Dawn of the Dead (1978) October 29, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Action, Drama, 5 stars, 1970s, 2013 , add a comment
If Night of the Living Dead created a genre, Dawn of the Dead inspired everything that followed in it.
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) May 30, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, 3 stars, 1970s, British films, remakes, 2013 , add a comment
Monty Python re-film TV sketches for the big screen.
Bit ironic, considering the title.
#30: Serpico (1973) October 29, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, Crime, adaptations, 3 stars, 1970s, true stories, Biography, 2012 , add a comment
Al Pacino stars as honest cop Frank Serpico in Sidney Lumet’s true-story crime drama…
#38: The Day of the Locust (1975) September 18, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, adaptations, 4 stars, 1970s, films about films, 2011 , add a comment
Adapted from the novel by Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust is a slightly scrappy film about the seedy underside of Hollywood’s golden age. The plot is neither here nor there in many respects — the film is about the grotesques who are attracted to Hollywood, and that being exactly what it feeds on. The bizarre, surreal ending definitely makes more sense if you’re already thinking about the film in this way.
The magnificent riot at the end is a tour de force of cinema that single-handedly almost justifies that whole theme — it’s what happens when their frustrations at dreams not being realised overflows. It could be argued it makes an easy juxtaposition — of fans baying for stars at a premiere with a revenge-fuelled mob baying for blood — but it’s still a just one. It’s capped off by the way one turns into the other, and how that turns into a kind of apocalypse. I don’t know how it’s meant to be read, but I choose to take it that way
(Spoilers in this paragraph.) If the riot is a literal apocalypse, then the next scene becomes an afterlife-set coda. It’s very brightly lit and white, like a Heaven, and Faye is still there — still in Hollywood, exactly where she’d dream of being — while Tod is gone. She’s looking for him, back at the Bernadoo where she was kinda happy, and she wants him after all — but he’s not there; he doesn’t want her. It’s a tenuous reading for a film that seems to be a real-world drama, maybe… but not a wholly unsupported one — it’s a flat-out unusual scene.
Also brilliantly staged is the collapse of a Waterloo battle set. Appropriate as it’s one of the novel’s most memorable moments.
Despite having top billing, Donald Sutherland’s part is a beefed-up supporting role. Except he’s so good in it that he fairly steals the film. And despite fourth billing, William Atherton is ostensibly the main character. I don’t know if the film takes lengthy asides from him because they cast a fourth-billed-level actor, or if they cast a fourth-billed-level actor because the film takes lengthy asides from him, but either way these long-feeling stretches away from the only character we’re really encouraged to identify with dilute the film’s drive. Primarily for this reason, it could do with being shorter. Interestingly, the novel is a mere 163 (in my edition), meaning the film is close to translating it at a rate of a page per minute, which is rather extraordinary — very few adaptations do so little condensing.
(You probably recognise William Atherton from slimy supporting roles in Ghostbusters and the first two Die Hards. Believe it or not, his Ghostbusters character is available as an action figure. That is madness.)
It may be a mess, or it may be a flawed masterpiece. It may very well be both. For much of it’s running time it pootled along at 3 stars, pushing down toward 2 the more diluted it began to feel. But seeing the completion of Donald Sutherland’s performance in the final scenes, plus the way those scenes seem to draw together the whole film, revealing and fulfilling themes I hadn’t even noticed developing until that point, in a spectacular orgy of apocalyptic violence… well, the stars suddenly ratchet back up.
The Day of the Locust is on Sky Movies Indie tonight at 9:30pm, and at various other times throughout the week.
#36: High Plains Drifter (1973) June 29, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Western, 4 stars, 1970s, 2011 , 2 comments
That this is the first Western directed by perennial Western star Clint Eastwood is enough to make it worthy of note. To be honest, I’m far from immersed enough in the history of Westerns to know if anything else makes it worthy of note either; but I did like it.
The film doesn’t begin how one might expect. Clint rides into town — OK, that bit you would — has a beer and a bottle of whiskey — OK, that bit too — kills three men for no good reason and rapes the only woman in sight. Hm. It’s a fine introduction to our ‘hero’. But instead of setting the sheriff on him, the townsfolk bend over backwards to help him (more or less). Why? Are they as uncaring as he? Or do they need something from this capable man? Turns out, a bit of both.
As the story progresses we get a gradual unveiling of a mystery in the town’s past, hinted at in flashbacks and dreams; who was responsible for it, what the others did about it — or didn’t do. It’s all revealed nicely across the course of the film, leading to a finely staged conclusion in a vision of Hell. Eastwood’s real motivations for taking the job of protecting the town become clearer… that is, clearer while still remaining mysterious. There may not be definite answers to all the questions, but some people here need punishing and Eastwood’s come to punish them.
That said, tonally it’s quite odd. There’s a lot of violence and horrid behaviour, but it contrasts with a lot of dismissive humour. The raped woman attempts to kill Eastwood in revenge while he’s in the bath — not a tense stand-off, but a chance for a joke. Similar things occur when he abuses the privileges given to him by, say, tearing down the barn. Shades of grey are all well and good, but this juxtaposition of light and dark is a little too high-contrast.
Clearly Eastwood has a taste for the mystically-tinged Western, as here he’s even less coy about the story’s supernatural possibilities than he would be 12 years later in Pale Rider. Not by much, perhaps, but it’s nonetheless clear that he’s some kind of angel/devil/ghost/natural force: he emerges from the heat haze like a mirage, and disappears back into it too; he dreams of past events before he’s told about them; and he has no name, of course — this is an Eastwood Western, after all. That’s not to mention the ton of mentions of the devil, Hell, the dead not resting…
Eastwood’s first Western in the director’s chair is obviously influenced by those he’s worked with when on the other side of the camera, but by making sure the mix is a bit dark, somewhat ambiguous, but also gratifying in turns, he crafted a supernaturally-tinged revenge tale that packs a few satisfying punches.
#50: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) May 23, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Action, Thriller, 3 stars, 1970s, 2011 , add a comment
Assault on Precinct 13, it has always seemed to me, is an acclaimed cult classic of the action genre. I could probably find some references to support this — I know it’s on Tarantino’s list of the top seven exploitation movies, for starters — but for speed let’s just assume I’m right. Thing is, on initial impressions at least, I didn’t quite get that. It felt like an unexceptional low-budget ’70s exploitation B-picture to me.
It’s quite possible — indeed, it’s pretty much certain — that it is a low-budget ’70s exploitation B-picture, but one that for some reason stands above the others. I’ve not exactly seen many to compare. It’s reputation may also, I wager, be nostalgia based: what looked shocking or exciting or innovative to impressionable young audiences a few decades ago may not work quite the same now, when even cheap direct-to-DVD movies can afford some half decent CGI and the occasional actor you’ve actually heard of, never mind the feats a theatrical B-grade movie might pull off.
Anyway, back to the film in hand. It’s the last night at a rundown old police station. It’s manned by a skeleton staff because technically it doesn’t close ’til morning, but the phones have been disconnected and most of the equipment’s been taken, including the weapons. A prison transport arrives for a reason I can’t remember, wanting to put its handful of prisoners in the station’s cells. Then a man runs in the front door. No one in the police station ever finds out why he’s come (we do though, but I won’t say in case you’ve never seen the film), but following close behind him are a huge gang who lay siege to the cut-off station. So the cops and the prisoners must work together to fend them off.
Such is the plot, basically. Obviously there’s more to it, but I’m not aiming to explain the whole thing — the siege is the key element (note the “assault on” bit of the title) but doesn’t start until quite far into the film, hence the stretch of plot. The first third-ish of the film, where the ragtag group of people wind up in the station, is a bit random, but that’s also kind of the point: this group of people stand up to protect one man, even though they have no idea why he’s there. Very moving. Nonetheless, some of the machinations of the plot are a tad comical, like when the aforementioned man chases the gang: all but one of them run off for no good reason, letting him kill the one he’s after — by sheer luck, it seems — before they all come back to chase after him. Um, what?
The film is ostensibly an action movie, of which there is certainly some. The halfway shoot-out is an almost comedically repetitive symphony of bullet-ridden violence. Deliberately comedic, I wonder, or just laughable? By contrast, the finale feels rather short. Maybe it was to gloss over the implausible plan our heroes concoct, but there are a few jumps in there that feel a tad unnatural, like something’s been cut out. And how the cop is supposed to have made the impossible shot through all that smoke I don’t know.
I say “ostensibly an action movie” because there’s actually a fair dose of horror stylings in there too. The gang are real enough in theory, but they’re presented as a faceless hoard, performing voodoo-esque rituals, coming and going as if by magic, doing things our heroes can’t necessarily explain, attacking in almost random waves… They feel almost supernatural; one might go so far as to say they play more like zombies than an organised criminal force. It’s no surprise that Carpenter would next helm Halloween, a seminal horror movie if ever there was one, and later cement his reputation as a horror director with the likes of The Thing.
There’s a couple of good deliberately comic bits too, almost all of them coming from Napoleon, the main criminal, though they’re only good in a slightly cheesy ’70s action B-movie kinda way. Laurie Zimmer’s female lead, Leigh, is possibly the next best (or just best, but next-most-memorable) member of the cast. She’s only a secretary, but she’s a strong woman who holds her own, despite being shot in the arm. Seems it might be a shame her acting career was so short. I should probably also note that the main cop character is black and the main criminal is white, which I imagine was revolutionary in the ’70s. To be honest, it would probably go against the norm today — note how the remake reverted to (stereo)type.
More praiseful reviewers than I have described Carpenter’s film as “rough, raw” and “lean, mean, genre-defying”, which is true; others have noted that it’s “largely composed of borrowed pieces”, which might be right; and still others say there’s “no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements”, which I also more-or-less agree with. And another says that, “like Night of the Living Dead, it offers a protagonist who is black, a morality that is grey, and social commentary in the guise of horror”. Neat. (All these quotes were quickly nabbed from Rotten Tomatoes; full attribution there.)
I can see why someone felt this was ripe for a remake. Critics soundly trashed that as “not as good as the original”, and that may well be the case; but maybe it’s just that a ’00s action B-movie couldn’t withstand the nostalgia attached to its ’70s counterpart. Or maybe this original represented something for its era that isn’t as present today — after all, most if not all of the most groundbreaking films of all time can/will look nothingy if watched many decades later without the appropriate context.
I did quite like Assault on Precinct 13 but, as has probably been made clear, didn’t quite identify with the love many hold for it. I suspect you had to be there.
See also my comparison of this and the 2005 remake here.
#43: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) April 16, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, Crime, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, true stories, 2011 , add a comment
Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…
On August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.
There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.
Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), to try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.
The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.
In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (”Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.
In trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.
Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.
Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, throughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.
Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.
The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” of today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.
There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.
Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.
Pierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.
I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.
The film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.
See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.