The Sunshine Blogger Award – A Second Time Honour!

by Paul Batters

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It is an absolute thrill to receive this award a second time and I cannot thank Brittaney from The Story Enthusiast enough. It is very kind and thoughtful of you to think of me, and similarly I think I needed this award at this time to boost spirits. It’s nice to be recognised and this award gives impetus to bloggers to continue writing and not be disheartened.

In keeping with the process, I’ll first state the rules of the award nomination.

  1. List the award’s official rules
  2. Display the award’s official logo somewhere on your blog
  3. Thank the person who nominated you
  4. Provide a link to your nominator’s blog
  5. Answer your nominator’s questions
  6. Nominate up to 11 bloggers
  7. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  8. Notify your nominees by commenting on at least one of their blog posts

Here are the answers to the questions kindly provided by Brittaney. 

1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

To be honest, this would greatly be impacted by what type of cinematic experience they were after.

I would probably direct them to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1945) as a dark yet beautiful and tragic fairy tale. The magic and fantasy of Cocteau’s vision is stunning and unforgettable.

In terms of Italian Realism, then I would direct them to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which I think is one of the greatest films ever made and inspired so many international directors.

For sheer beautiful sentimentality and an ending I cry to EVERY time I see it, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a masterpiece.

To choose a British film is near impossible but if I had to choose ONE as an introduction it would probably be a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock like The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), simply because it’s one of my favourites.


2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favourite of their films?

Hitchcock is a stand-out and whilst I have the greatest affection for most of his films, Vertigo is the one which reaches deep into me every time. A real masterpiece in every way.

Also a huge fan of John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution).

3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Oh Claude Rains certainly and indeed showed that he could in a few films. For me, Rains is one of the most incredible actors – period. He would have also been a great success in the modern era as well.

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4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

Bobby Driscoll is a child actor who had wonderful potential but was treated poorly, cast aside and followed a tragic course that ended his life. If things had been different and he had been taken care of as a boy, we may have seen Driscoll become successful as an adult.

5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

I wouldn’t say I ‘love’ Schindler’s List but it is one with an ending that I have found problematic. Over time, I have found myself less enamoured with the film, even though it was an Oscar winner and had a massive impact. In fairness, it is impossible to bring to the screen the horror of the Holocaust and do justice to those that suffered (although Come And See (1985) is quite a harrowing film in presenting Nazi atrocities in the East). But Schindler’s List does have its’ issues.

For me the ending is one of the key issues. It seems to shift our emotions as an audience to the figure of Oskar Schindler himself, instead of the millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, POWs and others who were murdered by the Nazis. It feels like Spielberg is going for the Oscar winning moment with Schindler declaring ‘I didn’t do enough’ and the orchestral manipulation of our emotions as we cry for Schindler becomes a strange sort of catharsis. Who should we actually be crying for?

The moment at the actual grave of Oskar Schindler is bittersweet but again our attention is drawn away from who the victims of the Nazis were and are. I would have ended it in the following way:

After Oskar Schindler declares the war over to the gathered workers and the SS guards ‘leave as men not murderers’ and asks to observe three minutes of silence, the audience hears a sole voice singing which leads to a candle being re-lit and a return to colour. Fin.

6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

I must say that Cary Grant looks impeccable and would undoubtedly stake a claim on his wardrobe.

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7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

There are certainly many original films which should not be remade. Yet some original films (such as 1930’s The Maltese Falcon and 1936’s Satan Met A Lady) were remade (in the aforementioned case as 1941’s The Maltese Falcon) and became iconic films.
I’m also going to cheat with this question and ‘remake’ and partially recast a film by doing so at the time it was made.

The film I would remake would be Dracula (1931) and whilst keeping Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, I would make the additional changes to the cast:

                                                           Mina – Madeleine Carroll                              

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                                                             Harker – Robert Donat

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                                                           Dr. Seward – Claude Rains 

Actor Claude Rains

                                                                Lucy – Myrna Loy

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Certainly the first part of the film would remain unchanged, as Lugosi’s entrance is legendary and his interaction with Renfield especially memorable.
I would like to add more of Dracula’s brides attempt to seduce Renfield, as well as Renfield’s view of Dracula – imagine seeing Lugosi scamper like a lizard down the side of his castle!

Lucy’s demise and vampirization would be further delved into, with the infamous delving into the crypt to confront her as a vampire also depicted. It’s just too good an opportunity to ignore.

The much criticised anti-climactic ending would obviously be far better done, with the Count being staked in full view of the audience (or at least show Lugosi’s face and a wonderful supernatural ending to the vampire).

8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Something tells me that Joan Crawford would have been successful. She was tough enough and determined to make it in a very different time under very hard circumstances. Crawford was also incredibly hard-working and adaptable, with a career that spanned five decades – that’s pretty good going!

9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

I’ve never tired of the MacGuffin and the way that outstanding directors use it. Hitchcock, of course, used it perfectly, and John Huston used a MacGuffin in The Maltese Falcon.

10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

I’m going to cheat here and include a response I previously used for a similar question elsewhere. But I cannot get past Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.

In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

George Clooney and Jessica Chastain. Both have an amazing quality on the screen, photography beautifully and most importantly are outstanding actors who bring their A game to every performance.

The Nominees

I now nominate the following bloggers for the Sunshine Blogger Award. All of these are classic film bloggers are wonderful writers and I encourage you to check out their sites if you haven’t already.

Silver Scenes

Classic Movie Man

Out Of The Past

Stars And Letters

Cinematic Catharsis

The Classic Movie Muse

Silver Screenings

Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

The Last Drive In

4 Star Films

I Found It At The Movies

The Questions

The questions I was given by Brittaney were fun and challenging, and so I am going to offer them to the nominees as well.

  1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?
  2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?
  3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?
  4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?
  5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?
  6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?
  7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?
  8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?
  9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?
  10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?
  11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

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by Paul Batters

“Gesundheit” – Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau)

The heist film is always one that draws in an audience at a number of levels. Like a number of other like films in the early 1970s, the term ‘multiple jeopardy’ could apply. But I don’t think it trips into that very clichéd formula, which it could quite easily have done. The Hollywood Reporter points out that The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three had a plot that was “perfect for the national obsession with disaster.” But it isn’t truly a disaster flick a la The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. In my humble opinion, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three fits more with what critics Emmanuel Levy and Dave Kehr call a focus on ‘urban paranoia’. After all, the story is set in New York, which during the 1970s and into the 1980s became synonymous with crime and danger. True, there aren’t the visuals of typical urban decay or graffiti scarred trains and subways, but we get the gist of it.

The plot is simple enough and certainly not complicated. Led by Mr. ‘Blue’ (Robert Shaw), four disguised men with equally colorful names hijack a train and hold the passengers hostage, demanding $1 million in cash or they will start shooting the passengers one by one. Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the Transit Authority is trying to not only negotiate the situation but also keep the hostages safe and eventually catch the crooks. At its’ very core, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a heist film.

On the surface, you could argue that there’s nothing impressive about the plot. Filler for cable TV? A made for TV midday movie? Absolutely not.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is far better than that!

So what makes it work?

The Setting

From the opening scenes, the feel and atmosphere of the film exudes New York attitude at its’ finest and reflects the concept of urban paranoia. This is probably best expressed by John H. Dorr in his original release review in The Hollywood Reporter:

‘New Yorkers, packed together closer than any other people and living under the constant threat of municipal breakdown…’.  

The over-the-top bustling business of a major city is at every turn and there is even a feel of barely controlled chaos, from the efforts of the police to the general running of subway system, where naturally the bulk of the story is set. People are tired, fed-up and cynical and they deal with this specifically through raw humour that is expressly resigned to the fate of living in New York.  The characters of course are as much part of the animal that is New York as much as they are their own individual people, reflecting attitude that could be clichéd but actually reveals real humanity and their coping mechanisms for living in such a tumultuous city. The street scenes are also ultra-busy and even chaotic as the police try to grapple with the hostage situation and the usual New York traffic at the same time.  Even the mayor, assisted by the excellent and under-used .., wants nothing to do with his own city.

Of course, the irony is that the centre of it all occurs underneath the city in one quiet carriage filled with frightened people and a gang of four led by Mr. Blue. Filmed on the tracks of the famous the Court Street station in Brooklyn (also used in numerous films including The French Connection and the Pelham remake), it allowed for the realism that made it all work so well.

The diegetic sounds of the subways and trains also adds to a film that has a strong sense of realism and gives it, its’ gritty and raw atmosphere.

The Plot

It’s actually simple enough and almost too easy to follow. Yet we are all still wondering how the hell the gang is going to get away with it – and that’s what keep us hooked. Of course, in the course of determining how they will get away with it, there are the sarcastically soaked comments (“They’re gonna fly it to Cuba”) and even Garber offers his theory: “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred.” The truth is that no-one except the gang has an idea.

What also makes the plot work is that our focus is permanently affixed on the plot and not interrupted or distracted by side stories a la other films of the era (such as Airport, Earthquake etc). As Roger Ebert opined, ‘the hijack is worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility…’.

And the ending – one of the best and this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.

The Cast and Characterisation

The performances of Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue are the keystones to the film’s success. The contrast in characters could not be further from each other with Roger Ebert describing ‘these fine, detailed performancesWalter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel..’. Matthau’s Garber is a joy to watch, with that perfect balance of grim humor, pragmatism and resignation whilst Shaw is icy and calculated, carefully annunciating his words without panic. But whilst Garber flexes his quick lip with everyone else around him, he’s professional and serious as he deals with Mr. Blue. Both lock in a tense arm wrestle as the time ticks away and their interaction drives the story forward. The tension is taut, timed and the perfect driver for this tale. 

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But it’s the supporting cast and incidental characters which also make the film work and give it depth and strength. Amongst the hijackers, Hector Elizondo as the psychotic Mr. Grey is believably dangerous and adds to the ongoing tension from the moment he lecherously flicks his tongue at an attractive lady on the train to his penchant for violence, as he casually tells a passenger that he ‘will shoot your pee-pee off’ whilst chewing gum, and looking for any excuse to commit an act of brutality. Martin Balsam as the nervous, former Transit employee with a grudge gives a solid and measured performance that he always delivered as an actor of his caliber.

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Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll, the bad-tempered controller, is a contrast to the relatively calm Garber and Jerry Stiller as Lieutenant Rico Patrone (‘who on weekends works for the Mafia’) shares Garber’s wry humour. Tom Pedi as the angry Transit supervisor who perennially yells finds an unsuspected fate that offers a quick turn from the humor. Even the short scenes with Lee Wallace as the Mayor and Tony Roberts as Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle are not overdone and add to the tension of the film, again perfectly peppered with humour.

Even the small, incidental roles are worthwhile. Waiting for the train he is about to hijack, Mr. Blue looks at the dandified Vietnam vet who catches Blue looking and asks ‘what’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?’ After brief contemplation, even the cool and deadly Mr. Blue cannot help but almost smile.

The Director

Joseph Sargent has spent the 1960s directing television before moving into television films and cinema releases in the 1970s. Best known for this film being reviewed, it was also his best work.

In terms of how characters are utilized, the director Joseph Sargent is astute in the concept that less is more. None of the characters are over-used and Sargent makes sure that the key focus is on his two main stars, Matthau and Shaw and the tension between them in resolving the hijack situation.

Sargent keeps the film taut by allowing some insight into the heist, with the plan going into action as soon as the film starts. He allows for some slackening just to hook the audience, relieving the pressure with incidental humor and then reeling us in, as the action gets more and more serious. As a result, Sargent shows himself as a director sensitive to the audience’s sense of story development and as Ebert mentions does not allow the film to fall into cliché but makes the story more than believable. The audience is constantly manipulated and just as we feel we have found the rhythm of the film, Sargent shifts the gears a little so to speak. Tension is manipulated with the subtle touch which assists in hooking the audience and at no point is it drawn out and over-cooked.

The Dialogue

Aside from what people say, how they say it is the greatest revealer of how people feel, what shapes their thoughts and what world they live in. The dialogue is all New York and reflects the frustrations living in a chaotic city, managed through cynical humor, heavy sarcasm and combative tones.

From start to finish, it’s sharp, quick and fully-loaded.

The key dialogue between Matthau and Shaw is particularly interesting because most of it happens over the train’s radio connection. The cool and measured tone of Shaw up against Matthau’s gravely, Lower East Side accent dripping with sarcastic asides and insults, works beautifully. But there is a bitterness to the humour and an acidity that is hard to miss between the laughs of the audience.

However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York. Contextually it was a time when New York was also bankrupt, suffering from urban decay and gang activity and a rising crime rate.

The Musical Score

It’s one of my favourite 70s film scores and it’s heaving basslines drive deep like the very subways that crisscross underneath New York City. Composed and conducted by David Shire (also responsible for The Conversation and All The President’s Men), the score is ‘every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes’ as Steve Grzesiak correctly states. The funkiest horns stab across smooth and slippery percussion, giving the audience a sinister feel and a sense of mounting tension.

It’s a multi-layered groove that fits like a glove, reflecting the unpredictability of living in New York City, where you could be on your way home from work and find yourself taken hostage.

According to Grzesiak, ‘Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with…’ but that’s what perhaps it ‘works in his favour’ so that when ‘the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters’. There’s no wasted space or time and like the rest of the film, it leaves the music tight, taut and building the tension.

Final Comments

Michael Sragow in The New Yorker makes an accurate assessment of the film as ‘once, just a solid thriller, now a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. It doesn’t rely on the sparkles, noise and CGI that cinema has relied on for some time. Instead, we are gifted with a tough film that is trimmed of the fat. It shows what can be done with amazing talent, substance and lack of pretence. The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3 is rarely spoken of when talking about films from the 1970s. But it should be and often.

This entry is inspired by Movie Rob‘s Guesstimation Series with a focus on New York Films of the 70’s, which he graciously allowed me to choose. Please visit Movie Rob to see his incredible reviews on great films from the 1970s. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Rob!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.