Summaries - Part 4
The Third Hundred Greatest Films
Summaries - Part 4
(Links to Comprehensive Film Reviews)
Hard Day's Night (1964)
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell
Director: Richard Lester
The Beatles' first charming, wacky, original and impish movie was released not long after the Fab Four's landmark debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. At first thought to be a cross-promotional exploitation of their phenomenal 'Beatlemania', even critics agreed that it was an inventive, funny and ingenious musical comedy that later helped to inspire the music video craze. Innovative American director Richard Lester used the same type of goofy humor and imaginative visuals from his earlier experimental, grainy, hand-held short film, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959) starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, along with black-and-white film stock and a semi-documentary style. Screenwriter Alun Owen based his Oscar-nominated script on the group's frenzied popularity, supplemented by musical interludes of concert footage. The frantic film documents thirty-six hours of the group's life as they are on their way to London for a TV performance, marked by the memorable opening intercut to the title song - as the Liverpool group is chased by screaming, hysterical teenage girls while they board a train. The rock-and-roll stars express their charming, laid-back, and saucy personalities in this slice-of-life film that fictionalized their lives -- best exemplified during their interview scenes with their dry, playful one-liner responses (Reporter: "Are you a mod, or a rocker?" Ringo: "Um, no. I'm a mocker"). Wilfrid Brambell also plays Ringo's "very clean," eccentric grandfather who serves as the film's trouble-maker. The Academy's membership unjustly overlooked the now-classic songs in the film's un-nominated soundtrack in favor of those from Mary Poppins ("Chim Chim Cher-ee"), Dear Heart, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Robin and the 7 Hoods ("My Kind of Town"), and Where Love Has Gone. However, George Martin, the Beatles' producer often recognized as the "Fifth Beatle," was nominated for Best Adapted Score. The Beatles as a group would later star in Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968) and the documentary that showed their breakup, Let It Be (1970). Other 'British invasion' bands copied this work with their own film projects, such as the Dave Clark Five's Having a Wild Weekend (aka Catch Us If You Can) (1965). The Monkees' mid-60's TV-show was also an offshoot of this film. Academy Award Nominations: 2, including Best Original Screenplay--Alun Owen, Best Music Score--George Martin.
Henry V (1944) and
Henry V (1989) (tie)
Starring (1944): Laurence Olivier, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Esmond Knight, Renee Asherson, George Robey, Leo Genn
Director (1944): Laurence Olivier
Starring (1989): Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Alec McCowen, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson
Director (1989): Kenneth Branagh
Two adaptations of William Shakespeare's timeless, epic play Henry V - about young, 15th century British King Henry's invasion of France, and his victory at the crucial Battle of Agincourt against a larger French force. The story has been told by these two actors/directors in highly-regarded versions separated by almost four decades: the great Laurence Olivier (with his directorial debut) and the powerful Kenneth Branagh (with his debut as both screenwriter and director). While the two films cover the same play and feature the same level of directorial ability and a similar level of acting skill by the ensemble casts surrounding them, there is a marked difference between the films. Olivier's Technicolor epic Henry V (1944), (aka The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France), the first radical reinterpretation of the play, is more intimate and theatrical (the film opens on a bare Elizabethan stage, the Globe Theater, in the style of a play in the 1600s, and then expands outward from there), while Branagh's revisionistic Henry V (1989) is more dramatic, grandiose, passionate and darkly serious. Branagh's wife Emma Thompson stars as French princess Catherine of Valois, whom Henry takes as his bride. A play chiefly about royal responsibility, war and its effects, the nature of both films was deeply affected by the historical context in which they were created -- Olivier had intended Henry V to be a rallying morale booster for Britain at the height of WWII, while Branagh's film debuted during a post-Vietnam era when there was greater cynicism about war. Both films' highlights, however, remain the same -- Henry V's pre-battle speech to his troops at the siege of Harfleur, from Act III, Scene 1, beginning with the stirring line: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead," and his St. Crispin's Day address to his battle-weary men, from Act IV, Scene 3, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Olivier was given an Honorary Oscar as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the silver screen. Academy Award Nominations (1946): 4, including Best Picture, Best Actor--Laurence Olivier, Best Color Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Best Music Score--William Walton. Academy Award Nominations (1989): 3, including Best Actor--Kenneth Branagh, Best Director--Kenneth Branagh. Academy Awards: 1, Best Costume Design (Phyllis Dalton).
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Starring: Charles Laughton, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Maureen O'Hara, Edmond O'Brien
Director: William Dieterle
One of the many film adaptations of the classic Victor Hugo 'beauty and the beast' novel about a deaf, hunch-backed, outcast bellringer in the Notre Dame Cathedral tower in medieval 15th century Paris, who falls for a beautiful gypsy girl named Esmeralda (O'Hara in her first major role), amidst spiteful jealousy by villainous and sinister Chief Justice Jean Frollo (Hardwicke). This 1939 black and white film version from German expressionistic director Dieterle, the first made during the sound era, is rivaled only by the 1923 silent version starring Lon Chaney. Charles Laughton, in arguably his best acting performance of his career, was almost unrecognizable as the disfigured and mis-shapen, but sympathetic title character named Quasimodo. One of the biggest budget films of its era, the sets are imposing, the cast is first rate, and the script is excellent, noted for its thrilling scene of the hunchback's rescue of Esmeralda from being hanged on a scaffold, by swinging to her on a rope and whisking her back to Notre Dame, while crying "Sanctuary, Sanctuary." Also remembered for Esmeralda's offering of water to Quasimodo after a brutal public flogging in the public square, and the bellringer's heartbreaking closing line to a gargoyle atop the church: "Why was I not made of stone like thee?" Also remade as Notre Dame de Paris (1957) with Anthony Quinn in the title role, and as a 1996 Disney musical with an Oscar-nominated score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Academy Award Nominations: 2, including Best Music Score--Alfred Newman, Best Sound Recording.
the Heat of the Night (1967)
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson
Director: Norman Jewison
An intense whodunit detective story thriller set in the little town of Sparta, Mississippi during a hot summer, with an innovative score by Quincy Jones and title song sung by Ray Charles. Norman Jewison masterfully directed this murder melodrama from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant that was based on John Ball's novel. The film's posters proclaimed: "They got a murder on their hands. They don't know what to do with it." The liberal-minded film, realistically-filmed by cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who had just filmed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and would later go on to Coming Home (1978)), was a milestone for the racially-divided mid-60s because it forced the odd-couple collaboration of a bigoted but shrewd, redneck Southern sheriff named Bill Gillespie (Steiger) and a lone, intelligently-clever black homicide expert from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs (Poitier). The film, with a non-white actor in a lead acting role, was so controversial that it couldn't be filmed in the Deep South, so the sets were recreated in various small towns in two states: Sparta, Freeburg, and Belleville, Illinois, and Dyersburg, Tennessee. Following the success of this film, Sidney Poitier reprised his Virgil Tibbs character in two other films: he investigated the murder of a prostitute in the sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), and battled against a drug smuggling ring in The Organization (1971). Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Director--Norman Jewison and Best Sound Effects Editing. Academy Awards: 5, including Best Picture, Best Actor--Rod Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay--Stirling Silliphant, Best Film Editing, Best Sound.
the Wind (1960)
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan
Director: Stanley Kramer
This absorbing liberal "message" film portrays the famous and dramatic courtroom "Monkey Trial" battle (in the sultry summer of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee) between two famous lawyers (Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan), who heatedly argue both sides of the case. Film-maker Stanley Kramer both produced and directed this film that modified and slightly disguised the historical event by changing the names of the prototypical characters and making them fictional figures, and placing the action in fictional Hillsboro, Tennessee. Its story centers around the issue of evolution vs. creationism and the prosecution of 24 year-old Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes (in the film, Bert Cates played by Dick York) for violating state law by teaching Darwin's theories of evolution. [In fact, Scopes deliberately agreed to challenge the Tennessee legislature's statutes and become the test case for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by teaching theories that denied the Biblical story of the divine creation of man.] The film's title was taken from the Biblical book of Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." Kramer's film was also designed as a protest against the repressive thinking of the 50s McCarthy era. Much of the film's story (and dialogue), written into a screenplay by Nathan E. Douglas (Nedrick Young was the blacklisted screenwriter's real name) and Harold Jacob Smith, was based on the successful Broadway play (by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) that first starred Paul Muni and Ed Begley. The film stars two major Oscar-winning giants and veterans of the cinema with remarkable career-high performances - Spencer Tracy (as Darrow- Henry Drummond) and Fredric March (as Bryan - Matthew Harrison Brady) - who had never before acted together in a film. And Gene Kelly, cast against type, plays cynical newspaper columnist E. K. Hornbeck, a character based on the acid-penned writer/reporter H. L. Mencken. The film was remade three times on television, in 1965, 1988 and 1999. Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Actor--Spencer Tracy, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best B/W Cinematography, Best Film Editing.
Starring: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy, Vaughn Taylor, Jennifer Holden, Dean Jones, Anne Neyland
Director: Richard Thorpe
A great black and white B-film, and considered the best, most popular, and most famous of Elvis Presley's musicals (his third film out of over 30 films from the late 50s through the 60s) - and slightly parallels the rocker's own life. Presley plays cocky, quick-tempered Vince Everett, who is serving a one-year jail sentence for accidental manslaughter. While in jail, his cellmate Hunk Houghton (Shaughnessy), a former veteran country singer, mentors him to learn guitar and sing, and persuades him to enter the prison talent show. After his release from incarceration, the budding rock star is introduced to the record business. Struggling to break into the music industry, he decides to form his own record label, and becomes an overnight sensation. After being seduced by the decadent lifestyle of a pop star, he becomes rebellious and unwilling to work with his former cellmate and Peggy Van Alden (Tyler), his loyal and pretty girlfriend/talent scout/record promoter. [Judy Tyler (formerly Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the Howdy Doody TV show) tragically died in a car crash before the film was released.] This pre-Army film is filled with Presley classics, especially the wonderfully-choreographed set piece for "Jailhouse Rock," as well as the other memorable numbers including "I Want to Be Free," "Treat Me Nice," "Baby, I Don't Care," "You're So Square," and the two tender ballads: "Young and Beautiful" and "Don't Leave Me Now." Presley's most memorable films also include Love Me Tender (1956), King Creole (1958), G.I. Blues (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961), and Viva Las Vegas (1964). No Academy Award Nominations.
Starring: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman
Director: Oliver Stone
A controversial, speculatively revisionistic, historical epic surrounding onetime New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's (Costner) investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. Director/co-writer Oliver Stone based his intriguing interpretation in this docu-film thriller on the well-publicized and alleged conspiracy theories of the obsessed attorney about the mystery of the death, based upon the testimony of a number of unreliable witnesses. This complex, provocative courtroom film features a cavalcade of stars, with cameos and supporting roles by such actors as Tommy Lee Jones (in an Oscar-nominated role as Clay Shaw, the CIA agent whom Garrison charges with the murder of Kennedy), Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland (as the mysterious "X"), Laurie Metcalf, Walter Matthau, John Candy, Vincent D'Onofio, Sally Kirkland, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Gary Oldman (as accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), and Garrison himself as Justice Earl Warren. Stone employs innovative, masterful and impressive film editing (with quick cuts and use of various film stocks) through the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia (who won Oscars), and he creates, through gripping cinematography, a tense, kinetic atmosphere that mirrors the whirlwind of memories, incidents and scenarios that play out in Garrison's mind. The trial scene in the last half of the film features three very memorable segments: an analysis of the famous Zapruder film, the scornful rejection of the Magic Bullet theory, and Garrison's impassioned closing argument, finishing with him staring directly into the camera, and saying: "It's up to you." The movie also features stirring music by John Williams that accentuates the emotional themes. Academy Award Nominations: 8, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor--Tommy Lee Jones, Best Director--Oliver Stone, Best Adapted Screenplay--Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar, Best Original Score--John Williams, Best Sound Editing. Academy Awards: 2, Best Editing, Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson).
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor
Director: John Huston
An intelligent, exciting, theatrical, but moody, downbeat crime drama/thriller (and melodramatic film noir) about a bullying, fugitive gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson), who is on-the-run with fellow mobsters and his alcoholic lush moll and ex-nightclub singer, Gaye Dawn (Trevor). In a Florida Keys hotel in the off-season during a violent, tropical hurricane, the snarling Rocco waits for counterfeit money, prepares to flee to Cuba, and holds the various residents hostage: Frank McCloud (Bogart), a disillusioned, returning war-scarred veteran who is visiting the newly-widowed Nora Temple (Bacall) and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law and hotel manager James Temple (Barrymore) - the father of his friend that died under his WWII command in Italy. Adapted from Maxwell Anderson's stage play by director Huston and Richard Brooks, the plot resembles Bogart's earlier film The Petrified Forest (1936). Bogart and Bacall would never star together again on the big screen, after having previously worked together in the classic films To Have and Have Not (1942) (which Key Largo resembled in its dark tone), The Big Sleep (1946) and Dark Passage (1947). Huston also directed Bogart in, among other films, The Maltese Falcon (1942), The African Queen (1951) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Academy Awards: 1, Best Supporting Actress--Claire Trevor.
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin's first full-length film (six reels) as a director. A sentimental, charming semi-autobiographical tale with both humor and pathos about Chaplin's famous Little Tramp character adopting an abandoned infant from a woman "whose sin was motherhood." An inter-title stated that it's "a picture with a smileand perhaps, a tear." After the Little Tramp unsuccessfully tries to find a home for the child, he assumes responsibility, raises him for five years, and teaches the kid (Coogan) to survive on the streets as a con artist. [Coogan, discovered in vaudeville in Los Angeles and one of the biggest child stars of the era, would later become Uncle Fester on the television show The Addams Family.] Later, the desperate unwed mother (Purviance) seeks to regain custody through social welfare workers in a heartwrenching, melodramatic moment. Along with hysterical slapstick humor in various bits, the most engaging part is the fantasy dream sequence in which the Tramp sits on a doorway stoop and dreams of a blissful, happier life in Heaven, with the poor transformed into white winged angels. [One of the flirtatious "temptress angels" is 12 year-old Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife four years later due to pregnancy.] Chaplin would continue making silent films well beyond the advent of "talkies" until his first full-length sound picture The Great Dictator (1940). Fifty years after the film's original release, Chaplin composed an original orchestral musical score for the film, and re-edited the film by deleting about 6 minutes of scenes (involving the character of the kid's mother).
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
A stylish film noir crime drama, and the definitive heist-caper movie - Kubrick's third film and first successful one, although highly under-rated when released. The tale is about a desperate gang of anti-hero misfits and lowlifes (in an ensemble cast) led by a grim, determined, and recently-released-from-jail con Johnny Clay (Hayden). The group devises and executes a complex, carefully-timed racetrack heist of $2 million - that goes terribly wrong, similar to Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (also with Hayden). The plan is to cause simultaneous, diversionary confusion by shooting one of the racehorses in mid-race and instigating a bar fight, thereby allowing Johnny to rob the main track offices and seize the day's takings. The gang includes racetrack teller George Peatty (Cook), a pathetic wimp and loser who is easily tricked by his devious, scheming femme fatale wife Sherry (Windsor) into revealing the details of the heist to pass to her adulterous lover Val Cannon (Edwards, the future doctor Ben Casey on a TV series), who plans to take the loot at the rendezvous point once the robbery has been accomplished. The entire movie is presented non-chronologically in a winding fashion (with flashforwards and flashbacks), and played out in a series of tense, black-comedy scenes with swift transitions. The doom-laden, voice-over dialogue was derived from Lionel White's novel Clean Break. The film has influenced many heist films, including the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) (also remade in 2001). With excellent cinematography by Lucien Ballard, but ignored completely by the Academy, although this work would influence filmmakers for decades after - most notably Guy Ritchie and crime drama auteur Quentin Tarantino and his film Reservoir Dogs. No Academy Award Nominations.
King of Comedy (1983)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack
Director: Martin Scorsese
Scorsese's original, under-appreciated dark comedy - a stark contrast to his own Taxi Driver (1976), about the bizarre relationship between stardom, the cult of celebrity, and violence-prone wannabe obsessed fans, similar to Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957). With Robert De Niro (in his fourth film with Scorsese) as a wimpy, aspiring stand-up comedian named Rupert Pupkin, a man in his mid-30's who still lives with his mother (only heard off-screen). The untalented and self-deluded Rupert worships fame and is determined to become a celebrity. He is totally obsessed with late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Lewis, playing the role absolutely straight in his best dramatic role ever), a Johnny Carson-esque character (the part was originally written for Johnny Carson), and stalks his 'love' object at his show. He brazenly appears unannounced at Langford's country estate with an embarrassed date-friend Rita (Abbott, De Niro's wife at the time). Later, with the help of an equally deranged, amorous fan and talk-show groupie Masha (Bernhard, who won Best Supporting Actress with the National Society of Film Critics), Rupert kidnaps Langford and demands as ransom that he get to do the opening monologue one night on Langford's show, and be named the new "King of Comedy." Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Zimmerman manage to pull off a story that is not only chilling and spooky, but geniunely funny, yet the film was so far ahead of its time that it flopped at the box-office upon release. The film garnered numerous acclaims and awards in foreign countries, such as five BAFTA nominations for De Niro, Lewis, Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker (for Best Editing) and Zimmerman, who won Best Original Screenplay. No Academy Award Nominations.
Starring: Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Claude Rains, Nancy Coleman, Charles Coburn
Director: Sam Wood
A thought-provoking, emotional, melodramatic, 'Peyton Place'-like film with a turn-of-the-century, small-town setting that reveals evil, sadism, cruelty, and depravity. Directed by Sam Wood and with James Wong Howe's cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's magnificently rich score, the tragic Warner Bros. film presents a compelling, penetrating and difficult story with eloquence and power. Wood had previously directed two Marx Brothers films, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Our Town (1940), Kitty Foyle (1940), Raffles (1940), and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Its screenplay by Casey Robinson was based upon Henry Bellamann's widely-read, scandalous 1940 novel of small-town life at the turn of the century. The film's tagline commented on the nature of the town: "The town they talk of in whispers." The film's main characters were originally five childhood friends, including an idealistic young doctor Parris Mitchell (Cummings), a pretty tomboyish working class girl Randy Monaghan (Sheridan), the neurotic sheltered daughter Cassie (Field) of the town's Dr. Alexander Tower (Rains), the daughter Louise Gordon (Coleman) of a sadistic, morally-righteous doctor (Coburn), and playboy Drake McHugh (Reagan in his best film role), with the unforgettable scene of his realization that his legs have been amputated and his exclamation: "Where's the rest of me?" -- this would become the title of 40th President Reagan's 1965 autobiography. The Hays Code of 1934 required that much of the questionable, unfilmable content of the novel be modified - eliminating or seriously muting subjects such as illicit premarital sex, homosexuality, a sadistic and vengeful surgeon, and father-daughter incest leading to a murder-suicide. The wartime film's nominations all lost to William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942). Academy Award Nominations: 3, including: Best Picture, Best Director--Sam Wood, Best B/W Cinematography.