‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ Anniversary Screening at New Beverly Cinema

Judgment at Nuremberg movie poster

Stanley Kramer’s classic movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” got a very special screening at New Beverly Cinema on October 1, 2012. At the time, the movie was celebrating its 51st anniversary, and introducing it was Stanley’s widow, Karen Kramer. She took the time to talk not just about “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but also of her husband’s other work and the impact his films have had overall.

Karen was actually at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood the night before where they were showing another of her husband Stanley’s best-known works, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

“That film was all about greed,” Karen said. “And of course, globally we thought that was bad in 1963 when that film was made. But of course, globally now it’s become a national pastime.”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” is a different film, Karen said, and one which audiences of all kinds owe it to themselves to see again and again. Like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” this movie is as important to watch today as it was when it first came out.

“I don’t think any of us thought that genocide would ever exist again after World War II,” Karen said. “We knew all the facts and we knew all the heinous crimes that had been committed, but genocide unfortunately is running rampant again. So, this film is unfortunately very relevant (to today’s world events).”

Stanley had made “Judgment at Nuremberg” 14 years after World War II ended, and back then no studio wanted to make it and he had a very difficult time raising the money for its production. But Karen said Stanley thought it was very interesting to explore what happened with the judicial system during that time. The movie was inspired by the trail of four German Judges at Nuremberg who were tried for crimes perpetrated by the Nazi party. The question, however, becomes one of whether or not these particular Judges were fully aware of what Adolf Hitler was doing to the Jews.

“This (trial) is the one he chose because the judicial system was supposed to represent globally men of honor, men with education, men who were supposed to be fair to humanity, and these men of the Third Reich sanctioned all those heinous crimes,” Karen said. “But then I wonder about this and I think, yes of course they’re guilty but then you think about their position which was also explored in this film; if you were a member of a judicial system of the Third Reich, what would happen if you said no, I’m not going to participate? Would you lose your life, your reputation, your financial security? I suppose there was pressure put upon these men, but it doesn’t make it right.”

Karen was correct in saying Stanley explored this subject very well in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and Stanley himself got a Best Director nomination. It took home two Oscars, one for Maximilian Schell who won for Best Supporting Actor as defense attorney Hans Rolfe, and the other for Best Adapted Screenplay written by Abby Mann. Stanley made over thirty movies which were mostly socially conscious films, and they garnered over eighty Oscar nominations. Karen remarked how Stanley himself never got an Oscar, but that he did receive the Irving Thalberg Award which is the most important award anyone can get from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Karen went on to tell a story about Montgomery Cliff who gives an astonishing performance as Rudolph Peterson and of how he had trouble remembering his lines on the day his scene was shot.

“Stanley and Spencer Tracy (who played Chief Judge Dan Haywood) got together and they said look, I think we can handle this but a little bit differently,” said Karen. “So, Spencer went over to Montgomery and said look, I know you can’t remember the lines but you know what this scene is about. I’ll sit very close to the camera and just look into my eyes and just play from the heart, which of course he did.”

Karen also talked about Judy Garland whose performance as Irene Wallner garnered her an Oscar nomination. Clift did his performance on the stand first and then Garland did hers, and Clift came to watch Garland perform.

“I think he wanted to make sure she wasn’t better than he was, but that’s how actors were then,” Karen said. “So, he’s watching this and he’s crouching down in a corner someplace watching her perform, and he’s crying and she’s crying. He’s just undone and the minute she finished of course everyone applauded her, and he just went over to Stanley and he says, ‘you know Stanley, she played it all wrong!'”

Karen said “Judgment at Nuremberg” is one of her late husband’s better films and that he used film constantly as a tool or weapon to fight against discrimination, bigotry and man’s inhumanity. She also made it clear how Stanley didn’t make a movie unless it had something to say.

“He didn’t think of himself as a message filmmaker which is what interested him, and he took risks,” Karen said. “His life was threatened often, and when we made ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ our lives were threatened because interracial marriage was against the law in sixteen states when he made that movie. He was always questioning things like in ‘High Noon;’ he would question standing up even if you’re alone to do the right thing even if people don’t support you. He often risked his financial security and his reputation to tell his stories.”

A big thank you to Karen Kramer for taking the time to talk about her late husband Stanley Kramer and this movie of his which continues to stand the test of time. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is as riveting to watch today as it was when it first came out a half a century ago. Don’t let the black and white photography turn you off of seeing this classic film because the issues it ponders are the same ones we are forced to deal with today.

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30 Years Later, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is Still a Wonderful Delight

When Harry Met Sally movie poster

In today’s episode of “man, do I feel old,” we revisit “When Harry Met Sally” which has now reached its 30th anniversary. Yes, this romantic comedy is that old, but in many ways, it hasn’t aged a day. The life challenges its main characters face are no different from what men and women face today, and the only thing missing is an overabundance of cell phones.

“When Harry Met Sally” is an especially unusual love story in regards to how it starts and progresses throughout. We first meet Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright right after they graduate from college. They end up taking a long car ride from Chicago to New York where the real world awaits them whether they are ready for it or not, and from the outset they cannot stand each other to save their lives. Harry is convinced men and women can never be friends because, as he puts it, “the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally tries to rebuff Harry’s advances and sexist comments by attempting to be more open-minded, but this motivates Harry even more determined to prove his point. When they finally reach New York, they part ways and go their separate paths, thinking they will never see each other again. But we know this will not be the case.

Five years later, we catch up with Harry and Sally as they bump into each other on a flight going to Chicago for business purposes. Things have definitely changed for the two as Sally is involved in a serious relationship with a lawyer named Joe, and Harry is now engaged to be married. The relationship between these two has not changed much, and Sally is still turned off by Harry’s cavalier attitude towards the opposite sex, even when it seems like he really has found true love. They finally part ways at the airport, thinking they won’t bump into each other ever again…

This brings me to the point the movie’s screenwriter, Nora Ephron, made about these two characters; they keep meeting up with each other at the wrong times in their lives. The first time when they were on the road and leaving college was the wrong time, and bumping into each other at the airport was also the wrong time. But the third time, which comprises the bulk of the movie, is definitely the most wrong time at all. Sally has recently broken up with Joe and declares to all who listen that she is “over him,” and Harry is going through a painful breakup which he did not see coming. These two at this point have no business being in any relationship as they are in a mourning period, but this time a strong friendship blossoms between the two as they go from fighting to challenging each other to see if men and women can really remain friends even after the sex part gets in the way.

“When Harry Met Sally” was made back in Rob Reiner’s golden age in which he gave us such cinematic gems as “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me” and “The Sure Thing.” His direction here is flawless as he brings us right up close and into the two lives of people who couldn’t be more different from one another. Their progression throughout the movie is very believable and feels almost effortless thanks to the truly inspired performances of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and the screenplay by Nora Ephron is far and away one of her best. Even when it looks like the movie might get a little too broad for its own good, Reiner manages to keep everything together and mines the material for all the humor and heart it has to offer. He also populates the movies with short vignettes of absolutely true stories involving how people found love in the most unexpected ways, and I came out of it believing how love is possible even for those who foolishly believe they are unlovable.

Billy Crystal typically comes across as just Billy Crystal in many of the movies he stars in, but he can be a very good actor when he is given the right role. His performance as Harry starts off in a seemingly broad manner, but he goes from being a confident man in love to a man whose pride looks to be broken forever in a way which he conveys perfectly. The pain in his face when he sees his ex-wife with another man while he and Sally are doing karaoke at the Sharper Image store really hit me hard, and his acting is strong as he makes Harry’s anger raw to where anyone is a target for his upset feelings. This character remains one of Crystal’s best roles to date.

Meg Ryan became a star with this movie and rightly so. No one else could have played the role of Sally Albright better than her, and she is utterly lovable even when she gives the waiter instructions of how she wants her food which would make any food server go insane. You also have to give her almost all the credit for the diner scene, which became one of the all-time great comedy moments in film history as she was the one who came up with faking an orgasm. Ryan shows a lot of range in the movie as she takes Sally from being serious to giddy to heartbroken at a moment’s notice. Granted, this movie pretty much got her stuck in romantic comedies for a long period than she wanted, but that’s because we came to love her so much.

But let’s not forget the great supporting cast here who prove to be every bit as good. The late Carrie Fisher reminded us there was more to her than “Star Wars” and writing screenplays as she steals one scene after another as Sally’s best friend, Marie. Carrie’s character has a thing for married men which never seems to deter her from pursuing them. Then you have the late Bruno Kirby (he is still missed) who plays Harry’s best friend, Jess. When Jess and Marie get together, it is a comedy high point as they ditch their friends for a night alone. Things never do go as planned, do they?

What makes “When Harry Met Sally” so enjoyable is how examines the question of if men and women can truly be friends, and in the answers it comes up with. This is one of those romantic comedies which is meant for both men and women, and remains a gem in a genre I typically want nothing to do with. It broke through the perception we had of these kinds of movies at the time, and of how the audience for them was bigger than we bothered to realize. It also stands as a testament to how unrequited love can be requited and in a way which is absolutely believable. We should all be so lucky.

Thirty years after its release, “When Harry Met Sally” more than deserves its place as one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It’s still a great movie after all these years, and one that is impossible to forget. And by that, I don’t just mean the diner scene. Few romantic comedies these days can match its laughter and sincerity, and I’m not sure we see one like this again for a long time. Of course, filmmakers out there are more than welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *

William Friedkin Discusses the Creation of ‘The French Connection’ Car Chase

The French Connection car chase

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” was shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and he went into great detail about how the famous car chase came together. It is still one of the best car chases in cinema alongside “Bullitt,” and it’s the kind Hollywood doesn’t dare do anymore.

The French Connection movie poster

Actually, it turns out there was never a car chase in the original script for “The French Connection,” but Friedkin felt it needed one as this was a police procedural, and the audience would need a temporary release from it. Also, Friedkin didn’t do any storyboards to prepare for it. In fact, he has never done storyboards for any of his movies because he feels he has to see it in his mind. The shots captured on film come together from what he sees at the time, and he doesn’t even use a second unit to shoot any footage. All that you see on screen in “The French Connection” comes from life as it happened in front of Friedkin.

In coming up with the chase, he and some crew members walked down 50 blocks of New York streets to figure out how it would work best. As Friedkin kept walking, he suddenly felt the subway under his feet. Now logistically, he couldn’t do a car chase with a subway as it was underground, but it made him wonder if there were any elevated trains left in New York. The production team ended up finding one in Brooklyn, so Friedkin went to the Transit Authority to get their cooperation in pulling this chase off.

The first thing to figure out was how fast the trains could go. Friedkin said if they went over 100 mph, they couldn’t do the chase as it would be impossible for Popeye Doyle to follow the train by car. The train supervisor he talked to said the trains go at 50 mph, so what seemed impractical suddenly became possible. Not only did Friedkin want to have a car chase the train, he also wanted to crash the train for the chase’s climax. But the train supervisor said it would be too difficult because they had never had an elevated train crash or even heisted. Having heard all this did not deter Friedkin, and he planned to steal the scene if the transit authority’s cooperation was not going to be granted.

As Friedkin and his crew headed for the exit, the train supervisor suddenly said, “Wait a second. I told you it would be difficult. I never said it would be impossible!” He told Friedkin that if he were to help him with this, then he would need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. His reasoning was if the movie was to be done Friedkin’s way, he would be fired, and retiring to Jamaica was always in the back of his mind. Sure enough, the supervisor was fired, and he moved to Jamaica like he said he would, so it’s safe to say he lucked out.

In filming the chase, the shots were picked up just as they happened in real life. There’s no way they would ever be able to film a chase like this today without prior approval from the city, but Friedkin and his crew were young and reckless, and they unleashed mayhem New York never saw coming. There were not supposed to be any accidents while filming it, but there ended up being many of them which forced the crew to fix the car after each take. I’m pretty sure they ended up using more than one as a result. Friedkin ended up saying they did a number of things he would never even think about doing today, and that they were very fortunate no one got hurt.

Taking all this information into account, this car chase feels even more thrilling than when I first saw it. The way it was filmed was completely insane, and the fact they pulled it off at all was a miracle. When Gene Hackman finally brings the 1971 Pontiac LeMans he is driving to a complete stop, the sold-out audience at the Aero Theatre applauded loudly which shows how powerful the sequence remains today. “The French Connection,” like many of Friedkin’s movies, has deservedly stood the test of time.

Kirk Douglas Looks Back at ‘Lonely Are The Brave’

lonely-are-the-brave-poster

The Ultimate Rabbit would like to wish Kirk Douglas a very happy 100th birthday. It is an age few people ever reach, and this is a man who has survived so much in his lifetime: Hollywood, anti-Semitism, a stroke, a helicopter crash and, tragically, the loss of a son. Still, Douglas persevered in spite of many obstacles thrown in his path, and in his 90’s he continued to work as an actor and a writer. The man who was Spartacus has reached a milestone which needs to be celebrated, but it should be no surprise he has lasted as long as he has. Happy Birthday Kirk!

The following article is of an appearance he made in Hollywood a few years ago in which he talked about one of his most enduring motion pictures.

“The best actors disappear into their roles, but icons always keep part of themselves onscreen. Every one of his characters makes hard choices as a figure of integrity. Not always a good guy, not always a bad guy, but a real guy.”

Those were the words writer Geoff Boucher used to introduce legendary actor Kirk Douglas who made a special appearance at the Egyptian Theatre on September 19, 2012. American Cinematheque was screening “Lonely are the Brave” in honor of the movie’s 50th anniversary, and Douglas was greeted with a thunderous and deserved standing ovation. Douglas thanked the audience for coming to see this movie which he made fifty years ago. He also added, “Don’t ask for your money back!”

Boucher pointed out how Douglas has made so many great movies, but this one in particular really stands out. In the movie, Douglas portrays John W. “Jack” Burns, a cowboy from the Old West who refuses to become a part of modern society. “Lonely are the Brave” is based on the book “The Brave Cowboy” written by Edward Abbey, and Douglas recalled being so intrigued by the character and his horse (Whiskey) and how the book spoke strongly about the difficulty of being an individual today. Douglas did, however, say his major problem was by the end of the movie the audience was “rooting for the horse instead of me!”

There was also talk about Dalton Trumbo who wrote the screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” and whom Douglas had previously worked with on “Spartacus.” Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities regarding their alleged involvement with the Communist Party, and he ended up spending 11 months in prison for contempt as a result. It was Douglas who helped Trumbo get a screenwriting credit on “Spartacus,” and he said he hated the injustice of what Trumbo was put through. Douglas’ latest book “I am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” deals with this extensively.

Douglas made it clear how after reading Abbey’s book, he felt there was no one who could do a better job of adapting it than Trumbo, and it is said he found Trumbo’s screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” to be perfect to where he didn’t change a single word of it.

Boucher also brought up that Douglas had some problems with “Lonely are the Brave” when it came out, and this was especially the case with the movie’s title:

“The book was called ‘The Brave Cowboy’ and I didn’t want that title,” Douglas said. “I wanted to call it ‘The Last Cowboy,’ but the studio which had the money insisted on ‘Lonely are the Brave.’ And I said, what the hell does that mean?”

Douglas has more than earned his status as an acting legend in Hollywood. Old age has not slowed him down one bit as he just finished a one-man show, released a new book, and took the time to appear at the Egyptian Theatre to talk about “Lonely are the Brave” which really is one of his very best movies. He finished his talk that evening by expressing his respect for actors who help other people, and of how he finds it sad that the media prefers instead to concentrate on the more “racy” things they do.

Boucher remarked at the amazing journey that Douglas has made from being “The Ragman’s Son” to going to all the places he has been and of having worked with all the great people he has worked with, and he commended the actor’s career for being guided not just by talent but integrity. That sentiment was shared by everyone in the audience in attendance as we were all very happy to see Douglas there, and he told them he was “glad and happy” they all came to see him and “Lonely are the Brave” which came out fifty years ago.

Al White Discusses How Jive Talk Came About in ‘Airplane’ at New Beverly Cinema

airplane-movie-poster

New Beverly Cinema was packed more than usual when the revival theater screened one of the funniest comedies ever made, “Airplane,” in honor of its 35th anniversary. After the movie was over, the audience got treated to a special appearance by Al White, the actor who played one of the jive talking passengers in the satirical comedy (to be more specific, he was the one with the beard). He ran up to the front of the theater to a thunderous applause and remarked how the movie still holds up after all these years, and the only thing which has changed about it is the color of his hair.

airplane-al-white-screenshot

White was born in Houston, Texas but was raised mostly in San Francisco, California, and he decided to pursue an acting career after working as a janitor at Golden Gate Park for eight years. In addition to his role as the jive talking dude in “Airplane,” a role he would reprise in “Airplane II: The Sequel,” he also had a memorable role in “Back to the Future Part II” as an angry homeowner who tries to beat up Michael J. Fox with a baseball bat. He was also a member of the American Conservatory Theater for several years and originated the role of the military officer in the Tennessee Williams play “This is an Entertainment.”

White told the New Beverly audience that making “Airplane” proved to be a lot of fun. While the movie was distributed by Paramount Pictures, much of its filming took place in Culver City, California.

Acting opposite White as the other jive-talking man in the movie was Norman Alexander Gibbs whom has since moved back to the east coast of the United States. White remarked at how Gibbs talked so much to where he didn’t want to compete with him, so he tried to fill in the blanks when Gibbs wasn’t saying anything. That made for one wonderful scene after another in this comedy classic.

Many in the audience were curious about the jive language White, Gibbs and Barbara Billingsley, who played the elderly white woman who understood what they were saying, said throughout and if it was a real language. White said it was something he and Gibbs worked on throughout shooting. The movie’s writers and directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, apparently got the idea for the jive talking guys while they were in a restaurant and sitting next to some black men who spoke in a language they couldn’t understand.

Jeff Zucker, the one who worked with the actors on set the most, gave the actors free range to come up with dialogue, and White described how a line of dialogue like “each of us faces a moral choice” turned into “that gray matter backlot perform us DOWN, I take TCB-in’, man!”

Following the screening of “Airplane,” White hung out in the lobby to sign autographs and talk with the fans. I thanked him for coming down to the New Beverly and told him how I always wondered if the jive language was real or if it was gibberish. He replied, “It’s gibberish to those who don’t understand it, but it makes perfect sense to those that do understand it.”

The genius of “Airplane” is that all the actors never played their roles as if they were in on the joke, and that’s a lesson lost on many filmmakers today when they make satires. These days, filmmakers seem far more concerned about the jokes than anything else, and the movies they make suffer as a result. To this White replied, “The old stuff is better.”

COL’ got to be! (How true!)

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Tippi Hedren Looks Back at ‘The Birds’ and Working with Alfred Hitchcock

The Birds Tippi Hedren

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock were in for a treat when they packed the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for a screening of his 1963 horror classic “The Birds.” The movie was being shown in honor of its 50th anniversary, and among the evening’s guests were two of its stars: Tippi Hedren who played the confident socialite Melanie Daniels, and Veronica Cartwright who had one of her earliest roles as Cathy Brenner. Much of the Q&A which preceded the movie, however, was directed at Hedren who talked about how she got cast in “The Birds” and of the overall effect Hitchcock ended up having on her career.

There has been this misconception about “The Birds” where many assumed it was filmed in black and white and not color. A lot of this had to do with people first watching the movie on their black and white television sets at home, and this understandably made the experience of watching it a bit different for them. Hedren reflected on what people have told her regarding this issue.

“I’ve had people say oh, I am so delighted that they colorized ‘The Birds,’ and I said uh no, we filmed it in color.’ And they said no, no, no, I saw it in black and white. Soon the argument kept growing, and I finally said no, you saw it on a black-and-white TV! And they went, yes’ Case closed” Hedren jokingly said.

Even today “The Birds” continues to pack movie houses all over the country and Hedren admitted she remains astonished at how it has a life of its own. She still does publicity for the film and talked of how it can still draw a crowd after so many years. Some of the other screenings she spoke of actually happened not long before this one.

“It took a little while for me to realize that this movie really has something that’s unique and powerful,” Hedren said. “We had a screening at a theater in Detroit, Michigan that sold out, and it didn’t have many seats in it. In Texas I was at a theater that was built in the 30s in El Paso, a beautiful, beautiful theater with 2500 seats, and there was a film festival there. Just before the screening of ‘The Birds,’ the director of the festival came to the stage and said ‘ladies and gentlemen, this theater has been sold out four times: once for ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘E.T.’ and tonight ‘The Birds.’”

“The Birds” actually marked Hedren’s film debut as an actress, and she previously had a very successful career as a model which later led her to do commercials. Hitchcock saw Hedren in a diet soda commercial, and this led him to cast her in the movie. This opportunity came at a crucial time for Hedren as she had just moved back to Los Angeles with her daughter Melanie Griffith and was experiencing some problems.

“I rented a very expensive home in Westwood thinking I would continue my career as a fashion model and doing commercials, and it wasn’t working and I’m thinking okay, what do I do now? I don’t know how to type,” Hedren said. “Shortly after that on Friday the 13th of October 1961, I received a phone call from Universal asking if I was the girl in the diet soda commercial, and I said yes. So I was put through a four or five-day suspense thriller of who is the producer who was interested in me. Finally, I was asked to go to MCA, a big organization or agency, and it was there that the agent said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract. If you agree with the terms and sign it, we will promote you.’ So we went over to his office, and he (Hitchcock) opened the door and stood looking very pleased with himself. It literally changed my life.”

One audience member asked Hedren about the very strange birthday gift Hitchcock gave her daughter Melanie. Many have heard this story over and over, and it has always sounded tremendously creepy. The question, however, gave Hedren the opportunity to set the record straight about what really happened.

“My daughter was presented with a box when Hitchcock took us to lunch, and it was a wooden box and Melanie opened it and it was an incredible doll of me in the green suit that I wore in ‘The Birds,’” Hedren said. “The face was so perfect that it scared her to the point where she kind of freaked out. Everybody made it sound like it was Hitchcock playing a dirty trick or doing something really nasty to Melanie and that wasn’t it. It was supposed be a very, very beautiful gift and it just went awry. She was so affected by it that it was put away somewhere, and I unfortunately don’t even know what happened to it.”

But the one thing which has cast a heavy shadow over the legacy of “The Birds” is the fact Hitchcock sabotaged Hedren’s career after she starred in “Marnie.” During that time, Hitchcock became deeply obsessed with her, but she kept refusing his advances which led to him exerting a control over her no director should have over anyone. Hedren explained what happened between her and Hitchcock very calmly and without a hint of regret.

“As you know, I became the object of his obsession,” Hedren said. “It started later in the filming of ‘The Birds,’ and then by the end of filming ‘Marnie’ it was to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was tired of being followed around all the time. It all came about when I was asked to go to New York to be on ‘The Tonight Show’ to accept an award, and I asked for two days off. There was a demand put on me if I chose to take those two days off, and I was so offended with it and I said I have to get out of this contract and I have to get out of it now. As soon as ‘Marnie’ is over, I am done. And he (Hitchcock) said, ‘Well you can’t. You have your little girl to support, your parents are getting older…’ And I said anybody who loves me doesn’t want me to be in a situation which I’m unhappy. I want to get out!’ And he said, ‘I’ll ruin your career,’ and he did.”

“He didn’t let me out of the contract,” Hedren continued. “He kept paying me my $600 a week, and I wouldn’t hear for a very long time after that that many directors had asked to have me in their films, and it was so easy for him. All he had to say was she isn’t available, and it was that easy and it was done. It was hurtful, but at the same time I walked away with my head held high. He ruined my career but he didn’t ruin my life.”

The audience at Grauman’s Chinese applauded her last sentence, and it was clear to everyone she never lost her pride or self-respect in spite of what Hitchcock did. While her career was never the same after “Marnie,” she still managed to keep working in both film and television.

While we may have come out of the evening very upset at the cruel way Hitchcock treated Tippi Hedren, we could not deny “The Birds” still remains a very effective and unnerving horror movie a half a century after its release. The fact it holds up so well speaks volumes of not just Hitchcock’s brilliant direction, but also of Hedren’s beautifully confident performance. She remains such a sublime presence to watch in this classic film, and she deserves as much credit as Hitchcock does for its enduring success.

The Birds movie poster

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Birds

The Birds movie poster

I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have never actually seen it all the way through until recently. Still, it was one of those films we felt we all had seen as we are aware of its story and are constantly reminded of its existence when we see birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs.

It took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to finally give me a reason to actually see it. Seeing the movie at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would be the end of us instead.

Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along she wasn’t an employee but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to one up him. So she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends the weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…

Bodega Bay is really a perfect location for a horror movie; a small seaside town which looks so peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s this isolation which dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them all perched over the Golden Gate Bridge, just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.

The first bird attack actually doesn’t happen until about a half hour or so, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker, even Hitchcock, getting away with this today except Steven Spielberg. Studio executives would probably be saying, “Can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But this is okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play cat and mouse games with each other. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.

When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters I wondered more about than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda you are itching to figure out before the movie ends. With the birds, it’s not hard to figure out what their agenda is.

Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and it shows him still having a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.

Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous onscreen), but what does Annie really mean? Pleshette makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.

Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days look a bit campy and haven’t aged well. Then again, they still look better than anything in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock shoots the bird attacks in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts which gives you the illusion you’re seeing more than what’s onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs to the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal as a result.

I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do this with many of his movies, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always keeps you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but this makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights come up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out, and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended.

One image which will forever stay with me is the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice the dozens of birds which are perched on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many birds are there, you feel her sheer terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and this makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds all the more impressive.

Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or that someone is going to have clean up all the bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? With so many birds, that piece of equipment is never going to get fully cleaned. Once the kids find out what happened, you will be lucky to get any of them playing on it again!

I loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep the birds from getting inside. It’s at this point the film becomes a master class in sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds, but we hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if the birds find a way inside.

I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence which makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies (“Basic Instinct” in particular). It’s a tragedy Hitchcock ruined Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high which says a lot about her.

It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright here as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first horror movie which she appeared in, and she was only 12 years old at the time (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.

Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched it on its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance many filmmakers still pray to have in their own careers. Still, more than thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck. You’re gonna need it.

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Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles poster version 2

Blazing Saddles” is one of Mel Brooks’ funniest comedies and one which invites repeat viewings as there are always jokes still waiting to be discovered. It acts as a satire of the western genre as well as the racism which was obscured by Hollywood’s creation of myths regarding the American West. But as funny as it is, it also offers the viewer a moving story about a black sheriff who manages to win over a town on the verge of being taken over by murderers and thieves. It also gleefully breaks the rules to where places and people are added that were never really part of the American West in the first place.

The wonderful Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the State Attorney General who wants to get his hands on the town of Rock Ridge where the land is worth millions. His attempts to frighten the people out of their town includes getting cowboys to ride in and shoot their guns, creating a havoc which makes everyone living there fearful and anxious. But when that doesn’t work, Lamarr comes up with what he believes is an ingenious idea; he hires a black man to become the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge with the belief his “mere presence” will scare everyone out of there. Of course, things do not go as planned.

Looking back at “Blazing Saddles” all these years later, it still stands up mainly because Brooks is not out to make the actors simply go for the joke. Instead they play many scenes straight instead of trying to be funny, and this makes the humor work even more than it already does. With a satire like this, it helps to have characters you care about regardless of how ridiculous their actions may be. Most movie satires and spoofs these days keep forgetting this as they are more persistent in selling the joke to the audience instead of giving the story any real substance.

The late Cleavon Little portrays Bart who becomes the Sheriff and immediately meets resistance to his presence because of the color of his skin. Regardless of how infinitely intelligent and cool he is compared to the idiotic residents of Rock Ridge, he has to work real hard to win them over. Little has so many inspired moments in the movie like when he sings a Cole Porter song instead of the “Camptown Races” which the racist cowboys assume blacks sing all the time.

Many may accuse “Blazing Saddles” of playing up black stereotypes in order to get easy laughs, but they completely miss the point. Brooks and his team of writers, which included Richard Pryor, turn those stereotypes upside down and expose them for the falsehoods they have always been. Seeing the residents of Rock Ridge overzealous reactions to Bart’s behavior, such as him saying “excuse me while I whip this out” when he takes out his written speech, are indicative of their overt racism more than anything else. Seeing them act so stupidly out of fear and sheer ignorance gives the movie some of its most side-splitting moments.

Another memorable performance comes from the great Gene Wilder who plays Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the world. While Wilder is best remembered at times for playing neurotic characters, he is as cool as can be in this film. Seeing him play it so cool in moments where his precision with a pistol is stupidly questioned by others who don’t know him is so much fun to take in. His character is a riff on the one Dean Martin played in “Rio Bravo,” and Wilder is such a blast to watch throughout.

“Blazing Saddles” also provided the late Madeline Khan with one of her most famous roles, the German singer Lili von Shtupp whose name is inexplicably censored on the movie’s television version. She is endlessly brilliant in her rendition of the song “I’m Tired,” and it makes for one of the most unforgettable comic performances ever captured on film.

There are many unforgettably hysterical scenes throughout “Blazing Saddles” which stand up to repeat viewings. The campfire scene is as obscene as it is gut-bustlingly hilarious, and you may find yourself laughing harder than you ever have before. Brooks himself plays a couple of parts like the severely lacking in intelligence Gov. William J. Le Petomane and an Indian Chief who, for some bizarre reason, speaks Yiddish. Other actors like the great Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam have us gasping with laughter just by looking at the befuddled expressions on their faces.

Along with a great music score by John Morris and beautiful cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, “Blazing Saddles” has more than earned its place on the list of greatest comedies ever made. There is tremendous delight in watching Brooks throw caution and logic to the wind as he throws in the unexpected like Count Basie and his orchestra performing in the desert while Bart rides by, or having Nazis sign up for Lamar’s final battle at Rock Ridge. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or because you just want the laughs to keep on coming (and they do). With a comedy like this, you can never be sure what will happen next!

By the way, be sure to watch “Blazing Saddles” in the widescreen version. Brooks shot the movie in Panavision scope, and it has never ever translated well to the realm of pan-and-scan.

Blazing Saddles poster version 1

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Searchers

The Searchers poster

Continuing my education in the westerns of John Wayne, for those of you who read my review of “Rio Bravo,” we come to an even greater one called “The Searchers.” It is a beautifully filmed movie directed by the great John Ford, and it stars John Wayne in what may very well have been his greatest onscreen performance ever as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War soldier coming home to a tenuous welcome. When his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family are massacred by Comanche Indians, he sets off on a mission of both revenge and rescue as he discovers one of his nieces may still be alive. Along with him on this journey are the Texas Rangers led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and a step-nephew named Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) whom Ethan wants nothing to do with.

Like I said, this is a beautifully filmed western by Ford, and it is the first of his films I have watched. I can see why it is one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time favorite films, and I wonder if Ford’s other films are as beautifully shot as this one was. We get to see wide shots of barren fields which are soon covered by snowfall. Ford makes the passing of time seem all the more evident as we go from one season to another, and we feel the years passing these characters by as they refuse to give up on their quest. It gets to where we are as desperate as them to find those innocent souls who were kidnapped.

Wayne said of all the roles he played, he considered Ethan Edwards to be his best. As a result, he later named a son of his Ethan in a respectful homage to this film. Wayne is simply amazing here as a Confederate soldier who does not feel the need to swear an oath to Texas since his work as a soldier is far more important. Ethan is not an entirely likable person, and neither Wayne nor Ford hide the fact that he is pretty racist. But you cannot help but stay with Ethan on this journey because there’s little doubt he is justified in his pursuits.

Wayne has many amazing moments in “The Searchers,” and the strongest ones are when he doesn’t say a word. He may appear tough and resolute one moment, but in the next shot his eyes betray the worry and hurt that tear away at Ethan’s soul. Ethan’s life was torn apart when his young after the Comanche Indians attacked his family, and it has filled him with an unapologetically raw hatred towards them. There’s a powerful moment where we see Wayne coming in from someplace he was searching, and he looks like he is about to collapse in horror. We find out later why he was acting the way he did, but what he shows without saying anything leaves a lasting impression that you cannot get out of your head.

The main relationship Wayne’s character has throughout “The Searchers” is with Marty, and he is played by Jeffrey Hunter who is best remembered as Captain Christopher Pike from the original pilot of “Star Trek.” Marty sticks with Ethan despite Ethan’s cold dismissal of him throughout due to his biracial heritage, but Ethan needs Marty to keep him in check. Ethan’s racism is so deeply rooted to where it could force him to take actions he may spend the rest of his life regretting. Marty soon comes to understand why Ethan would rather see a family member dead than have them be defiled by a Comanche.

Watching “The Searchers” today might seem odd because the movie at times threatens to be as racist as Wayne’s character. It was made back in the days of cowboys and indians, but the main villains here are only one tribe of indians as well as double-crossing white men who should have known better. Not every Indian in this movie is presented as a bad guy. In fact, one of the best moments comes when Marty finds he has inadvertently married an Indian woman when he thought he was just buying a sweater. When we later see the fate of that Indian woman, we learn more about why Indians end up attacking each other over territory.

The movie is filled with incredible vistas Ford captures in all their glory, and I’m convinced that viewing it today is as exciting as when it first came out. I wonder if any other filmmaker today can accomplish what Ford did. We see characters grow from the start all the way to the finish, and Ethan comes to see he has gained a lot of respect for Marty to where he is prepared to give everything he has to him should he be killed. They never really become friends, but they rely on each other more than they would ever admit out loud. There is a lot of heart in this movie behind all that bravado which never covers up the fierce insecurity of its characters.

The Searchers doorway

The final shot of Wayne standing in the doorway while the sun and wind bear down on him is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history, and it stays with you long after the movie is over. It says everything you need to know about Ethan as he is a man destined to walk this earth alone, but who will always be doing his job as a soldier till the day he drops dead.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “The Searchers” that has not already been said. I have absolutely no doubt that this is one of the greatest westerns ever made, and it is clearly one of the defining movies of Wayne’s career. Although some may find the Ethan’s racist attitudes too much to bear, there is still so much to enjoy and be enthralled by. I was never in a hurry to see “The Searchers,” but I’m really glad I finally did.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

Rio Bravo movie poster

I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.