The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler – 1961

Director – Robert Rossen

Starring – Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott

Heading into this movie, I realize now, I had a lot of pre-conceptions.  Not so much about the quality of the film, whether it would be good or bad, but more about the content of the film.  Thanks to countless posters in the various seedy billiards rooms that I frequent, I just assumed that there would be more pool than there was.  Also, I apparently wrongly assumed just who the hustler mentioned in the title of the film was.

For those, like me apparently, who aren’t too familiar with the story, The Hustler follows the driven ambition of “Fast” Eddie Felson.  Felson, played famously by Paul Newman is a small time hustler looking to beat the best in the billiards game, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and claim the crown of the best pool player around.  Fats along with his shifty gambling buddy played by George C. Scott, seeing Felson’s reckless ambition for what it is, work to exploit, and take advantage of him.

Along the way, Fast Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a woman so defeated by life, that she takes his interest as a sort of cruel taunt.  In reality, he feels as though he can fully be himself around her, without apology for his shortcomings.  The attention re-awakens her hope for a normal life.  Life for the couple starts to feel more and more normal, until that is, the real hustler, George C. Scott’s Bert, convinces Fast Eddie to go out on the road, running hustles and making money for him.  This drives a wedge in their relationship and threatens to ruin everything they’ve built.

As far as the movies that feature the character Fast Eddie Felson, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s take with The Color of Money, although the Hustler is certainly a good, if not great movie.  It may be due to my mood going into watching it, but I was really hoping for more action than drama, more suspense than revelation.

I wanted the cocky Felson to be a bit tougher, a little less pathetic throughout the film.  He is far more of a victim than he is a hustler.  It is certainly viable to create a story that ends unhappily, this film just made me sad.  For a guy who is clearly looking for acceptance, he sure gives away the acceptance he gets from Sarah without a thought about her or even himself.  The only thing that seems to matter to him is being the best in the eyes of those who are laughing at him and using him for their own gain.  As a result I was left more than a little wanting, and felt rather downcast after finishing it.  Despite their best efforts to craft a noir-ish character and setting, the movie seemed to be missing something.  Even the cinematography and music seemed somewhat forgettable to me.

I don’t mean to treat this movie harshly, clearly it had an impact on me, just not the one I was looking for going into it.  The image I have of the character is what I was left with from The Color of Money, a man who despite defeat, doesn’t give up.  Despite, humiliation, has a certain self-awareness, and despite conventional relationships, has carved out a little place for himself in the world.

Truth be told, I’ve had a certain blossoming of respect for this film just in writing down my feelings about it, although I think it says more for Martin Scorsese re-visit of the characters than it does for anything else.

I would say that despite the fact that I liked it, I definitely didn’t like it enough to include it on the list of 1001 movies.  There was an element missing either in the movie or what I wanted from it i’m not sure, but it’s missing just the same.  Either way, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t quite work for me.

“They play pool and stuff” – Ashley

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The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery – 1903

Director – Edwin S. Porter

Despite it’s brevity and it’s relatively simple nature, the Great Train Robbery is essentially the prototype for the whole of the action movie genre. Directors as prestigious as Michael Mann, and Paul Greengrass owe quite a bit to the raw experience afforded to early film-goers by Edwin Porter, the films director. The “greatest living filmmaker”, Martin Scorsese even paid direct homage to this film, and the influence it has had on film, in his own film Goodfellas. With all this hype behind such a short work, does it stand on its own, or does it suffer from being more than a hundred years old?

With such high expectations going in, and with such a wealth of films that have come since, The Great Train holds up remarkably well considering. While it does seem a little slow when compared to the fast pace of action films of today, the story gets right to the point and doesn’t let up for any of its 12 whole minutes. I can picture in my head the reaction of the film’s first audience. By this point audiences had seen nothing like it. On screen violence, death, deception, and retribution all feature prominently in the film, and are more impactful than a lot of movies 8 times longer than it.

As far as cinematography goes, it falls into the same category that a lot of older silent movies do.  A little boring.  Due to limitations in camera technology, and mobility, there is no movement at all in the shots.  The camera is put into place, and the action simply happens in front of it.  Not super exciting, but again, considering when it was made, this isn’t all that surprising, or bad.

Without it, modern action, and crime movies wouldn’t be the same, but it still feels more than a little slow.   Either way, it definitely deserves its place on this list, and now that I’ve seen it, I’ll probably never watch it again.

“The opening sequence from Tombstone” – Ashley

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Director – Michael Powell

Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure.  I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast.  Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry.  So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.

Blimp  follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries.  Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital.  Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage. 

The film opens a few years from the beginning of  World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War.  Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything.  Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often.  Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well. 

Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.

Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory.  Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime.  Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War.  Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon.  The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo.  Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.

Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own.  In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.

Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces.  George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million.  Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.

The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true.  Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards.  Check that out here if you are so inclined.  That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!

Targets (1968)

Targets

Targets – 1968

Director – Peter Bogdanovich

Starring – Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, and Nancy Hsueh

My review of a couple of days ago of The Masque of the Red Death, dove-tails nicely with today’s review of the film Targets.  Both films started out as projects coming out of the creative collective that is Roger Corman and American International Pictures, however both films ended up becoming polar opposites of one another.  Masque, while brimming with campy fun, was  produced solely to turn a profit banking on the names of Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Price, with a dollop of horror and a pinch of sexuality. 

Targets on the other hand, started it’s existence in much the same way, but was able to become more than the sum of it’s parts.  Corman, who produced the picture, offered the directing position to a young up-and-comer by the name of Peter Bogdanovich who would later go on to direct a number of critically acclaimed films, as well as make friends with some very influential and talented people (most notably portly wunderkind, Orson Welles).  Corman would allow Bogdanovich to make any film he wanted to with two caveats, he had to re-use footage of a b-horror movie “The Terror” that he had the rights to, and mix it with footage filmed in the two days of filming that legendary horror actor Boris Karloff owed to Corman.

Reportedly, Bogdanovich was so frustrated with trying to find a way to merge the scenes of campy victorian horror, with the older, more frail Karloff that he only had two days with, that he jokingly said Karloff was going to be a washed up movie star disgusted with where his career had gone.  Ultimately this ended up being a large chunk of what the story became. 

The other half of the movie centers around Tim O’Kelly’s character, Bobby Thompson, a troubled young man with a penchant for guns.  Modelled after real life gunman Charles Whitman, Bobby Thompson goes on a similar type of shooting spree, firing methodically into traffic and later into into the audience of Byron Orlok’s (Boris Karloff’s) newest movie.  Where Orlok represented horror in his day, Bobby Thompson represented the fear that existed in the future.  Thompson remorselessly guns down his wife, and mother before calmly collecting all of his weapons and setting out to make his mark on the world.

Though the story is one that is partially designed to be fantastic, and draw an audience through shock value, unlike Masque, it talks about a very real kind of fear, one that is just as prescient today as it was in 1968.  At one point Karloff’s Orlok laments about how he no longer wants to be in the movies because with things like these {murders} appearing in the papers, what’s so scary about a man in a rubber monster costume.  It is just these little kinds of humanistic characterizations that helped Karloff achieve such a dignity in his original famous role, that of  Frankenstein.  Though the story centers around these crimes that Bobby Thompson commits, and their direct influence on our main characters, the real meat of the film is watching Karloff as Orlok, play himself.  We watch as he realizes his time is done, his effectiveness has faded away, and his realization that he is no longer a star, but only a man.

Peter Bogdanovich does a fantastic job, not really despite what he has to work with, but because of it.  Due to his drive to create something beyond the desire for a payday, he was able to far surpass other grind-house films that started in the same vein,  like The Masque of the Red Death.  He is forced to be creative with his resources.  Everything from his actors, to his story, to his limitations on directing had to be carefully measured and weighed. 

To his credit, however, Roger Corman gave a lot of young, aspiring director’s their big breaks.  Without him wouldn’t have had Scorsese, Coppola, Demme, Bogdanovich, James Camer0n, or Joe Dante.  Imagine a world without Goodfellas, and Gremlins.