Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Sell-Out (1976)

I've been watching Richard Widmark and Oliver Reed movies lately, so imagine my sheer delight when I discovered a movie with both of them in it! Mwah-hah-hah! I had no idea they'd made a movie together.

The Sell-Out is not good, but it's not bad either. I found it entertaining enough that I'd definitely watch it again, particularly if I can get a better copy. The DVD I watched had absolutely terrible picture quality. It's a fairly formulaic spy film, but it's elevated by Widmark and Reed's performances, and the location shooting in Israel. Widmark stars as Sam, a retired CIA agent, living in Israel with his girlfriend. He's dragged back into the action when his old protege Gabriel (Reed) comes crashing back into his life. Seems Gabriel defected to the Russians awhile back and now wants out. Seems certain members of the CIA and KGB have a secret agreement to help each other eliminate certain agents who are either embarrassing or compromising to each agency and Gabriel is next on the list. He turns to Sam for help. Some failed assassination attempts on Gabriel kill innocent bystanders and bring the Israelis in, and things get complicated fast. Add in Sam's current girlfriend, Deborah (Gayle Hunnicutt), who used to be Gabriel's girlfriend before he defected... and things get even more complicated.

The film's strength is definitely the two leads. As they were the reason I watched this, they did not disappoint. Widmark and Reed work really well together, playing, sparring, and snarling at each, but always with a current of respect underneath. Particularly Reed for Widmark. And when Sam physically threatens Gabriel, you get the feeling he's perfectly capable of carrying out his threat, even though he's twenty years older. Ultimately, Sam and Gabriel slip back into a smooth partnership when they find themselves on the run together. I particularly liked the last half of the film, once the two go on the lam. Sam leads, Gabriel follows, backing him up, deferring to his old boss instantly, and I just loved watching the two actors support each other when they head towards the inevitable confrontation with the man who set them up. There's something very satisfying in movies where the two characters are at odds until circumstances put them on the same side. Like in LA Confidential, when Ed Exley and Bud White finally join forces.

The last third of the film is basically one big car chase as the two men race for the border to Jordan, pursued by both the bad guys and the Israelis. Pretty exciting chase through interesting scenery. Best moment of the entire film is when they find themselves in the middle of a mine field in the desert. After driving along at about half a mile an hour for a few nail-biting moments, Widmark finally growls, "Oh the hell with it," and stomps on the accelerator, flooring it. Made me grin in a good way. It was a great moment. Also sort of summed up the fact that neither he nor Gabriel had anything else to lose at that point.

So, a rather routine, betrayed-spies-on-the-run-in-foreign-country flick, worth watching for Richard Widmark and Oliver Reed, if they're your cup of tea.

(And I must admit, it's also just plain, silly fangirl fun to hear both Widmark and Reed say "Deborah," which is also my name.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Last Wagon (1956)

Another highly enjoyable Richard Widmark Western, although this one has a few problems, mostly stemming from the fact that it can't quite make up its mind whether it wants its central character to be a hero or an anti-hero, and that leads to a few plot problems, particularly the ending, which goes a bit out-of-the-blue Hollywood. However, I didn't really mind, because Widmark was absolutely fabulous, the action was fast and entertaining, the Arizona scenery spectacular, and did I mention that Widmark was wonderful? This was pretty much a win-win film!

(gorgeous scenery!)

Widmark plays Comanche Todd, a white man raised by Comanches. The film opens with him on the run/getting caught by one of the nastiest, most brutish sheriff's I've ever seen. Egads! This guy was pure meanness, and the actor (George Matthews) was perfectly cast. (How nasty is he? He shoots at a young boy and beats up a teenager half his size! Dude! At least Widmark is a grown man and can take care of himself -- mostly.) Timothy Carey shows up briefly as the sheriff's ill-fated brother in the beginning. Fortunately for Widmark, they meet up with a wagon train heading to Tucson, and the settlers don't take kindly to the nasty sheriff's behavior, even if Widmark's character is a murderer and the sheriff tells them repeatedly he deserves it.

The story changes direction abruptly when the wagon train's young adults take off in the night to go swimming and when they return... Apaches have massacred everyone else in the wagon train. The wagon Widmark is shackled to is shoved off a cliff, but he survives the fall. The rest of the movie's action is about Widmark helping the young people get out of Apache country alive. Trust and overcoming prejudice become the main themes through the rest of the film. Nick Adams plays one of the survivors who gives Widmark the most attitude (naturally). Felicia Farr plays the oldest of the group, and the most sensible. I've liked her since I saw her in 3:10 to Yuma. She and Widmark fall for each other, and I liked their quiet romantic moments, snatched in moments here and there between attacks and running for their lives.

I watched this one twice while I had it from Netflix, and wouldn't mind owning it on DVD either.

(James Drury shows up briefly as a cavalry officer)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

What an enjoyable Western! I really loved this movie and will have to pick it up on DVD at some point. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, and Patricia Owens star, John Sturges directed. I'm not particularly a Robert Taylor fan, though I also don't mind him either. He's quiet a large chunk of the time, his character lost in thought -- plans and self-recriminations -- and he does the brooding/scheming thing here pretty well. His silence is countered by Richard Widmark, who is absolutely delightful here as Taylor's opposite -- a quite garrulous outlaw who appears to love the sound of his own voice as he uses words to undermine Taylor. He's also just as smart and calculating. More so, in some ways than Taylor's character. They are very well-matched for cat-and-mousing with each other.

This movie wastes no time whatsoever jumping into the action. Taylor, a former outlaw now turned lawman, busts Widmark out of jail in the first five minutes. They were partners awhile back, but Taylor couldn't stomach the killing and went straight. Only problem is, when he quit, he ran out on Widmark with the all the money from their last bank holdup. So, not only is Widmark sore at being betrayed, he wants his money back. The rest of the movie is a quest to retrieve those buried funds. Throw in Patricia Owens as Taylor's girl, who Widmark kidnaps and brings along as insurance for Taylor's good behavior, and Widmark's gang of ne'er-do-wells, and the requisite Indian attack and there's plenty of action to keep the film moving.

What I particularly loved about this movie was Widmark's character, Clint, and the contrast between him and Taylor's character, Jake. Clint has no morals, no qualms or even a flash of conscience over killing, robbing, whatever. At the same time, though, he has a very distinct code of honor, and he never lies in the film. He's, ironically, more loyal to Jake than Jake is to him. Wouldn't stop him from killing Jake, but there's respect and genuine friendship there too. You get the feeling Jake's death would be the only killing he might regret, even as he recognizes the necessity. He likes Jake, even after being betrayed. Clint is also brave and pretty darn fearless, going after the Indians alone.

I love me a well-rounded and complex bad guy, and Clint is that. Smart too. He knows Jake well enough to take serious precautions on preventing him from escaping or gaining the upper-hand. For example, he insists on keeping Jake's hands bound behind him while they travel, refusing to untie him, because he knows darned well what Jake's capable of. I loved that when Clint reluctantly relents and gives in to the repeated protests of his own gang to untie him, as he's been expecting, the second he does Jake bolts. And I love even more that Clint does not berate his men for what is really his own failing. He knew better. So he just gives them a look, and takes steps to regain custody of his former partner. Widmark is so perfect in the role. And naturally, there's the inevitable showdown between the Jake and Clint, with some great dialogue, and a last exciting bit of cat and mouse.

The movie is filmed around Lone Pine, so there is also lovely Alabama Hills, Death Valley, and Sierra scenery. It's beautiful.

All in all, a very satisfactory Western.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Slow time for films chez moi

Alas, it's been a mostly no-movies zone over here for a while now, so I have nothing to report. Life has been too busy, and I've had a deadline on a short story I need to meet, so my time has been spent writing. I did watch Burnt Offerings (1976) last weekend, which is actually a horror movie. Highly unusual for me to watch horror, but Oliver Reed was in it, so I gave it a shot...

Actually rather liked it, and it didn't give me nightmares. It was more of a suspense horror film than freaky gory horror, and I can handle that. Falls under that horror subgenre of "Deadly Houses." I swear, anyone ever offers you a deal to go babysit a gigantic mansion out in the boonies somewhere, for an unbeatable price -- Don't Do It! This particular mansion wasn't haunted, it was just alive, and needed injuries and death to "feed" and regenerate itself. Naturally, if you go there to stay, you get put on the house menu. Coolest scene in the movie was when the house was "refreshing" itself, the old boards popping off by themselves to expose shiny new white boards underneath, old broken tiles cascading off the roof. Freaky and very cool. Bette Davis was in this film, and it might just be the first time I actually liked her in a movie. Maybe she mellowed as she got older. But her Aunt Elizabeth was neat. I wanted her for my aunt!

Oliver Reed was very great, as usual. Very appealing in this movie. I'd say his character was the only sensible one in the movie (until the end -- dude, run away, run away!), except he was handicapped by nightmares from his youth of this funeral and a very frightening, grinning Chauffeur, who was more terrifying than the house. The Chauffeur's one of those creepy characters who is twice as creepy because he doesn't really do anything but grin at you, but what you think he might do is the terrifying part.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

Alas, this movie was a disappointment to me. But when Errol Flynn is top billed and he doesn't appear until an hour into the movie, and then has maybe twenty minutes of screen time?? Hmph. The lack of Flynn does not make me happy, even though I knew going into the film he would most likely be playing a light, flippant character. Sure enough, he did. Not a bone of seriousness in anything he does. But at least I expect that from him going into the film. I just didn't expect so little for him to do in the film. I hoped his role would be a bit meatier.

The movie was very surfacy, no emotional depth, nothing for me to hold onto or go away with when the film ended. It's a diverting, but ultimately forgettable, two hours of entertainment. My favorite parts were the exact opposite of what I had enjoyed in Crossed Swords! In Crossed Swords I liked all the Edward/Miles Hendon stuff. In this one, I liked all the Tom Canty/court stuff. That is mostly due to three things in this version: 1) Miles Hendon and Edward do nothing of interest in their section, 2) Tom Canty is not a bumbling idiot and gets one of the best scenes in the film (when he objects to taxing windows -- totally awesome moment), and 3) Claude Rains. All the seriousness I wanted from the movie, I got in Rains' character. He was fabulous as the Earl of Hertford, angling for a way to control the throne. Not really outright evil, just power hungry and ambitious, and when presented with an opportunity to seize control, he doesn't hesitate to grab it. Whenever Rains got screen time, the movie perked up considerably. They could have doubled the size of his role and I would have loved this film a lot more!

This movie has the advantage of twins playing the Tom/Edward roles, so there's no split screen or other movie magic to show them together. This is very cool, and I much appreciate it, but I can't say I really engaged with the kids either. They were just there, and they had far too much screen time. The end coronation in particular dragged on way too long, but here I'm spoiled by Crossed Swords, which intercut the coronation with the problems Edward had of getting there on time. That kept the tension going the whole time, where this film only showed the pomp and circumstance.

My personal bias in films is always the serious over the lighthearted, and action/adventure over plain drama, so while I'm glad I saw this one, it didn't satisfy my movie needs like Crossed Swords did. I'd very much like to see the Walt Disney Guy Williams' version of Prince and the Pauper, but, alas, I don't believe that one's on DVD. I have a feeling I'd really like that one.