The Silence of the Lambs

Silence Lambs 01When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.

The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.

Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again.  Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late.  Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on.  Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.

Silence Lambs 03In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist.  Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone.  As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her.  In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings.  Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world.  Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself.  Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back.  He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.

Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient.  She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making.  Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.

Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body.  Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves.  While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth.  The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.

Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.  Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine.  Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.

Silence Lambs 02Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach.  Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place.  He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin.  During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer.  In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen.  Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.

Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse.  Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name.  Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered.  Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch.  Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs.  As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there.  When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.

Silence Lambs 04Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day.  With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer.  I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.

Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture.  All five awards are richly deserved.

This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling.  A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision.  It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.

Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand.  Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away.  The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario.  Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.”  Bullseye.

Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable.  In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.

The acting is pure gold.  This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling.  Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off.  Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication.  Great acting!  The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.

I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling.  It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.

Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!

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Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy 03This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.

This review discusses the movie in full detail, so beware spoilers.

Midnight Cowboy 01Joe Buck (Voight) is a young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher and hops a bus to New York City to become a “hustler,” to sell his body to rich old women and make a ton of money.  He wears a buckskin jacket, beautiful shiny boots, and a black cowboy hat.  As the bus travels north, flashbacks tell the story of how his beautiful young mother dumped him with his grandmother, Sally Buck (Ruth White), who raised him while having a series of affairs.  As a young man, he was involved with a girl named “Crazy Annie” (Jennifer Salt) who repeatedly told him “you’re the only one.”  A gang finds them making love in a car and while some of them hold Joe, the others rape Annie while he is forced to watch.

Midnight Cowboy 06When he arrives in New York, he takes a hotel room and wanders the streets trying to find some woman who needs his services.  A wealthy middle-aged woman (Sylvia Miles) takes him up to her apartment and they make love, but the next morning when he asks for money, she weeps and he actually ends up paying her, by giving her cab fare.

Midnight Cowboy 02He meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street con man that everyone calls “Ratso.”  They have a drink together and Ratso tells him that he knows a pimp who can get him lots of work.  He takes a fee of $20 for setting up a meeting with O’Daniel (John McGiver), then disappears.  O’Daniel tries to get Joe to go down on his knees with him and pray to a plastic Jesus mounted on the back of his bathroom door, but Joe freaks out and runs away.  When his money runs out, he takes to the street.  Seeing young homosexuals on the street dressed in cowboy gear, he agrees to oral sex with a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater, but when the boy tells him he doesn’t have any money, Joe is forced to let him go.  Begging crackers in a diner, he watches a mother playing with her son by running a toy mouse over his face.

One day, walking past a coffee shop, he spots Ratso and tries to get his $20 back, but all Ratso has is some change.  However, he offers to share his room with Joe, a flat in a condemned building that still has running water.  Joe comes back with him and the two of them begin a strange, shaky friendship.  Ratso, whose dream is to one day move to Florida and get healthy, helps Joe to clean up and they try to hijack a male escort service job, but Joe blows it and they are back where they started.

Midnight Cowboy 07Winter arrives and with it an intense cold wave.  Stuck in their flat with no heat and no money, Joe and Ratso barely get by, but things take a turn for the worse when Ratso gets sick.  Sitting in a diner one day, they are approached by a strange pair, who take Joe’s picture and give him an invitation to a party at their flat.  This odd couple show up at a Warholesque scene involving pulsing music and film, decked out art scene celebrities (including Viva, Ultra-Violet, and other Andy Warhol actors).  Joe smokes a joint and then is given a pill, while Ratso fills up his coat pockets with salami from the ample spread provided.  Wandering into a room filled with red light, Joe becomes entangled with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a wealthy woman who agrees to take him home and pay him $20 for sex.  Ratso, who is now covered in sweat most of the time, falls down a flight of stairs.  Although he has always been crippled, he is now having difficulty walking.

Midnight Cowboy 04Initially, Joe finds he can’t perform with Shirley, but when she taunts him with being gay, he comes on very aggressively, then is surprised by the aggression she displays, clawing up his back with her fingernails.  Nevertheless, she gives him a referral to one of her friends and Joe thinks he’s finally on the way to becoming a stud.

When he gets back to their flat, however, Ratso is even more sick, so he goes back out and hooks up with a homosexual salesman, Towny (Barnard Hughes).  Worried about Ratso, he tries to get money from Towny, but when the man resists, he beats him and steals the money to buy two bus tickets to Miami for he and Ratso, who can no longer walk.

Ratso wets himself in the bus, so Joe goes to buy them light clothing for the warm weather.  He gets Ratso a Hawaiian shirt with palm trees on it and he throws away his buckskin jacket, boots and cowboy hat.  As the bus nears Miami, Ratso dies in his seat.

There really aren’t enough good things to say about this movie, which today remains one of the best films ever made.  Obviously, it’s for Adults Only, even though the X-Rating was later downgraded to an R.  In spite of the nudity, the thing that really concerned censors at the time was the abundance of homosexuality in the movie, which no longer carries the stigma it once did.  No sex is graphically shown in the film.

Midnight Cowboy 08I think most credit for the success of this movie is the vision of director John Schlesinger whose use of color, unique camera shots, and creative editing creates a look that is almost one of a kind.  Because dreams are so important, the camera itself has a very dreamy quality, whether it is in the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood or Ratso’s dream of a life in Florida.  The dark blue quality Schlesinger gives to New York City makes it a fully separate world, always fearful and eerie and on the edge of society.  At times, he allows the film to move into black and white and then back into color.  In this film, the city itself functions as dream world and that becomes fully apparent when the sun strikes the two friends on their way to Miami.  They have emerged from the darkness into the light.

The cast is full of terrific actors, which I never realized when I first saw it in a theater so many years ago.  You see it now and can only wonder at stalwarts like John McGiver playing a plastic Jesus loony and Barnard Hughes as a simpering fag.  Bob Balaban was virtually unknown at the time, but Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro were well-respected actors throughout the industry.  Jon Voight is terrific as Joe Buck and he carries a little boy optimism throughout his terrible experiences, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movie with his fully realized Ratso Rizzo.  Even at the time, it had to be considered one of the best performances of all time, but now it clearly shines and withstands the test of time.  He is simply brilliant.

The song that launches the movie, “Everybody’s Talking,” written by Fred Neil and sung by Harry Nilsson, truly gets under your skin and it sets the tone for the movie in the same way that “Sound of Silence” sets the tone for “The Graduate.”  You won’t be able to get it out of your head and that’s not a bad thing.  The entire score is amazing.  John Barry supervised the music and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, a haunting melody carried by a harmonica.

Obviously, I recommend this movie strictly for adults, but it must be considered one of the best films ever made, if not in the Top 10, then very, very close.  Brilliant filmmaking!

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to-have-and-have-not-bacall-bogartTo Have and Have Not

You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”   One can only an imagine an audience in New York in 1944 sitting back with a gasp and then collectively going, “Whoa!”  From her first moment on screen, Lauren Bacall lit up the cinema with her smoky voice and burning eyes, somehow keeping cool, almost mocking, while at the same time beckoning.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that future husband Humphrey Bogart was the man she was looking at.


 To Catch a Thief 01To Catch a Thief

This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.


To Kill a Mockingbird 02To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the greatest films ever made and the years have not diminished its greatness in any way.  It is unusual to see a nearly perfect adaptation of a modern classic novel (Pulitzer Prize, 1960), but the combination of Harper Lee’s story, Horton Foote’s adaptation, Robert Mulligan’s direction, Henry Bumstead’s art direction, Russell Harlan’s cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful music make this film uniquely touching, a deeply penetrating portrait of small town rural life in the 1930’s, in the deep South.


Torn Curtain (1966)Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  Paul Newman stars as a physicist defecting to East Germany, with Julie Andrews as his stunned fiancé.


Trouble with the CurveTrouble with the Curve

Released in 2012, Trouble with the Curve is a fun little baseball movie that looks at changes in the world of scouting.  Directed by Robert Lorenz, the film stars Clint Eastwood as an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves nearing the end of his long, successful career and Amy Adams as his smart lawyer daughter who tries to help through the last round.

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 Save the Last DanceSave the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film.  Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.  Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick  Thomas are great as two dancers with completely different backgrounds who come together to merge classical and hiphop dance styles.  Lots of fun, great music, and some serious issues.


Viola and Shakespeare in bedShakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.  Great performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Densch fuel this terrific comedy and unpredictable romance!


Silence Lambs 01The Silence of the Lambs

When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.


Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook

This delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.  Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award performance opposite Bradley Cooper, with Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.


Speak-Movie-kristen-stewart-7224892-960-540Speak

Here’s a 2004 film that really went under the radar.  It was screened at Sundance and aired on Showtime and Lifetime, but I’d never heard of it.  Based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, it tells the story of a high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, who is brutally raped at a party by a senior boy.  Starring Kristin Stewart in a wonderful performance.


Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.


amy adams emily blunt sunshine cleaningSunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs.  Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

The French Connection

French ConnectionIf you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie.  Rather, it is a completely kinetic film.  Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s.  It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.

In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score.  Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night.  As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker.  From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon.  With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.

When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable.  Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses.  As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film.  Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below.  When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.

Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal.  Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it.  The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police.  Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent.  Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time.  Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad.  As the French might say, “this is life.”

Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly.  The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).  It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.

For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers.  Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks.  I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth.  It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.

The Best Years of Our Lives

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.

At the end of World War II, three men meet hopping a military plane back to their home, a fictitious mid-western metropolis called Boone City. The officer in the group, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is returning to Marie (Virginia Mayo), a wife he barely knows, since they were married less than 20 days before he shipped out.  Although he was just a soda jerk before the war, his heroism as a bombardier in the Air Force brought him up to the rank of Captain.  Fellow passenger Al Stephenson (Frederick March), is a former banker who served as a Sergeant First Class in the Army.  The oldest and by far the wealthiest of the three, he is returning to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, Peggy (Theresa Wright), who is in her early twenties, and Rob (Michael Hall) who is a freshman in college.  The third member of their party is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man who lost both of his hands when his aircraft carrier went down in the Pacific.  A former quarterback, he now uses two hook prosthetics that he is quite deft with, but when he left for the service, he was engaged to his childhood friend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and now he worries how she will accept his apparent disability.

Although all three men are looking forward to their return home, there is also a deep feeling apprehension. They’ve all seen intense action, watched friends die, and suffered the many tortures of war.  How will their civilian loved ones receive them?  Will they ever be able to relate to anyone who hasn’t experienced battle?

Taking a cab together, they look around their old home town and Homer tells them about his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) who runs the best bar and café in town. Attempting to avoid the reunion with his family, he suggests that they get a drink first, but the others agree to meet at Butch’s some time for a drink.  As Homer expected, his family is hyper-sensitive to the loss of his hands and he feels estranged from Wilma, although she shows him that she still loves him.  He is haunted by the feeling that everyone is ether staring at his hooks or purposely looking away–he is different and he feels that difference intensely.

After checking in with his parents (Gladys George and Roman Bohnen), Fred goes looking for his wife, but she is not at her apartment, having already gone to work at her nightclub job, so he ends up at Butch’s.

Al has a difficult time adjusting to the fact that his children have grown up while he was away and he is nervous and edgy. When Milly finds that they are out of liquor, Al decides to go out on the town with her and Peggy.  During the course of the evening, Al gets progressively drunker, but they finally end of Butch’s and find Fred, who is already pretty well tanked himself.  After Homer spills a glass of lemonade in front of Wilma and the two families, he leaves in frustration and also ends up at the bar.  The three of them are like people out of time and out of place and getting drunk seems the only way to deal with having to face this return to civilian life.  Peggy takes a shine to Fred, even though he is pretty well gone.  They take him back to his wife’s apartment building, but there is no answer when he rings the bell and he passes out in the doorway, so Milly and Peggy load him into the back seat of the car with Al, who is passed out.

Back at Al and Milly’s apartment, Peggy puts Fred in her room, loosening his tie, taking off his shoes and tucking him in while Milly does the same with Al in their bedroom. Peggy sleeps on the couch, but during the night she hears Fred calling out in his sleep.  He’s having a nightmare, reliving the loss of a friend’s life.  Peggy wakes him and calms him, wiping the sweat from his face and he falls back into his drunken sleep.  In the morning, he can’t remember where he is or that Peggy is Al’s daughter.  She enlightens him over breakfast.  When Milly joins them, Peggy gives Al a ride back to his wife’s apartment and Milly busies herself with trying to salve a very hungover Al.

Marie is a gorgeous blond and obviously lives in a completely different world of nightlife, money, and men, but when Fred tells her to quit her job, she agrees and tries to support him, even though he can’t find a job. When the money runs out, however, she can’t stand the idea of being poor and their relationship begins to suffer.  Finally, he takes a job working in his old drug store, spending part of his day at the perfume counter and part of it as a soda jerk.

Meanwhile, Al receives a call from his former boss at the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins). They not only want to take him back, but to promote him to Vice President in charge of handling GI loans.  Al is uncertain about going back to work at the bank, but the offer is too good for him to pass up.  Early on, he receives an application from a former Navy officer who wants to buy some land to begin farming.  Although he has no collateral, Al approves the loan and is then counseled by Mr. Milton that they simply can’t do business that way.  Al tells him that the man’s collateral is in his heart, in his guts, and in his patriotism, but they part ways each seeing the situation differently.

When Peggy runs into Fred at the drugstore, he takes her out for lunch and then kisses her in the parking lot. They are in love, but the situation of his marriage is a firm impediment.  That afternoon, Peggy calls Marie and invites her and Fred to join she and her date for a night out, hoping that if she sees Fred and Marie together, she’ll get over her infatuation with him.  It coincides with a bank banquet at which Al is the guest of honor.  Before they all leave for the evening, Peggy confesses to her parents how she feels about Fred and that she is going to use the evening to get over her feelings.

At the banquet, Al again drinks too much. Milly watches him with apprehension and when he is invited to speak, he tells the assembled that the only way America won the war was by taking risks, by stepping in even when there was no collateral and getting the job done.  At the same time, Peggy is sizing up Marie and finding out that Fred is in a loveless marriage to a woman who is not worthy of him.  When she gets home, she tells her parents that she is intent on breaking up Fred’s marriage and having him for herself.  While all of this is going on, Homer has isolated himself, convinced that he is no longer worthy of Wilma.

This film comes with a stunning pedigree of collaborators. Producer Samuel Goldwyn got the original idea from a Time Magazine article about the difficulties of servicemen returning home.  He spoke with novelist McKinlay Kantor about writing a screenplay and Kantor produced a novella in blank verse called Glory for Me, which was adapted into the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives by the brilliant playwright Robert E. Sherwood.

Director William Wyler, who flew in combat missions over Europe during World War II as a cinematographer, was signed to direct. Although he assembled a top notch cast of well-known Hollywood actors to play most of the parts, he wanted to part of Homer Parrish to seem as real as possible, changing the character from a man with a psychological disorder to a tangibly physical manifestation.  It was this director’s decision that led to the casting of  Harold Russell, a non-actor in the critical role. Russell lost both of his hands while handling explosives making a training film.

The film taps deeply into human emotions. Almost from the very beginning, the viewer is led into the emotional landscape of each of the three men and feels a deeply human bond with them.  Wyler brings forth the best that each actor has to give in crafting a deeply felt, realistic portrayal of human being struggling with recovery after traumatic experiences. 

One might think that this film is all about the men, but it is definitely about the women, too. Frederick March and Dana Andrews give deep, emotionally valid performances as Al and Fred, but Myrna Loy and Theresa Wright are both amazing as Al’s wife and daughter.  Throughout the early scenes after the men return home, you can feel the women’s love and empathy as the stabilizing factors.  For an amateur, which Russell must be considered, his performance is beautiful and deep.  Never for a one moment does the viewer feel a false step in his acting, but the role of his fiancé Wilma has its own difficulties.  To be so good and true is almost impossible to achieve without seeming false, but Cathy O’Donnell’s eyes show the heart of the little girl who loved Homer and child and still holds him dear.

The movie is full of amazing little performances. Roman Bohnen as Fred’s father is mesmerizing in his brief few minutes.  Virginia Mayo gives unexpected depths to Maria, a part that might have been played as a simple tramp with no heart.  All of these performances add up to a movie that is completely compelling.

In glorious black and white.

I still consider this movie one of the ten best films ever made. It was certainly amply rewarded at the Academy Awards, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederick March), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell).  At two hours and forty-eight minutes, it’s a miracle that it even held anyone’s attention, but it is so well acted and directed, so well put together that time is no object here and time is something I take very seriously indeed.  For any movie to keep me engaged for much over an hour and a half, it must be a truly special film and there is no doubt that The Best Years of Our Lives is a very, very special film.

The emotional engagement is a such a level that once begun, it is difficult to disengage until it is over. Emotional involvement is so important, so much a part of what makes a good movie that it is truly elevating.

This is a very special film and as important and vibrant today as it was in 1946. It should be a part of every serious film buff’s film library and it should be watched every few years, just so we never forget what a truly great film can be.

Il Postino (The Postman)

Il Postino Poster

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.

~ Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

On a small, nearly isolated Italian island, a fisherman, Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), lives with his father. A rather simple-minded young man, Mario hates being out on boats all day and complains of the moisture, so his father tells him to get a job. One night, at the movies, he sees a newsreel covering the arrival of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to Italy.  A communist, Neruda has been exiled by political opponents and has come to live on Mario’s little island.

Mario sees a sign on the door of the post office advertising for a postman with a bicycle to deliver mail. The next morning Mario applies and finds out that it is a part time job to deliver Neruda’s mail.  As he does his job, he begins a dialogue with the poet.  At first, he is looking for an autograph, so he can show he is a friend of great Neruda and get girls, but as he reads the poetry, he discovers that it appeals to him in some way that he can’t explain.  The poetry stirs in him both a desire for love and a desire to fight for the cause of the oppressed.  Wanting to write his own poetry, he asks Pablo how to go about it and that leads to an explanation of metaphors.

When Mario falls in love with Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the local inn owner, he begs Pablo to help him win her by writing some poetry for him, but the poet refuses, instead giving Mario a beautiful book of paper to begin writing his own poetry. He brings Mario to the inn and signs the book in front of Beatrice.  Using Pablo’s poetry, Mario begins to woo her with great success, so much so that Beatrice’s aunt becomes upset, complaining about the evil metaphors in the poetry.

Massimo Troisi was a beloved Italian actor long before Il Postino, mostly for his wonderful comedic roles.  When he found the book Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, he bound himself to the project, committing to not only star in the film, but to help write the screenplay, along with director Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, and Giacomo Scarpelli, even though he was having serious heart problems.  He put off surgery in order to the film and dies shortly after it was completed.

The film is beautifully photographed, full of light and color, with the sea surrounding the island always prominent. There is a great deal of Neruda’s poetry included in the movie and it certainly enhances the beauty.  The film’s Academy Award winning score, composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov, is beautiful and gives the film a heightened sense of the love not only between Mario and Beatrice, but the brotherly love between Mario and Pablo.

Besides the win for film score, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screeplay Adaptation. The soundtrack features many well known actors reading Neruda’s poetry to the film score.  Some of the readers include Julia Roberts, who backed the project, Glenn Close, Ethan Hawke, Andy Garcia, Madonna, and Wesley Snipes, among others.

This is an excellent film. It is beautiful, full of poetry, music, and love.  In Italian, with subtitles in English, it runs an hour and forty-eight minutes.

M

 Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayThe Man Who Knew Too Much

Never endanger an American’s children.  That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.


Marnie 03Marnie

Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.  This might have been a great film, with sufficient editing, perhaps with a different leading actress as Marnie and maybe an American actor as Mark, with some of the action sequences done more realistically.  As it is, the movie looks like an overblown Hollywood version of what should be a compelling drama.


Midnight Cowboy 03Midnight Cowboy

This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.


 Miss PettigrewMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

London in 1939 was a hodgepodge of pre-war jitters.  Depression era soup kitchens operated down the block from posh nightclubs for the rich and the middle class worked to scratch out a decent living.  This is a rip-roaring comedy filled with delightful performances by Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.


mr and mrs smithMr. and Mrs. Smith

This 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.


Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing

If you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.


936full-mystic-river-photoMystic River

Mystic River is a hard-hitting blue collar crime movie by the amazing Clint Eastwood.  Released in 2003, it tells the story of three boyhood friends forever changed by an incident in 1975.  Eastwood makes a point of the fact that things do not add up–it is part of the appeal of the movie.  And it is usually a fact of life that most filmmakers do not worry themselves over.  For Clint Eastwood, however, the fact that life doesn’t add up is the very point of the movie.

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.