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60s

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.

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My father introduced me to The Magnificent Seven when I was 7 years old.  We were channel flipping, and we sat back on his big red sectional and settled in with a bowl of candy corn and circus peanuts.  He told me the music was Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland (he used to wake me and my brother up with “Fanfare for the Common Man” blasting from the hi-fi speaker set tailored made for a newly divorced man) and that the picture was based on a Japanese film. These tidbits were of no particular interest to me at the time. I was too busy trying to figure out who of the seven gunmen I wanted to grow up to be, and as the film progressed, I became increasingly alarmed at the potential demise of any or all of them. Indeed, as aptly put by one fan, “This is the sole reason we spent half of our preadolescence prancing around our houses with plastic guns, cowboy hats and an overwhelming desire to become heroes. Just like them.” 

50 years later, I have come to the somewhat disheartening realization that I grew up to be none of the characters.  Certainly not Yul Brynner, the cool as a cucumber King of Siam refashioned as a man in black.  Nor Steve McQueen, the steady, wry “talker” of the crew (I can talk, but rarely in McQueen’s pithy homilies). 

I never neared the lanky, laconic quick draw that was James Coburn, who utters the coolest line in film history

It gets no better than that, at 7 or 57.

Nor was I the brawny, decent Charles Bronson; the gold-greedy, laugh-having Brad Dexter; or the hot-headed kid who idolizes the crew (Horst Bucholz).  Now, there are times I have felt as cowardly and unsure as Robert Vaughn, but in reality, I ended up being none of those dudes. 

Half a century later, where mowing the lawn and an occasional campout are as close as I get to the frontier, I feel more like bad guy Eli Wallach, who runs into seven hired guns and damned is they didn’t all find Jesus at the same time. Wallach is a middle-management crook who steals what he wants from the peasants but otherwise, seems affable enough. And he can’t comprehend his bad luck. His last words, to Brynner:

“You came back for a place like this. Why? A man like you? Why?”


If you don’t know the film, the plot is simple.  Six professional gunmen and one wannabe sign up for a pittance to protect a poor Mexican town that is being repeatedly ransacked and worse by a band of thugs led by Wallach.  It is the best of 60s Hollywood.  Strong characters, tight dialogue, solid action, sweeping cinematography, a rousing score, liberal sentiments (“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground”) presented in conservative reality (“We deal in lead, friend”), and, to boot, a girl and a boy fall in love

Two asides.  First, one has to hand it to director John Sturges for dexterous casting.  A Russian Brynner plays a Cajun, and proud sons of Berlin (Bucholz) and Red Hook (Wallach) play Mexicans. Ah. Simpler times.

Second, they loosely re-made this picture and the result was a filmic carbuncle.

On Hulu and sporadically, everything else.

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Paul Newman is ridiculous as an Apache but it’s as if he senses that fact in the first 10 minutes of the movie and just concludes, “Fuck it. I’ll just be Paul Newman.”  That’s just what he does, and thankfully,  from that point forward, all is well again in this Stagecoach-ish Martin Ritt western.

Newman and a group of misfits (including Martin Balsam doing his best Eli Wallach as a Mexican) share a stage to Bisbee and they are set upon by thieves/killers. Newman rises above the racism of his traveling companions (when they find out he is an Apache, they make him ride outside of the stage) and works to get them out of the jam.

It’s a tight script (based on Elmore Leonard story), it’s cynical, the ensemble is decently fleshed out, and it travels pretty well. 

Another sweeping war epic from my past, along with Waterloo and Zulu, this one introduced me to the “stiff upper lip” Brit.  Unlike those films, this picture just doesn’t hold up at all.  Directed by Guy Hamilton (who had a much better time of it with four Bond films), the film is overly reliant on air battles that perhaps seemed impressive at the time, but now, are flat, difficult to comprehend (you rarely know which character is in which plane) and without drama.   Worse, what happens on the ground is remarkably staid and uninvolving.

It is, however, loaded with the cream of British actors (Michael Caine, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox and Robert Shaw, to name a few), and of particular note, it features a strikingly handsome Ian McShane, who aged into the craggy, rough Al Swearengen of Deadwood.  You can see what Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristal saw in him.

 

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Peter Yates’ 1968 detective thriller is a medium cool exercise in restraint propelled by the quiet, canny performance of Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt. Bullitt is assigned to protect a mob witness by an ambitious D.A. (the charmingly oily Robert Vaughn) and the case goes bad.  As he tries to salvage the situation, we learn about Bullitt’s relationships, methods and character, all with less than 100 words from our hero.

The picture is notable for an over 10 minute car chase in and around San Francisco that alternates between chess match and smash up derby. The effect is mesmerizing, an automotive ballet, which is in many ways more impressive than William Friedken’s bid to outdo it in The French Connection three years later (the car chase wasn’t the only influential set piece; Bullitt has an extended chase scene on foot through the exterior of the San Francisco Airport, which Michael Mann reprised in Heat).

The film also demonstrates why Steve McQueen is such an icon. The debates over his ability to “act” are legitimate.  The “movie star versus actor” discussions invariably arise in consideration of  impossibly macho or attractive leads, such as Wayne, Eastwood, Redford and Gibson. Debate aside, McQueen so resonates on screen that discussing his skills as a thespian seems like quibbling. There is something to be said for understatement (Tom Cruise may just be learning that now).  McQueen can do more with a look or eating a sandwich than a lot of folks can with a soliloquy or stem winder.  When he is poorly imitated (see the catatonic Ryan Gosling in the wildly overrated Drive or George Clooney in The American), his charisma and presence become all the more apparent.

Yates’ film is a bit of a jazz riff and some of his shots are annoyingly showy, but hey, it’s 1968 San Francisco and Bullitt’s girlfriend is the chic and arty Jacqueline Bisset.  So, he gets a pass.

Point Blank was introduced by its presenter at the AFI Silver as “the most pretentious good film ever made.” The “good” discussion follows, but there is no doubt John Boorman’s tough noir picture is arty, almost to the point of distraction.

The story is simple: Walker (Lee Marvin) and his pal Reese (John Vernon, Dean Wormer from Animal House, in his film debut) make a score, Reese double-crosses Walker, takes his lady and his dough and leaves him for dead. Walker returns and with the help of his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) works his way up the criminal syndicate that protects Reese to get his money.

This is a cold film. The characters are hollow, and Marvin is catatonic. The story is near non-existent and Boorman relies on showy and repetitive flashbacks that suggest portent and meaning but do not deliver. Boorman’s prior film, Having a Wild Weekend, was a romp in the mode of Help, featuring the Dave Clark Five, so his high-mindedness may have been itching to get out.

On the plus side of the ledger, the color and texture of the film are vivid, Boorman’s depiction of violence is jarring (in particular, a vicious brawl in a cacophonous soul club), many of Point Blank’s images are stunningly iconic, and the fractured timeline clearly influenced Quentin Tarantino, among others.

The virtues of Point Blank are more identifiable in its legacy than in the viewing. Except for the incomparable Dickinson.

As part of the AFI Silver LA Modern series, I took my son and his friend to see a double-feature Saturday, the first entry being 1966’s Harper. I’d probably seen this Paul Newman vehicle 5 or 6 times before this weekend. It was on regular rotation as the 4 o’clock daily movie during the 1970s, and I was immediately enamored of the sarcastic, bedraggled Newman playing Ross McDonald’s updated private dick, Lew Archer, changed to Harper for the picture.

It turns out I’d never seen it in full. Those bastards at Channel 7 must have cut the living crap out of it, because there were at least four scenes absolutely new to me.

I digress. Harper is a treat. Newman’s jovial cynicism fits the character perfectly.  Thankfully, Frank Sinatra was not interested in the role.  He lacked Newman’s playfulness and ability to make fun of himself.  Interestingly, when Dirty Harry came around 5 years later, Sinatra again begged off, as did numerous others, and Newman was approached.  Turned off by its politics, Newman suggested Clint Eastwood.

Lauren Bacall is deliciously venomous as Newman’s client (the paralyzed wife of a missing tycoon), Harper’s byzantine plot is more than serviceable (though, overly complicated), LA is well traversed, and the supporting cast (Robert Wagner, Strother Martin, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh as Harper’s suffering ex-wife) is impressive.  It also didn’t hurt to see the film in AFI’s palatial main theater.

The first of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name”, A Fistful of Dollars was actually shot in Spain.

I guess “Paella Western” wasn’t an option.

Eastwood comes to a town at war. Two families seek the upper hand, and Eastwood shuttles between one and the other for the cash.

As fun as it can be, the movie is stilted. Leone’s visuals are ambitious but his sweep is not yet broad, and like Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, Eastwood is still working on his persona and lacks gravitas (interestingly, Eastwood was Leone’s eight or ninth choice, behind Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and others). The entire cast, Eastwood excluded, is foreign and the dubbing is spotty (in the case of a crying child, I was immediately reminded of the dubbing in the Japanese animated series, Speed Racer).

This film ends up being a critical warm-up to the better For a Few Dollars More and its classic follow-up, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

Otto Preminger skillfully presents Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning political potboiler (published in 1959), the story of  a senatorial nomination (Henry Fonda, who is tapped to be Secretary of State)  gone bad under the weight of McCarthyite tactics, vicious blackmail, and a dying president.  The story is intricate, but Preminger, ever the pro, handles it with ease.  For example, if there is an issue of senatorial procedure, it is cleared up in a clever discussion with foreign tourists, who receive a crisp and unobtrusive explanation as to parliamentary procedure and the role of the vice president in American government.

It is decidedly not an all-star cast, but it is a very good one.  Franchot Tone, as the tough and dissipated president, wields his waning power with as much vigor as he can muster.  He has a wonderful scene where first he tries to smooth-talk the chair of the subcommittee handling the nomination (Don Murray) into reporting it out and when the senator does not budge, his flash of anger is actually a little terrifying.  Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority leader, tasked with shepherding the nomination through, and Charles Laughton hams it up wonderfully as the Strom Thurmonesque senator who opposes the nominee.  Lew Ayres, as the in-over-his-head vice president, is a perfect combination of insecure and decent.

Having been born in Washington, D.C., the shots of the nation’s capitol in a more innocent and uncluttered time are worth the viewing in and of themselves.  And look close, because Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) plays the Senate minority leader and Betty White also has a role in that august body.

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