And those stars go to Alfred Hitchcock’s deft hand and Cary Grant’s irrepressible charm. Grant plays a society cad who gloms on to spinster Joan Fontaine, who impulsively marries him out of rebellion and passion. She soon learn Grant, charming though he may be, is a liar, a thief and a lay-about gambler, and his debts may be propelling him to more capital crimes. The essential tension, however, is wasted. The deck is so stacked against Grant that when he professes “it was all a misunderstanding”, you’re left disappointed at the expenditure of time and contemptuous of Fontaine, who just seems like a ninny. If Grant could not commit the capital crime, the studio sure did by insisting their star male lead could not play a wife murderer.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Fontaine won Best Actress for her very delicate, frail but stagey performance which does not travel, and in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock summed it up when he reported the actions of a producer who initially took every scene out that indicated Grant was a murderer, leaving a 55 minute product.

Anyone interested in Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, enjoy.


Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.


Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife.  As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.

Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.

Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways.  He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.

Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant.  The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan.  The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can.  Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug.  LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing.  As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly.  ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).

This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.

It is a blessing to have children who like movies. We watched this classic John Huston film last night with my daughter, a movie I saw with my father in the theaters in the 70s. Based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, Michael Caine and Sean Connery are old vets in British India, cynical, loyal to each other and avarice. They make a compact to traverse Afghanistan to its upper northwest, into the wilds of Kafiristan, with provisions and weaponry to lend their talents as mercenaries. In doing so, they brave avalanches and the warring locals, and after allying with one in particular, Connery is deemed a god by virtue of an arrow that failed to pierce his heart and a Mason’s necklace.  It all goes to his head.

The sweep of the film is broadly romantic, though, visually, it suffers in comparison to today’s epics due mainly to technical advancement. Caine and Connery are very well-matched, and though Connery’s seduction and their estrangement is a bit rushed, their bond at the end is actually quite moving. This is a throwback adventure film, deliciously retrograde in attitude; the Brits are charming rogues and everyone around them is a cowardly or fundamentalist savage. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time, “Gloriously old-fashioned in its approach – right down to the characters’ politically incorrect attitudes toward anyone who isn’t one hundred per cent British – The Man Who Would Be King is pure entertainment in the grand tradition of Gunga Din.” The film would never be screened on an American campus today, but oh what fun if it were.

Ranked 21 on AFI’s Top 100 films, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown opens with credits that suggest the romanticism of Rebecca, but what follows is a more cynical noir that reveals a pre-war Los Angeles rotten to its core. Private investigator Jake Giddes (Jack Nicholson) becomes embroiled in a snoop case that appears to be standard infidelity but the job embroils him in discovery of political corruption and sexual depravity. His client, Faye Dunaway, is hiding a horrible family secret that involves her titan of a father, John Huston. Giddes carries scars of his own, stemming from his time in the police force working Chinatown.

Polanski’s film is meticulously shot, presenting a classic LA that is mesmerizing and foreboding. Robert Towne’s script is taut and engrossing. Still, this is an overpraised film. Towne chooses to keep the demons of Giddes’ past a secret, which is ultimately unsatisfying, given how critical he is to the story. Moreover, the love affair between Nicholson and Dunaway is unconvincing, mainly because Nicholson is giving a modern performance, whereas Dunaway is mannered and breathlessly dramatic, as if they were working separate material. Nicholson is updating the tough talk of Sam Spade while Dunaway is embracing the older form. When Nicholson puts himself on the line for her, the act seems forced and inauthentic, and the closing line has the faint whiff of the Gouda.

A fine film but certainly not the 21st best picture of all time.

Martin Scorsese’s film is visually captivating and anchored by Robert De Niro’s mythic performance as the tortured pugilist Jake LaMotta. The feel of 40s and 50s New York is made more authentic by Scorsese’s use of black-and-white, and as boxing movies go, there is none better at conveying the bloody brutality of the sport. All these gifts, however, come with the stench of a major character who is, through and through, a dim, vicious brute. A recent film with a similar infirmity is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which had myriad other problems, but which also asked the audience to invest in Joaquin Phoenix, a jet fuel slurping, brainless, dypso thug who comes under the sway of a charismatic. Who cares? Similarly, in an otherwise brilliant film, Scorsese asks us to engage with an animal, a one-note beast. After the fourth scene of LaMotta becoming violent and/or obsessively compulsive over the fidelity of his blond bombshell of a wife (Cathy Moriarty), the yawns become harder to stifle. It’s a testament to the charms of the picture that you happily stick with it.