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In 1997, for the first time, the American Film Institute (created by President Lyndon Johnson, founded by trustees like Sidney Poitier, Gregory Peck, and Francis Ford Coppola, currently consisting of famous filmmakers and less-famous historians, curators, and critics) published and promoted a list of canonical films, partly through a series of CBS specials that aired in 1998, 1999, and 2000. In none of these CBS specials did any narrator or interviewee mention that the list featured zero female directors and zero directors of color.

The AFI would go on to publish many other “Top 100” lists and an updated Top 100, but this first list serves as a helpful introduction to the American canon, or the films that probably most influenced previous generations of American audiences and filmmakers. This is presented chronologically partly to tell the most basic, entry-level “story” of American cinema. Later lists complicate the story.


A1. The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.”

In 1914 Griffith saw an Italian epic feature film called Cabiria that included shots from one of the first “dolly cameras,” or a camera mounted on sticks on wheels on a track. Griffith borrowed the technique for his own first epic feature. While the source novel of this feature, The Klansman, more or less begins in 1865, Griffith expanded the canvas to include the pre-war period and the war itself. In the early 19teens, fleeing lawsuits from Thomas Edison and seeking year-round amicable weather, much of the film industry had moved from New York to Los Angeles, and Griffith also took advantage of this to expand his canvas, repurposing the then-unpopulated San Fernando Valley as a Civil War battlefield. 

The film’s plot was about two sets of star-crossed lovers, separated because of the war; one fragile white woman is chased by a lustful brutish black man and kills herself over a cliff rather than surrender to him, while another such woman, along with her family, are only saved from violent black people at the last minute by the newly minted, horse-riding Ku Klux Klan. Outside theaters, the film was indeed promoted by men in pointed white hoods astride white-clothed horses. Speaking of publicity, Griffith may have hoped that some would come from the friendship between the source novel’s author, Thomas Dixon, and President Woodrow Wilson, and Griffith got that publicity when Wilson called it “history written with lightning.” Griffith’s film may have been set a half-century in the past, but as it became America’s first blockbuster, it solidified Lost Cause mythology for a new century, successfully revived the then-moribund Ku Klux Klan, and accelerated a terrible period of lynching and anti-black violence.

Why, then, did the American Film Institute include this film on its 1997 list? We might ask the same of Roger Ebert, who was for years the only visible white man in the audience at the annual NAACP awards; the Birth of a Nation was one of 370 movies on Ebert’s Great Movies list through Ebert’s untimely death in 2013. The reasons are probably similar; while Griffith’s ideology was reprehensible, the film demonstrated amazing possibilities for effective melodrama. Prior to The Birth of a Nation, American films were mostly chases, capers, zany comedies, and serialized adventures that had recently been dubbed “cliffhangers.” Griffith synthesized the best elements of these into a 3 hour experience that was, if nothing else, heavy, eliciting waves of complex audience responses comparable only to literature or theater.

Influenced by: Lost Cause mythology, Reconstruction-era racism, The Great Train Robbery (1903), the dolly-shots of Cabiria (1914), a decade of shorts about chases and evolving cinematic conventions

Influenced: The American film industry; prompted production companies to move to Hollywood


A2. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I must have food!”

By 1925, the year he released The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin was probably the most famous person in the world, something that before Chaplin one could have only said of writer-artists or politician-leaders. This meant that Chaplin could insist on, and receive, control of every aspect of his films, right down to off-camera performances of the roles that his hired actors were then expected to imitate perfectly.

The Gold Rush is about a Lone Prospector, the Tramp persona, searching for gold in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century. He meets a burly Big Jim who has found gold and the two of them get trapped by a blizzard in the cabin of a third, who is a murderous criminal. With an exquisite balance of pathos and slapstick, hijinks ensue, including some of the most famous of the Tramp’s career: hunger makes one man hallucinate the Tramp as a chicken, the Tramp pretends fork-skewered potatoes are dancing feet, and a cabin teeters off a snowy cliff’s edge.

The film is hilarious, exhilarating, and emotionally satisfying, while maintaining the general critique of widespread poverty and free-market orthodoxy that the Tramp character usually implied. It is often named as the best comedy of a decade known for comedies, the 1920s. Chaplin said at the time that it was the film that he hoped he’d be remembered for. At the time he was becoming known for something else. Not only was The Gold Rush not filmed in Alaska, its elaborate Klondike sets built on Hollywood backlots, Chaplin himself traveled to Mexico during production…to avoid being charged with statutory rape. Chaplin had a history of trying to court teenage actresses, and at the age of 35, Chaplin impregnated the 16-year-old Lita Grey, whom he had cast as the Tramp’s love interest in The Gold Rush. Grey’s pregnancy meant losing the role and gaining a husband during a quick trip to Mexico. After Grey gave birth to two sons by Chaplin, their marriage became very unhappy, and in 1927 her divorce application leaked to the press, including her accusing him of having “perverted sexual desires.” Religious groups called for Chaplin’s films to be banned, and Chaplin wound up paying Grey the largest cash settlement in American history up to that point – 600 thousand dollars. This site does not focus on salacious gossip, but at this point, no one should be talking about Chaplin without mentioning his pedophilia.

Influenced by: vaudeville, Keystone films, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton

Influenced: Chaplin was the world’s first superstar, validating Hollywood and Anglo-American values


A3. The Jazz Singer (Crosland, 1927) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

The Jazz Singer is a thinly veiled biographical story of its star, Al Jolson, who plays Jakie Rabinowitz, whose desire to sing then-risqué jazz puts him at odds against his father, a very traditional Jewish cantor. In fact, this story centralized themes of the biographies of many of the leading studio heads, like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Harry Cohn of Columbia, Carl Laemmle of Universal, Adolph Zukor of Paramount, and Jack and Harry Warner of the Jazz Singer’s studio, Warner Bros. These men almost never discussed it or made films about it, but they too were first-generation Jewish Americans whose parents initially disapproved of their choices to make careers in entertainment. And they, like Jakie Rabinowitz, were not above career advancement through exploiting the images of African-Americans.

Near the end of The Jazz Singer, Jakie burns a cork, applies the burnt cork to his face, and comes on stage in blackface to sing “Mammy” to his still-doting mother. This was racist, yes, but not the same sort of racism practiced by D.W. Griffith making The Birth of a Nation when he put white actors in blackface when they played black people touching white people. Jakie in The Jazz Singer is practicing a complicated cultural appropriation, in which he consciously borrows African-American tropes to indicate his own marginalized group’s solidarity with black people against the dominant white culture. Before you judge Jakie, before you say that any kind of racism is evil, consider your own forms of cultural appropriation, whether they involve cooking another culture’s food, speaking in another culture’s idiom, or wearing another culture’s clothes or jewelry or symbols. Many have compared the story of 8 Mile to the story of The Jazz Singer; in 8 Mile, Rabbit, loosely based on and played by Eminem, a demonstrate his white working-class solidarity with black struggles by adopting certain aspects of African-American hip-hop and culture. Most persons of color know that most white people have histories of both racism and tolerance. Three years before The Jazz Singer, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” brought jazz to the highest levels of prestige and respectability…but was only performed by white people, whitewashing an art form pioneered by black people like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. The film was arguably less racist than that; at least Jakie acknowledged his betters. 

Influenced by: The Harlem Renaissance, immigrant/assimilation stories

Influenced: Wasn’t the first sound film but certainly inspired Hollywood’s sea change from silent to sound; Classical Hollywood, especially the musicals/hybridity of the 1930s


A4. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki stream on amazon watch analysis by DEPFilms read analysis by Bauer listen to my podcast

“You’re going to be soldiers – and that’s all.”

Considered the first great American sound film

What did Hitler hate so much about All Quiet on the Western Front that he moved to ban it? In a word, pacifism. The book, and its 1930 film, are about young men conscripted to fight in World War I who quickly become disillusioned with the conflict. All Quiet on the Western Front was unsentimental and full of wide sweeping shots of the conflict that Steven Spielberg would later credit as partial inspiration for Saving Private Ryan. In its own time the film became known as nothing less than America’s first sound epic, even if it was about German pacifists – of course played by American actors.

All Quiet on the Western Front was directed by a Russian-born American named Lewis Milestone. His surname, Milestone, is absolutely apropos of All Quiet on the Western Front, although in his career of about 50 films, he never quite made another equivalent milestone. As he came to the end of his life 50 years after All Quiet, Milestone begged Universal Studios to restore the truncated release version to its full length of 153 minutes. They ignored him, and he died in 1980. Twenty years later, after DVDs became popular, after Saving Private Ryan and the AFI CBS specials helped increase interest in the film, Universal did restore the footage, and that is generally the epic we see today.

Scholars have credited Remarque with creating a new subgenre, that of the plain-spoken confessional war journal novel, and the film was likewise a new kind of sound cinema that arrived with excellent timing. The Academy Awards had only been founded the year before, in 1929, and most of those first awards went to films that had actually been in theaters for more than a year, like Wings and Sunrise. Think of the context: before Birth of a Nation, movies were generally considered cheap escapist fare, comparable to how videos from famous YouTubers are perceived today. Even as studio heads wanted to convince the press that their films were award-worthy, they were spending more money promoting frothy musicals like The Broadway Melody, which won Best Picture at the second Academy Awards. By the time of those awards, in 1930, Hollywood seemed to be producing only cheap glitzy musicals; released into the 1930 marketplace, All Quiet on the Western Front was a major contrast, the kind of capital-A art that the studios wanted to show they could also make.

Influenced by: then-common feelings about war; new sound practices

Influenced: demonstrated new possibilities for dramatic sound films


A5. City Lights (Chaplin, 1931) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m cured! You’re my friend for life.”

AFI’s top romantic comedy is esteemed partly because it represents Chaplin using his unusual power to thumb his nose at new industrial imperatives regarding sound, although this was Chaplin’s first time contributing to his own score; some have read the Tramp’s blind love interest as representing Chaplin’s mother, others see her as the studio system hearing but not seeing the big picture

In City Lights, released in 1931 and directed by Charles Chaplin, Chaplin’s homeless Tramp meets and falls in love with a blind woman, then works to get her the money for an expensive blindness-curing operation by a Viennese doctor. The movie involves a lot more shenanigans, playing on Chaplin’s favorite theme of the thin line between indigence and independence. The blind woman sells flowers in the street, has trouble paying rent, and because of a misunderstanding believes Chaplin’s character to be wealthy. As with Chaplin’s The Kid from ten years earlier, audiences warm to the sight of a poor wastrel helping a person even poorer than he is. City Lights also finishes what the Kid started in terms of successfully marrying pathos to slapstick, pain to pleasure, only to finish with a renewed appreciation for both. Without giving away exactly what happens, the final scene of the two lovers finally understanding each other is one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes ever put on film.

And…it comes at the end of a silent film, something that by 1931 only Charlie Chaplin could or would have even tried to get away with. In the years since The Jazz Singer the studios spent every dollar they had, and then some, to convert their theaters to a sound-on-celluloid system that was better and more expensive than The Jazz Singer’s initial sound-on-disk system. The studios had only just completed converting to sound when the big economic crash happened in October 1929; all at once, the industry suddenly became more risk-averse and more hostile to female screenwriters, something we’ll discuss in another podcast. Many lamented the change from silent to sound, talking about a lost artistry that the more vulgar, relentlessly representative “talkies” had made impossible. Nonetheless, by 1931, every other major director and actor had made a sound film…except Chaplin.

Charles Chaplin had his own crash, a year before the stock market’s, with the troubled production and release of The Circus in 1928, not to mention the death of his mother as well as ongoing rumors about his deviant preferences. Chaplin also worried, not without reason, that sound would ruin the magic of the Tramp. Chaplin spent a year working on the script for City Lights and another year shooting it, with an eventual shooting ratio that may have been unprecedented at the time for a feature: 39 to 1, meaning 39 feet of film shot for every 1 foot used. In other words, Chaplin was even more perfectionist than usual, going so far as to compose his film’s music for the first time. He was unhappy with dozens of actresses who auditioned to play his love interest, and finally chose Virginia Cherrill, a bathing beauty, partly because with her natural near-sightedness she was plausibly blind on film. But then her first scene took months to shoot because of Chaplin’s unhappiness with her performance. Months later, again frustrated, Chaplin fired Cherrill, hired Georgia Hale, who played his love interest in The Gold Rush, and then decided that the reshoots would be too expensive. Cherrill demanded and received a raise; she and Chaplin generally couldn’t stand each other.This goes to show you the distance between offscreen reality and onscreen fiction; from the day of its premiere, attended by guest of honor Albert Einstein, the film was a smash hit. The film is also now usually cited as the best romantic comedy ever made. Chaplin later named it as his favorite, updating his comment about The Gold Rush. Sight and Sound’s first list of greatest films called it the second-best movie, period; it has been considered among the best motion pictures by figures like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Woody Allen. 

Influenced by: vaudeville, other “Sweet Innocent” tales, The Circus (1928)

Influenced: Chaplin and Keaton were proto-blockbuster-ists, blending comedy, pathos, and broad action scenes


A6. Frankenstein (Whale, 1931) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.” 

If one begins feature-film history with The Birth of a Nation in 1915, one could begin the history of Anglo-American horror and science fiction exactly a century earlier, with the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 that led to Europe’s fabled “year without a summer” in 1816 and the gloom that settled over a group of young writers, including the 18-year-old daughter of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft. That summer, many decades before Stoker created Dracula, Mary Shelley created life that is somehow no less real for being fake. Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, about a scientist who combines dead human parts with some metal parts into a living, human-like creature, who then rebels against his master; all horror and science fiction in the English-speaking world has flowed from Shelley’s original creation.

More than a century later, in 1931, Carl Laemmle wasn’t trying to remake his Universal Studios into the home of horror; he merely wanted to reuse the sets from Dracula to create another Dracula-sized hit. The original script turned Frankenstein’s monster into such a lumbering brute that Bela Lugosi, star of Dracula, refused to play him. But when director James Whale took over the project, he revived the monster’s soul as part of hewing closer to Shelley’s novel. Whale used the extant castle set, but added more torches and more wood to the doorframes for a less Gothic, more primal feeling that also gave the monster more stuff to destroy. Whale and his set designer Kenneth Strickfaden also borrowed from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to create Frankenstein’s laboratory, complete with coiled glass tubes, humming batteries, and sparks flying over wooden palettes, pioneering a soon-to-be-indispensable set of motifs that would eventually be called “raygun gothic.”

Perhaps Whale’s greatest burst of creativity, like Frankenstein’s, went into the monster himself. Departing from the novel, Whale added neck bolts, a haircut that made his head look square, and green skin, even though the film would obviously be filmed in black-and-white. Why the verdant epidermis? It is possible that Whale made the monster’s skin green to mark him as more of an outcast, a deviant, a person rejected by society on face value. Of the directors discussed on this list,, James Whale is the first that we know of to be anything but a white straight male: Whale was gay, but in the closet, which is the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters in which Ian McKellen won an Oscar nomination for playing Whale. Perhaps Whale and the actor who played the monster, Boris Karloff, meant for the monster’s marginalization to symbolize the marginalization of other groups; different viewers and readers have read the film and book in different ways. 

We do know that Whale insisted on scenes from the novel that were disturbing enough to earn the film a first-minute disclaimer that includes the words “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.” These included two scenes that were removed from prints after 1934, after the Hays Code came into full effect, one in which Henry Frankenstein says “Now I know what it feels like to BE God!” and another in which (spoiler alert) the monster throws a small girl into a lake, causing the town to pick up torches and riot against him. During the film’s release in late 1931, some U.S. states and later some foreign countries insisted on several cuts or just refused to screen the film altogether. Nonetheless, Frankenstein became a sizable hit. Based on that and Dracula, Universal Studios did remake itself into the home of horror, with sequels for Dracula and Frankenstein as well as new films planned for the likes of the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man.

Influenced by: greenlit after Dracula was a hit; German Expressionism, shadows and fog

Influenced: raygun gothic; a world of B-movies; man-machine discussions; other-ing


A7. King Kong (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1933) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

In 1931, a young David O. Selznick at RKO Pictures hired Merian C. Cooper to make feature films that would resemble the documentaries that Cooper had made with his producer-director partner Ernest Schoedsack, like Chang and Rango, which featured monkeys in jungles sometimes threatening humans. A racist mockumentary film called Ingagi, which implied that black women and gorillas had procreated, was a 1930 hit that proved that apes plus vulnerable women equaled profits. Cooper and Schoedsack began a film they called The Most Dangerous Game, building an enormous jungle set and casting actors that would play humans being hunted by monkeys. Cooper also looked at footage from another RKO film then in production, called Creation, about a group of travelers shipwrecked on an island of dinosaurs. Cooper, along with Selznick and RKO, decided that neither project really worked but…and just stay with me for a minute here…what if you combined them?

Combining them meant creating a gorilla big enough to fight with dinosaurs, which led to another idea: wouldn’t such a monster be any American zoo’s most prized attraction? One issue with stories like The Most Dangerous Game and Creation is that they took place in remote jungles; why not find a way to threaten Americans where they lived? And in that case, why not underline the contrast between savagery and civilization by bringing the story right up to the minute, with a climactic scene at the brand-new symbol of American progress and ingenuity, the Empire State Building, and an expedition and extraction storyline motivated by none other than avaricious, sensationalist Hollywood filmmakers? The Depression-starved Ann Darrow character could almost be read as a proxy for the audiences that surprisingly showed up for Dracula and Frankenstein; Ann is so desperate and fearful, she’s willing to pay to scream. Someone somewhere may have worried that a story with so many contemporary references might have eventually seemed too dated, too locked in 1933; but the eventual result, King Kong, turned out to be a timeless inspiration for countless other films.

King Kong also drew inspiration, and staff, from a 1925 silent film called The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name. It featured Doyle himself in a short prologue in which he calls the film’s hero, Professor Challenger, his favorite of his own creations, even above Sherlock Holmes. In the movie, from which Steven Spielberg later appropriated the name and plot, Professor Challenger and his team battle dinosaurs, which were rendered by a brand-new process later called stop-motion animation. Basically, the effects team shot a clay figurine onto a frame image of actors, and then stopped, moved the figurine a tiny bit, and then shot the figurine onto the next frame of footage. If you’re lucky and good, you could maybe do one such shot every five minutes, which means, if the film has been shot at 24 frames per second, it would take you two hours to get one second’s worth of dinosaur on film. King Kong’s effects department wound up getting more than 15 minutes of stop-motion animation into their film, led by The Lost World’s Willis O’Brien. The film also relied heavily on rear-screen projection, in which actors walk in front of pre-shot footage, as well as using stop-motion alongside matte paintings and miniatures, and in so doing King Kong set the standard for the modern special-effects-driven blockbuster.

While Frankenstein features almost no music, King Kong pioneered cinematic music, being the first film to feature more than an hour of original, never-before-heard music. Max Steiner composed different themes for different characters, inspiring everyone from Prokofiev, who wrote Peter and the Wolf shortly after seeing King Kong, to John Williams and beyond. Even if studios like MGM and Paramount would never make a film like King Kong, they were happy to hire Steiner, who became the foremost film composer of his generation.

The script for King Kong was almost sui generis, a sort of 20th-century Beauty and the Beast allegory about the destructive powers of both love and civilization. King Kong was rewritten by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, who cut much of the plodding exposition and made the three lead humans, Denham, Driscoll, and Darrow, into humorous, self-aware versions of Cooper, Schoedsack, and herself, respectively. The story was arguably its own kind of Frankenstein’s monster, combining the best and shortened parts of the discarded movies into a plot that many have read as commentary on colonialism and slavery importation. The location of Skull Island is vaguely part of Western Oceania, but the tribal rituals and the tribesmen that we first see on Skull Island seem entirely African. If King Kong represents, consciously or unconsciously, a captured brown slave, what are we to make of his obsession with the white blonde often-screaming Ann Darrow? Feel free to go down the rabbit hole of internet theories; perhaps that’s appropriate to the rabbit-fur on the stop-motion models for Kong. (No actor ever wore a gorilla suit in the original film.) Martin Scorsese would later say that the animal fur combined with O’Brien’s movements “gave him a soul.” It may have been beauty killed the beast, but it was the filmmakers who arguably created the first American Hollywood epic myth. Dracula and Frankenstein are European stories; King Kong is closer to a classic American immigrant; together, the three of them set the standard for all future creature features, and much horror and science fiction.

Influenced by: nature expedition documentaries, The Lost World (1925), Ingagi (1930), Rango (1931), Universal horror pictures

Influenced: the Willis O’Brien/Ray Harryhausen school of effects; large-scale horror/fantasy/sci-fi films


A8. Duck Soup (McCarey, 1933) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“..and remember, while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”

Duck Soup wasn’t easy to make, which is ironic, because duck soup then meant something easy to do, although Groucho also used the title to imply that if the Marx Brothers cooked it, “you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.” In mid-1932, a new Marx Brothers film was announced, to be directed by the already-legendary Ernst Lubitsch…but at the height of the Depression, the Marx Brothers’ negotiations with Paramount over contract renewal dragged on for months, into the Roosevelt presidency. This arguably did not hurt the final product and may have even helped it; the film wound up recycling many of the same gags that Groucho and Chico performed on a radio show that winter. 

Thanks to the rise of Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini, politics was in the air, and the time seemed right for a comedy that lambasted politicians, dictators, fascists, generals, and authoritarians. As it turned out, audiences in 1933 didn’t particularly appreciate Duck Soup, but later generations declared it the best Marx Brothers’ film. In the plot, Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho, is appointed leader of Freedonia, and he proceeds to declare war on Syldavia, a country that has sent two spies, Chicolini, played by Chico, and Pinky, played by Harpo. Some people see Harpo as a bridge to silent films, because he never spoke and relied upon pantomime-based humor. But any Marx Brothers film is stuffed to the rafters with silly verbal jokes and anarchic tomfoolery, and this is especially true of Duck Soup, considering it eschews the melodramatic songs and romantic subplots that slow down some of their films.

The dialogue was usually something like Groucho saying, “Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.” The woman was stuck replying “He left me his entire fortune” to which Groucho would answer, “Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? I love you!” Everything, everything was played for laughs and criticism, often self-criticism. The style and tone was adopted by Warner Bros. cartoons, and indeed some of Bugs Bunny’s best bits are salutes to Duck Soup, including “you realize this means war” and a scene where a character pretends to be the reflection in a mirror. The Marx Brothers didn’t originate either of these, but they made them funny, they made a lot of more original bits funny, and their influence would be strongest over Monty Python, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team, Woody Allen, and anyone else who would do anything for a cheap laugh. The Marx Brothers wound up making a few more films classic films with MGM, but running out of steam during the war years…when Bugs Bunny came along to pick up the torch.

Influenced by: vaudeville, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy

Influenced: Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Woody Allen, the “Borscht Belt”


A9. It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You see that? The walls of Jericho.”

In some ways Capra invented, or minted, the “screwball comedy” with this road-trip story of a

After years of basically reacting to the Depression with escapism, King Kong and the recent Gold Diggers films, among other hits, suggested audiences were ready to integrate humor and class struggles. Into this atmosphere stepped a first-generation Italian-American director named Frank Capra who had acquired a somewhat unremarkable short story written by a journalist named Samuel Hopkins Adams.

Adams’ story, Night Bus, promised to be the kind of film you could make if you weren’t making King Kong, a quickie, apparently just another widget on the assembly line. It was even a little lower-rent than many of those, as evidenced by the fact that MGM and Paramount didn’t want it. Night Bus fell to Columbia, whose tight-fisted chief, Harry Cohn, was still struggling to forge a positive brand for his studio. Cohn was notoriously the biggest misogynist in a town full of misogynists, so it’s a little ironic that the film that saved and refocused his studio is, on the chronologically ordered AFI Top 100, the first film of nine with a woman as lead or co-lead. That, by the way, is an outrage, particularly considering that more than half of produced Hollywood screenplays before 1930 were written by women. But let’s be clear: as incarnated by Claudette Colbert, the role of spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews takes a full and wry command of the screen for two hours, even if her back-and-forth with petulant reporter Peter Warne, played by Clark Gable, must be and is a sparring of equals, a pas de deux of comeuppances, a seesawing banter-tossing power-swapping courtship that would provide a key template for what became known as the screwball comedy. 

Strange to think that in the Depression no previous film had so successfully matched an authority-distrusting working-class man with an authority-distrusting upper-class woman, but this film is in equal conversation with romance and class struggles. The plot here is that Ellen is running away from her father’s insistence that she annul her marriage, while a recently fired Peter is trying to rescue his job by getting an exclusive with Ellie. The undershirt sales plunged because of Gable’s conspicuous tank-top under his dress shirt; Bugs’ carrots came from a scene when Peter proves to Ellie that they don’t need money for food because they can eat carrots out of the ground. Peter is still chewing on them as the film segues into its most famous scene, when Peter attempts to hitchhike for them a ride, fails at several thumb movements, and laughs when Ellie says she can do better. Ellie says “I’ll stop a car, and I won’t use my thumb,” sees a male driver approaching, lifts her skirt a bit, and then she and Peter watch as the driver slams on his brakes.

Nehme writes that the film was made during, and straddles, the two eras of 1930s filmmaking, both the pre-Code period when sex was seen as normal, and the post-Code era of restraint, as represented by discreet lighting and the recurrent motif of the walls of Jericho, which is the name Pete gives to the blanket he hangs on a string between their single beds in the hotel rooms they share. The title Night Bus sounded a bit naughty, and it was redubbed with a title that traded accuracy for wholesomeness, considering Ellie and Peter’s weeklong road trip adventure, and that title was It Happened One Night. In retrospect, the one night that It Happened feels like the evening in 1935 when the film became the first-ever film to quote-unquote sweep the Academy Awards, winning Best Actress, Actor, Script, Director, and Picture.

Influenced by: Capra’s upbringing as first-generation Italian-American; literate comedy

Influenced: screwball comedy, Bugs Bunny (carrot chewing was based on the lead male character) 


A10. Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd, 1935) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Christian lost, too, milord. God knows he’s judged himself more harshly than you could judge him.”

Under the guidance of chief mogul Louis B. Mayer and his crack lieutenant Irving G. Thalberg, MGM was the studio of studios, the richest, most glamorous, and most sophisticated in town, known for extravagant musicals, witty comedies, heated melodramas, and as its press releases said, “more stars than there are in heaven.” One of those stars was Clark Gable, whom Mayer had only loaned to Columbia for It Happened One Night as a sort of punishment because Gable kept asking for more money; the joke was on Mayer when Gable won an Academy Award. Mayer and Thalberg found a way to get even with their contract player, making him shave his beloved mustache for the sake of historical accuracy in a story in which Gable would play, well, a crack lieutenant opposing an overbearing captain. Instead of an opinionated artist like Capra, Mayer hired the more craftsmanlike Frank Lloyd to direct MGM’s adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s recent historical novel Mutiny on the Bounty. 

The film’s story begins in 1787, an ocean away from the Philadelphia hall where some old white guys were then writing the U.S. Constitution. Over in London, a man who could have passed for a founding father, Captain Bligh, played by the estimable Charles Laughton, begins a two-year British naval expedition. Eagle-eyed viewers may see James Cagney in a boat in the background; Cagney was arguably the biggest star of the 1930s, but moonlit in one scene for MGM for nothing because he was then arguing about money with his own studio, Warner Bros. After the Bounty arrives in the South Pacific, Captain Bligh punishes recalcitrant crew members with keelhauling, water rationing, and corpse-flogging. When the men go ashore, a couple of lieutenants, including Gable’s character, Fletcher Christian, flirt with a couple of Tahitian women. Finally, the mutiny of the title occurs, and the previously reluctant Mr. Christian rallies his mutineers around establishing a more egalitarian paradise in Tahiti. The novel and movie took a lot of dramatic license with the 18thcentury events, but this last point was particularly egregious: the real Fletcher Christian treated native Tahitians like slaves. A Hays Code-governed MGM couldn’t show the so-called miscegenation of the white men and their native consorts, while later versions could and did, starring Marlon Brando, and later Mel Gibson, as the supposedly progressive Fletcher Christian. Unfortunately, no Hollywood version showed the truth that these ostensible rebels against British imperialism preserved their weapons and prejudices with the Tahitians, and so any sexual congress between white men and Tahitian women amounted to forced assault, or to drop the euphemism, rape.

The 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty clearly sympathizes with Mr. Christian against Captain Bligh, mirroring the real-life relationship less of Gable to anyone, and more to Irving Thalberg against his boss Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was the person primarily responsible for MGM’s output being so much higher than any of its rival studios – almost one picture a week – but Mayer didn’t give bonuses for that. Thalberg successfully brought the Marx Brothers to MGM, but Thalberg generally preferred prestigious literary adaptations while his boss liked glitzy star showcases. Mutiny on the Bounty was the rare film they could both love, a big hit that also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Six months after that victory, the fragile 37-year-old Thalberg caught pneumonia and died. Hollywood went into shock, with major stars openly weeping on sets; the best possible snapshot of 1930s Hollywood talent is the guest list at Thalberg’s funeral, at least until the 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind, a film MGM could have made and didn’t. On the one hand, MGM after Thalberg mostly turned back to glitz and glamour; on the other hand, hits like Mutiny on the Bounty and the memory of Irving Thalberg spurred other studios to adapt more books in the late 1930s, leading to some all-time classics.

Influenced by: MGM moving good writers from Broadway to Hollywood

Influenced: more adaptations of prestige novels and Shakespeare


A11. Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Free? Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here.”

By 1936, if Chaplin was going to make a movie he wanted it to meet his standards, which meant that it had to be urgent, newly inspired, and assembled with his now-infamous perfectionism. For years, he made nothing. He was finally inspired during a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi whereby Gandhi claimed that modern technology was ruining workers’ lives. 

By 1936, Chaplin was both a man for all times and a man out of time, or at least out of a different era, when pantomime and stunts mattered more than Marx Brothers-ish rapid-fire dialogue. Genuflecting to the skeptics, Chaplin wrote some sound-worthy dialogue and experimented with a few sound scenes – only to retreat to making a “silent” picture, although there were a lot of sound effects and even moments of voices. Most of the film was shot at the once-standard “silent speed” of 18 frames per second, and that meant that when projected, as it usually was, at the new standard of 24 frames per second, the action appeared a third again more frenetic. Modern Times might have been worth making just because of the brilliance of the title, a double entendre that referred to two Fordist assembly lines, the first being a Hollywood that the anachronistic Chaplin couldn’t quite conform to, the second seen onscreen as Chaplin’s Tramp falls into its gears in the film’s most famous scene.

Students of the clip of the Tramp in the gears are sometimes surprised to see that, about one film minute later, the Tramp playfully wears forearm-sized wrenches as earrings and chases down a young thin woman who happened to be on the factory floor. As she flees, the Tramp sees another woman and chases her the same way. It’s not clear why the Tramp bothers with this odd behavior. After and during many other misadventures, he falls in love with a poor barefoot woman the film calls “the gamin,” and together they dream of her in traditional domestic situations, for example wearing a frilly apron when he comes home from a dream job. The gamin was played by Chaplin’s then-real-life girlfriend Paulette Goddard, who was 25 when the film was made, but seems to be playing younger, considering she is pursued by the police department’s juvenile division. That said, the gamin is sneaky, fun, and resourceful, to the point of finding the couple a house, actually a one-room shack in which the Chaplin character somehow manages to sleep a room apart from the Gamin in some kind of…bike shed? The gamin’s general pluck, grit, verve and physicality was well beyond Chaplin’s previous onscreen paramours, and more comparable to that of women in the dominant comic genre of the time, the screwball comedy. One can summarize Modern Times by saying that the Tramp often falls into situations where he is unfairly blamed for some larger movement that Chaplin probably approves of, as when the Tramp is mistakenly arrested at a Communist demonstration, accidentally knocking escaping prisoners unconscious, or falsely claiming to have stolen bread that the hungry gamin has stolen. As the Gamin and the Tramp work to make it this crazy world, eventually he finds work as a singer/waiter, and when he loses the lyrics to a song, he rescues the situation with pantomime and gibberish, providing audiences the first-ever sound of the voice of Chaplin. This was Modern Times in a nutshell: a one-time-only just-enough gesture to the new era, seasoned with much of the old-time artistry. Critics have always loved Modern Times, as did later audiences, but the film’s box office was only pretty good, a fact that may be attributed to the film’s anachronistic nature, or perhaps its overtly anti-industrial politics, which in the context of 1936 were to the left even of President Roosevelt. Charlie Chaplin was both growing up and refusing to grow up.

Influenced by: the Depression; Chaplin’s adversarial relationship with sound

Influenced: Sartre, who named his journal after it; dozens of direct imitations, especially of the iconic assembly-line scene


A12. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand, 1937) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.”

After years of frustrations with the polyopoly of moguls, especially Harry Cohn at Columbia, Disney knew he would never be satisfied until he made his own features. At the time, almost no Americans, and perhaps not Disney either, knew that any country had ever made a feature-length cartoon, so the project was rather risky, as though someone today were to announce the first 90-minute virtual-reality film to be released nationwide. People called the project “Disney’s folly.” MGM’s Louis B. Mayer told the media, “Who’d pay to see a fairy princess when they can see Joan Crawford’s boobs for the same price?”

First Disney went twice over budget, then triple over budget for a final, almost-unheard-of cost of about 1.5 million dollars. Walt Disney borrowed perfectionism, and some badly needed finishing funds, from his friend Charlie Chaplin. For this movie, everything had to be exactly right: the movements, the songs, the colors, the acting, the humor, especially the pathos. Finally, four days before Christmas 1937, Walt Disney sat in the back row of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles and watched as the first-ever large audience saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney later recalled the moment that he realized he would not have to be in debt for the rest of his life: when the dwarfs cry over what they think is the dead Snow White, Disney saw Clark Gable’s massive shoulders shaking from the front row. A live audience, including the town’s manliest man, was for the first time crying at a cartoon. On that yuletide evening, Disney did more than escape the fear of dying poor: he began a path to becoming the single most influential artist of the 20th century. 

David Hand supervised the animators and is the credited director, but make no mistake, Walt Disney personally supervised and made final decisions on every part of Snow White’s three-year process. Snow White was a century-old Grimm’s Tale that became a Winthrop Ames play that became at least two silent movies, but in none of those incarnations did the dwarfs have distinct personalities; Walt Disney workshopped a few ideas with his staff before settling on the dwarfs you know. No doubt the dwarfs’ chief functions are humor and helping Snow White, but there’s an interesting case that they also resembled the studio moguls – Universal’s anemic Carl Laemmle as Sneezy, Fox’s catatonic William Fox as Sleepy, Columbia’s hostile Harry Cohn as Grumpy, the malapropism-making Samuel Goldwyn as Doc, and Paramount’s recalcitrant Adolph Zukor as Bashful. This reading makes sense if you, as most of his biographers do, think of Snow White as resembling the outsider underdog Walt Disney, with trust issues, a strong work ethic, a need to conquer the previous jealous generation, and an escape into fantasy as a remedy for harsh reality. This take sees the dwarfs as moguls who, as you know since you’ve seen the film, certainly help Snow White-slash-Disney but ultimately cannot save her. It may also be worth noting that Disney was a goyim and all the moguls were Jewish, and that the dwarfs conform to harmful Jewish stereotypes – short, large-nosed, and working as jewelers. 

The metaphor is imperfect, though, and one could see Prince Charming as Disney, arriving at the end to take Snow White to his fairy-tale castle. Perhaps Snow White is simply young America, in unusual harmony with animals, with the witch representing an older, bitter generation that is obsessed with appearance. Neither of the film’s two women could be considered as free-spirited or laudable as pre-Code stars like Mae West or Greta Garbo. To reclaim status as the kingdom’s most beautiful woman, the witch is willing to make herself ugly – a possible comment on the shallowness of plastic surgery – while Snow White runs through a forest in high heels, cheerfully does domestic work for seven male slobs, and sings, as her song of aspiration, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Joe Breen at the Hays Code office was no doubt thrilled that Disney projected as a heroine such a traditional, conservative vision of womanhood, and even more thrilled that the film became, by mid-1939, the highest-earning film of all time. It soon lost that particular honor, but all things considered, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains likely the most-seen film of all time. 

Influenced by: Disney shorts, German fairy tales and, in forest shots, German Expressionism

Influenced: American animation toward features, fairy tales, broad characters, and conservative values


A13. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” 

David, a paleontologist played by Cary Grant, has several goals: acquiring the final bone of a brontosaurus, impressing a possible museum donor, preparing for his wedding the next day, and playing golf, the latter being interrupted by Susan, a rich heiress played by Katharine Hepburn, who meets David, confuses him for a zoologist, and insists on his help bringing a leopard up to her farm in Connecticut. This is why the film is called Bringing Up Baby – the mild-mannered leopard is named Baby, though the phrase then and now refers to child-rearing, and here functions as a sly way of implying that neither David nor Susan would do well raising an infant. Farcical shenanigans ensue as the smitten Susan finds one reason after another to delay David’s return to the city, including Susan’s dog burying David’s just-delivered prize dinosaur bone and confusing Baby with a more dangerous leopard. The dialogue is rapid-fire, the antics are zany, and all told, the motion picture is one of the most hilarious ever made.

Of historical interest is a moment when the wealthy donor, going by the delightful name Elizabeth Random, arrives and asks David why he is wearing a full negligee. Instead of saying the truth, which is that Susan has, ahem, misplaced his clothes, David retorts, “because I just went gay all of a sudden!” leaping into the air on the word gay. This was not in the script, not censored by the Hays Office, and never explained by the writers or Cary Grant or RKO. Perhaps Grant simply meant “happy,” or perhaps Grant hung out with people who knew things that most Americans would not learn for at least another three decades, after the Stonewall riots put the modern usage of “gay” in the mainstream media. Cross-dressing was clearly played here for gender-bending humor but was in no way unusual for a male star in 1938, no more unusual than a female star playing a scatterbrained heiress.

As Susan, Katharine Hepburn’s titanic steeliness is both deployed and subverted. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols tailor-made Susan to Hepburn’s personality, which he knew from an earlier film she had made directed by John Ford; Hepburn may have had an affair with Ford, and David’s glasses in Bringing Up Baby do resemble Ford’s. As for the director of Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks, he asked Hepburn, early in the filming, to tone down her “acting” and just be herself to better serve the comedy. The feminist takeaway here isn’t simple. One way of seeing Hepburn as Susan is a bravura, exhilarating performance of headstrong naivete. Another way of seeing Hepburn as Susan is a series of humiliations of a powerful woman. It’s hard to know which one audiences were rejecting when they didn’t turn up in large numbers for Bringing Up Baby, some of them apparently choosing to see Snow White again. For this failure, Hepburn was labeled box office poison, an honorific she only lost after The Philadelphia Story became a hit with Hepburn playing…a rather similar role. Perhaps Hepburn as Susan was just ahead of her time. Hawks attributed the failure of Bringing Up Baby to the notion that “There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball.” To Hawks this seemed a miscalculation, but considering how later audiences embraced the film, we now see this aspect as ahead of its time. 

Influenced by: Capra films, 1930s opulence; Much Ado About Nothing; As You Like It

Influenced: other screwball comedies; strong female characters and perhaps Manic Pixie Dream Girls


A14. Stagecoach (Ford, 1939) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Yes, sir, she is a little bit savage, I think.”

Films like the Broncho Billy and Tom Mix serials, featuring a lot of white hat-wearing cowboys riding easily to the rescue, had considerably cheapened the western genre by the time Haycox’s story “The Stage to Lordsburg” appeared in 1937. Ford and Nichols saw in Haycox’s story a chance to pivot to something Depression-era audiences might appreciate, fiercely independent outcasts thrown together on a journey across unforgiving lands, to find or make a new America. Let Walt Disney have his Snow White and seven dwarfs; Ford and Nichols’ treacherous stagecoach ride would shove together a prostitute and seven rogues: a drunk doctor, a whisky salesman, a bitter Confederate “gentleman,” a shifty marshal, an angry guard, a pious blueblood, and a fugitive. John Ford hadn’t made a western since the silent era, and he didn’t want this one to look or feel anything he or anyone had done; he would use long shadows, moody lighting, and unprecedented location shooting in Monument Valley – in other words, an A-picture, not a low-budget B-picture. But no studio wanted to give Ford the money for an A-picture – after all, Ford hadn’t made a western since the silent era, and no one had made a particularly great one since.

Lucky for Ford that Chaplin and Griffith had founded United Artists two decades before, because United Artists could distribute a film from an independent producer willing to put up the money. That eventual producer, Walter Wanger, almost walked away over Ford’s insistence on a relatively unknown actor in the lead, but Wanger eventually agreed to finance the film, retitled Stagecoach, at about half the budget Ford wanted. That unknown actor, John Wayne, is actually terrific in Stagecoach as the Ringo Kid, a prison escapee who falls in love with the wrong woman while plotting revenge on the men who have killed his brothers. Here John Ford made a star of John Wayne, and the 24 films they eventually made together may represent the most successful and influential star-director partnership in American cinema.

At one stagecoach stop, the snobby blueblood woman and the Confederate veteran walk away in a huff from the lowly Ringo Kid and Dallas. Stagecoach is careful not to actually call Dallas a prostitute, but in the first scene a sneering Ladies Club leaves little doubt as to the reason they want Dallas out of their respectable town. Ringo joins the stage late, fails to learn Dallas’ reputation, and midway through the ride proposes marriage to her. No doubt Joseph Breen watched Stagecoach with bated breath to see what would become of their romance; the Production Code was clear that low virtue could never be rewarded. As Dallas, Claire Trevor acts for most of the film like she knows the Code all too well, certain that Ringo will leave her when they arrive at their destination and he learns who she really is. In the final scene (spoiler alert), Ringo accepts her as she is with a hug – the Code prevented a loving kiss to a prostitute – followed by the Marshal and the doctor surprising them by sending them both across the border as the credits roll. Technically, this sort of happily-ever-after might have been seen as rewarding vice, but perhaps Ford and Nichols were relying on Breen’s racial biases to see Mexico as the opposite of paradise. They got their seal.

The film became notorious for reifying other racial biases. At one stagecoach stop, the whiskey salesman sees an Apache woman and blurts to the Mexican man pouring him a drink that his apparent consort is a savage, and he replies, “Si, she is a little bit savage, I think.” He notes that her Apache status affords him protection against nearby Apache warriors just before she sings a heart-rending song. If the film had left off there, historians might have given Ford credit for relatively enlightened representation…but a later scene suggests that the “savage” scene merely set up a much cruder caricature. All along, the stage riders fear an Apache attack, and when it comes in a gangbusters setpiece, the aggressive Native Americans are rendered as faceless, honorless villains. Perhaps Ford didn’t mean to otherize Indians, or perhaps Ford was letting his Birth of a Nation flag fly. Indeed, the effects of the films were comparable. Stagecoach countered Hollywood’s many positive representations of indigenous people in the 20s and 30s, and repositioned Indians as savage bad guys at the same moment that the film brought the cinematic western into A-picture status over the following decades. 

Influenced by: the Western genre from pulp fiction to 1930s relic

Influenced: most Westerns and many other notable films (Orson Welles said that to direct Citizen Kane, he watched Stagecoach 30 times)


A15. Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Do not leave me in this dark alone… I cannot live without my life, I cannot die without my soul.”

Emily Bronte’s only novel is about a rich English family in the 1770s, the Earnshaws, who meet a homeless boy, Heathcliff, and take him to live with them at Wuthering Heights. He and his peer Catherine often play on the nearby moors, kind of a field of large boulders, and the pair grow up and fall in love. Nonetheless, Catherine eventually chooses to marry a wealthy man named Edgar Linton. Heathcliff makes a fortune and returns to exact revenge on Catherine, partly by marrying Edgar’s sister Isabella. Catherine dies, partly of a broken heart, and literally haunts Wuthering Heights; in 1801, Catherine’s ghost frightens a young visitor, who then learns all this from the estate’s housekeeper in the novel’s framing device.

The film adaptation preserves all of this, but removes most of the novel’s second half on its way to changing Bronte’s meanings. In the novel’s second half, Heathcliff manipulates his and Isabella’s son into romance with Edgar and Catherine’s daughter, and if you’ve been paying attention you know that makes them first cousins, an entanglement the Production Code would not have looked favorably upon. Following the book, the film never explains Heathcliff’s sudden wealth, but onscreen this error seems more glaring, implying that any British person could easily become rich in the 1780s, missing the chance to suggest that Heathcliff may have done something immoral. The film’s Catherine is less spiteful and more wistful about her lost romance with Heathcliff, and on her death-bed she tells Heathcliff she will someday see him out on the moors. In a major departure from Bronte, in an ending that director William Wyler and the two principal actors refused to shoot, leaving producer Samuel Goldwyn to film it with body doubles, the new ghost of Heathcliff meets Catherine’s ghost on the moors, dressed as they were when young.

Bronte’s novel is about how avowing vengeance against a person hurts both people, and her structure is a spiral of spite, with Catherine’s ghost menacingly haunting Heathcliff even as he, in flashback, works against her and her daughter. The film’s ending suggests that Catherine only seems to be haunting Heathcliff out of love. One wonders how the ghost of Emily Bronte may have haunted this production. One wonders how different the film might have been if the lead creative team was something other than highly successful men; one wonders about the twin effects of the Code and the steady curtailment in the 1930s of female screenwriters paired with the steady rise of male Broadway playwrights like Ben Hecht. Also, the film might have better emphasized its points about “different stations” if it cast, as Heathcliff, someone who looked a little closer to Bronte’s description as “a little Lascar” and “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” The film’s Heathcliff, Laurence Olivier, only appears dark on the film’s poster. That said, Olivier is outstanding in the role, and working alongside strong actors like Merle Oberon and David Niven in shots assembled with Wyler and Toland’s scrupulous craftsmanship, Wuthering Heights often resembles a great film. The fog-strewn moors, actually craggy portions of Wildwood Regional Park near Los Angeles, successfully symbolize a certain repressed British character, wild and stony. 

Influenced by: prestige novel adaptations of Austen, Thackeray, and the like

Influenced: made Laurence Olivier a star, who was then considered Hollywood’s best actor before Brando came along


A16. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’, I could be another Lincoln, if I only had a brain.”

Students are often surprised to learn that the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz is the fourth filmed version of L. Frank Baum’s novel from 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What changed? In a word, commitment. Knowing full well that a rival was then making the extravagant Gone with the Wind, Louis B. Mayer and MGM strongly committed to Baum’s story, to the sets, to the actors, and to making new songs. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, Mayer searched for a similar property that he might adapt into a colorful live-action musical. Mayer found a wicked witch challenging a lost ingenue, her beloved animal friends, and dwarfs, ahem, munchkins. If Disney could make a small fortune with seven little people, Mayer would bring out more than a hundred of them.

Perhaps Mayer’s smartest move was to delegate the minutiae of production, as he had during the Thalberg years. The final decisions on The Wizard of Oz were apparently made by Mervyn LeRoy and Victor Fleming, although this is controversial amongst scholars; at least 11 writers worked on the script, and as Salman Rushdie put it, the various later claims to authorship bring the film close to what Rushdie called “ that will-o’-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text.” I cannot recommend Rushdie’s book-length essay on The Wizard of Oz highly enough; it should be the first book you give to skeptics who claim that any film analysis is worthless. Coming from a tradition of many gods, Rushdie marvels at the film’s “joyful and almost total secularism,” at a land where witches and a wizard are feared but not worshiped or sanctified. He credits the film’s “absence of higher values” for its successful, ahem, lionization of the loves, cares, and needs of humans and human-like characters. Rushdie’s biggest issue with the film is that if you travel from a parched, mean, black-and-white farmland to a full-color fairyland where almost everyone treats you like a princess, “there’s no place like home” seems almost atonal. I would counter that like a lot of films and fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz has specific appeals to diametrically opposed audiences, in this case to travelers and homebodies.

The Wizard of Oz is as close to an American fairy tale as anyone has come. Almost every other well-known fairy tale is set in Europe; many things about The Wizard of Oz derive from an idiosyncratically American imagination, not least its white girl reimagining and fast-befriending her neighbors as non-white persons. Henry Littlefield claimed that Baum’s readers of 1900 understood the story as a satire of the capital-P Populists, then at their apex as the most successful third party in U.S. History, with Dorothy-slash-Kansas signifying the epicenter of Populism, the Scarecrow as farmers, the Tin Man as manufacturers, the Cowardly Lion as their feckless sometimes-leader William Jennings Bryan, the Munchkins as, well, the little people of common American discourse, the yellow brick road as the suspicious gold standard leading to a Potemkin-village Emerald City led by a wizard, signifying industrial capitalism, who turns out to be humbug. He’s so humbug that he hangs a cheap Cross of Gold on the figure who famously said mankind would not be hung on a Cross of Gold, William Jennings…Lion.

Film viewers don’t really absorb much of this, but Bruno Bettleheim’s work on fairy tales shows that children sense subtexts about historic and primal conflicts; in this case, it’s at least obvious that a powerful man has been humbled as women have asserted their power. But the fairy tale of the film The Wizard of Oz is deeper than that and can’t quite be presented in a book or reproduced now, in the same way that a new Bugs Bunny cartoon can never fool you into thinking it’s a classic from the 1940s. The timing, gestures, and even breathing of the actors in The Wizard of Oz is ineffably bound to Hollywood in the 1930s. The Wizard of Oz, by the way, didn’t do badly in 1939, but its status as an American classic, by some measures the most-seen film of all time, only came after it began airing on television in the 1950s. For reasons I’ll address later, by the 50s even Disney films looked a lot shabbier than they did in the late 1930s. The Wizard of Oz caught lightning in a bottle partly because it never feels cheap in any sense, including emotionally. In some ways only comparable to King Kong, The Wizard of Oz comes to us as a singular fairy tale of Classical Hollywood itself; we imagine ourselves making and helping lifelong friends on repurposed MGM sets while singing original songs that instantly become classics.

One cannot overestimate the effect of songs, written by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen, like “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My.” This music infuses the movie with unusual bonhomie, playfulness and whimsy. Recall that in the 1930s, no feature films were made only for children; they were instead made for everyone. The Wizard of Oz evinces an exquisite balance between the juvenile and the mature, probably best represented by Judy Garland’s exquisite performance of Dorothy, navigating a yellow brick road between innocence and gravitas. Rushdie writes, and he’s not wrong, that when Garland sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she gives the movie its soul. The song is perfect for a post-Code feminist: Dorothy achingly wants more, but ultimately seems happy with less. We remember Dorothy for her power partly because she is so respected; other than the wizard before we learn of his humbug, no one, not even the Wicked Witch, condescends to her in any way.

Influenced by: 1890s politics (in the original novel), Snow White (convinced MGM to spend $3m)

Influenced: for generations of kids, often the first “gateway drug” to great cinema


A17. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these.” 

The Mister Jefferson Smith of the title is from a conspicuously unnamed state out west, and the story is about sophisticates making fun of Smith’s bumpkin yokel naivete. In fact, Frank Capra had already made such a film in 1936, called Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which Gary Cooper plays a man who goes from a fictional small town to New York City where everyone takes advantage of him, including a woman played by Jean Arthur in her first lead role, but eventually the Arthur character sees his goodness and becomes a better person. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came from an unpublished story loosely based on the real story of a new senator from Montana, but was written as a script to echo Mr. Deeds, and Capra prepared to make Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington until learning that Cooper would be unavailable. At that point, Cooper reteamed the young leads he had directed in 1938’s highest-grossing film, You Can’t Take It With You, which meant that for the second straight year Arthur’s name would appear first on a new poster ahead of the relatively unknown James Stewart. 

One difference between those films and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is that Joseph Breen at the Hays Office didn’t like the initial script, issuing a stern warning that its “unflattering portrayal” could be considered “a covert attack on the Democratic form of government.” Perhaps Breen would have preferred they change the film’s name to Jefferson Smith Goes to Washington and Quotes Lincoln? Granted, Breen wrote his apparently patriotic words in 1938, when MGM and Paramount were considering making the film; the official script was submitted with Frank Capra attached about a week after Capra won his third Best Director Oscar in five years – for You Can’t Take It With You, following Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It Happened One Night – and at that point Breen utterly reversed course, writing that it “splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people'”.[4]

Breen was at least partly reacting to Capra’s reputation for wholesome, homespun, populist entertainment, summarized by the emergent term Capracorn. Frank Capra also knew of the term, and now that he had succeeded at being the first non-actor to contractually require his name above his film’s title – as recounted in his autobiography, called “The Name Above the Title” – Capra turned his attention to complicating the Capracorn sobriquet. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would celebrate the naïve innocent outsider, of course, but also pivot to a new realism, which some called bitterness, about the entrenched, cynical status quo.

Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith exquisitely embodies this new approach to Capracorn, because he maintains all the folksiness and guile of Gary Cooper while also providing just a soup-sahn more fury and righteousness. In America today we discuss removal of any politician who has physically abused one person once; soon after Mr. Smith arrives in Washington, a montage shows him punching reporter after reporter. Smith’s frustration comes because he senses that after the death of his Senator, the political machine has chosen him, a leader of the Boy Rangers, as a stooge they can easily manipulate. Smith tries to pass a bill for a national Boy Rangers camp – the real Boy Scouts wouldn’t allow the use of their name – only to see the bill thwarted by corrupt Senators, including men he had believed in, who are using the site for kickbacks on a dam. In the film’s most famous scene, its denouement, Mr. Smith resists the corrupt Senators with his last recourse, a quixotic filibuster on the Senate floor, speechifying “you think I’m licked? well, I’m not licked” before finally collapsing. Perhaps every politician since 1939, and not a few other whistleblowers in other professions, have at some point seen themselves as Mr. Smith in this scene, the lone righteous American deploying his rights against a sclerotic establishment.

Influenced by: populism and little-guy-against-the-system narratives

Influenced: filibusters, whistleblowers, political movies, movie-like politics


A18. Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”

No other film can boast as famous a process, from the thousand-plus actresses who auditioned to play Scarlett O’Hara to the thousands of pounds of red clay shipped from Georgia to Los Angeles to the dozens of dormant sets burned to signify General Sherman’s razing of Atlanta to the four A-list directors who were hired by, fought bitterly with, and fired by, producer David O. Selznick. Victor Fleming is the film’s credited director, and some have written that when you add that to his director credit on The Wizard of Oz, Fleming’s one-year accomplishment rises above that of other directors with a two-masterpiece year like Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 and Steven Spielberg in 1993. Yet if Gone with the Wind has an author, it’s Selznick, who made all the final decisions on GWTW in his determination to disprove Irving Thalberg’s famous almost-last words to Louis B. Mayer to explain why MGM would be passing on adapting Mitchell’s 1936 hit novel, “no Civil War picture ever made a nickel.” 

Today’s students tend to notice that America’s two most important pre-World War II blockbusters, The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, are not only big hit Civil War pictures but also promote Lost Cause mythology, whereby the racist, secessionist Southern rebels of the 1860s are reconfigured as just and heroic. (Even Jefferson Smith’s big speech pays homage to Lost Causes, and it’s not clear if he meant to include Confederates.)

Gone with the Wind is about Scarlett O’Hara, magnificently performed by Vivien Leigh, the headstrong daughter of a Georgia plantation owner played by Thomas Mitchell in an Irish brogue strong enough to reassure the audience that the O’Haras are not Old Money. Scarlett seems to wish they were, based on her wardrobe and her desire to wrest the blueblood patrician Ashley from her friend Melanie, but finds herself courted by the more industrious, more mercenary Rhett Butler, played wryly by Clark Gable, just as the Civil War breaks out. In some ways Rhett is this story’s smart outsider compared to the blinkered Southerners, but the film follows Scarlett as she travels from their plantation, called Tara, to help the wounded in Atlanta as the war turns calamitous for the South. Tara and Atlanta go, with the wind, from Southern elegance to scorched earth. Despite General Sherman burning a swath of Georgia to the ground, Tara’s black slaves remain dutifully loyal to the O’Haras, perhaps partly because some of them make terrible mistakes, as when Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, fails to deliver on her promises of midwifery. Malcolm X would later comment that McQueen’s shrill, vexatious performance set black people back twenty years. 

As regressive as Gone with the Wind was, Selznick could have made it worse. Destitute from the war, Scarlett starts her own business, and in the novel, in Margaret Mitchell’s words, “The negroes insisted on being paid every day and they frequently got drunk on their wages and did not turn up for work the next morning.” Scarlett is furious. “And she would never fool with free triggers again,” only Mitchell wrote a word that rhymes with “triggers.” Around this point onscreen, Scarlett rides her buggy through a shanty-town, gets attacked, and is saved by her former slave Big Sam. After a vengeful posse breaks up the shanty, Rhett artfully lies to the Yankee authorities, but the movie is telling a bigger lie: in the book, our sympathetic posse is part of the Ku Klux Klan. The point is that Gone with the Wind could have been worse for black people, but it was awful enough, especially considering Scarlett O’Hara spent decades as something of a role model for white women. This is deeply problematic even when you attempt to factor out race: after Rhett and Scarlett marry, he commits marital rape, from which Scarlett wakes up the next day as though it was just what she needed all along.

All that very much said, some, like Thomas Cripps, have argued that the film somewhat normalized aspects of white-black allyship, leading to the non-production of scripts that were actually more racist. The film remains compulsively watchable, and it provided some permanent aspects of popular culture, as when Scarlett vows that she’ll do what she has to as long as “I’ll never be hungry again,” or when Scarlett asks what she will do if Rhett is really leaving her for good and he answers, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Strictly speaking, “damn” was forbidden by the Code, but apparently Breen gave less of a damn at the end of an almost-four-hour film.) Gone with the Wind was nominated for a then-record 12 Academy Awards and won 8, including the first Oscar won by an African-American, for Hattie McDaniel’s bravura performance as Mammy. The most significant legacy of Gone with the Wind’s sweeping set-pieces and melodramatic flourishes, at least in Hollywood, were that they served as the ur-model for the epic blockbuster in the 1950s, when Hollywood felt keen competition from television and responded by mounting many melodrama-driven spectacles. 

Influenced by: updated Lost Cause mythology, Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta upbringing (the novel), David O. Selznick’s ideas of the South (the film)

Influenced: ideas of the South; later stood as the ur-blockbuster to be aspired to


A19. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” is about the Joad family watching their land, faith, and opportunities taken away from them amongst Dust Bowl conditions in Oklahoma. The Joads set off on Route 66 for the promised land of California, lose Grandpa and later Grandma along the way, and arrive to find conditions almost worse than they were in Oklahoma, the migrant farmer campgrounds policed like concentration camps. The Joads move from one camp to another, and when Tom Joad sees his friend killed, Tom accidentally kills a guard and becomes awakened to larger issues of social justice.

Director John Ford kept most, but not all, of this. While the novel ends with the downfall and likely breakup of the Joad family, Nunnally Johnson’s film adaptation ends more optimistically, with the family arrived in the cleanest and least authoritarian of three California camps, and Ma Joad saying that she “ain’t never gonna be scared no more.” Despite exploitation by the rich, Ma Joad says, “They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.” In the film, these platitudes are preceded by the more famous speech with which Steinbeck ends the novel, in which Tom proclaims his solidarity with the repressed, saying “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” 

Although there are other great films that celebrate labor movements, like The Salt of the Earth and Norma Rae, The Grapes of Wrath is special partly because it was actually filmed during, and captures genuine pieces of, the Great Depression. Fox was probably over-worried about the timing: even in summer 1940, much of the country was still working its way through severe economic hardship that didn’t really end until the United States entered World War II. Of course, studios always reckoned with that tricky question of whether audiences wanted escapism, or preferred to see some kind of realistic “suffering.” For the record, The Grapes of Wrath did fine business amidst rapturous reviews. But the film’s legacy goes beyond business and reviews: it has become a lodestar of labor relations and partial inspiration for migrant workers of all races and creeds. Cesar Chavez’s famous speech “The Wrath of Grapes” doesn’t confront the 1940 film as much as continue Steinbeck and Ford’s story.

Influenced by: Depression-era poverty and restlessness

Influenced: authors seeking to ennoble working-class heroes


A20. Fantasia (various directors, 1940) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Hello, Mr. Stokowski!”

As the money from Snow White began flowing in, Walt didn’t really want to go back to begging moguls for box office percentages, and so, more like a sorcerer than an apprentice, Walt suggested to his brother and business partner, Roy, that they turn the lemon of the then-over-budget “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” into lemonade with an entire program of Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like cartoons bundled into a new feature presented like a night at the symphony.

All the greatness and all the not-greatness of The Concert Feature, eventually renamed Fantasia, flowed from that decision. Disney was lucky to have had most of America’s best animators working under usurious contracts that they couldn’t challenge until 1940, a date that Roy Disney saw for the ticking clock it was. When one considers all the projects Walt might have undertaken in Snow White’s wake, Pinocchio and Fantasia aren’t exactly bad decisions. Indeed, some of his animators had been asking for the chance to, in two senses, draw more from the avant-garde. Many of them wanted to expand and extend their canvas of possibilities, and they welcomed the chance to delve deep into something close to pure imagination…for as long as Disney would let them. 

The film’s first half is unimpeachable. Deems Taylor, apparently a dry-witted member of the orchestra, explains the film as an experimental project which attempts to provide the visuals that music often stimulates anyway, such as “vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.” The film begins with Bach’s well-established concert opener Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which the filmmakers slowly, gently, segue into sublime abstractions. The second song, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, lends itself easily to the film’s unobtrusive visuals of fish, flowers, leaves, and other objects that wouldn’t look out of place on a Chinese silkscreen. These steady tiptoes toward narrative perfectly set up the third number, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is perfectly enjoyable on its own terms. Batting fourth is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring reimagined as a science and nature lesson, and the audacity of it remains impressive: a mere 15 years after the Scopes Trial made it clear that millions of Americans rejected evolution, Disney directly rebukes them, showing bacteria becoming fish becoming amphibians. Prior to this cartoon, dinosaurs weren’t seen with such vim and vigor, and based on then-current science, Disney can be forgiven for dramatizing their extinction with…something like global warming? A brief intermission features a modest white-jazz jam session, and then a visit from an animated line that Taylor calls “the soundtrack,” who visualizes the sounds of harps and other strings. An adult can only think: Walt, you have made your case and you are allowed to show us the inside of your brain’s kaleidoscope, so go ahead.

And then… come the fauns and unicorns and centaurs as though straight from Snow White’s forest, walking slowly through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, followed by ostriches and hippos in tutus dancing awkwardly through Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. Why did Disney assiduously establish abstraction only to devolve to painfully literal Silly Symphony-like revelry? Why didn’t Disney’s story department tell him that films are supposed to raise the stakes in the second half? This problem always appertains to this sorcerer: unlike his studio’s future allies at Pixar, Disney rarely trusted audiences with original ideas or stories, and instead defaulted to commercial, well-worn narratives or saccharine silliness like, say, tutu-clad hippos. One must add that Disney also maintained a non-commercial fascination with death and evil, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of skulls one can count today in Disneyland, and as seen in the final cartoon of Fantasia, which begins with Modest Mussorgsky’s devilish Night on Bald Mountain, whose ghoulish beasties damn near save the film’s second half. 

Walt Disney did his best to turn Fantasia into a special event, employing over one thousand animators, musicians, and technicians, and debuting a new stereophonic sound system with multitrack recording and sounds that oscillated from left to right. When the film debuted in November 1940, few theaters could facilitate this sound system that would later become the industry standard, though for the ones that could, Disney arranged special limited-engagement roadshow bookings, with premium pricing, reserved seats, a program, and specially-trained ushers. In many cities, the strategy worked quite well throughout 1941. Roy Disney had balked at the cost of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice rising above $125,000; Fantasia cost $2.28 million and didn’t turn a profit until after World War II, when European markets reopened. Fantasia remains a triumph of imagination and one of the most important features ever made, a milestone marriage of highbrow culture and animation, arguably the first two-hour avant-garde film, and in some ways the granddaddy of all music videos. 

Influenced by: Silly Symphonies; Disney’s highbrow aspirations

Influenced: all abstract moving images set to music; eventually, MTV


A21. The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

Katharine Hepburn was labeled box office poison after Bringing Up Baby failed to become a hit in 1938. Later that year, Philip Barry wrote a new play loosely based on a real scatterbrained socialite acquaintance from Philadelphia, but more tailored to Hepburn’s strengths. It would push the envelope by having the lead, Tracy Lord, choose between not two but three suitors on the day before her wedding. Hepburn loved the play, lowered her salary in exchange for the film rights, and wound up headlining the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story for 417 performances over a full year, from March 1939 to March 1940. 

Hepburn and her sometimes paramour Howard Hughes negotiated the kind of deal with Louis B. Mayer at MGM that could not have happened two years before: Mayer would acquire 100% of the film rights if Hepburn preserved veto power over her director and cast. Mayer agreed and Hepburn hired as director the estimable George Cukor, who had directed her not only in Philip Barry’s Holiday, but also in her first pairing with Cary Grant, 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett. The Philadelphia Story would become her fourth and final onscreen partnership with Grant. Afterward, among other things, she would make nine films with Spencer Tracy. She wanted The Philadelphia Story to be her first one, offering Tracy the role of Mike Connor and Clark Gable the role of Dexter Haven, but they were apparently busy. Mayer got worried and insisted on a new A-lister, in this case Jimmy Stewart, in the role of Mike, while Cary Grant only agreed to play Dexter if he, Grant, received for the first time first billing over Hepburn’s on the poster, as well as a salary of $137,000, which Grant donated to the British War Relief Society. The star casting made a certain narrative sense: if Tracy Lord was to be choosing between three men, at least two should be stars, and if Tracy was going to finally return to her ex-husband, that person should be the one she had already done three movies with. 

In retrospect, all this hedging and hemming and hawing seems a lot of Hollywood hullabaloo: the film is hilarious, and I hate to hurt the humor by repeating any of its jokes here. Hepburn’s brilliant turn as Tracy Lord burns right through the screen. If The Philadelphia Story is a screwball comedy, it improves upon many of the tropes partly through the many innuendos and hijinks of one daffy woman being courted by three flawed men. Stanley Cavell would later cite it as a prime example of the post-Code, pre-war comedy of remarriage, a subgenre of films that evaded the Code by showing divorcees banter and flirt with others only to eventually wind up together. For Cavell this represented a step forward after, or perhaps including, slapstick and screwball: a reaffirmation of marriage based less on class differences and more on mutual love. The Philadelphia Story assured Hepburn’s A-list status for decades to come.

Influenced by: screwball comedies especially starring Grant and Hepburn, like Bringing Up Baby(1938) and Holiday(1938)

Influenced: tasteful “drawing room” comedy or “chamber” drama


A22. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I don’t think there’s one word that can describe a man’s life.”

After signing on with RKO in summer 1939, Orson Welles spent a year circling different projects, but after finally deciding on the script then called The American he assembled an all-star roster, including the older brother of Philadelphia Story producer Joseph Mankiewicz, namely Herman Mankiewicz, as co-writer, Robert Wise as editor, many of his actors from Mercury Theater, and Gregg Toland as director of photography, who shared billing with Welles in the title cards. Toland wanted to work with a rookie precisely because he figured a more experienced director would have put Toland on a shorter leash. Expanding on techniques Toland had developed working under John Ford on 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, Toland often deployed what scholars later called Deep Focus, whereby objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background remain in equal focus. When people asked Welles how he knew so much about filmmaking, Welles replied that in preparation he had watched John Ford’s Stagecoach forty times. Arguably, Ford’s and Toland’s moody lighting, felicitous depths of field, and high-key contrasts suit the material in Citizen Kane even better.

Citizen Kane is about the life of newly dead newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane as told in flashback by those who knew him best to a reporter who is trying to ascertain the significance of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” Their unreliable narration fits well with conspicuously deep focused shots, optical effects, wipe transitions, trick shots, Eisenstein-ish editing, low-angle shots that broke the rules about the prominence granted by low-angle shots, and music by film first-timer Bernard Herrmann that was less like Classical Hollywood and more like the staccato bursts often heard on narrative radio. The film’s technique is comparable to throwing every kind of spaghetti at the wall to see which kind sticks, and this style well supports the story, about a man who tried everything, succeeded at much, but was ultimately considered a failure. Some say Welles reinvented cinema; others say he merely combined pre-existing methods; say what you will, the stature of Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made has never really been disputed, not even in 1941 by…the few paying audiences who got to see it.

This entry won’t spoil the film’s ending, but I will mention the person who spoiled the film’s release, Mr. William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane is a very thinly veiled roman a clef about Hearst, who didn’t appreciate the film’s liberties and fealties, the latter including Hearst’s mistress’ penchant for jigsaw puzzles. The reporter eventually decides one word can’t summarize a person’s life and that the story of Kane’s life is merely a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece, but in real life, Hearst took away that piece by using his newspaper empire to crusade against the film. After Hearst died, after Andre Bazin crusaded for the film, it was re-released in 1956 and widely acclaimed as the best motion picture ever made, that reputation being its final jigsaw puzzle piece. In the movie, Charlie Kane is last seen somnambulistly stumbling through a hall of mirrors, and his film comes to us the same way, a memento mori of cinematic technique and cinema itself, reflecting and refracting our past, present, and future.

Influenced by: Stagecoach (1939), cinematography of The Long Voyage Home (1940), Welles’ provocative style

Influenced: everyone who went to film school (including most current directors)


A23. The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Despite its pulpy popularity, literary hardboiled fiction had no major filmic representation until 1941, when John Huston adapted Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 hit novel The Maltese Falcon. The book is about a woman who hires two detectives, Sam Spade and his partner, to find her missing sister by tailing her sister’s boyfriend, but the next day, that boyfriend and Spade’s partner are both found dead. A circuitous series of twists reveals that most of the suspects, and the original woman, will do anything to find a statue of incalculable worth called the Maltese Falcon, and Spade must both find it and save his own neck.

Warner Bros. bought the film rights in 1930, released a pre-Code version in 1931, tried to re-release it in 1936, was blocked by the Hays Office, and wound up making a comic version starring Bette Davis in 1936. Warner Bros. was hardly champing at the bit to adapt the novel a third time, which was one reason John Huston was able to convince them to let him make his directorial debut with his modest adaptation. Huston saw something in Hammett’s book he hadn’t seen onscreen, the world’s hopelessness a subtext beneath the text of piano-wire-tense scenes of men and women trying to outwit each other into giving away who was being hunted by who. Huston brought the story right up to the present, through an opening that includes the San Francisco Bay Bridge built in 1936, but in many other ways Huston simply made Hammett’s terse verses even terser. More than any other author, Hammett moved detective fiction from Sherlock Holmes’ clever invulnerability into something more pessimistic, and watching The Maltese Falcon you can feel the slow pivot from the landed gentry to the luckless and gritty. 

Huston and producer Hal B. Wallis were smart to get Arthur Edeson as director of photography; in many ways Edeson’s lens work on Universal horror films like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man prefigured what noir would turn out to be. As an amateur director, Huston didn’t rely on Hollywood’s affection for his father, beloved character actor Walter Huston; instead John storyboarded each scene down to the smallest gesture, rehearsed his actors, shot the entire film in sequence, found in editing that he had almost nothing to cut out, and finished ahead of schedule and under the modest budget of $400,000. In October 1941, Huston got his good reviews, his box office, and his fulfilled dreams of a place on Hollywood’s director A-list. In later years, the titular bird statue would be cited as the paradigmatic MacGuffin, meaning a modest-sized object that the characters covet and the audience doesn’t, but that may or may not really apply to the object that this movie’s characters kill to obtain. Without spoiling the ending, I can confirm that there are several meanings at play when Sam Spade sees the bird statue one last time and says stoically, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Influenced by: the hard-boiled crime fiction literary genre; Huston’s lessons from his father

Influenced: film noir, femme fatales, American cynicism


A24. Yankee Doodle Dandy (Curtiz, 1942) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Red, White and Blue, I am for you! Honest, you’re a grand old flag!”

The idea of a George M. Cohan biopic had been kicking around for a few years but World War II gave the story of Cohan a framing device – the actor playing Cohan would play wartime president Franklin Roosevelt, would go backstage to meet the real FDR, would flash back on his life, and then, at the end of the film, would join a parade of Americans mobilizing for war singing “Over There” ending with the refrain, “and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.” This was a song written by Cohan for the First World War and made popular then, and its 1942 revival was almost suspiciously well-timed. It turns out that Curtiz was bitter about being wounded fighting for Hungary in the First World War, not that you’d sense his ambivalence while watching Yankee Doodle Dandy. That particular feeling would wait for his next movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was more evidence of how much of Classical Hollywood, to quote another one of Cohan’s songs, “gave its regards to Broadway.” Perhaps ironically, the first real musical on the chronologically ordered AFI 100 technically wasn’t a Broadway show; Yankee Doodle Dandy was instead an original script about “The Man Who Owned Broadway” that sampled from Tin Pan Alley shows and revues. After Yankee Doodle Dandy, Hollywood would do well with other stitched-together revue films like Ziegfeld Follies. But it also helped make the more integrated production of Meet Me in St. Louis into a loving tribute to pre-World War I Missouri. The press around Gone with the Wind had demonstrated that there were apparently hundreds of living Americans who saw Sherman’s burning of Atlanta with their own eyes, and so Hollywood was keen to mine any extant nostalgia for America’s next chapter, the Gilded Age of gazebo-bound ice cream socials and such, as seen in both of Orson Welles first two films, and in Curtiz’s affectionate re-creations of fin-de-siecle New York in Yankee Doodle Dandy. For this film, Curtiz was lucky to get James Wong Howe as his director of photography, whose intuition with tracking in and out of framing shots matched Curtiz’s own.

Production on Yankee Doodle Dandy in early 1942 was a little rushed, not because anyone thought the new war would end anytime soon, but because George M. Cohan was still alive, and Warner Bros. wanted to premiere it before he died. There was one tiny issue: Cohan didn’t like Warners’ first choice for the role, James Cagney, and Cagney didn’t like Cohan. Cohan was not only a writer but also a skilled song-and-dance-man, and wanted to be played by the most graceful dancer of the age, or maybe any age, Fred Astaire, who did resemble Cohan more than Cagney. Warners offered the role to Astaire, who turned it down because he didn’t want to dance in Cohan’s signature stiff-legged, puppet-like manner. Cagney had resented Cohan for siding against striking actors in a 1919 Equity dispute. Two decades later, in 1940, a Communist ringleader tried to reduce his sentence by naming stars as Communists; the New York Times put the accusation against Cagney on its front page, apparently causing one producer of Yankee Doodle Dandy, William Cagney, to tell his brother, “we’re going to have to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”

Jimmy Cagney might have done it anyway. Ever since he exploded onto the scene a decade earlier as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, studios had promoted him as a gangster type, and he wanted more people to know he was also a skilled song-and-dance man. Just as Fonda and Stewart were in a sense coming for Gary Cooper’s persona, Bogart and John Garfield were now coming for Cagney’s, and so he needed a Sergeant York-size hit. Cagney also related to Cohan as an Irish-American in more ways than one, including Cohan’s half-singing, half-chatting vocal style. Cagney’s go-for-broke energy is one of three things that separates Yankee Doodle Dandy from, say, The Pride of the Yankees; the other two being the music and Curtiz’s directorial style. Jack and Harry Warner hired Curtiz in 1926 because he focused on actors when a scene demanded it, which is at least half the running time of most pictures, but also because he knew how to deploy Expressionistic touches. By 1942 these traits joined with his fluid camera and restless editing to make films that still seem modern today, causing Curtiz to tell one writer on his next picture, “Don’t worry what’s logical, I make it go so fast no one notices.” Yankee Doodle Dandy isn’t above certain biopic clichés, for example the standard longtime helpmeet partner who is a composite of Cohan’s two wives, Cohan’s divorce from the first utterly elided. But Yankee Doodle Dandy was mostly a heart-pounding, heart-stopping heart-warmer that became a smash hit. Cohan approved of Cagney, and the Academy even awarded him Best Actor, an honorarium Cohan didn’t quite live to see. Once scheduled to debut on July 4th, 1942, the film premiered on May 29th to make sure the ailing Cohan could attend and promote it. As it happened, Cohan finally shuffled off this mortal coil on November 5th. One thinks of the final shot of Yankee Doodle Dandy, as Cagney-as-Cohan joins a spontaneous parade of people singing “Over There, over there,” and one asks: as Cohan died, did he think about how many American soldiers he got to go over there?

Influenced by: Cohan’s life, friends, opinions (Cohan was still alive)

Influenced: what America thought of the pre-1914 period


A25. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Casablanca began as an unproduced play called Everybody Goes to Rick’s, written by a married American couple who had vacationed in Austria and France in the late 1930s and visited at least one large café full of refugees and exiles. Their story was about an avowedly apolitical owner of a Moroccan café named Rick who comes into possession of two letters of transit desperately needed by an anti-fascist gadfly and his wife – who happens to be Rick’s former lover. Warner Brothers’ story editor Irene Diamond convinced production head Hal B. Wallis to buy the script for $20,000 in January 1942, which he retitled Casablanca partly because it was one of the only Moroccan cities he’d heard of, partly because Algiers worked as a 1938 movie’s title, and he would pitch this as a wartime Algiers, with something like that film’s exotic mystery and smoke and shadows. For this he got the same DP he put on Maltese Falcon for the same reason, Arthur Edeson. For one final time, Humphrey Bogart happily took a part that George Raft turned down. Wallis wanted a more luminous Ilsa than anyone under contract at Warners, and after David O. Selznick heard the new film would be like Algiers, he agreed to loan Wallis Ingrid Bergman, but only for two months. On August 1st Bergman would start shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls with Gary Cooper based on the Hemingway novel about the Spanish Civil War, Warners not being the only studio in ’42 keenly interested in pre-Pearl Harbor-period dramas between the committed and the uncommitted. But there was a tiny problem with the screenplay that Robert McKee would later teach to thousands, maybe millions, as the greatest script ever put on celluloid: when Curtiz and Edeson’s cameras began rolling at the end of May 1942, it was only half-written. 

Not that Wallis hadn’t tried. The original play’s second half was considered far too melodramatic and corny, and the script went through at least a half-dozen contract writers. Two of the three whose names wound up on the onscreen credits, twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, wrote a draft, left for D.C. to help Frank Capra with war propaganda, then came back to alter what Wallis and Curtiz then had. The third onscreen name, Howard Koch, had a history that runs through this podcast, adapting the version of War of the Worlds that Orson Welles had scared America with, moving to Hollywood and getting picked up at L.A.’s Union Station by John Huston, and then writing the funnier parts of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Dialogue like “I came to Casablanca for the waters,” “There are no waters in Casablanca,” “I was misinformed” has Koch’s signature wry style. (Koch would later be blacklisted for Communist leanings.) But shooting a film with half a script is every producer’s nightmare, and Bergman kept asking every lead creative, “who gets me at the end, Paul or Bogie?” Perhaps some of the film’s continuing life comes from the fact that for most of the shoot, no one on set had any idea how the story would end. 

Curtiz and Wallis deserve credit less for a Welles-like independence from the studio system and more for a perfect manipulation of it. We feel the verve and spirit of Rick’s Café through the music, and much of that is from Max Steiner, who from King Kong through Gone with the Wind had established himself as Hollywood’ pre-eminent scorer. Casablanca is one of those rare films where audiences become equally invested in the leads and the ensemble. In terms of the leads, Paul Henreid considered the project beneath him, and only took the part of Laszlo on condition that his name be billed above the title with Bogart and Bergman’s, The Philadelphia Story having established the precedent that the third-billed actor on the poster could even win a Lead Actor Oscar, but Henreid’s diffidence suits the role. Bergman as Ilsa, like Hepburn as Tracy Lord, is the best actor in any scene, and makes “Here’s looking at you, kid” sound like the reason cinema exists; she is irreplaceably luminous, or as Roger Ebert put it, she paints Bogart with her eyes. Bogart as Rick makes believable the transition from “I stick my neck out for nobody” to idealism, and in so doing changes the Hollywood ideal from a man who gives up everything for love to one who gives up love for, well, everything we need when people like Nazis threaten humanity. 

But the cast is unimaginable without Warner Bros’ brand built around the deviant and guttural; Conrad Veidt, the smooth Nazi colonel, was once the zombie in Caligari, Peter Lorre, the creepy Ugarte, was once the serial killer in M, and Claude Rains, the shrewd Renault, was once the Invisible Man, and they all had to do Casablanca because of long-term studio contracts that we now recognize as something like indentured servitude. After Rick and the African-American Sam, the next nine credited characters are these nationalities: Norwegian, Czechoslovakian, French Moroccan, German, British (with an Italian name, Ferrari), whatever Ugarte is, Bulgarian, Russian, and French. Audience members want Rick’s to be preserved because of its United Nations-like qualities, even though the film certainly should have cast more actual Arabic Moroccans. Hungarian Jew Curtiz didn’t challenge the studios and instead upheld their usual elision of race, but in this film he also provided enough white diversity for us to think of Rick the way we think of the Statue of Liberty: as a dignified convener of a concatenation of different, freedom-loving exiles and refugees.

After committing to paper roughly five different possible endings involving Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo, Renault, and Strasser, Curtiz and Wallis finally settled on something like the ending you know, albeit with Rick covering the couple’s escape by shooting the Nazi colonel in the back. According to one historian, Bogart stopped this detail at the last minute, fog machine rolling as Bogie said to Curtiz, “shooting him in the back would make me the old mad-dog again. Why can’t he go for his gun, at least?” From there, five of cinema’s most emotional, most ingenious minutes concluded the film.

Casablanca is art, just as The Wizard of Oz is art, and so we must call its lead creatives artists. We know Curtiz did more than just show up; he made it go so fast that we all noticed, and in so doing earned a place in the conversation next to Ford and Huston. Warner Bros’ paid for the rights to “As Time Goes By” in perpetuity and used a five-second tag from it for its opening logo, meaning that roughly one out of seven films released in the decades since have been introduced as “from the studio that brought you Casablanca.” We keep being told “play it Sam,” we keep being told “you must remember this,” but we never needed to be convinced. 

Influenced by: Classical Hollywood norms; Algiers (1938); films about war in Europe intruding on Americans’ peace

Influenced: romance films, war films, the possibilities of studio films


A26. Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“It’s straight down the line for both of us, remember?” 

Billy Wilder went to the past to bring on the future, meaning that he adapted a serial from 1936, and filmmaking techniques from 1941, to make a motion picture that established film noir for the future. This first drama directed by Wilder, Double Indemnity, goes out of its way to set its story in 1938, as though it couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened in the wartime Los Angeles of 1944.

This was an ironic reversal of the drama behind the scenes, whereby the Hays Office approved of the story in 1944 after disapproving it in 1936. Part of the Hays Office’s change of heart came from the steady change in norms through films like The Grapes of Wrath, but another part was Billy Wilder’s new adaptation, which altered the story’s double-suicide conclusion and made the leads more culpable for their crimes. At the time of the Hays Office’s welcome approval, Wilder had no way of knowing that the worst offscreen drama was yet to come, nor how much it would improve the onscreen drama. Wilder wanted to write the shooting script with the book’s author, James M. Cain, but Cain was tied up with another studio; producer Joseph Sistrom loved the book The Big Sleep and  suggested Raymond Chandler, who had never before worked on a screenplay. Fans of noir marvel that three of its greatest names, Cain, Wilder, and Chandler, were the lead creatives on one film, but in practice, over four months of writing together, Wilder and Chandler almost killed each other. Wilder wanted to preserve most of Cain’s florid, fluid dialogue, and only after hearing actors read it aloud did Wilder agree with Chandler’s more bullet-point back-and-forth-ing. At one point in the process, Chandler wrote one of his longest works of art…a letter of resignation to Paramount explaining all the reasons he could no longer work with Wilder. 

Wilder and Chandler not only reconciled but poured their frustrations with each other into the work, beefing up the role of Barton Keyes from Cain’s hapless nice guy to more of a wary adversary, more worthy of being played by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson was wary of moving from lead actor to third-billed actor here, but there was the precedent of The Philadelphia Story, a film that Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, mentions by name…oddly, considering the source play hadn’t even been written by the time Double Indemnity is clearly set, July 1938. MacMurray wasn’t Paramount’s first or even fifth choice for the lead; this was the last big film that we know George Raft also turned down. MacMurray, known as a Tom Hanks-level nice guy, later gave Wilder credit for seeing something that he didn’t even see in himself. Barbara Stanwyck also had a goody-goody image and wasn’t sure she could even pretend to be as corrupt as her character…leading to the modern irony that Phyllis is how casual filmgoers know and love…to hate her. 

Double Indemnity is about an insurance salesman who pays a call on a delinquent client only to meet his wife, Phyllis Dietrichson, who responds to his flirtations by asking about accident insurance. Their affair and his new policy begin, and before the film’s halfway point, Walter and Phyllis murder her husband in a manner rare enough to trigger a double-payout of his life insurance policy, or what’s called double indemnity. As a film title, the meaning expands itself to Walter and Phyllis’s double culpability and double iniquity, not just their lust but also their greed. By the film’s third act, Walter and Phyllis are proven doubly hubristic…not unlike their creators.

Wilder and Chandler’s script serves as a textbook example of how altering a film for censors can actually improve it. James M. Cain later said that he wished he’d thought of the device of Walter Neff telling most of the story into his insurance company’s recording device. Because Neff names himself as the murderer in the film’s first ten minutes, the focus shifts from a Sherlock Holmes-ish whodunnit to more of a whydunnit. In 1944, the Hays Code strictly forbade glorification of murder, and by suggesting that the next 90 minutes will not be glorifying our narrator’s behavior, we are somehow both distanced from it and plunged deeper into it. Cain’s story ends with Keyes watching Neff walk to the gas chamber, and Joseph Breen’s Hays Office’s 1944 letter forbade that specific imagery, but Wilder decided to film the scene…only to remove it anyway, less because of Breen and more because the now-final scene, which I won’t spoil here, contains a better culmination of the Keyes-Neff relationship. It was truer to what Wilder and Chandler had written together, and perhaps to what they had lived together.

Technically, films were set in Los Angeles before Double Indemnity, but this was the first film that really presented L.A. in all its dimensions, from cold insurance investigators to hot smells on empty streets at night. Wilder’s film is short on sentiment and long on stoicism, even longer on shadows cast by vast volumes of Venetian blinds. Add in its pioneering of hardboiled voiceover narration and obvious blending of aspects of Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, and Double Indemnity stands for many as the best-loved, most paradigmatic film noir. No American director of the 1940s used the term “film noir,” which was a French description of a certain strain of American films like Laura, Gilda, Scarlet Street, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice…but if these films weren’t trying to be something called film noir, they were attempting to emulate Double Indemnity.

Influenced by: Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain stories (they also wrote this script)

Influenced: more or less created the pathos and style of film noir


A27. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You know what it’ll be, don’t you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We’ll have no money, no decent place to live.”

as part of filming air raids in Europe, Wyler rode in an airplane with an exposed engine and wound up losing most of his ability to hear. Wyler decided that his new film about returning soldiers needed to feature someone crippled by the war, but he couldn’t find any actor able to play the part he envisioned. Finally, Wyler saw a short documentary about a soldier whose hands had been blown off while making a bomb, and that’s how Harold Russell was cast as Homer in The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler was known for being demanding with his actors and requiring as many as 20 or 30 takes; Russell had never acted before, so Wyler had to learn to bite his tongue and simply let Russell be Russell. The strategy proved effective: for what was basically his only fiction film role, Russell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

With one lead a non-actor, producer Samuel Goldwyn pressured Wyler to cast major stars in the other two leads, but Wyler fought for and got two pedigreed actors he felt could appear ordinary, Fredric March and Dana Andrews. Wyler told them and the film’s female leads to buy their clothes for the film at discount stores and to eschew makeup; the word “normal” became a mission statement and overriding ethos. Wyler honed the script with his longtime collaborator Robert Sherwood until nothing sounded too phony, too Hollywood-ish; even the sets were reconfigured from Hollywood’s usual vaulted ceilings to look more like small-town middle-class Ohio. Gregg Toland’s deep focus experiments helped Best Years to look more like the way humans perceive, say, the back and the front of a room simultaneously in real life. Toland spoke aright when he described the way he filmed Best Years as “honest.”

In The Best Years of Our Lives, three GIs of very different rank, Fred, Al, and Homer, meet and become friends on a transport plane back to Ohio; the rest of the film is about their painful readjustment to civilian society. 15 minutes into the film, Fred and Al watch from a car as Homer reunites with his mother, father, sister and former girlfriend who see, for the first time, metal hooks where his hands had been. Tears well up from Homer’s mother as well as every audience member with a pulse; the film grabs the viewer there and never really lets go. As a title, The Best Years of Our Lives is left somewhat enigmatic, perhaps happily referring to the war years of surprising fraternity, or angrily criticizing the war years of family separation, or ruefully asking if now-reunited families could ever live “best years” after everything that had happened. Remade today, at least one of the three leads would be something other than a white straight Protestant male, which would be a welcome change. 

That said, the most impressive aspect of The Best Years of Our Lives is its careful treatment of class distinctions. Fred works as a soda jerk before the war, comes into an excellent salary as a USAF pilot, then returns to difficulty finding any work other than at the diner. Al has a prewar bank job, takes a large pay cut to serve as an infantryman, then returns to a much higher salary at the bank, effectively switching places with Fred and causing serious tension between the new friends. Al eventually changes positions in the bank to grant better loans to returning soldiers. Fred eventually loses even his soda jerk job when he assaults a patron for telling Homer that he lost his hands for nothing because the war was a big politician’s swindle. Fred decides he is probably too angry for anyone, including Al’s daughter Peggy who loves him, and just as Fred is leaving town he happens upon a sort of airplane graveyard, climbs into a cockpit and relives some of his, and perhaps Wyler’s, worst moments. In the conclusion, Fred cautiously dances with Peggy at Homer’s modest wedding. 

Influenced by: Wyler’s experiences filming the war in Europe; Toland’s deep focus work on films like Citizen Kane

Influenced: homefront films; films about soldiers’ physical and psychological difficulties


A28. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“To my brother, George Bailey, the richest man in town.”

Capra’s film was based on a 4,100-word short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern called The Greatest Gift, about a man named George who contemplates suicide at a bridge, wonders what the world would be like if he had never been born, and meets a stranger who appears to gift him this wish. After seeing the world without him, George realizes the greatest gift is his life. Stern couldn’t find any publishers, published it himself, and distributed it to friends over Christmas 1943. Somehow the fable came to the attention of Cary Grant, then starring in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace; Grant wanted to play George and so RKO bought it and wound up developing it with Capra. Working with at least five screenwriters, Capra considerably expanded the story to stretch George’s life in flashback through the 20s, the Depression and World War II; we see George as a skating kid, varsity athlete, young lover, bank employee, and a developer of affordable housing. Capra and Grant parted ways creatively, whereupon Capra offered the role to James Stewart, who was happy to have his first lead since coming back from military service.

At some point Capra came up with the title It’s a Wonderful Life, another choice that led to unfair and unfortunate comparisons between his film and Wyler’s. Both The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life take place in fictional small towns that seem somewhat near Lake Erie, the former in Boone City which resembles Toledo, the latter in Bedford Falls which resembles Seneca Falls. Capra well knew that Wyler permanently lost his hearing in one ear while riding in a USAF plane; Capra’s fictional George Bailey permanently lost his hearing in one ear while saving his brother Harry from an ice accident and therefore couldn’t serve like his brother Harry, who flies a Navy plane. Fans of IAWL know this as crucial information, because as a pilot Harry saves a transport ship of soldiers from a kamikaze bomber; when George sees the world without him having saved his brother Harry, he sees that everyone on the transport ship has perished. This plot wrinkle could almost be read as Capra’s thank you to Wyler for joining Liberty Pictures; Capra could not have known that after the film came out he would have to emulate George Bailey mid-film, grit his teeth, and make a difficult financial decision to preserve his family. It’s a Wonderful Life lost so much money that Capra had to close Liberty Pictures and abandon his dream of full independence. 

It’s a Wonderful Life is actually a darker movie than The Best Years of Our Lives. Literally there are more scenes set outdoors at night, for example George at the bridge, George running through the streets shouting Merry Christmas, and George romancing Mary and asking her, “What do you want? You want the Moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.” But it’s also darker thematically, as George contemplates suicide, loses his father, gets betrayed by his brother, and surrenders his dreams for a modicum of stability amongst unsympathetic neighbors and dependent family members. That’s why this film “counts” as later, bitter Capra, as opposed to the “Capracorn” of the 30s. Further, the evil banker Mr. Potter gets away with robbing everyone in the town, something the film naturalizes to the point where the Hays Office didn’t seem to notice. And yet these heart-rending hardships are offset by a lithograph-ready production design, a far jauntier guardian angel than anything in Stein’s tale, and a sentimental yuletie-deus ex machina that, well, comes along and solves all of George’s and Bedford Falls’ problems. While The Best Years of Our Lives’ bitter banker family man, Al, ends up without family, working for veterans’ loans, and wary of pilot friend Fred, It’s a Wonderful Life’s bitter banker family man, George, magically re-acquires his family, his money (in cash!), and his pilot brother Harry, who arrives in the final minutes saying “to my big brother George, the richest man in town!” 

Influenced by: small-town life; films with angels talking to mortals

Influenced: if there is a Christmas-film genre, this lords over it


A29. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is about three destitute Americans who meet in Tampico, Mexico, and decide to go prospecting for gold in the remote outback nearby. They find gold and slowly mine it, but as the treasure gets larger, their trust in each other gets weaker. The script hews closely to Traven’s novel, so closely that Huston actually filmed in most of Traven’s locations, including Tampico and the high Sierras of Mexico. Perhaps Huston was peeved at what Jack Warner had done with Let There Be Light and wanted his cast and crew far from Warner’s control and more reliant on their director. This was one of the first Hollywood films to be made on location outside the United States, and the first to pay off so spectacularly: as Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard work around the mountains, viewers regularly see beautiful rugged terrain that looks nothing like California, suggesting both tremendous possibilities and also tremendous dangers. Some of these are the local Mexicans, and an early draft of the screenplay was actually rejected by the Hays Office for being too derogatory toward Mexicans.

Thanks to Hollywood’s good neighbor policy, if Mexicans were seen at all in the 1940s, they were generally as spicy, sometimes naïve friends, as in the Mexican Spitfire series or Disney’s Three Caballeros cartoons. Traven’s novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is set in the mid-1920s, just after the revolution, when rebels and federales really were fighting over the Mexican interior, but Huston’s film, based on the cars in Tampico’s square, seems to come right up to the present, despite the rebels and federales keeping each other from finding Dobbs’ and Howard’s treasure. This portrayal could be read as colonialist, Huston’s Mexico a seemingly never-ending swirl of chaos, but the eventual fates of the three white plunderers might also be read as anti-colonialist. The most famous line of the film, when Alfonso Bedoya tells the white intruders, “We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” can be read in several ways: stereotypical, strong, powerless, powerful. Less defensible is the Bedoya character mistaking gold bags for sand, or the scenes in which Howard heals a local boy and becomes a revered medicine man to an indigenous tribe, based on what sexagenarian Howard calls “old Boy Scout tricks,” the Boy Scouts having been founded in 1910. That said, at a time when Hollywood usually substituted California for Mexico and English for Spanish, Huston preserved all of the local dialogue in Spanish and left the impression of a true journey through Mexico by…spicy, sometimes naïve white men who probably shouldn’t have tried to extract its resources.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre wasn’t a blockbuster hit in 1948, but in an era when films could play for a year or more, Sierra Madre turned a profit after the next Academy Awards, where Walter Huston won Best Supporting Actor and John Huston won Best Director, becoming the first father and son to win Oscars at the same ceremony. The film lost Best Picture and Best Actor to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, perhaps because Fred Dobbs was, for some, paranoid from the film’s outset, and so the film didn’t really show a descent into greed. Others felt, and feel, that Bogart never gave a better performance than as the desperate Dobbsie. Either way, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains a gold mine for fans of cinema that can make you think, feel, and almost smell.

Influenced by: other Mexico-set films as contrast; Huston wanted more realism

Influenced: Huston became an archetype of the adventurous studio director


A30. The Third Man (Reed, 1949) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, in five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” 

Taking place entirely in Vienna and mostly filmed there, The Third Man would have worked with the British leads of Graham’s source story, but Cotten’s American mannerisms help sell the fish-out-of-water themes, and he and Welles’ association with Citizen Kane helps sell the idea that they’re the oldest of friends who might yet betray each other. The memory of Citizen Kane also somehow makes logical The Third Man’s many exaggerated angles and high-key contrasts of light and shadow. Citizen Kane broke with normal music-scoring practice by hiring first-time film composer Bernard Herrmann to underline scenes with staccato bursts; The Third Man breaks with normal music-scoring practice by hiring first-time film composer Anton Karas to underline scenes with nothing more than his zither.

The Third Man is about an American pulp writer, Holly Martins, played by Cotten, who comes to Allied-occupied Vienna to accept a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime, only to be told that a car killed Lime as he was crossing the street, a story confirmed by two men who carried Lime, dying, out of the street. A porter tells Martins that a third man also carried Lime’s body, but the porter gets killed before he can explain further, and Martins, along with Lime’s girlfriend Anna, suspect that Lime’s death wasn’t an accident, and begin what becomes a deadly investigation. First, Martins discovers Harry Lime is alive and chases him through the spookily lit sewers; second, Martins learns that people want Lime dead because he steals penicillin from hospitals, dilutes it, and sells it on the black market, exacerbating grave illnesses even of children.

High atop Vienna’s skyscraper-sized Ferris Wheel, when Holly confronts Harry about his penicillin scheme, Lime answers airily that the people below are like dots and it wouldn’t matter if some “stopped moving, forever.” Lime speaks of war-ravaged Renaissance Italy, which gave the world Leonardo and Michelangelo, and compares that unfavorably to Switzerland, which he says had “brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Actual historians note that this speech is wrong on several levels, but film historians like me can confirm that Lime’s hubris gives the film just enough gravitas to considerably deepen the film’s conclusion. I won’t give it away here, but it’s worth noting that here at the end of the 40s, the usual dispositions of writer and director/producer were reversed, with Graham Greene fighting for a happy ending and Carol Reed and David O. Selznick arguing for, and prevailing with, a far darker finale in terms of form and theme.

Greene, Reed, Selznick, and Korda accomplished something that was never done before or since, successfully combining neo-realism’s ruins-based trappings with the noir feeling of being ruined and trapped. Reed and his brilliant DP, Robert Krasker, used so many Dutch angles that Reed’s good friend William Wyler, after seeing the film, mailed Reed a construction-worker-grade spirit level with a playful note that said “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” The hybridized style of The Third Man helps accentuate the film’s hybrid themes, and as one views it, one can almost feel Europe pivot from the concerns of the 1940s, like explosive war and starvation, to the concerns of the 50s, like paranoia, American capitalist overreach, and yet another term no one yet knew, the Cold War. 

Influenced by: film noir; Graham Greene’s literature and style

Influenced: mystery thrillers, Cold War paranoia


A31. Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s film transcends noir to become arguably the best film ever made about Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard is about an unemployed screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who while trying to hide his car from creditors stumbles upon an unused garage on Sunset Boulevard and meets the antediluvian mansion’s inhabitants, a butler and a wealthy former actress named Norma Desmond, then tending to her monkey’s funeral. She doesn’t put it this way, but Desmond negotiates a vehicle trade: she’ll keep his if he’ll write her comeback one. One thing leads to another, and they begin an affair even as Joe begins moonlighting, professionally and personally, with Betty, a beautiful 22-year-old wannabe screenwriter. 

In 1947, Wilder saw David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, about a past-her-prime woman named Miss Haversham who manipulates a poor boy into return visits. Wilder began thinking about the many run-down Xanadus not far from where he lived, on L.A.’s famous Sunset Boulevard, their occupants’ tragedies compounded by the fact that they had been retired from the movie business at far too young an age. His narrator and co-lead, Joe Gillis, would reference Haversham onscreen, as part of the character’s regular complaints that everything has been said and done before, a sneaky technique to get audiences used to an original story.

Casting this sneaky narrator was tricky. Gillis had to exude enough booksmarts to be a writer and enough streetsmarts to be the cleverest guy in the room – not unlike Bogart, for whom half the town’s scripts were then written. Even if Bogart wasn’t already playing another screenwriter tied to a murder in a film called In a Lonely Place, Wilder didn’t want a 50-year-old; Gillis had to look 30 for Wilder’s story to work. Wilder was impressed with the handsome young Montgomery Clift, whom he signed to play Joe Gillis, but Clift backed out. Wilder searched for someone like Clift, as did the writers of the other half of the town’s scripts – or at least the makers of three of the four other films discussed on today’s podcast. Hearts heavy, Wilder finally decided on C-lister William Holden, who instantly and deservedly became an A-list star. Only 32, Holden seemed older; they had to age down Holden and age up their lead actress, who was 50 but seemed younger.

Casting Norma Desmond was even trickier, considering Wilder and Brackett wanted one former A-list actress to somehow be a salute to all silent-film actresses. Other than extravagance, Swanson wasn’t much like Desmond: she was in a few talking pictures and wasn’t hurt when roles dried up, instead moving to New York to work in radio and eventually TV. In normal life, Swanson didn’t speak in Norma’s high-dudgeon manner with her head back and her wide eyes staring over the bridge of her nose, but the success of this campy approach is a testament to her genuine acting talent. For the scene in which Gillis and Desmond watch one of her movies, Wilder managed to find one of the rare silent clips in which Swanson is actually looking up…in a movie called Queen Kelly directed by Erich Von Stroheim, who in Sunset Boulevard plays Max von Mayerling, a fictional director that was, like Von Stroheim, considered one of the three major silent-film dramatists along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil DeMille. Sunset Boulevard is full of these sorts of self-reflexive clevernesses, including DeMille turning up to do something of a long, more self-aggrandizing turn as himself.

DeMille’s presence is worthwhile if only to set up one of the best lines to end any picture, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Consider your own emotions during that line and Norma’s other infamous line, in response to Joe Gillis saying “You used to be big,” she answers, “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” We are skillfully directed to extremely mixed emotions toward Norma: love, disgust, appreciation, pity, friendship, contempt. Near the end, the story seems to have been going one way, with Joe appearing to fall in love with Betty…but then the story swerves like a car with a flat tire. Norma calls Betty to rat out Joe as her lover, but Joe calls Norma’s bluff and calls Betty to the mansion, whereupon Joe sincerely tells Betty how much he loves his situation with Norma. After Betty leaves the house, Joe leaves Norma anyway, whereupon she kills him, but the larger point is that Joe’s surprise confession to Betty substitutes for the audience’s…we have enjoyed this journey into dependence and dementia and maybe even death.

Influenced by: silent-film Hollywood; writerly ambition and frustration

Influenced: female mentor-male mentee relationships


A32. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Joseph Mankiewicz could find ideas and claim them as his own, possibly including Wilder’s, definitely including Mary Orr’s, who in 1946 wrote and published “The Wisdom of Eve,” based loosely on a real actress’s superfan who became that actress’s assistant and tried to steal her life. When Mankiewicz appropriated Mary Orr’s story into a film called All About Eve without giving Orr screen credit, you might say art imitated life imitating art imitating life. 

Many modern viewers don’t know that Bette Davis was one of the 1930s’ three or four biggest stars, and get introduced to Davis only through All About Eve, assuming that the role was written for her. In fact, Mankiewicz was thinking about Susan Hayward, whom Zanuck rejected for being too young. Wilder and Brackett wanted a silent star, but Mankiewicz and Zanuck wanted someone from the period just after, and considered Marlene Dietrich, Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, and Ingrid Bergman, before finally casting…Claudette Colbert, who was injured in pre-production and had to drop out. Bette Davis took on the role partly because her 18-year relationship as the female face of Warner Bros. had just come to a bitter and acrimonious end, and Davis was eager to prove she could headline another studio’s material. All this is a long way of saying that Davis, one of cinema’s finest actresses, was never playing herself as Margo Channing, with the caveat that upon casting her Mankiewicz made the role a little saltier. 

All About Eve is about a 40-year-old Broadway star, Margo Channing, who meets a superfan named Eve who ingratiates herself into every part of Margo’s life, up to and including a failed effort to seduce Margo’s presumptive fiancé, Bill, as well as a successful effort to secure Margo’s presumptive next role. The film is narrated by two of its central characters, neither of whom are Margo or Eve: one is Addison DeWitt, a theater critic, and the other is Karen Richards, Margo’s best friend and the wife of the playwright of Margo’s current play, Aged in Wood and likely future play, Footsteps on the Ceiling, both titles wryly commenting on Margo’s fear of being aged out of the business. Both narrations come from Addison and Karen sitting at the same table, and among the best aspects of All About Eve are the surfeit of scenes of adults talking around tables. The large cast, including Thelma Ritter and Marilyn Monroe, makes a virtue of complexity, for example with director Bill and playwright Lloyd’s eventual fights over Eve, probably inspired as much by the squabbles of Mankiewicz and Zanuck (who gets name-checked) as by the recent fights between Broadway director Elia Kazan and writers Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

The film of Streetcar wasn’t finished until 1951, but the play’s late-40s success is part of the context of All About Eve, part of why Margo name-drops Stanislavski, and part of why Margo in Aged in Wood is playing an aging Southern belle. Sixteen minutes into All About Eve, Eve says to Margo, “It got so I couldn’t tell the real from the unreal, except that the unreal seemed more real to me.” Here Eve states a key theme: characters deliberately choose fantasy over harsh reality, and/or believe that they can will themselves into unlikely positions in life. Compared to Norma Desmond and Blanche DuBois, though, Margo Channing’s relationship to fantasy is more professional: she knows the parameters around ageism, she knows what parts she can and can’t play, and she demonstrates she understands Eve’s role-playing within role-playing when Davis-as-Channing says, with a wry wink and wrinkle, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” 

Perhaps every love affair involves a level of delusion, but Margo seems to dictate the terms of hers, habitually mentioning that she’s 40 and Bill is 32, an age gap that happens to mirror the one between Bill and 24-year-old Eve. Margo manages to finish the film in the amorous relationship with which she began the film, earning a far happier ending than Norma or Blanche. And yet, several scholars, like Robert Corber and Sam Staggs, have questioned Margo’s, and the film’s, rote defense of heterosexuality, for example in Margo’s mid-film speech about how a woman isn’t a woman without a man beside her. Using that and many other textual examples, scholars have shown the frailty of Lloyd and Karen and Bill and Margo as they retreat to straight relationships to defend themselves against the predatory careerism of the homosexual Addison and Eve, the latter two winding up together as an alliance against other sorts of judgments. 

I certainly wouldn’t take anything away from any queer person who has found comfort in the text, but the case isn’t ironclad; certainly, people watch the film without naming Addison or Eve as queer. Maybe the queerest thing about All About Eve is the way Eve and Margo transcend most categories. The characters keep saying how there could never be anyone else like Eve, and yet the film’s ending, with Eve getting, uh, Eve’d, suggests that her type is perhaps not so unusual. And somehow, Bette Davis’s performance as Margo Channing seems ahead of anything you might say about her, ahead of the script itself. This is surely a key reason that Academy voters recognized the film with a record 14 nominations – it remains the only film in history to get four of its actresses nominated – and six wins, including George Sanders for Best Supporting Actor as Addison, Edith Head for costumes, Joseph Mankiewicz for both writing and directing, and the Best Picture Oscar over Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond was ready for her close-up, ready for Mr. DeMille to shove those noir-ish interiors aside, but voters gravitated to Margo Channing, who was fully lit, often happy, and in glorious stride.

Influenced by: Broadway vicissitudes; Davis’ filmography

Influenced: stories, in and out of Hollywood, about replacement 


A33. A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Every time you leave me for a minute, it’s like goodbye. I like to believe it means you can’t live without me.”

A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel “An American Tragedy,” which was based on a real person who brought his pregnant fiancé to a lake with lethal intent in 1906, events that were echoed in 1934 after another real person did the same thing…perhaps after seeing Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 film of the novel. Apparently unconcerned with any harmful influence, Paramount and George Stevens charged ahead with a relatively faithful adaptation of Dreiser’s novel, although the film did eliminate Dreiser’s first 5,000 words of the lead man’s many immature shenanigans, or one might say that it condensed them into one of cinema’s most memorable opening shots: on a featureless highway, George fruitlessly attempts to thumb a ride for about a minute before finally turning to reveal his downtrodden face. This much foreshadowing primes us and invests us in the thoughts and actions of George, and as George, Montgomery Clift does not disappoint. We now think of Method Acting as a cliché, but at the turn of the half-century, the intense, unpredictably tremulous, almost self-flagellating quality of Montgomery Clift was received as refreshing realism, and A Place in the Sun was beloved in 1951 partly for bottling this quality and deploying it toward narrative melodrama.

A Place in the Sun is about a young person’s ruthless ambition. George Eastman, born into poverty, works his wealthy uncle into giving him a factory job, works his way up the ladder to a supervisory role, and works himself into the heart of a co-worker, Alice Tripp, with whom he begins an affair. George presses to get invited into a society party where he meets an already-legendary society girl named Angela Vickers who falls in love with him; Alice becomes pregnant by George even as he lies to her about his reasons for spending more time with Angela. Finally, mimicking real-life events, George, knowing Alice cannot swim, takes her on a boat on a lake with the intention of killing her. George loses his nerve but Alice falls in and drowns anyway; George is tried and convicted of murder; George kisses Angela on his way to the gas chamber.

For its partisans, A Place in the Sun is a perfect metaphor about the corruption at the heart of the American Dream and a story of how vice, love and ambition are inevitably intertwined and never untangled without sacrifice. For its non-partisans, Stevens gilded the lily, or perhaps poisoned the narrative pill, by casting 17-year-old traditionally attractive Elizabeth Taylor as innocent Angela and 30-year-old less traditionally attractive Shelley Winters as the shrewish Alice. Set against Paramount’s lush, very non-noir production design which conflates wealth with beauty, the film comes close to suggesting that the gorgeous Clift, as George, deserves to be with Angela as part of her hoi polloi. More than Norma, Margo, or Blanche, Alice is a woman dismissed and forgotten even by her own movie, and unlike them she winds up dead, partly because her presence is simply inconvenient for our attractive leads, marking Alice as similar to way too many gay characters and characters of color of the period. Winters burns incandescently on the screen, and the film’s real American tragedy doesn’t happen at the indoor gas chamber, but out on the lake, when Alice experiences her final place in the sun. Yet Clift is so compelling that we almost forget how wrong George was.

Influenced by: classical Hollywood

Influenced: considered as potent and effective as any classic Hollywood melodrama


A34. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I got rhythm, i got music, i got my gal,
who could ask for anything more?”

Luckily for producer Arthur Freed, he had won the big-screen rights to many of the late George Gershwin’s songs from George’s still-living brother, Ira. Unluckily for Freed, he hadn’t thought of much more than making a movie from Gershwin’s 1928 song “An American in Paris,”- maybe he’d use Gershwin’s other songs to string together some kind of modern love story of a GI and Frenchwoman? Luckily for Freed, he assembled a bit of a dream team with Alan Jay Lerner on script, Vincente Minnelli directing, and Gene Kelly making many of the other creative decisions, including the dance choreography. 

The titular character in An American in Paris is Jerry, a veteran failing to earn a living as a painter until he meets Milo Roberts, a rich American woman willing to buy his work. When Milo also asks for his company, Jerry accuses her of wanting a paid escort, something she hadn’t implied. At a bar with Milo, Jerry sees Lisa, and spends most of the rest of the film accepting Milo’s money, rejecting her advances, and trying to have a love affair with Lisa, who, like Angela in A Place in the Sun, is roughly 19 even though both are played by 17-year-olds. An American in Paris’s love triangle blends A Place in the Sun’s age disparity with Sunset Boulevard’s class distinctions; in this case our hero feels guilty for time spent with the rich woman and longs for someone more at his income level. Played by Nina Roche, the Milo character doesn’t have the screen time of this podcast’s other four films’ discarded women, or the humor of her cinematic successor Lina Lamont, or a single song or dance. The film’s dismissal of the pearls-wearing Milo feels like part and parcel of this period’s epidemic of mature women prematurely put out to pasture. Granted, plenty of other films in other times have done this, but certainly Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli, and Gene Kelly, with MGM’s full powers at their disposal, do nothing here to abate this midcentury motif even as they fail to bring the same dimensionality to any onscreen woman that today’s other films do.

Another reason An American in Paris feels less than three-dimensional is that MGM refused to let production occur in Paris, instead building or re-building 44 sets that stand in for the most tourist-revered parts of the French capital. Ironically, or not, after MGM saved that money, Kelly made sure the studio spent it instead on an even less realistic version of Paris, a series of obviously abstract tableaus for Jerry and Lise and others to dance around for the film’s final 15 minutes or so, as part of Jerry’s painterly reverie of culture and art. For some viewers, particularly Gershwin fans, this sequence is MGM daring to echo the likes of Fantasia and The Red Shoes and/or other avant-garde blendings of dance and cinema. Probably An American in Paris’s Academy Award for Best Picture was an appreciation for Kelly’s protean grace and body control, or for working Gershwin’s music into something made for cinema and not the stage, 

Influenced by: Astaire’s and Minnelli’s musicals; Kelly’s exactitude

Influenced: won Best Picture; bigger-budget musicals that weren’t as well-executed


A35. A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”

Tennessee Williams, a queer writer from Mississippi who had worked in a factory with an unapologetically abusive man, moved to New Orleans, dated students, and watched as his sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, lobotomized, and permanently institutionalized. From these elements and his considerable genius came perhaps the best play ever written by an American, A Streetcar Named Desire. Even the best of plays need patrons and collaborators, and Williams was fortunate, shortly after the war, to meet Irene Mayer Selznick, who had just divorced her husband David O. Selznick and was trying to support promising new Broadway talent. After Williams’ wartime success with The Glass Menagerie, Selznick connected Williams with Elia Kazan.

Selznick wanted and almost got two Hollywood stars as Blanche and Stanley; Tennessee Williams wanted Blanche played by the unknown Jessica Tandy, who he’d seen in a minor play, and some kind of bitter working-class 40-year-old as Stanley. Kazan went with Tandy as Blanche but in the case of Stanley insisted on an unknown young wunderkind; Williams wasn’t happy that audiences would now credit Stanley’s temper to youthful ignorance. But those thoughts disappeared the first time Williams saw, in rehearsal, this unknown 23-year-old named Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski; like Kazan and Selznick, Williams knew he was watching lightning in a bottle.

Kazan made Panic in the Streets, a movie about New Orleans cops trying to prevent an epidemic of pneumonic plague, which Kazan filmed in a noir style precisely to “try out” that style for A Streetcar Named Desire. Ultimately he decided it didn’t quite work, and as Kazan prepared the more evenly lit, stage-like, dilapidated film sets, he remained flexible about who played the outsider Blanche, this time the other way: he let Warner Brothers cast a star, Vivien Leigh, as long as he could have the rest of his opening night cast, including the unimaginably gifted Brando, who was doing a lot of what Monty Clift had been doing in A Place in the Sun, but added to that an animalistic, working-class masculinity that wound up changing American acting.

A Streetcar Named Desire is about a middle-aged English teacher, Blanche DuBois, who arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella after Blanche has apparently driven her husband to suicide. (In the play, the suicide is because he’s gay; the Code disapproved of homosexuality but happily approved of misogyny.) Blanche’s bourgeois airs clash with Stella’s squalid apartment and husband’s brutish, working-class pride; Stanley tries to send Blanche back to their family estate, but Belle Reve has been lost to creditors. Belle Reve is French for beautiful dream, and Blanche has either lost it or is lost in it, but neither matters to Stanley’s friend Mitch, who begins courting Blanche. At one point, frustrated and drunk, Stanley hits Stella, causing her to flee to a neighbor, upon which Stanley moans from the courtyard – you may have heard about this – “Stella!!!” Mute the next minute if you aren’t familiar. Fed up with Blanche treating him like an animal and begging her sister to leave him, Stanley learns, and then reveals to Mitch, Blanche’s history of mental instability and being fired for sleeping with a student. While Stella gives birth at a hospital, Stanley and Blanche, alone at the apartment, excoriate each other, and the film’s scene ends with a shattered mirror, unlike in the play in which Stanley takes her unconscious body to bed, more overtly implying rape.

Blanche awakens on the opposite end of the spectrum, suffering a mental breakdown and getting hauled off to an insane asylum as she says, in a line to rival Norma Desmond’s final words, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Kazan actually alters Streetcar’s stage ending in which Stella meekly cries over her sister’s fate; in the slightly more feminist film, Stella reacts by taking her new baby away from Stanley and vowing never to return to him, a revision which enables a concluding “Stella!”All respect to Jessica Tandy, but Vivien Leigh is revelatory, showing Blanche DuBois’s deep, fragile humanity behind her delusions of moonlight and magnolias. We want to somehow preserve her whimsy and spirit, which is really saying something considering the quality of the performance of her antagonist. Blanche’s film-long battle with Stanley comes to us now partly as a clash of acting styles, one technique personified by Leigh and her husband Laurence Olivier versus a technique we now call Method Acting or Stanislavskiesque performance as personified by Brando. Some movies need all their actors on the same page, but Streetcar makes sense when Blanche behaves as though she’s in a different world. 

Influenced by: neo-realism, Strasberg-inflected changes to American theater

Influenced: among other things, a sea change in considerations of “good acting”


A36. The African Queen (Huston, 1951) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

In 1951, Sam Spiegel was the only Hollywood producer crazy enough to agree with John Huston that C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel needed to be made in Africa, considering that for 15 years it had almost been made in America. Warner Brothers scoffed at Spiegel and Huston, who had to set up their own production company and distribute through United Artists. Still, what a maturing for an industry: a writer thinks of an idea in England, and the idea comes to full-color life with two of America’s biggest movie stars halfway around the world. The African Queen expanded the canvas of all cinematic possibilities.

Of all of Hollywood’s top filmmakers, Huston was amongst the most farsighted. The Maltese Falcon anticipated noir, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre anticipated fewer assembly line productions and more one-off projects in distant locations, and The African Queen continued and doubled down on that insight with an A-listers-in-conflict action-adventure that sure as heck wouldn’t look like anything on television. The last podcast sometimes made it sound like filmmakers were thinking of Bogart and Bacall, writing a man paired with a woman he was old enough to have fathered. After Bogart and Huston returned from Mexico in 1947, Huston did cast Bacall alongside Bogart for the couple’s fourth and final onscreen pairing, in the excellent Key Largo, but the casting of The African Queen would countervail the 1950s trend of onscreen ageism and instead cast the unmatchable Katharine Hepburn as Bogart’s sparring partner and eventual age-appropriate lover. But Bacall wouldn’t be as left out as she was with Sierra Madre; instead she came along, helped the production offscreen, and became Hepburn’s lifelong friend. Huston’s wife, on the other hand, remained in Ireland, where she gave birth to Angelica Huston on July 8th; John learned about it through a telegram to the Congo. 

The African Queen is about a British Methodist missionary, Rose Sayer, living in German-controlled East Africa in September 1914 as war breaks out in Europe. German troops kill Rose’s husband, burn down their village, and almost kill Rose, but she manages to escape with her village’s mail carrier, working-class Canadian Charlie Allnut, on his small steam launchboat which is called the African Queen. Charlie tells Rose that Germans have positioned a large gunboat at the mouth of the river which prevents British ships from coming to rescue any British in their section of Africa; Rose suggests they turn their little craft into a surprise torpedo and destroy the German gunboat. Charlie tells Rose how crazy she is, but eventually agrees to the plan, and after many literal and figurative twists and turns, they become lovers, and their plan against the Germans fails…only to succeed at the last minute.

The African Queen has been referenced and recycled by too many filmmakers to name here, not least Walt Disney who designed Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride as an homage. Nonetheless, more than a century after the film’s depicted events, it may seem antiquated. If you only knew the title The African Queen, you may have hoped that the title referred to something other than a ship owned by a white guy, or by inference, the white woman on the ship with him, or perhaps a chess piece that Charlie and Rose are willing to sacrifice to knock out the king which is the German gunboat. In his book Modernity and the African Cinema (2004, Africa World Press), the Nigerian scholar Femi Okiremuete Shaka proposes eleven conventions of the colonialist film and offers a specific critique of The African Queen as a colonial adventure film. The case comes down to “safari shots” that render Africa as wild spectacle or as a symbolic Garden of Eden, complete with apple-like hazards, that must be overcome by heroic white people who are more cultured than the primitive locals. This is especially apparent in the early part of the film, when we see plenty of safari shots as well as Africans lounging or running away from danger. That said, one could make a case that most of the story of The African Queen could have happened anywhere – say, a river in Eastern Canada. Africa here is rendered into a background where white people, British and German, fight over their own problems – which is its own problem.

Influenced by: John Huston’s post-Sierra Madre mastery of his form

Influenced: adventure films, especially star-led ones like Romancing the Stone


A37. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen, Kelly, 1952) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Well then everybody was a dope.”

Freed wondered if his own songs of the 1920s, written with Nacio Herb Brown, couldn’t be made into their own musical. Freed hired screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green to do the stringing together, and Comden and Green decided that the story should be set in show business during roughly the same period that the songs came out, the early sound era. As screenwriters they were painfully aware of the twin threats of anti-Communism and television, and they may have placed the story in the 20s for a pro-union spirit and some TV-savvy behind-the-scenes gags. Historian Peter Lev sees the film as a statement about Hollywood’s troubles in two periods, and that these too will pass, in the 50s as they did in the 20s, and in the meantime we can be, not to put too fine a point on it, Singin’ in the Rain.

Comden and Green presented a draft to Gene Kelly as he finished An American in Paris. Kelly loved what he read and lured his co-director on On the Town, Stanley Donen, to sign on as co-director here; Kelly was happy to delegate the dialogue scenes to Donen while directing the dance sequences himself and preserving those scenes’ non-cuts so that people could see his abilities. Of Comden, Green, Donen, and Kelly, only Kelly had been involved with An American in Paris, and he knew what worked from that and what didn’t. Freed had assigned that film’s cinematographer, John Alton, but Kelly replaced him with he and Donen’s DP from On the Town, Harold Rosson. Compared to An American in Paris, Kelly made sure that Singin’ in the Rain would be about a hundred times funnier, first by casting Jean Hagen in the ostensible Milo Roberts role that would now comically symbolize every actor that couldn’t transition to sound, and second by casting Donald O’Connor in the Adam Cook composer friend role now reimagined as the pluperfect slapstick sidekick. O’Connor on board, Comden and Green came up with two original songs that played to O’Connor’s strengths: “Moses Supposes” with music by Roger Edens, and “Make Em Laugh” with music by an uncredited Cole Porter. 

As the romantic lead, Kathy, Freed almost cast Cyd Charisse, a far more accomplished dancer than Debbie Reynolds, but Kelly and Donen together decided Kathy required a certain cornpone charisma, and as a gymnast Reynolds could be taught to dance. During shooting, however, Kelly went ballistic at Reynolds’ lack of ability; visiting the set, Kelly’s friend Fred Astaire found Reynolds crying under a piano and helped teach her some moves. Kelly regretted not casting Cyd Charisse, and being under contract at MGM she was made to appear in a Louise Brooks wig in the extended “Broadway Melody” dance-slash-dream sequence of Act III, an obvious consecution of An American in Paris that Freed insisted upon. What Freed did not insist upon was any kind of representation of the actual diversity of Hollywood in the late 1920s, including the many Asians, Latinos, and Black people who were working there then; instead, the film whitewashes the past. It’s not the worst such offender, but its blithe reworking of 1920s songs inspired by African-American music is only a slight improvement over The Jazz Singer.

Singin’ in the Rain is about The Jazz Singer’s effect on a few Hollywood talents, starting with Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. Their studio, the fictional Monumental Pictures, promotes Don and Lina as lovers, but Don is more interested in Kathy, a woman whose car he falls into while escaping adoring fans. With the advent of sound, Lockwood and Lamont’s latest, The Duelling Cavalier, gets remade with sound scenes, only to find a test audience laughing at the poor sound, especially Lamont’s squawkish voice. As Lina takes voice lessons, Don and his friend, composer Cosmo Brown (his name a salute to Nacio Herb Brown), refashion The Duelling Cavalier as a musical with Kathy dubbing Lina’s role. Lina learns of their treachery and tries to force the studio head, R.F. (his name a salute to Arthur Freed), to put Kathy under permanent contract as Lina’s voice. The whole thing unravels at The Duelling Cavalier’s world premiere, where the world learns that Kathy dubbed Lina’s voice and Kathy learns that Don loves her.

None of this really captures the feeling of watching Singin’ in the Rain, which is something akin to drinking joy and happiness straight from a bottle. Peter Wollen, in his excellent book about the picture, calls the title number “the single most memorable dance number on film,” and as a mainstay of montages about cinema, Kelly’s raindance has sashayed its way into everyone’s visual DNA. Screenwriting logic dictated that the notion of “Singin’ in the Rain” would make sense about halfway through the film, when our lead(s) has accomplished a major goal but now has even thornier issues to resolve. An early draft of Comden and Green’s had the three leads performing it upon making the decision to change The Duelling Cavalier into a musical; Kelly decided that the film needed him to solo somewhere, and that the song would broaden its appeal and meaning if performed by Don solo after his first kiss with Kathy. Kelly also added the words “and dancin’” to Brown and Freed’s song from 1929. The scene took almost three days to film, and on at least one of those days Kelly had a fever of 103 degrees, a situation worsened by the thousands of prop raindrops dropping on his suit. One wonders how many thousands of times this anecdote has been dropped on latter-day reluctant actors and dancers.

Influenced by: gimlet-eyed nostalgia for the 1920s; Broadway conventions

Influenced: movie musicals and mirth in all mediums


A38. High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“They’re making me run. I’ve never run from anybody before.”

Stanley Kramer, who later marketed himself as Hollywood’s greatest liberal crusader, claimed that he fired screenwriter Carl Foreman from High Noon because Foreman had threatened to falsely name him to HUAC as a Communist. Foreman was indeed blacklisted by studios due to the “uncooperative witness” label and pressure from people like John Wayne, who later said that he would “never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country”; Foreman left America in 1952 to work in England.

Somehow, High Noon director Fred Zinnemann avoided being pigeonholed by HUAC, partly because he’d lost both his parents in the Holocaust, but more because he didn’t publicly confront McCarthyites, telling the press that High Noon was more about independence and conflict of conscience. The role of Will Kane was obviously written for a star like…Clift or Brando by 1951, but they both turned it down. John Wayne refused the role because High Noon was an obvious allegory against blacklisting. Gary Cooper shared Wayne’s conservatism, and even appeared as a friendly witness before HUAC, but felt the role was too good to pass up, and Cooper’s persona, his quiet integrity, fit Kane like a glove. In summer 1951 Hollywood only had one star named Kelly with a first initial of G, but that was about to change because Stanley Kramer had seen a woman named Grace Kelly in an off-Broadway play and cast her as Amy, Will Kane’s new wife. Their age gap was even wider than Bogart and Bacall’s, 50 to 21. That said, Kramer also cast 27-year-old Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez, who stands as a mixed message: she’s the former lover of Kane, of Kane’s nemesis, and of Kane’s deputy, who runs, uh, the town brothel, yet projects indomitability while she hectors the deputy and Amy over their choices.

In High Noon, the sheriff of a small Old-West town, Will Kane, gets married to a pacifist Quaker, Amy Fowler, and leaves by coach for another town where he’ll manage a store and raise a family. However, Will learns that Frank Miller has broken out of the prison Kane put him in and reassembled his outlaw gang, which will arrive on the 12 o clock train before the new sheriff arrives. Will returns to town determined to defend himself and the town; Amy insists that Will back down, and she says she’ll get on that noon train with or without Will. Most of the film consists of Will trying and failing to convince townspersons to help him, who refuse because: their taxes have already paid for Will’s help; a gunfight might hurt the town’s reputation; Will should never have put Miller away; they’re cowardly. In the end, Kane faces Miller and his three men alone, but Amy finally decides not to board the noon train and instead saves Will and the town. In the final shot, Will throws his sheriff’s badge into the dirt.

Movies with the visual ambition of The African Queen and Singin’ in the Rain were rare, and so westerns had become Hollywood’s leading contrast with the small-scale aesthetic of television, showcasing their wide-open colorful vistas, large horse trains, and complicated action sequences. That is, most westerns. High Noon looked at first like the kind of western that you did see on television, in black-and-white with mostly actors talking. But High Noon wound up showing how facile most TV westerns really were, particularly by essaying the “real time” conceit that most early TV dramas adopted out of necessity. In the hands of Zinnemann, the 75 filmic minutes that count down to high noon become something more excruciatingly suspenseful than anything on radio or TV. The sharp black-and-white celluloid contrasts well with the grainy flatness of your average Lone Ranger episode. Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White explain how Dimitri Tiomkin’s theme song of the film, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling,” quote “carries characters across space and helps bridge transitions between scene changes.” The song also inspired other Westerns to shoehorn in country songs when the song became an unexpected chart hit in 1952. 

The film High Noon did likewise, and became a nominee for seven Academy Awards and winner of four, including a career capstone Oscar for Cooper, who, because he was filming in Europe, asked his friend John Wayne to accept the award. That night Wayne was magnanimous, lying that he would go find his agent to learn why he didn’t get High Noon, but years later Wayne called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and made Rio Bravo as a response. As it happened, Soviets didn’t like the film either, dismissing its “glorification of the individual.” Later still, Ronald Reagan called it his favorite film, and Bill Clinton screened it at the White House a record 17 times, saying, “Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor.”

Influenced by: the Red Scare and HUAC persecution, Stanley Kramer-level idealism

Influenced: future invocations of put-upon American heroism


A39. Shane (Stevens, 1953) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks.”

Paramount allocated a then-large budget of three million dollars that covered color location shooting in Wyoming at the Grand Tetons, whose postcard massif was prominently featured, and Paramount’s new flat widescreen format, 1:66 to 1 instead of the old 1:37 to 1, to compete directly with television. Paramount also deployed George Stevens fresh off his Best Director Oscar win for A Place in the Sun. Stevens was well familiar with the horrors of violence, and with this budget Stevens innovated the audience’s experience of gunshots by, one, firing a special shotgun into a garbage can, and two, using hidden wires to jerk back victims of gunfire. Film historian Jay Hyams notes that after Shane became a hit, these innovations paved the way for the modern action film.

Shane erases persons of color from its presentation of some of the real events of Wyoming’s 1892 Johnson County War. The title character is a skilled-but-retired gunfighter who arrives in the Wyoming territory and gets hired as a ranch hand by the Starrett family: Joe, Marian, and little Joey. Though they acquired their ranch legally under the Homestead Act, cattle barons keep pushing at the edges in an attempt to harass them out of the valley. One thing leads to another, and as Shane prepares for a gunfight, Joey watches him lovingly, impressed that Shane’s skill with violence surpasses that of his father Joe, who has been invited to the town’s saloon to negotiate a settlement. Shane learns that the cattle barons are planning to kill Joe; when Shane and Joe fight over who will face them, Shane knocks Joe unconscious. Little Joey follows Shane into town and watches as Shane gets wounded while killing the barons. In the final scene, Shane tells Joey he has to leave town forever because “there’s no living with a killing,” and as he rides off Joey shouts, “Shane, come back! Shane!”

George Stevens tried to get Monty Clift to play Shane and William Holden to play Joe Starrett. Holden was busy making Billy Wilder’s Stalag-17, which would win Holden a Best Actor Oscar; Clift was busy making From Here to Eternity. Stevens might have tried to wait for one of them, but instead, as the story goes, Stevens asked Paramount executive Y. Frank Freeman for a list of available names under contract to Paramount, and within three minutes Stevens chose and cast Alan Ladd as Shane, Van Heflin as Joe Starrett, and his old friend Jean Arthur as Marian. This was a fateful three minutes. Beneath Paramount’s mountain, the star system was evolving; as films became less assembly-line, it became harder to plug contract actors into top projects like Shane. The lead trio of Shane were fine actors, but not really distinct enough from television’s western actors. 

Influenced by: The Johnson County War, John Ford/Anthony Mann westerns, roadshow imperatives

Influenced: Stevens is something of a director’s director


A40. From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann, 1953) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Some day you’ll walk in; I’ll be waiting. I’ll show you a couple of things.”

The epigraph in James Jones’ 1951 novel clarified that the title came from a Rudyard Kipling verse where he called British soldiers “damned from here to eternity.” Indeed, the novel was hardly popular because of beach kisses; instead it was considered hard-hitting, in a way literally, because of its story of Private Prewitt being physically tortured by his Captain. Prewitt, called “Prew” and eventually played by Clift, refuses to join the Captain’s boxing team because the last time he boxed, he made a friend blind. The 850-page novel was forthright about venereal disease, a brothel, a good-hearted prostitute, and a lot of covert and overt homosexuality, including a related suicide and an implication that Prew may have transferred because of a gay lover. The film adaptation, following the still-powerful Hays Code, changed gonorrhea to a miscarriage for the sake of its effect on the plot, turned the prostitute played by Donna Reed into a social club hostess, and simply deleted most of the queer stuff, although arguably, onscreen Maggio is suspiciously loyal to Prew, and one of them dies in the other’s arms.

From Here to Eternity, the blockbuster film, is about soldiers and their lovers stationed at Schofield Barracks in Oahu in the months just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the nefarious Captain Holmes hazes Prew for refusing to box for him, Sergeant Warren begins an affair with Holmes’ unhappy wife, Karen, who convinces Warren to try to become an officer so that they can be publicly together. Maggio gets into a bar fight with Fatso Judson, and when Maggio is later sent to the stockade, Fatso tortures Maggio as Holmes had Prewitt, with Holmes’ complicity. Spoiler: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Okay, real spoiler: maybe a week before the attack, after Maggio dies of injuries, Prew cries while delivering Maggio’s bugle tribute, Warren gives up on becoming an officer, and Holmes’ pattern of abuse reveals conduct unbecoming an officer. In the hard-hitting novel, Holmes actually gets promoted and transferred stateside before December 7th. The U.S. Army, providing its bases and support, insisted on many changes from pages to screen, but the one that most frustrated Zinnemann was the forced resignation of Holmes under threat of court-martial, or as the director later called it, “the worst moment in the film, resembling a recruiting short…it makes me sick every time I see it.” Despite this capitulation, the Navy and Army were unhappy with the finished film and refused to permit their names in the opening credits, something Zinnemann may have been secretly happy about. Audiences didn’t seem bothered; the film became one of the ten highest-grossing films of the 1950s.

Fans of the film The Godfather sometimes believe that Frank Sinatra was cast as Maggio because of the mafia, but no, Sinatra lobbied for and earned what was for him a step down to a supporting role; when his character Maggio was beaten to a pulp, it almost felt like penance for Sinatra’s recent public arrogance and bad choices since his films with Gene Kelly, a penance that factored into why he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sinatra was also with the right name on the ballot: From Here to Eternity was nominated for 13 Academy Awards for 1953 and won a well-deserved 8, including Best Director and Best Picture. As From Here to Eternity passed from there to the eternity of cinema history, it seems to have avoided the reappraisals of, say, Stagecoach, which we now see as a film that, toward its end, other-izes angry persons of color who attack our white heroes. Scholars might have similarly condemned From Here to Eternity’s treatment of its so-called Japs, but haven’t, partly because the film barely shows their faces, partly because Pearl Harbor’s sneak attackers are so vilified everywhere. That doesn’t excuse the film’s whitewashing of the native descendants of Hawaii more generally, and if that seems beyond white America at the time, keep in mind that the musical “South Pacific,” based on a veteran’s novel about the war in the Pacific that included romance between white soldiers and Pacific Islanders, was in 1953 enjoying its fifth smash year on Broadway. 

Influenced by: films like The Best Years of Our Lives particular in the focus on female POVs

Influenced: endlessly referenced; considered an all-time classic


A41. On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am, I mean, let’s face it.”

Budd Schulberg based Terry on whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DeVincenzo, based Father Barry on “waterfront priest” Father John M. Corridan, based Johnny Friendly on East River boss Michael Clemente, and put the action in Hoboken, preserving enough differences for a barely-plausible deniability. Kazan and Schulberg brought their script to Darryl Zanuck at Fox, who said, “Who’s gonna care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” Zanuck’s comment shows how far he, and Hollywood, had come in the 14 years since Zanuck produced The Grapes of Wrath. Of course, an actor like Humphrey Bogart might vaguely suggest that he’d come from poverty before becoming a detective or other hero, but an entire film about the struggles of working-class palookas set or even made on the docks of Hoboken? Every major studio turned it down, leaving it to Sam Spiegel, who needed to prove that his producing The African Queen wasn’t a fluke. 

Sam Spiegel managed to set up a deal with a reluctant Columbia after Kazan managed to convince Marlon Brando to play the lead. Kazan had theoretically “discovered” Brando, but that didn’t mean as much now that Brando was a big star. Before winning the Oscar, Frank Sinatra thought he had the inside track to play Terry Malloy, especially considering he was actually from Hoboken where the film was set and eventually shot. However, Kazan was so sure that he needed a “Brando-like actor” that he set up a screen test of a Terry/Edie scene with two unknowns from his Actor’s Studio, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. After Spiegel and Brando’s agent Jay Kanter saw the electrifying test, they agreed to make a deal on Brando’s rate. To play Edie, Kazan took a chance on yet another unknown from his Actor’s Studio, Eva Marie Saint. Other Method Actors filled out the rest of the cast, especially the beefier-looking ones, and Kazan deserves just a soupcon of credit for giving a black actor a few lines as one of the main longshoremen. Less comprehensible is why Kazan created more noir-ish vignettes of Terry and Edie running down wet, headlight-illuminated alleys than he did of dock laborers actually laboring.

On the Waterfront is about Terry Malloy, a once-promising boxer who used to take dives to earn his brother Charlie short-term profits. Now Terry is known as a bum who hangs around docks hoping to do day labor, and usually gets it through Charlie, now the right-hand-man of dock boss Johnny Friendly. The film opens with Terry signaling a worker named Joey to the edge of a rooftop where, Terry thinks, Friendly’s men are going to “lean on” Joey; in fact, they defenestrate Joey because he is about to testify to Friendly’s extortion and racketeering. Joey’s sister Edie wants to know who killed her brother; Terry courts her without telling her what he knows. Another dockworker, Kayo, with the staunch support of Father Barry, prepares to testify, and Friendly kills him as well. After Terry confesses to Edie, she tries to get Terry and Father Barry to bring down Friendly, but Terry refuses to risk his brother Charlie’s life. Yet Terry is frustrated with Charlie’s corruption, and finally confronts him, saying “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am, I mean let’s face it.” Charlie gives Terry a gun to defend himself, and when Friendly learns of this, he leaves Charlie’s corpse on a meat-hook for Terry to find. Terry almost kills Friendly in retaliation, but Father Barry convinces Terry to retaliate with court testimony, and he does. In the finale, Friendly’s goon hires every hopeful dockworker except Terry, but they refuse to work unless Terry does too. Finally Friendly is humiliated and the dockworkers go on without him.

Critics have long maintained that On the Waterfront is an extended paean to informing. On the one hand, there’s the un-subtle symbolism of the hobby that makes Terry a sympathetic figure, namely raising pigeons in rooftop cages. Did an earlier version of the script have Terry raising canaries and rats, as well? On the other hand, when liberal crusader Brando was asked why he took the role, he emphasized the story’s factual elements and the indisputable bravery of real-life working-class whistleblowers. Brando had good reason not to disavow the project; it deservedly earned him his Best Actor Oscar as his haunting “I coulda been a contender” speech became part of even the most abbreviated looks at film history. The well-made, well-received, well-earning film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight, including Best Screenplay for Schulberg, Best Director for Kazan, Best Cinematography for the outstanding Boris Kaufman, Best Picture, which went to Sam Spiegel, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint in her debut role. 

Influenced by: Kazan’s work and Adler-inflected work on screen and stage

Influenced: performances; maybe every serious American film drama about labor


A42. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“When I married Miles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted misfits, and we have loved every minute of it.”

While Dial M for Murder, made a few months before Rear Window, relentlessly feels like a play, Rear Window calls attention to Jeff’s confinedness and is thus almost paradoxically more cinematic. Hitchcock called it a “purely cinematic film” as he compared it to, and thus popularized, the Kuleshov effect: a shot of a cute little dog makes the next shot of Jeff’s expression seem kind, a shot of an aerobicizing young woman makes the next shot of Jeff’s same expression seem that of a dirty old man. Jeff is played by James Stewart in his second picture for Hitchcock, his first also being set entirely in a room, a film called Rope. But while Rope was meta-textually about the crushing weight of “real” time running out, as later explored in High Noon featuring Grace Kelly, Rear Window is meta-textually about the voyeurism at the heart of cinema’s appeal, and many consider it the Master of Suspense’s masterpiece. 

Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder” gave Hitchcock a perfect set-up, and even a perfect set. As Francois Truffaut said, the courtyard that Jeff observes via his rear window symbolizes the world, and yet every vignette relates to love and marriage, pushing Jeff to deal with his reluctance to marry Lisa. There’s a certain symmetry at work where Lisa can run around while Jeff is immobilized with his leg stuck in a cast, and across the way, Lars Thorwald can run around while his wife is stuck sick in bed. All the pieces fit together in Rear Window, but instead of audiences perceiving this as annoying, the perfection compensates for Jeff’s broken leg and broken outlook on life. Handicapped persons had figured prominently in previous films, but Rear Window is almost two hours of a movie star in one spot, in a wheelchair, brimming with what else he’d like to be doing. The depth of the story, perhaps, lies in the fact that Jeff doesn’t realize how much he enjoys spying on his neighbors; when Lars confronts him as to what he wants, Jeff has no answer. Hitchcock knew that audiences were more like Jeff than they usually admitted.

In Rear Window, Jeff is a world-traveling professional photographer who is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment after a car accident. A phone call to his boss clarifies that Jeff isn’t rich, but he has a regular nursemaid, Stella (played by Thelma Ritter at her most Thelma Rittery), and is dating a classy, much younger, beautiful woman (Grace Kelly) who, Jeff says, has New York in the palm of her hand. Jeff hears a neighbor get hurt, and when she disappears from the window where Jeff was observing her, Jeff comes to believe that her husband Lars has murdered her. As Jeff, Lisa, and Stella watch the activities of the courtyard dwellers, Lisa, then Stella, and finally, too late, Jeff’s detective friend Tom, come to share Jeff’s belief in Lars’s guilt. Without giving away the ending, there’s a late scene in which Lisa sneaks into Lars’ apartment and finds the missing woman’s wedding ring which she would have taken if she were truly on holiday as Lars had told the police. Lisa places the ring on her finger – a dual significance – for Jeff to see through his telephoto lens. That lens watches Lisa’s hand waving behind her back, then pans over to Lars, who notices what Lisa is up to, turns his head, and for the first time looks directly and accusingly at Jeff. A live audience will inevitably gasp; they, along with Jeff, have been found out.

On the Waterfront may have clobbered Rear Window at the Oscars, but Rear Window has probably won greater immortality through cinema classes and the dozens of books that examine the film in far greater detail than anything I’ve said here. For example, Rear Window figures prominently in Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which Mulvey shows how the film demonstrates the mutual dependence of patriarchy and scopophilia, on her way to coining the phrase “male gaze,” a term that means objectifying women for straight male pleasure, a term that has fortuitously found wider purchase in, and illuminated, the world.

Influenced by: Hitchcock’s 43 previous features and his exacting style

Influenced: anyone who studied Hitchcock


A43. Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You’re tearing me apart!”

A weird thing happened at East of Eden’s New York premiere: critics went wild over James Dean, causing Jack Warner to realize Rebel Without a Cause could be more than a B-picture. Rebel had already begun shooting in black and white; Warner instructed director Nicholas Ray to scrap the black and white footage, reshoot it in color, and even use Warners’ state-of-the-art CinemaScope process. Ray was already looking for a way to distinguish his lead character’s leather jacket from the one Brando wore in The Wild One; now Ray could simply make the jacket red, a choice that would help his film ascend into iconic status.

In many ways, Rebel Without a Cause aimed to simply distill the energy of The Wild One into a story of an adolescent named Jim Stark against his parents and the world, and in so doing, Jack Warner caught a wave bigger than he could imagine, with Jim Stark only the first and best appropriation of Johnny Strabler, both figures later echoed by everyone from Elvis to Hell’s Angels to the Fonz to Danny from Grease to a million real-life so-called “greasers.” Some critics, like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, would upbraid Dean for a slavish imitation of Brando, apparently missing that teens like Jim Stark were learning to perform new identities through seeing The Wild One

The popularity of Method Acting as expressed by Clift, Brando, and in this iteration, Dean, was less about Lee Strasberg’s sense memory exercises and more about those furtive anxious glances, that 1950s sense that something was wrong with John Wayne-style masculinity. One might have thought Rebel Without a Cause’s writers Irving Schulman and Nicholas Ray got their title from The Wild One’s dialogue, but in fact the phrase came from psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner‘s 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, even as the film made no other reference to the book. By the time of the script-writing ten years later, Schulman and Ray had some specific causes in mind, though they knew it sounded better to claim otherwise: as an over-summary, Jim was frustrated with his parents and felt alienated and isolated from 1950s repression of masculinity and any morality beyond capitalism. 

Rebel without a Cause film broke ground in trying to be honest about what was called the moral decay of American youth, about what was not yet called the generation gap, and about what Oscar Wilde’s trial, among others, called “the love that dare not speak its name,” a love that had been candidly portrayed in books like From Here to Eternity but never empathetically portrayed in a Hollywood film. Writer Schulman later said that he was sorry he hadn’t been more explicit about the sexuality of Plato, Jim’s starry-eyed sidekick. You can’t really blame Schulman: the Hays Code was explicit about forbidding any positive representation of homosexuality, and even as Rebel was filming, MGM was adapting a hit play about a homosexual man, Tea and Sympathy, into a movie that would somehow cut all the homosexuality out? Basically its lead would have to be ostracized for being a sissy who doesn’t like girls (wink, wink), and something similar is true of Plato. The clues are there for those willing to see them, from Plato’s locker poster of Alan Ladd to the dreamy way Sal Mineo, as Plato, talks and talks and talks about Jim.

Rebel Without a Cause begins with three teenagers under arrest in a police department’s juvenile division. Jim, Judy, and Plato, meet, exchange grievances about their life and parents, and cautiously become friends. When Jim’s parents fail to cease their bickering even as they are picking him up, Jim cries, “You’re tearing me apart!” In high school, Judy runs with the “cooler” juvenile delinquents, led by the obnoxious Buzz; on a field trip at Griffith Observatory, Buzz goads Jim into a knife fight that Jim wins. Buzz challenges Jim to a “chickie run” whereby two cars speed toward a cliff and the loser is the one who jumps out first. After Jim elliptically asks his father Frank about defending one’s honor, and Frank recommends backing down, Jim and Buzz do the chickie run, Buzz’s door-lock jams, and Buzz plunges to his death. Like Terry, Jim feels displaced guilt and confesses his involvement, in Jim’s case to his parents, who threaten to move the family again. Jim flees and makes his own family with Judy and Plato in an abandoned mansion which may or may not be meant as the house from Sunset Boulevard (it was filmed there). Jim and Judy share a first kiss as Buzz’s gang turns up and finds a half-asleep Plato, who shoots and wounds one of them, causing them to flee even as Plato accuses Jim of leaving him behind. Plato flees to the Observatory, Jim and Judy convince Plato to exchange his gun’s bullets for Jim’s jacket, but the police see Plato holding his gun and shoot and kill him anyway, echoing the fate of pretty much every openly gay character in Hollywood before 1970. Jim introduces Judy to his father in a tentative reconciliation. 

We will never know how the film would have been received if Dean had lived, but, echoing the Buzz character, the 24-year-old Dean died in a shocking car accident on September 30, 1955, and four weeks later, the film premiered. If Rebel Without a Cause made a few points ham-handedly, these were overwhelmed by its sudden stature as a memento mori, a cry of a new generation that was apparently dying to be heard. We might now see it as white privilege, but in a way, that was its virtue compared to the same year’s The Blackboard Jungle, about disaffected New York City slum-bound teenagers: Rebel was saying that even or especially America’s suburban middle-class teens also weren’t happy with this system, a message that would be amplified by youth movements during the 1960s. Rebel is a sort of a small film, but in some ways it’s bigger than this list, bigger than Hollywood. 

Influenced by: stories of rebellious teens; Dean was almost too influenced by Brando

Influenced: before John Hughes this was THE teen film, prompting youth in 50s and 60s to question authority


A44. The Searchers (Ford, 1956) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.”

A genre probably needs a certain level of popularity and saturation to pivot to a fruitful exploration of its darkest elements. When Alan LeMay was writing the novel The Searchers in 1953 and 1954, he knew he didn’t need to write like dimestore western authors of a half-century earlier; he knew shows like Gunsmoke were among the biggest hits on radio and TV; he knew films like Red River, The Gunfighter, Winchester 73, High Noon and Shane had been major commercial hits. Director John Ford knew all this as well as knowing his own films that had established his reputation as master of the genre; despite that, Ford had resisted making a western since 1950’s Rio GrandeThe Searchers offered Ford something new to say, and for the ninth time he cast John Wayne as his lead.

Maybe there was something to that line in Sunset Boulevard when William Holden says that Darryl Zanuck and Fox were all wet. Wilder, Kazan and Steinbeck kept their distance, and so did John Ford after 1946, refusing Zanuck’s offer of a guaranteed 600,000 dollars a year in order to remain independent. After a decade full of interesting projects to be discussed in later podcasts, The Searchers was Ford’s first film for Warner Brothers, which enabled Ford to work with master scorer Max Steiner for the first time. Ford might have shot The Searchers in the same CinemaScope that Rebel used, but he and his cinematographer Winton C. Hoch chose to use an even newer process called VistaVision, which doubled the amount of photos used for each image and even ran horizontally through the camera, unlike the standard frame-by-frame verticality of most celluloid. This helped Monument Valley appear its most Monument Valley-ish; as for critics who groused that the novel was set in Texas, Ford could respond that he was educating Americans about the fuller extent of 1860s’ Comancheria.  

The Searchers begins in 1868 when Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards returns, after eight years, to his brother’s ranch in West Texas, where Ethan gives his eight-year-old niece Debbie a military medal as a gift. Cattle get stolen from the neighboring Jorgensen ranch and Ethan and local men pursue the thieves. Ethan realizes the theft was a Comanche distraction and when they return to the ranches, Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew have all been killed and his two nieces kidnapped. After a long and battle-filled pursuit, Ethan finds the older girl dead and probably violated in a canyon; when asked for details, Ethan grunts, “long as you live, never ask me more.” The Searchers are now down to Ethan’s uneasy partnership with Martin Pawley, whom Ethan calls “blanket-head” and worse because Marty is one-eighth indigenous, and whom Laurie Jorgenson romances during winters when Ethan and Martin lose the trail. By the way, the film is often funnier than this summary suggests. By the time Ethan and Martin finally catch up to Scar and his Comanches, about five years have passed, and Debbie is now 13, played by Natalie Wood, and dressed in Native clothes. Ethan takes deadly aim at Debbie and Marty protects her with his body. Ethan changes his mind and he and Martin take Debbie back to her father’s ranch. As the family reunites and goes inside, in one of the most famous shots of film history, Ethan is left outside as the door closes, suggesting a racist can save a family yet not be allowed to return to it. Andrew Sarris wrote that we think of John Wayne as the “displaced loner uncomfortable with the very civilization he is helping to establish and preserve,” and the ending of The Searchers seems to finally put Wayne on the correct side of the civilization-savagery threshold his characters had done so much to enforce.

The Searchers is loosely based on the real-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted by Comanche from her Texas home and whose uncle, James M. Parker, spent much of his life and fortune in an obsessive search for his niece. Frank Nugent’s excellent script names the Comanche tribe as the Nawyecka, the same one that kidnapped Parker. As Ford films Nugent’s version, the obvious hints of attraction between Ethan and his brother’s wife suggest that maybe, possibly, Debbie is Ethan’s daughter, abandoned to his brother at birth, a possibility that adds depth to Ethan’s ruthless search and his determination not to let Debbie live amongst Indians – one way or another. The novel ends differently, with Debbie refusing to live with any of them; she is only found by Martin days after she fled the Comanche. One could argue that the Ethan character, on page and screen, is no more or less savage than that of the story’s lead Comanche, Scar, who says “Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many … scalps.” But then, Ford makes sure that the real hero of the film is Martin, the mixed-race adoptee who steadily maintains a near-impossible quest while also limiting Ethan’s worst behavior. The actor playing this multi-racial hero, Jeffrey Hunter, was white (if tan); the context there is not only the 1950s but also Jack Warner’s ideas about how much audiences could handle.

Race, rape, and miscegenation are major themes of the film and the Ethan character is a kind of Captain Ahab Goering, as maniacally obsessive as he is racist, far more than audiences were heretofore asked to root for. All of that may account for why many of the film’s contemporaries were relatively unimpressed. While Rebel Without a Cause spelled out its critique of contemporary masculinity in broad strokes, The Searchers, if you squint, seems to laud Ethan’s toxicity. Scholars like Edward Buscombe, and many others, now recognize John Wayne’s Ethan as one of the first real anti-heroes, forefather to characters like Harry Callahan and Travis Bickle, people society may need but certainly do not want. Roger Ebert later wrote, as a compliment, “I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide.” Somehow, John Ford, while shooting in Monument Valley, squinted and saw further than the horizon, to a time when Westerns and their cowboy heroes would be close to obsolete, and audiences would more fully appreciate a thorough deconstruction of the cowboy’s darkest impulses. The Searchers is now usually cited as not only the best western but one of the ten greatest films ever made.

Influenced by: then-popular simplified TV westerns, as contrast

Influenced: anti-hero narratives


A45. Giant (Stevens, 1956) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You all think that the glory happened here in the East, don’t you, with Valley Forge and Bunker Hill? Do you know about San Jacinto? Have you heard about the Alamo?”

Edna Ferber was what we would now call an ally. Jewish Ferber never married, bore no children, may have never been romantically involved, and instead focused on her Pulitzer-Prize-winning work, which generally featured strong female protagonists working toward eliminating racism. She wrote the anti-racist stories that were turned into the excellent films Cimarron, Show Boat, andGiant, although the source book of the latter was so, uh, giant as to be considered almost unfilmable. George Stevens took this as a friendly challenge and prepared to use much of Warners’ two-million-dollar budget on location shots in Virginia and Texas. Stevens put the façade of a Victorian mansion in the middle of the Texas plains, simulating the home of the real person on whom Ferber had based her lead character. Stevens didn’t love the widescreen processes he’d pioneered with Shane; he felt images were crisper and more vivid in Kodak’s regular mid-50s color stock, and he chose that for Giant.

At 201 minutes, the only film longer than Giant on the chronological AFI 100 so far is also set in the South and based on a woman’s popular novel, and in some ways Giant plays as a response. Like Gone with the WindGiant begins in a sort of opulent splendor, on a grassy outdoor promontory of a wealthy mansion, though in Giant’s case, we are in Maryland where Bick Benedict seeks a horse. Bick, played by Hudson, finds wealthy socialite Leslie Lynnton, played by Taylor, they have a whirlwind romance, and he brings her back to his Texas family ranch, called Reata. If early in Gone with the Wind Scarlett had married her heart’s desire Ashley and moved him into Tara, perhaps helping Scarlett foster a wiser attitude toward non-white persons, you’d have a story a lot like Giant. Here Leslie helps Angel, a child of one of Bick’s Mexican farmers, and begs Bick to do more for them, which he refuses to do. Instead of Rhett you’ve got Jett, namely Jett Rink played by Dean, who strikes it rich off an inheritance from Bick’s sister, and, like Rhett, tries and fails to seduce the lead brunette. An unwelcome war disrupts all of their lives.

Similarities to Gone with the Wind end there, because Rhett and Scarlett were concerned only for themselves and daughter Bonnie, who died in a horse accident, while Bick and Leslie deal with their grown kids’ headstrong desires even as Leslie mourns the loss of young-man Angel, who died in war. Jordy, along with his sister Judy, wants a career in medicine and refuses to be tied down to running Reata, eventually compelling Bick to agree to let Jett drill for oil on his family ranch. Jordy begins dating Angel’s sister Juana, and Bick and Leslie’s daughter Luz begins dating Jett even though he is obviously much older. Tensions come to a head at Jett’s Christmas party when Jett refuses to serve Juana, causing Bick to challenge Jett to a fight until he sees that Jett has become too drunk to fight. In a shot that Dean supposedly told Stevens to shoot from further away, to emphasize Jett’s alienation, Jett drunkenly laments his decades-long love for Leslie, while Luz watches and walks away heartbroken. On their way home the next day, a bigoted white diner owner refuses service to Mexicans, and Bick does fight and eventually beat this racist. Back at Reata, Bick laments that his family legacy is falling apart, but Leslie says she’s never been prouder of him as they look at their mixed-race grandchildren.

By the time Dean played Jett, the self-immolating, anything-can-happen quality of Method Acting seemed to some a facile conceit. George Stevens had barely conflicted with Clift on A Place in the Sun other than to bar Clift’s acting coach from the set. On Giant, by contrast, Dean was so committed to playing Jett in a certain way that Stevens fought with Dean over everything from old-age makeup to scheduling to days spent waiting in 100-degree Texas heat. In more ways than one, Rock Hudson is barely acting when playing Bick’s disgust at Jett; Hudson felt Dean was trying way too hard, and Hudson far preferred the unvarnished naturalism of someone like James Stewart, William Holden, or John Wayne. Liz Taylor, by contrast, was acting Leslie’s disgust at Jett; as with Monty Clift six years earlier, she had become esteemed friends with Dean off camera. Because Stevens’ battles with Dean kept him from a few beloved auto races, on Dean’s last day of shooting, Warners gave Dean a brand-new Porsche Spyder 500. Five days later, Dean drove the car to his death. On the day the Giant set got the news, Stevens asked Taylor to film some anodyne reaction shots, and she never forgave the director. 

Influenced by: Stevens’ humanism; new “epic” imperatives

Influenced: its timing, at the outset of civil rights movement, worked out well for Hollywood


A46. The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“But there are times… when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything – or if it made any difference at all, really.”

If American producer Sam Spiegel had truly cared to show the turpitude of white dudes, he might have made an autobiography: it was widely known that he at least hit on underage girls. Back then, his behavior was excused; nothing I’m about to say excuses any of that sort of behavior. After winning the Best Picture Oscar for On the Waterfront, Spiegel wanted something both Oscar-worthy and roadshow-worthy, a prestigious drama with the travelogue elements of his film The African Queen. Spiegel found Pierre Boulle’s award-winning French novel Le pont de la riviere Kwai, or as its British publisher called it, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” about the Imperial Japanese Army forcing British prisoners of war to build a railway bridge in remote Southeast Asia. Spiegel hired two blacklisted writers, then living in London, to write the screenplay, and considered just about every A-list director – for example, John Ford, Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler – before deciding to save money and offer the job to the director of two small films Spiegel admired, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. That director, David Lean, had only just made Summertime, his first film made entirely outside the U.K. (in Venice), but Lean was game to expand his horizons even while criticizing the U.K. for expanding its horizons. 

Spiegel was an Anglophile, but not so much of an Anglophile that he thought he could roadshow a film starring only British and Japanese actors; he needed an American A-lister, someone like Gregory Peck or Marlon Brando. But this time Spiegel wasn’t going to cast a Bogart only to find out that Bogart couldn’t master the accent and would have to be rewritten as Canadian. This time the part would be written as American from the get-go, and to attract the best actor possible, he would change Boulle’s novel which cut back and forth between the entirely inescapable camp and the British battalion coming to blow up its bridge. The American, Shears, would begin as a prisoner of war, escape, return to base, frolic in the ocean with a nice-looking officer woman, play a big reversal scene where he’s inducted into the bridge-bound battalion, and get seduced on the way to the camp by local young starry-eyed women. The role was starting to sound like a cross between two of always-world-weary William Holden’s recent roles, in Stalag-17 where he played an escaping POW, and in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing where he played an American in a cross-cultural romance in Hong Kong (with scenes filmed in Hong Kong). Holden’s last few posters had prominently featured his bare chest, and after signing Holden for a record salary, Spiegel made sure the movie and the poster made plenty of use of Holden’s tanned bare chest.

Spiegel knew that The African Queen had missed opportunities by effacing Africans; improved inclusion is one way to look at the Ceylonese young women cast as the battalion helpmeets. (They may have also been part of negotiations between the government and the production, in ways good and bad.) In 1957, American film audiences had minimal familiarity with the jungles of Southeast Asia, giving Spiegel a certain flexibility to make the film, one, in the most accommodating country – which turned out to be Ceylon, now Sri Lanka – and, two, into a sumptuous, locally flavored travelogue as the battalion treks to the bridge. By 1957, through World War II and the Korean War, American movies had seen at least 15 years of the worst kinds of Asian stereotyping – think Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, pidgeon Eng’rish, and much worse – and so Spiegel would give his film credibility by countering all that with the casting of silent film star Sessue Hayakawa in a kind of career grace note as the conflicted camp commander Saito. 

Holden and Sayakawa were almost the only stars Spiegel could have cast in their roles; he had more flexibility with the third and final member of the lead cast, who could have been nearly any strong British actor over 40, but he deferred that choice to Lean. David Lean had given Alec Guinness his first movie role, a minor one in Great Expectations, but in the decade since, Guinness had become famous as the face of the hilarious Ealing comedies even while his ability went beyond comedy, beyond Method Acting; Guinness may have been the most agile, versatile actor of his generation. It turned out he had to be, because he arrived in Ceylon ready to play Colonel Nicholson with a certain sly smile, but Lean wouldn’t let him, insisting that Nicholson was boorish in more ways than one, a tension that erupted into shouting when Lean insisted on filming Nicholson’s big speech about regrets from behind Guinness’ head. Guinness felt that Spiegel and Lean were leaning too much into the French novel’s anti-British character; Lean insisted, at least publicly, that the book was more generally anti-war and anti-empire. Under Lean’s direction, Guinness delivers a chilling representation of blinkered naivete and misplaced grace under pressure. Guinness is never better than in the scene where he is let out of an oven-like cage after weeks and staggers while barely keeping his head erect. He later explained that he based his movement on his son then suffering from polio, and that it was maybe the proudest he was of any of his work.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, the book title’s “over” changed to a crisper “on,” set in rural Burma in 1943, begins with captured British troops whistling as they are frog-marched into a Japanese-controlled camp, whistling (ooooo). (Lean was frustrated that his extras were so disorganized, and insisted that they whistle something, anything, to keep them in line, and they chose the old 1914 number, a minor-keyed song that became a major hit.) Commander Saito puts the British to work building a railway bridge, but Colonel Nicholson is adamant that he and his officers will not do manual labor, and for his impudence and repeated refusals he is forced to spend most of a month in the sun in a cramped steel box until Saito uses a Japanese holiday as a pretext for forgiveness. The British officers re-assume command of their battalion’s work on the bridge, and improve upon the Japanese design, or as Nicholson puts it, “We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame.” A lieutenant mentions that they might use elms that have held the London Bridge for 600 years, and for the first time Nicholson’s face brightens as he considers his own possible 600-year legacy. Shears escapes but gets drafted into a British mission to blow up the bridge that Nicholson’s troops are building. Lean and Spiegel’s naturalism pays off well in the final hour as the absence of music brings out the jungle noises and the genuinely new-wood bridge invests us the way that Nicholson is invested, even as the saboteurs prepare to destroy the thing. Although the novel ends differently, film logic dictates jouissance and a revelation as the two leads confront each other – sadly one of these is not Hayakawa; the film’s second half loses track of him and he’s killed ignominiously. As Shears dies, Nicholson says “what have I done?” just before apparently dying falling on the detonator and blowing up the entire bridge as a train crosses it. The ending doesn’t quite explain if Nicholson meant to destroy the bridge, but the ambiguity suits what is ultimately a harsh critique of the myopic behavior of three empires – British, American, and Japanese – jostling for unmerited control of a river. 

The Bridge on the River Kwai may be the last film directed by David Lean that merits his surname – despite its travelogue elements, the film never feels bloated or languorous. Lean carefully brings into synch the lush, sometimes brutal visuals, the meditation on human nature, and the ticking clocks of the oppositional military enterprises. River Kwai was a massive, well-deserved success, the highest-earning film released in 1957 and one of the five highest-earning of the decade. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 7, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, which rather improbably went to Pierre Boulle, the novel’s French author who didn’t speak English. The film’s actual writers, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, were both blacklisted, and this very obvious injustice was one of the reasons that blacklist fell apart within the next few years. Meanwhile, Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson became the least sympathetic character to earn the Best Actor Oscar up to that point. Guinness may have been reluctant to perform the hollow, auto-pilot, dangerous futility at the heart of British imperialism, but it hit perfectly in the age of the man in the grey flannel suit. 

Influenced by: its blacklisted writers; the French novel; more honesty about World War II

Influenced: won Best Picture; considered the best film of its kind


A47. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.”

Francois Truffaut, in his book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, said that French crime novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote the 1954 novel From Among the Dead specifically for Hitchcock, a claim they denied. Certainly, the basic story contains many familiar Hitchcock elements, and when Hitchcock acquired the rights, he may have been hoping its French character might prove attractive to someone else. When I discussed Rear Window, I noted that scholars like Laura Mulvey have used that film, and other films, to interrogate Hitchcock’s scopophilia and objectification of women. I left out the fact that such analyses almost always begin in the 1950s and leave out the first 40-odd films of Hitchcock’s career, erasing Ingrid Bergman, who starred in three films for Hitchcock and, upon the release of the third one, left America, went to Italy to make movies and babies with Robert Rossellini, and was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate. If Hitchcock felt he had quote-unquote “lost” Bergman, a few years later he quote-unquote “won” Grace Kelly, who, like Bergman, possessed a rather rare combination of beauty, talent, natural tenacity, vaguely European class, and what is sometimes called “star quality.” Scholars write that Hitchcock fetishizes Kelly, but I would argue she generally transcends being objectified. In her third film for the director, he brought her to Monaco to make To Catch a Thief, where Kelly fell for Crown Prince Rainier, after which she left Hollywood to make babies. Rumor has it that Hitchcock made discreet inquiries about Vertigo to Grace Kelly before and after she gave birth to Princess Caroline in January 1957. If you know Vertigo, you can imagine Kelly as both the finishing-school-bred Madeleine and the more loose-limbed, more On-the-Waterfront-ish Judy. Meta-textually, reconnecting the stars of Rear Window in Vertigo would have connected to Scottie trying to remake Madeleine into his imagined ideal. But Kelly wasn’t returning to movies for Hitchcock or anyone else; Hitch would never again quote-unquote “have” her or Bergman.

Hitchcock liked stars, not least because they reduce the need to explain who their characters are; Hitchcock attempted to find his next Bergman/Kelly-like star in Shirley MacLaine, Doris Day, and then Vera Miles. Hitchcock put Miles under contract and offered her the lead in Vertigo, or as Hitchcock put it, “I was offering her a big part, the chance to become a beautiful sophisticated blonde, a real actress. We’d have spent a heap of dollars on it, and she has the bad taste to get pregnant. I hate pregnant women, because then they have children.” Unrelated circumstances pushed production past Vera Miles’ delivery, meaning Hitch could have cast her after all, but spite led him to cast Kim Novak, who at 24 was younger than Miles and Kelly and further from Stewart’s age than even Kelly during Rear Window. Hitchcock later regretted casting Novak, telling Truffaut that she “arrived on set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with.” 

All of this offscreen drama may have affected the onscreen results, may have something to do with Hitchcock’s oeuvre’s evolving misogyny. For example, when Vertigo was merely a script that Hitchcock was (maybe) presenting to Kelly, it included a certain departure from the novel that considerably humanized the Madeleine-slash-Judy character, in which she writes a letter of confession that removes the big reveal from the final minutes, creating a third act that is less about plot and more about Scottie’s demented obsession. Hitchcock shot the scene with Novak anyway, previewed it, and then decided to cut it out, one of many ways he would express his frustration with Novak. This was noteworthy because Hitchcock was famous for shooting only the shots he truly needed and not filming “coverage” as many other directors did, precisely to take away the studio’s power to overrule his edits. This case flipped that logic on its head: Paramount head Barney Balaban learned of the dispute and ordered Hitchcock to put the picture back the way it was, with Novak’s character getting more sympathy. By the time Hitchcock spoke to Truffaut, he said that he preferred the final version because it created more suspense around Judy’s and Scottie’s actions. 

A second example pertains to clothes. Had Hitchcock landed Grace Kelly again, no doubt she would have, as in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, worn a series of stylish outfits; costumer extraordinaire Edith Head dressed Novak in a grey suit because, Hitchcock explained, it is jarring as it isn’t a natural color for a blonde. The grey suit is so distinct that it makes Scottie mistake the real Madeleine for the fake one, and later, under a green light, a fake one for the real one, so to speak. But this, too, works, and reminds us of the feelings of Sloan Wilson’s man in the grey flannel suit, how he feels nothing but a simulation of how he is supposed to feel. Both Judy and Scottie are like that man, feeling a disorienting alienation from the world, trying and failing to change that through each other. 

Talent like Edith Head reminds us that other than the Madeleine role, Hitchcock got just about everything else he wanted: Bernard Herrmann writing a devilishly repetitive score, Saul Bass creating graphics, John Whitney making Lissajous curves in what some consider cinema’s first computer-animated sequence, a Harryhausen-class model that gave a tower-less mission a crucial tower, and his stalwart DP Robert Burks bringing out San Francisco’s highlights and lowlights, from a fog filter in a graveyard to an occasional in-camera technique of simultaneously dollying out and zooming in that is now called “the dolly zoom” or “the Vertigo effect.” Early in the film, Gavin asks Scottie if he believes in ghosts, leading viewers to wonder if this will be Hitchcock’s first supernatural film, priming us to eventually remember that the magic of cinema is real.

Vertigo is about a detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson, who retires from the San Francisco Police Department after learning that he suffers from vertigo, a false sense of rotational movement typically triggered by looking down from heights. An old college friend, Gavin, reconnects with Scottie and explains that his wife Madeleine goes wandering around S.F. and then returns home remembering nothing about where she was. Scottie reluctantly agrees to begin following Madeleine, and in ten wordless film minutes, Scottie’s car, following hers, almost always drives down, down the city’s steep streets. Madeleine visits museums and missions and jumps into the water near the Golden Gate Bridge. Scottie nurses her back to health, begins courting her more properly, counsels her to reject her periodic possession by her suicidal ancestor Carlotta Valdez, and falls in love with her. Speaking of falling, they follow Madeleine’s half-memories to Mission San Juan Batista, and while apparently possessed by Carlotta, Madeleine ascends the tower even as Scottie’s vertigo prevents him from following more than about halfway up, whereupon Scottie sees Madeleine’s body falling past the tower’s window to her death. After a nervous breakdown and a long convalescence, Scottie is back on the San Francisco streets, where he happens to see Judy, who looks like a red-headed version of Madeleine. Scottie meets Judy, courts her improperly, dresses her to look more like Judy, and realizes the truth when he finds Madeleine’s old necklace. Scottie takes Judy to the mission and frog-marches her up the tower, explaining that he knows Gavin paid Judy to pretend to be Madeleine so that he could kill his real wife while Scottie could both serve as a witness and be too afflicted by vertigo to see what really happened. This time, though, a healthier Scottie and Judy make it all the way to the top, where she begs for his forgiveness and love, but a random nun appears, causing Judy to trip and Scottie to watch her fall and die…again.

This summary does no justice to the greatness of the film; for that, go to the hundreds of reviews, dozens of books, and many deconstructive essays like Mulvey’s. For example, Because Madeleine is apparently haunted by Carlotta Valdez, because the Spanish Church is often spectral and, in the film’s last minute, lethal, the movie carries the vague suggestion that Californians haven’t really dealt with their 19th-century history or Spanish inheritance. Vertigo, reminding us of Citizen Kane’s mirrors, comes to us in vortexes and vertices and spirals and Fibonacci sequences, the same but different every time. At times Hitchcock can make you think he didn’t realize that would happen, or that he didn’t know he was making his most personal film, about the dark side of Pygmalion, about our desire to re-create the dead in the living. As Scottie exhales with the acute relief of finally turning Judy into Madeleine, as the green neon light bathes and rebirths Novak into a simulation of a simulation of a simulation, Novak may actually stand as a better choice than Kelly or Miles would have been; what Truffaut called her more “animal-like sensuality” prompted us to root for Scottie’s forced makeover, making us all the more unsettled when we realize how sick we and Scottie were. This is part of why critics and audiences were less than thrilled at this thriller director’s meditation on obsession, but time has woken us up as it did Scottie. / Hitchcock, or the writers, or Carlotta Valdez, or Madeleine, or Judy, or Novak, may have sensed that initial indifference as well, in the scene where the couple visits Muir Woods, sees the thousand years of rings in a redwood tree stump, and she says, rather elliptically, “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Now, we notice. 

Influenced by: the French writers of the book, “D’Entre Les Morts,” written for Hitchcock

Influenced: the “dolly zoom”; San Francisco cinema, maybe all cinema


A48. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!”

After a series of comedies, by 1953 Marilyn Monroe was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and without her permission a new magazine called Playboy put her pictures on its first cover and centerfold. She and Wilder made The Seven-Year Itch, including its famous publicity shot of air blowing up into her dress from a sewer grate, a moment that became a last straw for her abusive, jealous, controlling husband, Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn Monroe tired of her dumb blonde image and her contract with Fox around the same time, and moved to New York where she took acting classes with Lee and Paula Strasberg’s Actors Studio while hanging out with Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, and Arthur Miller, the latter of whom she married. She also set up Marilyn Monroe Productions, for which she was eviscerated in the press in a way that, say, Burt Lancaster’s production company never was. Maintaining her career was almost easier than maintaining her health amidst her endometriosis, and as 1957 began, she took an 18-month hiatus during which she suffered at least two miscarriages and a worsening addiction to barbiturates. Some Like It Hot was both a return to early-50s form and a continuation of her current problems, in that she often forgot her lines and was late to set because of pills plus a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage two weeks after the film wrapped. Such problems were part of why studios didn’t trust Monroe, which was fine with her and Wilder if United Artists would distribute their film and let them get double-digit percentages of the profits, and the very successful film wound up making them millions.

Tony Curtis, as an established star, also earned a nice profit percentage; the third member of the lead cast would have done likewise if Wilder had landed Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, or Danny Kaye, as he tried to do, but he wound up casting a B-lister named Jack Lemmon as Laurel to Curtis’s Hardy. This turned into one of Wilder’s luckiest breaks; Lemmon was an actor’s actor who wound up headlining Wilder’s films throughout the 1960s and beyond, beginning with Wilder’s real statement about men in gray flannel suits, The Apartment, to be discussed next podcast. Lemmon proved he was more than game on Some Like It Hot, where he plays Jerry who plays Daphne, the more comfortably effeminate of the duo in drag. By the way, drag in itself was hardly unknown to American audiences, who had seen dozens of minor burlesque drag shows on and offscreen during World War II, for example featuring soldiers wearing bras made of coconuts. But Wilder’s script insisted on being pushier than most of those, and must have done something right, considering that the AFI and others now consider it the funniest film ever made. 

Some Like It Hot begins in Chicago in 1929, where the agent of two broke male jazz musicians offers them the only gig he’s got: joining an all-girl band on a three-week trip to sunny Miami. Joe and Jerry refuse, witness the real life St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and escape just before the gangsters kill them as well. They decide to do the drag, join the band as Josephine and Daphne, and become smitten by the band’s singer, Sugar, who tells them she needs to stop dating sax players and find a millionaire in Miami. Upon arrival, an older frisky millionaire named Osgood tries to seduce Daphne even as Joe tries to seduce Sugar by disguising himself as a blueblood heir to Shell Oil. Joe talks Jerry into enchanting Osgood off of his yacht so that he, now Shell Oil Junior, can bring Sugar onto the boat and, in yet another layer of deception, pretend to be afflicted because “girls do nothing for me,” then the common way of films discussing homosexuality. Sugar works on his affliction until early morning, and when Joe rejoins Jerry in their hotel room, Jerry is still dressed as Daphne, happily playing maracas. When “Daphne” claims to be engaged, Joe asks “who’s the lucky girl?” and the reply is “me.” Joe refutes Daphne’s union with Osgood, asking him-slash-her, “why would a guy marry a guy?” Without missing a beat, the answer: “Security!” Joe and Jerry learn the gangsters have followed them to Miami, and tell Sugar they have to go; then dressed as Josephine, Joe sees Sugar crying onstage and gives her what looks to a full nightclub like a woman-on-woman kiss as Joe says “No guy is worth it.” In one of the best conclusions of any film, the Jack Lemmon character tries to let Osgood down easy by listing the reasons they can’t wed. Finally he pulls off his wig and says, “Ah, I’m a man.” Osgood answers, “Nobody’s perfect,” and the THE END title appears.

Beyond the queer-friendliness, consider a rarely noted subtext of the dialogue. When Osgood says “Nobody’s perfect” he really means Daphne-slash-Jerry is perfect. When Joe tells Sugar “No guy is worth it,” he may be implying, and she is surely inferring, that Joe is worth it. Joe and Jerry are nobodies, like the man in the gray flannel suit, and yet they are perfect and worth it. This idea is underlined by Joe and Jerry being better at being others than they are at being themselves. Jerry comes close to wanting to live as Daphne, and Joe upgrades first to Josephine, then to Shell Oil Junior, then to an asexual Junior. This may be counted as comment on the pansexuality of Cary Grant, whose accent Curtis is obviously using. Lemmon’s character reacts to Grant’s accent as any Chicagoan would in 1929: “And where did you get that phony accent? Nobody talks like that.” Putting aside that Joe could have met the real Cary Grant on the late 20s vaudeville circuit, consider that wording, “Nobody talks like that.” Nobody’s perfect, indeed. 

Influenced by: Wilder had a sign in his office: “What would Lubitsch have done?”

Influenced: cross-dressing films; comedies; good memories of Monroe


A49. North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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Hitchcock wanted a big fat hit picture, befitting a man whose TV show had made him the most famous director in America. Not only did Hitch get his hit, but it’s telling that of all of his films, North by Northwest became by far the most imitated during the master’s lifetime. When 007 movies began three years later, the change from Ian Fleming’s source material was obvious: instead of Fleming’s sort of cipher everyman, James Bond had basically become suave Cary Grant, as seen in all of Grant’s movies but especially the setpiece-hopping North by Northwest

Ernest Lehman was keen to write, as he called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” After a lot of brainstorming, they would begin with a murder at the United Nations and end with a chase across Mount Rushmore. A journalist had told Hitchcock about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy, and Hitchcock had MGM buy this idea for ten thousand dollars even as he planned to twist it by having Roger be mistaken for this agent. Lehman claimed he made Roger an advertising executive because of his experience in that profession; we don’t have a record of that, but we do know that job is quite close to the public relations executive of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” 

Francois Truffaut’s outline for the 1959 film goes like this: “The hero of the story is an imaginary agent created by a U.S. intelligence agency. Though he doesn’t exist, he has been given an identity via the name Kaplan, a suite in a luxurious New York hotel, and a set of fine clothes. When an enemy espionage group mistakenly identifies advertising executive Cary Grant as Kaplan, he becomes a target for pursuit and is trapped in a web or circumstances so incredible that he cannot turn to the police. The harrowing nightmare is compounded by his perplexity over the confusing behavior of Eva Marie Saint, who works with the spies. After a series of adventures alternating between the ludicrous and the terrifying, the spies are exposed and the mystery is cleared up. Eva Marie Saint turns out to be an undercover agent for the U.S., and the picture winds up on a romantic note for the hero and the lovely adventuress.”

It actually ends with the couple coming together in a sleeper car and a cut to their train entering a tunnel, but I’m happy that Truffaut’s word for that is “romantic.” Truffaut’s description is intentionally incomplete, but it would have done better to have conveyed just how much fun the film is. The actors are perfectly cast, Bernard Herrmann’s music delights, Saul Bass’s kinetic typographic titles are innovative, and the sets are terrific, right down to the simulations of Mount Rushmore and a Frank Lloyd Wright house that makes one think it’s real. Perhaps you’ve heard of the most famous scene of the film, in which Roger/Kaplan gets drawn out to an empty cornfield, and must dodge bullets from a biplane where, ahem, “there ain’t no crops.” Here Truffaut’s description is absolutely apropos: “cinema, approached in this way, becomes a truly abstract art, like music.”

Influenced by: the title is from “Hamlet,” the story owes more to 1950s American restlessness 

Influenced: 007 films, their Bond being more Grant-like than Ian Fleming’s concept, and in turn all the 1960s/70s spy films 


A50. Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy. Giving evil for evil. Hatred is turning you to stone.”

Judah Ben-Hur becomes almost a supporting character in his own movie, titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. From Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, they cut the part where Ben-Hur leads Jewish armies against the Romans. Ben-Hur’s hero’s journey is a rather unconventional one, especially compared with that of the last epic Jew played by goyim Charlton Heston, Moses in The Ten Commandments. In theory, both were about the triumph of a disadvantaged minority, but Moses parts the Red Sea and fights off a divine burning bush, while Ben-Hur only wins a chariot race, even as he only wants to help his mother and sister with their leprosy, and only Christ can or does do that with his death. 

If it seems unfair to compare Ben-Hur with The Ten Commandments, note that it was the success of the latter that assured the production and budget of the former. Some film histories over-emphasize the synecdochic value of Hollywood’s colorful, TV-countering, swords-and-sandals epics. In fact, their box-office record was hit-and-miss until The Ten Commandments, which was released in late 1956 and dominated roadshows and all other shows throughout 1957. Hollywood was belatedly realizing that America was undergoing a major religious revival, and that in the context of the new Cold War, Hollywood could do well by doing good for the newly christened “Judeo-Christian” community, and after all, MGM had the story of Ben-Hur just sitting around. Jewish Director William Wyler later joked that it might have taken a Jew to make a great film about Christ, around the same time he admitted that he hoped to outdo Cecil B. DeMille, director of The Ten Commandments, and make a quote unquote “thinking man’s” Biblical epic. MGM paid a record sum to the director of The Best Years of Our Lives, a small film shot in a month that took place in a single year, to make an epic film that would be shot, and seem to take place, over, uh, the Most Years of Our Lives. Wyler’s reputation, and proclivity, was as a great director of intimate scenes with actors, as in films like Roman Holiday; Ben-Hur would be closer to Roman Prolonged-Day. Wyler’s style favoring long takes as the actors moved around a large depth of field was well-suited to quiet drama, but doing the same thing with the widest of widescreen cameras, with a shooting ratio of 2.76 to 1, led to a certain lassitude, or as Wyler put it, “You either have a lot of empty space, or you have two people talking and a flock of others surrounding them who have nothing to do with the scene. Your eye just wanders out of curiosity.”

MGM presumed those wandering eyes wanted to see what executives considered beautiful, and so the studio spared no expense to show it to them. Like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, the production of Ben-Hur is legendary, sounding less like a film and more like a military operation: 300 sets over 148 acres, nine sound stages, a million pounds of plaster, 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, 100 costumers creating 100,000 costumes including 1,000 suits of armor, 400 pounds of hair for wigs, a thousand feet of dolly tracks, 40 miniature ships, a million feet of footage, at least ten thousand extras, and surfeits of shots of Heston’s stupendous shoulders.

Ben-Hur begins in the year 26, with the adult reunion of old childhood friends Judah Ben-Hur, now a wealthy Jewish merchant, and Messala, now a Roman tribune. They disagree over Rome’s eventual absorption of Judea, and when Messala asks for Judah’s help gathering Jewish rebels, Judah proudly refuses. Later, during a pro-Roman parade, loose tiles fall from the roof of Judah’s house, and though Messala knows this to be an accident, he punishes Judah, his mother and sister, and other Jews as a warning. Judah resists and threatens his captors, and is made a slave. On the frog-march to the galleys, walking through Nazareth, Judah collapses from thirst, and receives water from an unnamed man whose face we don’t see, but whom we know to be Jesus Christ. After three years of slave rowing, Judah gets assigned to Roman Consul Arrius, who senses Judah’s potential and, just before a big naval battle, orders Judah unchained. Arrius’s ship is destroyed in the battle but Judah saves both of their lives. Arrius makes Judah his personal slave, where he learns how to be a charioteer, but despite a Sheik’s encouragement, he turns down the chance to race a chariot against Messala. Finally permitted to return to Judea, Judah meets his longtime crush Esther, who knows that Judah’s mother and sister have been exiled to a leper colony, but complies with their wishes to keep this information from Judah by lying to him that they’re dead. This causes Judah to change his mind and compete against Messala in a grand chariot race that takes about nine minutes of the film; Messala cheats by using spiked wheels and his horse-whip on Judah, but Judah wins anyway, and Messala falls and is trampled to death. With Messala’s final breath, he tells Judah to find his mother and sister in the leper colony, which Judah does. Esther, Judah, and his leprosy-afflicted mother and sister gather with the lepers to watch the public frog-marching of their condemned prophet carrying a cross, and Judah says “I know this man!” Judah scrambles to return the long-ago favor, giving Jesus Christ a cup of water. After Christ is crucified, a storm gathers, and the rains appear to cure Judah’s mother and sister of leprosy. Judah tells Esther that he thought he saw the dying man say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and, Judah says, he felt the (metaphoric) sword lift from his hand. 

It would be nice to say that Ben-Hur is the only Biblical epic and the only swords-and-sandals film on the AFI 100 because it transcends the 1950s’ clichés of the genre. However, it rarely does, maintaining a languorous pace through its many perfectly manicured wide sets. (The real Judea would have had streets full of waste and half-eaten food, instead of streets clean enough to eat from.) One of the film’s writers, gay Gore Vidal, claimed that he told the actor playing Messala, Stephen Boyd, to behave as an ex-gay lover of Judah’s, but this story is disputed; any homosexual subtext of Ben-Hur is not especially more or less pronounced that that of other Biblical epics. Per custom, white British actors play the patrician Romans and white American actors mostly play the Jews and slaves, although Wyler deserves credit for casting a non-star, actual Israeli Jew as Esther. Less admirably, Wyler cast Hugh Griffith, a white Brit known for funny scenes opposite Alec Guinness in the Ealing comedies, in a dark brownface as the feisty Sheik Ilderim. Though Hugh Griffith could never be more than the second-most racist Griffith in film history, he still won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as part of the record 11 Oscars won by the very very heavily promoted, roadshowed, and successful film. I could say more, but I’ll let the sword lift from my hand.

Influenced by: epic films; MGM’s desperation

Influenced: along with The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, represented best in Biblical epics


A51. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Miss Kubelik, one doesn’t get to be a second administrative assistant around here unless he’s a pretty good judge of character, and as far as I’m concerned you’re tops. I mean, decency-wise and otherwise-wise.”

The smash success of Some Like It Hot in spring of 1959 led to The Apartment in at least three ways. Casting-wise, United Artists could now agree with Billy Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond to give Lemmon every scene of his own film. Color-wise, now that Wilder had pulled off black-and-white for Some Like It Hot, as explained last ’cast, Wilder could push it with another “comedy,” making The Apartment a little less Look at Me! than most comedies at the time (think Pillow Talk), thus permitting The Apartment the crucial gravitas it needed after Fran’s suicide attempt. And censorship-wise, if the Hays Code couldn’t stop a movie starring two men in drag flirting with homosexuality, it couldn’t be expected to stop a movie about suicide and a man who lets his office superiors use his bachelor apartment so that their wives don’t get…wise.

Nobody was calling the Hays Code the Frays Code, but Billy Wilder’s playing helped make it the Fraying Code. To trounce TV, films had to turn out content you couldn’t see on a small screen, and after a surfeit of 3-D and epics, after Americans saw the sexual candor in foreign films directed by the likes of Fellini and Bergman…basically Hollywood needed sensory films more than censors of films. Again, the change didn’t happen all at once, but The Apartment represented another step forward, taboo-wise. Wilder did keep it from looking like TV by shooting in 70mm with an Anamorphic lens which helps sell the importance.

The Apartment is set in New York City in December of 1959, and enjoys making reference to current events like Fidel Castro taking over Cuba. C.C. “Bud” Baxter takes the elevator every day to work on the 19th floor at a national insurance corporation, and cleverly staged shots of Baxter’s desk make clear he is but one of 100-plus men in gray flannel suits. (Wilder used forced-perspective to show a gradually tapered grid of scores of desks; the workers in the back were played by children.) Bud has an obvious crush on the elevator operator, Fran Kubelik. In voice-over, Bud explains that he lives in a small apartment on the west side, and loans it to four superior executives for their extra-marital affairs. They promise to recommend Bud to division manager Mr. Sheldrake, and during Bud’s meeting with him, Jeff Sheldrake surprises Bud by asking for the key to his love-nest, and then surprises us by taking Fran there. Jeff promotes Bud to a window office, where he stumbles upon the information that Fran and Jeff are in a relationship. On Christmas Eve, Jeff and Fran have a fight over Jeff refusing to leave his wife, and Jeff leaves Fran in Bud’s apartment, where she takes an overdose of sleeping pills. A heartbroken Bud picks up a woman at a bar, brings her home, finds Fran unconscious on his bed, runs to his next-door neighbor who is a doctor, and hustles the other woman out the door. The doctor revives Fran but warns Bud that she may try again, that she’ll sleep on and off for maybe 48 hours, and that Bud is a terrible person who should try to be “a mensch…a human being.” Bud calls Sheldrake but he refuses to come; despite this, Fran remains in love with Jeff. Bud keeps Fran entertained with small talk and card games, pushing away his superiors who have booked his flat. Bud tells Fran a very un-Hays Code story of a time he tried and failed to kill himself, and often uses “wise” as a suffix, conversation-wise. Fran’s brother-in-law comes to the office on Boxing Day looking ready to box whoever has been keeping Fran from calling. A chary executive sends the boxer to Bud’s apartment, where he picks up Fran and knocks out Bud, who arrives at work the next day with a shiner, shining to take Fran off of Mr. Sheldrake’s hands. Instead, Jeff says he’ll take her off of Bud’s, because his wife just learned of his infidelity and kicked him out, but first he’ll be “enjoying life as a bachelor.” On New Year’s Eve, Jeff asks Bud for his key to bring Fran over, Bud refuses, Jeff threatens his job, and Bud hands Jeff a key…which turns out to be the key to the executive washroom, because Bud is quitting and leaving New York. On Jeff and Fran’s New Year’s date, Jeff blames Bud for their difficult hotel arrangements, Fran says “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” and leaves their date, catching Bud around midnight with his moving boxes set to go. They sit on the couch, gather the usual cards for rummy, Bud says “I love you, Ms. Kubelik, do you hear me I absolutely adore you,” and she says, “Shut up and deal.”

Influenced by: films like A Face in the Crowd and Sweet Smell of Success, though Wilder had his own original thoughts

Influenced: literate comedies by the likes of Woody Allen, Neil Simon


A52. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

More than most motion pictures, this relies upon the element of surprise, so please, stop reading right now if you haven’t seen Psycho. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, was so concerned about the viewer’s experience that he attempted to purchase all extant copies of Robert Bloch’s 1959 source novel. Further, despite opposition from critics and theater owners that they later lamented, Hitch and Paramount disrupted the longtime exhibition practice of letting theatergoers pay for a ticket and attend screenings all day, forcing theaters to enforce and market a rule that said that no latecomers would be seated. That’s only one way in which Psycho changed moviegoing forever.

Hitchcock’s film was the first, and best, of at least six major films to roughly fictionalize the story of Ed Gein, a real-life murderer who fashioned trophies from corpses’ bodies and skin. By the time most of them were made, studios knew that psychopathy, lurid details and graphic murder meant box office; in 1959, however, studios had no reason to think this. Paramount, to whom Hitchcock owed a film, hoped for one of his star-studded mystery thrillers, and almost got No Bail for the Judge with Audrey Hepburn, but Hepburn became pregnant, and this time Hitchcock refused to re-cast and instead scrapped the production. Paramount denied Hitchcock his usual budget, and so Hitchcock counter-proposed cutting costs by filming in black-and-white and mostly using the crew and staging sets of his then-current TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Paramount still resisted, but agreed to distribute if Hitchcock would pay for the production himself, which he did, dropping his usual $250,000 director’s fee for a 60% stake in the profits after Paramount recovered its distribution and promotion costs. Money-wise, Hitchcock made the smartest decision of his life showing his character Marion Crane, money-wise, making the dumbest decision of hers.

Title cards tell us that we are in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, December the 11th. Underwear-clad Marion Crane and Sam Loomis make out on a hotel bed; Sam claims he has too many debts to marry and must return to Fairvale, a fictional place probably near Sacramento. Marion returns to the real-estate office where she works as a secretary, and a rich flirtatious client hands her his payment for a local house, $40,000 in cash. Marion’s boss tells her to deposit the cash at the bank and then go home, but Marion decides to steal it and drive to Fairvale. During a very, very rainy night, Marion pulls her car into the nearest motel, the Bates motel, and checks in. The proprietor, Norman Bates, invites Marion to dinner at his gothic house next to the motel, but she hears him arguing with his mother over the invitation. Norman brings Marion dinner on a tray, they eat it in the motel parlor, Marion expresses concern that Norman seems caught in a trap, and he answers angrily that he can’t put her in a madhouse when she’s harmless, and besides, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Marion announces she’s going to return to Phoenix to get out of her trap, but now she’s going to bed. She never makes it; instead, she showers, and a shadowy figure enters the bathroom and brutally stabs her to death. Norman puts her body with all the rest of the evidence in a car and lowers it into a swamp, including, unbeknownst to him, $40,000. Marion’s sister Lila, Sam, and a private investigator named Arbogast begin sniffing around for Marion’s whereabouts. Arbogast meets Norman, who seems suspicious, not least because he won’t permit Arbogast to speak to his mother. Arbogast uses a pay phone to call Sam and Lila with an update, then enters the Bates home, walks up the stairs, and gets murdered by someone indistinct. Sam and Lila arrive, and Sam distracts Norman at the motel while Lila sneaks around the house. In the basement, Lila turns a chair around to find a mummified corpse, screams, sees Norman wielding a knife while dressed as his mother, and watches as Sam arrives just in time to subdue Norman. At the courthouse, a psychiatrist explains that Norman long ago jealously murdered his mother and her lover, and has kept his mother “alive” in his mind ever since, talking to her and letting her kill people who get too close to Norman. In a holding cell, Norman does mother’s voice while blaming Norman for the murders, saying she wouldn’t hurt a fly. During the The End title card, Marion’s car is dragged out of the swamp.

Legend has it that Americans became afraid to take showers. Certainly, the film can be understood as a comment on American freedom as enabled by President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System: the freedom to get on the road, check into a random motel, and become naked and defenseless. An outstanding film by an acknowledged artist that becomes this much of a sensation lends itself to many, many, many interpretations, and critics can sound like forensic experts while discussing Psycho, whether they’re talking about its extensive use of bird motifs (Crane, Phoenix, taxidermy, the British meaning of “stuffing birds”) or its repeated suppression of past horrors. The listener is welcome to explore that Gothic house of interpretations all the way to its basement; for this podcast, it’s enough to agree that with one film, Hitchcock somehow created the template for the slasher film and the psychological thriller, both of which, by the end of the 1980s, were done to…uh, death.

More generally, Psycho paved the way for increased onscreen sex and violence. It now seems quaint to note that in 1960, the Hays Office objected to Psycho’s depiction of: unmarried couples in bed, a woman wearing only a bra, intense violence in the shower, a flushing toilet, and transvestitism. Removing no more than a frame or two here and there, Hitchcock got away with all of them, including the ending when the psychiatrist explains that Norman isn’t a real transvestite because when he dresses as his mother he believes he is her. To Hitchcock, all of this trailblazing through taboos was trivial next to the narrative innovation that Hitchcock cited as his reason for making this story as a film and not an episode of his TV show. Never had a two-hour Hollywood studio film killed its leading character during the film’s first hour. Janet Leigh as Marion is in every moment of every scene until the camera pans out from her dead eye, likely Hitchcock’s way of telling the audience yes, she’s dead. At that point, who should the audience root for? What can’t the film do now? All things become possible, including the existential hopelessness many scholars ascribe to the film. Of all major studio directors of the classical era, no one employed or enjoyed innovations quite as much Hitchcock, and using 52 edits in 45 seconds he conjured perhaps his greatest trick, pushing audiences through a hidden trap door. In some ways, we have never recovered. 

Influenced by: new trends in leisure, motels, and serial killers

Influenced: exhibition policy; every non-supernatural horror film, and many others besides


A53. West Side Story (Wise, Robbins, 1961) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!”

When skeptical producers of the mid-1950s saw a modern Romeo and Juliet, they wondered why it had to be “ruined” with a cast of half-Puerto Ricans, when in fact, after Hal Prince decided to invest in a project with half-Puerto Ricans, he assured the immortality of himself, his musical West Side Story, and its eventual, gorgeously color-saturated film adaptation. 

The Mirisch Company almost ruined its chance at similar stature. The three Mirisch brothers’ wing of United Artists had no problems producing Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, partly because of Billy Wilder’s skill, budget-wise, but the film adaptation of the hit musical West Side Story was another sort of animal, production-wise. One way to save money was to hire B-lister Robert Wise as producer and director, a move the musical’s lead creatives supported because Wise was known for urban New York dramas like Odds Against Tomorrow. Jerome Robbins, choreographer for the stage musical and the film, liked Wise’s reputation for gritty realism, but he may have also counted on Wise’s inexperience with musicals to take over the film. The Mirisches might have counted the amount of dance numbers in West Side Story – it set a record for a Broadway musical – but about a third of the way through production they fired Robbins anyway. Robert Wise used Robbins’ assistants to finish the choreography and insisted to United Artists that Saul Bass’s titles said “directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.” They both won Best Director Oscars for the film. Turned out Robert Wise was a mensch, director-wise. 

Casting presented the same problem that bedeviled the theater producers: young genuine triple-threats are rare. They did manage to find three: 29-year-old Rita Moreno, who was cast as Anita, 26-year-old Russ Tamblyn, cast as Riff, and 26-year-old George Chakiris, cast as Bernardo. The budget would be stuck at low seven figures if they couldn’t find a star to play either Tony or Maria, and they considered many names you know, including Elvis Presley, before finally settling on a C-lister, Richard Beymer, as Tony and Natalie Wood as Maria, with their songs lip-synched to the professional voices of, respectively, Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon. The very long Wikipedia entry on this film does not include the word “brownface,” meaning Wiki apparently feels that Chakiris and Wood were given healthy amounts of base powder and did accents, as Marlon Brando had when he played Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! Looking back, yes, the film should have cast Latinos, but at the time such jobs were simply considered an extension of range, as when Gael Garcia Bernal played a Persian for Jon Stewart or British actors played all the American sisters in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

In 2020, Carina del Valle Schorske wrote a New York Times article title “Let West Side Story and Its Stereotypes Die.” However, the article doesn’t name any egregious moments, instead noting the missed opportunity to represent the tragedies and triumphs of Puerto Ricans after the rise of commercial air travel permitted large numbers to emigrate to New York in the 1950s. Del Valle rightly notes that the “musical’s creators squandered the opportunity to engage the genius of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms,” and quotes Deborah Paredez enjoying Rita Moreno “sing of assimilation while dancing its undoing.” I would answer del Valle by saying that the priorities of musicals don’t really favor any culture besides musical culture. No one should watch West Side Story and believe that they’ve seen los autenticos Puertoriquennos, but everyone should watch West Side Story

West Side Story begins with 15 minutes of next-to-no dialogue, first with the musical overture and then with a dance overture in which the Jets and the Sharks bump up against each other’s New York turf. The Jets leader, Riff, visits Doc’s, where his best friend Tony works as a store clerk, and Riff persuades Tony to attend a neighborhood dance. At her bridal shop, Anita makes Maria a dress for the dance, and Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, arrives to establish that he is Maria’s brother and Anita’s novio. At the dance, there’s more tension between Jets and Sharks, but Maria and Tony meet, blur out the rest of the dancers, kiss, and then get interrupted by an angry Bernardo. Tony walks home singing “Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying,” and it’s almost like making up for decades of Hays Code censorship of miscegenation. Anita and Bernardo and their friends playfully banter about the differences between Puerto Rico and New York, for example the girls sing “Life is all right in America,” and the boys answer, “If you’re all white in America.” At Maria’s fire escape, she and Tony reaffirm their amor. The Jets and Sharks meet and agree to meet the next night for a rumble (yes, a rumble). When Tony comes to the bridal shop to talk about a wedding with Maria, Anita warns about Bernardo learning of Tony and Maria’s love, while Maria begs Tony to try to stop the rumble. Tony tries, but in the confusion Bernardo kills Riff and Tony accidentally kills Bernardo; police sirens scatter the gangs, who leave the two corpses. (That’s the way it rumbles, Mercutio-wise.) Anybodys, a young female tomboy often read as queer-friendly, tells the Jets that the Sharks’ Chino is hunting Tony, and the Jets go to Doc’s to warn or help him. When Anita finds Tony in Maria’s bedroom, he says he is about to turn himself in, but Maria insists that they escape and elope. Tony agrees and leaves for Doc’s to get backpay; Maria plans to meet him there, but Lieutenant Schrank arrives, looking like Arbogast from Psycho, and like Arbogast as useless as every officer in West Side Story. Schrank insists on an extended interrogation of Maria, who thus asks Anita to go to Doc’s and, you know, get that thing and give that message. Though Anita disapproves of the affair, she goes to Doc’s, runs into a crowd of Jets who whistle “La Cucaracha” and almost sexually assault her in a scene considerably toned down from the stage version. Doc stops them, but as Anita goes, she spitefully lies to them that Chino has already shot Maria dead. Doc sends the Jets home, goes downstairs, gives Tony his backpay, lectures him on his wayward generation, slaps him that violence doesn’t solve anything, and tells him Maria is dead. Tony cries himself into a basketball court at night yelling for Chino to shoot him as well, but is shocked to see Maria. They run toward each other, but the real Chino appears and really kills Tony. Maria points Chino’s gun at all the gathered Jets and Sharks, blaming hate for all this death, and then drops the gun crying just as the pointless police pull up.

None of this communicates how well West Side Story works; it may be the 20th century’s best adaptation of a Broadway musical. Robert Wise came up through editing, notably of Citizen Kane, and Thomas Stanford’s Oscar-winning editing, done in consultation with Wise, Robbins, and Mirisch, is supple, almost abstract, less interested in a documentary record than the Arthur Freed MGM unit was and more focused on emotion even to the point of losing some of the steps. Roger Ebert later wrote that it pioneered techniques for music videos. Considering the rather juvenile attempts at juvenilia, the non-dance scenes shouldn’t hold up, but they mostly do because the songs are simply indestructible, and the larger, vibrant canvas excuses some of the ham-fisted points about racial tension. The boffo box office and 11 Oscars of West Side Story led to more money for mega-musical adaptations, but did the film lead to more and better parts for Latinos in Hollywood? In a word, no. Rita Moreno has said that after winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story, she turned down work for the next five years, because the roles she was offered were too debasing. 

Influenced by: 1950s musicals (there were a lot of them)

Influenced: more progressive and inclusive musicals, Shakespeare adaptations


A54. The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you.” 

Sinatra wanted to prove he could also do strong, tough material, at the risk of confusing his fan base, and Sinatra was entirely responsible for the production of The Manchurian Candidate, paying himself about half of its 2.2 million dollar budget. 

Frank Sinatra hired John Frankenheimer, who along with Sidney Lumet was proving TV to be a fertile breeding ground for cinema, particularly after Burt Lancaster hired Frankenheimer to take over the reins on his Birdman of Alcatraz. Sinatra was right when he figured that what was good enough for his From Here to Eternity troop-mate was good enough for him. As a project, The Manchurian Candidate had some similarities to Psycho: it was also based on a contemporary-set novel from 1959 and was about the deadly tendencies of a young, angular-faced introvert tied a little too closely to his overbearing mother. Janet Leigh was even cast as the non-maternal female lead. For the crucial part of Raymond Shaw’s (living, real) mother Eleanor, Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball, but Frankenheimer insisted on Angela Lansbury, who was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, the actor playing Raymond. Not only did it work, it established Lansbury’s range and type for the next half-century.

The Manchurian Candidate is about a small American platoon captured for three days by the Soviets and Chinese during the Korean War. After they escape, one of them, Marco, recommends another, Shaw, for the Medal of Honor, and when they return to the U.S., Shaw’s mother, Eleanor Iselin, exploits her son’s Medal of Honor to further her politician husband’s McCarthy-like career. Years pass, and Marco dreams of his platoon members being presented to an audience of scientists as Shaw is ordered to, and does, kill fellow soldiers. Marco learns that his platoon-mate Melvin, played by James Edwards, the black star of Home of the Brave, has had the same dream. Marco learns that Shaw has been behaving suspiciously, goes to Shaw’s flat, finds Chunjin and beats him, gets upbraided by Shaw, and retreats to his romance with Rosie. Shaw rekindles his own romance with Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of liberal Senator Thomas Jordan, whom the Iselins oppose, but Eleanor surprises her son by approving of his union with Jocelyn. It turns out that since Korea, Shaw is a sleeper agent under deep hypnosis, that his mother Eleanor is his American handler, and that he’ll do anything if shown the standard card design of the Queen of Diamonds. His mother programs him to kill Senator Jordan, and he does, with Jocelyn becoming cadaverous collateral damage. Marco deduces Shaw’s programming and tries to de-program him by using a deck full of Queens of Diamonds. Shaw sees his mother, who tells him that when she ordered a Soviet-bred assassin she never thought it would be her own son, and she wants revenge, but for that, he must first kill the vice-presidential nominee at the convention so that her husband Iselin can assume that position. Shaw sneaks into the Madison Square Garden convention dressed as a priest and sets himself up as a sniper in a projection booth. Marco runs into the convention hall, locates Shaw, and races to the booth. Just before Marco can stop Shaw, Shaw fires…not at the candidate, but instead at his mother and step-father, killing them both. After Marco busts open the door, Shaw almost kills him but instead turns the gun on himself. Marco and Rosie commemorate Shaw privately, Marco saying he “heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country.”

Eleanor Iselin uses the term “Cold War,” and survey textbooks will tell you that The Manchurian Candidate rode Cold War concerns to critical and commercial success, but the truth is closer to the opposite. The film was released on October 24, 1962, in the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most Americans didn’t want to pay to learn more about a suddenly terrifying existential threat. Sinatra barely broke even on the deal. British audiences were then enjoying a far more light-hearted approach to spies and international intrigue, less Psycho and more North by Northwest, and six months later, Americans would join the fun when Dr. No, the first 007 film, was released in the United States. The worldwide success of Dr. No inspired the production of dozens of films, some sillier, some intentionally more serious, and when The Manchurian Candidate appeared on CBS in 1965 two years after Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, it was finally appreciated as the prescient masterpiece that it was. Almost like a renegade sleeper agent, director John Frankenheimer had to return to his old world, TV, to be appreciated as a hero in his new one, movies.

Influenced by: spy literature; Cold War intensification after U-2, Berlin Wall

Influenced: the title term has lingered over American discourse, up to and including President Trump


A55. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men.”

David Lean and Sam Spiegel wondered how to follow up the game-changing literate roadshow that was Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean considered returning to small British films, but he liked the international canvas as well as the years of roadshow-boosted paychecks. Lean pursued a bio-pic of Mahatma Gandhi, and did extensive pre-production work that included meeting with Prime Minister Nehru, but when the project fell through Lean turned his attention to T.E. Lawrence. Columbia Pictures had long wanted to mount a roadshow-worthy project based on Lawrence’s exploits in the Middle East, and together with Spiegel they convinced Lawrence’s family to sell them the film rights to his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for about 25,000 pounds, something the family eventually came to deeply lament. Lamenting it more immediately was gay British playwright Terence Rattigan, whose screenplay loosely based on Lawrence’s war memoirs focused on his alleged homosexuality, complete with a post-war framing device that Lean and Spiegel stole. After losing out on the film rights, Rattigan reluctantly turned the screenplay into a 1960 stage play called “Ross” (based on one of Lawrence’s later 1920s aliases) and cast Alec Guinness as the titular lead, causing Spiegel to furiously and unsuccessfully attempt to shut down the play, which attracted more publicity for both Rattigan’s play and Spiegel and Lean’s film in progress, now more forcefully and heroically titled Lawrence of Arabia

Put the successful play starring Guinness as Lawrence together with Lean and Guinness’ well-documented fights on River Kwai, and you might think Guinness would be the last person Lean would have wanted in any role in Lawrence of Arabia. You’d be wrong; Lean respected Guinness’ talent and on-set professionalism more than any other actor save Laurence Olivier, and when Olivier left the role of Prince Faisal, Lean offered it to Guinness. (Lean would have loved to cast either actor as Lawrence, but both were too close to 50; the real Faisal was actually closer to 30, but Spiegel required a seasoned, famous name as first on the poster; Quinn would be second, while the actor playing Lawrence would be “and introducing.”) Like Quinn, Guinness liked the money, billing, location shooting and degrees of brownface; Guinness beamed when locals told him he’d succeeded in resembling the real Faisal. Guinness worked on his accent by chatting with Omar Sharif, an Egyptian unknown whom Lean had cast in the composite role of Sharif Ali. Sharif took the fictional nature of his role as inner liberation, his “I’ve got a secret”-style performance becoming the subtext the film crucially needed. Puerto Rican-born Oscar winner Jose Ferrer played a Turk, but the media cared most about the casting of the title role. Fresh off Psycho, Anthony Perkins was seriously considered, Marlon Brando was offered the part and refused, the unknown Albert Finney was cast but fired after two days for unknown reasons, and finally, in November 1960, Lean changed the life of a barely-known, RADA-trained, 28-year-old TV actor named Peter O’Toole when he cast him as Thomas Edward Lawrence.

The quality of the cast mattered, partly because of the story’s inherent aversion to women, and partly because of the problem William Wyler identified while making Ben-Hur, that wider screens mean wandering eyes. Although Lawrence’s budget would rival Ben-Hur’s, Spiegel made sure it would not have that film’s 300 sets, 100,000 costumes, 10,000 extras or other wasteful line items; Spiegel even used crew members as featured extras. Lean and Spiegel were determined to avoid the lugubrious pace of some Levant-set films; Lean studied John Ford films, particularly The Searchers, for the right combination of spectacle, shot selection, pace, horizon placement, and thoughtful dialogue. That dialogue was hammered out over months of rewrites by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, later vilified by just about every historian and descendant of the real people portrayed. To them, locations were letdowns; Lean hoped to make the entire film in Jordan, including the gorgeous millennia-old sites of Petra, and King Hussein encouraged the production, provided logistical assistance, and happily and repeatedly visited the set. Yet after shooting about 20% of the film, more than 20% of the crew became ill, and they moved everything to Spain. Using Sevilla to substitute for Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus, was just one way in which Lean and Spiegel’s bio-depiction was becoming fan-fiction. Yet Spielberg may have been on to something when he called Robert Bolt’s script the finest ever written; it brings surprising depth to all those landscapes.

In the First World War, in Cairo, T.E. Lawrence is an insolent, near-alcoholic British Army lieutenant assigned to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, Lawrence and his Bedouin guide stop at a well for water, and the well’s owner, Sharif Ali, shows up and kills the guide. The Limey-loathing Ali and Lawrence begin an unlikely alliance as they travel together to Prince Faisal’s encampment. Colonel Brighton orders Lawrence to assess and leave, and when Lawrence ignores his orders he intrigues the Prince. Brighton advises Faisal’s retreat, but Lawrence proposes a surprise attack by fifty of Faisal’s men, led by Sharif Ali, upon the port city of Aqaba where the British could give them weapons, rations, and supplies. Aqaba is well-defended by sea but not by land, for reasons that become clear as Faisal’s platoon travels day and night through an unforgiving desert. One of Ali’s men, Gasim, collapses off his camel unnoticed in the middle of the night, and when Lawrence learns of this, he turns back and rescues Gasim, winning over Ali, who gives Lawrence Arab robes. The battalion comes upon a local Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi, whom Lawrence persuades to help them attack the Turks in Aqaba, but one of Ali’s men recognizes one of Auda’s and completes a blood feud by killing him. When Lawrence learns Howeitat retaliation would end the alliance, Lawrence declares he will execute the murderer himself, hesitates when he discovers it’s Gasim, the one he almost died to rescue…and then kills Gasim anyway. In a stunning setpiece, Ali, Auda, Lawrence and allies ride horses into Aqaba and overrun its military garrison. Lawrence, weighing mixed feelings about his taste for homicide, returns to Cairo to a promotion and a question for General Allenby: with Turks on the run, are Brits going to take Arabia for themselves or leave Arabia to Arabs? The general warily replies, and lies, the latter. With Faisal and Ali’s help, Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, including a train-destroying sequence that is among the more thrilling such things ever filmed. One of Lawrence’s longtime allies is injured, and Lawrence kills him rather than let him be captured and tortured, but that fate soon befalls Lawrence himself, and he returns to Cairo a broken, bitter man whom General Allenby cannot convince to help the Brits seize Damascus. Lawrence decides to join the attack but recruits men motivated more by money than Arab independence, because Lawrence knows he cannot promise the latter. In a battle, Lawrence permits Turks to flee, but after one of his mercenaries attacks them and is killed, Lawrence pivots and uneasily commands his men to slaughter the fleeing Turks. His brigade beats the Brits to Damascus, but these greedy soldiers of fortune prove unable to provide basic public services in Damascus, and so the Brits assume administration of the city. Lawrence is promoted to colonel even as he feels he failed his Arab allies. Spiegel scrubbed homosexuality out of the story along with other bits that he felt might reflect poorly on T.E. Lawrence, and while historians groused, Spiegel won his bet that few other ticket-buying Westerners would care. That said, King Hussein banned the film in Jordan, citing not spite but the film making light of Arab culture, and many other Middle Eastern nations followed suit, with only Egypt bestowing upon it the Arab robes of a wide release. Some credited President Nasser’s pan-Arab idealism, but equally important was the casting of Egyptian Omar Sharif in a large, strong role, a lesson of location-appropriate inclusion that Hollywood would be all-too-slow to learn. Instead, when the film became America’s must-see roadshow of 1963 and the longest film to win the Best Picture Oscar (by about a minute over Gone with the Wind, a title it still holds), the lesson absorbed by Hollywood, underlined by West Side Story, was to throw more money at bigger widescreen extravaganzas. Yet Lawrence of Arabia shouldn’t be grouped with musicals or most Middle-Eastern epics; Lean’s film deeply immerses the eyes and ears with the brain. In the decades since, it has seemed less like a film than a monument, a ritual, and a cultural touchstone. 

Influenced by: other epics; Lean’s research; Columbia’s budget

Influenced: some of its fans are Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Stanley Kubrick


A56. To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“..the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie.” 

No, a century ago black people didn’t always sit politely in the rafters then stand in humble tribute when a white lawyer walked by. Not then, not now. A problem exists when a film like this is anyone’s only vision of persons of color, and one example of this “anyone” is…the AFI 100 up to this point. Perhaps you’ve noticed that through the first 55 films of this American canon, we haven’t exactly seen a lot of stories that centralize persons of color standing up for themselves, or even just standing around the house, taking care of their families and each other.

None of that should take anything away from the film To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the novel, which is not only a vision of allyship and empathy between whites, black people, and the disabled, but crucially told through a female narrator. American racism has thrived precisely because white men imagined they were defending “their women,” and the Scout character, and author Harper Lee, expose this notion as a lethal fallacy. Harper had been writing about such themes during most of the decade in which she moved from Alabama to New York and paid her bills as a reservation clerk for British Airways. In 1957, she submitted an early version of the Mockingbird story to an agent recommended by her friend Truman Capote; her manuscript was rejected but she met other people, a few of whom gave her enough money and encouragement to leave British Airways and focus on the book. Lee later said she wanted to write something true about growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, renamed Maycomb, as well as write about real Southern trials ranging from her childhood to that of the murderers of Emmitt Till. The book was published with very modest expectations in 1960, was soon excerpted in Reader’s Digest, and has since never been out of print.

Alan J. Pakula, who eventually directed films like Klute, All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice, is the only feature-film director-producer I know to have originated in the Warner Bros. cartoon department during the golden age of Bugs Bunny and his friends, 1940-1958. Give Pakula props for perspicacity: not only did he leave Warners just before all the other top talent, but with his familiarity with child-labeled material that was actually great, Pakula read and recognized the power of To Kill a Mockingbird and snatched up the film rights even before it won The Pulitzer Prize in 1961. At that point Pakula had never directed and only produced one B-film, mostly to prove he could do it, and so Pakula was not exactly unhappy when he called top-of-the-A-lister Gregory Peck and, as Pakula later put it, “He called back immediately. No maybes. I must say the man and the character he played were not unalike.” In the film, when the county judge tells Peck’s character Atticus Finch that he needs a white lawyer to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman, Peck pauses, almost for decorum, then says “I’ll take the case.”

With Gregory Peck attached as lead, Pakula re-hired the only director he’d ever hired, Robert Mulligan, who had since been shooting mostly TV episodes. Mulligan would never be known as an auteur, but his experience with TV was perfect training for Mockingbird, which feels appropriately small-town American though made entirely on a stage set not unlike the sets of shows like Leave It to Beaver. (Pakula had hoped to shoot in Lee’s Monroeville, but the town had changed too much since the 1930s.) Little wonder that at a screening for Walt Disney, who had recently begun Disneyland with its sentimentally nostalgic view of “Main Street U.S.A.,” Disney called To Kill a Mockingbird “the kind of film I wish I could make.”  

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with a credit sequence of closeups on childhood bric-a-brac. We learn that some bric-a-brac comes from payments to local lawyer Atticus Finch, and other bric-a-brac comes from a tree’s knothole on the Radley property. Boo Radley is a mysterious and scary figure to our narrator, who weaves a tale about her childhood in Maycomb, Alabama, when she was known as Scout to her widower father, whom her six-year-old self calls Atticus, and to her two playmates, her brother Jem and neighbor Dill. Hosting local poor boy Walter at dinner, Atticus says we might use a gun to kill various birds, but never a mockingbird, because all they do is sing for us. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white girl, and this leads to Jem and Scout being bullied at school. On their front porch swing, Scout asks Atticus why he took the case, and he explains that if he hadn’t, he couldn’t tell Scout or Jem what to do. Atticus’ authority is tested while he stands overnight watch at the local jail when a white lynch mob turns up to hurt Tom Robinson. Jem, Scout, and Dill turn up out of the bushes, ignore Atticus warning them to go home, and join Atticus on the stoop. Scout asks one of the thugs to say hi to his son Walter, and the crowd disperses. Jem and Scout watch the trial from the balcony alongside every African-American in the courthouse but one, Tom Robinson, who sits accused of rape as Atticus defends him. Atticus questions why no doctor ever examined the white victim, notes that Tom has no use of his left hand, and implies that any injuries came from the victim’s father beating her for willingly kissing a black man. The all-white-male jury finds Robinson guilty, and as Finch leaves the courthouse, every black person rises in tribute. That evening, after Atticus learns that Tom was killed during a prison transfer, he drives to the Robinson house to personally deliver the news, and Bob Ewell spits in his face. Autumn comes, and on Halloween, Jem and Scout are walking home from a school event when they’re attacked by a shadowy figure and saved by an even shadowier one. As Jem recovers at home, Scout happily discovers the mute Boo Radley hiding there, and the Sheriff tells Atticus that though he knows Boo saved his kids by stabbing Bob Ewell, he will tell people that Ewell fell on his own knife. In another porch talk, Scout tells Atticus that the sheriff was right because putting Boo in the spotlight and risking a fate like Tom Robinson’s would be like killing a mockingbird. Scout walks Boo home, and voice-overs another piece of Atticus’ wisdom about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Mockingbird earned about $13 million on a $2 million budget, a 6-to-1 ratio for Universal Pictures that assured Pakula’s career of making smart, conscious melodramas. Much later, the Mockingbird DVD would quote Harper Lee on how “delighted” she was to learn Peck would play her hero: “When he played Atticus Finch, he had played himself, and time has told us something more: when he played himself, he touched the world.” This is true on several levels. Peck could have performed a Southern accent, like the film’s other actors, but it seems Pakula and others recognized the power of Finch being Peck. Peck won his career Oscar for the role, the award being a precondition for him becoming President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a group he considerably liberalized and diversified beginning in the late 1960s. The Oscar probably also helped get him appointed the first chair of the American Film Institute, another group Peck made inclusive. But the most important level is influence, and for the four decades Peck lived after the film, a week may have never passed without someone telling him how To Kill a Mockingbird had changed their lives for the better. Is Peck-as-Finch, and Finch-as-Peck, the ultimate white savior? Yes. But a potent vision of allyship is still something – a Finch pecking on the screen beats two hiding in the bushes.

Influenced by: novelist Harper Lee’s upbringing, an evolving studio system

Influenced: liberal idealism, attitudes toward the South


A57. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1962) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

Although the film was based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, a series of 1962 events led to Columbia Pictures paying for the sort of film it became, from the success of Dr. No to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the success of Lolita as it was directed by Mister Stanley Kubrick, in Britain in black-and-white with Peter Sellers in a number of amusing roles. Sellers had played multiple parts in a 1959 film called The Mouse That Roared, echoing other low-budget British comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, which cast Alec Guinness in eight roles and turned the lemon of high actor salaries into the lemonade of character humor. Columbia Pictures was perhaps too enamored of this concept, promising Stanley Kubrick the funding for his Cold War satire only if Sellers would play at least four major roles. Ironically, MajorKong would be the only role assigned to Sellers that he didn’t play, because Sellers broke his leg and couldn’t fit inside the cramped cockpit set. His leg wasn’t a problem for his three roles that did make it to the finished film, sedulous British Captain Lionel Mandrake, incredulous Adlai Stevenson-ish American President Merkin Muffley, and the incredibly pathological Nazi-ish title character, Dr. Strangelove.

For Dr. Strangelove Kubrick claimed he’d studied more than forty military and political books on the subject of nuclear war, as well as novels like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach – made into a 1959 film starring Gregory Peck, about Australia in the wake of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war – almost convincing Kubrick to move to Australia instead of the U.K. Kubrick liked Peter George’s “Red Alert” best, hired George to collaborate on the adaptation, and soon realized the material played better as black comedy, enabling him to rehire his new friend from the Lolita production, Peter Sellers. Sellers handed Kubrick a comic-absurdist novel by Terry Southern that led Kubrick to hire Southern as a third writer. Ken Adam, fresh from production design work on Dr. No, was hired to design a war room set in Shepperton Studios, and working with Kubrick, Adam came up with something immortal in the room’s canted angles surrounding ominously glowing circles that seated way too many men to understand each other. The war room set reminded many of Metropolis, particularly considering the Dr. Strangelove character’s Rotwang-like lone glove and frizzy hair. Kubrick and Sellers happily worked together on decisions every day even as the director maintained his tendency from his last two films, Spartacus and Lolita, of mendaciously manipulating American actors, asking George C. Scott to perform over-the-top “practice” takes that Kubrick would supposedly never use…but then Kubrick used them, causing Scott to join actors like Kirk Douglas and Shelley Winters in swearing never to work with Kubrick again. Rumor has it that Kubrick gave Slim Pickens, as Major Kong, only his pages and told him to play the film as a drama, but this story doesn’t jibe with the most famous moment of the film, when Pickens rides a launched missile like a rodeo’s bucking bull. This is only one of the film’s many phallic images and names, from its B-52-docking credit-sequence to the jouissance of the concluding explosions. Critics would argue over whether Kubrick’s Freudian obsessions count as scathing satire of the patriarchy or scatological sophomorism. For some, the film is the ultimate deconstruction of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD; for others, the ultimate reconstruction of MAD Magazine is a film titled Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

USAF General Jack D. Ripper, the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, activates “Wing Attack Plan R,” which sends B-52 bombers into Russian airspace to drop their payloads of hydrogen bombs on the Soviets. About a fourth of the film focuses on one particular B-52, accompanied by the music from “When Johnny Came Marching Home,” and that plane’s crew, led by ranking pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong. The ranking British officer at Burpelson, Captain Mandrake, accuses Ripper of pulling the trigger without Pentagon approval; the triggered Ripper cuts off all communications and locks the two of them together in his office. In the War Room at the Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson explains to President Merkin Muffley that the planes are intentionally incommunicado in the activated protocol, and that only General Ripper has the recall code. Muffley brings Soviet ambassador Sadeski into the War Room as he uses the hot line to call Soviet Premier Kissov, and Sadeski helps Muffley promise the Soviets help with any defensive action. Turgidson’s xenophobic suspicions lead to a scramble that ends with Muffley shouting, “You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” Sadeski sadly explains that any exploded H-bomb will activate a new Soviet doomsday machine that will destroy all animal and plant life, turning “Earth into the moon.” As Ripper confides to Mandrake his full theory about Soviets polluting Americans “precious bodily fluids,” the President’s troops arrive to get the code from Ripper, who kills himself. In what is basically a real-time film, invading Colonel Bat Guano stands ready to shoot Mandrake during the ten minutes it takes Mandrake to convince Guano to let him call the President and reveal the recall code he’s discovered. The planes are recalled just in time, except for Kong’s, which is too wounded by a prior Soviet strike to hear the code. Kong personally attends to a broken launch door, which suddenly opens, sending the missile falling as Kong rides athwart it yelling cowboy “yee-haw”s. The doomsday machine now triggered, we return to the war room where the half-paralyzed Dr. Strangelove tells the president to gather hundreds of thousands into radiation-resistant mineshafts, with a ratio of ten fertile women to every old powerful man. As Turgidson cautions of a mineshaft gap, Strangelove pops out of his chair, says, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”, and the film cuts to stock footage of nuclear explosions scored to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

Another under-40-year-old director’s 7th film ended in the destruction of at least New York City, and that this director, Sidney Lumet, had already made the prestigious, excellent 12 Angry Men and Long Day’s Journey Into Night…which is exactly what worried Kubrick. During Strangelove’s production at Shepperton Studios, in early 1963, Kubrick learned about Fail Safe, a film then in production based on the novel “Fail Safe” that was already so similar to Red Alert that Peter George had sued its author for plagiarism and settled out of court. Kubrick worried that Strangelove would suffer by comparison at the box office, considering Lumet’s sterling reputation and A-list actor Henry Fonda as the president. Kubrick had Columbia sue the production, making much of the similarities of his Dr. Strangelove character and Fail-Safe’s Professor Groeteschele played by Walter Matthau, with the result that Columbia bought the independent production with a stipulation that Fail Safe would open no less than six months after Dr. Strangelove. Adding insult to injury, even that date was pushed back after November 22, 1963, the day that Strangelove’s first preview was scheduled…and canceled, after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Although the story was hardly that of The Manchurian Candidate, nonetheless Columbia felt it prudent to push Dr. Strangelove’s premiere to late January, and Fail-Safe to the following fall, where it fizzled in comparison to both Strangelove and Lyndon Johnson’s just-aired campaign commercial of a 3-year-old in a nuclear blast. One biographer wrote that JFK’s assassination led to the removal of a final pie-fight scene in which Turgidson reacts to a pie hitting Muffley with “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” Kubrick later said that line could have been cut or altered but that ending with the pie fight was “not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.” 

Satire can be powerful: in response to the films, the Air Force created a documentary called SAC Command Post that showed the clear delegations of authority over nuclear weapons. Yet some say that the Pentagon only decentralized its process after seeing Strangelove, only retrospectively making sure that the depicted events could not happen. Another measure of Strangelove’s influence is that the word “Strangelove” is not today red-underlined in Microsoft Word. Parodies come and go, but perhaps no other satire has quite the combination of dry sobriety and political consciousness of Dr. Strangelove

Influenced by: The Cuban Missile Crisis, stories like Fail-Safe (1964), Kubrickian nihilism

Influenced: the 60s, filmic and otherwise; the Cold War in perception and reality


A58. My Fair Lady (Cukor, 1964) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven’t used it for years.”

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1950s musical adaptation of Pygmalion had problems: the main story wasn’t a love story, there was no subplot or place for an ensemble, and Chase Manhattan Bank held the rights. With financial help from the head of CBS, William S. Paley, they eventually more or less overcame all of this, and hoping for the broadest possible appeal, changed the name of the play Pygmalion to a phrase from “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Lerner and Loewe offered the Higgins role to Noel Coward, who told them to offer it to Rex Harrison, who vascillated but reluctantly accepted, changing his life. In a case of life more or less imitating art, they “discovered” a 20-year-old Julie Andrews to match with the 47-year-old Harrison during a decade in which, as we’ve seen, Hollywood routinely made such pairings. This period differs from our own in that Broadway feared competition from Hollywood and normally only agreed to adaptations after the show had completed its successful stage run. My Fair Lady had a very successful run from 1956 to 1962, resulting in studios bidding on the film rights in the wake of the smash hit film West Side Story. Warner Bros. won the sweepstakes, paying Paley an unprecedented $5.5 million plus about half of the gross over $20 million. 

In 1962 Jack Warner was the last of the old-time moguls, now playing the new game of planning a blockbuster that had to earn over $20 million, and he had no intention of losing his studio as Fox seemed to be doing making Cleopatra. For the first time since World War II he would serve not as executive producer but as producer because on this film he would personally manage every line-item. To that end, one of Warner’s first hires was his peer George Cukor, a director who had been bringing in films on budget for the more than 20 years since he planned Gone with the Wind and The Philadelphia Story. Everyone in Hollywood knew Cukor was a closeted gay man, helping him maintain a reputation no man should probably have ever had, that of Hollywood’s best director of women, due to films to be discussed in future podcasts like Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, and A Star is Born. That role originators Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were brilliant as Higgins and Eliza was another thing well known to all of Broadway and Hollywood, but not to anyone in middle America. Warner offered Higgins to Cary Grant, who said not only wouldn’t he play it, he wouldn’t even see the film if it didn’t star Harrison. Warner imagined he had to cast Harrison; he also imagined dressing Audrey Hepburn even more fashionably than Edith Head had dressed Grace Kelly in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. However, Hepburn required the same salary that Elizabeth Taylor had laughingly told Fox she’d require for Cleopatra, “a million dollars,” an amount that Fox surprised the town by coming up with. Well…if Harrison/Higgins was “discovering” a new talent as Eliza, didn’t that subtext support the main text? In the end Warner paid Hepburn the million and Harrison about half, but the press got wind of it all and constructed a narrative in which Warner snubbed poor innocent Andrews. Walt Disney, of all people, seized upon this narrative and asked Andrews if she wanted to play the lead in Mary Poppins. Andrews told Uncle Walt that she was pregnant and Disney, very unlike Hitchcock, said he was happy to wait for her. Warner invested heavily in the costumes and Edwardian production design but not on supporting actors, and Cukor kept the rest of My Fair Lady on time and on budget, a budget that, including his salary, Hepburn’s, Harrison’s, the fee to Paley, and state-of-the-art equipment, set a record of $17 million. Ben-Hur set a record with a $13 million budget only five years before, and that film was made in Italy instead of a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank, giving you an idea of how blockbuster money and scale were escalating by 1963.

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, a lowly Cockney flower girl on the streets outside a posh theatre, upbraids a man taking notes on her speech, who turns out to be Henry Higgins, phonetics professor. Higgins sings “Why Can’t the English learn to speak?” and, after he leaves, Doolittle laments that her accent is keeping her from owning a flower shop in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Higgins says and sings sexist things throughout the film, for example “we are a marvelous sex, why can’t a woman take after a man?” that we’re apparently supposed to read as naïve bachelor charm. Doolittle goes to Higgins’ house while he is meeting with an old friend, Colonel Pickering, who offers to pay for her lessons if Higgins can truly make her speech posh. Eliza does badly, gets importuned into secretarial work, fantasizes of hurting Henry, and then finally “gets it” while saying, then singing, The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. She revels in her new skill while singing I Could Have Danced All Night. Higgins takes Doolitte to the posh Ascot Racecourse, where she beguiles a young plutocrat named Freddy and almost fools his friends, until the race starts and she shouts at the nag to “move your bloomin’ arse!” After more work, Higgins takes Doolittle to an embassy ball, where she dances with a Hungarian prince who declares her a princess. Higgins and Pickering celebrate their genius as Eliza gets sick of both of them, walks out, and finds she can no longer fit easily into her old life. Like a creepy stalker, Freddy has been standing on the stoop singing “On the Street Where You Live,” and like her character throughout the film, Eliza accepts being mistreated. Higgins finds her at his mother’s house and asks her to return to him, but she claims she’ll be marrying Freddy and working as the prince’s assistant. On his way home, Higgins says a few more sexist things, then realizes he loves her in his own way, singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” At the end, she returns to him, and he says with relief, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”

Released in October 1964, My Fair Lady was not just pre-Beatles, but more like pre-historic: what era were we supposed to be nostalgic for? The 1950s, when the musical came out? The repressed men in the grey flannel suits never murmured this much misogyny. The 1930s, when Warner and Cukor were at career peaks and female stars ran Hollywood? Or maybe the 1910s, when the story is set? The writers and filmmakers may have imagined Edwardian women to be subservient, or imagined that audiences would believe this if they made sure audiences saw no trace of the suffragette movement. One might respond that the same is true of that August 1964 release Mary Poppins, also about a free-thinking young beautiful singing white woman who comes to live in an Edwardian London flat, but Poppins doesn’t endure anything like Higgins’ abuse, and besides Mary Poppins has dancing, like West Side Story and Gypsy and unlike My Fair Lady. Nonetheless, the latter earned more than $70 million in roadshows, and that can’t all be ascribed to marketing and the musical’s many memorable songs.

Rex Harrison was happy to play a chauvinist pig, but he drew the line at lip-synching himself, claiming he sang the words differently each time. Warner argued that his studio had dubbed everyone, “even Rin-Tin-Tin,” but he finally caved, and Harrison used the first ever wireless microphone in a Hollywood musical. This fit awkwardly with Hepburn’s lip-synching Marni Nixon after Hepburn had worked with a vocal coach for months. Ultimately her voice was ruled insufficient, Warner pulled a West Side Story and hired Nixon, and Hepburn told the press she’d never have accepted the role if she knew she’d be dubbed. Jack Warner and George Cukor, meanwhile, won their first Oscars that were both for My Fair Lady and lifetime achievement awards.

Influenced by: movie musicals of the time, especially in terms of cost (most expensive yet)

Influenced: many songs are classics; its story is universally referenced


A59. The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens 
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens 
Brown paper packages tied up with strings 
These are a few of my favorite things.”

In 1956, Barney Balaban at Paramount Pictures saw a German film called The Trapp Family and purchased the U.S. film rights, planning to cast the Belgian-born Audrey Hepburn as Maria. Based on Maria Von Trapp’s memoirs, The Trapp Family and its sequel, The Trapp Family in America, did well by German film standards, but Paramount abandoned the adaptation, leading one of Paramount’s contractor-directors, Vincent Donahue, to propose turning the story into a stage musical for Mary Martin. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were approached to write one song, they answered that their style and Austrian folk didn’t really mesh, but that if the project could wait until they were done with the all-Asian American Flower Drum Song, they’d be willing to write an entire score. When the team behind Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I tells you they’ll write you a musical if you wait, you wait. The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959 and ran for almost 1500 performances. A week after it won the Tony for Best Musical, the musical’s producers, more insolvent than those of My Fair Lady, sold 20th Century Fox the film rights for an immediate $1.25 million down that could eventually be increased by 10% of the film’s gross minus the down payment. These producers, eyeing what looked like surer Broadway earnings, stipulated that the film’s release couldn’t happen before 1965, never suspecting that their 10% of the film’s eventual box office would, if made into a pile of money, stretch higher than the Austrian Alps.

In Spring 1963, the Austrian Alps played host to Roger Edens, William Wyler, and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, on a Fox-funded fact-finding trip that helped Lehman conceptualize several changes from stage to screen, for example converting the play’s staid “Do Re Mi” to a travelogue of Salzburg that deepened the relationship between Maria and the children. Salzburg did nothing to convince Wyler that the project would not be too saccharine and sentimental, and he left it, but a schedule change let Fox hire Robert Wise, Lehman’s original choice because of their successful partnership in West Side Story in which they solved a different problem named Maria. After all of one hit, Wise was suddenly an expert on live musical film, a stature as unlikely for him as it was for Walt Disney. In late 1963 Wise and Lehman became perhaps the first A-list creatives, ever, to venture into Disney Studios to cast based on not-yet-public footage, and a few minutes into Mary Poppins Wise leaned over to Lehman and said “Let’s go sign this girl before somebody else sees this film and grabs her!” Andrews flinched at playing a second nanny in a row, but that wasn’t her main issue: in a deepening 1960s that had just seen the March on Washington and the assassination of a U.S. President, Wise and Lehman were having trouble persuading any actors to do a love story of a governess and a wealthy widower. They promised to lean hard into the Nazi persecution angle in Act III, and reminded the actors that the bones of a great musical were there – heck, no less than John Coltrane had covered “My Favorite Things.” Wise and Lehman landed the not-yet-stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer for a low six figures each, though Plummer only if he could do what David Lean wouldn’t let Alec Guinness do on River Kwai: make his character wilier and stronger. (Plummer, unlike Andrews or Hepburn, would happily defer singing duties to another, something the press ignored in the case of a man.) Wise and Lehman agreed to Plummer’s demands, with the caveat that Plummer would also have to run changes by one other consultant to the project: the real Maria Von Trapp. For the interested, the two books to read are Von Trapp’s memoirs and Julia Antopol Hirsch’s book The Sound of Music: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie.

Pan to the free-spirited Maria spinning on a mountain field near Salzburg, Austria in 1938 singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Cut to the Abbey where Maria furrows the brows of her fellow nuns, who sing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” and answer their own question by sending her to work as governess for widowed Naval Captain George Von Trapp and his seven children. The children rebel, but Maria wins them over with love and discretion regarding the oldest daughter’s love affair and a song that begins “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…” While the Captain is away, Maria teaches the kids to sing with a song that goes “Doh, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun…” Upon his return with a wealthy socialite Baroness, von Trapp finds the children wet and in weird new clothes, and when Maria warns him he should be closer to his kids, the Captain orders Maria to get she to the nunnery. However, after von Trapp hears the children singing for the first time in years, he apologizes to Maria, tunes a guitar, and sings “Edelweiss” to his kids. At a grand party not unlike the coming-out ball in My Fair Lady, Maria and the Captain wind up in an awkward dance together. People keep getting rid of a problem like Maria: first she blushes herself out of that dance, second the Baroness, courting the Captain, removes her competition by getting she to that nunnery, and third, when Mother Abbess learns of Maria’s feelings for the Captain, she sends Maria volte-face to the Von Trapp villa. The Baroness demands a new governess, and the Captain digresses, eschewing the Baroness in favor of his governess. The Third Reich annexes Austria during Maria and George’s honeymoon, and they return home to a telegram drafting the Captain into the German Navy. The couple informs the children that they can’t perform at the Salzburg Festival as planned and they’ll have to leave immediately for Switzerland, but when stopped on the road by Nazis, they say, uh, they’re driving to perform at the Festival. A Nazi escorts them to the festival with the plan to arrest them after, but after performing the highly un-suspicious “So Long, Farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye,” they slip off to hide in the abbey. Nazis show up, search the church, and are found by the daughter’s boyfriend, who is now a Nazi brownshirt. Young Pope Benedict hesitates just long enough for them to escape, abetted by abbesses who have removed parts of Nazi car engines. The film ends after the Von Trapps drive to the Swiss border, are forced to do the last bit on foot, and do so to the sounds of an orchestral “Climb Every Mountain.”

The Sound of Music premiered in Los Angeles on March 10, 1965, was roadshown in about 100 theaters, and during the week Andrews won her Oscar for playing another singing nanny, The Sound of Music expanded everywhere and became the number-one film in America, a position it held for at least 30 of the next 43 weeks as it became history’s highest-grossing film in non-adjusted dollars. You could call the response a sort of culmination of West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins; you could call it regression in a time of repression and revolution, you can, say, most, anything. When The Sound of Music came out, the Hays Code was still nominally in effect; by the time it finished its North American theatrical run in November 1969, the Hays Code had been formally scrapped and replaced by Jack Valenti with the Motion Picture Production Code, which retroactively rated The Sound of Music, what else, G for General Audiences. The Sound of Music became the first American musical movie to be completely dubbed, dialogue and music, in German, French, Italian, and Spanish. In Japan the dialogue was dubbed in Japanese and the music left in English; in every other language, Fox released it subtitled. After the film surprised Hollywood by becoming a massive, massive hit around the world (except in Germany and Austria where they preferred the Trapp Family films), Fox’s strategy became American studio policy for the next five decades, meaning speakers of German, French, Italian, and Spanish grew up hearing their “own” actors in Hollywood films while speakers of other languages learned English from Hollywood. A shorter-term effect of The Sound of Music was on Hollywood itself, which reacted by throwing more money at more European postcard-ready films and/or widescreen musicals. Unfortunately for them, Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960, and his successors weren’t quite as successful. But in Christmas 1965, this formula brought studios yuletide cheer one last time with yet another widescreen European-set epic that wound up earning a massive fortune and becoming The Sound of Music’s main competition at the next Academy Awards, today’s podcast’s final film, Doctor Zhivago.

Influenced by: the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog (“Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” etc.), interwar Austria

Influenced: dozens of imitators; came to represent everything the Hollywood Renaissance opposed


A60. Doctor Zhivago (Lean, 1965) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I hate everything you say, but not enough to kill you for it.”

Boris Pasternak’s novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Italy in 1957, and when Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, many saw the award as a rebuke to Soviet repression and Pasternak as a symbol of resistance to Communism. Perhaps that’s why the American Film Institute thought to include Doctor Zhivago on its list despite the film’s only real association with the United States being MGM putting up half the budget in a desperate bid to remain relevant in the 60s. American producer Sam Spiegel distanced himself from David Lean after Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, partly because David Lean did not want to make another all-male movie. Just as well, because Spiegel had fought Lawrence’s great screenwriter, Robert Bolt, over Bolt’s anti-nuclear protests, to the point where the men refused to speak, and not only was Bolt happy to write Doctor Zhivago, he also hoped Lean would cast his wife Sarah Miles as Lara. Bolt had this in common with Italian super-producer Carlo Ponti, who approached Lean seeking an epic vehicle for his wife Sophia Loren, who was already a superstar and Oscar winner. Perhaps not wanting to play favorites between his teammates, Lean wound up casting neither woman as Lara but instead taking John Ford’s recommendation and casting Julie Christie. The title role wound up as one of the century’s most significant casting decisions. Lean wanted Peter O’Toole back, but he declined; Lean considered at least Paul Newman, Max Von Sydow, and a then-unknown Michael Caine, before finally casting Omar Sharif, who had loved the novel and lobbied for the role. White people routinely played in brownface and worse, for example Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia, but here we must give Lean credit for addressing his bad practices by making the first major film to centralize a brown man playing a white man. (And Alec Guinness plays his brother Yevgraf without makeup, mercifully.) Of all the lessons Hollywood took from Doctor Zhivago – big silver screens, big silver spent on big scenes – it would have been nice if studios had offered, or would now offer, more brown people more roles in period films.

Set in the first half of the century in Russia, there was no way the motion picture could be filmed where it was set. Instead of bouncing around the continent only to settle on Spain, Lean and Conti simply set up the whole production in Spain. (Italians and Lean loved working with Caudillo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which compared to most of Western Europe or America could quickly clear out any meddlesome local population, making Spain more like the Soviet Union than anyone west of Minsk would admit.) Lean and Ponti were promised snow that would resemble the Ural Mountains, but Spain had its warmest winter in 50 years, and the Zhivago team wound up flying to Canada and Finland and sometimes using fake snow.

At a Communist-constructed dam in a year that may be that of the death of Stalin, old Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago meets a woman that he thinks may be his niece, and tells her the story of her, uh, maybe father. During a peaceful anti-Tsar protest in 1913 in Moscow, idealistic “Pasha” Antipov is wounded by a Cossack’s sabre and runs to 17-year-old Lara, whom he loves, for her to treat his wound and hide a gun from the rally. When Lara’s mother learns that Lara is having an affair with old apparatchik Victor Komarovsky, she attempts suicide and is medically treated by Doctor Yuri Zhivago, a medical student whom we also know to be a poet, fiancé of Tonya Gromeko, and orphan of his balalaika-playing mother. When Komarovsky learns that Lara plans to marry Pasha, he rapes her (this is clear, but not presented graphically), and she reacts by bringing Pasha’s pistol to a Christmas party where she shoots but fails to kill Komarovsky. He also receives treatment from Zhivago, whose large brown eyes show he is impressed with Lara, who marries Pasha and bears him a daughter, Katya. The Great War breaks out, Yuri is drafted into becoming a battlefield doctor, Pasha is reported missing, and Lara becomes a nurse to search for him. After the February 1917 revolution, Yuri and Lara run a field hospital together and fall in love, but remain loyal to their spouses. After Lenin takes over Russia, Yuri returns to that house at the end of the Potemkin village, now divided by Bolsheviks into tenements. Yuri’s brother Yevgraf returns from successes at the front with travel passes to the Varykino estate in the Urals, and Yuri’s family decides to take a treacherous train journey through the Civil War between Communists and anti-Communists. When the infamous Bolshevik Strelnikov brings Yuri into his office, Yuri recognizes him as Pasha, and Pasha recognizes Yuri and, perhaps hoping that Yuri will protect his wife Lara, reveals that she now lives near Yuri’s destination in a town called Yuriatin that is held by anti-Communists. Sure enough, after Yuri and Tonya settle in with their family, he goes sniffing around for Lara and they resume their affair, but on one of his extramarital journeys he is kidnapped by Communists and made to do medical work on their front for two years. Yuri finally escapes and trudges through what looks like half of the Taiga on foot, finally finding Lara and comfort in Yuriatin despite, or maybe because of, the fact that Tonya and the kids have been deported to Paris. Of all people, Komarovsky arrives to warn Lara that because of her marriage to a top-ranking Communist, she is in danger and should flee Russia with him. They refuse any help from him, instead moving back to the Varykino estate where Zhivago writes “Lara” poems and we hear a lot of “Lara’s theme.” Komarovsky shows up again to say that Strelnikov was captured five miles away and killed himself on the way to his execution. This time, Yuri doesn’t object to Lara’s escape with Katya and Komarovsky, but he stays to face or distract the authorities. Years later, Lenin is dead, Yuri Zhivago is a famous poet, Stalin is in power, and Yevgraf helps his emaciated brother find a proper Communist job in Moscow. Yuri sees Lara from a train, struggles to get off at the next stop, runs after her, and before she can see him he collapses and dies of a fatal heart attack. Lara approaches Yevgraf at the well-attended funeral, importuning his help searching for an orphaned girl that she claims is hers and Yuri’s. In the framing device, older Yevgraf explains that he lost Lara, probably to labor camps, without them ever finding the girl he now believes to be her. Tonya answers that she believes her father to be Komarovsky as her fiancé picks her up, whereupon Yevgraf notices her balalaika and deduces her true lineage as the camera rests upon a dam-generated rainbow.

Pauline Kael, for one, found this concluding rainbow a disgraceful, condescending, appeasement, and asked, would Lean and Bolt have put a rainbow over the future of England? Pasternak’s novel gives space for Yuri and Lara to ruminate on the great Russian authors like Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and others, and for our lovers to position themselves within their moral visions and emerging Soviet ethics, but even a three-hour film must eschew most of that and leave the subtext to, in this case, Omar Sharif’s enigmatic expressions. Critics weren’t entirely impressed, but audiences were, and the film ran for years and eventually earned more than The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia…combined. By keeping MGM around for another few years, Dr. Zhivago proved his talent for stopping the bleeding.

Lean’s film-finishing rainbow may have been an awkward gesture toward the nascent peace-and-love movement on the streets of London, New York, and San Francisco, and if so, despite Kael’s contempt, the rainbow stands as an appropriate gesture, the coda of a long period of oversized, overbaked filmmaking offering a bridge to a new era, or perhaps pointing to a long-overdue outpouring if Alec Guinness could just do what he does best and blow up that dam works project. 

Influenced by: the Cold War, obliquely; Lean’s last two films were Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, and after critics scoffed that this Russian romance could never measure up…

Influenced: …Zhivago wound up making more than Bridge and Lawrence combined; it’s in the all-time Top 10 (adjusted)


A61. Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Some day, they’ll go down together / They’ll bury them side by side / To a few, it’ll be grief / To the law, a relief / But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

Robert Benton and David Newman’s script owed much to the French New Wave and its transgressive, jittery-filmed, elliptically-edited anti-establishment movies like those directed by their heroes Truffaut and Godard. Through a friend of a friend these two Esquire writers somehow got their spec script to the former, who told them he was considering it before passing it on to the latter. Warren Beatty came upon this script about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and never quite let it go. Beatty eventually attached himself as producer, at a time when almost no star-actor, and certainly none under 30, did such a thing, but since his breakthrough in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in 1961, he had become known for a hands-on approach that…did not make it easier for him to find a director. Beatty beseeched Arthur Penn, his director from Mickey One, who was wary after his last producer, Sam Spiegel, fresh off David Lean’s last two films, took away Penn’s ability to cut, ahem, The Chase, a 1965 film about Southern-fried injustice that Penn, and in fact Beatty, knew could have been so much more. Beatty promised they would decide final cut on Bonnie and Clyde together, beginning an alliance that would finally cut off Hollywood’s past.

Mark Harris details the claims and counter-claims about why Clyde’s bisexuality, clear in Benton and Newman’s script, was removed before shooting began. Homophobia played a role in Beatty’s reluctance to play that sort of role, and some risks may have restricted other risks, but the consensus was that making a criminal like Clyde impotent but not bisexual was an easier way to keep the audience’s sympathy. Robert Towne, a friend of Beatty’s who Beatty brought on as writer, pointed out that Jules et Jim, Truffaut’s New Wave classic, took a whole movie to resolve a pansexual love triangle, and that was without all the gangster business. 

For years, a story has persisted that 29-year-old Warren Beatty dropped to his knees in the office of 73-year-old newly crowned Oscar winner Jack Warner and begged him to make Bonnie and Clyde, a story that Harris says survives for two reasons: it seems like something Beatty would have done and Warner would have liked. But consider a third reason: it spins Bonnie and Clyde as a reluctant, beneficent torch-passing from the studio and person that perfected the sympathetic-criminal film in the 1930s to a generation going ga-ga for 1930s’ gangsters again. It gives Warner a sort of Creation of Adam-like credit if you like Bonnie and Clyde but no blame if you don’t, and by the way, Warner didn’t, or at best saw Clyde as Cagney-lite. After Warner died in 1978, Beatty began to deny the knee-dropping story, though he kept up another one in which Warner pointed to the lot’s water-tower with its WB logo, as Warner had with a thousand other cranky creatives, saying something to the effect of “When that logo says [Your Name] Brothers, that’s when you get to decide.” Beatty claims he answered, “Well, the water tower’s got your name, but it’s got my initials.” 

Unlike To Kill a MockingbirdThe Chase had suffered from being filmed on the backlot instead of the bayou, and one condition for Arthur Penn’s participation was that they film Bonnie and Clyde in the story’s real Texas locations. Beatty wanted a sort of sepia-toned black-and-white that survives in the opening stills, but Warner insisted on color and an overall budget of 1.8 million, not a lot for a location shoot. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey, one of the few veterans on the shoot, dug deep for dazzling DP work, but didn’t deal well with Beatty and Penn, who fired Guffey only to get new work that was more stilted than sepia stills, so they begged Guffey back. Many such things went wrong over that winter of 1967, and Warner pulled the plug on the location, forcing production back to the lot with his water-tower. This is one reason the car interiors were filmed with obviously dated rear-screen projection, although this is offset by new squib technology that makes the bleeding look better than any blood ever had. The finished film doesn’t work as history, although arguably, the real Bonnie and Clyde wouldn’t have wanted it to.

In Texas in the 1930s, a young naked woman, lounging horizontally, looks out her window to see a young man trying to steal her mother’s car. Clyde and Bonnie walk into town together, and he talks her into attempting some minor crimes together. Despite showing a black family how to use some guns, they bring on white allies: a random gas-station attendant named C.W. Moss as well as Clyde’s brother Buck and Buck’s wife Blanche. The quintet starts robbing banks, and a police officer named Frank Hamer finds them in a swamp, but they turn the tables and humiliate him with posed pictures that they send to credulous newspaper writers who hail the gang as heroes. As Bonnie reads such articles to the group, Blanche calls Bonnie an immoral woman, and Bonnie shoots back that Blanche’s loud whining will get them all killed. Cops invade their hideout and the Barrow gang kills at least one during their frenetic escape. As if their car wasn’t full enough, they pick up a couple, squish them into the middle of their back seat, and the seven of them joke around until the man reveals himself to be a mortician. With Bonnie consumed with mortality, the gang visits her mother in an overwhelmingly yellowy amber scene, and Bonnie’s mother predicts her daughter’s fate will be fatal. Bonnie’s newspaper reading moves from articles about her to poetry by her. The police spring a surprise raid on the gang, killing Buck and blinding Blanche as the other three barely escape to hide at C.W.’s father Ivan’s house. There, Ivan is so offended by his son’s new tattoo that he makes a deal with Officer Hamer, to give up Bonnie and Clyde if Hamer will leave his son alone. The police ambush Bonnie and Clyde in a final minute precedented only by the shower scene in Psycho, in terms of its pace, amount of edits, violence, audience empathy, and the six days it took to film. But audiences never watched Marion Crane bleed; Bonnie and Clyde are vivisected with fusillades of fulsomely bleeding bullet holes.

Dede Allen edited much of Bonnie and Clyde in New York, 3000 miles from Jack Warner, and she not only created one of cinema’s greatest endings but also established French New Wave-ish audio overlaps and supple, emotion-driven jump cuts that were then almost unknown in American films. Allen later credited her mentor, editor-turned-director Robert Wise, and there’s a certain irony that the director of The Sound of Music was credited by the editor of the film that, more than any other, moved Hollywood away from all those Von Trappings. Not that this was clear when Bonnie and Clydewas first released in August 1967: bad reviews met just enough business to give certain major reviewers and publications time to revise their opinion on the film, giving Warren Beatty just enough clippings as reason to keep the film in theaters. This time, he wasn’t on his knees, but instead taking advantage of a studio ownership change to threaten a lawsuit over being replaced by an underperforming film, and new management may have felt it was easier to keep Beatty happy. This new company, Seven Arts, was rewarded in December when Time magazine put the film on the cover with the headline “The New Cinema: Violence, Sex, Art,” positioning Bonnie and Clyde at the vanguard of a new edgy, rebellious American cinematic movement of complex narratives, stylistic flourishes, and taboo subject matter, as well as “a small victory for the independent judgment of audiences against the guiding advice of mass journalism,” a phrase that foretold the social-media era.That season, half a dozen magazine covers featured Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, wearing 1930s fashions restitched for a more form-fitting 1960s. Going far beyond fashion was the Hollywood Reporter when it wrote of Bonnie and Clyde in 1968, “Not in a generation has a single Hollywood movie had such a sudden and decisive impact.” The movie was hailed as Hollywood’s first real attempt to respond to, or represent, the alienation and “anarchic individualism” of 1960s youth, including visualizing righteous violence in the face of capricious authority. 

Influenced by: European art films, pre-Code gangster films, the 60s more generally

Influenced: its influence cannot be overstated; this film began the Hollywood Renaissance


A62. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Kramer, 1967) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“But you’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem.”

Mark Harris quotes some of the many, many African-American critics of Poitier’s mid-1960s image, including Poitier himself, who perceived the problems of repeatedly playing perfect people, but nonetheless publicly pleaded for patience, asking detractors to wait for nuance until there were maybe six black A-listers. Arguably curating his stardom too carefully, in 1966 Poitier accepted three lead roles, one as a confrontational cop in a film called In the Heat of the Night, and two more saintly portrayals, as a teacher of white kids in To Sir With Love and a doctor working for the World Health Organization in Columbia Pictures and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

The Hays Code’s prohibition on so-called miscegenation had been obsolete at least since 1961’s West Side Story and there had been other efforts, like Joshua Logan’s Sayonara, but Kramer proudly marketed his film as the first to deal head-on with generation gap racism, meaning it was based on the common question “but would you let your daughter marry one?” One tiny problem was that white Kramer hired white William Rose to write the screenplay, and though Rose had written many excellent movies, he hadn’t lived in the United States for more than a decade, and his script was full of what Harris calls “condescensions and stereotypes.” A potentially larger problem is that the script was unfilmable without Poitier and America’s favorite onscreen couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and the latter was dying. Kramer got lucky in many ways, particularly in Hepburn’s complete buy-in, from casting her appearance-matching niece as her daughter to her careful chaperoning of Tracy back and forth to set each day. Kramer was also lucky that Tracy’s ill health only made Poitier want to work with him more and that Poitier was willing to meet with Tracy and Hepburn in a private dinner, though Poitier privately asked friends if such détente would have been arranged if the couple were to work with Paul Newman. The largest stumbling block was that Tracy was uninsurable, and so Kramer and Hepburn put their salaries in escrow in case Tracy died mid-shoot and they had to replace him with another actor. Kramer and Hepburn did everything within their power to limit Tracy’s time and efforts on set, and they barely made it: Tracy wrapped his role and died two weeks later, on June 10, 1967, two days before the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, banned laws against interracial marriage.

White Joanna Drayton, 23, returns from a whirlwind Hawaiian courtship to the panoramically situated San Francisco home of her parents, art gallery owner Christina and newspaper publisher Matt, and introduces them to her fiancé and fait accompli, black Doctor John Prentice. As Matt and Christina privately discuss the interracial engagement, John interrupts them to say that despite what Joanna said, he won’t add to his problems by marrying Joanna without their consent, and without it, he’ll break off the engagement before he returns to work in Geneva the next day. In a private chat, John acknowledges Matt’s concerns about his kids and prejudice, but says, “You never know, things are changing.” In a minor surprise, when Christina says to Matt, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” she is referring to John’s parents, who don’t know that John is suddenly engaged to a white woman. Most of the rest of the film consists of various one-on-ones or one-on-twos of parents and children expressing their feelings about the impending nuptials. John’s father, a mailman, suggests that John owes him better than this kind of disruption, and John reacts angrily, saying he can’t wait until his father’s generation and its attitudes are long gone, and adds, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” (Everyone including Joanna calls him a Negro, another way in which the film was dated before its release date.) In the end, with everyone gathered, Matt speechifies about the importance and strength of true love like that of himself and Cynthia, and of his daughter and John. 

Influenced by: Kramer’s 1950s liberalism; audience sentiment about the ninth and final pairing of Hepburn and Tracy

Influenced: still referenced, mostly as evidence of how quickly sensibilities can change


A63. The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me!..Aren’t you?”

The Graduate began life as a 1963 novel by 24-year-old Charles Webb about Benjamin Braddock, a conceited college track star who returns to Los Angeles after college and tells his parents he’s sick of being their “goddamn ivy-covered status symbol.” An independent producer named Lawrence Turman bought the rights and interested…almost no one, until he saw a Neil Simon play called Barefoot in the Park directed by Mike Nichols, who had achieved unrelated notoriety with his comedy partner Elaine May a few years before. As a director, Nichols got his praises sung by Neil Simon, got a Tony, got interested in Charles Webb’s novel, and together Nichols and Turman got…no studio to bite. Nichols and Turman kept knocking until they got to Hollywood’s last door, Embassy Pictures, which Joseph Levine turned into a minor profit center by re-releasing cheap European swords-and-sandals films stateside. You could call Levine a proto-Weinstein in terms of his public conflation of art with sexiness; just before meeting Nichols he was promoting every possible permissible inch of Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. He would take a chance on The Graduate if he could make it into more of the same.

Along the way, the project got postponed for what became Nichols’ debut film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The schedule jumble’s felicitous effect on The Graduate can’t be overstated, because during Virginia Woolf, Nichols came to know and then hire Buck Henry as The Graduate’s fourth and maybe most important screenwriter; Mark Harris carefully explains how he excised the material that made Benjamin a pain in the ass. Henry transformed Benjamin’s new experiences into comic setpieces, and working with Nichols located the film’s comic center in Ben’s failure to live up to his own standards. 

Finding the right script led to finding the right cast, which meant moving away from certain California stereotypes. Most 40-ish female stars were considered for Mrs. Robinson, but Nichols liked the confidence of Anne Bancroft, and her Oscar for The Miracle Worker combined with critical acclaim for Virginia Woolf? assured the film’s $3 million budget. Later, much would be made of the real-life five-year age difference between her and the actor playing the title role, for which Nichols came close to casting his lead actor from the play Barefoot in the Park, Robert Redford. Redford resembled Charles Webb’s description, but Nichols felt Redford couldn’t naturally project Benjamin’s self-doubt. Nichols had seen the unknown 28-year-old Dustin Hoffman onstage doing a sort of Buster Keaton impression in a play called Eh?; throughout the casting and even shooting process, Hoffman consistently told Nichols how wrong he was for the part, a notion Nichols didn’t always disabuse, perhaps encouraging Hoffman’s insecurity. Hoffman told Nichols, “Clearly, Ben Braddock wasn’t Jewish,” and Nichols replied, “No, but he’s Jewish inside.” By the time the Los Angeles Herald Examiner revealed that actor-director dialogue in January 1968, the film had been reviewed with dozens of veiled comments of prejudice against Hoffman, like a “homely non-hero” or a “swarthy Pinocchio.” Yet these everyman qualities of Hoffman’s were inextricably linked to his convincing alienation and authenticity, and the success of the film led to a persona revolution, the elevation of so-called character actors into daring, unconventional leads.

While shooting, Nichols found himself thinking of Simon and Garfunkel songs, and he approached the band and asked if they’d write songs for it. The duo was already highly successful with a reputation to protect from phony Hollywood folderol, but they finally agreed to write two or three songs for it and come back weeks later. Nichols didn’t like either of the first two, said “have you got anything else?” and they muttered to each other and came back and sang “and here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt,” a song about old lost icons. Nichols told them Mrs. Roosevelt was now Mrs. Robinson, and got the jaunty music he needed for his Act 3 chase to the church. But he had two earlier scenes that his mind kept cutting to “The Sound of Silence,” and finally he just bought the song, making the song an indelible part of Benjamin’s internal monologue, a looking back that would change the future of movies.

On a plane, a pilot says “Ladies and gentlemen, we now begin our descent into Los Angeles,” as Benjamin returns from graduating an East Coast college to his L.A. home, where his parents are throwing a party in his honor. Benjamin doesn’t want to answer questions about his future, and an old family friend, Mrs. Robinson, asks him for a ride home. Mrs. Robinson asks him into her house, gets him a drink, and he recoils as he says “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?” She laughs. On another day, Benjamin plunges in full scuba gear into his parents’ swimming pool, where he apparently decides to call Mrs. Robinson from a hotel that evening. They begin a clandestine affair heavy on copulation and light on conversation, until Ben presses her, and he learns that the Robinsons were married because she was pregnant with Elaine, whom Benjamin is forbidden from ever dating. Ben’s parents keep pushing the idea of dating Elaine despite her attending UC Berkeley and Mrs. Robinson’s blandishments; finally Ben takes out Elaine only to make sure she has a bad time at a strip club. But when Ben sees Elaine’s tears, he apologizes and kisses her. Mrs. Robinson gets wind of the relationship and threatens Benjamin that if he sees Elaine again, she’ll reveal their affair to her daughter, and so Benjamin decides to just do that himself. Elaine yells at Benjamin never to see her again, but Benjamin drives up to Berkeley to chase her bus and generally stalk her for several scenes. She tells him her mother said Benjamin abused her, and Benjamin disabuses Elaine of this untruth. They date off and on in Berkeley until her father arrives and forbids Ben from ever again seeing any member of his family. Mr. Robinson also forces Elaine to marry her WASPier boyfriend Carl, and when Benjamin gets wind of this, he scrambles to stop the wedding by driving around half of California to the sounds of the song “Mrs. Robinson.” Instead of arriving at the church just in time, he arrives a moment too late, and as the couple kisses, he bangs on the glass of the church’s façade, saying, “Elaine!” until Elaine finally answers “Ben!” In her full wedding dress, she scrambles out of the church into a family-wide scuffle in the antechamber, until Benjamin waves a baseball-bat-sized cross at the family, and then uses it to bolt shut the double-door entrance. In the concluding minute, Ben and Elaine run off, happen to stop a bus, dash to the back of it, and as the bus shifts into higher gear, Ben and Elaine’s delirium and euphoria shifts into confusion.

By the time Nichols began shooting The Graduate, buses had emerged as two different cultural flashpoints. Ken Kesey had told Tom Wolfe “you’re either on the bus or off the bus,” which was both literal and figurative, about literally boarding the California-based Merry Pranksters colorful bus but more metaphorically asking if you were willing to join the counterculture and expand your mind. At the same time, for the first time, cities were forcing school integration by bus, a markedly controversial policy that was still being debated as late as 2019 when eventual Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris confronted eventual Presidential candidate Joe Biden about it. The first time Benjamin sprints for a bus to ride with Elaine in The Graduate, we don’t actually see if he makes it for almost 30 seconds, heightening the tension: is Benjamin on the bus? When he joins her there, she’s not happy. In the end of the movie, as they sprint for another bus and make it, she’s happy, he’s happy…but then, is he, as credits roll? Buses symbolize people of all stripes moving in the same direction, and sometimes Benjamin is sprinting to be into that, and sometimes…maybe not. By 1967 Nichols knew that the country knew Berkeley as a counterculture symbol, and Benjamin drifts through Berkeley but is not of it, an outsider who oscillates between ardent valence and ambivalence. His affair with Mrs. Robinson symbolizes closing the generation gap, only to open it back up during his obsession with Elaine. Whatever it was, audiences loved it

For all of Ben’s white wealthy privilege, Benjamin and in turn Dustin Hoffman was positioned as an avatar of young-adult alienation and antiestablishmentarianism, sometimes called a Fifth Beatle. By February 1968, the combined success of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate along with Nichols’ former director Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde awoke Hollywood to the possibility of a profitable demographic that was less into The Sound of Music and more into The Sound of Silence. 

What Bonnie and Clyde did to validate mainstream violence, The Graduate did to validate mainstream lasciviousness, and both would be key antecedents for the Hollywood Renaissance to come. Even as The Graduate opened up what could be sexy-funny, Joseph Levine didn’t think it was sexy enough, and he may have had a point, because the end of 1967 was an unusual limbo of possibility in which Jack Valenti had declared the Hays Code dead and hadn’t quite instituted the new ratings system. Still, after seven years of the 1960s of Hollywood mostly making mediocre movies or ones that could have made in the 1950s, here was Hollywood finally getting closer to catching up with the country.

Influenced by: almost a blank check from Virginia Woolf?; counter-casting and campus trends

Influenced: comic/anarchic side of Hollywood Renaissance; pop songs as internal monologue


A64. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

2001 is often and justifiably named one of the ten or so best and most influential films, and certainly no summary can do justice to either the film or the wealth of literature around it. Nonetheless, like Dave Bowman in a star-gate, we press forward. After Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick wanted to make something assiduously realistic about unknowable extra-terrestrial life, the kind of contradiction that Kubrick saw as a fun challenge. Even as the Air Force was working on a film to repudiate Strangelove, Kubrick was studying NASA films and space documentaries, and he particularly liked a 30-minute one called Universe, even hiring that film’s narrator, Douglas Rain, to be the voice of HAL 9000. MGM was happy with Kubrick’s plan to save on star salaries, and they came to an agreement on shooting in Cinerama on a $6 million budget made possible because of tax advantages from filming in the U.K. That said, after paying for 18 months of Clarke and Kubrick writing the script together, MGM demanded that they start filming before 1966, and the first day of shooting at capacious Shepperton Studios was December 29, 1965, one week after MGM released Doctor Zhivago. Kubrick may have dragged his feet on production in the hopes that Zhivago would make MGM money for 2001’s cost overruns, a devious plan that almost worked too well. Kubrick’s first-unit production lasted about six months, not out of line for a roadshow film, but other than a trip to Namibia for the Dawn of Man sequence and a few other pickups, Kubrick spent most of the next two years working on the film’s 205 special-effects shots with his FX supervisor Douglas Trumbull, many of which being part of the so-called star-gate sequence, accomplished by slit-scan photography of thousands of high-contrast images taken from almost every kind of modern and post-modern art you can imagine. The film’s budget shot up into the eight-figure stratosphere even as dozens of other projects, from the “All You Need is Love” satellite show to Planet of the Apes to Star Trek, made MGM wonder if “space” would be passe by the film’s release; when that day finally came, the studio breathed a sigh of relief that NASA hadn’t yet landed a man on the moon. 

Stanley Kubrick, working independently from and at the same time as Mike Nichols, used music in similar ways to similar ends. Nichols broke established form by starting his film with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” playing all of it again about a half-hour later, and then ending the film with the same song. Kubrick starts his film with the “sunrise” portion of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, plays all of it again about twenty minutes later, and then ends the film with the same song. Both films deploy other songs that serve to complement, rather than contradict, these choices; Nichols’ music is seemingly all from Simon & Garfunkel and Kubrick’s music is seemingly all classical, including Gyorgy Ligeti’s “voice” of the monolith. Following Nichols, Kubrick’s use of music may have established the internal monologue, or at least aesthetic logic, of the science fiction epic. Paul Simon’s song, famously beginning “Hello darkness my old friend,” is used by Nichols as a sort of sincere insincerity, a communication of the failure of communication, a going inside to go outside to possibly return again; Kubrick uses Strauss’s song comparably, almost “The Sounds of Space” or “The Sounds of Evolution,” setting up his film’s iterations of withdrawal and expansion. “Realistic” filmmakers, like those making Easy Rider, used Nichols’ template, but fantasy filmmakers, famously those who hired John Williams, used Kubrick’s. 

The camera pans up from the moon to see the distant sun and most of the earth in shadow. On an African veldt, we see the title cards “The Dawn of Man” and watch some kind of monkey-men fight another tribe of similar monkey-men for control of a water hole. The losing side sees the monolith, a dark black rectangular figure with dimensions of roughly 1 foot by 4 feet by 9 feet that emits hums and other noises. In cinema’s largest-ever reverse-shot, distance-wise, we, and perhaps the monkey-man’s leader, gaze up to see the sun and crescent moon while the monolith lingers in the bottom of the frame. Perhaps provoked by the monolith, that stargazing monkey-man learns to use old bones as weapons, with that song playing over a series of assonant cuts to a tapir maybe beat down by the weaponized bone. The bone-wielding tribe overwhelms the other tribe, upon which their leader throws his bone into the air, and as it falls, cinema’s longest-ever match-cut, duration-wise, moves us forward millions of years to the dawn of the 21st century, the bone becoming a spaceship slowly docking at a space station to the sounds of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube. As it floats into port, we meet Dr. Heywood Floyd, asleep near a floating pen that echoes the bone and spaceship, and more than 20 minutes into the film, we hear its first dialogue. On the moon, Floyd warns a group of scientists about secrecy before driving with some of them to a large archeological dig around a monolith, where the scientists take a cheesy group photo with it as moon dawn breaks and the rectangle emits a sharply piercing sound. The first title card since “The Dawn of Man” reads “Jupiter Mission: 18 months later,” and aboard the skeletal Discovery One, we meet Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, classic square-jawed white NASA types, as well as HAL 9000, the human-sounding computer who controls the ship as well as the hibernation pods of three other sleeping astronauts. HAL reports a device malfunction but Dave and Frank can’t find a problem other than HAL identifying a problem, leading to countering accusations of errors. Dave and Frank enter an escape pod to speculate about HAL without him hearing, but they don’t realize HAL is reading their lips through the pod’s window. Dave and Frank discuss and execute a plan whereby they will disconnect HAL if he is proven wrong, and when Dave goes out to fix a test antenna, HAL cuts off his oxygen and sets him adrift. As Dave pilots an escape pod to barely save Frank, HAL cuts off the life functions of the hibernating crewmen, killing them. When Dave returns and commands HAL “open the pod bay doors,” HAL answers, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” because Dave might jeopardize the mission. Dave loses air for a few moments as he breaks in and works to lobotomize HAL, who goes through some Kubler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, begging, fear, and of course, singing “Daisy.” The disconnection of HAL leads to the film’s reconnection with Floyd, who appears on a video explaining the mission to Bowman, marking the film’s final dialogue with more than 20 minutes to go. The film’s title card says “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” planets align with another monolith, Dave pilots his ship into the alignment, or maybe the monolith, and enters the quote-unquote star gate, a dazzling inner-slash-outer space tunnel of colors and psychedelic imagery. I’ll let Stanley Kubrick explain his film’s final act; he said Bowman arrives at “a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward in man’s evolutionary destiny.”

It’s a testament to the complexity of the film that Kubrick explained all this, in his words, “on the lowest level, that is, straight-forward explanation of the plot,” implying that the film may contain much more to understand and interpret. Indeed, much more than most narrative films, 2001 invites a wide range of interpretation; indeed, much more than Clarke’s novel, the film is structured as a series of ellipses and elliptical statements, redolent of many avant-garde films. As Kubrick has structured his audacious meditation on time, space, man, aliens, and technology, ten different audience members will have ten different takeaways, and none of these takeaways should be considered wrong (even if they often align with pre-existing biases). Thomas Allen Nelson uses many words to discuss Kubrick’s distrust of language, and the characters in 2001 could be said to use language as one more tool, to be thrust into space after or maybe between uses, as we see with the bone, the pen, and the spaceships, which may account for why the monolith doesn’t deign to be treated the same way. Critics often contrast the stunted communications of the stiff human characters with the livelier HAL 9000, and HAL can be compared to the other tools but also compared to a human child overcoming his parents. (The abbreviation HAL is “one letter away,” so to speak, from IBM.) Nelson traces signs of evolution and devolution, of going down to Earth and up to the moon, and indeed the odyssey of the title is never simply A to B, but instead as doublebacking as Homer’s Odyssey. Eyes are a motif; eating is a motif; birthdays are a motif; sleeping and awakening is a motif. In most human cultures, stars are represented by either five- or six-pointed figures, and the film may be inviting us to connect the five or six triumphant ape-men, the five men in the monolith group photo and the sixth, Floyd, rolling his eyes, and the five men aboard Discovery One with the sixth, HAL, cyber-child of Floyd, as the six or five get eliminated one by one. Notice I said “may be.” The lead monkey-man looks up at the moon for no obviously useful reason, perhaps contrasting to Floyd ignoring the beautiful Earth outside his window. Man may think it has evolved; man may not have; man in the final act may evolve simply by surviving and moving forward, which the film may see as a regressive, even patriarchal fantasy. Notice I said “may see.” Everyone says they contain multitudes, but repeated viewings of 2001 suggest multitudes of multitudes. Kubrick named his film 2001, but there’s no mistaking its association with the 1960s Space Age, somehow embodying that period’s pessimism and optimism as people looked toward the millennium. And there’s no mistaking the film’s popularity upon release in April 1968, not limited to people seeing it while consuming newly available hallucinogens, nor its ongoing prestige long after men landed on the moon in July 1969. (Steven Spielberg called the film his generation’s “big bang.”) 

Influenced by: Not only Arthur C. Clarke’s source novel, but existential sci-fi literature from Asimov to Vonnegut

Influenced: ask any sci-fi director for his (note: always “his”) biggest influences, and this film tends to come first


A65. Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You know, Billy, we blew it.”

Roger Corman’s seat-of-the-pants filmmaking style attracted some pedigreed talent, for example Henry Fonda’s then-26-year-old son Peter Fonda, who starred in 1966’s The Wild Angels, which took advantage of newly stable camera technology to do what Brando’s The Wild One couldn’t, and truly be on the road with the bikers. The next year, Corman made The Trip, from a script by his acolyte Jack Nicholson, about LSD and its effect on a young commercial director played by Fonda, co-starring Dennis Hopper. Fonda and Hopper became friends and began discussing a sort of bastard child of The Wild Angels and The Trip, but with more cynicism and less innocence about hippie movements. At some point they decided that they would both write it and star in it, Fonda would produce, and Hopper would make his directorial debut. These particular white guys wanted to do prove art could be made entirely outside the system, which in practice meant without unions, a fact that rarely arose when Hopper later claimed, not incorrectly, that Easy Rider was the first high-earning film made by outsiders, outlanders, outlaws. Yet in 1968 Hopper and Fonda needed some kind of backing, and found it with Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who were unexpectedly flush from producing a TV show called The Monkees. Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, as one might imagine from the book’s name, details Easy Rider’s production process. 

Easy Rider’s post-production lasted more than a year because Hopper claimed his 220-minute version of Easy Rider would emulate 2001. Behind Hopper’s back, Rafelson and Schneider hired Henry Jaglom to cut the film in half, and then some. The finished film owed more to The Graduate in terms of weaving together pop songs as commentary, and hundreds of later filmmakers would emulate this aspect after Easy Rider made it look, well, easy. Easy Rider also updated Bonnie and Clyde in its use of rural Texas locations, its fatalist, violent conclusion, and the fact that Hopper and Fonda’s script didn’t begin life as a book, play, previous movie, or Hollywood writing session. Hopper shared with all of those film’s directors a maverick attitude and an ambition to use avant-garde techniques to underline edgy realism, and in Easy Rider the latter took the form of jump cuts, time shifts, flash forwards, flashbacks, scene transitions that cut in frames from the old scene, jerky hand-held cameras, fractured narrative and improvised acting. Later years would see vociferous turf battles over how improvised the acting and writing really was, but in the viewing, Billy and Wyatt’s road trip is naturalistic to a fault.

In rural Southern California, Wyatt and Billy sell some cocaine they have just smuggled from Mexico. They decide to ride their motorcycles to New Orleans to attend Mardi Gras; Wyatt is notable for a jacket, helmet and chopper tank spangled with America’s stars and stripes. The song “Born to Be Wild” plays through the opening credits as Wyatt and Billy visibly cross into Arizona. Wyatt and Billy pick up an unnamed hippie hitch-hiker and bring him to his commune in New Mexico, a place of music, performance, and “free love.” Wyatt and Billy enjoy this but seem distanced even before they leave, whereupon the hitch-hiker gives them some LSD. After joining a parade in a small Texas town, Wyatt and Billy are arrested for “parading without a permit,” and in the local jail they meet ACLU lawyer George Hanson, who helps get them out from behind bars only to ask to see bars with them in New Orleans. Hanson rides on a seat behind Wyatt, and at that evening’s campfire, Wyatt and Billy introduce George to marijuana as George introduces them to his opinions on alien invasions. The trio stop to eat at a small-town bayou diner, attracting the fond attention of a group of teenage girls and the less-fond attention of some local men. At that night’s campfire, Hanson says “This used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s going wrong with it.” He goes on, “they gonna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.” Proving George right, the local men attack the trio in their sleep, killing Hanson. Wyatt and Billy make it to New Orleans, and take LSD and prostitutes to a cemetery, where a bad trip is expressed, and beautified, by a series of wildly dissonant cuts and lens effects. At another campfire, Wyatt tells Billy enigmatically but forcefully, “We blew it.” The next day, two rednecks in a pickup truck tell them to get a haircut, Billy flips them off, and one shoots him off of his bike. Wyatt turns, covers badly bleeding Billy in his flag jacket, promises to get help, takes off in his chopper, and sees the U-turned pickup truck just before its shooter blows him away.

In one press interview, Peter Fonda graciously spoke about the newcomer playing George Hanson, Jack Nicholson, and specifically the line about the helluva good country, saying, “He read it like Henry. He’s the Tom Joad, in a way, of our era.” The Grapes of Wrath was released a month before Fonda was born and canonized his father Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Although John Ford’s film is suffused with penury and hardship, the Joads’ journey from Oklahoma to rural California ends on a note of hope, with Tom/Henry vowing he’ll find and help the dispossessed. Three decades later, a Joad look-alike begins in rural California and crosses back over the Southwestern United States, helping no one but himself, only to be disillusioned by his life even before he’s killed by the freedom-frightened. Quite a shift. Despite the film’s white privilege, it was received as arch commentary on the hope and despair of the 60s, appealing to both hippies and hippie-haters, to the counterculture and the counter-counterculture. Easy Rider’s tagline was “a man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere,” and 1969 audiences went looking for the film and made it a phenomenon. Easy Rider is one of the most profitable films ever made, returning about $60 million on roughly a $400,000 budget, although that latter number doesn’t include at least a million dollars dedicated to music rights, sound editing, and promotion. Certainly, the film is a key text of the Hollywood Renaissance, inspiring innumerable imitators.

Influenced by: AIP, European art, hippies and other 1960s concerns

Influenced: for decades, this was the highest-earning film with a budget under $1 million, launching countless imitators; mainstreamed cocaine


A66. Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I know enough to know that that great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street. That’s faggot stuff! You wanna call it by its name? That’s strictly for fags!”

This film begins enigmatically, with a white screen paired with the sounds of cowboys and Indians fighting, and the camera pans out to reveal that we’re looking at the blank white canvas of an old abandoned drive-in theater. This opening wasn’t in the source novel; it came from the screenwriter, Mr. Waldo Salt.

Salt was one of America’s greatest screenwriters, a fact now acknowledged by the Sundance Festival’s annual Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. He wrote many of the 1940s’ best scripts, but we’ll never know what kind of wonderful work Salt might have written between 1951 and about 1965, because he was blacklisted for refusing to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. By the time Hollywood was ready for Salt’s return, he was ready with a Salty adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy. Salt connected with producer Jerome Hellman, who connected them with British director John Schlesinger, fresh off two daring, innovative British films called Darling and Far From the Madding Crowd. Waldo Salt may not have considered his work on Midnight Cowboy to be any kind of revenge, but star Dustin Hoffman did, telling Peter Biskind that he wanted to make Midnight Cowboy as a rebuke to some anti-Semitic critics of The Graduate, saying quote “revenge is always a good motive in creativity.” unquote

In my first book, I ask: did Dustin Hoffman commit to Midnight Cowboy before or after the release of The Graduate? The answer is both: after producer Jerome Hellman saw Hoffman in Eh?, Hellman offered Hoffman the role of Ratso Rizzo, and Hoffman was receptive. After the smash success of The Graduate, Hoffman didn’t need to be re-convinced, but director John Schlesinger did, because he saw Benjamin Braddock as too clean for his dirty movie. During what may have been Schlesinger’s first trip to Times Square, Hoffman snuck up on the director while dressed in character, looking for all the world like the filthiest bum in New York, and Schlesinger said, “Oh, you’ll do quite well.” The production paid Hoffman $250,000, which was more than ten times what he’d earned on The Graduate, reducing the available amount for other actors, including Michael Sarrazin, who was long attached as Joe Buck but refused to do the film for less than $50,000. Finally Hellman hired an unknown stage actor willing to work for scale, Mister Jon Voight. Hellman got DP Adam Holender to depict almost documentary level dilapidation from New York and editor Hugh Robertson to splice together some of the sharpest, supplest cuts yet seen in cinema. John Barry was then known for scoring James Bond music, and that may be why his name doesn’t actually appear in the credits of Midnight Cowboy, but his soundtrack work is crucial to the film’s emotional landscape, as is Fred Neil’s keynote song sung here by Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talkin.” Midnight Cowboy is full of fury, futility, and forlornness, and it’s one of my favorite films.

A montage of people say “Joe Buck!” who is revealed to be a tall, young, handsome dishwasher leaving a tiny Texas town for New York City to become a prostitute. Turns out Manhattan is trickier than Joe Buck thought; the first time he treats a woman as a trick, she tantrums, and he winds up tossing her his last 20. At a diner, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo, a greasy bum with a bum leg who promises to introduce Joe to a pimp; as they cross a street a car almost hits them, to which Ratso yells, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” Then quietly to Joe: “Actually that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance.” Ratso’s pimp is revealed to be religious and freaky, and after Joe runs away, in a quick series of squalid images, Joe gets more desperate to the sounds of “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I can’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.” A young clean-cut man “hires” Joe to give him oral sex, receives it, claims to have no money, and seems happy that Joe is about to hurt him…so Joe lets him go. Our hero is less generous to Ratso when he finally finds him, causing Ratso to offer Joe a place to stay, which turns out to be an abandoned room in a condemned flophouse. Ratso, who wants to be called Enrico, tells Joe about his father, a poor immigrant shoeshiner who died of breathing shoe polish, which is why Ratso only shines shoes now as part of a scam, but he makes an exception for Joe while trying to pimp him out in New York to earn enough to travel to Ratso’s real dream, Miami Beach. Ratso tells Joe that cowboy stuff is “strictly for fags,” and Joe answers “John Wayne! You wanna tell me he’s a fag?” In sharp-cut flashbacks, we see Joe’s Texas life, including his mentally unstable lover Annie who says “You’re the only one Joe,” and the cowboys who rape them both; in flash-forwards that are more like dreams, we see Ratso’s future on Miami Beach, Joe shirtless and sexy and, with Ratso, loved by all the older ladies. Joe and Ratso attend a Warholian party filmed with actual Factory members, an experience that Ratso hates even before he falls down a staircase to the chagrin of Joe, who is otherwise having a nice night with Shirley, who is maybe the age of Mrs. Robinson. Shirley promises to share Joe with friends, meaning that Joe’s career is finally going well except for the bedridden, phlegm-coughing, feverish Ratso. In desperation, Joe goes to a hotel room and beats and maybe kills a john for just enough money for two bus tickets to Florida. Riding in the back of the bus, Ratso is sweating profusely and incontinent and leaning on Joe, who tells Ratso he wants an honest job in Miami. When Ratso doesn’t reply, Joe sees that his friend is dead, puts a jacket over him, closes his eyes, and holds his shoulder as the familiar music plays.

Much of Midnight Cowboy plays a sort of deepening of or rebuke to The Graduate, from the many 30-degree crowd shots that echo Benjamin’s Berkeley wanderings to the use and misuse of older women to the central and beautiful pop/folk song about existential dread to the bus finale. If, as I explained last podcast, The Graduate engaged the twin cultural shifts of the 1960s, school busing and Ken Kesey, with an ending that affirmed that Hoffman is, yes, on the bus even if he doesn’t know where he’s going, Midnight Cowboy ends with Hoffman knowing where he’s going on the bus, all right, and dying on the way there. It’s an appropriately dark turn for a film that, compared to The Graduate, is much less cheerful about the difficulty of real human connection during a decade of sharp divisions between Americans. Speaking of connections, just because Ratso declares that he hates fags doesn’t mean he’s straight; just because he dreams of Joe shirtless doesn’t mean he’s gay. Considering Ratso’s poor hygiene and poorer ethics, one can see why the filmmakers didn’t want to commit to, or insult, queerness even if they did affirm many aspects of homosociality. Still, Midnight Cowboy was and is revelatory, with the sort of candor and grittiness that was absolutely unimaginable even four years before.

Influenced by: British, French, and some American innovations of the 60s

Influenced: as the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture, it opened up possibilities for the Hollywood Renaissance


A67. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“What do I have? Nothin’ but you egg-suckin’, chicken stealing gutter trash with not even sixty rounds between you. We’re after men – and I wish to God I was with them.”

The script languished for years until late 1967, when Warner Bros.’ Bonnie and Clyde beoming a hit caused 20th Century Fox to commit to making Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman. At that point, Warner Bros. committed to beating Butch to the box office with a movie whose initials were like the studio’s water-tower, The Wild Bunch.

The film’s director told the press “We’re going to out-Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie and Clyde,” his debts to Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa a little less acknowledged. Just as horror directors later made features that replicated Hitchcock’s shower scene, director Sam Peckinpah took the final two minutes of Bonnie and Clyde and stretched them out, particularly in his film’s first and third acts. Peckinpah was known as difficult to actors and producers, having major disputes on the sets of Major Dundee and The Cincinnati Kid, but after doing penance on a TV movie called Noon Wine in which he put in strong, innovative work, he attracted Warners’ producer Phil Feldman for The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah’s first hire was his editor on Noon Wine, Lou Lombardo, who was young, loyal to Peckinpah, and had edited small TV sequences using different frame rates and speeds. Peckinpah significantly scaled up this approach on The Wild Bunch and shot action sequences with as many as six cameras all at different speeds, from the standard 24 frames per second to as high as 120 frames per second, the latter shots becoming slow motion that Lombardo integrated while cutting maybe once per half-second to varying-speeded shots of the same action. Such rapid-fire action assemblages had never been seen in an American film. Even while Peckinpah planned the sophisticated shooting of such setpieces, he was also revising the script to reflect American disillusionment with Westerns and with Vietnam, to reflect real cowboys’ genuine crudeness, destructiveness, and ruthlessness. Peckinpah may have reflected his characters a little too much, for example shooting a real gun at a wall to simulate and stimulate the realism he sought. In one sign of the times, while on location in Mexico Peckinpah hired real prostitutes to play prostitutes, proudly boasting that Warner Bros. had paid for perversion. As for his main actors, Peckinpah tried to draft much of the cast of The Dirty Dozen, but lost his first choice for Pike Bishop, Lee Marvin, to the production of Paint Your Wagon, and instead got William Holden to paint Mexico red with blood.

The Wild Bunch begins with Pike Bishop, his partner Engstrom, and their middle-aged crew entering a small Texas town in 1913 as the film flash-cuts to scorpion trapped in an anthill. Pike plans retirement after one last robbery of a railroad office, but gets frustrated by his former partner Deke Thornton, and their foolhardy shootout results in oodles and oodles of bloody deaths, far more than had been seen in the first ten minutes, or any ten minutes, of any previous film. Pike’s gang uses a woman’s temperance parade to cover their getaway, only to learn that the bag they thought to be full of gold coins is actually full of steel washers. The youngest of the gang, Angel, helps the rest escape across the border and take refuge in his hometown, now ruled by General Mapache, a corrupt and remorseless officer of Mexico’s Federal Army currently losing to Pancho Villa’s insurrectionary forces. When Angel sees his former lover with Mapache, he shoots her dead, and Pike only stops Mapache from killing the wild bunch by volunteering to get them arms from the U.S. Army in exchange for gold. Their train robbery goes as planned until Thornton’s posse pops up and pursues them to the Rio Grande, where Pike and Angel blow up a bridge, plunging Thornton’s ponies into the border river. Angel sneaks some of the weapons to some of Villa’s men, but when Mapache learns of this, he tracks down Angel and summarily tortures him while permitting Engstrom to escape. Engstrom catches up with the rest of the wild bunch in Agua Verde consorting with whores to celebrate their fantastic transaction with Mapache. The men reluctantly decide that Angel is more important than gold, and return to his village, walking a long, long way through the town to confront Mapache, who sees them and cuts Angel’s throat. A wild, wild shootout commences, including one woman shooting Pike, who spits “Bitch!” as he turns to shoot her dead. After many, many minutes of hematic mayhem, almost everyone on both sides has been killed, and Thornton arrives to see the carnage and allows his posse to reap the corpses for rewards, realizing that their real rewards will be death. In a coda, The Wild Bunch’s last survivor, the grizzled Sykes, once wounded by Thornton, now riding with revolutionaries, invites Thornton to come with them. As they ride off to fight the federales, the film flashes back to the Wild Bunch laughing.

Peckinpah told the press that he hoped to deglamorize and demystify war and the Western, to make audiences hate the true ugliness and brutality of violence, but the director later claimed to be troubled by the audiences who seemed to enjoy it. Peckinpah had less to say to analysts who saw legitimating of misogyny and dehumanization of Mexicans, although defenders claim that Peckinpah is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, a stubborn cynic about homo sapiens. This reading seems upended by the ending of one final sending-off of the white male leads; at best, the film criticizes and celebrates what would later be called toxic masculinity, and combined with cutting as quick as spent cartridges, it’s fair to call The Wild Bunch the first movie that fans of modern action films can fully recognize as one of their own. In this sense, The Wild Bunch was at least as imitated as Star Wars, even if it did not have that film’s box office success. 

Influenced by: film movements since The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Influenced: first film to fluidly deploy the onscreen violence that became normal


A68. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill, 1969) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Kid, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let’s go someplace like Bolivia.”

The story of the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy could have been made into a feature film shortly after the real-life 1908 deaths of the two principals. Their adventures already served as the adaptive material for what was at the time America’s favorite film, The Great Train Robbery. The reason the real Butch and Sundance never got to enjoy that 1903 short film’s notoriety is the same reason their story wasn’t remade into a movie for 60 years: because they spent the final eight years of their lives not in Boise, but in Bolivia. In the 1950s, when screenwriter William Goldman pitched studios, he would quote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous “There are no second acts in American lives,” to say, look, here are cowboys with a second act in Bolivia! And for years, studios were determined to prove Fitzgerald right; one told Goldman, “All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.” But in 1967, 20th Century Fox’s reason for signing on to making The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy was the same as Warren Beatty’s stated reason for turning it down: its similarity to Bonnie and Clyde

Here’s what you want as a screenwriter: Hollywood’s two biggest stars under the age of 45, in this case Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, loving your script and agreeing to do the film. The problem was that each thought he’d play the cocksure deadeye Sundance Kid and not the mentoring Butch, and in McQueen’s defense he was five years younger than Newman. The production changed the name of the script to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and promised Newman he wouldn’t have to play funny but could instead lean on affable and thoughtful. After all this, McQueen lost interest, leaving the Sundance role to relative newcomer Robert Redford, who would spin his character’s name into one of the most powerful brands in fashion and independent cinema. The film also cast Katharine Ross straight from her Graduatework, and speaking of Graduate influence, Fox managed to land the biggest pop composer team whose songs could somehow sound 70 years old, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who managed to come up with the timeless “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Director George Roy Hill had come up through plays, TV, and standard studio stuff like 1966’s Hawaii, and was not known as a transgressive, French New Wave-aligned director, which tells you what Fox liked about him. For example, Hill didn’t insist on location shooting in Bolivia, instead filming most of the movie’s second half in the much more manageable Mexico. Hill knew that Warners had kept Beatty from filming Bonnie and Clyde made in period-apropos sepia, and…it turned out Fox felt the same way. Working with ace cinematographer Conrad Hall, Hill did just a little bit of “out-Bonnie and Clyde-ing Bonnie and Clyde” by filming the first ten minutes and the final shot in sepia, a sort of circling back to Butch and Sundance’s place in American and cinema history.

Those first minutes feature archival footage that resembles the Great Train Robbery giving way to Butch watching Sundance play poker, a scene that establishes Sundance’s ornery accuracy and Butch’s likability and concern with mortality. Sepia gives way to full color just in time for Butch and Sundance to ride through a spectacular Zion National Park as Butch preaches the virtues of moving to Bolivia by comparing it to California during the gold rush. Sundance laughingly says, “Keep thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” The pair arrive to see that their Hole in the Wall gang is in open rebellion, led by a large man who challenges Butch to a knife fight that Butch wins by kidding then kicking the man in the groin. After a train robbery goes well, Butch and Sundance’s celebration in town includes Sundance sleeping with his lover, 26-year-old schoolteacher Etta Place, whom Butch takes for a ride on the handlebars of his new bike the next morning to the sounds of “So I just did me some talking to the sun.” A second train robbery goes awry when Butch uses too much dynamite on the train’s safe, scattering dollar bills over a wide range of rocks as the gang sees a two-car train coming. When it stops, six men ride six horses out of it, and the gang scrambles to ride away…pretty much for the rest of the movie. Split off from the others, after days and nights through scenery and sanctuary, Butch and Sundance find themselves stuck on a high cliff overlooking a river as the posse surrounds them. Butch says, “next time I say let’s go to Bolivia, let’s go to Bolivia” and suggests that they leap into the river, but Sundance says he can’t swim. They do it anyway, survive, reunite with Etta, and the three of them leave for Bolivia through New York, which we see through a montage of panned and scanned sepia photos. In Bolivia, Etta teaches Butch and Sundance Spanish, although it barely takes, and they barely become Los Bandidos Yanquis. They believe they spot one of the old pursuing posse, but they know he has no jurisdiction in Bolivia and has to wait until he sees them pulling a job, so Butch thinks they can thwart the threat by taking straight jobs as payroll guards. On their first gig, their boss gets blown away, and they barely beat back enemy banditos. Etta suggests they go into farming or ranching, but when they doubt they can, she returns to America. Butch and Sundance steal another payroll, but this time the police track the outlaws and even bring Bolivian soldiers to surround our heroes. They attempt to recover ammunition, but after suffering several wounds they return to shelter where Butch says “You call that covering me?” and Sundance says “You call that dashing?” Butch talks about Australia where they won’t have to learn a language and they can live 1000 miles from anyone. Sundance approves. The two emerge from the shelter shooting as the shot freezes and we hear the federales shouting “fuego! Fuego! Fuego!”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid received mixed reviews but enthusiastic audiences. It was the fourth film in as many months to subvert the style and/or form of the western while centralizing homosocial relationships, and so you might wonder, weren’t people bored of this? Instead they received the movie as the one that got it right, the one willing to leave the American West behind, the one that went from the 19th to the 20th century, the one whose Easy Riders, unlike Dennis Hopper onscreen, really did project the kind of preternatural poise that we presume we’d project if we appeared like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Indeed, their handsomeness, combined with the lack of blood and grime, made this a throwback to an earlier era of about 1965; Butch and Sundance had feet in two stirrups, one of Old Hollywood and one of New.

Influenced by: Bonnie and Clyde; Newman and Redford’s laconic, yet wise, personalities

Influenced: The Sting and the buddy adventure film; Redford has built “Sundance” into a brand, sensibility, and lifeline of independent films


A69. M*A*S*H (Altman, 1970) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Hail to the chief, he’s the best of all the trappers, he needs a queen to sit upon his lappers.”

M*A*S*H began as Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel loosely based on experiences at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and became a funny, loose script by Ring Lardner, Jr. who said of the finished film, “there’s not a word that I wrote on screen.” Ironically, Lardner won an Oscar for the film anyway, perhaps partly because the script was good enough for Zanuck and line producer Ingo Preminger, brother of famous director Otto, to offer it to at least 14 directors until Fox finally settled for Robert Altman, a decision that established one of the most interesting of filmmaking careers. 

What The Wild Bunch was to editing action scenes, M*A*S*H was to editing conversation: M*A*S*H innovated as many as four actors talking over each other, creating the paradigm for a sonic quilt for later realistic films, as well as Hollywood’s first use of the (barely heard) word “fuck.” 

That said, Altman’s ensemble-based egalitarianism hardly endeared him to his two leads, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, who went behind his back to have Altman fired. Zanuck told the actors that their careers wouldn’t suffer because very few people would see the movie, but after it became a big hit, Altman asked the actors if the stories of a coup were true. Gould shamefully admitted the scheme but Sutherland didn’t, and Altman responded by hiring Gould for several more films and never working with Sutherland again. Altman further annoyed his lead actors by crediting them in their title card as “co-starring,” during an opening credits that featured the most-ever actors named as “introducing” – sixteen. Altman enjoyed title-card breakthroughs, but was less enthusiastic about a card inserted by the Pentagon-wary Zanuck and Preminger that clarified the film’s setting as Korea in 1951, after Altman had carefully eliminated all onscreen references to Korea in the hopes that audiences might mistake the film as set in Vietnam. The Korea card comes directly after an opening song whose effectiveness surprised everyone including Altman, who needed a quote-unquote “stupid song” to go with the film’s Last Supper sequence and handed the assignment to his 14-year-old son Mike Altman, whose absurdist words for “Suicide is Painless,” paired with Johnny Mandel’s instrumentation and the silenced vignettes of vintage copters coming into camp, gave the film’s opening the sort of earthy-pop-song gravitas that audiences expected after The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. The exquisite existentialism of the opener may have even excused critics from reflecting overmuch on the rest of the film’s frat-boy bullying, sexism, and homophobia.

During the Korean War, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, abbreviated MASH, welcomes newly arrived surgeons Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John, all of whom express deep disrespect for army protocol and women. The new arrivals turn their living quarters into the Swamp and eject the more rule-bound Frank Burns, who bonds with the similarly straight-laced head nurse, Margaret Houlihan, and when the two begin an affair, the camp clerk, Radar O’Reilly, helps the swamp surgeons insert a microphone in the lovers’ tent. Their passion is broadcast to the camp, including Margaret asking Frank to kiss her “hot lips.” The day after that humiliation, in the mess hall, Trapper affects a swishy lisp as he says “Well, what’s the matter with her today?” and when Burns confronts him, Trapper punches Burns, causing the camp’s CO, Colonel Blake, to put Trapper under arrest. Trapper eyes Houlihan and says, “Bring me that one over there, that one, the sultry bitch with the fire in her eyes. Take her clothes off.” On another day, Hawkeye goads Burns into physically attacking him, resulting in Trapper saying “Watch out for your goodies, Hawkeye, that man is a sex maniac, I don’t think Hot Lips satisfied him, Don’t let him kiss you,” and also resulting in Burns’ removal from camp for psychiatric evaluation. Painless, a reputedly magnificently endowed dentist, has an incident of impotence that results in a gay panic and his announcement that he plans to commit suicide. The surgeons set up a Last Supper staged like the famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting and ask the camp chaplain, Father Mulcahy, to perform last rites and give him a supposed suicide pill which is a surreptitious sleeping pill. Hawkeye arranges that the beautiful “Dish” will sleep with him that night, and the next day they both wake up smiling, Painless having banished thoughts of self-harm and Dish being banished from camp (she takes a copter toward home). Trapper’s line about Houlihan’s clothes turns out to be foreshadowing, because he sets up an audience and, at his cue, a burlap wall falls, leaving a showering Margaret naked and embarrassed in front of the camp. Hawkeye and Trapper are sent to Japan to operate on a Congressman’s son, and while there they are sidelined and importuned into saving the life of a Japanese infant, which gets them in trouble with the hospital CO, whom they blackmail by staging photos of him with a prostitute. The 4077th is slated to compete with the 325th in a football game, and Hawkeye and Blake manage to arrange a ringer, a black neurosurgeon and former pro football player named Dr. Oliver Harmon “Speakchucker” Jones, who helps lead the 4077th to victory.

M*A*S*H was filming as Students for a Democratic Society took over Columbia University in spring 1969, and news sources saluted the SDS’s seditious provocations while soft-pedaling a lot of its inherent sexism. Film critics did something similar when they uncritically embraced M*A*S*H as the sort of ribald, ridiculous, irreverent realism that war films and all films had long needed. This was a rather inauspicious beginning to the first full decade of second-wave feminism, abetted by plenty of female film-critic cheerleaders. The New York Times headline “I Admit It, I Didn’t Like M*A*S*H” shows how much Richard Corliss was working against the consensus when he wrote: “The movie’s idea of redemption is to turn her, and all the other women in the outfit, into affable imbeciles who are only to be trusted with passing the scalpel, cheerleading at a ball game, and acting as acquiescent bedmates.” Nonetheless, Corliss, along with critics who found the film anti-religious, were fighting a losing battle; audiences queued up to visit and revisit the 4077thfor something close to 4077 days if we include the TV show spin-off that began in 1972 and finished as one of TV’s greatest successes in 1983. M*A*S*H can be seen as a sort of culmination of the Hollywood Renaissance’s homosociality, hostility to authority, (white) everyman-ism, empathy with student radicals, and naturalism, proof of their efficacy and a benchmark for future projects. It also established Robert Altman as a leading director, who would go on to make dozens of personal films that were usually far more inclusive of women, even if they generally could have done better on persons of color. Of M*A*S*H, Altman liked to say, “This film wasn’t released, it escaped,” and one reason for that was that 20th Century Fox was making two other more expensive war pictures at the time, and Altman was probably right that his mostly escaped Zanuck’s notice. 

Later films directed by Altman include: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992)

Influenced by: the Hollywood Renaissance up to that point; sexism; 70s TV


A70. Patton (Schaeffner, 1970) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Quite unlike the brash upstart M*A*S*HPatton was received as combining the best elements of Old and New Hollywood, odd considering that the project began in 1945 after the general’s death. His widow Beatrice categorically refused to cooperate with studios, who waited for her to die, and on the day of her burial in 1953, 20th Century Fox contacted the surviving family members who, surprise, also refused to assist the project. Nonetheless producer Frank McCarthy convinced Fox to buy the rights to General Omar Bradley’s biography and the project floated around the studio for another ten years, until the tremendous success of Lawrence of Arabia prompted recent UCLA graduate Francis Ford Coppola to write a new script based on Bradley’s book and other material. As a character, George Patton is more alpha-male than T.E. Lawrence, but they share a certain maverick iconoclasm, an affinity for poetry, and an almost ascetic spiritualism about the Middle Eastern desert they traipsed their troops across. And any film based on Patton’s wartime campaign would likely be filmed near many of the same Spanish locations where David Lean had left military equipment while making Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. As the latter became one of the biggest hits of 1966, a massive heart attack sidelined Dwight Eisenhower from public life, leaving Omar Bradley America’s only healthy five-star general and the undisputed authority on the narrative of America’s North African campaign and the Normandy invasion. Richard Zanuck made Bradley into the Patton biopic’s primary consultant and got the other battalions into gear, hiring Coppola and one other writer, Edmund R. North, to put together a script that late-1960s audiences would appreciate, which meant just enough profanity not to run afoul of Jack Valenti and the MPAA’s new R rating. 

As director, Zanuck hired Franklin J. Schaffner, who earned the gig after directing Fox’s The Planet of the Apes into a surprise hit. While Robert Altman could reproduce a war in a couple of remote acres north of Malibu, Franklin Schaffner, working during the same winter-to-spring of 1969, was responsible for traipsing Fox’s troops all over Spain, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. Schaffner had to be especially careful with George C. Scott, an outstanding actor who was perfectly cast as Patton and brought his own ideas to the process. Podcast listeners will recall how Stanley Kubrick lied to Scott to get a certain kind of performance out of Scott in Dr. Strangelove, causing Scott to vow never to work with Kubrick again, and now here, in Scott’s only other film in the AFI 100…another director lied to get something iconic. Scott had mixed feelings about performing Patton’s speech in front of a wall-sized American flag, partly because the real Patton would never have worn all his medals at the same time in public, but mostly because he knew that if the film began that way, the speech would overshadow his performance. Schaffner assured Scott that the speech was meant to be somewhat abstract and that he would put it at the end of the film, but sure enough, the film opened with it and passed into cinema legend. George C. Scott’s revenge, if it can be called that, was to refuse to give any speech at the Academy Awards, boycotting the ceremony where he was awarded Best Actor, less because of Schaffner and more because competition is for soldiers, not actors.

The instantly famous opening begins with George Patton saying “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” After a devastating defeat, the U.S. Armed Forces puts General Patton in charge of American Double-I Core in North Africa, and he duly enforces draconian discipline. In a second-floor flat in Algeria, Patton meets with an officer of Britain’s Royal Air Force, who blames lack of air cover for the recent defeat and promises that Britain’s “complete air supremacy” means Patton will see no more German aircraft. With the timing of a Marx Brothers movie, German bombers strafe the town and this flat, which Patton scrambles out of to shoot his pistol at the planes. Patton and Bradley visit Carthage, and Patton kneels in the grassy ruins and tells Bradley that he, Patton, was there, 2000 years ago. Later, Patton oversees the Tunisian front and mutters, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard.” The film showcases the colossal conflict in El Guettar in Tunisia in March and April 1943, in which Patton commands American and British forces into a defeat of the Germans, but Patton expresses regret that Rommel wasn’t actually there. Patton and Bradley and British General Montgomery argue over plans for the invasion of Sicily, and Patton’s plan is ultimately rejected by Eisenhower in favor of Monty’s plan, which they execute, placing Monty’s forces on the southeast corner battling northward while Patton’s forces cover Monty’s southern flank. However, when Monty’s troops fail to advance, Patton executes his plan anyway, scrambling around the island through Palermo and causing a pincer of German and Italian troops, many of whom escape the island before Patton barely beats Monty to the crucial port of Messina. On a visit to a field hospital, Patton sees a shell-shocked soldier crying, calls him a coward, slaps him, and demands his immediate return to the front. Hearing of this, Eisenhower demands Patton’s immediate discharge from the front, an apology to the soldier, and Patton’s relegation to command of a decoy platoon during the invasion of Normandy – the latter proving quite effective because of German confidence that Patton will lead the charge across the English Channel. Patton’s behavior continues to cause him problems, and he winds up begging Bradley, his former subordinate, for a command. Eisenhower places Patton under Bradley in command of the Third Army, which Patton advances expeditiously through France before running out of fuel because the petrol was purloined by Montgomery. Just before Christmas, a war council gathers because Ike needs troops to attack Bastogne, and Patton volunteers his full battalion despite the fact that they’re 100 miles away and will have to travel without rest or hot food. Bradley and the generals are skeptical, but Patton’s army wins the Battle of the Bulge and smashes through the Siegfried line into Germany. Patton’s big mouth causes him to be relieved of command again, and in the final minute he walks his bull terrier across a wide European plain with a lone windmill overlooked by a snow-covered mountain range. He voiceovers about Romans, 1000 years of traditions, and his and the film’s final words are “all glory is fleeting.”

Critics certainly compared Patton to Lawrence, yet those weren’t the sort of reviews that Richard Zanuck deployed on the poster, which read: “evidently someone that the public had come of age enough to make a mature film about a real war with a hero-villain” and another quote that called Patton the sort of epic “Hollywood has always wanted to make but never had the guts to do before.” “Gutsy” happened to be the preferred contemporary adjective for films like Midnight Cowboy and The Wild Bunch and M*A*S*H, and Zanuck wanted those audiences – he knew he had the Lawrence of Arabia fans already. After Patton was a solid roadshow hit for about six months, Robert Evans at Paramount hired Coppola to make The Godfather, and when that film came out, this marketing logic would be reversed: Evans knew he had the “gutsy” young fans already, so The Godfather’s publicity emphasized that it came from one of the creators of Patton. (Coppola believes he would have been fired directly from the set of The Godfather had he not won a well-timed Oscar for Patton.) By the time The Godfather was released, Patton had won 7 Oscars, including Best Script, Best Director and Best Picture. 

Influenced by: previous war films, often as counter-example

Influenced: war films, biopics


A71. The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Yeah, I know Popeye. His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.”

The French Connection was based on Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book about real-life French heroin smugglers and the American police in pursuit of them. Director William Friedkin claimed to be influenced by Costa-Gavras’ 1969 film Z, but Friedkin’s New York City feels more influenced by the dirty caverns of Midnight Cowboy, redirecting that film’s existential wallowing to a more electrifying pursuit narrative. Only ten years before, cinematic New York generally had the manicured, soundstagey look of something like Breakfast at Tiffany’sThe French Connection felt exhilarating just for Popeye Doyle walking around 30 real, unglamorous locations. At the time, Friedkin was dating the daughter of legendary director Howard Hawks, who told Friedkin his films were lousy, and that he should quote “Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.” The obvious recent referent was Peter Yates’s Bullitt from 1968, where Steve McQueen drives a car chasing another car up and down the windy rural outskirts of San Francisco; Friedkin would focus on just one car following a subway on an elevated track, with a lot of urban near-misses, and an under-cranked camera on the car bumper to make the footage look faster. Friedkin later said he edited the sequence to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” though Fox never got the rights to use the song.

Friedkin wanted to break through to the mainstream with a movie star playing Popeye Doyle, someone like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. However, they were way too expensive for Fox, and no other studio wanted to make the film. Friedkin considered Jackie Gleason, Peter Boyle, and Charles Bronson, but he and Fox ultimately settled for Gene Hackman because of his acceptable meeting point between talent and price. Fox and Friedkin were fortunate; Hackman’s bravura performance not only won the Best Actor Oscar but probably helped secure the film’s Best Picture Oscar.

The French Connection begins in glamorous Marseille, where we leave the sun-drenched beaches to see a bad guy named Nicoli shoot a cop in the face. In New York, a cop named Cloudy and his partner Popeye, dressed as Santa Claus, run after a perp for about a minute, beat him up for information, and fail to get any. Back at the station, Popeye says “never trust a” word that rhymes with Tigger, only he actually says that word, to which Cloudy answers, “he could have been white,” to which Popeye answers “never trust anyone.” Nicoli and his boss, Charnier, travel by ship from Marseille to New York as part of their shipment of heroin, Charnier telling reporters he avoided air travel to stay away from phones. Popeye and Cloudy’s extra-legal tactics pay off better with another black man, and their chief grants them surveillance but also two federal agents, one of whom, Mulderig, notes Popeye recently got a cop killed. Popeye follows Chernier on foot for many film minutes, but Chernier “makes” Popeye as he boards a subway, and waves to Popeye as the train leaves. When the cops and feds find a group of gratuitously bloody corpses, Mulderig questions Popeye’s past, Popeye pops off, and his chief takes him off the case. The vengeful, misguided Nicoli fires a sniper rifle at an off-duty Popeye from a roof in the projects, maybe killing a young mother next to her baby’s stroller, though we never learn what happened to her. Popeye chases Nicoli’s subway in an epic journey that almost includes Popeye killing another mother and stroller, but Popeye dodges her on his way to catching Nicoli running off of the subway platform; when Nicoli bolts, Popeye shoots him in the back. Popeye and his men arrange a sting of Charnier, but he retreats into an abandoned warehouse, and as Popeye wanders through the labyrinth, he kills Mulderig. Popeye tells Cloudy he can still get Charnier and walks into an unseen room from where we hear a gunshot. Title cards tell us Doyle was reassigned and Charnier escaped and remains at large.

Detectives were certainly compromised in the noir era, but not like Popeye, a racist bully who got a cop killed and kills the detective who holds that against him. The French Connection is aware of its main character’s faults as faults, compared to other violent crime films like that year’s Dirty Harry, even though both films elided non-white people and women. The director may have been dating Howard Hawks’ daughter, but the French Connection has no Hawksian women that might remind anyone of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday or Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep; each of the film’s few women is young, attractive, placid, and finished with their onscreen roles after no more than two lines. 

Influenced by: Howard Hawks told Friedkin his films were terrible, and advised him to make the best car chase; Friedkin may have done so

Influenced: Chase films, cop films, drug films, anti-hero films; probably The Exorcist


A72. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”

Based on a British novel by Anthony Burgess, set and made in Britain with only British actors, A Clockwork Orange is another film that the American Film Institute seems to have “poached” from the U.K., apparently based on the studio that financed it, Warner Brothers, and the origin country of its long-expatriated director, Stanley Kubrick. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick was somewhat universally praised as an auteur, and Kubrick did not exactly fawn away from power, instead exerting something like total control over all of his subsequent projects, which began with this one. If anything, Kubrick may well have chosen A Clockwork Orange over another project he was then developing, a bio-pic of Napoleon, precisely because his imagined Napoleon film would require a larger budget which would in turn require more oversight from Warners or any studio. By casting mostly non-star talent, Kubrick could and did make A Clockwork Orange for about $2.2 million, and also assure that he, Kubrick, was the biggest star on the set.

In the time since the film was released, Kubrick has likewise rarely suffered from lack of attention, and anyone interested in the making of A Clockwork Orange has plenty of sources to choose from. The film’s camerawork, credited to DP John Alcott, bears Kubrick’s trademark precision and hermetic airlessness, although scenes can also feel spontaneous. For example, in a moment showing Alex’s POV as he falls from a window, Kubrick and Alcott dropped a Newman Sinclair camera that survived six takes. More often, Kubrick and Alcott made liberal use of a Kinoptik Tegea 9.8mm for 35mm Arriflex camera for wide-angle shots that, taken in sum with Alex’s voice-over, suggest a demented series of sociopathic impressions that may not have happened exactly the way we saw them.

A Clockwork Orange is set at an unspecified time in the future, in a U.K. governed by an unspecified ideology that shows evidence of anarchism, socialism, and fascism, depending on the scene. Alex’s droogs, or gang members, meet at a milk-plus bar and decide on a night of ultra-violence, which includes a fight with a rival gang and a home invasion, during which they beat a writer to the point of permanent injury; Alex assaults his wife while singing “Singin’ in the Rain.” On another day, Alex’s droogs express discontent with his leadership, and he beats his allies to the sounds of his favorite classical composer, whom he calls Ludwig Van. On another spree of “in-outs” and ultra-violence, Alex invades a home, attacks a woman with a phallic sculpture, hears the howl of sirens, gets knocked out by one of his own droogs, is arrested for murder, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Two years in, Alex eagerly volunteers to be a test subject for an aversion therapy that could “cure” him in weeks, and soon Alex is strapped to a chair with eyes clamped open, injected with drugs, and made to watch sex and violence accompanied by Ludwig Van. After Alex becomes nauseous at the thought of committing violence, a Minister triumphantly presents him to an audience and releases him into the public. Alex meets a steady succession of his former victims, all of whom take advantage of his inability to fight back in successively horrific vignettes. Finally, Alex awakens in a hospital, many bones broken, to learn he somehow no longer has the aversion to rape and violence. The Minister arrives, apologizes to Alex, asks for his help in his next campaign, and activates Ludwig Van on the stereo. Alex vividly contemplates violence and rape and narrates, “I was cured, all right.”

Burgess’ original novel ends with one more chapter, with Alex truly rehabilitated, but Kubrick sometimes claimed he’d only known the American version that ended as I described, at other times claimed he knew Burgess’ first ending but didn’t like it. Certainly, Kubrick well knew that his ending, along with the film more generally, would scandalize critics and probably audiences. The question is, does the film enjoy the violence it is purportedly condemning?

Some people defend the film on the grounds that because Alex is the narrator, his male gaze and psychopathy are foregrounded and thus problematized. Others feel that because Alex is the narrator, we are inevitably made to sympathize with him. These days, those arguments get tied up with Alex’s white male privilege; also these days, the fact of Kubrick engaging questions of free will and behavioral psychology situates the film as both unusually interesting and as part of his auteur oeuvre alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey. At 26 minutes in, Alex wanders into a record store prominently featuring the 2001 soundtrack, although by then Kubrick has already positioned Clockwork around the year of his last film through the droogs driving a newish 95 car and a homeless man speaking of men walking around the moon while we suffer down here. The droogs could presumably use guns or blades, but favor truncheons like Kubrick’s old ape-men. Or maybe Clockwork plays as a rebuke to Kubrick’s already-famous Blue Danube scene of a beatifically rotating space station, as though to show what else classical music works for. In any event, the pivot from Odyssey to Orange reflected America’s pivot from the 60s to the 70s, from utopian space-age hope to dystopian fear of drug-fueled violence.A Clockwork Orange did surpass 2001: A Space Odyssey in at least one way: A Clockwork Orange was the first future-set film ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. But genre bias, and perhaps bias against portrayals of rape and other ultra-violence, caused the film to lose Best Picture to the, well, slightly less violent The French Connection

Influenced by: Anthony Burgess’ novel (it didn’t change much); the kind of freedom you get after directing 2001: A Space Odyssey

Influenced: still a touchstone, especially when discussing “re-programming”; if Kubrick could do sex/violence this way, so could the artists who made films like Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses


A73. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Now you come and say ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me ‘Godfather.’ You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder – for money.”

Where to begin to talk about a film that is so often, and so justifiably, considered the best film ever made? Mario Puzo’s source book was a legend before it was even published, because it combined theretofore unrevealed, even dangerous details about the Mafia with a familial salience rare to books about crime. Before the book came out, but just after Bonnie and Clyde proved that gangsters in fedoras could still be big box office, Paramount made Puzo a low offer that Puzo’s agent wanted to refuse, but Puzo took the offer because he was badly in debt. Puzo had this in common with Francis Ford Coppola, who couldn’t refuse Paramount’s offer to direct the film even after, uh, 12 other directors had. Coppola had produced his friend’s failed film, THX 1138, leading to a shortfall of forty thousand dollars. The debt distress of the two principal creatives, Puzo and Coppola, wound up as integral to a film about a family business that exists to loan money usuriously. One hears echoes of the filmmakers’ fears in the scene where Vito tells his son that he meant to leave him a better life, but “it wasn’t enough time, Michael. It wasn’t enough time.”

As though Coppola was its first choice all along, Paramount bragged that, compared to recent gangster-film failures, this film would be so Italian-American that “you’ll smell the spaghetti sauce.” Since graduating from UCLA’s film school, Coppola had directed films that were more patchouli than spaghetti sauce like Finian’s Rainbow and The Rain People, although Paramount preferred to remind the press of his screenplay for Patton; Coppola was not only aware of Paramount’s promotion department but took advantage of it by demanding the period details and cast that he wanted. Imagine if the studio had gone with its first choices, hiring Otto Preminger as director, setting the film in the 70s, and casting Ernest Borgnine as Vito and Robert Redford as Michael. The Godfather as we now know it is unimaginable without the late-1960s Hollywood Renaissance which included the post-civil-rights energy that saw liberal white people for the first time brandishing “hyphen-American” labels like Polish-American and Irish-American. Coppola insisted on an Italian-American, and pointed to the press extolling everyday unknowns as he cast one named Al Pacino. For the titular character, Paramount demanded a screen test for Marlon Brando, whose career was in decline, and because Coppola surreptitiously arranged it and fought to keep Brando as Vito, the film demonstrates Brando Godfathering in more ways than one, mentoring a new generation of these authentic, raw, Method-ish performers, including Pacino, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, James Caan, and Diane Keaton. Performative style was just one way in which The Godfather reflected and influenced what some call the new Hollywood.

Previous mob movies privileged an outraged outsider; by the time Nixon followed Johnson’s failures by also failing to end the war in Vietnam, America was readier to empathize with men reacting with violence to a more endemically corrupt society. Puzo’s novel became popular in 1970, which led Paramount to hire Puzo as co-writer with Coppola and give Coppola a larger, and large, budget of about six million dollars. Coppola used it to hire Visconti and Fellini’s ace composer, Nino Rota, and Rota dug deep for a haunting classical-Italian melody of pride and mourning, “Speak Softly, Love.” (Maybe not deep enough; after the Academy awarded Rota Best Original Score, it learned he’d cribbed his own score for a 1958 film called Fortunella and revoked his Oscar.) Coppola also hired a reluctant Gordon Willis as DP, and the men agreed to eschew cranes and helicopters and instead frame and light shots like paintings, emphasizing buttery yellows and cocoa browns. None of this impressed Paramount other than Bob Evans; Coppola later said that during production the executives hated his work and regularly threatened to take away from him his only source of income for his growing family, one more way in which Coppola could relate to Vito Corleone.

Although it wasn’t shot or planned this way, the film begins with about twenty minutes at Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie’s 1945 wedding, starting with the immortal line “I believe in America,” spoken to Vito, the head of one of New York’s five prominent crime families. Vito’s third son Michael, just back from the war, introduces his girlfriend Kay to his family. Vito’s godson Johnny Fontaine, a popular singer and wedding guest, wants a movie role but the studio chief refuses until Vito’s consigliere, Tom Hagen, leaves the chief’s prize stallion’s head in his bed. The Tattaglia family wants Vito’s help with the new narcotics trade; after Vito refuses, his enforcer Luca Brasi is killed, his consigliere is kidnapped, and Vito himself is shot in the street. Vito clings to life; Michael thwarts an attempted hospital hit. Sonny, Vito’s oldest, takes over, attacking Connie’s violent husband and dispatching Michael to a peace-talk dinner with Brasi’s killer and his cop friend; Michael recovers a planted gun in the restaurant bathroom and kills both men. The five families erupt in open warfare and Vito sends Michael to Sicily, where he falls in love with and marries Apollonia, but she is killed by a car bomb meant for Michael even as Sonny is killed at a New Jersey tollbooth. Vito summons the heads of the five families for a “you lost a son, I lost a son” kind of truce, and Vito forsakes opposition to heroin; the gangsters agree that the active trade must be kept out of white neighborhoods and remain amongst the colored, or as one of them puts it, “they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” Michael returns from Italy, promises Kay he’s no gangster, marries Kay, and then goes right ahead preparing to take over from Vito when he dies, which he does in a cornfield while playing around with orange slices and his grandson. At Vito’s funeral, Michael learns of several treacheries, and on the day of Connie’s new baby’s baptism, Michael “takes care of all the family business,” which means savage hits on the Corleone family’s key rivals. Connie tells Kay that Michael ordered the murders and she confronts her husband, who denies it all; Kay is initially relieved, but then watches as gangsters seem to treat Michael as Godfather and, in the final shot, the door of the roomful of men closes on Kay.

In most movies, we root for one or two people; The Godfather is unusual in asking us to root for a family, and even more unusual in getting us to care about the survival of the Corleones despite their violent tendencies. (Coppola assisted our empathy by removing typical Mafia activities like gambling, prostitution, and loan sharking.)

I would argue that the greatness of The Godfather lies in the fact that it atomizes a very specific male Italian-American Catholic mob experience, and through that says something universal about immigration and the American dream that many races and creeds can relate to. But don’t take my word for its greatness, instead consider its place on lists or the audiences who went to see the three-hour film again and again in 1972 and 1973, making the Godfather briefly the highest-grossing film of all time in the non-adjusted dollar amount of about 275 million dollars. The Godfather also won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor Oscar for Brando, who famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony to educate America about ongoing persecution of indigenous persons, to recognize a less recognized aspect of America’s encouragement of immigration and capitalism. 

Influenced by: The Hollywood Renaissance; Coppola’s UCLA classes

Influenced: generations of actors, writers, cinematographers, directors


A74. American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You’re the most beautiful, exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I don’t know anything about you.”

During THX 1138, Coppola had challenged his friend to write a mainstream film, causing George Lucas to imagine something like the opposite of THX, about his bygone life as one of a few restless teenagers in Modesto, California, a little ensemble bildungsroman about cruising cars and trying to pick up girls. Lucas could film the whole thing at night, cast the kind of non-stars the press was promoting, and thus make it for next to nothing, a fun lark between more serious projects. 

So far, this doesn’t sound as radical as THX 1138’s all-white backgrounds, but then George Lucas added the radical element: like his friend Coppola with The Godfather, he insisted on the period, in this case even a poster tagline of “Where were you in 62?” In 1971, movies were made for young adults and college students, who had presumably moved well past the James Dean hot-rod days and were now post-hippie and even post-counterculture, into Led Zeppelin or Third World liberation. In 1971 there was no internet or Sirius XM; no radio station was playing 1950s music. Every Hollywood studio turned down American Graffiti, some saying it wasn’t sexual or violent enough. United Artists had given Lucas a little seed money for the script, but upon reading it called the film “a musical montage with no characters.” Finally, with Coppola attached as producer, Lucas got a bare-bones $600,000 deal from Universal which included something any of the other studios could have had, a first-look deal at a sort of space-western idea Lucas was also working on.

That project was a long time off in a galaxy far, far away; in 1972, Universal pinched pennies everywhere it could, and was happy to learn that most of the music rights-holders would cheaply loan the film their out-of-vogue 50s and early-60s music, except RCA, with the result of Elvis Presley’s absence from the film’s 42 songs. Universal also got a deal on Wolfman Jack, a legendary DJ whom Lucas had seriously considered making a documentary about. Wolfman Jack’s wacky phone calls were made into the film’s usual transition between scenes, at the suggestion of Lucas’s friend, USC classmate, and sound mixer on Coppola and Lucas’s earlier films, Walter Murch. Murch’s idea shaved a half-hour off the too-long film, but Murch was nowhere near done: to make the songs sound as though they were coming from the cars’ radios, Murch innovated a layered, dense process that later became known as “worldizing” and “soundscaping.” Lucas wanted his wife Marcia to edit the film, but she wound up sharing duties with Universal’s Verna Fields. After a terrific reception at a January 1973 test screening, Universal still wasn’t happy and brought in yet another editor. Flush from The Godfather, Coppola offered to buy American Graffiti outright for the $775,000 Universal had spent, but the very fact of this offer made Universal refuse to let go of the movie. After The Godfather won Best Picture in March, the studio relented on editing, but seriously considered releasing the modest-o-pus directly to television. After a few other Hollywood power brokers saw and loved the very lovable, very well-made film, Universal decided to spend $500,000 on marketing – almost as much as the budget, but still cheap compared to most 1973 films – to roll out their film in August.

American Graffiti is set during the final evening of summer vacation in September 1962, focusing on four friends who meet at Mel’s Drive-In, Curt, Steve, John, and Terry the Toad. Curt and Steve are scheduled to board a plane and leave for college “back east” the next day, yet Curt is having second thoughts. Steve is ready to leave behind his Modesto concerns, and so he loans Terry his 1958 Chevy Impala until Christmas, and tells his girlfriend Laurie, who is also Curt’s sister, that they might see other people while he is away in order to “strengthen” the relationship, leading to a series of breakups and makeups. The nerdy Terry uses the Chevy to pick up the Sandra Dee-like Debbie, while the James Dean-like John, who styles himself a real drag-racer, asks a carful of women if any will join him; they send him the 12-year-old Carol. Terry and John form unlikely bonds with Debbie and Carol. From his sister’s backseat, Curt sees a beautiful flirtatious blonde woman and spends hours trying to find her, finally finding Wolfman Jack and asking him to read a message to her, which he does. After Laurie’s last split from Steve, she’s picked up by the older, macho Bob, played by a young Harrison Ford, who challenges John to a drag race. Bob takes the lead in the race, but one of his tires blows out and the car swerves, crashes, and catches fire. Steve and John rush to the car and help Bob and Laurie stagger away just before the car explodes. Laurie holds Steve tight, and he promises not to leave her or Modesto. The next morning, Curt awakens at Mel’s Drive-In to the sound of the pay phone, as Wolfman Jack had commanded, and the blonde tells Curt that she’ll see him on the cruising strip, but Curt answers that he doubts it. The film ends at an airport where Curt says goodbye to his parents and the rest of the main cast. 

American Graffiti became the definition of a sleeper hit, and even earned a Best Picture nomination, losing to The Sting. The total cost of production plus marketing was about 1.2 million dollars and its box office was about 55 million dollars. American Graffiti was re-released in new stereophonic sound in 1978, after Lucas had become more famous, and grossed an additional 63 million dollars, and the budget-to-earnings ratio of roughly 1 to 100 stood for decades as the best in movie history. Coppola could have financed the film himself and earned around 30 million dollars; Lucas claims Coppola still regrets not having done so. 

American Graffiti is probably one of the four or five most influential films ever made, because of all the young-restless-white-dude ensemble films it inspired, because it made “graffiti” cool for mid-70s artists who would help found hip-hop, because of Walter Murch’s breakthrough sound design, and especially because of its obvious spinoff, the very successful “Happy Days,” its spinoffs, and the associated repackaging of the 1950s into a profitable nostalgia for chrome, formica, sock hops, neon, greasers, muscle cars, and all the rest of it.

Though the Godfather made American Graffiti possible, we don’t usually think of the two films as similar. Yet both focus on four white male characters, jostling for status like brothers. None of them look like the Rock Hudson or Paul Newman types of years before, but instead something more ordinary and beautiful for being ordinary. And both films actively exclude minorities and women, although the characters’ sexism is criticized.

Influenced by: Lucas’ experiences at USC, his blend of indie and mainstream values

Influenced: As above, but also Happy Days and nostalgia more generally 


A75. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

In retrospect, it’s astonishing that one of the most novelistic of America’s great films came from a script based on an idea Robert Towne had during a walk through L.A.’s Coldwater Canyon in 1971. Towne had read and seen the great noirs – the Hammett and Chandler and Cain novels, their film adaptations – and yet the villains were rarely more than two-bit gangsters, occasionally two-faced cops, never the kind of too-awful financiers who smiled at ribbon-cutting ceremonies while privatizing California’s public resources to put tens of millions of dollars in their own pockets. Towne left Coldwater, went to the library, and read Carey McWilliams’ “Southern California Country” among other material, and finally decided he wanted to write about California’s water wars, despite the tiny problem that the wars were well over by the noir-ish 1930s or 40s when Towne planned to set his story. But Towne said to himself and Evans, eh, it’s fiction and nobody will know or care about the exact historical details anyway, forget it, Robert, it’s just Chinatown

The title Chinatown came from a white cop who told Towne that in L.A.’s Chinatown, the hodge-podge of ethnicities and dialects often led to police confusion. Towne had taken acting classes in the 60s from Jeff Corey, and he wrote the lead role of Jake Gittes while thinking of his friend from those acting classes, Jack Nicholson. It helped that Nicholson was by then a star and already signed as the lead in another script of Towne’s called The Last Detail. Nicholson was no stranger to L.A.’s art deco City Hall; rumor had it that Nicholson had attended every day of 1969’s trial of the Charles Manson family for the murder of five including Polanski’s wife and unborn child. Nicholson came to the courthouse out of personal curiosity even as a theater ten blocks away played sold-out showings of Easy Rider, turning Nicholson into a movie star. During the trial, Nicholson met and befriended Polanski and the two spent years looking for a joint project. In 1972, when Nicholson suggested to the Roberts, Towne and Evans, that Polanski direct Chinatown, Evans understood that based on Polanski’s unique life experiences, as well as Polanski’s films to date, no one could bring to screen a bleaker, more cynical view of Los Angeles…and Evans liked that.

Some people will never watch Chinatown because it is a film directed by Roman Polanski, a person who certainly drugged and raped a 13-year-old in 1977 in Nicholson’s L.A. house while Jack was away. I respect anyone who feels that to support the art of an abuser is to support abuse. That said, I don’t believe that a film is comparable to a novel or a painting, basically the work of one person like the abusive Pablo Picasso. To cancel a film is to cancel the work of at least 100 people, usually closer to 200; likely more than half of the films made in the 20th century probably employed at least one abusive or openly prejudiced person as one of their lead creatives. To cancel Chinatown is also to cancel the arguable masterpiece of the two Roberts that Nicholson, after all, brought to Polanski. 

In this context, the production’s internecine conflicts take on perhaps more significance than usual. For example, Polanski wanted his cinematographer from Rosemary’s Baby, a Paramount film that Evans had partially overseen, and Evans felt the two men together would be too powerful against him, so he forced Polanski to accept John Alonzo as DP. In Evans’ defense, Alonzo produced career-best work. Towne had written a lot of noir-style voice-over for Jake; Polanski eliminated it. Towne had written the role of Evelyn Mulwray as a classic noir femme fatale that would turn out to be the only good person in the film, and hoped for Jane Fonda to play her, but Polanski insisted on, and got, Faye Dunaway. One wonders, then, how Fonda and Polanski would have interacted, because Dunaway and Polanski came to hate each other, and Nicholson sided with his friend, saying “She demonstrated certifiable proof of insanity.” After Polanski pulled a shot-intrusive hair from Dunaway’s head, she stormed off set and only returned after a summit in Evans’ Paramount office. When Polanski complained of her to the press, Dunaway shot back, “It was not the hair. It was the incessant cruelty that I felt, the constant sarcasm, the never-ending need to humiliate me.” One also wonders if this had anything to do with a final scene that was changed at the last minute to turn the picture into probably the harshest film in Hollywood history. What do I mean? Well…

In 1937, a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray hires private detective Jake Gittes to tail her husband Hollis, chief engineer of the L.A. Dept. of Water and Power; Gittes finds Hollis in flagrante delicto with the young Katherine, and takes pictures that appear on the next day’s front page. The real Evelyn Mulwray appears in Gittes’ office to tell him to expect a lawsuit. Before Gittes can warn Hollis, Lieutenant Lou Escobar fishes Hollis’ dead body from a reservoir. Now investigating a murder and his own set-up, Gittes learns that despite the drought, the reservoir is releasing large amounts of water, some of which knocks Gittes off his heels in a watery trench; two men warn Gittes to back off, including one, played by Roman “Knife in the Water” Polanski, who puts a knife in Gittes’ nostril and says “You know what happens to Nosy Parkers? They get their noses cut.” Gittes spends the rest of the movie with a large scar on his schnoz. He learns that Hollis Mulwray was business partners with the wealthy Noah Cross, and appears at Cross’ club with a bandage covering half his face, whereupon Cross warns Gittes that he doesn’t understand the forces at work. Eventually, Gittes does, deducing that the water department is drying up the land so it can be bought at a reduced price and that Mulwray was murdered when he discovered Cross’s plan. Gittes and Mulwray bluff their way into a retirement home full of residents whose names Cross fraudulently used; when the manager objects to Gittes’ presence, Jake answers, “that’s exactly what I wanted to hear you say.” (A lot of the film is exactly what we want to hear them say.) After Evelyn and Jake sleep together, she leaves and he follows her to find her arguing with Katherine. Gittes confronts her; she replies the young woman is her sister. The fake Mulwray is found dead, and Gittes arrives to find Escobar, who tells Gittes that Hollis’s lungs were found to have salt water, not the reservoir’s fresh water, and now Evelyn is the prime suspect. Gittes races to Evelyn’s house which he sees contains a salt-water pond; he accuses Evelyn of arranging everything, including Katherine, whom Evelyn now calls her daughter. Jake repeatedly slaps her, saying “I want the truth!” and she tests Jack Nicholson’s ability to handle the truth by answering “She’s my sister. My daughter. She’s my sister and my daughter!…My father and I…you understand?” Gittes says both women must now flee to Mexico, and arranges to meet them in Chinatown, but first he must use a piece of evidence from the pond to get Cross arrested. Gittes finds Cross who confesses to “bringing L.A. to the water,” to which Gittes asks if he’s worth more than 10 million, and when Cross laughs yes, Gittes asks, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross answers, “The future, Mr. Gits. The future.” In a finale changed from Towne’s script three days before it was shot, Cross and his gun-wielding thugs take Gittes’ piece of incriminating evidence, and Gittes, to Chinatown at night, where Cross grabs his daughter even as the police arrive. Gittes tells Lou he only needs five minutes to explain, but Evelyn grabs a gun and warns away everyone, saying of her father, “he owns the police!” Evelyn drives away in a convertible with Katherine, and a cop shoots Evelyn right through the eye, killing her. Cross drives away with his daughter, and as Gittes tries to stop him, a friendly cop tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Jake Gittes had to live, because you don’t create a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe just to kill him in his first outing. Towne’s ending had Cross dying and Mulwray living, but Evans sided with Polanski, who felt that if Chinatown was to be special, good couldn’t triumph at the end. Considering the old white capitalist is clearly getting away with murder, fraud, “the future,” and his product of, and perhaps future target of, rape, it’s hard to think of a bleaker ending produced at an equivalent budget before or since, the $6 million equating to about $35 million today. Polanski and Towne split over the ending, forever, but Towne was rewarded with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar as well as decades as chair of the Writers Guild of America. This is only one reason we can’t remove Chinatown from film history, even if it makes no sense as actual history; the real William Mulholland was not known for incest or to have conjured the delicious menace of John Huston as Noah Cross. Released in the beginning of the summer of peak Watergate, Chinatown was a substantial hit, earning at least triple its budget by the day, in August, when Nixon resigned the Presidency. Towne’s ending was the happy one; Evans leveraged the film’s success to set up an independent production company that made more rebellious films, and Evans was eventually tried for cocaine distribution, which he admitted, and accessory to a murder, which he denied. Polanski leveraged the film’s success to…a darker ending that no one should or will forget. 

Influenced by: noir and the Hollywood Renaissance, but both as contrast to this film’s more cynical vision

Influenced: largely on the strength of this film, its writer Robert Towne ran the Writers Guild for decades


A76. The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“There would be no way, Michael… no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years.”

During December 1971, Mario Puzo began writing down an outline for a second installment, with the working title The Death of Michael Corleone. Puzo’s ideas would evolve and intertwine with Coppola’s ideas over the next two years as they wrote the screenplay together. Within the world of Coppola, Puzo, and Evans, nobody made any offers anyone couldn’t refuse; Coppola’s offer-refusers were all actors. Coppola thought to cast the godfather of gangster films of the 1930s, Jimmy Cagney, but after he said no, Coppola cast Lee Strasberg, the long-time godfather of the Actor’s Studio. Coppola thought to cast Marlon Brando as young Vito, believing that the near-50-year-old’s talent could convince audiences he was 25, but Brando’s reluctance, combined with footage of newcomer Robert DeNiro in a new movie called Mean Streets, convinced Coppola to trust his franchise to this newcomer. As a favor amongst paisanos, Coppola got Brando to agree to appear with James Caan and the principals in a final reunion where the family would hear the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio, but…Brando cancelled at the last minute, and Coppola rewrote the scene that day. This was nothing compared to the start of production, when Al Pacino’s lawyers informed Coppola that their client had serious script reservations and wouldn’t be showing up. Like Brando when Elia Kazan asked him to make On the Waterfront, Pacino was now a star and didn’t feel loyal to the director that got him there. Coppola spent all night rewriting and handed the lawyers a new script in the morning, to which Pacino assented. 

As though to pick up where The Godfather left off, someone is bent over and kissing Michael’s ring, and the title card appears over a nearby empty chair. The film cuts to a Vito’s dad’s funeral in Sicily in 1901, where Vito’s mom hears gunshots and sees that she has also lost her older son, and she begs Don Ciccio to leave the “dumb” nine-year-old Vito alone. Don Ciccio kills her and Vito just barely manages to escape; along with everyone else on a ship full of immigrants, Vito pauses to stare at the Statue of Liberty. At Ellis Island, he’s misnamed Vito Corleone and quarantined for smallpox. About eleven minutes in, the film cuts to Vito’s grandson at his first communion. The next half-hour parallels the first film’s first half-hour, but instead of Connie’s 1945 New York wedding we watch Michael’s son’s 1958 Lake Tahoe communion party, and as Michael negotiates with the difficult and prejudiced Senator Geary (who looks like he should be named WASPy), as he refuses to help his New York capo Frank Pentangeli, as the Corleones dance with guests on the edge of the water, family progress and family decline seem to co-exist. Michael and a pregnant Kay barely survive a late-night assassination attempt, and Michael promotes Tom to temporary Don while Michael travels to Miami to find the malefactors. Geary finds himself in bed with a bloodily dead mistress and Tom there to help. In Little Italy in the 19teens, young Vito watches from the wings as each of his three sons are born; Fredo is sickly and subject to fiery therapy from the donna vecchias. Vito finds his career advancement, even his literal view of Liberty, blocked by the local Don, Fanucci, and a friend helps introduce him to petty thefts. A few days before New Year’s Day 1959, When Hyman Roth distributes slices of a Cuba cake to potential casino investors, Michael worries about a suicidal rebel he saw on the streets of Havana, and Roth dismisses Michael, saying they’ve had rebels for 50 years. During a Cuban New Year’s party, Fredo inadvertently lets slip that he knows Roth’s right-hand man, Johnny Ola, leading Michael to kiss his brother on the New Year’s dance floor and say “I know it was you, Fredo.” Michael’s bodyguard almost kills Hyman Roth, but Cuban police kill the bodyguard instead of stopping Castro’s rebels. Michael watches as Fulgencio Batista announces his resignation and intention to leave the island, and Michael follows right after him after trying and failing to convince Fredo to accompany him. Back in 1920ish Little Italy, Don Fanucci is extorting Vito, just wanting to “wet his beak,” but Vito decides to make more of him wet, following him through an Italian-pride street party, picking up a stashed gun, shooting Fanucci dead, and then stashing different gun parts in different rooftop pipes. In 1959, the Senate investigates the Corleones, including Michael’s clearly false testimony, and Senator Geary makes a big deal of how great Italian-Americans are just before he scoots out of the room. Frankie Five Angels sits down as a friendly witness, but when he sees that Michael has summoned another Pentangeli brother from Sicily, Frank reverses course on the witness stand, claims he never knew any Corleones, and throws the Senate chamber into chaos. Backgrounded by a snowy Lake Tahoe, Fredo, horizontal in his chair, tells Michael he never thought there would be a hit and that he felt bad for being passed over, “I’m smart, not like everybody says!” Michael tells Fredo they’re no longer brothers or friends, but assigns him a guard at least until their mother dies. Tom had told Michael that Kay had a miscarriage, but she reveals that she had an abortion, not wanting to bring him one more child, though she’ll be taking the children they have. Michael strikes her down while barking that he’ll be taking the children they had. In Sicily in the 1920s, Vito visits family and friends as a prodigal son and successful oil importer, getting him access to Don Ciccio, whom he slices open. In Vito’s final scene, he holds Michael to a Sicilian train window and says “say goodbye.” In a cross-fade, cars gather to say good-bye to Mama Corleone, and Connie begs Michael to forgive Fredo. Tom questions Michael’s rapacity, causing Michael to question Tom’s loyalty – again. As Kay leaves, she lingers on the threshold waiting for her son to hug her goodbye, and Michael slowly and deliberately shuts the door on Kay in an unmistakable call back to the first film’s final frame, although this time we’re sure it’s Michael’s choice. Israel refuses asylum to Roth, who arrives at a U.S. airport to Michael’s assassin’s bullets. Pentangeli, who went to prison rather than lose a brother, kills himself as retired penurious Romans did. And as Fredo dusk-fishes on a cloud-covered Lake Tahoe, Michael’s hired gun commits Fredo-cide. Michael splays himself in a chair, Fredo-like, as the film does its weirdest and most welcome cross-fade to Sonny Corleone, played by James Caan, introducing the family in 1941, including Connie, to the man who will become her husband. Sonny laments Pop’s surprise party getting ruined by Japs attacking Pearl Harbor, and when Michael says he just enlisted, Sonny smacks Michael, Tom questions him, and Fredo congratulates him. They leave the room to surprise and sing to Vito, except Michael, who sits alone, cross-cut with his memory of being held up to the Sicilian train window with post-Fredo Michael staring at the lake.

Pauline Kael’s words hold up: “The daring of Part II is that it enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film.” The first film was the first film, or one of them, to make audiences care not about one or two protagonists or an ensemble, but about a family, the Corleone family. Because we want them to survive and thrive, our feelings about Michael are complicated; we can’t simply enjoy him as an anti-hero as we might enjoy, say, Iago in Othello. The canvas of the first film was maybe eight years; the canvas of the Godfather Part II is at least 60 years, and makes us think about what we have done, and not done, to keep our own family thriving for six decades. The film is in conversation with a much longer history than that, with multiple onscreen discussions about how ordinary people behaved 2000 years ago. In retrospect, the title card “1901” feels like a hopeful choice, instead of, say, “1899”; Coppola and Puzo may be hoping that the depicted difficulties between immigrants, capitalism and the American Dream are limited to the 20th century.

I often think of the moment when Tom says, “Mikey, what is it you want me to do?” and the film cuts to its most beautiful shot, this purple-sunset composition of Lake Tahoe with Fredo telling his nephew how to catch a fish. Any New Yorker who moves anywhere else is going to hear some version of “big fish in a smaller pond” and I feel Coppola is using that in an almost open-ended, Kubrick-in-2001 way, where the killing of Fredo can be read in multiple ways, maybe as Michael circling off his future, maybe as American culture forcing the individual to eliminate the collective, maybe in other ways. In the very final shot, Michael seems to be contemplating these multiple meanings even as he buries his mouth in his hand in what critics considered a Nixonian gesture. 

Both Patton and Godfather Part II have long speeches about Ancient Roman military traditions, and between the two films I think Coppola is doing a sneaky deconstruction of the Roman Biblical epic, the sanitized world that every single 1970s viewer of those films knew from films like Ben-Hur and Spartacus and Cleopatra. So when they break open the door to see Pentangeli in the bath covered in his bloody wrists, it’s a bit like Coppola has said: yeah, it wasn’t Ben-Hur, it was this. The film was made 25 years before Coppola’s friend George Lucas popularized the word prequel, but whether you call it sequel or sequel-slash-prequel, it’s a sequel without equal, despite many noble efforts. It remains the only Part II to win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

Influenced by: author Mario Puzo’s Mafia but also Coppola’s life in California

Influenced: the notion that great art can be fruitfully extended


A77. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

One context that hasn’t been addressed in this AFI 100 rundown is the popularity of 1970s disaster films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno, and horror films like The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We might argue all day over whether Jaws belongs on either or both such lists, but the basic idea of thrills caused by ordinary people uniting against a common threat was good enough for Richard Zanuck, now at Universal Pictures, even before the story had officially been released as a novel, though after lit-hits like The Godfather and Love Story Universal would be happy to promote the novel and novelist, Peter Benchley, and even hire him to write the screenplay. Sadly, no one seemed to much like Benchley’s script work, and the list of retrospective helpers starts to resemble the flotilla of townspeople who capture the tiger shark: Carl Gottlieb, Howard Sackler, John Milius, Spielberg, and the actors between scenes. Some are still arguing over who really wrote Quint’s monologue, but it’s possible Robert Shaw, the playwright-turned-actor playing Quint, wrote a lot of it himself after basing his character on several colorful local islanders. (The tale of the A-bomb delivered in pieces oddly parallels the secrecy around the mechanical sharks’ arrival in Martha’s Vineyard.) Spielberg is credited, or blamed, for making Brody afraid of boats, for ending the film with less of Benchley’s bullfight and more of a bang, and for deep-sixing most of the political didacticism, though the subtext survives of three squabbling classes, all represented by white men because it’s 1975, ultimately uniting against Armageddon. Spielberg presumed, and may have been right, that specific references to Watergate or Vietnam or Chappaquiddick would turn off viewers, and preferred to think of the story as Moby-Dick meets An Enemy of the People.

Jaws is at least ten stories tall, the ten being 1) they chose Martha’s Vineyard because it looked poor enough that missing the Fourth of July would destroy the economy; 2) the director liked widescreens, and at his prompting, cinematographer Bill Butler created widescreen cameras that would simulate the look of surface swimming, with focus on both halves of the surface line; 3) Spielberg told production design to avoid red, so that blood in the water would be the only red onscreen, which is why this Fourth of July is so under-flagged; 4) an Australian second-unit captured real great whites, one of whom trashed a cage so beautifully that Spielberg retconned Hooper escaping from his cage, meaning a real shark saved Dreyfuss’s character; 5) they made three mechanical sharks, each named “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer Bruce Ramer; 6) none of these tiburobots worked right, and so Spielberg wound up hiding the shark a lot, building suspense, or as the director later said “it made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than Harryhausen,” 7) which is one reason Spielberg paid such conspicuous homage to the master in an obvious dolly zoom salute to Vertigo when Brody sees a shark attack; 8) the delays meant that the film wound up doubling its $4 million budget; scheduled 55 days, it wrapped after 159, and as Spielberg put it, “I heard rumors … that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule”; 9) after Universal pushed the release from December to June, Verna Fields’ editing made the shark into something like the HAL 9000, the film’s best personality, Steven spent $3,000 of his own money to film “one more scream” in Fields’ pool, and Fields won the Best Editing Oscar; 10) go ahead and listen to John Williams scores before Jaws, because I doubt you’re going to hear what became, starting with Jaws, a robust neo-classical revival in film scoring. The alternating two chords are not just any heartbeat, but in Williams words, “instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” Spielberg always says without Williams the film would have only been half as successful, which may be only half a compliment, because as we’re going to find out, half of Jaws would have meant an awfully big bite.

Jaws begins with that music and a presumed shark’s eye view of the near-shore ocean floor, suggesting a primordial force rising. In fictional Amity, a statuesque young blond woman (of course) leaves a beach party, jumps in the ocean, treads water, and gets attacked. The next day, amiable big-city transplant Police Chief Brody finds the woman’s remains, gets the examiner’s report of a shark attack, and closes the beaches. Amity mayor Larry Vaughn, wearing an awesomely anchor-bedecked blazer, explains the importance of tourism, overrules Brody on the closures, and watches as the examiner nowblames a boat accident. Brody gets all broody on the crowded beach with his wife Ellen and kid Michael and then sees – in the Vertigo shot – a kid of a similar age being killed. At a town meeting, the Mayor offers $3000 for the shark, and a grizzled veteran shark-hunter, Quint, says he’ll find him for 3, “but I’ll catch him and kill him for $10.” He goes on, “I don’t want no mates, there’s too many captains on this island.” Sure enough, throngs of them are thrilled to try for the 3, and they tack out and truck back a tremendous tiger shark, causing Mayor Vaughn to declare the beaches open and newly arrived oceanographer Matt Hooper to fruitlessly search the tiger shark’s stomach for human parts. At dinner with Brody, Hooper convinces Brody they must root out the real rogue shark right away on Hooper’s extravagantly equipped vessel, and when they do they find a dead man, a crushed boat, and a shot-glass-sized shark’s tooth that Hooper carelessly loses. The next day Brody and Hooper fail to convince Vaughn to close Amity to coming calamity. Holiday crowds converge on their cove, cautiously at first, then in complete splashy splendor. A prank distracts attention from an actual shark attack that hacks off a swimmer’s leg while putting Michael Brody into shock, and when he’s swum to shore the camera swings onto his still-intact legs. The Mayor, in his own sort of shock, stammers that his own kids were on that beach, and somnabulistically signs the city requisition for Quint. Chief Brody insists that he and Hooper are coming with, and Quint makes fun of Hooper’s hands, saying “you’ve been counting money all your life,” to which Hooper says he doesn’t “need this working class hero crap.” In the film’s final moment for anyone not billed at least third, Ellen Brody gives a standard “are you sure?” talk and runs off in a fluster, perhaps symbolizing the erasure of women, or perhaps symbolizing the erasure of Universal’s authority (the actress was married to the studio head, Sid Sheinberg). Out on Quint’s boat Orca (named after the shark’s only natural predator), Hooper warns Brody to be more careful around explosive compressed air tanks. The man Quint calls “Chiefie” is chucking chum in the channel when the shark’s head surfaces without warning and sinks again, and Brody quivers as he quietly informs Quint, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” After estimating the fish’s length to be around 25 feet, Quint harpoons a marker barrel to it, but the monster submerges avec barrel. That evening, the troublesome threesome bond over drinks and Quint’s vivid story of surviving the wreck of the Indianapolis, a wreck kept secret from rescue because the ship was delivering the atomic bomb. After an allocution about the 1100 men that went down and the sharks killing all but 316, he says “anyway, we delivered the bomb,”; as in a good Godzilla movie Quint has associated one sort of apocalypse with the one that now attacks the Orca, causing the trio to work all night on repairs. In the morning, another shark assault causes Brody to call the Coast Guard, and that call prompts another assault…from Quint, who disables the radio and ensures himself any requitals or other Ahab-esque earnings. Now ensues a long back-and-forth chase, with Quint trying to quickly corner the shark in shallower waters, leading to Quint flooding and killing his engine. With the Orca bent, broken, and barely seaworthy, Quint is ready for Hooper’s rich-boy tricks, which comes to Hooper submerging in a shark cage and striving to spear the shark’s mouth with strychnine. The shark hits Hooper’s cage so hard that Hooper drops his spear to the ocean floor, and as he leaves the cage to get it, the shark thrashes the cage so badly that Quint and Brody, pulling it up, assume Hooper must be dead. The shark jumps onto the flatbed of the boat and swallows Quint whole. Brody manages to stuff an air tank into the shark’s, uh, jaws, climbs what’s left of the crow’s nest barely floating above the waves, and shoots at the tank in the jaws as the fish bears down on him…Chief Brody finally hits his target and blows up the shark, whose husk falls bloodily through the film’s final underwater shot. Brody reunites with Hooper and they swim to shore.

Jaws is not a movie that suffers from critical inattention. Many, many scholars connect it to Watergate, and Andrew Britton called the explosive ending “a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence,” reminding us that a lone white good cop can still obliterate evil. Many, many 1970s films were about the boundless corruption of authority, and so is this, but by deftly moving from An Enemy of the People to Moby Dick it achieves a sort of narrative jujitsu, rerouting righteous energy to the external threat, unifying all classes and approaches and even readings of what, exactly, the shark represents. If one includes all the ways the poster art was deployed in the 12 months after the film’s release – including a shark as a symbol of poverty, government, the environment, sexism, the Soviets, malaise, the movie industry, you name it – this would include almost anything attacking anything else. 

Not only weren’t there summer blockbusters before Jaws, but there were few “nationwide releases” as we now think of them, and those reserved for films that studios wanted to quickly dump to minimize bad word-of-mouth. But studios had reached a certain tipping point in their national television advertising budgets…why pay to advertise all summer when you could concentrate the same money on a two-week blitz? As with the coming of sound in 1927, many knew that the question wasn’t if but when, and the when was when the movie would have reason to be instantly popular enough. Like the Mayor of Amity wincing while signing, Sid Sheinberg signed off on an unprecedented campaign of picture-matched book covers and merchandise, and on June 20, 1975, Jaws opened on 464 screens in the U.S. and Canada, and before the real Fourth of July, Jaws had already earned more than its budget plus all that promotion. Jaws finished with all-time box office records in the U.S. and around the world, not adjusting for inflation, not that any executive even mentioned that last part. Eventually, every would-be blockbuster would be released this same way, but Jaws didn’t transform the industry as quickly as blood attracts a shark. Think about it: Spielberg could have died, say, in a random shark accident. Jaws could have been a one-time spectacular shark attack off the East Coast. 

Influenced by: Saturday-morning serials, home movies with soldiers, and all of Spielberg’s other famous bugaboos

Influenced: a lot of horror; Hollywood’s pivoting the “Movie Brats” (and audiences) toward blockbusters


A78. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody. I’m talking about form. I’m talking about content. I’m talking about interrelationships. I’m talking about God, the devil, Hell, Heaven. Do you understand… finally?”

Before Ken Kesey founded the Merry Pranksters, he wrote a novel loosely based on some of his experiences in a psychiatric ward in Oregon. Kesey’s 1962 novel was almost at once adapted into a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas as Randle P. McMurphy, and for most of the next decade Douglas tried yet declined to get a studio development deal. One Flew Overflew west and east and managed to miss all the nests: it was obviously out of the question for anyone trying to make the next Sound of Music or Zhivago, but it was old news and almost square to the Easy Rider crowd, and it sure didn’t have any clear connection to urban crime. Producer Michael Douglas claimed that he only learned after production that several of the patients at the real facility, whom he’d importuned his actors to “shadow,” were criminally insane.

After a decade of frustration during which Kirk Douglas decided he had grown too old to play McMurphy, he sold the rights to Cuckoo’s Nest to his son Michael, who was actually too young for that role. In 1972, 28-year-old Michael Douglas got his break as the young hotshot cop in the show “Streets of San Francisco,” which, in tune with the times, was filmed entirely in that City by the Bay. Hanging out in Bay Area artist circles, Douglas met music producer Saul Zaentz, just one more dilettante seeking to break into the movie business, distinguished by his voracious literacy and willingness to put up his business as collateral. They hired Ken Kesey to write the script, but after “creative differences” cleaved them, Kesey won a cash settlement and claimed never to have seen the film. Through Michael’s father, he and Saul Zaentz hired screenwriter Larry Hauben, who suggested director Milos Forman, who came to the producers with detailed, page-by-page ideas beyond the efforts of the other director candidates. Forman’s Czech film The Fireman’s Ball also helped, because it shared Cuckoo’s Nest’s humor, pathos, and affinity for all its characters, although Forman didn’t describe either film that way, instead associating Nurse Ratched with Communist oppressors. That’s one reason they couldn’t find any major star to play Ratched; Louise Fletcher recalled that the day after Christmas, 1974, she learned she got the role of Nurse Ratched and was expected on set at the Oregon State Hospital on January 4. Forman later spun such difficulties into pluses: with all but one role played by unknown actors, we see the world through McMurphy’s eyes, which may not be true to the novel or Kesey’s ideals, but may well be true to the best way to experience the film version.

Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Burt Reynolds said no. Jack Nicholson wasn’t known as, in Hooper’s words, a “working class hero” until his 1973 film The Last Detail, and afterward Zaentz and Douglas were keen to get him…but after Chinatown everyone wanted him, and to get Nicholson they would have to pay him about half of the film’s $3 million budget as well as wait six months and make the film in winter 1975, when the sun in Oregon went down at 4:00pm. Douglas later spun these lemons into lemonade, the wait giving them the months they needed to assemble a first-rate cast that would work for scale in Oregon in a dead-tree winter that cost Zaentz more than an LA backlot would have. Forman and Nicholson got along fine at first, though mid-shoot they fought because Forman wouldn’t show him dailies and ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler would, leading to Forman firing Wexler.

To Jack Nitzsche’s sounds of a bone-saw and wet wine-glasses, a car passes between a river and an Oregon mountain on its way to a psychiatric hospital. Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives and meets with Dr. Spivey, where we learn that he was charged with assault of men and with statutory rape of a 15-year-old, or as McMurphy puts it, “Near as I can tell, it’s cause I fight and fuck too much.” Dr. Spivey is skeptical that McMurphy is truly mentally impaired enough to warrant transfer from prison to hospital, and Jack Nicholson’s performance sets us up to be as suspicious as Spivey. McMurphy meets the African-Americans who staff the ward, the restrained head nurse who oversees the ward, and the patients, including stuttering young virgin Billy Bibbit, childish middle-ager Charlie Cheswick, beatific autistic Martini, belligerent, wild-eyed Taber, repressed queer pedant Dale Harding, and deaf-mute Chief Bromden who is seven feet tall. McMurphy cuts cards with his new cohorts, and commences winning all their cigarettes, resulting in Nurse Ratched rationing them. During group therapy, Mac asks for less canned classical music and more of the World Series on the ward’s TV, and Nurse Ratched keeps moving the basepath, as it were, on how Mac can be awarded a “ward” series. In frustration, Mac looks at the unplugged TV and “calls” the game as an announcer would, arousing Ratched’s wrath as well as his fellow “feebs” cheers and joy. McMurphy bets that he can lift a stone sink/table fixture and throw it through their gated windows, and when he fails, he says “Goddammit, at least I tried. At least I did that.” Unable to move a sink, McMurphy manages to commandeer a tour bus to the Oregon coast, where Mac further manages to bluff his way into control of a boat by making believe that most of his mates are doctors. (Except Mr. Harding.) After they return with a healthy-sized fish, the staff meets again, with one saying “he’s not crazy, but he is dangerous,” and Ratched saying that she doesn’t want to pass their problems on to someone else. McMurphy learns that most of the patients are there voluntarily, but not Chief, Taber, or him, so unlike prison, Mac could be in the mental ward indefinitely. When McMurphy learns Billy could be, as he says, “out bird-dogging chicks” and people laugh, Mac says “Why is that funny?” Mac gets so sick of hearing Cheswick standing and screaming about his cigarettes that he punches out the glass case where they’re confiscated, leading to a brawl that brings Cheswick, Mac, and Chief to electroconvulsive therapy. The Chief reveals to McMurphy his deaf-muteness is merely a defense mechanism, and eventually tells Mac that people worked on his dad, “like they’re working on you.” Mac feigns brain damage upon his return from the shock shop, but joshes around with his chums, “nice shirt, Chesaroo!” Chief and Mac prepare to escape, but plan one last Christmas party after the night shift begins and they need only bribe the night guard, Turkle, played with Old Southern energy by Scatman Crothers. After a night of drinking and music with two of Mac’s female friends, Mac and Chief say goodbye while laboring to bring Billy with them, but Billy would rather stay and have a “date” with Candy now. McMurphy endorses the detour, and falls into dreamland. In the morning, Ratched sees the mess, including Billy in bed with Candy, and she dresses up then dresses down Billy in front of the boys. Billy finally stops stammering and stands up to her only to have her bring up Billy’s mother, bringing back his stutter as he is dragged to a room to wait for Mom. Within minutes, the ward learns that Billy broke a glass and killed himself, and McMurphy attacks Ratched, strangling her. On another day, Harding deals cards as Ratched runs the room behind restored glass and a reinforced neck brace. That night, Chief Bromden finds Mac returned to his bed, tells him he’d never leave without him, says he now “feels as big as a house” and…realizes Mac has been lobotomized. For the second straight AFI 100 film, a Chief Bro delivers the final death blow as this Chief Bro smothers his friend’s life with a pillow and takes a long loping walk to that sink/table feature and barely lifts it. While water sprays everywhere, the Chief throws the sink through the gated window and escapes into the dawn as the bone-saw plays.

I absolutely acknowledge the feminist critique that Nurse Ratched is the only significant female character (the others being little more than sex playthings) and Ratched represents the purely evil system, or medical establishment, or as Kesey’s novel calls it, The Combine. I respect people who cannot see past this; I understand why all the A-list actresses turned down the film. For me, two things reduce the problem, the first being Louise Fletcher’s extraordinary performance, entirely empathetic on its own terms. The second is the degree of difficulty of the rest of Kesey’s story, which is both a radical assertion of individual rights and a paean to the power of community. Such careful balancing acts are rare, but when they happen they need a clear villain, and the villain is clearer if in an outgroup, a fact obviated here with our awareness that mental patients are society’s outgroup and Ratched is accepted by society. Sure, there are plenty of Jesus-esque tragedies, but this one achieves rare transference, killing Mac to rebirth Chief, the least white people can do considering our five century-history with this continent’s indigenous. We often hear that art becomes more universal as it becomes more specific, but this truism is taken to an extreme in Cuckoo’s Nest, which is an exact drill-down on an exact time and place and situation with substantial symbolism regarding society and singularity.

The title comes from an old nursery rhyme, and the west-east flying may signify a world in stasis, not knowing where it’s going. McMurphy calls himself a Bull Goose Looney, that’s two birds, and he is probably the one flying over the nest, which is probably the hospital, to pluck out the egg of Chief Bromden and bring him into the world.

As Michael Douglas proudly proclaimed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a true independent, without any studio backing or a committed distributor until United Artists came along late in post-production. Released late in 1975, Cuckoo’s Nest became the second-highest-grossing film released in 1975, and earned more money during the calendar year of 1976 than any other film. Perhaps comparable to something like American SniperCuckoo’s Nest became the rare original non-genre drama that everyone had to see. Douglas and Zaentz knew they had a strong film; they had no idea they’d be set for life. Cuckoo’s Nest famously “swept” the Oscars, becoming the second of three films to win script, director, Actor, Actress, and Best Picture. (All three are in the AFI 100.) 

Influenced by: Beat poets and other American alienations, including the indigenous kind

Influenced: humanist cinema


A79. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”

The UCLA film studies grad, film noir historian, and screenwriter Paul Schrader is happy to tell you his influences: Arthur Bremer’s assassination memoirs, Sartre’s “Nausea,” Ford’s The Searchers, but mostly chronic insomnia that drove him to porn stores, porn theaters, and the hospital with an ulcer in 1972, whereupon he realized one, that he hadn’t spoken to anyone in three weeks and two, that he felt like a taxi driver, floating around the city in a coffin. After that hospital visit, Schrader wrote Taxi Driver over the next two weeks, and as Marc Norman wrote in his book “What Happens Next,” “There’d never been a screenplay like it before – nobody else could have written it, nobody would have tried.” It was about Travis Bickle trying to become, as he says, “a person like other people,” who turns himself into the scourge of scumbags from politicians to pimps. Schrader somehow got the script to Brian DePalma, who loved it enough to read it aloud to the beach crowd Biskind described, but Brian didn’t think he could direct it himself. By 1972 DePalma had also known DeNiro for almost ten years, and he was happy to introduce Schrader’s script along with the future Travis Bickle to a beachgoer whom he thought could direct Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese had cast Jodie Foster in a small role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but now he came to her mother with a promise of second-billing if 12-year-old Foster would play, uh, a prostitute. This would be her sixth film, and as with the first five, Foster’s mom would be on set the entire time, but for Taxi Driver Foster was also subject to UCLA psychological testing and meticulous explanations of all the special blood and guts effects used in a climactic shootout scene. Laws forbade her from even simulating certain sexual positions, and so the production hired Foster’s older, non-minor sister as her body double. In later interviews, Foster said that neither Scorsese nor DeNiro coached her much, though the latter took her to cafes where he would say nothing until they rehearsed their lines. If Foster felt odd around DeNiro, she wasn’t alone: the actor lost about 35 pounds while remaining in character on and off camera, helping to perpetuate certain preconceptions about “Method acting.” As Travis Bickle, he improvised much of his monologue to his mirror, including “You talkin’ to me?” The script was talkin’ to Marty from the get-go, wanting to make it since the day he read it in 1972, and one reason that Schrader got lucky was that Scorsese didn’t just want an edgy raw realistic New York as in Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, or Marty’s own Mean Streets. Marty had something in mind more impressionistic, more rooted in some of Hollywood’s stranger pre-1960s films, almost noir but not. The film was made during a sanitation strike and heatwave summer of 1975, which helped dramatize the dilapidation of the West Side tenements, although with all that we tend to remember the rainy, gauzy, hallucinatory, post-modern smudges of steam and reflected rain and taillights so well captured by Marty and DP Michael Chapman. When Travis tells Palpatine the city “is like an open sewer, full of filth and scum,” we’ve already felt and almost smelt that. Yet offsets come from Scorsese’s scorer, who also scored Citizen Kane, Psycho, and many others, Bernard Herrmann, who died on Christmas Eve 1975, just after composing for Marty a certain saxophone lilt that gives Travis Bickle an almost troubadour quality. The contrast of scummy sewage with weary warrior works well with a third act quite unlike any in Hollywood history, with a headshorn Travis unable to decide between disrupting politics or prostitution. Travis eventually ascends into a Jodie Foster-approved wretched hive of scum and villainy, effectively edited by Marcia Lucas, who would win an Oscar two years after the release of Taxi Driver for editing her husband’s film featuring a rather different wretched hive of scum and villainy, to be discussed next podcast.

Just as Jaws began with a primordial emergence, Taxi Driver begins with a cab coming out of expressionist steam to unveil the title card. Travis Bickle’s interview with a taxi company reveals that he’s 26 and an honorably discharged Marine and Vietnam veteran. Travis voice-overs to us that he can’t sleep and picks up any and all fares all night and day. Through a first-floor office’s wide windows, Travis sees a winsome woman working for a Presidential campaign, becomes obsessed, boldly introduces himself, and takes her on a coffee and pie date. Betsy agrees to see a movie with him, but when it turns out to the only kind Travis seems to know, a porno, Betsy walks out with disgust. Travis calls, apologizes, calls again, fails to reach her, returns to the campaign office, confronts her, is asked to leave, and on his way out tells her she’s going to hell. He voice-overs that she’s like the others, especially women, “they’re like a union.” Travis gets a fare (played by Scorsese) who tells him about the woman he’s planning to kill, and Travis tells a fellow cabbie, Wizard, that he is having violent fantasies. Wizard tells him to relax, and Travis’s version of taking this advice is undergoing a rigorous training regiment, buying four guns off the black market, and practicing shooting them. He calls himself “a man who would not take it anymore, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit.” Travis accidentally kicks over his TV and it falls apart, the music implying this is no happy accident. We feel we are watching the other side of Nashville, or the vicissitudes of various violent psychopaths before they find a way to appear in headlines. Travis runs into a child prostitute a few times, solicits her, meets her mocking, amoral pimp Sport, takes her to a flophouse room, and reminds her that she once got into her cab looking for an escape, but she dismisses that and refuses to escape with him. Iris does agree to meet Travis the next day at a café, where he says he has to do something with the government and offers her money to return to her parents. As Travis leaves Iris an envelope of cash, he voice-overs that he now sees his life only ever had one destiny, a declaration that the rest of the day will deeply disprove. Betsy’s employer, Senator Palantine, gives a big rally in which he says it is time to let the people rule. Travis, now appearing with his head shaved into a Mohawk, almost assassinates Palantine, but the Secret Service chases him off. On the run, Travis finds Sport and shoots him in the stomach, saying “Suck on this.” Travis enters the flophouse and gets into a shootout with the building manager, Sport, and Iris’s current client. Travis kills them all, one against Iris’s expressed wishes, and tries to kill himself, but his gun has run out of bullets. Cops arrive to find three bloody corpses, Iris crying, and Travis sitting, barely breathing, covered in blood, pointing a tomato-red finger at his own head going “pwoo.” The music on the long slow shot out of the messy flophouse feels particularly Hitchcockian. The next shot pans over a wall of press articles celebrating Travis as we hear a grateful voice-over’ed letter from Iris’s father. In the final scene, Travis drives a cab again, picks up Betsy, chats when she brings up his recent fame, drops her off, and instead of charging her gives her a little smile. Driving, he sees something suspicious in his rear-view mirror.

In some circles, this ending is controversial: did Travis really finish his anti-heroic arc with a successfully heroic shoot-em-up that persuaded his lady-love, Betsy, to give him another chance? Scorsese points fans to Bickle’s final moment of anger and suggests that the whole movie might be ready to begin again. Others think the entire movie might be Travis’s fever dream, as evidenced by the impressionistic rainy windshields and the fact that we almost never have a scene without Travis, but when we do, a blond female is hearing from a man that Travis would presumably be jealous of. 

The exact meaning of the film is controversial, but what’s less controversial is that it was more or less unmakeable in most decades of film history, making it a sort of gutshot from the 1970s as well as a postcard of the week during Taxi Driver’s post-production when President Ford denied a bankrupt New York a federal bailout, prompting the memorable Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” That said, the words “New York” are not spoken and do not appear in Taxi Driver, which is almost funny when you consider all the times Travis complains about “this city,” and when the Secret Service agent asks Travis for his address, he says “Fairlawn, New Jersey,” and when Travis asks Betsy where she’s from, she says “upstate.”

I also feel all the references to punks and trash are some kind of response to vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish where the lines between hero and zero are obvious; in some ways Taxi Driver is almost like blaxploitation for white people, in that its lead inveighs against the self-harmers and scumbags but we understand him to be one of them. Put Travis’s haircut (which apparently came from Vietnam special forces) along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s ripped fishnets, and a certain sort of filthy-maggot subculture finally got seen by February 1976, when Taxi Driver hit the streets while the Ramones were recording their debut album, Ramones. 

Influenced by: stories of true disenfranchisement, “lone wolf” killers

Influenced: mainstreamed the Mohawk; served as a warning for New York depravity that the city would only gradually combat


A80. Network (Lumet, 1976) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

The first real on-screen suicide happened on July 15, 1974, when depressed TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck shot and killed herself on air in Sarasota, Florida. Writer Paddy Chayefsky used this incident from development to production to promotion, but in the book “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” Dave Itzhoff claims Paddy had already begun writing Network before Chubbuck died, making the tragedy merely a cheery coincidence or eerie parallel. Everyone agrees that Howard Beale wasn’t based on anyone in particular, unless we’re counting Chayefsky’s desire to bring a 1950s A-lister into the fecund ferment of the far-out 70s, but Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, and James Stewart all turned it down. The Beale role was also rejected by Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Glenn Ford, and William Holden, who preferred and received the Max Schumacher role. Lumet and Chayefsky were skeptical that Peter Finch could pull off an American accent and insisted on a screen test; Finch listened to hours of American broadcasts for weeks, flew to New York on his own dime, and blew them away. Finch gives an iconic, electric performance as Beale, and despite DeNiro’s dazzling Travis, Beale well earned that year’s Best Actor Oscar, even if it was the first one awarded posthumously because Finch worked himself so hard that the production may have killed him. 

Network proves that 1970s’ artistic Hollywood had more going on than just Biskind’s beach of Brats – and this is also today’s first film not to feature a watery finale. The Hollywood Renaissance wasn’t only by and for kids, and included anyone whose films felt like they fought the power. Thus we can include old hands like Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, the former having come to the latter because Paddy knew Sidney would never keep him off set. Well, there was also their twenty-year friendship, forged while Lumet was directing some of the most vital, bitingly topical New York-based films, including 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, and in 1975, the don’t-change-a-frame stone-cold masterpiece Dog Day Afternoon. Despite this resume, studios had issues: no TV network would ever want to broadcast the film, killing that revenue stream, and Chayefsky’s script was all long speeches, like the script for his last film, The Hospital, which bombed at the box office. UA and MGM were both iffy, and so Lumet encouraged them to share the risk with a joint production, a strategy pioneered by a co-production of 1974, The Towering Inferno, a film that provided Network with the two A-listers it needed, those being Holden and Faye Dunaway. Lumet warned Dunaway he would edit out any effort to make her character empathetic, insisting on Diana’s warrior-like invulnerability. Lumet did not direct this direction to the other three leads, Holden, Finch, or Robert Duvall, whom Lumet described as surprisingly funny; for his part, Duvall saw his role of executive Frank Hackett as a twisted President Ford, making it fitting that the cinematic Ford administration ends here.

Max Schumacher, (fictional) UBS news division president, gives his longtime anchor Howard Beale two weeks notice because of bad ratings, and they get drunk and reminisce about TV’s good old days. After Howard announces on air that he’s going to commit suicide on Tuesday, UBS summarily fires him, but Max negotiates one more appearance for a dignified farewell. Howard promises Max he’ll apologize, but the next night on air he raves that life is “bullshit.” Rantings mean ratings, and despite Max’s revulsion, UBS wants to ride them out. The young head of network programming, Diana Christensen, has ideas on how to keep Howard relevant, and approaches Max with professional and personal offers; Max refuses the promotional deal but accepts the priapic one. Diana negotiates with some Black Panthers, calling themselves the Ecumenical Liberation Army (in an obvious nod to Patty Hearst), to produce a new docudrama series called (yes) The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Max tells Howard to stop the rants and go back to news, upon which Diana convinces her boss, Frank Hackett, to move UBS executives to move Howard to entertainment. UBS says yes and also moves Max – to the street. That night at the news desk, Beale begins with “I know things are bad” and talks about the Depression, the Russians, ruined ecology, and the same kind of “punks are running wild in the street” idea that animated much of Taxi Driver. Beale questions any kind of direct political efficacy such as writing to a congressperson, instead ending by successfully exhorting his viewers to go to their windows and shout out “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” With Diana now in charge, the new “The Howard Beale Show” stars quote “the mad prophet of the airwaves” unquote in front of a churchy stained-glass window, and begins with Beale’s studio audience dutifully chanting “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.” Howard Beale delivers his usual populist jeremiads until learning that a Saudi Arabian conglomerate is about to buy UBS, whereupon he shifts to racist protectionism as he implores his audience to call the White House to stop the deal. He also says, “Television is a goddamn amusement park, television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story-tellers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom killing business.” Frank takes Howard to a dimly lit conference room where upper executive Arthur Jensen delivers a devastating diatribe, saying “you have meddled with the primal forces of nature,” because international, borderless economic capitalism is the best hope for a world without war or want. Diana and Max’s passion had risen with her ratings, but now, as he leaves her, he tells her, “You are television incarnate, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.” Max begs his wife to take him back, and when she says he’ll just go back to Diana, Max says of Diana, “she learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows comes through the television set.” Jensen successfully persuades Beale to shift focus to the more general dehumanization of society, but as his ratings fall, Jensen won’t let UBS fire Beale, and so Diana and Frank clandestinely arrange for the ELA to assassinate Beale on the air. As the plan works, as the camera showing Beale bleed to death splits into the four networks of 1976, the voice-over says, “The story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had low ratings.” 

Aaron Sorkin said “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.” Partly, Sorkin refers to the rise of reality-TV and infotainment and the TV version becoming more important than any other version. You might say Network forecast a world where we would never have major new movies like Network or the other four films mentioned here. But no two-hour film has ever been quite as perspicacious on so many issues as Network, from Black Liberation to Maoism to populism to economics to international relations.

Influenced by: TV, for example work like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”

Influenced: TV, for example work like The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s “TV The Drug of the Nation”


A81. Rocky (Avildsen, 1976) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

Just as the received significance of Jaws includes the film’s unprecedented box office success, the received significance of Rocky includes the revival of myths surrounding its famous tagline “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” This line is understood not only textually, but also in extra-textual accounts of how Sylvester Stallone overcame overwhelming odds to get his opus onscreen. Such accounts trace the lows and highs of 70s cinema, from soft-core porn to The Godfather, the latter having embittered Stallone when he failed to get cast as an extra. The common thread is Stallone slash Rocky’s desperate deprivation; in one colorful anecdote, when Stallone’s first wife, Sasha Czack, asks him what they will eat, he points to the grass outside. More verifiably, Stallone began writing the script for Rocky after seeing the Muhammed Ali-Chuck Wepner fight in March 1975, and shopped it to studios, who expressed interest only if they could cast an A-lister in the lead like Robert Redford or James Caan or Burt Reynolds. Stallone hung on, playing rope-a-dope, until the day United Artists agreed to make the film starring Stallone for a budget of about a million dollars.

In the first three months of 1976, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff stretched that million wider than a boxer’s tendons, changing a crowd-roaring ice-skating scene to a nighttime romantic interlude and hiring several members of Stallone’s family. When Talia Shire auditioned to play Adrian, that was an offer Stallone couldn’t refuse; he finally had his connection to The Godfather. Winkler and Chartoff were wise to spend on B-list director John G. Avildsen, who had made stories about modest losers into winning movies, like Joe, Cry Uncle!, and Save the Tiger, for which Jack Lemmon won an Oscar. Under Avildsen, Stallone’s script evolved from a story in which Coach Mickey was much more racist and a major reason that Rocky wound up walking away from the warped world of professional pugilism. Although Chuck Wepner wound up suing and settling, Stallone’s story was never narrowly based on Wepner’s, instead bearing traces of at least two other Rockys, those being Marciano and Graziano, as well as that of Joe Frazier, who cameod in the film and inspired at least two major motifs – the carcass-punching and the steps-running. Muhammed Ali didn’t mind serving as cipher for Apollo Creed, play-fighting Stallone at the Oscars held in 1977; perhaps the Champ saw that the Creed role intimated both his and the project’s immortality. A year earlier, Stallone wanted to make sure the film came out while Ali was still the world heavyweight champion, ideally by the month of the bicentennial, but Avildsen prioritized getting it right over getting it fast. They had trouble finding a musician after Talia Shire’s brother David left the gig, partly because the budget was $25,000, which was, as Avildsen put it, for everything: the composer fee, the musicians, the studio rental, the tape to record on. They finally found an unknown Italian-American whose life was a million-to-one shot named…Bill Conti. 

Rocky Balboa works as a loan shark collector but spends his off time in small gyms as a journeyman southpaw boxer. World heavyweight champ Apollo Creed announces a boxing match to ring in the bicentennial year, to take place on New Year’s Day, 1976. Rocky asks a gym-mate, Paulie, if he can date his sister Adrian, who works at the J&M Tropical Fish store, and Rocky and Adrian go on a modest date in a deserted ice rink. 76-year-old Mickey Goldmill, who runs a gym, gives Rocky a tip that Creed is looking for a sparring partner, but when Rocky turns up at Creed’s facility he learns that Creed’s marquee opponent has dropped out and, after looking at a few options, Creed wants to give Balboa a chance at the heavyweight title. Balboa does not jump at the chance nor jump through hoops to get Mickey as his coach, but after a lot of back-and-forths, Mickey begins to train Rocky for the championship fight. Mickey and Paulie both try to keep the Italian Stallion (as it says on the back of his hoodie) from dating Adrian, Mickey because quote “women weaken legs,” Paulie because of more generalized jealousy. After Paulie freaks out with a baseball bat on the couple, Rocky agrees to advertise Paulie’s meatpacking business, and Balboa appears on local TV hitting suspended sides of beef, bemusing the reporter. Behind the scenes, Balboa is worried, barely making it through Mickey’s training regiments, barely staggering up the steps of the local art museum. Rocky confides in Adrian that he doubts he can beat Creed, but that if he goes the distance, meaning that if he remains on his feet for the full fifteen rounds, he won’t be just “another bum from the neighborhood.” Adrian has mixed feelings, but after she demonstrates her faith in him with no more than a kiss, Rocky begins to master his training regiment. Perhaps the most influential two-and-a-half minutes of any film of the 1970s begins (music), takes us through Rocky Balboa running through working-class Philadelphia, shows Rocky doing push-ups and punch-ups, and follows Rocky gallantly striding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and summiting and lifting his arms in victory. On New Year’s Day, Apollo Creed enters the arena dressed as George Washington and Uncle Sam. In the first round, Balboa manages to knock down Creed, a first. The fight goes on and on and on. Rocky sustains so many head injuries that his eye needs to be sewn open. Apollo seems to have broken a rib and has trouble breathing. Creed comes close to closing it out, but Balboa keeps on taking punches without going down. After the full fifteen rounds, they collapse in each other’s arms. The sportscasters announce “the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring,” Creed is declared the winner by split decision, and a near-blind Rocky calls out for “Adrian!” Adrian finds Rocky and they declare their mutual love in spite of the fight outcome. 

Previous movies had featured neo-classical music and montages, but never together to such potent narrative effect, and never punctuated with the brand-new technology of inventor Garrett Brown’s Steadicam. Almost by itself, this 2 ½ minutes created the “stand up and cheer” subgenre as United Artists became the first studio to advertise a film as one in which audiences would stand up and cheer. (Did they actually do that? Probably not. Did Hollywood agents pitch a thousand scripts of the late 70s and 80s as “like Rocky, but…” Oh, they probably did.) Generally considered the best or second-best sports film, Rocky’s influence can hardly be overstated; like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz, Rocky is a film for people who don’t really like films, about a working-class palooka that won the girl and went the distance. And Rocky went the distance partly by enacting its million-to-one, rags-to-riches storyline at the box office: made for about a million dollars, it grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. and a similar amount overseas, making it the highest-grossing film released in 1976. During the winter of 1976-to-1977, as America transitioned from President Ford to President Carter, the country caught Rocky fever, and on March 28th, Rocky enacted its unlikely-success story yet again, winning the Best Director Oscar for Avildsen and the Best Picture Oscar over at least three all-time classics, All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver. One can make the case that those three films split the pessimistic voters and left Rocky with all the optimists, but the results on the Oscar stage and at the box office suggested an America that wanted less doom and gloom and more rope-a-dope hope.

Influenced by: writer-star Stallone’s experiences as a million-to-one shot

Influenced: every sports movie, every “stand up and cheer” movie, and many other David-vs.-Goliath movies


A82. Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

While Stallone and Avildsen were filming ring scenes in Rocky, Allen was considering filmmaking without the safety net of constant humor, and to that end he hired the cinematographer of The Godfather films, Gordon Willis. Woody Allen sold United Artists an Ingmar Bergman-esque murder mystery as signified by Annie Hall’s original title, Anhedonia, meaning an inability to experience pleasure. (His Bergman tendencies would wait for his next film, Interiors.) In 1976, Allen’s creative partners helped steer him away from Bergman and toward his other major movie muse, that being Fellini, and the screenplay took on the midlife crisis elements of 8 ½…as well as its, uh, breadth and scope and, let’s face it, length of 140 minutes. When editor Ralph Rosenblum finished the initial assembly cut at that length, co-writer Marshall Brickman saw a film “going in nine different directions,” like a novel from which two or three films might be made…and Brickman pegged the parts that would take precedence. Considering the film’s eventual hallowed stature amongst romantic comedies, you may be surprised to hear Allen say, “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship.’ I mean the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.” From this concept came a cutting-edge 93-minute comedy with the more considerate title Annie Hall that Allen both constructed around Keaton’s personality and claimed to be non-autobiographical. Sure, comedian Alvy Singer may not exactly be Woody Allen, but it’s hard to believe he dissembled all of that despair, dire disillusionment, drollery, deadpannery, or deep devotion to Diane Keaton, whose given surname was Hall and given nickname was Annie.

Annie Hall begins with Alvy Singer looking at the camera and telling us two old jokes: first, a person says the food here is terrible and the other responds I know, and such small portions, and second, attributed to Groucho Marx by way of Freud, that he would never want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Alvy tells us he still can’t get over his breakup with Annie and that he keeps sifting through the pieces (a line every editor likes to see in a film’s opener). We see Alvy’s childhood growing up in a house under a rollercoaster, from where he’s inspired to knock around his mother and teachers with his sexual and existential precocity. Adult Alvy refuses to enter a theater because he and Annie have arrived two minutes late to see the 250-minute Holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity; in a very long line for another movie, after Alvy gets exasperated with a pompous professor and pulls him aside to meet the expert he’d just been misquoting, Alvy says to us, “wouldn’t it be great if real life were like this?” Real life seems even better on a Long Island holiday where Alvy and Annie wrestle live lobsters in a kitchen and Alvy marvels that he’s dating someone who actually says “la di da.” In a flashback minute-long walk to camera, Rob insists that Alvy’s name should be Max and that he should move to L.A., prompting Alvy to respond that California’s only cultural advantage is being able to turn right on a red light. Rob brings Alvy into a mixed doubles match, where he meets Annie, offers her a ride uptown, and flirts with her on her balcony as we read their wary thoughts in subtitles. Annie auditions in a club with “It Had to Be You,” and in a wide shot of them walking down the street at night, Alvy says they should, and they do, just get their first kiss out of the way. Sex is good but awkward, as are first declarations of love; Alvy answers that he feels even more than love, blurting out “I lurve you.” A split screen shows the differences between Alvy’s raucous Jewish family and Annie’s refined blueblooded one, although Annie’s clean-cut brother, played by Christopher Walken, confesses his desire to swerve his car into oncoming lights just before giving Alvy and Annie a ride home. After Alvy gives Annie a few books about death, they move in together and tensions arise when Alvy discovers Annie arm in arm with an academic. After Alvy and Annie break up, he badly dates a succession of women, baldly asks strangers about the nature of love, and brazenly imagines Annie as the Evil Queen from Snow White. Annie begs him to come over at 3:00am and tells him to kill a spider, an idea he belittles until he sees the bug is “the size of a Buick.” He berates her latest tastes and they reconcile, but their separate talks with therapists tell us that their coupledom can’t continue. Alvy flies to L.A., where he drives Rob crazy with his criticisms of sound sweetening for TV shows, drives Annie away with his neuroses, and drives his rental into a few cars, leading to him ripping up his license in front of a cop because he has “a terrific problem with authority.” Back in New York, Annie dates her record producer, played by Paul Simon, prompting Alvy to propose marriage, which she rejects, leading to his stage version of their relationship, where she accepts. As Annie soulfully sings “Seems Like Old Times” in the background, Alvy tells us he ran into Annie one more time, and in the café shots the actors are separated by a wall support beam. We flash back through the movie’s highlights as Alvy tells us what a terrific person she is and also one last joke: we don’t stop my brother thinking he’s a chicken because we need the eggs, and Singer figures most of us do a lot of crazy things love-wise and otherwise because we need the eggs. 

As their romancing Corleones suggests, Alvy Singer and Rocky Balboa can be seen as two sides of a similar coin, the romantic ethnic misunderstood misfit who, along with Jimmy Carter, still hoped for certain longstanding values to be true. In the 80s, Stallone would come to signify testosterone while Allen signified estrogen. Like Alvy Singer, the film Annie Hall may suffer, but not from under-analysis; see the site for links to some great insights. Annie Hall arrives on the chronological AFI 100 as an anomaly, especially if one believes his broadsides belong alongside those of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks. But Allen was always a little darker and more experimental than his peers (for example, Annie Hall played with linearity decades before Pulp Fiction), and in retrospect the anomaly may be that the AFI 100 only included one of Allen’s films. Allen’s assiduous American appropriation of European masters, and that “terrific problem with authority,” marks him as a member of the Hollywood Renaissance, making Annie Hall all the more significant as part of a pivot away from homosociality, crime, and male anger. But the specific success of Diane Keaton-slash-Annie Hall at the box office, in fashion magazines, and at the Oscars, where Keaton won Best Actress while the film won Best Picture, helped to encourage a post-Hollywood Renaissance mini-movement that doesn’t show up in the AFI 100 or in standard film histories written by men. This was the subgenre of female-friendly dramedies that consisted of soft lenses, softer jazz scores, and conspicuously concupiscent conversation, films like Starting Over, Same Time, Next Year, Seems Like Old Times, and the final two Best Picture winners of the Carter administration, Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People.

Influenced by: New York in the 70s, Allen’s history from Sid Caesar to published plays

Influenced: short-term, many films of the late 70s became more female-centered, more Keaton-worthy; long-term, Allen became a film artist’s film artist, consistently and independently exploring forms and themes that most others don’t 


A83. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”

George Lucas felt that THX 1138 was a little too moody and broody, and wanted to remake the Flash Gordon serials of his youth, but when he couldn’t secure the rights, he invented his own universe instead. As Marc Norman put it, Lucas was “composing the entire history of a fictitious society, a complete Old and New Testament…and when had any Hollywood screenwriter tried that?” This is why every reader and studio had problems with Lucas’ outer-space opera until it arrived at Fox, which had ditched both Zanucks to install the son of Alan Ladd as the new head of production. One almost imagines the kid from Shane growing up and reading Lucas’ treatment and telling him – and this quote is true – “I don’t understand this movie but I trust you and I think you’re a talented guy. I’m investing in you. I’m not investing in this script.” A few months later, after American Graffiti became a megahit, Lucas’s agent wanted a renegotiation for more money, but Lucas instead wanted all the rights to the sequels (no more Coppola commandeering), the soundtrack, and any merchandising. Lucas planned to design a film so unique-looking that even if it only broke even, the toys and shirts would look cool enough to earn him a few bucks. Ladd and Fox were doubtful and happy to update their deal on what was then a 13-page treatment called The Star Wars.

Whatever I next say will be too much for some and not enough for the crankiest of others, including people that don’t really like most movies, people for whom the other 99 films on the AFI 100 are a mere afterthought. One key influence was Akira Kurosawa, particularly for his wipes between scenes, his film The Hidden Fortress, and the word “jedi” from jidai-geki, the Japanese term for historical films that Lucas probably learned at USC. Lucas drew liberally from Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Triumph of the Will, and The Dam Busters, a 1955 film of World War II air battles. Producer Gary Kurtz is somewhat underappreciated in Star Wars lore; Kurtz had served years in Vietnam, worked cheap under Roger Corman, persuaded Fox that they could film it like Corman, and introduced Lucas to some of the texts from his comparative religion college courses. From there flowed the Force, full of Buddhist formulations yet vague enough not to offend anyone. Joseph Campbell and his Hero of a Thousand Faces also found its way into Lucas’s process, but as the developing script’s characters came and went and changed relations, the special effects never changed much, draft to draft to draft featuring the same starships, land speeders, and light sabers. For Lucas, spectacle was substance and the way to get audiences to care about his disguised Vietnam metaphor. Designer Ralph McQuarrie was a key hire, and one of his key texts was Metropolis, its central robot Maria inspiring C3PO. Qua Metropolis, most sci-fi films had featured sleek, slick, curved-metallic designs, but Lucas importuned McQuarrie and others to develop an intentionally shopworn, “used future” aesthetic, and despite or because of this the special-effects would need to be absolutely state-of-the-art, including the first cameras to move and match other cameras’ movements via computer calculations. Because Fox had disbanded its special effects department, Lucas founded his own during pre-production and called it Industrial Light and Magic.

The casting of the future legends of Star Wars has, itself, become legendary. Star Wars is marked as a film with one foot in the Hollywood Renaissance because of the same unknown or ordinary-looking actors that characterized the lead casts of American Graffiti and Jaws. He cast Carrie Fisher as Leia for her strength, and Mark Hamill as Luke for his farmboy innocence that fit into sci-fi lead traditions. The list of people who were considered for Han Solo reads as almost every 30-ish white male star of the period, but Lucas finally decided on Ford for the same reason he cast James Earl Jones as Vader’s voice and not Orson Welles: he didn’t want any previous associations…except when it came to a couple of supporting actors. Peter Cushing, one of five actor’s names on the original poster, brought associations with old sci-fi B-movies, and Alec Guinness brought associations with David Lean. As Obi-Wan, Lucas had hoped to cast Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s samurai nonpareil, but Mifune was as skeptical of the B-film-ish project as Guinness was. Ultimately Guinness signed for percentage points and the opportunity for the wryness that Lean wouldn’t let him bring to Nicholson two decades before, and besides, Guinness wouldn’t have to travel much, because Fox put interior photography in Britain because of taxes and Pinewood Studios’ cavernous sound stages. Exteriors were another story: Lucas had written Tatooine as a jungle planet, closer to the Viet Cong metaphor, but when Gary Kurtz scouted the Philippines he decided it would make George too itchy. Cued by a few script allusions to spices, Kurtz thought of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and made Tatooine into a Tunisian desert, knowing it would look otherworldly to Western viewers. Had Kurtz chosen the Philippine rainforest, Coppola and Lucas might have made Apocalypse Now and Star Wars side-by-side; the former began principal photography on March 20, 1976, the latter two days later. Coppola’s project gets a longer look next podcast, but for now astute listeners will have already done the math that it took 14 months to shoot, or what you might call a long time in a jungle far, far away. 

 “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” is the title card that gives way to the film name Star Wars, John Williams’ magisterial music, and scrolling titles which describe the civil war of rebels versus a Galactic Empire building a Death Star powerful enough to destroy a planet. Panning down from space, we see part of such a planet as a starship crosses our point of view pursued by a much, much bigger starship that overwhelms our vision. The Empire’s white-armor-clad stormtroopers invade the small ship, successfully shooting laser blasters at rebel soldiers. Princess Leia records a little message and hides it and the schematics for the Death Star in a trash-can-sized, wheel-enabled droid named R2D2. Empire eminence Darth Vader boards the enervated vessel and takes Leia prisoner. Along with gold-plated humanoid droid C3PO, R2D2 escapes the ship in a planet-bound pod, observed by a stupid Stormtrooper who says “no life forms aboard.” R2D2 and C3PO walk through Tatooine’s desert for a while and are captured by Jawa traders who sell them to a couple of farmers and their nephew Luke Skywalker. As Luke cleans R2D2, he sees part of Leia’s holographic message which mentions Obi-Wan Kenobi. The next day, Luke searches for a missing R2D2 and finds Obi-Wan Kenobi, a hermit who tells Luke that his father was a Jedi Knight, master of the all-powerful Force, and mentor to Vader before Vader killed him. After they find R2D2, Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsaber and listens to Leia’s complete message calling him to Alderaan, concluding, “Help me Obi-wan, you’re my only hope.” Obi-Wan invites Luke to come with, but Luke declares his loyalty to his aunt and uncle…whom they soon discover murdered by Stormtroopers. Looking handsomely into a double sunset, Luke leaves his old life and joins Obi-Wan and the two droids as they set off for port city Mos Eisley and its colorful cantina. Obi-Wan hires smarmy smuggler Han Solo and his seven-foot hirsute simian sidekick Chewbacca to take them to Alderaan on Solo’s Millennium Falcon. On the way, Obi-Wan mentors Luke on the Force while Han maligns such magic. On the Death Star, Vader demonstrates his mastery of the Force by telekinetically choking a skeptical underling while telling him “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Not relying on faith, Grand Moff Tarkin shows Princess Leia the Death Star’s super-laser destroying her home planet of Alderaan. Coming through warp drive, The Millennium Falcon arrives in an assortment of asteroids that used to be Alderaan, and perceive themselves pulled by a tractor beam from a moon, until Obi-Wan says “that’s no moon.” They cannot disable the Death Star’s laser but reason that they can defeat the boarding Stormtroopers, dress up as them with Chewbacca as apparent prisoner, and rescue Princess Leia while one of them, Obi-Wan, disables the tractor beam while they escape to notify the rebel army. Despite Han’s avarice, this plan works until Luke removes his helmet to Leia and says “My name is Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you,” after which the stormtroopers press their blasting advantage. Leia rescues Luke and Han and Chewie, sort of, by rerouting them through a trash compactor, which almost compacts the foursome before R2D2 barely breaks it, but Obi-Wan sees that they’ll need him one last time, and challenges Darth Vader to a duel. As they trade knowing barbs, Darth seems to be winning, and just before Darth’s death blow Obi-Wan says “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Darth does just that as Luke, seeing it, says “noooo.” Luke boards the Falcon with his allies just in time to see the Empire’s Tie Fighters coming right after them, and shotgunning with Han, Luke uses the Force to effectively shoot the hostiles right out of the sky. They warp to the rebel base, where Leia’s stolen plans reveal a weak spot on the Death Star that, if struck, might lead to a destructive chain reaction. Despite Leia’s blandishments, Han Solo gets his payment and excuses himself from this suicide raid, stopping only to wish Luke, “May the Force Be With You.” As the rebel squadron attacks the Death Star, it suffers heavy losses, and Darth Vader, piloting a Tie Fighter, closes in on Luke…until Han surprise-arrives and blasts Darth into space. Luke turns off his targeting computer, seems to channel Obi-Wan’s spirit, and uses the Force to guide his torpedoes into the weak spot. The Death Star explodes, and in a celebratory ceremony back at base, Leia awards Luke, Han, and Chewbacca rebel medals.

Like JawsStar Wars was planned as a Christmas release; like JawsStar Wars’ director negotiated reshoots, more time for editing, and a release punted to the next summer. After Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg recommended his Oscar-winning composer for Jaws, Lucas hired John Williams and told him to base his leitmotifs on some of Lucas’s favorite songs from older films, but Williams told him that an original soundtrack would be more unique and unified; later, the American Film Institute would rank the soundtrack as the best one ever written. The editing is its own legend, with three editors working on the same footage, all to different ends, all to eventual Oscars for their work, including George’s wife Marcia Lucas, who was also editing New York, New York for Lucas’ friend Marty Scorsese. I’ll leave it to the enthusiasts to tell you how and why certain effects were achieved, from Chewbacca’s growl to the lightsaber’s hum to Vader’s breathing to the blaster beams. Much of this, including Williams’ music, was not complete by the time of the February 1977 screening for Fox executives and a few friends from the beach, most of whom were unimpressed, except Steven Spielberg, who called Ladd and predicted that the film would earn a fortune – maybe as much as $35 million.

Spielberg was way off. Star Wars, became a phenomenon, without precedent, changing the world. Jaws washistory’s highest-grossing film; Star Wars doubled its earnings. I would interpret the film for you, but I defer to David Cook who wrote, “There is no room for interpretation or speculation in Star Wars: everyone who sees it has more or less the same experience.” And it was one they lined up for again and again. The licensed products made more money than any movie merch since Mickey Mouse. Every single film historian has described the effects of this, but I still favor Marc Norman’s metaphor: “it was as if the studio heads had been gambling nightly at a casino for decades, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and then one of them found a secret door to an upstairs room where fortunes undreamt of were possible, where the stakes were enormously higher and the risk almost unbearable.” The success of Star Wars has also become associated with style over substance, myths over miasma, post-modern pastiche over Aristotelian narrative, 

Influenced by: Metropolis (1926), The Triumph of the Will (1934), WW2 air-battle films, Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, 2001 (1968), etc etc

Influenced: a galaxy not so far, far away


A84. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki

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“I don’t think we could have asked for a more beautiful evening, do you? Okay, watch the skies please.”

Spielberg’s rosy forecast for Star Wars may have signified a scintilla of self-interest, considering that he was then in post-production on his own optimistic science-fiction alien-allied adventure that had been filming over summer 1976. In terms of sci-fi, Spielberg was following Lucas only on the calendar; he had long sought to remake his 1964 film Firelight with a larger budget. George may have indirectly assisted his friend Steven by signing with Fox to make The Star Wars in mid-1973; later that year, while Spielberg was in post on his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, he convinced Columbia Pictures and the producers of the soon-to-be-released The Sting, Julia and Michael Phillips, to sign on to a movie he was now calling Watch the Skies, from the ending of 1951’s The Thing from Another World. Having read Paul Schrader’s terrific script for Taxi Driver, Spielberg contacted him and asked him to write this story of UFO chasers, but they had a lot of creative differences – Spielberg claims Schrader’s central character was a cop and his film played like a Bond movie. Spielberg chose to delay Watch the Skies to take Universal’s sure money to make Jaws, freeing Schrader and the Phillipses to focus on Taxi Driver. Schrader disavowed the child-friendly version of Close Encounters that hit theaters, later grousing that Star Wars “ate the heart and soul of Hollywood.” 

This undermines Spielberg’s agency, because after the success of Jaws, Spielberg could make his long-planned UFO film just the way he wanted to, starting with a budget of $19 million, far more than any previous sci-fi film and more than double Star Wars’ planned budget. From Star Wars, Spielberg hired its lead designer Ralph McQuarrie and artist Dennis Muren not to duplicate Lucas “used future” aesthetic but to make a fantastically intricate mothership; as a joke, Muren placed a mini-R2D2 on the mothership’s underside. The ship’s appearance was also influenced by an oil refinery that Spielberg saw during location scouting in India, and the fact that production flew to India for a two-minute scene gives you a sense of the scope and the scrilla. Star Wars was filmed in England because it had the world’s largest sound stages, but even those weren’t big enough for this film’s denouement, so the Phillipses rented two abandoned airship hangars in Alabama, and wound up casting 50 local six-year-old girls in costumes as the aliens, because, as Steven put it, “girls move more gracefully than boys.” Speaking of kids, Spielberg said he wrote and storyboarded in his mind to Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and rehired John Williams to give him as many similar five-tone motifs as he could. Williams delivered more than 300, and Spielberg chose (Re Mi Do DOH So) as his film’s musical bridge between humans and aliens. Spielberg and the Phillipses hired real UFO experts as well as the cinematographer from Deliverance and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Vilmos Zsigmond, and the visual effects supervisor from 2001, Douglas Trumbull, who joked that the film’s $3.3 million effects budget might have paid for another film. Yet this film justified its top-of-the-line work, a fact that influenced kinds of films that didn’t get close to Encounters. Just before camera began rolling, Spielberg changed the title from Watch the Skies to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in a nod to UFO enthusiasts who named the first kind as a sighting of a ship, the second kind as discovery of physical evidence of aliens, and the third kind as a sighting of the visible occupants of a UFO. Spielberg might have named used “fifth kind,” which means direct chatting between aliens and humans, but he may have known that Westerners associate trinity with divinity. 

Lucas had cast Alec Guinness hoping to transmit David Lean’s essence; Spielberg, casting a similarly authoritative supporting role, sought a friskier essence, casting French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut as UFO scientist Claude Lacombe in his only role in an Anglophone film. Spielberg had hoped Roy Neary would be played by an A-lister like Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, or Jack Nicholson, but when they all said no, Spielberg succumbed to Dreyfuss’s yearlong campaign for the role. As Hooper in Jaws, Spielberg saw Dreyfuss as his alter ego; as Roy Neary, Dreyfuss would serve as a role model for 1980s audiences by playing the first man to succumb completely to interplanetary wonder on Spielberg’s terms. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins in a desert windstorm with cartographer David Laughlin translating English to French to scientist Claude Lacombe as they find empty airplanes perfectly preserved from 1945, and a local witness claims, in Spanish, that the sun came out and sang to him. (It matters that the film’s first trinity is making a bridge for three languages.) Air traffic controllers prevent a mid-air collision with an unidentified flying object. In Muncie, Indiana, 3-year-old Barry Guiler wakes to find his toys operating on their own, including a wind-up ceramic Pinocchio that plays the notes of “When you wish upon a star,” and Barry runs outside the house, leaving his mother Jillian to pursue him through the woods. In another house, kids prepare to watch The Ten Commandments, mom Ronnie Neary says the film is four hours long, and Roy Neary, in his first line, says “I told them they could watch five commandments.” That night, Neary goes to his job as an electrical lineman and they send him to investigate a series of outages, where he sees a row of mailboxes shaking in a rather vigorous nod to message-sending. Sky-projected spotlights and floating objects lead Neary to follow the unearthly signals, and he almost hits Barry just before his mother grabs him. The three of them join loitering locals who apparently know what’s coming, and three bus-sized spaceships fly just above the road, fruitlessly pursued by (three) police cars. Like fireflies, the spaceships’ bodies are obscured by their warm glowing lights, which give the side of Neary’s face a sunburn that makes him resemble Ziggy Stardust. Neary, ahem, alienates his family with his new obsession with UFOs and models of an imagined mountain that Neary can’t stop making. Jillian makes molehills into the same mountain, and soon, aliens visit her house, throw its every appliance into a dangerous haywire, and kidnap Barry. In India, scientists record chanting Punjabis doing (d e c C G) and when one asks where they heard this song, all the chanters point straight up. Claude Lacombe presents the chants to scientists, reproduces them as synthesizer notes, broadcasts them back into space, and receives back an odd series of numbers that Laughlin finally recognizes as longitude and latitude. The Army evacuates the area around Devils Tower, Wyoming, planting false reports about an accidental toxic nerve-gas spill, even as a division meets with Munsonians including Roy Neary to tell them that they have not been seeing military tests and they have no idea where Barry is. While Roy’s TV shows Daffy Duck in a close encounter of the hostile kind, blowing up a planet to save it in Duck Dodgers in the 24th and ½ Century, Roy has an epiphany about the flat-top of his imagined mountain. Roy gathers raw materials from all around his neighborhood, throwing dirt and bricks and fence wire into his kitchen to build an outhouse-sized mountain, causing Ronnie to escape with their kids. Finally Roy and Jillian see the real Devil’s Tower on a news broadcast, and drive from Indiana to Wyoming despite dire warnings that seem confirmed when they drive by dead livestock. Neary comes to conclude the cows were killed as a coverup, even and especially as Lacombe and Laughlin interrogate him about his reasons for coming and he counter-interrogates them about their reasons for…everything. Face-mask-wearing soldiers arrest Roy and Jillian along with other pilgrims, put masks on them and try to helicopter them all out of the area, but Roy, Jillian, and a man named Larry de-mask and make a break for the mountain, pursued all afternoon and evening by infantry and copters who don’t shoot. The gas story was invented, but the infantry make fiction into fact as they successfully gas Larry and some birds to sleep. As night falls, Roy and Jillian arrive at the site to see a massive army-supported scientific operation attempting to communicate with aliens by use of computer-operated lights and sounds. The scientists, led by Lacombe, apparently draw in the three ships Neary saw on that long-ago road, and a successful trading of the (d e c C G) leads to these ships leaving and bringing back a few dozen of their friends, and then…the mothership, which is at least double the size of Devil’s Tower. Aliens land the ship and release dozens of long-missing persons, including Barry who runs into his mother’s arms. The visitors make friendly contact with the scientists, select Roy Neary to enter the mothership, and ascend into space.

Some critics compared the mothership/Devil’s Tower combo to the shark from Jaws, and called Spielberg the master of the 90-minute tease, but as a film, Close Encounters is riskier and stranger, a sort of a desperate chase to the enlightened unknown, and if it had failed at the box office, Spielberg might have lost his young-raja reputation and his right to final cut. Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened in November 1977 and went on to be a tremendous success, earning more than 10 times its budget…even if that wasn’t quite as much as Jaws or Star Wars. More than 40 years later, Spielberg has never lost his right of final cut.

While Star Wars is full of often-erratic blasting weapons, to the point of destroying two planet-sized bodies, Close Encounters is marked with restraint – no one even points a weapon at any human or alien. Roy Neary’s spirit of mystified enthusiasm, of insistent surrender to beauty, may represent Spielberg teaching us how to receive his films, or perhaps how to receive the word of any otherworldly words. Close Encounters’ flirtations with Christianity – for example, Devil’s Tower’s resemblance to Mount Sinai, Roy Neary’s opening line that suggests a two-hour religious film, and the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in Roy warning Jillian “don’t look back!,” a line Spielberg brought back in another movie that referenced Indiana – might be read as pious or blasphemous, as your Wyoming-visit mileage may vary. In an interview, Spielberg suggested a third kind of close reading: if we can talk to aliens in Close Encounters, why not Reds in the Cold War? 

Influenced by: Spielberg’s childhood, 1950s’ sci-fi; Spielberg called the script “Watch the Skies” for a long time

Influenced: coming six months after Star Wars, confirmed a new era of sci-fi, blockbusters, and redirected auteurs


A85. The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“If anything happens, Mike, don’t leave, don’t leave me over there. You got, you gotta, hey, just don’t leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike. No man, you gotta, you gotta promise, definitely.”

In a manner only possible during the later, Ford Administration phase of the Hollywood Renaissance, the script found its focus on themes of despair, suicide, toxic masculinity, and the Vietnam War as it had never been seen on film. At some point in 1976, it also found Robert DeNiro, who said, “I liked the script…I was impressed.”

Robert DeNiro was one of maybe two or three tough-as-nails star-actors who could have made The Deer Hunter into what it became. In late 1976, notably before the release of Star Wars or Close Encounters, when Universal agreed to an $8.5 million budget for The Deer Hunter that included DeNiro’s first $1 million payday, they were hoping to remind viewers of The Godfather Part II and Taxi Driver, of those films’ excellent acting and edgy explorations of victims of violence. DeNiro almost deserved a casting credit in that he attracted many of the actors, including Christopher Walken fresh from his creepy cameo in Annie Hall and an unknown actress DeNiro had seen onstage in The Cherry Orchard, Meryl Streep. Streep would later say that she only took the role of the “vague, stock girlfriend” – expanded after Cimino saw her talent – so that she could be with her boyfriend, John Cazale, as he was dying of lung cancer, but Cimino claims he only cast Cazale so that he could get Streep, so who knows. As Cazale rehearsed for what would be his final film and the fifth of his five movies to earn a Best Picture nomination – a five-for-five record that no other person has ever been near – his cancer made him uninsurable, and so DeNiro put up a bond for him. Speaking of rehearsal, The Deer Hunter’s development reflected DeNiro’s druthers for Method Acting, and so Cimino created real-looking Pennsylvania driver’s licenses for the six principals as well as a photo of the six actors together as children, both to be carried in each actor’s back pocket. As principal photography began in June 1977, just as Star Wars was reminding America what it was like to be a kid, Cimino was doing the same, but different, for his six lead actors.

The Deer Hunter’s production was so troubled that it seems cruel to recount it here, but suffice to say it went way over budget within weeks, and the film was finally completed for double its original allocation. The producers had discussed filming the Vietnam scenes on a backlot, but Cimino convinced Universal that realism demanded Asia, and The Deer Hunter became the first major film to substitute Thailand for Vietnam, which resulted in a lot of delays and non-professional workers. While The Bridge on the River Kwai had substituted a Burmese tributary for its titular river, The Deer Hunter actually filmed key scenes on Thailand’s River Kwai…without using the name on screen, because the story was set in Vietnam. Two actors, John Savage and DeNiro, almost met the same fate as the Bridge on the River Kwai when a helicopter flown by an inexperienced pilot got caught in some wires as it was rescuing their characters. Savage and DeNiro were supposed to fall, but not right away: the real River Kwai there was full of branches and debris, but staying in character, they fell about 30 feet anyway, and the footage made it into the film, furthering a subtext of suicidal tendencies. Savage’s character, Steven, is permanently paralyzed by the plunge, a crucial plot development that also occurred in 1978’s other major Vietnam film, Coming Home, although in The Deer Hunter this paralysis would lead to an ending that was far more, uh, savage.

The Deer Hunter is never an avant-garde film in any way, but perhaps that’s part of its Appalachian aesthetic. The film establishes a steel mill in rural western Pennsylvania and the Russian-descended men who work there, including Michael, Nick, and Steven, who are soon scheduled to depart for Vietnam. Steven is marrying Angela that evening, and their wedding party doubles as a sendoff for the three, with the wedding ballroom adorned by enormous posters of the enlisted threesome and a banner above the stage that says “Proudly Serving God and Country.” Beard-wearing Mike tells Nick that a deer should be killed with one shot, saying “two shots are for pussies.” Stan sees his girlfriend dancing with the wedding singer and smacks her to the floor; Linda’s father strikes her several times while saying “they’re all bitches.” Linda asks Nicky if she can stay in Nicky and Mike’s tiny trailer home while they’re in Vietnam; later in the evening, Nicky proposes marriage upon his return and Linda accepts. Everyone sings a lot of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You e.g. “I love you baby, and if it’s quite all right…” The day after the wedding, Michael drives four groomsmen up to the mountains for deer hunting, where Stan calls Mike a faggot that never hooks up with anyone, a notion that bemuses Mike. After an hour and eight minutes of mill-working, wedding partying and deer hunting, we finally hear the sounds of helicopter blades as the film cuts to Mike, Nicky, and Stevie in a Vietnam battle that barely has time to establish Mike’s ruthlessness with a flamethrower before showing one shot of napalm and an encroaching battalion. Suddenly, Mike, Nick and Steve are prisoners in a bamboo-and-wire water cage, forced to play Russian roulette by Cong tormenters at gunpoint. They each point a pistol at their temple, fire, and manage to cheat death. The North Vietnamese are dehumanized and our three heroes are severely traumatized, though Nicky and Steven treat Michael as the alpha male, and he takes on the role, promising he’ll will them out of there…and then does, seizing a gun and turning the tables with a series of “one shot”s as the tormenters are tittering at Mike’s endurance of dozens of slaps. The threesome drift down the river until they manage to flag down an American chopper. The airmen secure Nick as Mikey uses his legs to keep Stevie on the runner, but when Stevie falls and Mike dives after him, the chopper flies away. Steve tells Mike he hit rocks and he can’t feel his legs; Mike drags Steve all the way to a road and an Army Jeep. In a Saigon hospital, Nick cries baleful tears as the doctors ask him for the names of his parents. Nick hits the streets, where an old white man, Julian, recruits Nick into an underground Russian roulette room. Nick sees a re-bearded Mike spectating, pulls the gun on himself, runs out, and jumps back in the car with Julian who promises to make him rich even as Mike fails to chase them down. After 40 minutes in Vietnam, the film cuts back to the steel-mill town and its welcome-home party for Michael which he…suddenly decides not to attend, checking into a hotel where he looks at a picture of Linda. The next day, in full uniform, Michael approaches Linda, they talk about Nick, and after a day of reunions, Linda suggests they go to bed together, but Mike says “I feel far away.” The gang goes deer-hunting and Mike chooses not to shoot a defenseless buck, shouting into a waterfall “okayyyy.” That night Mike sees Stan waving a pistol in fun, and Mike forcefully empties the gun, puts in a bullet, spins the chamber, points it at Stan’s head, and pulls a quiet trigger as their friends look on horrified. Mike and Linda make love though Mike is less like a lover and more like a laborer. Steve receives Mike at his hospital, shows his paraplegia, refuses to go home, reveals the suitcases of cash he receives every month from Vietnam, and when Mike answers that it must be Nick, Steve warns Mike that Saigon will fall into shit any day now. As the embassy gets stormed, as copters airlift civilians out of Saigon, Michael arrives against that tide to search for Nick in a series of barely-lit night scenes. Mike finally finds Nick…to be too high on heroin to recognize his old friend. Mike pays to compete with professional rouletter Nick, who must therefore recognize weight in a pistol and who finally says “one shot” to reveal he knows Mike just before he blows his own brains out. After the funeral, the gang, including Steven, Angela, Stan, Linda, and Mike, gather in the local bar and sing “God Bless America.” 

Was the “God Bless America” ending patriotic or profane? Did the film side with the women being abused or the men having to disabuse themselves? It depended which critics you read, but critics didn’t stop the film from becoming a major hit or from being booked at the International Berlin Film Festival in 1979, where all the Iron Curtain countries’ critics walked out because, they said, the film insulted the Vietnamese. By then, these Communists were agreeing with many American reviewers and journalists, one of whom, Pulitzer winner Peter Arnett, said that in 20 years there had not been a single documented case of Russian roulette, and so “The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” The filmmakers were caught having never done any research on Vietnam, and producer Michael Deeley responded to the pressure by saying that the film wasn’t really about Vietnam but instead about how “individuals respond to pressure.” Though protestors turned up at the Academy Awards excoriating the film’s racism and quoting Arnett’s “bloody lie”, they couldn’t stop The Deer Hunter from winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, and Best Editing for Peter Zinner, the latter being the least defensible laurel. Roger Ebert, for one, defended the Russian Roulette metaphor as an exploration of randomized lethality and its effects on sanity. Ebert’s critics considered The Deer Hunter little more than a right-wing reactionary road map, a somewhat problematic position considering how few major motion pictures had ventured into the vicissitudes of proud, God-fearing, flag-waving blue-collar communities. In these podcasts I’ve generally avoided the non-mainstream, queer readings of films, but in this case, mostly to counter charges of over-conservatism, I’ll give you two sentences that may make you think of this film as “The Queer Hunter.” In Robin Wood’s staple textbook Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Wood suggested that Nick and the insistently bearded Mike were homosocial to the point of homosexual and that Nick knew he was in love with Mike but Mike could not admit his love for Nick, even to himself. Wood feels that Nick shoots himself because “Mike offers nothing but a return to repression.”

Influenced by: Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A.(1976), the lack of fully realized representations of the Vietnam War

Influenced: suicides; auteurism, when this director’s next movie curtailed it; sympathy for veterans and working-class persons 


A86. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell? The whole hill. Smelled like… victory.”

At USC in the time of America’s escalating war in Vietnam, a professor told student John Milius that no film had successfully adapted Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness,” which Milius took as a challenge. Milius moved Conrad from the Congo to the Cong of Vietnam and said that “it would have been too simple to have followed the book completely.” The title was Milius’s take on hippie buttons he’d seen that said “Nirvana Now” or “Justice Now” or somesuch. Milius kept the Kurtz role but changed the Marlow character to Willard, more based on people he knew. Also at USC, Milius met George Lucas, and for years the two of them worked together on the idea, mostly Milius writing longer and longer drafts with the intention of having Lucas direct it. Sources differ: did Lucas give up the project to make Star Wars, or did his friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola seize the project from him? Coppola’s version is that he had no time to decide until Spring 1974, when he came close to finishing back-to-back work on The Conversation and The Godfather Part II. By then, Fox was paying Lucas to write and rewrite Star Wars, and the friends might have saved Apocalypse Now until after Star Wars, but they both knew Star Wars would be a years-long project, and Coppola was keen to produce the first proper motion picture about Vietnam. Also, Lucas had toyed with making it a comedy, while Coppola said he wanted to take the audience “through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war,” and therefore the movie would have to break precedent and actually be filmed in the jungles of Southeast Asia. One apparent message of successes like American Graffiti and Jaws was that audiences appreciated location shooting. United Artists knew that Coppola had just made two great movies in a single year, and so the odds favored an efficient production, but the odds…were wrong.

Coppola made a deal with the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos for help and military hardware, including hella helicopters. As one of the most proven directors in Hollywood, Coppola expected A-list actors to show Ferdinand Marcos-level flexibility regarding the script and schedule, but they mostly didn’t, demanding a final draft and feasible schedule, both of which Coppola kept punting on. Gene Hackman was cast as the Patton-ish Colonel Kilgore, but after delays, he dropped out and was replaced by Robert Duvall. James Caan was cast as Colonel Lucas but left because of money, replaced by Harrison Ford, who filmed his scenes on an indoor set in Los Angeles just after shooting his role in a space-fantasy film directed by the person Colonel Lucas was named after. UA signed most of the actors on the main boat to seven-year deals, including 14-year-old Larry Fishburne, who lied about his age to play a 17-year-old. Partly owing to Brando’s disappearing act on Godfather 2, Coppola locked Brando into an ironclad contract to play Kurtz…for $2 million (plus 10% of the gross and 10% of the TV sales) for a month that had to be July because of Brando’s kids’ school schedules. Unlike some contracts, Brando’s didn’t have a weight clause, and Brando showed up in July 1976 massively overweight and mostly refusing to be filmed from the neck down, so Coppola rewrote Kurtz around him. 

Casting the lead role of Willard was its own Conradian challenge. Coppola offered the role to most of the A-listers under 40, assuring them that they wouldn’t have to be in Southeast Asia for more than a few weeks; perhaps their wariness came from ten years of similar promises from the U.S. government to its soldiers. Steve McQueen dropped out in February 1976, forcing Coppola to return some money to UA, and finally Coppola cast Harvey Keitel and began production in late March 1976. But Coppola felt that the Method-trained Keitel wasn’t passive enough, and after a few weeks, Coppola fired him and hired an earlier choice, the more taciturn Martin Sheen, who arrived in the Philippines on April 24. In late May, Typhoon Olga destroyed at least half the sets, shutting down production. Coppola left for the United States and returned to shoot scenes with Brando, who refused to shoot alongside Dennis Hopper, a star brought to Asia only to film scenes with Brando. At another point, Marcos needed his helicopters back to go kill some people for a weekend. Rain bedeviled production, but Coppola made his own rain in that he couldn’t decide how to end his magnum opus. Coppola left the worst part of the Philippines’ rainy season and assembled his footage in Los Angeles in December 1976, but half of the scripted scenes still hadn’t been filmed. With everyone back in the Philippines for months, on March 5, Martin Sheen had a heart attack, walked a quarter-mile without help, and then lied to Coppola about it for a while. At this point, the production story’s overlap with the filmed story was becoming a crueler and crueler joke, with both more and more quixotically invested in themes of journeying, jungle mysteries, ancient wisdom, misplaced authority, and the difficulties around endings.

Apocalypse Now begins with the Doors “The End” over images of the dreamily slow-motioned, cross-faded shots of napalmed palm trees, choppers, and an upside-down closeup of Captain Benjamin Willard, who voice-overs “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon,” does sweaty calisthenics in a hotel room, and moans with pain after punching a mirror and breaking open his hand. Willard is summoned to an army briefing where Colonel Lucas explains that the highly decorated commander Colonel Walter Kurtz has gone insane and is waging a brutally successful guerrilla war from his Cambodian outpost far up the Nung river. Although Lucas orders Willard to find and terminate the Colonel, Willard voice-overs that he isn’t sure what he’ll do when he actually meets Kurtz, noting that charging a man for murder in Vietnam is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. The mission doesn’t officially exist, and so Willard can’t fully explain it to the soldiers he joins on a river patrol boat. The PBR’s crew meets with an air-assault unit commanded by Colonel Kilgore, who is destroying a shoreline village while telling the locals he’s there to help them. Kilgore clears a path for Willard’s mission by leading an all-out helicopter assault, scoring it with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and following it by saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…Smells like victory.” After seeing Kilgore, Willard wonders what they really have on Kurtz, figuring it has to be more than just insanity and murder. On their way upriver, when the Chef has a near-death experience on the shore, Willard voice-overs his agreement with Chef’s takeaway: “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamned right.” The PBR happens upon a refueling station where they join at least a thousand soldiers in bleachers cheering a show of Playboy Playmates that gets overrun by an over-playful platoon. The African-American Chief Petty Officer Phillips runs the PBR, leading to authority clashes with Willard, one over a sneak attack from a fruit boat that prompts Willard to kill a woman in cold blood. At the final U.S. outpost on the Nung, the crew comes upon mail and a battalion under siege, and the Chief tells Willard to think about the fact that the U.S. rebuilds this bridge every day after Charlie destroys it; sure enough, as they drive away the bamboo bridge is assaulted and felled a la the River Kwai ending. Later, when the PBR gets ambushed, Willard and the Chief gives contradicting commands to the crew, Willard saying not to be afraid of toy arrows…until the Chief gets a spear right through his heart, which he tries to stick into Willard just before his last breath. About 105 minutes into the film, Willard arrives at Kurtz’s camp, a viney Angkor temple bedecked with dead bodies, decapitated heads, and dozens of militants ready to obey Kurtz’s every word. Willard meets a nameless American journalist who plays Conrad’s harlequin character, gurgitating Kurtz’s virtues. Minions capture Willard, truss him up, and bring him to a shadow-covered Kurtz, who interviews Willard for a while and then places him in a bamboo cage, where the harlequin tells him that Willard likes him and that Kurtz will want him to remain alive to tell the world about him. At night, Kurtz shows up with his face painted in camo to give Willard the Chef’s freshly severed head. Willard is freed to spend time in Kurtz’s temple, though he voice-overs that he doesn’t know freedom as Kurtz does, and that Kurtz knows him better than he knows himself. Kurtz tells Willard that as part of Special Forces he helped inoculate a village of children against polio only to see that soldiers had hacked off the kids’ inoculated arms and made a pile of amputated child arms. Kurtz tells Willard to make a friend of horror and terror. Willard voice-overs that everyone wants him to kill Kurtz, including Kurtz, including the jungle, and as the locals ritually slaughter a water-buffalo, Willard paints his face in camo and finally does assassinate Kurtz, who collapses saying, “the horror, the horror.” Willard sails away, leaving his movie-long voice-over vague as to its past, present, or future origins.

Having won the 1974 Palme d’Or, Coppola had his eyes set on premiering the film at Cannes to win it again, and the film did wind up winning, uh, a split award, which along with special limited screenings that summer gave the film the stench of a noble failure. It finally saw its wide release in August 1979, and before the end of the year was a certified hit, earning back all of United Artists’ investment and then some. Apocalypse Now won two Oscars, one for sound and one for Vittorio Storaro’s sumptuous cinematography, but it lost Best Picture to the more profitable divorce dramedy Kramer vs. Kramer. It bears saying that Murch and Carmine Coppola’s synthesizer-scored sunset spectacles spectacularly and particularly influenced 1980s filmmakers. However, America’s main takeaway from the Vietnam War was that the ends had not justified the means, and that was close to Hollywood’s takeaway from Apocalypse Now, that no film could justify the time, expense, and reckless gambling with life and property that Coppola had overseen over the second half of the 70s. 

Influenced by: Conrad’s novel, a tortured production, Vietnam, the Hollywood Renaissance, “the horror, the horror”

Influenced: became a fabled memento mori in more ways than one


A87. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You’re very smart, Joey. You’re giving me a lot of answers, but you ain’t giving me the right answer. I’m gonna ask you again: did you or did you not?”

As 1978 began, Scorsese felt he had to either make a film like Star Wars or film on another bare-bones $2 million budget or drop out of the business entirely. Thinking about it, he snorted a lot of cocaine, stopped eating regularly, dropped to about 110 pounds, and found himself hospitalized and near-death. Scorsese would later give DeNiro credit for saving his life by insisting that Scorsese direct a project that the actor had then been pitching to his friend for years, a biopic of Jake LaMotta. Scorsese finally saw his through-line: after you hate yourself, after you let them destroy you, you still get up and get back in the ring, even if it’s one last time.

After the success of Rocky, every studio was making “stand up and cheer” sports films like Slap Shot, North Dallas Forty, and Breaking Away. However, none of those sports stories meant squat to Scorsese, who before hospitalization had been refusing the LaMotta film based on not knowing or liking any sports, but in Mardik Martin’s script Scorsese saw the chance to make a black-and-white melodrama that was a little more “stand up and jeer.” United Artists saw this and wasn’t happy, and DeNiro and Scorsese quickly called in Taxi Driver’s Paul Schrader for a rewrite, who among other things created the Joey character. In November 1978, UA sat down with Winkler, DeNiro, and Scorsese and told them that they loved Schrader’s rewrite but that the material was almost X-rated and would never find an audience. Over the next few weeks, DeNiro skipped the major premieres of The Deer Hunter so that he and Scorsese could hole up on an island and rewrite Raging Bull. Among other things, they reduced the presence of the Mafia and wrote the final scene in which LaMotta would look in a mirror and perform the “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. When The Deer Hunter turned into a substantial hit, United Artists, ahem, bit the bullet by financing DeNiro’s follow up at about $14 million dollars. 

As with The Deer Hunter, DeNiro scouted and cast many of the actors, including, to play his brother, Joe Pesci, who hadn’t worked on TV or film for four years and was then running an Italian restaurant. Scorsese didn’t like cinematic boxing matches that were seen only from the audience, and he told the actors to think of DP Michael Chapman like a referee right in on reactions. Between takes, a punching bag was lowered into the ring to keep DeNiro punchy. The real Jake LaMotta showed up to consult production, and declared DeNiro one of the twenty best middleweight boxers of all time. That was before DeNiro took an eating tour of France and Italy during which the full crew remained paid even as principal photography was suspended for almost four months (union rules) as DeNiro increased his weight from 145 to 215 pounds. Upon his return in November 1979, the ballooned DeNiro had difficulty moving, talking, and breathing, and a three-week shoot ballooned to six, seven, eight weeks. By then, United Artists knew it had dodged a bullet with Apocalypse Now, decided Scorsese was a comparable auteur, and delivered more millions to properly finish photography. The finished film jettisoned Schrader’s idea of frequent flashbacks and put the obese older LaMotta only at the beginning and end, because while waiting for DeNiro’s re-weight-ing, Schrader was trumped by editor Thelma Schoonmaker putting together ninety seamless minutes. In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild voted Raging Bull as the best-edited film in history.

Raging Bull begins, as titles tell us, in 1964, as overweight Jake LaMotta practices a comedy routine. The film cuts to 1941 and Jake’s losing boxing match against Jimmy Reeves. In LaMotta’s small apartment, we meet his wife Irma and brother Joey, who says he can get Jake a shot at the middleweight title through his mob connection Salvy Batts. At a pool, Jake sees a 15-year-old attractive blonde named Vicki, and Joey introduces them literally through a fence. LaMotta defeats Sugar Ray Robinson, and when Robinson wins their rematch on a decision, LaMotta blames that on Robinson being about to leave for the army. The mostly black-and-white film shows color home movie footage of Jake and Vicki getting married, having kids, and making a new home together. After Vickie makes an offhand comment about LaMotta’s next opponent, Tony Janiro, being attractive, Jake pummels Janiro in front of Vickie and the local mob boss, Tommy Como. At the Copacabana club, Joey sees Vickie with Salvy, confronts her, and gets in a knockdown fight with Salvy that spills into the street. Now Como insists that Jake take a dive, which he does in his next bout against Billy Fox. The gaming commission suspends LaMotta on suspicion of throwing the fight, and after some time under suspension, LaMotta returns in 1949 to win the title against Marcel Cerdan. A year later, Jake is fixing their brand-new TV and asks Joey if he fought with Salvy over Vickie. Joey is evasive, and Jake says, “Did you fuck my wife?” Joey says the question is an insult and leaves; when Jake asks Vickie about it, she hides in the bathroom until he breaks down the door. She says no, yes, what do you want me to say?, and as he walks to his brother’s place he pushes her away. Jake interrupts Joey’s meal to beat the crap out of him and Vickie as Joey’s wife and kids watch. Estranged from Joey, Jake’s career declines, and in his final matchup with Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, in hallucinogenic slow-motion, Jake is beaten to a bathetically bloody pulp. In 1956, plus-sized Jake and family lounge around a pool in their new home in Miami, where Jake tells a reporter that his priorities have changed. LaMotta runs a club in Miami called Jake LaMotta’s, where his manager says that a certain pretty blonde may not be 21, and after she kisses Jake he says she can stay and drink. LaMotta goes outside to find his wife leaving him and taking the kids. Later, cops arrive at Jake’s Miami apartment and accuse him of introducing that same blonde to men, explaining that she’s 14. He goes to Vickie’s to get his championship belt and takes a hammer to it to get out its jewels, frustrating Vickie and, eventually, the jeweler, who says the belt would have been worth more whole. Speaking of a hole, that’s where the police put LaMotta, who punches the dark wall in anguish. Jake returns to New York, asks Joey’s forgiveness, and Joey warily gives it. In 1964, Jake looks in a mirror and recites Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront, suggesting Jake’s ownership of his difficult relationship with his brother.

Like Apocalypse Now, one reason we now revere Raging Bull is that it combines bold, innovative Hollywood Renaissance-level filmmaking with a certain maturity that includes a post-Rocky authoritative African-American antagonist and a post-Taxi Driver examination of adult exploitation of adolescents. Rocky and Raging Bull are routinely cited as the two best sports movies ever made, a lingering laurel for the producer of both, Irwin Winkler, who, working with Scorsese, exposed the seedier, unseemlier side of the Italian working-class palooka boxer and in turn the American Dream. For a moment there, it was almost like the Rocky-led pivot toward optimism had pivoted back, but then…as Ronald Reagan ascended to the Presidency, Raging Bull barely broke even at the box office, and lost the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars to Robert Redford and Ordinary People, though DeNiro certainly won the Best Actor Oscar for what must be history’s, ahem, most striking performance. Like Apocalypse NowRaging Bull enjoys long-term stature as rare studio-financed art, but short-term was seen as more of a cautionary tale. 

Influenced by: boxing films, Method acting classes, camera innovations

Influenced: film artists, who often name this the best film of the 1980s


A88. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.”

Having successfully launched his own Force-ful Flash Gordon, George proposed to Steven a James Bond story they could call their own, about an adventurous archeologist who would amalgamate the awesomest aspects of Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune in an updated version of the cliffhanger serials both men grew up loving. George named the character after the same dog who had inspired Chewbacca, Indiana, pointing out to Steven that he’d already had a Close Encounter with that name.

Spielberg showed Lucas a script called Continental Divide from an almost brand-new screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan, and Kasdan soon realized that Lucas and Spielberg had hired him to fill in the boring bits between big setpieces. The three men worked nine-hour days together for a solid week in January 1978 to hammer out details, which included talking Lucas out of making Indiana Smith a playboy kung-fu expert, and talking Spielberg out of making him a hard-drinking gambler. Spielberg later said he set the film in the 30s to make the antagonists Nazis so that he could kill as many as he liked. Apropos of the period’s interest in pedophilia, as in films like Raging Bull and Pretty Baby, Lucas suggested that Indiana’s backstory affair with Marion would have been when she was 11; Spielberg said no, though the notion survives in the film when she chastises him enigmatically, “I was a child!” Because there was already a Nevada Smith, Indiana’s last name was changed to Jones. His clothes would be roughly based on Fred C. Dobbs’s from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the new title would be Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Barely 30 years old, Steven Spielberg already had a bad reputation for spending too much money and time on long location shoots, and so rather than jumping into Raiders he made his next film a minor Los Angeles-based comedy called 1941 that…still wound up over-budget and, worse, under-whelming critically and commercially. While he was making it, Kasdan used Spielberg’s office for almost six months of daily script work, but then in that summer 1978 Lucas hired Kasdan to rewrite the sequel to Star Wars after the death of writer Leigh Brackett. From then until late 1979, Lucas and Kasdan remained busy with a film called The Empire Strikes Back, which did not land on the AFI 100 despite how many non-AFI members consider it superior to Star Wars.

Here’s another surprise for some fans of the Force: in 1980, Lucas wanted to but didn’t have enough money to fund Raiders of the Lost Ark by himself. In a way, Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg wound up pitching Raiders to studios at the worst possible time, in early 1980, while mid-budget films like Kramer vs. Kramer were earning fortunes, before the blockbuster success of The Empire Strikes Back, and just after 1941 had flopped. Yes, many wanted a piece of Lucas’ first post-Force film, but Lucas’s terms were onerous: he demanded that the studio accept Spielberg as director, put up all of the money, and surrender all creative control and rights to any licensing or sequels. Finally, then-Paramount president Michael Eisner agreed to Lucas’s terms if Lucas agreed that Paramount would have exclusive rights to partner with Lucas on sequels and that the penalties for exceeding Raiders’ $20 million budget and 85-day schedule would considerably exceed similar penalties accorded to Apocalypse Now. Spielberg hired the fastidious Frank Marshall to keep them on budget and on a self-imposed 73-day schedule, which they wound up meeting exactly.

Spielberg was determined to justify everyone’s faith, and he oversaw more storyboards than he ever would for any film – about 6000, or about 80% of the script. For Marion Ravenwood, everyone wanted an actress with that 1930s energy of being able to hold her own against a man, and just this was an upgrade from most Hollywood Renaissance films; after Debra Winger said no, Karen Allen made reviewers think of a feistier Lois Lane. The 20,000-word Wiki on Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t include the word “brownface,” but in fact Spielberg and Lucas cast at least two notable white British actors in brownface, Alfred Molina as a Peruvian guide and John Rhys-Davies as an Egyptian roustabout. (Molina would later star as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2; Rhys-Davies would later play Gimli in the Lord of the Rings films.) For Indy, Lucas and Spielberg ruled out most A-listers by insisting that the actor commit to three films, as Roger Moore had when he was signed to play 007. One of the wildest what-if’s of cinema is wondering about Tom Selleck playing Indiana Jones; Selleck was contractually obligated to CBS for a new show called Magnum P.I. that looked unlikely to go forward, but when CBS heard that Lucas and Spielberg liked Selleck they greenlit the show and forced Selleck to honor his contract. (Ironically, a TV actors strike meant Selleck could have done Raiders anyway.) 

With three weeks before principal photography would begin in France, Raiders had no lead actor, and Spielberg circled back to the idea of Harrison Ford, who had had his own issues with George Lucas. Ford was circulating a story around Hollywood that Lucas’s only direction to him on two Star Wars films was “Faster! More intense!”; another story circulated that at one point Ford shouted at Lucas, “you can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it!” Lucas told Spielberg he wasn’t ready to have Scorsese’s equivalent of Bobby DeNiro, the guy who was in all his movies, and besides, Ford had refused to commit to appearing in a third Star Wars film, forcing Lucas and Kasdan to write his character into cryogenic carbonite, making it rather unlikely that Ford would commit to any Indiana Jones trilogy. All this was very much on the table in the room where and when Ford told the principals that the role sounded like fun and that he’d be happy to do it if he were allowed to change any of his own dialogue that sounded too much like Han Solo. Like DeNiro with boxing, Ford spent the next month becoming darned skilled at cracking a bullwhip, and the foley department wound up using Ford’s actual whip whacks. Ford, Allen, and the other actors wound up improvising many little moments during the film. 

Principal photography was as much of an adventure as the film is. The temperature in Tunisia exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the amount of crew members sick with dysentery exceeded 150, the amount of extras exceeded 500, and the per-diem cost exceeded $200,000. Spielberg saved money and mental energy when he circled back to the islands where he and Lucas discussed the project, shooting the film’s opening scenes in ten locations in Kauai, an island that he would return to 12 years later for a movie about a dinosaur amusement park opening. The ark opening of Raiders was just as meticulously planned, filmed, and after-effected by Industrial Light and Magic, with an exploding head that almost earned the film an R rating. The ark was designed to Biblical specifications by Ralph McQuarrie after his work making spaceships in Star Wars and Close Encounters. John Williams’ theme music once again found, or maybe created, the perfect tone for the material. Spielberg had imagined a noirish palette for Raiders, but cinematographer Michael Slocombe went with a lighter touch that brought out a lot more mirth.

As the Paramount mountain logo cross-fades into an Andean peak, we enter the jungle along with a few local explorers, one of whom pulls a pistol on the leader, who turns around, bullwhips the man’s gun, and reveals himself as Indiana Jones. Indy and his remaining guide, Satipo, enter an extensively booby-trapped temple with Incan/Polynesian markings, where Indy finds an idol, lets sand from a bag run through his hand, replaces the idol with the weight-adjusted bag, triggers the temple’s traps anyway, gets betrayed by Satipo, finds Satipo spear-slain, and bolts from a rolling bus-sized boulder. Back in the bush, Belloq, a slimy French rival, seizes the idol from and sics a native army on Jones, who barely escapes via a friend’s waiting seaplane. Back home in the States, Jones teaches archeology to ensorcelled college students. His colleague Marcus Brody introduces him to U.S. army officials who ask about the lost Ark of the Covenant, and Indy exposes, or rather expositions, the search for it as well as its reputed power that would render any army invincible. The officials inform Indy and Brody that Nazis are looking for the Ark and recruit Jones to find it first, to which Indy agrees if it will later be placed in a museum. A cross-fade slow zoom into a moving red line on a map shows us Indy flying to Nepal to recover the headpiece of the staff of Ra from his mentor’s daughter, Marion, who is busy running a bar and beating her patrons at drinking contests. Marion and Indy quarrel about their past; as she considers his cash offer for the curio, Nazis creep up and threaten her for it only to result in a bloody, fiery brawl for the artifact. Lead creep Nazi Toht burns his palm on the headpiece and runs out of the burning bar, leaving Indy and Marion to escape to Cairo where they reckon to use the relic to illuminate a Well of Souls that will reveal the Ark’s location. In Cairo, they meet Indy’s friend Sallah who says that Belloq is working with Nazis who’ve gotten close to the Well of Souls based on Toht’s hand’s burn marks. As Indy and Marion amble through the Arab alleys, Nazis and their allies attack, including an Arab assassin who artfully brandishes a sizable scimitar before Indy wearily unholsters his pistol and blows him away. Marion hides in a keg-sized basket, but when her pet monkey gives her away, the Nazis put the basket into a truck of explosives that Indy sees go up in flames. Jones and Sallah sneak past Nazis into the chamber that the headpiece indicates, which in turn reveals the real Well of Souls. Indy, who is afraid of snakes, finds the Well to be a real snake pit, but he also finds the Ark…which he loses to Nazis moments later. Belloq and Toht dump the miraculously alive Marion in with Indy and seal off the Well, but Indy manages to knock over a pillar that knocks over a wall that leads to a passage to a small airport. Indy and Marion manage to damage the plane meant to move the Ark, so the Nazis load it onto a truck and kick rocks. Indy rides a horse, catches up with the fascist caravan, and after a series of stupendous stunts, Indy seizes the truck and transports its cargo to Cairo harbor, where Sallah sets up a steamer to send Indy and Marion and the Ark to London. A Nazi U-boat seizes the Ark and Marion; Jones swims from the steamer to the submarine and sneaks on. The U-boat arrives at an anonymous Aegean island where a Nazi scoffs at this “Hebrew ritual,” but Belloq replies they need to test the Ark’s power far from Berlin. Jones ambushes them with a rocket launcher, and Belloq calls his bluff, knowing that Indy doesn’t want to destroy the Ark. Wearing Egyptian headgear, Belloq opens the Ark, and the Nazis are disappointed to find only sand running through their fingers much as Indy’s did in that Peruvian temple. But this relic’s booby traps are more deadly and more of devilry: dark spirits and flames and energy bolts that destroy Belloq, Toht, and the Nazis. Biblically enough, Indy and Marion are tied to a post and Indy shouts “don’t look, Marian!”, and after the Ark expels its energy into the stratosphere it closes itself back up. In Washington D.C., Indy leaves a meeting to tell Marian that these bureaucrats are fools who don’t know what they have. In the coda, the Ark gets placed in a packing crate in what looks to be an underground warehouse of hundreds of similarly anonymized packing crates.

Although Raiders of the Lost Ark was not anticipated by adolescent audiences on the level of History of the World Part I, Superman II, the third Cheech & Chong film or For Your Eyes Only, it was released on June 12, 1981 and soon surpassed them all to become the highest-earning film released in 1981 and a Best Picture nominee. Considering Apocalypse Nowand ArCovenant Row both came from George Lucas’ conceptions, it can’t be unfair to compare and contrast. Where Apocalypse Now questions violence, corrosive masculinity, and American imperialism, Raiders of the Lost Ark suggests that a cishet white male American can fly around the world and strike, shoot, and kill brown locals with impunity. In Apocalypse Now, Ford, playing Colonel Lucas, warily approves of Willard killing one renegade American General; in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford, in a story by Lucas, wearily proves American superiority by shooting a scimitar-spinning sultan. Ultimately both stories reduce brown people to background players between conflicting white heroes and villains, but only Raiders casts its local helpmeets in brownface and presents hordes as happy helpers. Yes, some movies are made for adults and others for more general audiences, but the difference here works to sanitize violence, excuse colonialist priorities, and restore faith in the generalized white Yankee savior. White archeology in brown countries is inherently problematic, leading to a so-called “British Museum” mostly nicked from non-British nations, and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark don’t exactly ask the right questions about such acquisitions. 

Influenced by: the same influences that influenced Jaws

Influenced: accelerated Hollywood’s pivot toward escapism and genre films


A89. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’ll be right here.”

Steven Spielberg felt a certain measure of separation from Raiders of the Lost Ark, describing those expensive, extensive days in Tunisia as so lonely that they reminded him of his childhood loneliness. He returned from overseas determined to make a more personal project, later advising directors to alternate “one for them, one for me.” In 1978 Spielberg had announced he would take four weeks to shoot a small film called Growing Up, but 1941 and Raiders distracted him. In 1979 he and John Sayles discussed making a sequel to Close Encounters, tentatively titled Night Skies, about evil aliens terrorizing a family, with a subplot of a nice alien that befriends an autistic kid. In autumn 1980, Steven showed the Night Skies outline to screenwriter Melissa Mathison who saw that the subplot needed to be the main plot. Spielberg told Mathison that after his parents’ divorce in 1960, he helped raise his younger sisters and filled the void with an imaginary alien companion who was “a friend who could be the brother I never had and the father I didn’t feel I had anymore.” Over the next eight weeks she wrote a draft called “E.T. and Me” that Spielberg considered to be “perfect,” although he did, true to form, add alcoholic inebriation and the Act III chase sequence.  

During principal photography, Spielberg was unusually protective of his film’s plot, forcing actors to rehearse lines behind closed doors and making people use ID cards to enter and leave the set, something very few productions did at the time. (Granted, the shoot was during September and October 1981, when Raiders was the country’s #1 film.) Whatever the story’s intergalactic provenance, Spielberg was determined to save money and effort by shooting mostly in L.A., and to make the outdoor scenes even cheaper he filmed in and around new tract housing in the San Fernando Valley. With all that, with a projected $10 million budget of no-names, with Raiders doing boffo box office, Columbia had passed on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial because it was a movie for kids and because Spielberg wanted Lucas-level control over tie-ins and merchandise. Columbia suggested Disney, but you don’t drift into Disney’s door with original content, you certainly don’t get all the profits from their merch, and besides Spielberg didn’t want to compromise his and Mathison’s vision with a mess of Mouse House meddling. Spielberg instead had gone back to his studio for Jaws, Universal, but Columbia had the rights to any sequel to Close Encounters, and rather than get into a sticky lawsuit about a sorta-sequel, Universal gave Columbia 5% of the film’s net profits, which came to more than the profits from any other movie of Columbia’s during 1982. From Close Encounters Spielberg brought back several of his most trusted collaborators, no one more important than designer Carlo Rambaldi, who based E.T.’s hands on certain circus artists, his face on that of famous scientists, and his neck on his own paintings.

The making of E.T. is probably at least as interesting as, well, the making of E.T. Producer Kathleen Kennedy focused on the creature’s eyes, having them specially constructed in four different functional heads along with the rest of a costume which, along with Rambaldi’s puppet, cost about $1.5 million. Three people took turns inhabiting that costume, namely two dwarfs named Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon, and one 12-year-old boy named Matthew DeMeritt born without legs who walked on his hands on every scene in which E.T. walked or stumbled or fell over. When reporters asked Spielberg what he thought when he first saw E.T., he said E.T.’s look was “something that only a mother could love.”

Spielberg recorded locals for E.T.’s more random vocals, including himself, his wife, Debra Winger, his USC professor, raccoons, otters, and horses, but E.T.’s English was spoken by Pat Welsh, who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. While Elliott calls E.T. a boy, the fact that vocalist Pat Welsh is female, the fact of Satyajit Ray’s reaction to the film “Is it male, female or neuter?” and the fact that that E.T. is comfortable being dressed as a human female all point to the possibility that E.T. is the first-ever American film to centralize and/or be named after a trans character. No trans person should be offended at being compared to a powerful alien, just as no person should impugn anyone who related to the deep loneliness of E.T. and Elliott or the connection between them. By the standards of the AFI 100 or any list of history’s highest-grossing films, the combination of the lead character (Pat Walsh), the lead name in the credits (Dee Wallace, who plays a single mom doing well), the screenwriter (Melissa Mathison), the editor (Carol Littleton), and the lead producer (Kathleen Kennedy) add up to a distinctly distaff diversion, one that might be situated as a unification of the science fiction and bildungsroman/reconciliation scripts then trending in Tinseltown, or perhaps as a response to the alpha-male swagger of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg called it “a minority story.” Spielberg was already being blamed for a cinema that was primarily targeted to 12-year-old boys; in a way, E.T. was Spielberg’s recognition and repudiation of that accusation, a raiding of the lost heart of the pre-teen misfit boy, a “one for me” that wound up as one for the world.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial begins with that title card and a spaceship landed in a pine forest from which aliens collect samples. One alien observes the lights of the San Fernando Valley as we observe the light his glowing heart sometimes makes. When government agents appear, the aliens hustle away from Earth, leaving one behind. In a nearby prefab home, ten-year-old Elliott argues with his teen brother Michael and Michael’s friends as they play Dungeons and Dragons. Elliott is sent outside to get the pizza from the driver, and on his way back, he hears odd noises from the tool shed, and sees something alien to him. When his family is skeptical, he says his dad would believe him, prompting his mom to suggest calling him, prompting Elliott to say “he’s in Mexico with Sally,” prompting Michael shouts at Elliott to grow up and think how other people feel for a change. Elliott leaves out Reese’s Pieces to successfully lure the creature to his house, hides him in his closet, and notes that the alien is imitating his movements. Heating a thermometer under a lamp, Elliott fakes illness to stay home from school the next day to play with the creature, among other things showing him that a shark eats fish but nobody eats the shark, eventually finding that he can “feel” the alien’s simultaneous feelings. Going to the kitchen to get him food, Elliott reassures the alien by saying “I’ll be right here.” Elliott introduces the alien to Michael and his 5-year-old sister; when he warns Gertie that only kids can see it, she says, “Give me a break” and they hide the alien from their mom. The kids learn that the creature can bring dead chrysanthemums to life, heal minor injuries with his glowing finger like that of Elliott’s cut finger, and, not unlike Jedi masters, levitate things, as the creature levitates balls to represent his planetary system. At school, Elliott and his class dissect frogs while the alien, at Elliott’s house, gets drunk, causing Elliott to get drunk and free the frogs. When the alien observes John Wayne kiss Maureen O’Hara, Elliott kisses a girl in his class. The alien also watches Sesame Street with Gertie, teaching him English words like “be good,” and at Elliott’s insistence it calls itself E.T. Midway through Close Encounters Roy’s kid watched “Duck Dodgers”; midway through E.T., E.T. reads Buck Rogers and gets the kids to repeat his stated desire: “E.T. phone home.” Using a Speak and Spell and other bric-a-brac, E.T. builds a communicator while E.T.’s health declines even as Elliott starts calling himself “we.” On Halloween, Michael and Elliott pretend Gertie is dressed as a ghost, but it’s really E.T. going to make an interplanetary phone call in the forest along with Elliott whose face is greened up like Willard’s in Apocalypse Now. On the edge of town, Elliott puts E.T. in his front bike basket and they ride to the forest, which E.T. assists by levitating them; Elliott cries with happiness as they float past an enlarged full moon. Aware that E.T. is calling for a ride, Elliott tells E.T. that he could stay and get taken care of, that they could grow up together. The next day, Elliott awakes in the forest without E.T. and turns up home with a real fever this time. Michael manages to find E.T. dessicated and near-dead in a stream and brings him home to their bathroom, but when Mom finds both her son and this alien almost dying, she hustles them away as Gertie protests “it’s the man from the moon!” A fully dressed astronaut appears as Mom tries to walk out the front door…who turns out to be one of many government agents, now invading Elliott’s home, who have been looking for E.T. since the beginning. The agents set up an ad-hoc home hospital of infection-resistant tubes while grilling the family about E.T. For a while, both E.T. and Elliott are dying, but as E.T. seems to decouple himself, saving Elliott to kill himself, Elliott reaches for his dying friend and tells him “I’ll be right here.” Later, Elliott says goodbye and “I love you,” closing the government freezer on E.T.’s body just as E.T.’s heart lights up. When Elliott finds him alive, he and Michael sneak him out of the house and rendezvous with Michael’s bike-riding friends. Pursued by police, they evade them by biking around the new suburban constructions, but almost get caught…until E.T. levitates all of them, on bikes, all the way to the forest back to the transmitter. The spaceship arrives around the same time as a car containing Mom, Gertie, and a government agent who called E.T. a “miracle.” During goodbyes, E.T. tells Gertie to “be good” and Elliott “I’ll be right here.” The final shot is a close up of Elliott, drying his eyes, watching the spaceship make a rainbow ribbon in the sky.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is deeply indebted to Allen Daviau’s cinematography that lit rooms darkly but softly, bringing out the dust particles in the sunlight. Daviau often placed the camera at kid-height, and the mom is the only visible adult in the film’s first half, the agents filmed only up to their waists in a tribute to cartoons like those of Tex Avery. E.T. is also deeply indebted to John Williams who somehow once again found the perfect songs, including one that Spielberg and Littleton, ahem, cut the chase to. E.T. was released one year to the weekend after Raiders of the Lost Ark and soon exceeded that film’s box office and that of every other film ever made, a record it held for 15 years, until Titanic. E.T. was nominated for Best Picture and lost to Gandhi, though Gandhi’s director Richard Attenborough said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” E.T. did win four well deserved Oscars, for score, sound, sound effects, and visual effects.If E.T. borrowed from Satyajit Ray, it also borrowed from Peter Pan, which is a book that Mom reads to Gertie, and many other children’s stories. E.T. probably repudiated David Cook’s assessment of Spielberg films having only one interpretation; you could make a case from everything from divorce survival to the unique way we relate to a favorite pet. According to Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride, Universal’s marketing was directed to Christians with the poster of fingers touching a la The Creation of Adam, and it’s not exactly difficult to read E.T. as Jesus, who demonstrates magic, exerts peacefulness, is pronounced a “miracle,” dies, is resurrected by love, and finally ascends to the heavens. It’s hard not to notice the Christian undertones in Spielberg’s last three AFI 100 films, released in a five-year period, and hard not to notice that they chronologically track the Bible, from a Moses-ish figure scaling Mount Sinai to the power of the Ark built to hold the tablets to, well, the New Testament. Whatever Spielberg may say about his films, he is not the final arbiter of their meanings; no artist ever is. Taken together, Close Encounters, Raiders, and E.T. considerably imbue their stories with Judeo-Christian symbols and values and those symbols and values in turn considerably imbue these middlebrow, middle-class-loving adventure movies with a somewhat scriptural quality. Spielberg’s special effects and special effectiveness with compelling filmmaking certainly assist the scripture, like the melody that makes a hymn more memorable. What is Jesus, what is cinema, other than an absent friend that you feel once told you “I’ll be right here”? 

Influenced by: strong single moms; the sci-fi and Disney canons, sometimes as contrast; the New Testament

Influenced: along with Raiders, moved 1980s cinema toward Spielberg- (or family-) friendly thrills, nostalgia, and sentiment

A90. Tootsie (Pollack, 1982) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“She’s right here. And she misses you. Look, you don’t know me from Adam. But I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean?”

Don McGuire’s play “Would I Lie to You?” was optioned by Robert Evans’ brother Charles Evans and moved through various incarnations and prospective lead performers, including Peter Sellers and Michael Caine, until newly crowned Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman picked up the option and insisted on complete creative control. Certain aspects of the script were enacted offscreen when Hoffman’s first two choices for director, Dick Richards and Hal Ashby, left the project. Hoffman wanted Sydney Pollack to direct the film and even play his agent, replacing Dabney Coleman, who graciously took the smaller role of Ron that was really a rerun of his reprobate boss in 9 to 5. During the 1970s, Sydney Pollack helmed gutsy, transgressive films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson, The Yakuza, and Three Days of the Condor…and him helming Tootsie was one more indicator of the shift from antiestablishment to, and-hey-the-establishment! Yet this vastly undersells a splendid motion picture that was in its own way revelatory about the confluences and compromises between men and women. Even Andy Warhol felt it merited a brief cameo, which is more than he felt about Midnight Cowboy when it filmed at his Factory.

Tootsie begins with Michael Dorsey putting on makeup and unsuccessfully auditioning all over New York City. Michael’s roommate Jeff is writing him a play for him that he loves and brings him home to a surprise birthday party. Michael helps his girlfriend Sandy prepare an audition for a role named Emily Kimberly on a soap opera called Southwest General. Michael asks Sandy to to be more assertive yet chaperones her to the audition, where Sandy isn’t even allowed to read and Michael fares even worse, learning that he wasn’t even told about a promised Iceman Cometh audition. Michael storms into his agent George Fields’s office, and George makes it clear that he’s a great actor but too difficult to work with, saying emphatically “no one will hire you.” From a cut here at the 20-minute mark, about the same mark as a similarly instant transformation in the film Some Like It Hot, Michael walks down the busy New York sidewalk in drag. As Dorothy Michaels, Michael Dorsey convinces everyone he’s a woman and convinces the producers of Southwest General to hire him/her as Emily Kimberly. As Kimberly, as Dorothy, “she” plays against the script as a steel magnolia, and the character becomes a national sensation, eliciting thousands of weekly letters of fan mail. On and off camera, Michael advocates for women as when s/he reprimands the show’s amoral, sexist director, Ron, for calling them names like Tootsie. Unfortunately Ron is dating costar Julie, whom Michael becomes attracted to while Julie becomes attracted to the no-BS “Dorothy” as a bosom buddy. Julie invites Dorothy to drinks at Julie’s apartment, where they discuss the problems of being a woman in the 80s, and where Michael learns that Julie has a 14-month-old baby Amy, has never been married, and wishes a man would just say hey I could toss you a line, but I find you interesting and could we just make love? George invites Michael as Michael to an industry party where he sees Julie and tries that line on her, causing her to throw her drink in his face. Michael confides in Jeff everything, like that he never said he’d be exclusive with Sandy, and that he’s only doing drag to raise $8000 dollars to produce Jeff’s play. Emily Kimberly’s leaned in, homespun feminism becomes so popular that “Dorothy” does a glamour photo shoot and appears on the covers of many magazines. Julie invites Dorothy to her traditional father’s upstate farm, where he falls in love with “her” and later proposes marriage. Feelings also arise in elder show star John Van Horn, but his rise to the level of assault before Jeff arrives and John thankfully misunderstands. Ron tells “Dorothy” he knows “she” hates him, then repeats almost exactly what Michael told Jeff about never telling her he’d be exclusive. Michael breaks up with Sandy to her face, which goes horribly; attending to an Annie Hall-ish 3am phone call, “Dorothy” almost kisses Julie, but Julie rejects “her” and apologizes for not swinging that way. Southwest General offers Dorothy a one-year extension leading Michael to beg George to get him/her out of contract, but when he cannot, a live show presents an opportunity. After a long, long improvised speech, Michael rips off his wig and reveals himself to be Edward Kimberly, to stunned looks from crew members and all of Michael’s TV-watching friends except Jeff and George. After a show camera cut, Julie slugs Michael in the gut. Weeks later, during time off from Jeff’s play’s rehearsals, Michael approaches Julie outside the studio. She walks away, but he walks alongside, saying that he returned her father’s ring and even bought him a beer as they reconciled. After a few more expressed feelings, he says, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.”They continue down the sidewalk together, chatting.  

If you as a viewer believe that line about a better man as a woman, if you believe that Michael would have fooled and even dazzled people as Dorothy, then you’ve just finished a fantastic film. Very, very few actors could have pulled off such a performance all the way until he pulls off his wig. Dustin Hoffman later said he was disturbed to realize that Dorothy could never be attractive enough to have interested him in conversation at a party, disturbed at how many good conversations he’d missed. The energy of Hoffman at least admitting his sexism is the energy of much of the comedy Tootsie, which Hoffman claimed he didn’t see or play as a comedy. Although Tootsie does feature at least one prolonged man-on-man smooch, Tootsie is less queer-friendly than Some Like it Hot, in which Jerry/Daphne really played with marrying Osgood, but Tootsie is finally female-friendlier, because it knows it shouldn’t need a man to make all its points about sexism. Had Dustin Hoffman been less of a perfectionist, Tootsie might have come out before the show Bosom Buddies, which introduced America to Tom Hanks, or before Blake Edwards’ comedy Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews in a similarly gender-bending plot. Tootsie was received has having gotten the themes right; the film was a massive success and nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, but won only one, a well deserved Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Lange’s terrific turn as Julia. 

Influenced by: comedy beats as done by experts on film drama

Influenced: in the Reagan era, great artists often laughed so as not to cry


A91. Amadeus (Forman, 1984) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

Amadeus began as Peter Shaffer’s successful 1979 West End play that debuted on Broadway in 1980 with Ian McKellen as Salieri and Tim Curry as Mozart. Since collaborating to win Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Saul Zaentz had been developing his music studios in Berkeley, California while Milos Forman had directed two music-based films called Hair and Ragtime. They had been hoping to reunite on some kind of musical prestige project, especially one that favored Forman’s humanist, no-villain sensibilities, ideally one that might be filmed in Communist Prague, where Forman might be greeted as something of a local hero. Their film would have more to do with the 1780s than the 1980s, yet they were willing to appeal to American audiences by casting Americans…as long as they weren’t stars. They shopped this as though the Hollywood Renaissance had never ended, but unfortunately every studio wanted stars, villains, and if any foregrounded music at all, the next breakout hit like “Endless Love” or “Eye of the Tiger.” 

Zaentz and Forman were rejected by everyone…until finally Zaentz made a deal with the same executives who took on Cuckoo’s Nest, now at Orion, to put up a rather remarkable $18 million for a production whose most famous name was dead since 1791. Forman brought with him his Czech DP Miroslav Ondficek, and indeed, under the Iron Curtain of 1983, their return to Prague caused a considerable Czechoslovakian clamor. The scenes in which Mozart conducts orchestras for courtesans were filmed in Prague’s actual Count Nostitz Theater where Mozart’s actual Don Giovanni and La clemenza de Tito debuted 200 years earlier, and the resulting release of Amadeus in Eastern Europe in 1985 may have slightly assisted local movements for freedom that came to fruition four years later. Forman demonstrated not only home-country pride but a certain affinity for outsiders, as when the lead role, Salieri, refers to himself as a foreigner in the Viennese court. As Salieri, Forman cast F. Murray Abraham, a Syrian-American playing an Italian, marking the second and last time, after Doctor Zhivago, that an AFI 100 film cast a non-white actor to play a white leading role. One measure of Abraham’s brilliance in the role is that he and his Mozart, Tom Hulce, were both nominated for Best Actor, but instead of canceling each other out, Abraham won a wonderfully well-deserved Academy Award. 

Amadeus begins in 1823, when an old man, Antonio Salieri, screams that he has killed Mozart, slits his own throat, and is escorted to a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. When a young priest, Father Volger, asks Salieri for his confession, Salieri asks if he knows who he is, and when the priest answers “all men are equal in the sight of God” Salieri’s eyes alight as though he has caught the holy man in a lie. After Salieri learns that the priest studied music, the priest fails to recognize Salieri’s most famous compositions, and their faces contrast when Salieri plays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the priest’s lights up, the old man’s ices up. In flashbacks, Salieri’s father doesn’t favor music and views Mozart as a trained monkey performing for royalties. When young Catholic Salieri prays to be made a famous composer, his father perishes, which Salieri sees as a sign that God has accepted his vow. With hard work and avoidance of indulgences, Salieri rises to become court composer for Emperor Joseph II, which goes well until the arrival of young-man Mozart. Salieri secretly observes Mozart rolling around on the floor with Constanze, a beautiful young woman of court, causing Mozart to miss the beginning of his own scheduled performance. When Emperor Joseph II formally introduces the two men, Salieri bears Mozart’s insults to his Italian heritage as well as Amadeus playing, disliking, and improving one of Salieri’s songs. Mozart is permitted to write a German opera, sleeps with the lead Katherina whom Salieri is in love with, and at the opera’s premiere, Mozart’s landlord, Frau Weber, lets everyone at the opera know that Mozart must marry her daughter Constanze. Mozart does, setting up roots in Vienna and setting many against him, including a prince-archbishop and his own father Leopold. The emperor wants to hire Mozart to tutor his niece but Salieri says to avoid charges of favoritism the emperor must have everyone apply. After Mozart refuses to apply, Constanze comes to Salieri in secret, bringing him some of her husband’s original drafts, and Salieri sees no corrections, only perfect music written out flawlessly the first time. Salieri asks why God would give this obscene disrespectful Mozart so much more ability than himself, decides God is using Mozart to mock his own mediocrity, and renounces God and vows to avenge God by destroying Mozart. Salieri lies to the Emperor that Mozart once molested a student, preventing any princess as a pupil. Mozart comes to Salieri for a loan that Salieri refuses, instead referring him…to a man who refuses to leave him alone with his daughter, and the session goes terribly. Mozart impresses Constanze and Leopold at a party where he enchants the courtesans by playing piano in poses such as from under the keys; when Salieri, handsomely masked, asks him to play a song by Salieri, Mozart does while pretending to be a monkey. Against Leopold’s wishes, the Mozarts accept a maid’s services offered by an anonymous admirer, and we soon learn that Salieri has hired the maid as a spy, and she soon teaches Salieri that, contrary to emperor’s orders, Mozart has been working on an operatic adaptation of the bawdy, lascivious Marriage of Figaro. After much court intrigue, the opera goes forward, and Salieri, watching from the balcony, reluctantly admits the music to be some of the most beautiful he has ever heard, but gets a measure of satisfaction when the emperor ostentatiously yawns, a clear sign that the show will not have a long life. Salieri premieres his own opera Axur: King of Ormus, and the audience and emperor love it, but when Salieri asks Mozart for his reaction he says “only Salieri could have written it.” Mozart’s father dies and Mozart pours his grief and ailing health into Don Giovanni, giving Salieri an idea, and Salieri soon appears dressed in a full face-and-cloak costume of Leopold’s, paying him to write a Requiem that Salieri plans to steal after killing him. Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder (played by Simon Callow, who played Mozart in the original West End production) wants to pay him to write a low-class popera, and Constanze’s arguments with him over this lead (leed) to her leaving him. Mozart’s new work, The Magic Flute, is well received, but during a performance Mozart collapses, and Salieri helps him home. They work on the Requiem all night, with each confessing untold affection for the other. Salieri receives Schikaneder and his cash at the front door, paying and lying to Mozart that the cloaked man gave him this as a down payment with more tomorrow if he would only finish the requiem tonight. Constanze senses troubles, travels, arrives, locks away the unfinished requiem, insists upon Salieri’s objections that he leave, then discovers Mozart is dead. Mozart is taken out of the city and unceremoniously buried in a mass grave during a rainstorm; Salieri realizes the requiem would have been no revelation at such a sparsely attended service. In 1823, Volger is too stunned to forgive Salieri, leaving Salieri to blame a “merciful” God who preferred to destroy His beloved Mozart rather than allow Salieri to share in His glory. Salieri promises, with bitter irony, to pray for Volger and all the world’s mediocrities as the “patron saint” of their order, and as Salieri is wheeled down a hallway, he absolves the hospital’s patients.

Amadeus is about many things; one of them is the ineffectiveness of father figures, from God to Father Vogler to the fathers of Mozart and Salieri to, arguably, Mozart and Salieri themselves. In the end, separated from his child, Mozart grows up, redeems himself, and expresses sincere affection for Salieri and sorrow for his previous actions, but Salieri fails to improve, never telling Mozart his role in Mozart’s destruction. The tagline of the poster for Amadeus said “Everything you’ve heard is true,” which was not exactly music to the ears of classical music purists, who pointed out dozens of the film’s lies. As one of Britain’s most longstanding successes, playwright Peter Shaffer was certainly permitted dramatic license, and in writing Amadeus he certainly took it: there is no record of Salieri murdering Mozart or even being jealous of him. Salieri wasn’t bitter or chaste; he was a family man with eight kids and a mistress. That license is why Amadeus ultimately unfolds unlike any other great film by resonating with the old people that most of us actually know in our actual lives, richly dramatizing their decades of regret. It’s a theme that might be closer to a biopic of, say the 18thcentury’s two most successful haberdashers, but I’m not sure audiences would be willing to watch that movie.

I love the title, because it mocks Salieri in a way that “Mozart” wouldn’t. Not only is Mozart well-known enough for even his middle name to be famous, but consider the Latin roots – Amadeus means “loved by God.” In retrospect, it seems strange that studios would reject a film that would have such ample justification to be saturated with public-domain music, but as Forman later said, the studios hoped for hits that would play on MTV. For the first and last time, in 1984, all the Best Song nominees had been #1 songs – Against All Odds, Ghostbusters, Footloose, Let’s Hear It for the Boy, and the winner, I Just Called to Say I Love You. Prince’s Purple Rain won Best Original Song Score. Yet Amadeus may have succeeded exactly because it was a kind of counter-programming for viewers less enamored of MTV, and indeed after its release in September 1984 it earned more than four times its budget and 11 Oscar nominations. Maurice Jarre, winning that year’s Oscar for Best Original Score for A Passage to India, joked that he was lucky Mozart wasn’t on the ballot. Amadeus won eight Academy Awards, including Picture and Director, making Forman and Zaentz the first director-producer duo to go two-for-two at the Academy Awards since David Lean and Sam Spiegel made Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Influenced by: Forman’s humanism and cynicism; a great Broadway show

Influenced: reminded Hollywood to make films for adults for at least another ten years


A92. Platoon (Stone, 1986) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“See, y’all been trying to keep the black man down, and string him out on that shit. But the time be’s comin, my man, when the black man? Throw that yoke off.”

After pitching Platoon for more than a decade, Oliver Stone also wrote Salvador, about an American journalist covering El Salvador’s civil war in the early 1980s, in the hopes that he could sell Salvador and Platoon as a package which would include him directing at least Platoon. Finally, in 1985, Stone caught a few breaks, like the Time magazine cover-led national discussion about the ten-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war that came just before the smash success of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. In fact, that film’s summer 1985 success led to an entire cycle of films about the Vietnam war, including Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Good Morning Vietnam, and Casualties of War. Dino De Laurentiis, John Daly of Hemdale Films, and Orion Pictures saw what was happening, loved both of Stone’s scripts, and signed the deal Stone wanted for him to direct both Salvador and Platoon. Stone started with Salvador because he could make it in Mexico and train himself as a medium-budget director before shipping off to the Philippines, but he promised his backers he would get Platoon into theaters by Christmas 1986, in time for that year’s Oscars. He barely made it. Stone promised to make Platoon for about $6 million, or one-third of what was allocated to Coppola for Apocalypse Now almost a decade before. Stone didn’t make that, finishing around $6.5 million.

Starting with Salvador also gave Stone time to storyboard Platoon and negotiate with Ferdinand Marcos’s government in the Philippines. In February 1986, the People Power Revolution deposed Marcos two days before Platoon’s scheduled start date, Marcos fleeing for Hawaii with about a billion stolen dollars that included money from Orion for Platoon. After new negotiations, Corazon Aquino’s nascent government let stand Marcos’s contracts with Stone and Orion, including the loaning of some massive military armaments. Instead of reinforcing Marcos’ thugs, this equipment reinforced realism during a 30-day bootcamp, led by Vietnam veteran Dale Dye, in which cast members like Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Keith David, Johnny Depp rationed food and water, dug foxholes, got frog-marched, and were subject to nighttime blank-round ambushes. Stone said he wanted to “get that dog-tired, don’t give a damn attitude, the anger, the irritation … the casual approach to death.” Tom Berenger played Barnes, but many actors were considered for the role including James Woods, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Costner, and Emilio Estevez. Some critics groused about the casting of Estevez’s brother, Charlie Sheen, in the voice-overing lead role of Taylor as too simple and banal a connection to Charlie’s father Martin’s voice-overing lead in Apocalypse Now. In retrospect, if you watch one right after the other, the experiences are complementary, one from the river and one from the jungle, each film idiosyncratically intimating the ineffable inhumanity of fighting a war that can’t and probably shouldn’t be fought.

Platoon begins with the arenaceous airport arrival of rookie recruits like Chris Taylor, who is soon walking through the jungle with the 25th Infantry, where he collapses after being attacked by…uh, ants. Taylor’s platoon is led by young Lieutenant Wolfe but really overseen by two Sergeants, and Taylor learns Sergeant Barnes is a ball-buster and Sergeant Elias is empathetic. Taylor’s voice-over begins “Somebody once wrote, Hell is the impossibility of reason. That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” On a night patrol, a camouflaged Taylor watches as North Vietnamese Army troops approach, but he is apparently too afraid to articulate words, and in the brief skirmish his platoon-mate Gardner is killed. Barnes blames Taylor for falling asleep even as Taylor protests that he didn’t. Later, at camp, Taylor bonds with Elias and some sinsemilla-smoking soldiers as they sing to Smokey’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” The black soldiers discuss the difficulties of being black in a white man’s army; one of them, King, laughs at Taylor when he says he volunteered rather than let a poor kid take his place, King saying “You gotta be rich to even think that way.” After three men are killed by booby traps on a patrol, Taylor voice-overs “The village, which had stood for maybe 1,000 years, didn’t know we were coming that day. If they had, they would have run.” Taylor’s troops treat the villagers as though they’re helping the NVA, including Taylor angrily shooting at the ground to make a one-legged man “dance” before a fellow soldier, Bunny, happily bashes his brains in. A woman shoots her mouth off at Barnes and he responds by shooting his gun off at her, killing her and threatening a little girl before Elias shows up and tackles Barnes. As they’re separated, Wolfe razzes them by saying that the village is to be razed to the ground, and as it burns, several soldiers are about to gang rape two young girls when Taylor breaks it up. (You can really see Stone’s Oscar-winning writing in Taylor’s line, “You don’t get it, do you? You just don’t get it.”) Back at base, Captain Harris warns that if he learns of an illegal killing, there will be a court-martial, causing Barnes to warily eye Elias. Chris voice-overs that morale is low with half the platoon for Barnes and half for Elias, fighting themselves when they should be fighting the NVA. A major firefight goes badly, wounding several of them and forcing them to retreat for extraction by chopper. In the chaos, Barnes’ group separates from Elias’s group but Barnes doubles back to find Elias, and as they look at each other alone, Barnes shoots him in the chest in cold blood. Barnes encounters Taylor on his way to the chopper and tells him Elias is dead and he will be too if he doesn’t hustle. As their chopper ascends, Taylor sees Elias running from the NVA to the extraction point; in the film’s poster shot, the Cong soldiers shoot him dead as he lifts his blood-soaked hands to the heavens. Back at base, Taylor tries to convince the other soldiers to exact revenge on Barnes, but Barnes overhears this, mocks them, goads Taylor into attacking him, overpowers Taylor, waves a knife in Taylor’s face, and listens to another soldier warning that Taylor’s not worth ten years in prison. Barnes looks as though he might give Taylor the sort of all-over facial scar that he has, but instead cuts about an inch near Taylor’s left eye. King receives his orders to return home, and his long goodbye with Taylor readies us to see this African-American man killed by surprise, but the surprise is that he makes it out of Vietnam. Soon comes the New Year’s Day 1968 battle, a brutal barrage of bloodshed based on history, during which most of Taylor’s platoon is eventually killed. Taylor finds the courage he’s been lacking for most of the film, and emerges from his foxhole shooting many Vietnamese. Barnes is wounded, near-insane, and ready to kill Taylor when both men are rendered unconscious because of their own side’s air strike. Taylor picks up a rifle the next morning and points it at Barnes, who first asks for a medic and, seeing that’s not about to happen, says “do it.” With a somewhat crazed look in his eye, Taylor does it, killing Barnes dead. Now twice wounded, Taylor is permitted to go home, and Sheen is permitted something his father didn’t get at the end of Apocalypse Now, a summarizing voice over as he is coptered out: “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” Speaking of Barnes and Elias, he says, “I’ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.”

Working hard with Claire Simpson on editing, Oliver Stone kept his promise to finish Platoon in time for Christmas 1986, where its timing benefitted by the bombshell of the Iran-contra affair then dominating American newspapers and broadcasts; knowing that President Reagan had secretly and illegally funded an anti-Communist insurgence in a foreign jungle, some were reminded of our mistakes in Vietnam. Platoon became a runaway smash in a way that $7 million dramas would never do 20 years later, earning almost $140 million in the U.S. and Canada. Platoon might have done well anyway as the first major Vietnam film released since Rambo became a regular reference; Platoon was the revelatory, realistic anti-Rambo, heavily promoted as the first studio film written and directed by a Vietnam veteran. Although not as consciously artistic as Coppola, Stone proved himself an interesting and efficient director, suitable for a more populist story of simple soldiers. The final sentiment about “fighting ourselves” wasn’t as respectful as it might have been to the war’s Vietnamese victims, but that was in line with the film’s treatment of black people: neither deeply regressive nor progressive. Years later, Stone would try to represent the war’s Vietnamese perspective with Heaven and Earth, a film that audiences ignored. Platoon, though, was nominated for eight Oscars and won four, including Best Director and Best Picture. 

Influenced by: Stone’s life and work about violent men (e.g. Scarface, Salvador); 1960s soundtrack nostalgia

Influenced: won Best Picture; Stone became a staple of educated/grown-up Hollywood, later a conservative punching bag


A93. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.”

Scorsese was wary of making another Mob movie, even though he had only made one-and-a-half, Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Marty was less worried about being pigeonholed and more worried about glorifying violence, but he adored Nick Pileggi’s book precisely because, unlike that standard-setter The Godfather, it was no way ennobling about the personal consequences of violence. Scorsese will tell you he modeled the style of Goodfellas on Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, adding that he used “all the basic tricks of the New Wave from around 1961.” Scorsese extensively storyboarded all of his sudden setting switches, whip pans, pushes in and out, freeze frames, all to demonstrate the frenetic gangster lifestyle. Marty said, “I don’t care if there’s too much narration. Too many quick cuts?—That’s too bad. It’s that kind of really punk attitude we’re trying to show.” Scorsese may have used the term punk, but most of the events took place between 1955 and 1975, and in fact Scorsese approached scenes almost like videos to some of his favorite songs of the period. Marty has also spoken about Goodfellas as a mob home movie that would almost unconsciously reveal the mobsters’ materialism at the expense of any other ethics. Scorsese’s Christ may have had a last temptation; as the saying goes, the Goodfellas can resist anything but temptation.

Irwin Winkler, by then producer of all five Rocky movies as well as Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, and many other films, signed on as the perfect producer for Goodfellas, knowing full well that to make the movie Marty wanted, they would need no less than $20 million. For that, Goodfellas needed a studio and a star, and they got Warner Bros. after Scorsese got Robert DeNiro to commit for their sixth film together. Together, Marty and Bobby rounded up the film’s Tommy, hiring Joe Pesci ten years after DeNiro had plucked him from restaurant-work obscurity to make Raging Bull. For the lead role of Henry Hill, DeNiro liked the explosive energy he saw from Ray Liotta in a supporting role in 1986’s Something Wild. Despite the extensively planned shoot, Scorsese placed a high premium on improvisation, recorded the actors’ rehearsal sessions, consulted with them about everyone’s favorite lines, and revised the script he’d been writing with Pileggi. Among other scenes, the famous “you think I’m funny?” vignette came from this workshopping, loosely based on a real experience of Pesci’s at his restaurant where Pesci was on the other end of the conversation. Scorsese kept his actors from meeting their real-life referents, and not only because he didn’t want their performances colored: crucially, Warner Bros. couldn’t be accused of collaborating with confirmed criminals. To assure the criminals couldn’t sue the studio for libel or defamation, most names and characters were changed just enough, with the exception of Henry Hill, who could have sued even if his name had been changed to Albert Einstein. After rounds of negotiations that Hill has since extensively detailed on the Howard Stern Show, two weeks before principal photography, Warners paid Hill $480,000. If that seems like too much, note that it was part of the largest budget yet controlled by Scorsese, $25 million.

Goodfellas begins with a classic 60s muscle car speeding down a lonely road at night. A dashboard camera introduces us to the driver, 28-year-old Henry Hill, and his associates Jimmy and Tommy, as they hear bumpy noises, pull over the car, and open the trunk. When they see their victim is still kicking, they kill him with extreme prejudice and as Hill closes the trunk the camera zooms into Hill’s worried face as it freeze-frames to red and Hill voice-overs, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” In 1955, 13-year-old Henry jealously observes the supreme privileges of gangsters in his working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Young Henry begins doing part-time fence work for local capo Paulie Cicero and then, over his parents’ sometimes violent objections, does more and more jobs for Paulie, coming to work directly for Jimmy and Tommy. As a young teen, Hill wears expensive suits, blows up cars, and gets pinched, the latter leading to loud validation from his fellow lowlifes. By 1963, 21-year-old Henry Hill lives high on the hog offering protection a.k.a. pushing people for percentages. In a crowded club, Tommy asks Henry “wait I’m funny to you? Like a clown is funny?” and Henry hesitates at the threat, but everyone eventually laughs it off. Henry goes on a double date with Tommy, where he meets Karen Friedman, a Jewish woman he treats terribly until she dresses him down in front of his friends, followed by Henry growing fond of her feistiness. In one of the most famous shots of the 1990s, which lasts about three minutes, Henry walks Karen into the Copacabana club through a side entrance, proving himself a well-known big shot as the waiters bring a new table to the front row where he and Karen sit and watch Henny Youngman (played by Henny Youngman). One day, Karen calls Henry in crisis because a neighbor touched her inappropriately, and Henry picks her up, drives her home, walks across the street, pistol-whips the neighbor in front of two of his friends, walks back to Karen’s, and hands her his bloody gun. Karen takes over some of the voice-over, saying “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I gotta admit the truth. It turned me on.” Smash cut to their wedding day, where Karen voice-overs meeting what seems an Italian villaggio. Karen also walks us through time-wasting with the wives, vacations with Jimmy, and a measure of the material betterments. In 1970, made man Billy Batts, just out of the joint, repeatedly insults Tommy’s shoeshine past, leading to Tommy and Jimmy beating the life out of him, leading us to understand that the film’s opening scene is about Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry burying Billy Batts’ body because killing a made man invites retribution. Playing poker, Tommy pesters a young intern, Spider, to “dance” a la Taylor in Platoon, but Tommy actually shoots Spider’s foot; back from the hospital, Spider tells Tommy to go fuck himself, causing Jimmy and Henry to laugh until Tommy shoots Spider dead in cold blood. In 1974, Karen first appears at Henry’s mistress’s apartment shouting that she’s a whore, second wakes Henry with a gun in his face, third gets thrown over and mortally threatened by Henry. Jimmy and Henry pick up a debt from a gambler in Tampa, but upon return get pinched and are apportioned ten-year sentences in prison. Visiting, Karen wears a heavy down coat and screams about his infidelities while unloading his smuggled cargo including drugs that Henry sells to an inmate from Pittsburgh. Four years later, Henry gets released, gets scolded by Paulie about infidelity and cocaine dealing, and moves the family to Pittsburgh anyway where drug dealing becomes so profitable that he clandestinely brings Tommy and Jimmy in on his deals. Jimmy organizes a raid of a vault at JFK Airport that goes almost too well, leading to one criminal buying a new car. To the sounds of the second half of “Layla,” a lively montage walks us through the discovery of gangsters Jimmy has whacked to cut ties between himself and the raid. Henry voice-overs that because he and Jimmy aren’t full-blood Italian, they can’t be made men, but Jimmy treated the imminent prospect of Tommy being made with delight, as though they were all about to be made…and then Jimmy is devastated by the news that on the way to his ceremony Tommy is murdered because of Billy Batts and other things. In 1980, Henry walks us through a long coke-fueled day of family dinner prep, drug distribution, and helicopter monitoring, culminating in Henry’s arrest. After Karen’s mom mortgages her house to make Henry’s bail, Henry freaks upon finding out Karen flushed their final $60,000 down the toilet, not cash but cocaine she was keeping from the cops. In a vertiginously filmed shot of Jimmy and Henry talking in their usual diner, Henry asks Jimmy to travel to whack a rat, but the singularity of the request leads Henry to believe he would never make it back alive, and so Henry enrolls himself and Karen in the witness protection program and fingers Paulie and Jimmy. In the courtroom scene, Henry’s voice-over becomes Henry breaking the fourth wall to tell us “Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.” We see Henry in suburbia unhappy, wearing a robe while picking up his newspaper, and living “the rest of my life like a schnook.”

While Antonio Salieri ended by absolving his fellow mediocrities, while Private Taylor ended by hoping to do something good and meaningful with his life, Henry is far more banal or even wistful about violence. Goodfellas, not unlike Platoon, is a powerful indictment of clubby toxic white masculinity and the insensitivity and violence that results, but the ending comes close to hoping for more violence.

Appropriately, Goodfellas premiered in Italy, at the Venice International Film Festival in September 1990, where Scorsese won the Silver Lion for Best Director, helping set up the film for its American premiere a couple of weeks later. It did well for a fall release, earning a little less than double its $25 million budget. Latter-day Scorsese fans who lament the film’s little under-performance amongst audiences, critics, and awards-giving groups rarely mention how many may have suffered from Mob fatigue from a surfeit of mafia/mobster motion pictures that came out in 1990: Miller’s Crossing, State of Grace, King of New York, Dick Tracy, The Freshman, and more. Rambo prompted the Vietnam film cycle, but the mob movies were motivated by three factors: extensive coverage of the trial of John Gotti and his associates, nascent gangster rap and dawning white awareness of L.A.’s Crips and Bloods (partly because of the Sean Penn/Robert Duvall film Colors) and the related convincing of Francis Ford Coppola that it was finally time to accept Paramount’s longstanding offer to make The Godfather Part III. In many ways, Goodfellas was a better Godfather Part III than Godfather Part III, something that was sometimes said during the Oscar race in which both films were nominated for Best Picture. 

Influenced by: Jules et Jim and many, many other Scorsese favorites

Influenced: hard to know how many filmmakers return to Scorsese masterpieces for film ideas; probably more than would admit it 


A94. Dances With Wolves (Costner, 1990) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I never got to thank all of you for saving me. I did not mind killing those men. I was glad to do it. But now I know that the soldiers hate me like they hate no other. Because I killed soldiers, men of my own race, they think I am a traitor.”

Michael Blake had the idea for his A Man Called Horse update as early as 1983 when he wrote a very low-budget card sharp dramedy called Stacy’s Knights, directed by Jim Wilson and starring, in his first film being first-credited, Kevin Costner. After that bombed, Blake scribed a spec script about a soldier going Native, shopped it around Hollywood, and solicited zero interest. Costner encouraged Blake to turn the script into a novel to make the script more attractive to producers, an idea that also went badly for a while, until finally Fawcett Books published a paperback-only version, perhaps assisted by Costner’s urging or imprimatur or funding after starring in The Untouchables and No Way Out in 1987. Jim Wilson, now acting as producer, shopped the novel-adapted script of Dances with Wolves everywhere, eliciting even more studio skepticism until Costner’s stardom rose with Bull Durham and then Field of Dreams. In Costner’s presentations, he showed his storyboards, named all his chosen film stocks, lens measures, and light meter settings, and explained that he and Wilson would hire a chair of Lakota Studies to supervise every word of non-English dialogue. 34-year-old Kevin Costner also insisted on directing and receiving final cut because he worried that any other director might efface or eliminate the exceptional elements of Dances with Wolves, namely its South Dakota plains, hour of subtitles, near anti-whiteness, and likely three-hour running time. After every major studio said no to Costner’s dreams of Iowa-adjacent fields, Orion Pictures decided that if they built it at about $20 million, people would come.

Dances with Wolves did well to hire a discerning director of photography, Dean Simler, who had shot The Road Warrior and its sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In South Dakota, Costner was granted rare access to almost 3,000 head of buffalo from the Triple U Buffalo Ranch near Fort Pierre to film the sort of buffalo hunt that no film had ever captured. Although the scene only takes a few film minutes, Costner well understood its centrality to both the narrative and the film’s eventual marketing. Costner and Wilson built the spare Fort Sedgwick set on a separate part of the same Triple U Buffalo Ranch, in part to pay and get use for his month’s worth of rent to the Ranch, and in part to let he and the Lakota actors ride their horses peacefully around the buffalo during off periods. Production in South Dakota began in July 1989, and went reasonably well for months until it began to rain; the script has no rainy scenes. Meanwhile, a ruinous storm was brewing at Orion Pictures, which was just barely able to loan Costner and Wilson their finishing funds through November 1989.

At the battle of St. David’s Field in Tennessee in 1863, Union First Lieutenant John Dunbar awakes with a badly wounded right foot. Choosing death over amputation, Dunbar rides his horse into a neutral field between combatants, throws his arms into the air (not unlike Elias in the Platoon poster), and causes Confederates to constantly miss him as a sudden surge from Yankee soldiers wins the skirmish. After surviving his suicide sortie, Dunbar receives foot-saving medical care, a commendation, a horse named Cisco, and his choice of posting. Dunbar requests the most remote post possible “to see the frontier before it disappears,” and rides through rapturously resplendent panoramas of South Dakota on his way to the nondescript log cabin that is Fort Sedgwick. Despite the fort being deserted and/or overrun by Indians, Dunbar remains there alone, where he meets and slowly befriends a lone wolf he names Two Socks. Sioux scouts see this white guy and decide to ride their horses near him, taunt him, and maybe take his horse; Dunbar points his flintlock in their ululating faces while carefully not firing. Dunbar tells his journal, and thus us, that he’s tired of being a target and it’s time to try to talk, but on his way to their camp he comes upon a bleeding woman whom he places with him atop his horse. Dunbar catches his breath at the beauty of the Lakota village, but after the locals seize the woman they loudly chase him off. Led by holy man Kicking Bird, the indigenous begin to visit Dunbar without iniquitous intentions, but when their language barrier keeps them apart, Kicking Bird approaches the white woman we saw wounded, Stands with a Fist. She refuses to try to remember the English from her childhood, and we flashback to her as a blonde child being kidnapped by the Pawnee. Little by little, the Lakota and the Lieutenant become familiar, with the latter learning to like the former’s lifestyle. Together they go tracking tatanka, a.k.a. buffalo, and when they find at least a hundred hideless husks slaughtered for no more than fur and tongues, Dunbar voice-overs his guilt that whites had to be responsible. Dunbar has a lucky encounter and leads the Lakota to a spectacular tatanka hunt. One day the Indians see Dunbar near his fort goofing around with Two Socks, and Stands with a Fist haltingly tells Dunbar that the tribe has started to call him Dances with Wolves (Sungmanitu Thanka Ob Wachi). Stands with a Fist slowly starts speaking English even as Dunbar slowly starts speaking Sioux, and the two fall in love and he moves in with the tribe. Dunbar gets a chance to prove his loyalty when he high-tails his horse to get, and hands out, his fort’s rifles to help his friends repel a Pawnee raid, and soon Kicking Bird marries Stands with a Fist to the man who now calls himself Dances with Wolves. Because of the encroaching Pawnee and rumors of nearby Yankee soldiers, Chief Ten Bears decides to move the tribe to their winter camp, causing “Dunbars with Wolves” to dash to his dirt-fort to get his diary that would be like a Lakota directory to any army division. DWW arrives to spy soldiers swarming over Fort Sedgwick, and when they see him in the distance dressed in Native duds they knock him unconscious and kill Cisco. Illiterate soldiers use Dunbar’s journal as toilet paper. Our hero in chains in a military convoy, the obnoxious white soldiers call him traitor, deserter, and Injun-lover, but keep him alive as a possible interpreter even as they kill Two Socks for sport. On a river, the Sioux attack the convoy as Dances with Wolves rises to help, and we woot-woot as the whites get their butts whooped. In a tribal meeting, DWW worries that whites will now pursue a vendetta against him that will endanger the tribe. In the final shot, Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist ride away from the tribe into the snowy mountains as title cards tell us that 13 years later, the last of the free Sioux were forced to surrender to the U.S. government. 

The flatness combined with occasional texture of most of the film’s South Dakota locations matches the mostly-flat-ness of Costner’s performance and direction; another director or actor might have made Dunbar seem more suicidal in the opener, or made Dunbar seem more of the antisocial “lone wolf” that his friend Two Socks apparently represents. The normcore Costner style contrasts well with the soulful Native American actors, starting with Graham Greene who was nominated for an Oscar for his splendid performance. As they say in Hollywood, you can’t argue with numbers, and Dances with Wolves was a smash hit sensation, earning almost $200 million in the U.S. and Canada and more than that abroad, making it the second-highest-grossing film released in 1990 and the highest-earning three-hour film, ever, at the time. Those numbers combined with its epic western scope made its Best Picture and Best Director wins almost inevitable. 

Yes, Dances With Wolves is a classic “white savior” movie – Lakota Sioux activist Russell Means dismissed it as “Lawrence of the Plains” – because even if it isn’t explicitly stated, the film makes it feel as though Dunbar is teaching the Lakota how to hunt buffalo and how to shoot guns at their Pawnee enemy. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking the film’s broadly liberal, inclusive, revisionist historical biases. Historians have written that after Reagan left office, during the first Bush administration, Americans of all stripes embraced a certain long-suppressed pluralism, as evidenced by then-popular music, TV, food, celebrities, and the beginnings of Ivy League Ethnic Studies departments. Much more than Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing or any other white gangster film, Dances with Wolves both reflected and influenced what was then proudly called multiculturalism. Costner’s film certainly helped to greenlight at least a dozen major films by or about Native Americans in the 1990s. 

Influenced by: “going native” stories like Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and Conrad’s “Lord Jim”; films like Broken Arrowand Little Big Man; western grandeur

Influenced by: “going native” stories like Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and Conrad’s “Lord Jim”; films like Broken Arrowand Little Big Man; western grandeur

Influenced: a minor Renaissance in films about Native Americans


A95. The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?”

For the interested, I highly recommend Yvonne Tasker’s excellent BFI book and, of course, Thomas Harris’ source novel, although if you, like one of its characters, like your meat rare, you should consider that this is the rare case where the film is better than its book. A lot of that regards casting, which almost turned out rather differently. On the strength of Harris’ book Red Dragon, adapted into the unsuccessful 1986 film Manhunter starring Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter, Orion and Gene Hackman purchased the rights to the sequel even as Harris was writing it, with Hackman eyeing playing Lecter or Jack Crawford, the supervising FBI Lieutenant. Dino De Laurentiis, enjoying the windfall that was Platoon but not the bomb that was Manhunter, owned the rights to the Lecter character and let Orion have them for free. After Hackman actually read Harris’ book and the script Orion had paid Ted Tally to write, Hackman decided the project was “too violent,” leading to Orion’s Mike Medavoy hiring one mister Jonathan Demme. Demme had come up through Roger Corman’s independent films, directed the best concert documentary of all time (it begins with the song “Psycho Killer”), and then made the off-kilter, only-in-the-80s films Something Wild and Married to the Mob, the latter marking the first major lead for Michelle Pfieffer, whom Demme begged to play Clarice Starling. Michelle and Meg Ryan both found the material much too macabre, but Demme would have been happy to hire Laura Dern if Orion hadn’t dismissed her for not being a known name. Coming off an Oscar for playing a victim, Jodie Foster campaigned hard for and won the lead role of a woman who helps victims. Demme, in turn, campaigned hard for Sean Connery to play Lecter, but Connery agreed with Hackman and a studio executive who said “Nobody wants to see a movie about skinning women.” Orion dangled the script before several other A-listers before finally settling for Anthony Hopkins, who was barely known outside of art-film circles. To misquote Hopkins’ character, “The significance of the (casting) is change.” At least Orion could save a little money on actor salaries; the final budget for Lambs wound up about the same as that of Wolves, $19 million.

Michael Mann’s Manhunter contrasted colorful exteriors to the white blankness of Hannibal Lecter’s cell; Jonathan Demme favored a pointedly prosaic palette of blues, greys, and browns throughout, including browning Foster’s natural blonde hair. Working closely with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and production designer Kristi Zea, Demme set up Gothic interiors and Mid-Atlantic winter exteriors without the long shadows that characterized many of Hitchcock’s descendants like Brian DePalma and Adrian Lyne. Tasker writes that “Hitchcock looms large over The Silence of the Lambs,” and she draws unsurprising parallels with 1960’s Psycho and more surprising parallels with 1940’s Rebecca. When you read an entire book about a beloved movie, you get brief details you never noticed like, say, many many mannequins: in The Silence of the Lambs, they’re seen in Buffalo Bill’s basement, at the Baltimore storage facility, in the dress-maker’s modest home, and even in the foyer of the Memphis courthouse, contributing to what Tasker names as “sinister iconography of disembodied and dehumanized personhood.” Tasker doesn’t connect these motifs to the film’s close closeups for one-on-one conversations that slightly suggest severed heads, which is just as well, because I prefer to think of those closeups only as heightening our emotional investment. Howard Shore turned out to be the perfect composer right down to his name, because instead of overwhelming the actors, his music shores them up.

The Silence of the Lambs begins with Clarice Starling ascending a rope up a hill, jogging through the forest to the FBI’s Quantico Academy, taking an elevator with tall men, and getting summoned to the office of Jack Crawford. When Crawford assigns Starling an “interesting errand” of interviewing imprisoned cannibalistic psychopath Hannibal Lecter, she asks if the urgency relates to Crawford’s wall full of articles about the manhunt for serial killer Buffalo Bill, and Crawford replies no and don’t let Lecter inside your head. At an awfully Gothic hospital, supervisor Dr. Chilton hits on Starling several times, but when he tells her “you’re just Lecter’s taste” she retorts, “I went to UVA, it’s not a charm school.” Starling descends down, down, down, through no fewer than five ferric gates into a stony dungeon of solitary cells, where Lecter is the last loathsome lifer on the left. Lecter questions Starling’s trainee credentials and West Virginia farm origins, and when she wants him to fill out a form, he fondly recalls a census-taker he once faced: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (inhale) As Clarice leaves, a prisoner throws his semen at her, causing Lecter to clue her to a storage facility, where Starling eventually finds a severed head in a jar. In Starling’s second session with Lecter, he is cagey about Clarice’s personal life and the come-tosser ingesting his own tongue, but eventually says “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice,” offering information about Buffalo Bill in exchange for dispatch from the clutches of the childish Chilton. Young average-sized Catherine Martin drives while singing along to the self-referential song “American Girl,” parks, helps a man move a couch into a van, and is struck and kidnapped by this man we now know to be Buffalo Bill. On the way to one of Bill’s victims, Starling asks Crawford why he lied about the errand, and he answers that if she’d approached him with an agenda Lecter would have toyed with her and clammed up. The viewing of the body includes the victim’s entirely flayed back, a death’s head moth stuffed in her throat, and Jack’s sexist humiliation of Clarice to a roomful of officers, about which she later reprimands him. On TV, U.S. Senator Ruth Martin implores Bill not to hurt her daughter Catherine, leading to Starling’s third interview with Hannibal and her offer if his information is followed by Catherine found alive: transfer to an island prison with many amenities, like a tern’s nest. Lecter asserts “it’ll be turns for us too, but not about this case though,” setting up a quid pro quo of info for info, opening with the quid that “the significance of the moth is change” and that Bill isn’t a real transexual but thinks he is, causing Clarice to counter that there’s no correlation between transsexuality and violence. Starling’s quo begins with her, at ten, losing her policeman father, being sent to a Montana ranch, and trying to run away. Foster’s performance is so protean that we never need to see this in flashbacks; instead we see the triggering nightmare of Catherine stuck in a dark well beneath an unfinished basement, where Buffalo Bill taunts her “it puts the lotion in the basket.” Chilton reveals to Lecter that there wasn’t a deal, but he made one, and Hannibal is masked and strapped and sent to Memphis where he gives the Senator tips and taunts and is tossed into a courthouse cell. Clarice comes to Memphis for her fourth and final one-on-one with Lecter, who claims all she needs is in the case file and demands more quid pro quo. In maybe history’s most famous screen-filling, eyes-into-camera close-up conversation, Clarice talks about being ten in a strange Montana ranch and trying to save spring lambs from slaughter, or at least one, but “he was so heavy, so heavy.” Hannibal asks if she saves Catherine, will she stop waking up in the dark hearing the lambs screaming? The cops drag Starling away before Lecter can quid her quo, though as he passes her the case file his finger brushes against hers in a possible perversion of the best-known painting of Michelangelo (Lecter has been drawing Florence). That evening, Lecter uses a misplaced pin to surprise attack his two guards, and a SWAT team arrives to find one guard flayed-open and arranged like an avenging angel and the other barely breathing with blood all over his bald-faced lacerations. As cops wheel the latter to an ambulance, the SWAT team thinks it has Lecter cornered on top of the elevator car…but in the ambulance, behind a distracted officer, the “guard” rises, pulls off his bloody face, and reveals himself to be Lecter. Starling and ardent agent friend Ardelia have a screen-filling face-to-face where they quote Lecter “do we seek out things to covet? No,” sending Clarice to Bill’s Ohio hometown where she works out that the first victim was a dress-maker. She calls Crawford to clue him that Bill is creating a dress of human skin, but he tells her they’re already en route to arrest him and if she wants to assist, solicit a statement from that first victim’s friends. In a classic misdirect, Crawford’s agents appear to be ringing Bill’s doorbell when actually Bill answers the door for Starling. She hunts him into his little cellar of horrors, where Catherine holds Bill’s dog hostage in the well, but Bill kills the lights and voyeuristically observes a panting Clarice until he clicks his gun’s trigger lock and she wheels and blows him away. Starling graduates from the FBI Academy to a beaming Jack Crawford and a phone call from Hannibal Lecter, who says he won’t call on her because “the world’s more interesting with you in it.” The final shot is of Lecter following Chilton through a Caribbean crowd after crowing to Starling “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Give Thomas Harris credit for the, ah, bones of a powerful story, particularly in its use of animal-kingdom metaphors. Birds figure in prison tales from Birdman of Alcatraz to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but insects also fly, and Harris’s story subtly suggests that to save women we may need to alter aspects of our anthropocentric worldview, from cannibalism to sex-changes to a Starling failing to teach a sheep to fly. But Tally’s script and Demme’s choices elevate the material, for example by filming Clarice walking through threshold after threshold, making us feel this Starling is breaking out of a cocoon. Foster and Hopkins’ performances are gold-standard, making you want what their characters want in a way that no novel could quite match. The film was released on Valentine’s Day 1991 (“people will say we’re in love”), lasted in theaters through Halloween, and surprised many when it was nominated for the major Academy Awards. As I said, the release date was meant to be Christmas 1990, but it’s hard to imagine The Silence of the Lambs sweeping any Oscars right after being released; the film may have needed its own visible rites of passage from critical darling to sleeper hit to news show talking point to video rental sensation just so that enough voters could appreciate its range and depth. After It Happened One Night and Cuckoo’s NestThe Silence of the Lambs is famously the third and so far final film to “sweep” the five major Oscar categories of Script, Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture.

One thing you very rarely saw before or after Starling’s 1991 journey was a female investigator consistently working alone while solving a crime and meting out justice. In some ways Starling is to Lecter as Willard is to Kurtz, although Demme’s sans-shadow naturalism is so assiduous that we’re manipulated away from the more mythic elements. The film attracted a lot more would-be Clarice Starlings to the FBI than to Hollywood screens. After a few films like Copycat, Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, and The Cell, Clarices disappeared from cinema but were sometimes found on TV sometimes doing the sort of forensic analysis that Demme’s film also inspired. (The Silence of the Lambs is also known for having accustomed agitated Americans to the horrors of crime scenes.) The Silence of the Lambs is generally seen as a feminist milestone not least because Starling works alone to save women from a serial killer, intersectionally confronts people on civil rights and trans identity, and fends off advances from every man in the movie, but some felt her mission and identity were compromised by being defined by male authority figures, right up to the father she mourns and surpasses. Filmic females performing well in traditionally male professions often have daddy issues, but Jodie Foster found herself in the unique position of being asked to answer for her film’s homophobia by at least coming out of the closet herself. Demme and Tally thought their film had been careful not to be homophobic or transphobic, but critics said the film fell back on images of swishy gender deviance and gay male identity as psychopathic, virtually provoking anti-gay violence. Demme reacted to this criticism as no other director before or since: with the blank check supplied by the success of Silence, Demme cast Tom Hanks as a gay AIDS sufferer and Denzel Washington as his homophobic attorney in the hit film Philadelphia that helped erase the stigma of AIDS. Every other famous director under critique should do likewise, or do better.

I doubt all the voters who have voted Hannibal Lecter history’s greatest movie villain fully understood what they were voting for, but I’m here to tell them something that isn’t in Yvonne Tasker’s book. Because of trends that went back decades, made more acute because of the Bush administration pluralism I mentioned, by 1991, white men felt caged. No longer the assured breadwinners or authorities in their households, they felt that their years of work and erudition had been dismissed, repressed, even walled off. When Hannibal meets Clarice, she fulfills a wish white men couldn’t even admit to themselves. Deep down in the holes of their souls they knew that someday a smart, beautiful woman would make them feel useful again. And they get to live the fantasy of treating her with both contempt and charm; they get to know her better than she knows herself, as confirmed by the title of the story. 

Influenced by: the real FBI (employed by the film), feminism, serial killer research

Influenced: the real FBI (increased applications), horror, thrillers, obscene representation beyond The Wild Bunch


A96. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“We all have it comin’, kid.”

In 1991, Clint Eastwood shot a script by David Webb Peoples that he had held onto for the better part of a decade. David Peoples credited Taxi Driver for convincing him that violence could be entertaining, although the violence and Peoples’ title, The Cut-Whore Killings, were reasons that the script languished for years before Eastwood picked up its option. Just about nobody else wanted to make westerns in the 1980s, which was good in that Eastwood didn’t have to fight for Peoples’ script, but bad in that Eastwood had hoped to make a few more statements before hanging up his spurs after making the script he renamed Unforgiven. Eastwood had hoped to wait until he looked old enough to play a retired gunfighter, but after Dances with Wolves became a smash sensation, he knew that Peoples could field other offers and that Eastwood’s then-age of 61 would have to do it. Eastwood had long hoped to film in Canada, but rules mandating local crew held him back, until this film, when Canada allowed a waiver for employees who had made at least five films with Eastwood, which is how roughly 50 Eastwood crew regulars found themselves in rural Alberta from August to November of 1991, none more important his longtime cinematographer Jack N. Green. Frances Farmer, who plays the madam, marveled that Unforgiven was the first all-white production script she’d ever seen – no colored pages to indicate changes. That said, nothing in Peoples’ script suggested that Ned Logan should be played by a black actor, but Eastwood was wise enough to see both the way the early 90s were going as well as the brilliance of Morgan Freeman as a screen presence. Gene Hackman was likewise attuned to the early 90s, and based his performance on something Peoples could hardly have anticipated, namely Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates’ behavior in the wake of America’s first viral video, the March 1991 police beating of Rodney King. 

Unforgiven begins with a calendar-ready sunset shot of a prairie’s lone dilapidated shack near a man digging a grave next to a tree, along with titles that tell us about a mother’s disappointment when her daughter Claudia married the “notoriously vicious” William Munny and then died of smallpox. In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, two cowboys permanently disfigure a young prostitute’s face after she laughs at one of their penises. The sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett, requires the men to compensate the brothel owner with horses, but the whores, outraged, pool their money and offer one thousand dollars to anyone who kills the two cowboys. In the shack from the opener, in rural Kansas, old William Munny is having difficulty corralling pigs with his young kids when a brash, cocky young man self-styled as “The Schofield Kid” tries and fails to recruit Will to go collect the prostitute’s reward. After the Kid leaves, Will reconsiders, falls while trying to mount his horse, rides it to recruit his friend Ned Logan, whose wife Sally Two Trees will oversee Will’s kids. Will and Ned catch up with the Schofield Kid, who is first upset at having to split the reward three ways, and second upset that Ned deduces he is nearsighted. On a train, “English Bob” laughs about the recent assassination of President Garfield and claims that no one tries to shoot a queen. Bob arrives in Big Whiskey with his biographer Beauchamp, who is banging out a biography of Bob, but Bob’s old frenemy Little Bill greets him, disarms him, and brutally beats him while Bill barks a warning to any bum who might hear about it that “there ain’t no whore’s gold!” When Little Bill runs English Bob out of town, Bob curses the town as Beauchamp decides he’d prefer to remain with Bill and bang out Bill’s biography. Little Bill waxes philosophical about violence, as does William Munny, who at campfires acknowledges his violent and drunk past but “I ain’t like that no more,” because Claudia changed and improved him and he’s only doing this one job because he needs the money for his kids. In a driving, Kurosawa-esque rainstorm, Will, Ned and the Kid arrive at the brothel, where Little Bill meets Will and beats him savagely for violating the town’s no-gun policy. The trio gathers outside town to heal and plan and take “advances” on their eventual killing from the prostitutes, although after Will refuses an advance from the disfigured woman, he apologizes that he can’t do such a thing on account of his wife, but if he could he’d be happy to do it with her because…well, they both have scars. The trio finds one of the cowboys, but the Kid can’t see to shoot and Logan loses his nerve, so the shooting falls to Will, who barely manages the kill. After that fracas, the Kid and Will prepare to find the other cowboy, but Ned insists on going home even as Will insists Ned will receive his fair share of the reward. Will and the Kid find the other cowboy in an outhouse, and the Kid hesitates and then shoots him dead. Little Bill’s men intercept Logan and bring him to Bill, and we wince while white Bill pitilessly whips shirtless black Logan for information. In one of the least forgettable scenes of any film, Will Munny and the Kid wait at a tree outside Big Whiskey for the reward, and the Kid drinks, cries, and confesses that despite all his bluster, he’d never killed anyone before that day. When Will says, “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man. You take all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have,” the kid says “Yeah, well, I guess he had it coming,” and Will answers, “We all have it coming, kid.” A prostitute arrives with their reward, and as the Kid says he’s done killing and that Logan can have his rightful share, the woman pipes up that she thought they knew that Little Bill whipped Logan to death for not telling him where Munny was. For the first time since Claudia reformed him, Will succumbs to the temptations of whiskey, and that evening, in another deluge, he enters Big Whiskey to see Ned Logan’s body suspended outside the brothel as a warning to lawbreakers. Will enters the brothel to see Little Bill and his allies, and Munny manages an unmannerly melee. When it’s over, the biographer stammers that Munny killed five men, and when Will answers, “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks,” it sounds like a sentiment Clint Eastwood might say about his career. Little Bill, whose name is so close to Will’s, survives long enough to stammer, “I shouldn’t die like this, I was building a house,” before Will finishes him off and yells some rather scary warnings to the rest of the town as he escapes on his horse. The final shot is the opening shot, except now Will is a fading silhouette visiting the grave, as titles tell us that Claudia’s mother heard that Munny now sells dry good with his kids in San Francisco, but she never learned why her only daughter married such a “notoriously vicious” man. After all the credits, the final title says “Dedicated to Sergio and Don,” who are Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

Unforgiven was released in August 1992 and became into the modest hit that Eastwood hoped it would be. Despite his status as a first-time nominee, Clint Eastwood was seated in a front row aisle seat at the Academy Awards, where host Billy Crystal could and did make jokes at his expense and from where the 62-year-old could and did step up to accept Best Director and Best Picture. Although Oscar viewers had no way to know it at the time, this moment represented one of the most significant transitions in cinema history: America’s greatest still-living Western star would now let Unforgiven stand as his final western, and make some of the next three decades’ most challenging mid-budget Hollywood films. 

Influenced by: Western legends and realisms, the closing of the frontier

Influenced: this film’s Best Picture Oscar then seemed like a career capstone, but turned out to be a license for further decades of strong, thought-provoking cinema


A97. Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“And I asked him, I don’t know how, I could never ask him now, I said, ‘Why are you beating me?’ He said, ‘The reason I beat you now is because you ask why I beat you.'”

Like Unforgiven, but unlike most films you’ve heard of, Schindler’s List sat in a desk drawer for the better part of a decade because the desk-owner didn’t think he was mature enough to make it. In Spielberg’s case, he offered the project to Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese, but finally decided to make it himself when he saw, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, more and more media reports of Holocaust deniers. Sid Sheinberg at Universal Studios, who had spent a decade eating out for free because of Jaws and E.T., saw fit to demand that if Spielberg wanted $20 million for Schindler’s List he would have to first adapt Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park – Steven later said wryly, “He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park.” Among other things, this led to what many millennials consider the best-year ever for a film director…barely, as Steven came home from production days on Schindler’s List only to work on Jurassic Park’s editing during his evenings. His salary for Jurassic Park also helped him to refuse any salary on Schindler’s List; Steven called such a notion “blood money.”

Thomas Keneally’s adaptation of his own book ran to 220 pages, which was too long; Spielberg hired Steven Zaillian to compress it, but his 115-page draft was too short. Spielberg asked for more focus on the Jews and for Oskar Schindler to have a more gradual, ambiguous awakening. Nonetheless, many critics read the film’s most famous scene as Schindler’s epiphany, when Schindler, high on a hill, sees a girl in a red coat move through the chaos of the liquidation of Krakow’s ghetto. Spielberg later said that the scene was meant to symbolize how (metaphorical) flashing red lights had alerted the USA to the Holocaust and yet our country, like Schindler in the scene, did nothing. The contrast is stark because the girl is almost the only colorful element in what is mostly a three-hour black-and-white film, something Spielberg chose partly to emulate the documentary Shoah, partly because for him, “The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color.” Working closely with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg chose not to storyboard and not to use many of his favorite tricks, hoping to catch a more documentary-like fly-on-the-wall immediacy.

Schindler’s List was almost a three-hour black-and-white film in German, but Spielberg said that subtitles would have made it too easy for Americans to let their minds drift from what was happening. Many famous actors were considered for Oskar Schindler, but Spielberg finally cast Liam Neeson because he wasn’t so famous that he would overwhelm the role. Working closely with Keneally, Zaillian, Spielberg, and tapes of the real person, Neeson came to decide that Nazis saw Schindler as a buffoon, saying “They don’t quite take him seriously, and he used that to full effect.” Spielberg cast Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth after seeing him in a couple of BBC movies, saying his eyes could be kind “and then instantly run cold.” Like Neeson and Fiennes, non-Jew Ben Kingsley carries multitudes behind his eyes even or especially when he isn’t elocuting. Schindler’s List has 126 speaking roles, which may be a record, although even if it is, that’s a less amazing accomplishment than the producers gathering 128 Schindlerjuden survivors to place stones on Schindler’s grave in the film’s final minute.

Schindler’s List begins on Sabbath, with a close-up of a candle going out match-cut with a train engine’s steam, bringing us from the present into Krakow in 1940, where Jews get off the train and get frog-marched into the Krakow Ghetto. The penury and beggary of that ghetto gets contrasted with a lushly decorated dinner event that we soon learn is a Nazi party party, and at one of the white-cloth-ed tables we meet amiable party member Oskar Schindler. Schindler bribes his way to purchasing an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto. Schindler brings one Itzhak Stern to his modest office and over Stern’s objections, convinces him to recruit ghetto Jews to invest their capital in his factory with the promise of pots and pans and other metalware, because soon, only utilitarian objects will have value. When Schindler tells Stern he also wants him to run the factory, Stern asks what exactly Schindler will be doing, and he answers that he specializes in presentation, “not to work, not to work.” Stern finds some wealthier Jews willing to invest and scores more Jews willing to work for much less than Poles or Germans, and when he asks Schindler to choose one of a dozen comely women as his secretary, the film smash-cuts to the snapping of a photo of Schindler with his dozen new female employees at the factory entrance in a salute to the Lumiere brothers’ famous first film. When a one-armed factory worker insists on personally thanking Schindler, Schindler excoriates Stern for hiring him. After the Nazis force the Schindler Jews to clear a snowy road and notice and shoot dead this one-armed man, Schindler excoriates his military liaisons, demanding compensation for his lost worker. The Nazis send petulant Untersturmfuhrer Amon Goth to Krakow to oversee construction of a concentration camp, and when the project’s Jewish engineer tells them they’ve laid the entire foundation wrong, Goth first has her shot in the head – her last words are “it will take more than that” – and second tells his men to redo the building just like she said. Schindler’s wife arrives in Poland, objects to her husband’s philandering, and responds to his request by saying she’ll only remain in Krakow if no one will confuse her for a mistress and the film smash cuts to her waving goodbye from the train. Schindler treats Amon Goth with more care, bribing him with cash and extravagant gifts to leave his employees alone. At his villa overlooking the concentration camp, after Amon Goth randomly sniper-shoots various Jews, one mistress says “Amon you’re such a child,” but we see him treat his Jewish maid/mistress/slave, Helen Hirsch, more like a monster. Amon Goth orders the liquidation of the Ghetto which takes place over about ten excruciating film minutes of chaos and carnage and scrambling, including Stern barely saving himself and other Schindler employees as well as Schindler watching from a hill as a 3-year-old girl in a red coat walks around summary executions, hides, and is eventually thrown, dead, onto a wagonload of corpses. We get to know many of the sturdy, hardworking Schindlerjuden better while Goth becomes steadily more abusive of the Jews at his concentration camp. When Nazi guards come through the factory floor questioning Schindler’s need to employ children, Schindler yells at them to suggest other hands that can clean the missile shell casing grooves? With Germany losing the war, Goth is ordered to ship the remaining Jews in his district to Auschwitz, but Schindler pulls together most of his profits to bribe Goth to let him take his Jews to a new munitions factory closer to Schindler’s Czech home. As Schindler and Stern create the list of about 850 Jews that will be transferred, Stern looks at his boss and says, “The list…is life.” One train of Schindlerjuden is accidentally routed to Auschwitz, leading to what The New Yorker magazine called “the most terrifying sequence ever filmed” as dozens of women are stripped naked and frog-marched into an apparent gas chamber as the lights go out…but the building is a shower, and we learn Schindler has paid for this group’s freedom with a bag of diamonds. As 1944 ends, Schindler uses his remaining savings to keep bribing Nazis and begins actively working against them, buying shells from other factories and rendering them and his own unusable all that winter. Spring arrives along with the Russian Army and Nazis are ordered to slaughter the Schindlerjuden, but Schindler, now out of money, successfully begs the guards to return to their families as men and not murderers. Now a marked fugitive, Schindler tells his employees he must flee west, but before he leaves, they prepare and present a special ring that quotes the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Schindler breaks down crying, saying he could have saved even more with this or that trinket. After he and his wife escape, a road full of sleeping Jews are awoken in the morning light by a man who says that with Russians coming west and Americans coming east, there’s nowhere for them to go, but they stand and start walking anyway, and the film transitions from black-and-white to color as modern-day Jews come over a rural hill. Titles tell us that Schindler’s marriage and other businesses failed after the war, that Amon Goth was tried and executed, and that Schindler’s machinations wound up saving more than 1100 Jews, many of whom we see, fifty years after the depicted events, laying stones on the real Oskar Schindler’s grave. 

George Steiner said “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason,” warning against speaking of the unspeakable, but some feel this perspective permits erasure. Like many others, Michael Haneke objected to Spielberg’s manipulative misdirect of the shower horror. Stanley Kubrick said the Holocaust is about 6 million people who got killed, while Schindler’s List was about 600 that didn’t. Jean-Luc Godard questioned turning such a tragedy into profit, especially while Schindler’s widow lived in poverty in Argentina, but Universal was quick to respond that she was receiving regular contributions. Claude Lanzmann, the director of the nine-hour documentary Shoah that Spielberg tried to emulate, called Schindler’s List “kitschy melodrama” and a “transgression” against the truth especially to show the events through a German’s eyes, which he called “the world in reverse.” 

I believe these critiques are important, and here’s my response to them. Part of the power of Schindler’s List is that it condenses into three hours the gradual and widening tragedy of the Holocaust as a series of discreet choices between dozens of discreet actors. The movie doesn’t use or need images of Hitler or Stalin or Churchill or Roosevelt; it’s not about bad guys and good guys but instead “normal” people reacting to increasingly dire circumstances. The everyday-ness of the film’s events situates Oskar Schindler not as some kind of divine savior, but merely an ordinary, even sinful man who somehow managed to do the right thing. Schindler is banal and so is his lesson, particularly to those who feel that, apart from “Never again,” there should be no lesson learned from the Holocaust, but I do think there is value in telling people caught up in horrors that they can still help people. I find it fascinating that of IMDb’s Top 40 films as rated by its (mostly white male) users, 39 out of 40 are entirely fictional, meaning that imdb users generally prefer allegories to reality, but Schindler’s List, sitting at #6 as I write this, is the only film in that Top 40 that is based on a true story. Somehow, Schindler’s List is both less and more than a movie: it may not be easy to see more than once, but it absolutely demands to be seen, not only as documentation of the unspeakable but also because narrative generally resonates and Spielberg’s films in particular often resonate in the shell casing grooves of our minds and hearts. Knowing this, audiences came out for Schindler’s List in the winter of 1993-1994 and turned it into the unlikeliest of smash hits. Although 1993 was arguably one of the best film years in memory, no other film could, ahem, hold a candle to Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars: Art Direction, Scoring, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay, Director, and Picture.

Influenced by: Jewish culture; lifetimes of research

Influenced: Holocaust deniers, one hopes


A98. Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Like Unforgiven and Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump featured a person of color in a supporting role that wasn’t implied by the source material – in Winston Groom’s novel “Forrest Gump,” the Bubba character and his family are white. I mentioned increased pluralism during the Bush administration without mentioning a certain cycle of films that both reflected and influenced that pluralism, a cycle that began in earnest when Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis won consecutive Best Actor Oscars for playing severely disabled persons in, respectively, Rain Man and My Left Foot. The ability to play disability became the 1990s equivalent of playing Hamlet, and soon Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Holly Hunter, Jodie Foster, and many other actors were headlining films in which they demonstrated the humanity behind the handicap. None of their films were as commercially successful as Rain Man, which actually beat Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to become the highest-grossing film released in 1988. Rain Man having taught America the term “autism” was certainly one reason that Eric Roth’s script of Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump was making the Hollywood rounds in the early 90s. Groom’s premise had a playful promise, appropriated from Salman Rushdie’s novel “Midnight’s Children” by way of Woody Allen’s film Zelig, in which a single average or maybe under-average American baby-boomer both reflects and influences American history during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Zemeckis would later say that what clinched his participation was the possibility of pioneering new effects, from the seamless erasure of Lieutenant Dan’s shins to the seamless integration of Gump with archival footage of figures like John Lennon, Richard Nixon, and John Kennedy; Zemeckis probably noticed that Bill Clinton had just propelled himself into the Presidency with an archival clip of himself shaking the hand of JFK. 

Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and John Travolta were offered the role, but in retrospect, the blockbuster success of Forrest Gump is hard to envision with anyone stitched into that archival footage who was not Tom Hanks. They might have cast a funnier actor, like Robin Williams, or a more fiercely talented actor, like Daniel Day-Lewis, but Hanks occupied a sweet spot between talent, good humor, and amiable likeability that few stars had commanded since Paul Newman’s heyday. Forrest Gump also came at a sort of a perfect time in Hanks’ career, as recent roles in A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, and Philadelphia had proved that he could play comedy or drama, sometimes in the same scene, and hit just the right notes in every moment. In 1994, America’s love for Forrest Gump was inseparable from its love for Tom Hanks: he was, and was starring as, a box of chocolates that always gave you what you wanted to get. Hanks’s star image of innocence helped transform Groom’s bitter, cynical novel into a far more whimsical view of a half-century of American history, in which Gump experiences events like an amusement-park ride, removing any complicity in any American horrors like those imposed on Cuba or Vietnam. Roth’s script, as pitched to Terry Gilliam and Barry Sonnenfeld, who almost made the film, would have been more of a Zelig-ish, Don Quixote-ish satire, but with Hanks and Zemeckis on board, Gump’s relationship with Jenny was centralized and the project took on a curious gravitas that, I would argue, its makers and viewers are still debating decades later.

Forrest Gump begins with a feather floating down to a park-slash-bus stop bench in Savannah, Georgia, where sits Forrest Gump, wearing white Nikes, Pee-wee Herman-ish clothes, and a signature crew-cut, offering chocolates and availing a stranger of his life story. Forrest describes growing up in a plantation home surrounded by Spanish-moss-draped oak trees in Greenbow, Alabama, where his beatific Mama can’t change Forrest’s IQ of 75 but can help Forrest get fitted with leg braces to correct his curved spine. Mama takes in boarders, including a young Elvis Presley, whom Forrest later sees on TV imitating his own herky-jerky movements. Boarding a school bus for his first day of school, Forrest meets blonde Jenny, tells her “mama says stupid is as stupid does,” and Forrest and Jenny become as close as peas and carrots, teaching each other to climb and dangle on a mossy oak as Forrest narrates “for some reason, Jenny didn’t want to go home.” One day on a moss-oakey path, three bullies on bikes bear down on Forrest and Jenny and throw things at him because of his mental and physical disabilities, causing him to improbably run away, despite his braces, and as Jenny says “Run, Forrest, Run!” Forrest’s braces magically slough off and he outruns the bullies on bikes. Back at the bench, Forrest says, “From that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!” We see Forrest as a young adult, now played by Hanks, qualify for a football scholarship at the University of Alabama in 1963, where he becomes an All-American kick returner under Bear Bryant’s coaching. Forrest observes George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door and gets an All-American trip to the White House, where he drinks 15 free Dr. Peppers and, upon shaking President Kennedy’s hand, amuses the President when he says “I gotta pee.” Forrest narrates “for no particular reason, somebody shot that nice young President when he was riding in his car” and also mentions the killing of Robert Kennedy, bringing us back to the bench as Forrest says “and that’s all I have to say about that.” Continuing his life story with a new bus-stop stranger, Forrest says he graduated college and began basic training in the U.S. Army, where he demonstrated autistic mastery of routine tasks and met the African-American Bubba, whom we see tell Forrest all about his hometown shrimp-farming business. Forrest and Bubba are shipped to Vietnam, where Bubba is mortally wounded despite Forrest carrying him away from American-triggered napalm explosions (a la Oliver Stone’s Platoon), but Forrest does rescue other platoon-mates, including Lieutenant Dan, who loses his lower legs in the battle (a la Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July) and comes to resent Forrest for thwarting his destiny to die like his ancestors in all of America’s previous wars. In D.C. in military uniform, Gump receives the Congressional Medal of Honor from Lyndon Johnson, shows LBJ his war wound “in the buttocks,” wanders to a large protest in front of the Lincoln Memorial, is summoned onstage by Abbie Hoffman, loses his mic audio while talking to the crowd, gets recognized by Jenny, and reunites with Jenny in the reflecting pool as they run toward each other while the crowd cheers. Jenny takes Forrest to an underground Black Panther meeting and introduces Forrest to her white boyfriend, but when he hits her Forrest pummels him and the Panthers kick them out, with Jenny getting back on a bus to Berkeley with this abusive boyfriend. Forrest becomes autistically good at ping-pong and spearheads the breakthrough table-tennis diplomacy between China and America in 1971, leading to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show sitting next to John Lennon, whose later assassination is referenced with a staticky TV image. Leaving the studio, Gump reunites with Lieutenant Dan, who is now a bitter cripple, and as Gump wheels Dan across the street he shouts at a cab “I’m walkin’ here!” After meeting President Nixon, Gump can’t sleep in his Watergate hotel, so he calls the front desk and complains about men making a fuss nearby, exposing the Watergate burglars. Back in Alabama, Forrest endorses a company making ping-pong paddles, and uses the earnings to buy a shrimp boat in Bayou la Batre based on Gump’s promise to Bubba. Lieutenant Dan bitterly joins Gump in a nascent shrimping business that goes very poorly until Hurricane Carmen serendipitously destroys every boat but Gump’s, allowing the men to found the successful Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and allowing Dan to find peace and thank Gump for saving his life. Lieutenant Dan invests his and Gump’s earnings into “some kind of fruit company,” actually Apple Computers, and when Gump shares his profits in a check to Bubba’s family, Bubba’s mother faints on her porch. As Forrest watches his Mama die from cancer, he asks her what is his destiny and she answers he’ll have to figure that out, saying “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Jenny turns up with a pair of new Nikes for Forrest, to rehab at the Gump home after years of drugs and abuse, and on the bicentennial, July 4th, 1776, they say words of love and they make love, but she leaves the next day. Forrest laces up the shoes and runs across the country back and forth for years, expressing bafflement when reporters suggest causes that he might endorse. A chance encounter with mud and a T-shirt salesman leads to the invention of the smiley face. In 1981, on that Savannah bench, Forrest says his final “that’s all I have to say about that” as he reveals that he’s there because of a letter from Jenny, and he bolts off the bench and barrels to Jenny’s house, where he meets his and Jenny’s son Forrest Jr., who is not stupid as Forrest fears, but in fact one of the foremost in his class. Jenny and Forrest marry back in Greenbow, joined by Lieutenant Dan and his new leg braces and new Asian girlfriend, but Jenny is sick with an “unknown virus” (psst: AIDS) and soon Forrest is weeping over her grave under their favorite oak, not unlike the final shot of Unforgiven. Forrest accompanies Forrest Jr. to the bus stop for his first-ever day of school – it has to be end-of-summer 1982, based on Jenny’s gravestone and the kid being born in 1977 – suggesting a possible E.T.reference in Forrest Gump’s final line of the movie “I’ll be right here when you get back.”

Forrest Gump, the movie, was born on the sixth of July, and proved just as improbably successful as its namesake, remaining in theaters through the end of the year and earning more than $300 million in the U.S., running right past Rain Man’s record for a film about disability. But is that what Forrest Gump is about? There aren’t a lot of similar pictures, which is why Forrest Gump also remains kind of a slippery shrimp: with its assiduous succession of on-the-nose songs, is it meant to be sincere, ironic, or whichever is convenient to a given scene or sentiment? What is it exactly saying about physical and mental disability? It’s hard to avoid the impression of compassion, surrender to a higher power (which may be America), and the Christian ideal of a state of grace – for all we know, Forrest only leaves that state of grace once, during the bicentennial. Forrest is both echo and enabler of history, both forgiver and he who is forgiven, less like a feather and more like an unsteered boat navigating a bay called nostalgia, avoiding reefs and shoals and coming out squeaky-clean on the other side, stupid is as stupid doing pretty well. If Oskar Schindler was framed as a terrible man who did at least one inarguably great thing, Forrest Gump is framed as a very good man who…avoids doing anything. This seems particularly pernicious when contrasted with Jenny, who is essentially slut-shamed all the way to her death by way of AIDS. Surprisingly, that plague may pale in comparison to the plenitude of people born after 1990 who pretty much learned American history of the 60s and 70s from the problematic post-modern pastiche that is Forrest Gump.

Influenced by: Winston Groom’s novel took Salman Rushdie’s concept (“Midnight’s Children”) and immersed it in affective nostalgia

Influenced: lightly magical-realist drama; Tom Hanks as an American icon; hopefully, not too many history students


A99. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn’t mean to do that. Please, continue, you were saying something about best intentions. What’s the matter? Oh, you were finished! Well, allow me to retort.”

Quentin Tarantino and his writing partner, Roger Avary, had a few ideas for True Romance that didn’t make that film’s shooting script. Tarantino talked about using “the oldest chestnuts” and stories “you’ve seen a zillion times” and “then purposely have them run awry” or, in another interview, “apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel.” Working closely with his same team from Reservoir Dogs, namely DP Andrzej Sekula, editor Sally Menke, production designer David Wasco, and costume designer Betsy Heimann – they worked to make an $8 million movie look like a $20 million movie, partly by shooting on lustrous 50 ASA film stock. Unusually, Tarantino hired no scorer per se, using only songs to underscore his pulpy scenes. Along the way, I would argue that he made the world hear Dick Dale’s surf music less for surfing and more, in Tarantino’s words, for “a rock-n-roll spaghetti western.”

Unlike UnforgivenSchindler’s List, and Forrest GumpPulp Fiction did not add an actor of color to a script that had been developed as all-white for most of a decade, but it did represent a certain blackening, because Reservoir Dogs was all-white-male and that movie’s Vic Vega was supposed to be Vincent Vega. When Michael Madsen turned down Pulp Fiction in order to make Wyatt Earp, Pulp Fiction became less of a sequel and arguably hipper with the addition of Samuel L. Jackson as Jules and Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace. Some, like Spike Lee and Todd Boyd, would question how much hipness license the film could really take with the N-word, a controversy that Tarantino seemed to invite by casting himself as the main white N-word user (whose wordless wife is black). Perhaps in Pulp Fiction, all words, images, and associations – including rape and other brutal violence – become playthings of postmodern amusement, not unlike the way Forrest Gump treats American history, a point that I’ll return to after this.

Pulp Fiction begins with a couple in a booth at a formica-filled diner plotting their next small-time crime; Pumpkin convinces Honey Bunny that they should rob that very restaurant, so they stand up and point guns and yell as the opening credits begin. With no apparent connection to that diner, hitmen Vincent and Jules, dressed like jazz musicians, drive through L.A. talking about Vince’s adventures in Amsterdam, where they call a quarter pounder a royale with cheese. As they pack their guns and enter an apartment building, Jules tells Vince the rumor that their boss, Marcellus Wallace threw their Samoan associate Tony Rockyhorror off a four-story building because he gave his wife Mia a foot massage. They discuss the ethics of foot massages and the fact that Jules has been tasked with taking Mia on a date, then enter the target apartment and ask some hapless young men if Marcellus Wallace looks like a bitch. Vince recovers a suitcase that glows with a mysterious gold as Jules shoots one man and fiercely interrogates the other, saying “say what again?” and quoting Ezekiel 25:17 about the path of the righteous man before using his gun to lay his “vengeance upon you.” After shots blast, the film shows the first title card since the credits which says Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife. We see the bandaged back neck of the head of Marcellus Wallace, lecturing washed-up boxer Butch about not letting pride fuck with him during the match he is about to throw, and Butch gets a chance to swallow his pride right away when Vincent, now wearing a UCSC T-shirt, appears and insults him. Now dressed like a Blues Brother again, Vincent arrives at the small bungalow of his dealer Lance, who lectures him on some “real, real, real, good” heroin that’s “a fuckin’ madman.” Lance is proved right during Vince’s post-injection spaced-out drive to pick up Mia, whom welcomes Vince to her compound to the sounds of “Son of a Preacher Man.” Vince takes her to elaborate 1950s-themed restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where they chat about awkward silences and five-dollar shakes and then dance in a twist contest and win a trophy. Back at Mia’s, Vince tells himself in the bathroom mirror that “you’re gonna go home, jerk off, and that’s all you’re gonna do,” only to walk out and find out that Mia has mistaken his open bag of heroin for cocaine, snorted it, and overdosed. Over Lance’s objections, Vince brings Mia to Lance and his girlfriend Jody, where they argue over an ODing bitch for a while until finally Vince injects adrenaline straight into her heart and Jody asks her to say something, and Mia says, “something.” As Vince drops her off, she tells him a bad joke from her pilot that was never picked up. After a title card that says “The Gold Watch,” a decorated uniformed soldier gives a boy a gold watch from his dead dad while explaining how the gold watch was hidden for years in anuses. We realize this is Butch’s flashback as he wakes and heads to the ring. In a taxicab driving through 2-D streets, Butch tells the sexy driver that he just accidentally killed his opponent. Butch lays low in a motel with his girlfriend Fabienne, who wants a belly like Madonna in Lucky Star, but when Butch learns that Fabienne forgot his father’s watch while cleaning out their apartment, he goes nuts, calms down, and leaves in their beater car to retrieve the heirloom. Butch carefully enters his apartment, grabs the watch, makes himself pop tarts, sees a machine gun on the counter, and as Vince comes out of the bathroom Butch shoots him utterly dead. Marcellus sees Butch at a stoplight, and Butch runs him over and gets hit by another car. Both men dazed and bleeding, Marcellus chases Butch into a pawnshop, where the owner gets the jump on both of them, knocking them both out. They awake in a basement, bound and gagged as in a bondage film, as the shop owner’s friend Zed eenie-meenie-miney-mo’s and chooses to rape Marcellus. Zed says bring out the gimp, leaving Butch observed by a man covered scalp to toe in leather, but Butch breaks his bonds, knocks out the gimp, scrambles out of the basement, hears Marcellus crying from being raped, pauses, grabs a katana from the shop, walks down the stairs, and makes a redneck’s chest red. Marcellus recovers, shoots Zed, promises his “pipe-hittin’” friends are gonna “get medieval on your ass,” and declares he and Butch even as long as he swears this to secrecy and leaves L.A. at once. Butch picks up Fabienne in Zed’s chopper and explains it all with little more than, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” Last title card says “The Bonnie Situation.” Back in the apartment after Jules’ Ezekiel elocution execution, a previously unseen man jumps out and shoots at Vince and Jules, but inexplicably misses, and they shoot him. Their double agent Marvin was rather unhelpful, but they give him a ride in their car, where Vince, waving his gun while making a point about miracles, accidentally blows off Marvin’s head, splattering blood all over the car. Jules manages to reach his friend Jimmy’s house, but Jimmy and Vince nearly come to blows over different forms of being inconvenienced. Jules phones a calm, cool, collected Marcellus, who promises Winston Wolf, who is a half-hour away from Jimmy’s house, and in the least realistic moment of the film he arrives ten minutes later. Wolf commands Vince and Jules to clean the car and put blankets over the seats, accepts Jimmy’s good coffee, bribes Jimmy, hoses down Jules and Vince, and gives them Jimmy’s old T-shirts, including a UCSC one for Vince. At a diner eating breakfast, Jules and Vince argue over the missed shots being divine intervention, with Jules insisting on retirement and maybe walking the earth like Kung fu, as Vince goes to the bathroom saying “to be continued.” Speaking of continuation, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny turn out to be robbing the place, but when Pumpkin asks for Jules’ briefcase, Jules distracts him with the glow inside it and overpowers Pumpkin and trains a gun on his face while Honey Bunny trains her gun on Jules…while Vince emerges to train his gun on Honey Bunny. Jules takes Wolf-like command, gives his Ezekiel speech, speculates on who is the shepherd and the weak, and permits the lovers to escape with their gathered trash bag of wallets. Jules and Vincent pick up the case, walk to the door, tuck their 45s into their elastic band shorts, and leave the diner. One critic called this ending “style winning out over substance.”

Pulp Fiction was both culmination and refutation of ten years of indie-movie trends. It won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, rode a rolling wave of rapturous reviews, and unlike any previous indie movie opened on more than 1000 screens, on October 14, 1994. Many, many people asked, what was Pulp Fiction saying, exactly? Tarantino was too smart to answer that directly, but he didn’t refuse the label post-modern; he had clearly sampled from worlds of TV, music, and movies to stitch together a movie-world worth wallowing in, and maybe that world was its own medium that was somehow the message. In his book on the film, which samples the views of at least 100 reviewers and major writers, Dana Polan concluded, “some people luxuriate in its meaninglessness, some people find its meaninglessness to be the symptom if not the origin of major social ills, others find a meaningfulness in a message of redemption.”

Polan is right, and yet few noticed that you could say much the same of Pulp Fiction’s main competitor at the Oscars, Forrest Gump. Both films condense the greatest hits of the 50s through the 80s into a sort of magical-realist playground for their male baby boomer wanderers. Although Pulp Fiction was often criticized for glamorizing violence, Forrest Gump includes just as many deaths in its narrative – six. Both present unusual bathroom issues, suggesting infantilization or reverting to the anal stage, basically telling kids that adults are no better than them and that the phrase “loss of innocence” is overrated. Both films suggest that we may not have to change much in order to rise to a state of grace, whether it’s from Forrest’s bus-stop tales of graceful acceptance, or from Butch riding a chopper labeled GRACE while Vince lies dead in his bathroom and Jules tries real hard to be that shepherd. In a world altered by the L.A. riots, both films altered their source material – if you count Reservoir Dogs as a source, as I mentioned earlier – to present friendships between a white man and a black man, maybe hinting at racial reconciliation, before killing off one of each pair, maybe hinting that real racial reconciliation is real hard. The film Pulp Fiction kills Vince and leaves Jules; the film Forrest Gump kills Bubba and leaves Forrest, and surprise! Those older Oscar voters went for the one that preserved the white guy. Although Tarantino and Avary won a well-deserved Original Screenplay Oscar, Forrest Gump ran away with six Oscars, for Adapted Screenplay, Visual Effects, Editing, Lead Actor, Director, and Picture.

If Gump won the battle, however, Pulp won the war. Pulp Fiction became the first so-called indie to earn more than $100 million dollars, causing the studios to stop buying prefab festival hits and instead establish their own in-house indie divisions like Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, and Sony Classics. Yet somehow Pulp Fiction felt even more influential than that, a genuine pop culture phenomenon that seemed to touch every part of the zeitgeist in the fall and winter of 1994 and 1995, and then films and TV for much longer than that, injecting innumerable movies and shows with adrenaline shots of epigrammatic repartee, stylized violence, non-linear narrative maneuvers, and sometimes just John Travolta, who went from an industry joke to the guy in on the joke. It turned out that Pulp Fiction was easy to emulate but hard to equal, including by Quentin Tarantino, who never made another film that so successfully transcended genre and narrative imperatives.

Influenced by: it’s a very long list, but put spaghetti westerns and Chinese martial-arts films (especially wu xia) near the top

Influenced: banter; childish swagger; “Tarantinoesque” scenes seemed to exist in half of late-90s films


A100. Fargo (Coens, 1996) BO clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?”

It is possible that the success of Pulp Fiction, set in L.A. and made by a diehard Angeleno, did influence the Coens to return to their home state of Minnesota after about a decade away from it, to escape sunny Southern California and show a more snow-covered sort of neo-noir with a female lead, and what better woman than Joel’s wife Frances McDormand to star in Fargo?

In fact, the Coens constructed three of Fargo’s four lead roles around the actors who wound up playing them – Frances McDormand, Peter Stormare, and Steve Buscemi. Buscemi had already appeared in the Coens’ last three films as well as Tarantino’s only two films, but the role of Carl let him stretch his chops even as he sold the recurrent joke of being “just kind of general funny-looking.” For the fourth and crucial role of Jerry Lundegard, the Coens met with a few major actors, but William H. Macy fought hard and eventually convinced them how much he needed them, or as Ethan Coen put it, “Jerry’s a fascinating mix of the completely ingenuous and the utterly deceitful. Yet he’s also guileless; even though he set these horrible events in motion, he’s surprised when they go wrong.”Speaking of treating the events of the film with guile, Joel and Ethan Coen have never been very forthcoming about the origins of Fargo, and became oddly more opaque after the film inspired fans to look for the hidden money. Although the film opens with a card that says “this is a true story,” almost none of it was, and decades later, while promoting the new TV show based on the film, Joel said of the original Fargo that “The only thing true about it is that it’s a story.” It’s also true that the Coens importuned their frequent collaborators to create career-best kind of work, including Roger Deakins on camera and Carter Burwell on musical scoring. They made the film during winter 1995, planning to film mostly on location, although a dry winter in Minneapolis and Fargo forced a lot of frozen landscapes to be filmed nearer the Canadian border.

Fargo begins with that cheeky title card that also tells us it’s 1987, and cuts to a slow fade-in from white to establish a car towing a second car through a frozen flat landscape. Cut to night and the car arriving at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, where Jerry meets with Carl and Grimsrud to hire them to kidnap his wife Jean and extort her rich father Wade. Jerry and Carl argue over a few things, but Carl comes to accept the new tan Sierra as a down payment on the eventual half of $80,000 they’ll get from her father. Jerry goes back home to Minneapolis where we see that like Carl, Jerry’s wife, son, and father-in-law don’t take him very seriously. Carl and Grimsrud check into the Blue Ox motel and sleep with a couple of prostitutes. At his job at a car dealership, GMAC calls Jerry to get the serial numbers on vehicles that Jerry loaned as collateral for $320,000, and Jerry barely stalls the agency. When Carl and Grimsrud break into Jerry’s house, Jean hides in the shower, but she panics, runs down her hall wearing the shower curtain, falls down her stairs and knocks herself out. With Jerry thinking that Carl may not act quickly enough, he plays his last card, a real-estate deal that he lays out for Wade in Wade’s office. Wade favors the deal but won’t go 50/50, promising Jerry a mere finder’s fee, and Jerry almost breaks his de-icer in frustration. Near Brainerd, a cop stops Carl and Grimsrud for not using temp tags, but when he hears Jean’s voice from the trunk, Grimsrud shoots him dead. As Carl carries his dead body out of the road, a couple drives by staring, and Grimsrud chases them down and kills them both. 33 minutes into a 98-minute film, we meet Marge Gunderson, Brainerd’s pregnant police chief, who examines the crime scene with her deputy Lou and learns that the dead trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates. Jerry meets Wade at a diner and says that the kidnappers want a million dollars, no cops, and a handoff only with Jerry, but when Wade objects, Wade’s assistant Stan sides with Jerry and Wade reluctantly agrees to gather the million in cash on the condition that he makes the drop. Checking hotels for guests with dealer plates leads Marge to the Blue Ox motel which leads her to question the two prostitutes with heavy Minnesota accents and a lot of “oh yeah you betcha”s. Marge learns about a motel phone call to Shep Proudfoot, the mechanic at Jerry’s dealership who had connected Jerry to the goons. At the dealership, Marge grills Proudfoot and Jerry, separately, and they feign ignorance as Jerry insists no cars are missing. From a pay phone, Carl calls Jerry and demands the “entire” $80,000 because now people are dead and Jerry says, “but this was supposed to be a no-rough-stuff-type-deal.” Marge’s face appears on the news, and a former Asian classmate gets in touch and has dinner with Marge, but he’s lonely and it’s awkward. Carl is in another motel room having sex with another prostitute when Proudfoot pries open the door and pummels Carl for putting him under police suspicion even as Carl sputters “go smoke a peace pipe.” After Carl recovers, he storms to a pay phone, reaches Jerry at Jerry’s home and demands Jerry bring the entire ransom immediately to a certain rooftop parking lot, but Wade is listening on another extension and runs out of the house well before Jerry can put on his snow boots. At the snowy roof lot, Carl sees Wade with the briefcase and says “Who the fuck are you?” and when Wade demands to see his daughter before handing over any money, Carl shoots him and Wade falls. As Carl moves to get the briefcase, Wade turns out to have some life, and a gun, and he shoots the lower right side of Carl’s face before Carl can shoot Wade dead. Carl flees the scene, passes by Jerry on his approach, stops on a road in the middle of snowy nowhere, tends to his blood-gushing chin, counts the much much more money than he expected, separates out the $80,000, and buries the remaining $920,000 at a nondescript barbed-wire fencepost. Marge returns to Jerry’s dealership, grills Jerry again, inspires Jerry to announce a lot count, and sees Jerry driving away. At the hideout cabin, when Carl learns Grimsrud has killed Jean just to shut her up, he tells his partner they must leave at once, leading to an argument over who should keep the tan Sierra, leading to Carl showing his bullet wound as reason enough, leading to Carl walking to the car intercepted by Grimsrud swinging an axe. As Marge drives around Moose Lake on her way home, she chats with Lou on her CB about tips and leads and agree that with the body count and all the men working it’s now only a matter of time, but when Marge happens to scan the tan Sierra, we’re set up for an ending like The Silence of the Lambs, where our lone female officer must bring a lethal killer to justice before the cavalry can arrive. Marge parks, trudges through the dense snow, approaches with her gun and pregnant belly out, and sees that Grimsrud has almost finished stuffing a man into a wood chipper except for his besocked foot. Grimsrud tries to escape by running across a snow field, but Marge shoots him in the leg, arrests him, and lectures him during the car ride to the police station that there’s more to life than money. At a Bismarck motel, North Dakota police break down Jerry’s door, and cuff him as he cries like a baby. In a bedroom finale, Marge snuggles with her husband Norm and congratulates him on his mallard painting being selected for a three-cent stamp, leading to exchanged “I love you”s and “two more months”s.

Fargo was released in March of 1996 and earned more than four times its $7 million budget just in the United States. Fargo was often called the Coens’ masterpiece while Frances McDormand’s performance was called a master class, and she won that year’s Oscar even as her husband and brother-in-law won for Best Original Screenplay. .

Influenced by: independent film currents, post-Tarantino smoothness to ironic violence

Influenced: everyone who takes film seriously watches Coen Brothers films