Category Archives: Bill

White Heat (1949)

White Heat is one of the best crime dramas you’ll ever see. James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a sadistic, vicious thug who meets the textbook definition of the phrase “criminally insane.” Cagney gives a performance that no other actor could duplicate let alone exceed. If you are wondering why he didn’t get the Oscar for this film, I didn’t understand either but I believe it was because Hollywood didn’t nominate “gangster films” for Oscars until perhaps The Godfather.

Virginia Mayo gives a fine performance as Cody’s girl, as does Edmund O’Brien as an undercover federal policeman. But the other special performance in this film is given by Margaret Wycherly, who portrays Cody’s mother. You can see in her character one of the main reasons Cody grew up to become the monster he was. Her role is such a contrast to the warm and steadfast mother she played in Sergeant York. Wycherly deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance in White Heat in addition the one she received for Sergeant York.

White Heat was nominated for best writing; perhaps that was Hollywood’s discreet way of acknowledging Cagney and Wycherly’s performances and director Raoul Walsh.

I have seen this film many times and I am still amazed at how good it is.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is listed as one of the top ten sci-fi films of all time by the American Film Institute. It is probably my personal favorite sci-fi film and far superior to the subsequent remakes. And this is despite the fact that the special effects are very limited and there is very little action.

So what makes this film so special? It’s the story, the acting, the musical score, and
perhaps the cinematography. And it contains maybe one of the scariest scenes you’ll ever see in a film that does not involve a monster, a slashing knife, or something that jumps out at you.

And a word of warning, you may have trouble sleeping after you see this film, but if
you haven’t seen this film, you should. Also, just before you do go to bed, you might
want to check your basement, under your bed, in your car, and any other place in or
around your home where a body might be waiting.

We’re No Angels (1955)

Looking to spend this Christmas in a nice warm tropical place? OK! How about Devil’s Island circa 1895? Join Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov as three escaped convicts at Christmas in the hilarious comedy We’re No Angels.

They plan to rob a shopkeeper and use the money to leave the island. Their plans begin to change when they meet Felix and Amelie Ducotel and their daughter. Felix manages, or rather mismanages, a small department store.

The convicts decide to spend Christmas with the Ducotel family. They decorate the house and prepare and serve the dinner. Just when everything is going so well, Felix’s cousin Andre and Andre’s nephew Paul arrive unexpectedly.

Andre is nasty bit of goods who owns the store managed by Felix. He plans to audit the books and if the store is not profitable, he will fire Felix and put him and his family into the street. Andre is just the sort of man the convicts are looking for.

Join this trio of rogues at Christmastime. There are some very funny scenes, some charming songs, and a great cast. It’s a good way to enjoy part of this Christmas and/or any Christmas season.

Check out this TCM article for a behind-the-scenes look at the film. And for other Christmas films at the library, browse our lists of Christmas Movies and Family Christmas Movies.

The Haunting (1999) PG-13

The Haunting, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson and, Lili Taylor, is a combination of horror, fantasy and mystery. Three people are lured into participating into an insomnia experiment but what is actually an experiment in fear. The experiment takes place in a creepy mansion. However, not even the professor conducting the experiment knows that the house is haunted.

It’s a fun movie. It is scary in the traditional sense, the mansion is spectacularly
creepy, the special effects are wonderful, and there is a mystery to be solved. I have noted there is a lot of criticism of this movie because it is unlike the 1963 film. In the 1963 movie you don’t actually see the ghosts and critics of the 1999 film say the 1963 film is better because you have to rely on your imagination. However that is only true if you don’t like the way the director of the 1999 film imagined the ghosts andother effects which are much more visual. Others criticized the acting with the exception of Lili Taylor’s performance. Taylor gives the best performance, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones are good. I would have to say I would have preferred someone else in the Owen Wilson role, either someone more handsome or more sinister and perhaps even changed the character.

If you have not seen either version, I suggest you see the 1963 film first and then see 1999 film and make up your own mind. (Also if you are squeamish about blood, you may wish to close your eyes or fast forward a few minutes when the piano wires begin to undo themselves.)

Rio Bravo (1959)

This western stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson. It is my all-time favorite John Wayne western. Rio Bravo is a straightforward story about a sheriff (Wayne) and his deputy (Martin) who have arrested Joe Burdette for murder. Joe is a nasty piece of goods but his brother is a wealthy rancher who will resort to any means to free his brother and to having the lawmen killed, as they are the only witnesses who would testify against Joe.

There is plenty of action and some wonderful songs sung by Martin and Nelson. Brennan provides a lot of comedy and is ably supported in this by Martin, Dickinson, and Wayne. Angie Dickinson flirts shamelessly with Wayne and they have several wonderful scenes together. Joe Burdette is well played by character actor Claude Akins, who specialized in playing brutal and sadistic types in the 1950s and 60s.

I had been meaning to write a review of this film for some time but I was inspired to do so after viewing The Artist (2011). So what does this silent academy award winner have to do with Rio Bravo? I had seen a special on the making of Rio Bravo and it was pointed out that there is no spoken dialogue in the first five minutes of the film. I had seen the film many times before and had never noticed that. I watched the film again and sure enough, none of the main actors in the opening scenes have any spoken lines. Martin, Akins, and Wayne are communicating with gestures, body language, and facial expressions only, and yet you know what they are saying and what they are thinking. Even if you don’t like westerns, you must watch the first five minutes of this film to appreciate the pure acting that is going on.

This is a wonderful film from beginning to end.

For more about the film, check out articles from Roger Ebert, The Guardian (UK), and Turner Classic Movies.

Hugo (2011) PG

I usually begin my reviews by stating the year of the film and listing the main stars. I briefly describe the plot, perhaps quote a line from the film or describe a scene and emphasize what I believe are some of the high points of the film.

In this case, I decided to write my review as I approached viewing the film. I knew almost nothing about the film. All that I knew was that it won several Oscars, and I had seen a few brief snippets during the Academy Awards ceremony. I chose not to find out anything more about the film, and I would advise anyone who has not seen this film to take the same approach.

If you appreciate art, science, fantasy, a vivid imagination, you will love this film. If you don’t appreciate art, if science bores you, if you look at a cloud and that’s all you see, you won’t like the film.

This film reminded me of what it was like to see a motion picture in a movie theater for the first time. I was amazed and filled with a great sense of wonder. You too can experience this again, if you see this film.

Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Join us on Friday, May 4 at 7:00 for a screening of Hugo. Doors open at 6:30; fresh popcorn will be served. Register at calendar.ippl.info.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) PG-13

Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. It is a combination sci-fi/western picture. My initial reaction to the title and to a few previews I saw was, “Give me a break, how silly can you get?” But a few people told me it was a pretty good movie, so I decided to give it a chance. And I am now very glad I did.

This is a fun movie. It works very well as an old fashioned 1950s sci-fi movie set in the “Hollywood West.” Daniel Craig gives a wonderful performance as Jake Lonergan, a bad guy turned good who sets out to right past wrongs. It’s as though James Bond was sent to the past without a memory of who he was, what his mission is, or any of his special gadgets except one, which he does not know how to use. But he retains his martial arts ability and his ability to “think on his feet.”

So sit back and enjoy.

Hollywoodland

Hollywoodland (2006) R
1959 was a very good year for me. I was 11 years old and the White Sox were winning their first pennant in 40 years. But one day in that year was terrible. On the morning of June 17, 1959, my mother had sent me to the corner store for a gallon of milk. While in the store, I looked down at the newspapers and there was a terrible headline and some sickening photos. George Reeves, the actor who had played Superman in the 1950s television show and a hero to millions of kids, had killed himself. I was horrified and sickened by the story, and I could not bring myself to believe it.

In 2006, Hollywoodland was produced starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, and Ben Affleck. The film takes an intriguing look at Reeves’ death and considers three possible scenarios: 1) that Reeves was killed at the behest of his former mistress; 2) that he was killed accidentally by his then girlfriend; and 3) that he had deliberately taken his own life.  Brody does an excellent job playing the role of Louis Simo investigating the death at on behalf of Reeves’ mother. Lane is superb playing Toni Mannix, Reeves’ mistress. And Affleck is outstanding playing “the Man of Steel,” George Reeves.

The movie can be depressing, but it is very thought provoking. After viewing the movie, I considered other possibilities besides murder or suicide. Neither the movie nor other reports I have read considered the possibility that Reeves may have accidentally killed himself. Both the official reports and the movie show that Reeves had been drinking heavily at the time of his death. Could he have shot himself with a gun that he thought was unloaded? If he had thought he had previously unloaded the gun, and forgotten that he had reloaded it, or if some other person had reloaded it, that would make it an accident, not suicide or murder. I doubt we will ever know, but for kindness sake, I choose to believe he did not realize the gun was loaded at the time of his death.

Ordinarily I don’t like sad movies, but this one is excellent and it opened up a possibility that I had not considered.

Spotlight: Audie Murphy

Spotlight: Audie Murphy
As most of you know, Audie Murphy was America’s most decorated soldier of World War II. After the war, Murphy went to Hollywood and began a movie career under the tutelage of James Cagney. Most of the movies he made were westerns.

Indian Prairie has acquired the Audie Murphy Western Collection, which contains four films. Sierra (1950) is the first. Murphy’s inexperience as an actor shows in this, his second starring western. And his then wife, Wanda Hendrix, gives him no help due in part to her unusual voice. The film is nevertheless worthwhile because of the spectacular photography, the singing of Burl Ives (who sings a few very beautiful ballads and a very comical song for children), and the appearance in small roles of future superstar, Tony Curtis, and television’s most famous western marshal James Arness.

All four films include an introduction by Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. The special features section of each film includes interesting facts. Also, Sierra includes a mini-biography of Murphy. One of the interesting stories about this film is a mock fast draw gunfight between Murphy and Curtis. If you watch the other films in this collection, you will note how much Murphy grew as an actor.

The other films in the collection are Drums Across the River (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). They are all solid westerns well worth watching.

In addition, Indian Prairie has three other Audie Murphy films: His autobiographical To Hell and Back (1955); Night Passage (1957), a film I previously reviewed; and No Name on the Bullet (1959). To Hell and Back was Universal Studios’ biggest box office hit ever, until it was eclipsed 20 years later by Jaws.

Audie Murphy was good actor, who, unlike most actors, was a genuine hero. He stood 5’5”, had a baby face, but with his genuine humility and his life experiences he brought something special to his films. A friend said at his funeral, “Like the man, the headstone is too small.” He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and after John Kennedy, his grave is the most visited gravesite.

Spotlight: True Grit

Spotlight: True Grit
This film was made in 1969 and remade in 2010. Both films have much to recommend them, as they followed the 1968 Charles Portis novel closely; the only strong criticism is they both should have stayed truer to book. The 1969 film starred John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, and Robert Duvall. The 2010 film starred Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.

John Wayne received his only Academy Award for this film and Jeff Bridges received a nomination for his performance. Kim Darby gave a fine performance portraying 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who has hired Marshall Rooster Cogburn to bring her father’s murderer, the nefarious Tom Chaney, to justice. But young Hailee Steinfeld gave an outstanding performance in the same role and received an Academy Award nomination.
Campbell played La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger also on the trail of Chaney, in the 1969 film (portrayed by Damon in the remake). Matt Damon’s performance is far superior. I will not mention the names of the actors who played Tom Chaney, but I believe the actor from 1969 film gave a better performance and is much truer to the character from the novel.

The photography in both films is beautiful, but I give the edge to the 1969 film. With respect to the music, I give the edge to the 2010 film.

The 1969 film received two Oscar nominations, the 2010 film received 10. Whether or not you like westerns, I strongly recommend both films. There is plenty of action, comedy and pathos in both. And if you have not read the book, you should do so at your earliest convenience. It’s an American classic.