Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy.
Three big stars, on a boat, in 1975, that’s a hit right?, Only if you add a shark, otherwise you have the misbegotten and mostly forgotten “Lucky Lady”, an action romantic comedy adventure starring Academy Award winning actor Gene Hackman, Academy Award winning Actress Liza Minelli and soon to be Number One Box Office star in the world Burt Reynolds. You wonder how it could wrong, well let me count the ways.
To begin with, the director Stanley Donen was probably wrong for this kind of picture, although at first blush it seemed like he would be perfect for it. Donen had directed some of the greatest movie musicals of the 1950s, including “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. Liza Minelli had recently won her Academy Award for a musical drama set in the 1930’s, “Cabaret” and she was a friend of Donen’s so it seemed like a good fit. There is a musical number at the start of this film. This part is right up his alley. Unfortunately, that sequence is only 2 minutes of a movie that ran a hundred and twenty-five minutes. Most of the film takes place on boats and you know, that ain’t easy to get right.
The second problem is that the film can’t quite balance the tone. Is this a slapstick nostalgia piece, is it an action film with gangsters shooting it out, or is it a romantic comedy with a ménages à trois as it’s centerpiece? It tries to be all of those things and never hits the right amount of any one element. There were several films in the 1970s that were set in the depression era, gangster films and some others, but there were two that seemed most likely to have inspired Twentieth Century Fox to back this project: “Paper Moon” and “The Sting”. Both of those films managed to get the hardscrabble era right, with a good amount of humor, but not turning it into a cartoon. This script by the married duo Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is all over the place and Donen compounds the problem by having the lead actors playing it for laughs, in the face of machine guns mowing down people left and right. Burt Reynolds mugging, Gene Hackman aw shucking, and Liza sometimes sincere and sometimes shrill.
In “The Sting” and “Paper Moon”, everyone is playing it straight. Sure there are a couple of double take looks by Redford when shooting takes place in the story, but you feel the stakes are real. Ryan O’Neal is in serious danger from John Hillerman and his thugs in “Paper Moon”. Hillerman is one of the bad guys in this film, but you never feel like the main characters are at risk. Reynolds is taking pratfalls during the action and Hackman is aiding and abetting in all of that jocularity in the face of killers. Maybe you can get away with that in “Some Like It Hot” but the premise there is comedic to begin with as the leads are cross dressing to escape the gangsters. It simply doesn’t work here. Especially, when the young companion of the three, gets shot to pieces and we see it with squibs and everything. The joke won’t work in these circumstances.
Both Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds had four movies that they starred in during 1975. They were clearly very busy. I will be covering at least four of those other seven films during the yearlong project here. One of the co-stars in this picture was also in four movies in 1975. Geoffrey Lewis plays the captain of a Coast Guard ship that tries to stop the rum running scheme of the three main characters. This part was all bluster and buffoonery, even when he is pointing machine guns and shotguns on the two men and ordering his crew to basically murder them. This feckless character might work is the violence in the film was all cartoon like, but in the big climax, dozens of people are getting killed.
The film was given at least three different endings, one of which involved the demise of the two male leads. But having tried to make this a light hearted romp thru bootlegging, that downer of an ending was dropped for something more in keeping with 80% of the film we have been watching. The big sea battle that is the finale of the picture would have made more sense if the eastern syndicate had been pitied against some of these other independent groups earlier in the film. Otherwise, as it seems in the film, they come out of nowhere at the end. In “The Sting” we get a sense of the community of con artists who have come together to take down the bad guy. No such connection was established in this script.
I can’t quite criticize the cinematography, it seems like it should be a good looking movie, and
Geoffrey Unsworth, a two time Academy Award winning Director of Photography, had just done “Cabaret” and “Murder on the Orient Express” , two terrific looking period pieces. The problem is, the print I viewed this movie on was from a out of print DVD, that seemed to be badly in need of a remaster. This film is not available to stream anywhere, I had to go to ebay to find a DVD. It looks like it never had a home video release until the 2011 Shout Factory DVD. So though the whole VHS era, this movie was missing. That will tell you how forgotten it must have been.
This was a blind spot for me from 1975. I never saw this film before today, in spite of the fact that it features my favorite actor and it came out in my favorite film year. This was a Christmas release and Christmas 1975 was a tough time for us that year. I was in my first year at college and my schedule with the debate team kept me busy. It slipped by because it bombed and I never caught up with it until now.
I am getting ready this weekend for a Podcast on the LAMB, covering the 1995 Sam Rami film, “The Quick and the Dead”. I have just watched it for maybe the thirtieth time and I am so excited to talk about the film again. The movie was one of eight that I submitted to be Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. As host, I get to select the films that the community votes for in my Birthday Month. While it is at least the fourth time I have submitted “The Man Who Would be King” as a MOTM option, I am perfectly happy with the results found here because I clearly love this film.
Let me point to the two biggest factors that draw me to this movie. First of all, it is a western, and they don’t make them much any more. The early 90s saw a brief revival of the genre, lead in part by the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, “Unforgiven”. At the time this was shot, there were a number of other westerns being made and reportedly, costumes became a little sparse. When I was growing up, most of the westerns being released were post modern critiques of the traditional genre. “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “The Wild Bunch”, and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, focused on breaking down the myths of the western, and giving us anti-heroes as our protagonists. Of course there were television westerns all over the three major networks, and that saturation probably lead to the decline of the film genre. While some of those featured unconventional heroes, none of them that I remember were out right bad guys for us to root for. Leone and Sam Peckinpah turned shady characters into the stars of their films and ever since, there is a delicate morality to the movies.
The second major factor that keeps me hypnotized by this film is the performance of Gene Hackman. I have made no secret of the fact that Hackman is my favorite actor. He is not movie star handsome, he is not chiseled like a superhero, and unfortunately, he stopped working in movies in 2004. The thing that he is is talented. He seems to have an instinct for the characters he is playing and the everyman quality he brings to the screen, actually enhances both his roles as good guy and as villain. In “The Quick and the Dead”, he is clearly the later. Unlike the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, that he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in “Unforgiven”, John Herod, the town of Redemptions usurper king, has no pretentions as to morality and justice. He is a self centered monster who rules with an iron sidearm and an iron fist. More about his performance in a bit.
So those are the two primary draws, but they are not the only sugar bringing this fly to the table. The star and co-producer of the film is Sharon Stone. This film came out the same year as her Academy Award Nominated role in “Casino”. She was at the height of her star power and sexual charisma, and she is using it in this movie. There is something striking about a woman in the traditional gunfighter’s role that makes it compelling. The film is drawing on her bigger than life persona to turn her character into the person that we most want to see succeed in the story. The fact that her wardrobe flatters her, and she still gets to wear very western garb is visually satisfying in almost every scene. “The Lady” as she is usually referred to as, wears a her holster and the gun at a slightly different angle. Her style is also just different enough to be noticeable without it becoming an artificial conceit. Slightly forward on her hip rather than low and on the outside.
When it comes to talent and charisma, the film does not run out of steam with the two leads. There are two actors billed after Hackman and Stone who will dominate the masculine acting roles for the next twenty five years. Russel Crowe is making his American film debut with this appearance and he quickly leans into Sam Rami’s style and looks the heartthrob that he would become for a decade after.
The part of Cort, gives him a meaty role that allows him to act as well as engage in the action. He is a reformed criminal who is doing penance for his previous life by taking up the role of preacher and is reluctantly dragged back in to the town by the will of his former mentor and now enemy, Herod. His conflicted participation in the quick draw contest that frames the story is dramatically satisfying without sucking up all the air in the revenge drama that Stone’s character is playing out.
Speaking of heartthrobs, this movie features a young actor, fresh off of his first Academy Award Nomination and just two years away from playing the biggest romantic lead in the biggest romantic movie of the last fifty years. Leonardo DiCaprio, was 20 years old when he played the part of Fee, better known as The Kid, opposite the three other acting legends. He looks like he is twelve, and playing cowboys with the big kids. He does however have a winning smile and a effervescent way of talking that belies the characters desperation to be accepted at the grown up table by his suspected true father, Herod. Of all the actors, he needs the most help with the gunplay required of his part. He manages the bravado of the tricks and the poses, but he just seems slow in comparison to everyone else.
So those are the stars, but the acting wattage does not really end there. Among the cast are veteran TV character actors like Roberts Blossom, Kevin Conway and Mark Boone Junior. They are grimy character actors who make up so much of the environment of the movie. The personalities that fill in the background are even bigger. Keith David is Sgt. Clay Cantrell, a self described gentlemen’s adventurer and shootist. His enigmatic character faces down Hackman both in the parlor of Herod’s house and on the street of Redemption. The polite banter that he and Hackman engage in is an opportunity to see the professionalism that the two gunfighters want to project to the world. Another gunfighter, played by Lance Henriksen, is the blow hard Ace Hanlon. A self promoter who has affectations that mark him as something of a buffoon, including a deck of cards stacked with aces, one for every man he has killed, and boots to die for, Hanlon is a character that enters the film dramatically and exits it too early.
Momentarily I will get to the plot and it’s connection to the Leone films of the 1960s, but one actor who appears in the flashback sequences should also be named. A year after his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise, plays the long ago Marshall of the town of Redemption. His character is the catalyst for the revenge story that Sharon Stone is following. Even though his scene is broken up into bits for the brief flashbacks, he creates a sympathetic character that the audience can see as important to the story arc that Ellen (The Lady) is carrying out. Sinise does the whole scene balanced on a chair and choking. What happens creates a different kind of choking on the part of the audience.
The film’s story and the look of the movie, are clearly influenced by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. There is an entrance based on riding by the local undertaker as they enter the town, In “A Fist Full of Dollars” Clint tells the man to get three coffins ready, here, the coffin maker speaks and accurately states the height of Stone’s character, suggesting he will be ready when her turn comes. The duster she wears is not the same as the poncho that the Man with No Name wears in the Dollars Trilogy, but she does have a scarf that gives a very similar effect in her appearance and both of them seem to favor the same tobaccoist.
“The Quick and the Dead” is Sam Rami’s homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. There are tense close ups in the build to each showdown. The eyes of the characters are doing so much of the acting in those scenes that we barely notice the rest of the surroundings. Rami cross cuts tightly and the images close in, just as Leone did in so many of his films. There is a scene in a gun shop in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach’s character Tuco, is examining the guns and clicking through the cylinders. Crowe does the same thing as Herod takes him to get armed for the contest in Fee’s shop. Woody Strode, the athlete turned actor who supported John Wayne in Liberty Vallance, and tried to gun down Charles Bronson in “Once Upon a Time in the West” makes his final screen appearance in this film as the coffin maker and the movie is dedicated to him. The most obvious steal is the scene featuring Sinise. Sharon Stone is a much more attractive version of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica from “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
For every idea and stylistic flourish that Rami takes from Leone, he brings his own original style to the movie as well. The dolly zooms that he used so much in the Evil Dead films, fit perfectly in several spots in this movie. The gunfighters stand far apart from one another, but we can feel the tension ratchet up as the next shot zooms the opponent in at a weird Dutch angle.
All of these tricks are needed to help overcome the somewhat repetitive showdown in the street structure of the story. This is a quick draw contest, ultimately to the death, and there are 16 participants so there are going to be a lot of gunfights in the movie that are one on one in the main street of the town of Redemption. When I have seen negative reviews of this film, they often claim that the story is boring because the same event is reenacted over and over. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie Two Thumbs down for that very reason. What people are missing ate the innovative ways each of those gunfights is shot. There are also twists in several of the face offs that make the each contest unique. Additionally, the music themes play up different emotional beats for the fights. Sometimes the score is nearly whimsical and other times it is thunderous.
Two of Herod’s fights demonstrate this. The showdown with Ace Hanlon is slow to develop and then like a whip, the first shot is cracked and then we get a villain’s exposition from Hackman that is so condescending, the end is almost a relief to Ace. With Cantrell, we get two extra shots, one that spins his fancy sidearm around after the man has been shot and then the Coup de Grâce, a point of view shot that is disturbing and inventive and new to the genre. The TV critics down play it as grotesque, but let’s face it, the deadly combat in and of itself is also morbid.
Back to Gene hackman for a few minutes. Herod is an egoist who wants everything to go his way. He demands the retorn of Cort to his town, just so he can lord over him the power that he has. He is dismissive of The Lady at first and then tries to manipulate her to his will. At the dinner scene, Ellen gets the drop on him with a small gun under the table, hidden from view. Herod hears the hammer being cocked and responds with a similar sound to dissuade her from shooting. After she blinks, he gives away the fact that he was bluffing with the hammercock sound he produced, using a metal matchbox. He smiles smugly in his victory over her as she retreats. Hackman does these kinds of smiles and small hand gestures throughout the picture. Before his gunfight with Cantrell, he meticulously files the hammer on his disassembled firearm, to insure it is working properly. Rami tags on a slow motion shot when Hackman is lighting his cigar during a showdown, which accentuates the moment but it is the deliberate manner he uses in a casual way that sells his total control of the situation. Just to add one more element to Hackman’s complete command of the part, he looks elegant in all of his costumes, including the sidearms that go around his suit jacket in one scene.
In previous posts about the film, I mentioned the music, in fact I had a link up to the theme on YouTube, that seems to have expired for some reason. I have an updated link to a suite of the music here:
It is quite lovely, and it does mirror some Morricone themes from the softer moments of the Dollars films. There is nothing as grandiose as the Theme from the Good ,The Bad and The Ugly”, but there are a lot of places where it builds tension really well. Composer Alan Silvestri, who has done scores for “back to the Future” and four of the MCU films, has never received an Academy Award, but his music has received a lot of love from fans, and this is one of the pieces that is maybe not as popular, but it is certainly well matched with the drama of the film.
Director of Photography Dante Spinotti worked with Rami to get the signature shots that enliven the shootouts, but he has also photographed the plains, town and dingy barrooms of Redemption in a beautiful fashion. The sometimes sepia infused lighting is great for some of the interiors and the early shots. I was very impressed with all of the shots supposedly taking place in the rain, especially the shootout between Ellen and Dread. Spinotti would go on to an Academy Award nomination two years later for “L.A. Confidential”.
There will always be more to talk about on this film. Russell Crowe and DiCaprio should merit some comments of their own. Some of this will be discussed on the podcast, and I will come back and add a link to that when it goes up. For now I am just happy to be anticipating the discussion we will have, the notes that I have just given you, and the fact that a 4K version of the film arrived on my doorstep today, and I am about to watch it again.
It was 40 years ago this month that I trooped down to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with my band of friends and my girl, to see this comic book movie. More than a decade before the launch of “Batman”, the D.C. Universe started with their most iconic hero. This was a highly anticipated film and we knew before we even saw it that there was going to be a sequel. This was the beginning of a comic book franchise that ends up setting a high standard with the opening two films and then trailed off with subsequent efforts. Regardless of how you feel about the revived D.C. films, the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films stand the test of time.
Unlike forty years ago, this trip to the theater was solo and on a Monday night of all times. The Fathom Event included an opening cartoon from Max Fleischer Studios, featuring an animated version of the Man of Steel. This efficient ten minute adventure looks like it was the template for the TV series to come. It certainly had all the tropes we expected including the opening narration. As it turns out it is available on YouTube so if you want to see it, gaze below.
With the appetizer out of the way, we are ready to begin our adventure. I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a nostalgia fan. Classic movies are one of my passions and one of the reasons is the period setting. “Superman” opens not with a pre-title adventure sequence like a James Bond film, but rather a simple curtain in black and white, being pulled open to reveal a movie screen, just like they used to do. The picture scrolls up like an old newsreel to the narration of a child reading the opening of what might be a comic book. Our viewpoint sweeps past a neoclassical skyscraper housing the Daily Planet, with a rotating globe on it’s peak. We zoom out into space and we finally see color, and the John Williams Theme that may be one of the greatest movie themes ever. It is synced with titles that were hugely innovative at the time.
You can read about the titles and look at them at the above link.
Most of you I’m sure have seen the film, so this is not really intended as a full review. I just want to highlight a few of the pleasures of this 40 year old treasure. The whole sequence on Krypton is imaginative and futuristic in the way movies have always been. The budget and effects are certainly bigger than the serials of the past, but the aesthetic is very much the same. The sentencing of the three Kryptonian criminals serves as an Easter egg for the second film and we get to the earth story with just enough background to see how Kal-El ends up with his powers. Glen Ford is only in two scenes but he is terrific in both of them. The Norman Rockwell Kansas grounds our strange visitor from another world, and his adopted father gives him the values that will guide him with as much influence as his biological father’s teachings will in the Fortress of Solitude section.
When Christopher Reeve finally emerges as the adult version of Superman, we get our first taste of flight in these movies. One of the advance tag lines was “You will believe a man can fly!”, well I did, and it was thrilling. The long action sequence where Clark turns into Superman, saves Lois and the President as well as a neighborhood cat is just nicely paced fun. The real treat starts however an hour into the film, when Gene Hackman shows up and proceeds to steal every bit of every scene he is in. Hackman walks off with the movie in an out sized portrayal of Lex Luthor. The fact that he is surrounded by a band of idiots adds some comedy fun without diminishing the threat that the villain presents.
The special effects in the climax are dated and modern audiences might laugh a bit, but if you are in the grip of the movie you will hardly notice those little things. The models, rear projection and practical effects work just fine at giving Superman a task that makes some demands on his abilities. Forget how implausible the reversal of time is and just enjoy the moments when Lois looks at Superman when she has been rescued and doesn’t even know it. This is another thread that leads us to the sequel. At the end of the credits, we are promised Superman II next year, boy do I hope that Fathom follows up on that forty year old promise.
Review by Richard Kirkham Originally Published in thew Fall of 2014
This summer has been a cruel one for fans of “Get Shorty”. In June, James Gandolfini who played Bear the enforcer for Bo the Drug Dealer/wanna be movie producer, passed away at a relatively young 51. Last month, Dennis Farina who played Ray “Bones” Barboni left us at 69. This last week, Elmore Leonard the novelist and screenwriter responsible for the story and characters in the first place, left us at age 87. I’m not suggesting there is a curse or anything, but if this film does not get included before anyone else from the cast dies, I will feel terrible. “Get Shorty” is a star vehicle, and it featured John Travolta in a great part immediately after his comeback role in “Pulp Fiction”. In spite of the obvious star driven nature of the film, there is a great ensemble cast that adds to the quality of the movie and makes it something I think everyone will be glad to have seen.
For movie fans, this is a film that should give them a warm feeling in their dreams. This is a gangster movie about gangsters who want to make a gangster movie. There are dozens of colorful characters both in the crime world and in Hollywood as the story gets told. The crime stuff may be accurate, someone with a better sense of that can judge for us, but the movie end of the story cuts incredibly close to the bone that is the film making process. Last year in the movie “Argo”, John Goodman’s character summed it up this way:
John Chambers: [after hearing of the plan to get the hostages out] So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot…
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: [smiles] You’ll fit right in!
That is the plot of this movie. Everyone thinks they can be in the movie business and they are right. Yet being in the movie business does not always mean making a movie, sometimes it is about talking about making a movie. Our lead character Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta is good at talking.
Look At Me
Chili is a loan shark from Miami, who ends up in Hollywood while running down a customer who has tried to outsmart the mob. He is not a thug but he is not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination. Chili is the kind of guy who is usually too smart for everyone else in the room. He is also a movie fan and like many other fans of film, he thinks he can do better than the people who are currently making it in “Tinseltown”. The plot involves him trying to find financing and a star for the movie he has in his head. That’s right, the movie in his head. There is a screenplay for another movie that is pivotal to the plot, but most of what we see on the screen is the movie that Chili sees turning into his own film. It’s a movie about a loan shark who comes to Hollywood in pursuit of a bad debt. He is making up the movie out of his life story as he is living it. That is a pretty awesome way of creating a screen story, if only all of us could lead an interesting enough life to do that, we would be able to get rid of all the remakes and sequels that come out of the film world today.
Travolta is a walking advertisement of “cool” in this film. He dresses in a sharp manner that doesn’t seem ostentatious, he looks great in sunglasses and finally, he may be able to set the anti-smoking cause back by ten years. When he lights up and stares down an adversary, it is a moment everyone in the business will want to emulate. Travolta was at the top of his game in the moment this film was made. He was natural, charismatic and he had an everyman touch despite the fact that it was clear he was not everyone. Warren Beatty was apparently offered the role, and from the looks department and the cool factor you can understand why he seemed a good fit, but Travolta has a sense of humor in his eye that makes the part work, and when he drops the veneer of friendliness he feels dangerous in a way that I think Beatty would not have been able to match.
In addition to Chili Palmer, there are a dozen other characters that flicker around the flame of Hollywood success. Delroy Lindo, a charismatic presence himself, plays Bo the drug dealer. Bo wants into the business of movies and sees an opportunity to leverage himself in because a director owes him a large sum of cash. Another debt that Chili is trying to recover is owed by that director and Chili manages to insert himself into the process of making movies ( or more accurately movie deals) by trying to extricate the director from his entanglement with the drug dealer. Bo has a partner and an enforcer. The enforcer is a giant of a man who was once a stunt guy in the movie business. “Bear” is played by the late James Gandolfini as a menacing but ultimately ineffective threat. Muscle alone will not be sufficient to put Chili Palmer out of the deal. This is the first time I remember Gandolfini from a movie role. He had a sweet disposition for a thug and his wardrobe was California casual to the max. The big beard and long pony tail he came equipped with was authentic for the times, I know because I saw it in the mirror every day in the 1990s.
Every comedy has to have a fool somewhere, otherwise everyone would just act in their best interests and reason would dominate rather than laughter. “Get Shorty” has the biggest self deluded fool in Hollywood; low budget exploitation director/producer Harry Zimm. Harry wants to play with the big boys but we know he doesn’t have what it takes from the beginning. Harry owes a Vegas casino, he owes a drug dealer, he has a script he can’t quite get control over and a girlfriend who is way too smart for him. Casting gives this movie another secret weapon, Gene Hackman. Pound for pound, movie for movie, I would put Hackman up against any other actor of any time, but he was not always thought of as a comedian. That makes no sense in light of the Superman movies where he was the antagonist and the comic relief at the same time. His three minutes in “Young Frankenstein” may be the highlight of one of the greatest comedies ever made. He turned down the part originally because he did not usually do comedies. Zimm is a funny character not because he makes jokes but because he is a parody of the movie business itself. Hackman just had to play a character who was so clueless and yet so certain that he could really be a Hollywood figure. He nailed it.
One of his funniest lines comes when he can’t even speak because of a beating that he took. Crawling out of the hospital to make it to a lunch with the potential star of his breakthrough quality picture, Chili and Karen, Harry’s girlfriend, wonder what the hell he is doing at the lunch meeting at “The Ivy” in his condition. Harry can only croak out the phrase “My project” through his jaws that have been wired shut. That is a true sense of commitment from a producer protecting his interests.
So far our focus has been on the Hollywood element, let’s not neglect the gangster part of the story. Bo and his partners have problems of their own, a South American drug lord has come in search of money and a lost nephew. The FBI is watching money that has been stored in an airport locker, and Bo tries to trick Chili into exposing himself to get at the cash. Harry’s big mistake in addition to not listening to Chili earlier and getting more deeply involved with Bo, is that he thinks he can big shot his way around the mob. Harry makes the mistake of trying to go it alone and contacts Chili’s gangland connection in Miami, hoping to shake loose some cash for his film. Enter Ray “Bones”, played with the usual gusto by Dennis Farina. Farina played gangsters in dozens of projects (he also played cops pretty well being a former Chicago cop himself). Farina had a poetic way of delivering a line with complete disdain and superiority. His conversations with just about everyone in this film suggest a barely contained rage at how idiotic he thought everyone else was. From the start of the film, he was the east Coast version of Harry Zimm, too big for his britches and not able to really stand toe to toe with Chili despite his elevated position of power. The scene where he and Harry meet is a high point of comedy in the movie. It is violent and abusive in the way that modern gangster films are wont to be. It is also hysterical.
Rene Russo is Karen, a b-movie scream queen, and Harry’s girlfriend. It doesn’t take long for Chili and Karen to connect because they are the two most intelligent characters in the movie. Whenever Chili is confounded by some stupidity in Hollywood, Karen is right there to to interpret for him. Russo is completely believable as a working actress who should know better and has greater ambition than originally seems. As the ex-wife of movie star Martin Weir, she connects Chili and Harry to some real power in Hollywood, a major star. Danny Devito seems like an odd candidate for the role but he channels his friend Jack Nicholson and creates an actor who is serious about his work but indifferent to how it effects others. In the film “The Player” Tim Robbins’ character orders a different kind of fashionable water at every meeting, and then he never drinks. Martin Weir special orders food and then never takes a bite. It is one of the irritating ways that the pecking order in Hollywood might be measured.
In the background of the story are several other perfectly cast characters. David Paymer does nervous and combative at the same time. Bette Midler, who was unbilled in the film, does sexy and smart ass. Miguel Sandoval has made a living playing drug lords and government officials. Here he is menacing as he discusses taking in the Universal Tour and then maybe murdering some of the other characters in the movie. There is a long line of character actors who all bring this movie some realism and personality.
The director Barry Sonnenfield should get a lot of credit for making the movie play so well. There are great tracking shots that don’t call attention to themselves but make the movie feel even more movie like. The look of all the locations is also important. Martin Weir’s arrival for lunch at “The Ivy” is staged like a red carpet moment for an every day Hollywood activity. Harry’s office looks rundown, over stuffed and heavenly to a movie fan who would love to have those kinds of film mementos on the walls and bookshelves. Bo’s house in the Hollywood Hills is both pretentious and strangely attractive.
The real hero of the movie though is the creator of all of these characters, the late Elmore Leonard. His book is really the script for the movie. Scott Frank is credited with the screenplay and he and Leonard shared the same relationship on another project “Out of Sight” a couple of years later. Leonard’s plotting and dialogue keep us involved. The actors bring the characters to life and it all comes off as a good natured poke in the eye to the movie business that is responsible for putting this out in the first place. In light of all the recent passings, it is a good time to embrace the quality of this film and remember how much a talented cast of professionals can do to entertain us. “Get Shorty” may have been a star vehicle for John Travolta, but it was a project that showed us that real stars are found in every well cast part.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.
OK, I’m going to out myself as an old man right now. As Steven Spielberg is to my kids and most of the movie going generation after, Francis Ford Coppola was to my generation. He was the inspiration for my movie mania in the 1970s. He is responsible in whole or part for five Best Picture nominees including three winners in that category. Getting a chance to hear him speak was number one on my list of “must dos” for the Festival. We were not at the front of the line but we were there almost two hours early to insure that we did get in. Mr. Coppola did not disappoint.
There was an elaborate description of the opening scene that reoccurs as the movie plays out. The idea that more is revealed or that the comments being made are interpreted in a different way as we get some more context is an early version of a technique used by later films like “Memento”and “Crash “. That Walter Murch had to be given a title that did not exist before [Sound Designer] because he technically could not work as an editor is a testament to the clash between the old ways that studios worked and the new styles that film makers like Coppola wanted to employ. The innovative use of sound in this film was the start of a specialized field. I wonder how Ben Burtt feels about this and if he would agree.
Gene Hackman is my favorite actor, and this was a terrific part that required him to be very different than in other roles. He is introspective and something of a schlep in his plastic raincoat and black rimmed glasses. He still has the volatility of Popeye Doyle, but it is tempered by a meekness that is surprising. When he tosses away his valise in frustration, that’s a moment you expect, but when he turns around to go back and get it, that is not the performance choice that is typical, but it is reflective of the character. His passive-aggressive manner with his girlfriend is another indicator of Harry Caul’s tentative ability to connect with others. We know that he is in over his head when he gets bested by a professional rival in a joke, but even more so when he falls into a honeypot that is designed to get access to materials he has held back from the assistant to his contracted employer. Robert Duvall is barely in the movie, in fact I think he is uncredited, but it is nice to see the two of them occupying the same film.
The timeliness of this kind of surveillance is odd. The movie is more than forty years old but it is still relevant with the privacy invasions that we see today in politics, social media and National Security issues. Harry’s paranoia is just a precursor to the kinds of intrusions that all of us are subject to today.