks exercises his most admirable skill and good taste. For without once actually showing the raw performance and effects of violence, the shooting and the knifing, he builds up a horrifying sense of the slow terror and maniacal momentum of that murderous escapade.

He makes us see the arrogance of the marauders, the astonishment and disbelief of the awakened Clutters, the fury of the robbers when they find there is no expected hoard of money, and the piteous terror of the victims when they know their lives are to be taken. But, best of all, he makes us understand, on the basis of what he has shown us about these hoodlums earlier in the film, why their wild, smashing outburst of vengeance is inevitable.

From here on, the course of the picture—the barely sketched-in trial, the languishing of the men in prison while their case goes through endless appeals, and finally their execution—is but the ironic playing out of society's ritualistic compensation for damage already done. The final scene of the hanging, which is realistically done, is like some medieval rite of retribution. It leaves one helplessly, hopelessly chilled.

I have not emphasized the vivid realism and literal quality of this film, which are the product of Mr. Brooks's sharp direction and the black-and-white photography of Conrad Hall; nor have I nailed down the subtle revelations and variations in the performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson in the principal roles. Their abilities to demonstrate the tensions, the torments, and shabby conceits of the miserable criminals, give disturbing dimension to their roles.

As dogged investigators, John Forsythe, John Gallaudet, Jim Lantz, and others manifest the terminal functioning of the law; Paul Stewart is dry as a reporter and John McLiam plays Mr. Clutter pitiably.

There is sure to be comparison of this picture with the controversial Bonnie and Clyde, which is also about two killers who are brought to their doom. That one, subjective and romantic, does not hold a candle, I feel, as a social illumination, to this one, which is objective and real.

Produced and directed by Richard Brooks; written by Mr. Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote; director of photography, Conrad Hall; edited by Peter Zinner; music by Quincy Jones; art designer, Robert Boyle; released by Columbia Pictures. Black and white. Running time: 134 minutes.

With: Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock), John Forsythe (Alvin Dewey), Paul Stewart (Reporter), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Harold Nye), Jeff Corey (Hickock's Father), and John Gallaudet (Roy Church).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sicario: Film Review

'Prisoners' director Denis Villeneuve returns with a blisteringly suspenseful, ever surprising cartel thriller.

Two years after making his U.S. debut with the crackerjack kidnapping drama “Prisoners,” French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve ups his own ante with “Sicario,” a blisteringly intense drug-trade thriller that combines expert action and suspense with another uneasy inquiry into the emotional consequences of violence. A densely woven web of compelling character studies and larger systemic concerns, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s bleaker, more jaundiced riposte to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 “Traffic” may prove too grim and grisly for some audiences and too morally ambiguous for others. But with its muscular style and top-flight cast, this fall Lionsgate release should score solid (if less than “Prisoners”-sized) business from discerning adult moviegoers, along with dark-horse awards-season buzz.

In a terrific performance that recalls the steely ferocity of Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Emily Blunt stars here as Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who has been forced to don a Teflon exterior in order to rise through the Bureau’s male-dominated ranks, and to cope with the depravity she frequently witnesses in the line of duty. “Sicario” begins with one such grisly find: dozens of rotting human corpses hidden behind the drywall in a suburban Arizona home belonging to an arm of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. But the carnage doesn’t end there, and when the next round of violence erupts with startling force, it sets the apocalyptic tone for everything that follows. Indeed, the opening of “Sicario” unfolds at such an anxiety-inducing pitch that it seems impossible for Villeneuve to sustain it, let along build on it, but somehow he manages to do just that. He’s a master of the kind of creeping tension that coils around the audience like a snake suffocating its prey.

Together with “Prisoners” and Villeneuve’s previous, Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” “Sicario” forms a loose trilogy about the politics of revenge and the value of a human life. But whereas those earlier films were panoramic in scope and choral in structure, “Sicario” unfolds almost entirely through the eyes of Kate, as she wades into the murky waters of an inter-agency task force assembled to give the U.S. a tactical leg up in the war on drugs. Helping to draw her in is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a sandal-clad, stoner-cadenced mystery man who claims to be a Defense Department contractor, though Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) suspect from the start that he could be CIA. Like more than one character in “Sicario,” Graver can claim almost as many identities as he can ulterior motives.

Graver tells Kate that his operation needs her unique expertise, and while she isn’t fully convinced, she’s still young and naive enough to believe that there’s a right side in this war and that the U.S. is on it. Riding shotgun with Graver is another shadow man known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) — the “sicario” (a slang term for hitman) of the title — who is said to be a former Mexican prosecutor, and who has the solemn intensity of a man determined to get his way or die trying. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” he tells Kate matter-of-factly on their first meeting — words that double as advice to the movie’s audience.

The knotty plot that follows demands close attention but never becomes too difficult (or self-consciously opaque) to follow. It involves multiple trips back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border as the agents attempt to use one high-ranking cartel boss (Bernardo Saracino) to flush out an even bigger one (Julio Cesar Cedillo), though exactly why is a crucial detail “Sicario” holds close to the vest until late in the third act. In the meantime, Villeneuve stages one extraordinary suspense setpiece after another, starting with an epic traffic jam at the border that ensnares the Americans just as they are heading back home with a piece of very precious cargo in tow. Using no special tricks — just the sharp, color-saturated compositions of cinematographer Roger Deakins; the airtight cutting of editor Joe Walker; and the subtly menacing score of composer Johan Johannsson — Villeneuve creates a sequence as nail-biting as any “Fast and the Furious” car chase, except that here all the cars are standing perfectly still.

As in the films of Clint Eastwood (whose “Mystic River” exuded an obvious influence on “Prisoners”) and Michael Mann, the violence in Villeneuve’s work is savage and startling, but never overstated or sensationalized, and every bullet fired ripples with consequences for both the victim and the trigger man (or, as the case may be, woman). Navigating the crossfire, Blunt is mesmerizing to watch, her intense blue eyes ablaze with intelligence as she tries to sort out the facts of the case from its attendant fictions, and whether Graver and Alejandro’s endgame justifies its ethically dubious means.

Every bit as impressive is Del Toro, who has worked both sides of the street where cartel dramas are concerned (“Traffic,” “Savages”), but whose Alejandro is cut from considerably more complicated cloth. He is a swift, unforgiving man, with a wolfish jowl and the preternatural calm of the predator lying in wait. Yet he also shudders in his sleep, reveals flashes of battered humanity when one least expects it, and even, fleetingly, a Hannibal Lecter-ish lust for the flinty young woman thrust into his path. And as the film hurtles towards its climactic abyss, it is Del Toro who holds us rapt with a nearly silent performance that is the very embodiment of character through action.

Working with a mix of technical collaborators old and new, Villeneuve has once again delivered an impeccably well-crafted film, not least in Deakins’ arresting widescreen lensing, which alternates between vast aerial canvases that capture the epic sprawl of the border land, and closeups so carefully framed and lit as to show particles of dust dancing on a shaft on sunlight.

Film Review: 'Sicario'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, May 7, 2015. (In Cannes Film Festival — competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.


A Lionsgate release presented with Black Label Media of a Thunder Road production. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill. Executive producers, John H. Starke, Erica Lee, Ellen H. Schwartz.


Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay, Taylor Sheridan. Camera (color, Arri Alexa HD, widescreen), Roger Deakins; editor, Joe Walker; music, Johan Johannsson; executive music producers, Tara Moross, Darren Blumenthal; production designer, Patrice Vermetter; supervising art director, Paul Kelly; art director, Bjarne Sletteland; set decorator, Jan Pascale; set designer, Ricardo Guillermo; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Dolby Digital), William Sarokin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Tom Ozanich; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; visual effects, Oblique FX, Fly Studio, Cinesite; special effects supervisor, Stan Blackwell; stunt coordinator, Keith Woulard; associate producer, Emma McGill; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Francine Maisler.


Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Bernardo Saracino. (English, Spanish dialogue)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Singin' in the Rain: AN AMERICAN CLASSIC

Singin' in the Rain (1952) is one of the most-loved and celebrated film musicals of all time from MGM, before a mass exodus to filmed adaptations of Broadway plays emerged as a standard pattern. It was made directly for film, and was not a Broadway adaptation.
The joyous film, co-directed by Stanley Donen and acrobatic dancer-star-choreographer Gene Kelly, is a charming, up-beat, graceful and thoroughly enjoyable experience with great songs, lots of flashbacks, wonderful dances (including the spectacular Broadway Melody Ballet with leggy guest star Cyd Charisse), casting and story. This was another extraordinary example of the organic, 'integrated musical' in which the story's characters naturally express their emotions in the midst of their lives. Song and dance replace the dialogue, usually during moments of high spirits or passionate romance. And over half of the film - a 'let's put on a play' type of film, is composed of musical numbers.

This superb film, called "MGM's TECHNICOLOR Musical Treasure," was produced during MGM studios' creative pinnacle. From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, producer Arthur Freed produced more than forty musicals for MGM. The creative forces at the studio in the Freed Unit - composed of Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and actor/choreographer Gene Kelly - also collaborated together to produce such gems as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), Best Picture Oscar-winner a year earlier with director Vincente Minnelli - An American in Paris (1951), Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Gigi (1958).

Because the colorful, witty film is set in 1927, it humorously satirizes and parodies the panic surrounding the troubling transitional period from silents to talkies in the dream factory of Hollywood of the late 1920s as the sound revolution swept through. The film's screenplay, suggested by the song Singin' in the Rain that was written by Freed and Brown, was scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also wrote On the Town (1949)). The time frame of Comden's and Green's script, the Roaring 20s Era of flappers, was mostly determined by the fact that lyricist Freed (and songwriter Nacio Herb Brown) had written their extensive library of songs in their early careers during the 1920s and 1930s, when Hollywood was transitioning to talkies. The musical comedy's story, then, would be best suited around that theme. Except for two songs, all of the musical arrangements in the film to be showcased were composed by Freed and Brown for different Hollywood films before Freed became a producer.

[The title song was originally created by lyricist Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown for MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929). The general storyline of the film was derived from Once in a Lifetime (1932), a hilarious adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play also set during the time of panic surrounding Hollywood's transition to talkies.]

The plot of the film is actually an autobiography of Hollywood itself at the dawn of the talkies. The story is about a dashing, smug but romantic silent film star and swashbuckling matinee idol (Don Lockwood) and his glamorous blonde screen partner/diva (Lina Lamont) who are expected, by studio heads, to pretend to be romantically involved with each other. They are also pressured by the studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) to change their silent romantic drama (The Duelling Cavalier) and make their first sound picture, renamed as the musical The Dancing Cavalier. There's one serious problem, however - the temperamental, narcissistic star has a shrill, screechy New York accent. The star's ex-song-and-dance partner (Cosmo) proposes to turn the doomed film into a musical, and suggests that Don's aspiring actress and ingenue dancer-girlfriend (Kathy Selden) dub in her singing voice behind the scenes for lip-synching Lina. The results of their scheming to expose the jealous Lina and put Kathy in a revealing limelight provide the film's expected happy resolution.

Surprisingly, this great film that was shot for a cost of $2.5 million (about $.5 million over-budget), was basically ignored by film critics when released and treated with indifference (with box-office of $7.7 worldwide). It received only two Academy Award nominations - Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen), and Best Musical Score (Lennie Hayton) and didn't win any awards. The film's musical score Oscar nomination lost to Alfred Newman's score for With a Song in My Heart.

Now, after many accolades, television screenings, and its resurgence after the release of That's Entertainment (1974), it is often chosen as one of the all-time top ten American films, and generally considered Hollywood's greatest and finest screen musical. Great care was made to authenticate the costumes, the sound studio set, and other historical details in the film. The film's title song was paid twisted homage (of sorts) in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) during the brutal rape scene. At the same time that Singin' in the Rain was being filmed, another MGM film exposing and satirizing Hollywood's foibles was also in production - director Vincente Minnelli's melodramatic The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, and Oscar-stealing Gloria Grahame who defeated this film's Jean Hagen for the Best Supporting Actress honor.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Terry (Marlon Brando) speaks with Charley (Rod Steiger) about his lost days of promise, then Charley hands him a gun and lets him go.

This classic story of Mob informers was based on a number of true stories and filmed on location in and around the docks of New York and New Jersey. Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) rules the waterfront with an iron fist. The police know that he's been responsible for a number of murders, but witnesses play deaf and dumb ("plead D & D"). Washed-up boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has had an errand-boy job because of the influence of his brother Charley, a crooked union lawyer (Rod Steiger). Witnessing one of Friendly's rub-outs, Terry is willing to keep his mouth shut until he meets the dead dockworker's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). "Waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) tells Terry that Edie's brother was killed because he was going to testify against boss Friendly before the crime commission. Because he could have intervened, but didn't, Terry feels somewhat responsible for the death. When Father Barry receives a beating from Friendly's goons, Terry is persuaded to cooperate with the commission. Featuring Brando's famous "I coulda been a contendah" speech, On the Waterfront has often been seen as an allegory of "naming names" against suspected Communists during the anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s. Director Elia Kazan famously informed on suspected Communists before a government committee -- unlike many of his colleagues, some of whom went to prison for refusing to "name names" and many more of whom were blacklisted from working in the film industry for many years to come -- and Budd Schulberg's screenplay has often been read as an elaborate defense of the informer's position. On the Waterfront won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Brando, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint.

Why ON THE WATERFRONT is Essential
"The finest thing ever done by an American film actor" was how director Elia Kazan has characterized the performance of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), the classic tale of crime and corruption among unionized dock workers in New York and New Jersey. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer turned longshoreman who witnesses a murder arranged by a union boss and agrees to testify before the Crime Commission.

Kazan, in developing the film from Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles, originally asked playwright Arthur Miller to write the screenplay. When Miller refused, reportedly because of Kazan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee that had implicated others as Communist sympathizers, Kazan turned to novelist/screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also had "named names" for the Committee. Brando later wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, that On the Waterfront "was really a metaphorical argument" by Kazan and Schulberg: "They made the film to justify finking on their friends. Evidently, as Terry Malloy, I represented the spirit of the brave, courageous man who defied evil."

Frank Sinatra, who had been Kazan’s original choice to play Terry, sued producer Sam Spiegel for breach of contract after Brando was cast instead, and retained bitter feelings for Brando that surfaced when the two co-starred a year later in Guys and Dolls (1955) - with Brando once again in a role that Sinatra coveted. Kazan had considered Grace Kelly and Rosemary Clooney for the role eventually filled by Saint in her film debut. Rod Steiger, who played Terry’s weasel-like brother, shares Brando’s famous "I coulda been a contender" scene in the taxicab. Steiger also felt a certain bitterness toward Brando because the latter bolted from the set when his portion of that scene was completed, leaving Steiger to play his close-ups to a stand-in.

On the Waterfront won eight Oscars - for Best Picture, Director (Kazan), Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint), Screenplay (Schulberg), Black-and-White Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Decoration and Editing. No less than three of the film’s supporting actors -Cobb, Steiger and Karl Malden, as a priest - were nominated, but the Oscar in that category went to Edmond O’Brien for The Barefoot Contessa. Leonard Bernstein also was nominated for the film’s score, his first. Kazan’s testimony for the HUAC remained a controversial issue in 1998, when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

by Roger Fristoe and Scott McGee 



At the request of mob boss Johnny Friendly, longshoreman Terry Malloy, a former boxer, lures fellow dock worker Joey Doyle to the roof of his tenement building, purportedly to discuss their shared hobby of pigeon racing. Believing that Friendly only intends to frighten Joey out of his threat to speak to the New York State Crime Commission, Terry is stunned to see Joey topple from the building as he and his brother, Charley "the Gent," watch from across the street.

As neighbors gather around Joey's body, his distraught sister Edie accuses parish priest Father Barry of hiding behind the church and not helping the neighborhood break free from the mob's grip. Listening nearby, Terry is disturbed by Edie's indictment and later joins Charley, Friendly's lawyer and accountant, at a meeting with Friendly and his lackeys. Friendly assures Terry that Joey's death was necessary to preserve his hold on the harbor, then directs dock manager Big Mac to place Terry in the top job slot the following day.

The next morning, while waiting for the day's work assignment, the dock workers offer their sympathy to Joey's father Pop, who gives Joey's jacket to Kayo Dugan. Terry is approached by Crime Commission representative Eddy Glover, but refuses to discuss Joey. Edie comes down to the docks to apologize to Father Barry, but he admits that her accusation has prompted him to become more involved in the lives of the longshoremen. Father Barry asks some of the men to meet downstairs in the church, despite being advised that Friendly does not approve of union meetings.

Later, in the warehouse, Charley asks Terry to sit in on the church meeting. When Terry hesitates, Charley dismisses his brother's fears of "stooling." Despite the sparse turnout, Father Barry adamantly declares that mob control of the docks must end and demands to know about Joey's murder. Several men bristle in anger upon seeing Terry at the meeting, and Kayo tells Father Barry that no one will talk out of fear that Friendly will find out. Father Barry insists the men can fight Friendly and the mob through the courts, but the men refuse to participate. Friendly's stooges break up the meeting by hurling stones through the church windows. After Pop and Kayo are attacked outside, Father Barry presses Kayo to take action and Kayo agrees. Terry insists on walking Edie home and, on the way, she hesitatingly tells him abut her convent upbringing and ambition to teach.

At home, Pop scolds Edie for walking with Terry, whom he calls a bum, and demands that she return to college. Edie responds that she must stay to find out who killed Joey. Later that day Edie is surprised to find Terry on the roof with Joey's pigeons. Terry shows her his own prize bird, then asks her if she would like to have a beer with him. At the bar, Terry tells Edie that he and Charley were placed in an orphanage after their father died, but they eventually ran away. He took up boxing and Friendly bought a percentage of him, but his career faded.

Swept up among wedding party revelers, Edie and Terry dance together until they are interrupted by Glover, who serves Terry with a subpoena to the Crime Commission hearings. Edie demands to know if Friendly arranged Joey's murder, and when Terry cautions her to stop asking questions, she accuses him of still being owned by the mobster.

That evening, Friendly visits Terry, who is evasive about the church meeting, then surprised when Friendly reveals that Kayo testified before the commission. Charley criticizes Terry for seeing Edie, and Friendly orders Terry back to working in the ship hold. The next day in the hold, Terry attempts to speak with Kayo, but the older man brushes him aside, calling him one of Friendly's boys. Big Mac and one of his henchmen rig a crane to slip, and a load of boxes crashes down upon Kayo, killing him in front of Terry. Outraged, Father Barry gives an impromptu eulogy for Kayo, asserting that Kayo was killed to prevent him from testifying.

After two of Friendly's henchmen begin pelting the priest with fruit and vegetables, Pop and Edie arrive and watch as Father Barry ignores the abuse and exhorts the men to believe in themselves and reject mob control. Terry furiously knocks out one of the henchmen, angering Friendly and Charley. Later, Father Barry returns Joey's jacket to Pop and Edie. That night, after Edie gives Joey's jacket to Terry, the guilt-stricken Terry tries but is unable to tell her about his part in Joey's murder. The next morning Terry seeks out Father Barry to ask for guidance as he believes he is falling in love with Edie, but is conflicted about testifying and about going against Charley. Father Barry maintains that Terry must follow his conscience and challenges him to be honest with Edie.

When Terry meets Edie on the beach later, he relates the details of the night of Joey's murder, insisting that he did not know Joey would be killed, but Edie rushes away in distress. Later while tending his pigeons on the roof, Terry is visited by Glover and implies that he might be willing to testify. Their meeting is reported to Friendly, who orders Charley to straighten Terry out. That night, Charley takes Terry on a cab drive and chides him for not telling him about the subpoena. When Terry attempts to explain his confusion, Charley brusquely threatens him with a gun. Hurt, Terry reproaches his older brother for not looking after him and allowing him to become a failure and a bum by involving him with the mob. Charley gives Terry the gun and says he will stall Friendly. Terry goes to see Edie, and breaks down her apartment door when she refuses to let him in and demands to know if she cares for him. Edie tells Terry to listen to his conscience, which angers him, but the two embrace.

When Terry is summoned to the street, Edie begs him not to go, then follows him. After the couple is nearly run down by a truck, they find Charley's body hung up on a meat hook on a nearby fence. Taking down his brother's body, Terry vows revenge on Friendly, and sends Edie for Father Barry. Armed, Terry hunts for Friendly at his regular bar, but Father Barry convinces him that the best way to ruin Friendly is in court and Terry throws away the gun.

The next day at the hearings, Terry testifies to Friendly's involvement in Joey's death, outraging the mobster, who shouts threats at him. Back at home, Terry is scorned by the neighbors for testifying and discovers that his pigeons have been killed by a boy he once coached. Edie attempts to comfort Terry, advising him to leave, but Terry insists that he has the right to stay in his town. The next day Terry reports to work as usual, but is ignored by the men and refused work by Big Mac. In his office at the pier, Friendly, who is about to be indicted, swears vengeance on Terry.

Terry confronts Friendly on the pier, declaring he is nothing without guns, and the two fall into a brutal fistfight. While Friendly's men help to thrash Terry, the dockworkers watch impassively as Edie arrives with Father Barry. Friendly orders the longshoremen to begin unloading, but the men refuse and demand that Terry be allowed to work, hoping the shipping owners will witness their refusal to obey Friendly and realize their intention to restart a clean union. Father Barry urges on the beaten Terry, who rises and defiantly stumbles down the pier and into the warehouse.

Monday, February 15, 2016


By Roger Ebert

Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard” is the portrait of a forgotten silent star, living in exile in her grotesque mansion, screening her old films, dreaming of a comeback. But it's also a love story, and the love keeps it from becoming simply a waxworks or a freak show. Gloria Swanson gives her greatest performance as the silent star Norma Desmond, with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, her grandiose delusions. William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. But the performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max.

The movie cuts close to the bone, drawing so directly from life that many of the silent stars at the movie's premiere recognized personal details. In no character, not even Norma, does it cut closer than with Max von Mayerling, a once-great silent director, now reduced to working as the butler of the woman he once directed--and was married to. There are unmistakable parallels with von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in "Queen Kelly” (1928), whose credits included "Greed" and "The Merry Widow,” but who directed only two sound films and was reduced to playing Nazi martinets and parodies of himself in other people's films.

In "Sunset Boulevard,” Desmond screens one of her old silent classics for Joe Gillis, the young writer played by Holden. Max runs the projector. The scene is from “Queen Kelly.” For a moment Swanson and von Stroheim are simply playing themselves. Later, when Joe is moved into the big mansion, Max shows him to an ornate bedroom and explains, "It was the room of the husband.” Max is talking about himself; he was the first of her three husbands, and loved her so much he was willing to return as a servant, feeding her illusions, forging her fan mail, fiercely devoted to her greatness.

In one of the greatest of all film performances, Swanson's Norma Desmond skates close to the edge of parody; Swanson takes enormous chances with theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for most of the picture, before letting her slip over. We might not take her seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma, and that in turn helps explain how Joe can accept her.

Norma of course is not a wrinkled crone. She is only 50 in the film, younger than stars such as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. There is a scene during Norma's beauty makeover when a magnifying glass is held in front of her eyes, and we are startled by how smooth Swanson's skin is. Swanson in real life was a health nut who fled from the sun, which no doubt protected her skin (she was 53 when she made the film), but the point in "Sunset Boulevard” is that she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past.

Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks” by Gillis, are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,” and calls Norma "little fellow,” which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s.

"Sunset Boulevard” remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn't. When the silent star first greets the penniless writer inside her mansion, they have a classic exchange. “You used to be big,” he says. Norma responds with the great line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.” Hardly anyone remembers Joe's next line: "I knew there was something wrong with them.”

The plot has supplied Joe with a lot of reasons to accept Norma's offer of a private screenwriting job. He's broke and behind on his rent, his car is about to be repossessed, and he doesn't want to go back to his job as a newspaperman in Dayton. He is also not entirely unwilling to prostitute himself; Holden projects subtle weakness and self-loathing into the role. He goes through the forms of saying he doesn't want Norma's gifts, but he takes them--the gold cigarette cases, the platinum watch, the suits, the shirts, the shoes. He claims to be surprised on New Year's Eve when she throws a party just for the two of them, but surely he has known from the first that she wants not only a writer, but a young man to reassure her that she is still attractive.

The thing about Norma is that life with her isn't all bad. She isn't boring. Her histrionics and dramaturgy are entertaining, and she has a charming side, as when she stages a pantomime for Joe, playing a Max Sennett bathing girl and then doing a passable version of Chaplin's Tramp. Joe is willing to be kept. The only thing the film lacks is more sympathy between Joe and Max, who have so much in common.

There is of course the young blond Paramount writer Betty (Nancy Olson), who Joe meets early in the picture. She's engaged to be married (to a young Jack Webb), but as Joe begins sneaking out of the mansion to collaborate on a screenplay with Betty, she falls in love with him. He's attracted, but pulls back, partly because he doesn't want her to discover the truth, but also because he likes the lifestyle with Norma. And ... maybe because, like Max, he has fallen under her spell? His dialogue is sharp-edged and can be cruel. (When she threatens suicide, he tells her, "Oh, wake up, Norma. You'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago.”) But there's a certain pity, too. "Poor devil,” he says, "still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by.”

I have seen "Sunset Boulevard” many times, and even analyzed it a shot at a time at the University of Virginia. But on this latest screening I was struck by its similarity with the 1964 Japanese drama "Woman in the Dunes." Both are about men who are trapped in the home, or lair, of a woman who simply will not let them out again. They struggle, they thrash a little, they look for the means of escape, but at some subterranean level they are content to be prisoners, and perhaps even enjoy it. Both women need a man to help them hold back the inexorable advance of the sands--in Norma's case, the sands of time.

Of all the great directors of Hollywood's golden age, has anybody made more films that are as fresh and entertaining to this day as Billy Wilder's? The credits are astonishing: “Double Indemnity,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Stalag 17,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Sabrina.” And who else can field two contenders among the greatest closing lines of all time? From “Some Like It Hot” there is “Nobody's perfect.” And from “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond's: “There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.”