The Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (AKA: A Trip to the Moon) (1902)


Le Voyage Dans La Lune (AKA: A Trip to the Moon) – 1902

Director – Georges Melies

They called director George Melies, the magician, due to level of special effects and fantasy storytelling in his work (well…that and the fact that before working in film he was a magician by trade).  His most famous creation, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, or A Trip to the Moon, was a real watershed moment in the history of film.  Simple in camera tricks, fades, dissolves, not to mention his love of special effects, were monumental stepping stones for the modern structure and the overall language of film today.  His techniques were utilized and added upon by later masters such as D.W. Griffith (who despite his controversy, is widely considered the father of film editing), and were subsequently adopted as staples of the language of film.

At just over 12 minutes, story of A Trip to the Moon is a relatively simple one.  A group of astronomers and learned men pile into a rocket, and are fired in a large cannon all the way to the moon.  Once there, the men discover a strange and alien world filled with mirthsome stars, and angry constellations.  Due to a snow storm created by Jupiter (the god?) they are driven underground into a subterranian cavern.

It is in this underground castle that the story really picks up steam.  They encounter a humanoid creature that jumps around frantically and suprises the men.  Typically of humans, they react violently, hitting him with an umbrella which causes him to explode into dust and smoke.  The moon man’s enraged kinsman launch an assault on the earthlings, eventually capturing them although not before they kill a bunch more of the moon people.  The men are brought before the king of the moon, who chastises them for their cruelty.  What happens next?  They break free and kill the king of course.   The earthlings escape their captors and get back to their ship, manageing to fall back to earth to land in the ocean and be rescued.

The story is brief, but imagination it took to realize it visually was astounding.  At the time, the Lumiere brothers and Edison and his Black Maria company were putting out slice of life type films, that showed people leaving the factory, or a train coming into the station.  Melies not only constructed a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but he also filled in the blanks on the visual side of things.  Stars and constellations came to life, and monsters sprang from the ground and were dispatched in a shocking and exciting manner.  The most famous image from this masterwork shows the face of the moon with the scientists rocket lodged in it’s eye.  The experiences and imagery that Melies gave to his audiences were things they had never seen before.  Things that defied logic, yet they were there on the screen.  They are some of the most enduring images ever produced.  Truely Melies was a magician.

So this film, the first film on the long list, is my 20th full review.  That means, when you combine the 300 movies that I’ve already seen from the list with these 20 that I’ve watched specifically for it, I’ve seen 32 percent of the entire thing.  This puts the total that I’ve reviewed at 70 even, thats counting the bulk reviews that I’ve done so far of course.  Not too shabby.  I’m still having fun, and I’m still excited to watch more and continue on to the end!

“I think it might have been staged.” – Ashley