ALIEN (1979) A Movie A Day Day 11

I worry a little that we may be peaking too soon. This is the ultimate movie experience from the last summer of the 1970’s. There is literally not a single element of this movie that needs to be changed. I saw the revised director’s cut a few years ago and it was fine, but it did not add anything essential to the movie. As it is, there is suspense for two hours, while you are in the company of great characters and a old story told exceptionally well. I remember reading when the sequel, “Aliens” came out, that the comparison between the two films was that the original is a haunted house story and the sequel a roller-coaster. I guess I can accept that as long as you accept that when done well, a haunted house story is is a very efficient tool for creating screams and fright.

Alien is iconic. There is not really any need to remind people of the story, the title probably tells you enough to know if you want to see it, and then when you hear it is a horror film, that should seal the deal. Whenever awards are given out, horror movies have had to stand at the back of the line. It is easy to say that the material is lurid or to describe it disparagingly as a “genre” movie, Alien defies those stereotypes. It is about fear, and it is set in a science fiction universe, but it is a well written story with a killer concept. So many things could go wrong and you would end up with a cheesy pile of nothing special. None of those things went wrong. Let’s start with the production design of the film. This is one of those movies that pioneered the concept of used space. In other words, the future is not all sterile and anespetic , it is in fact lived in and worked in. The “Nostromo” is on the outside dingy ans scorched. While there are futuristic sterile images in the kitchen and the suspended sleep chambers, the rest of the ship looks like it could be a local garage, with low light, leaks, grime and close quarters everywhere.

Back in 1979, when the movie was a success in theaters, I remember reading a piece in the LA Times, that talked about the allegories of rape and pregnancy in the movie. The author wrote about the set design of the derelict vessel that the crew goes to investigate, and how it resembled the reproductive system of a woman. The ridges and framework, combined with what looks like a moist wall covering, are certainly derivative of some of the physiology involved. I did not become one of the geeks that were hung up on the drawings of H.R. Gieger, but I can see how people would make such a leap based on other art from the man substantially responsible for the look of the movie. The other themes of penetration and birth are pretty obvious. At the time, I thought the article was written by someone who must be trying to get some notice in academic circles for their feminist slant on things. That is probably my opinion still, but it does not make them wrong in this case.

As I have mentioned in an earlier entry, 1979 is one of my favorite summers because of the life I was leading at the time. Alien came out at the start of the summer and I must have seen it a half dozen times. The first two or three times I saw the movie were at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. I guess being older and living outside of the main city area has reduced my visits to Hollywood Theaters over the years. Once upon a time, Hollywood Blvd. was a mecca for film lovers because movies often opened in limited engagements and those were usually in Westwood or Hollywood. My Dad had always taking us to Hollywood for business reasons. At one point he had a Magic Shop on the third floor of a building on the Northwest corner of Hollywood and Cherokee. So, I loved seeing a movie in one of the big Theaters on the Blvd.. I think we saw Alien with my friend Art and his future wife Kathy, at the Egyptian. I remember going to “Peaches” a record store just a few doors down from the theater and seeing the display for the new Kiss album “Dynasty”. Of course I had to have it then, so the copy of the LP sitting in a box in my garage right now came from that day. The movie of Alien features music by my favorite film composer, Jerry Goldsmith. I love John Williams and see him at the Bowl every year, but Jerry Goldsmith was the first composer I knew by name because his music for “Patton” so inspired me at age 12. The main score is hypnotic, but there are also dramatic, furious action cues in a number of places in the film that are also memorable.

I can’t imagine finishing this post without mentioning the ads for the movie Alien. I chose to watch this today, even though it is early in the summer, because I came across a website I bookmarked a year ago The 50 Greatest Trailers of All Time – Lists – News – IFC.com.On the top of the list was the trailer for this movie, and I agree it is one of the best previews I ever saw. There is no dialog and the trailer ends with the tag line that everybody know, even if they never saw the movie. All I know is that they may not be able to hear you scream in space but in Hollywood in the Summer of 1979, everyone could hear you scream because you were watching Alien.

Bite The Bullet 1975 A Movie a Day Day 10

Next time someone tells you everything is available on line, try to get them to find the original trailer for this movie. I looked all over the place and could not find it.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but I suspect that may be the case. Anyway, the above trailer is a mock-up that someone posted on youtube. You can tell it is not original because the music is from Silverado, which did not come out until ten years later.

Sometimes, you have to make due with what you have. I have this movie on a DVD that goes from a letterbox format for the credits to a pan and scan version for the rest of the film. This is really too bad because a lot of the pleasure in this movie are the vistas and wide-screen images of the contestants in this horse race.The scanning seems to take some of the grandeur and a lot of the energy out of the story, (at least as I remembered it.)

I saw this movie at the Chinese theater, on the big screen. Of course at the time there was only one screen at the Chinese Theater. There are actually quite a few westerns on my list, which is a little surprising since the 70’s were supposed to be the death of the western. It so happens that this particular Western stars my favorite film actor Gene Hackman. I looked over his filmography, and for a guy who got started in the business in the late 60’s, he has actually made a lot of Western Films. Earlier this week, we came across Zandy’s Bride, which I had nearly forgotten and came out a year earlier. Gene Hackman was a big star at this point, he was cast as the leading man a couple of years earlier in “The Poseidon Adventure” but he has always been a character actor to me. When he plays a part, he is the charater he is playing not the star. In “Bite the Bullet” he is the first lead but really just one of a dozen characters that make up the story.

This film features a 700 mile horse race across deserts, over mountains and through forests. There are gunfights, action, dramatic twists and a sense of history as things go on. Hackman and James Couburn play two of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders a few years after the Spanish-American War. The modern is mixed with the old west at a time when the world was in fact changing. Ben Johnson basically repeats his role as the last of a dying breed from the Last Picture Show. Candice Bergen is the female lead in a pretty solid part for a woman in a movie like this. This same month she was starring in “the Wind and the Lion”, so it was pretty clear she was Box Office at this moment in time. There are other familiar faces as well, but I want to take special note that this was the period of time that Jan-Michael Vincent was ascending and he was very promising in the movie. It is a shame that drugs and alcohol sidelined a guy who could easily have taken over a lot of leading man roles in the next few years.

Opening the movie is a prologue that introduces several character, including the wealthy owner of the favored horse and the newspaper people that are sponcering the race. It was a little odd that there was so much time devoted to those story arcs and that they basically disappear from the movie. The only thing I felt was unsatisfying about the film was the last ten minutes of the race. The result was fine, but there is no resolution for some characters and it feels like an epilogue would have been appropriate. I recall that the film got a very fine review from the LA times when it opened; probably Charles Champlian wrote the review, he was the main critic at the Times in those days. This movie seems largely forgotten now, which is too bad because it is a good action film with some realistic situations and characters. It runs off the track a bit in the last act, but that can be forgiven pretty easily.

UPDATE Link/ Blu Ray Widescreen edition