Friday Flashback: The Great Dictator (1940)

At the risk of sounding like a genuine Film Snob, I must admit that I shake my head in disappointment at those who think that films like The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, and Superbad are among the funniest films of all-time. This is not to say that these movies – and recent films of their kind – are not funny. They certainly are – and I enjoy them very much. But when I watch a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (which I had the extreme pleasure of re-visiting last week), I am once again reminded of what truly brilliant comedies are made of. I very rarely use the word “genius.” In fact, I think the term may only apply to a mere handful of artists in the history of movie-making. And cinematic pioneer Charlie Chaplin is indeed one of those few.

Chaplin insisted on making silent films for years – even long after The Jazz Singer revolutionized movies and the “talkie” sound era began. With The Great Dictator (in which he wrote, produced, directed, starred and co-composed the score), Chaplin made his first true talking picture – and boy did he have a lot to say. Not only laugh-out-loud funny, the movie was the very first film of its time to use biting satire against the Nazi regime and in particular, Adolf Hitler. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, The Great Dictator has long been considered a true classic of the cinema – and for good reason. The movie was also selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

With The Great Dictator, it’s as if outspoken Chaplin thumb-tacked images of Hitler and the swastika emblem on the wall and zipped dart after dart into them. It’s a scathing commentary on Nazism and on dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. On top of this, the film is hysterically funny (featuring some of film’s most classic comedic moments & scenes), and yes, even romantic (typical Chaplin). Chaplin takes on two roles here – and does a marvelous job in both (earning a well-deserved “Best Actor” Oscar nom). As the Jewish barber who has been hospitalized for 20 years after a plane crash during WWI, Chaplin’s character returns to his beloved barbershop in the Jewish ghetto, but because he has suffered severe memory loss, has no idea how drastically the world has changed and how brutally the Jews are treated. Oblivious to his societal status, the barber (who, Chaplin swore at the time, was not a representation of his infamous Little Tramp character despite obvious resemblances) stands up to the harsh stormtroopers who continue to invade the ghetto and humiliate its citizens.

Chaplin also plays the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel, leader of Tomania (an allusion to ptomaine poisoning), and a riotous lampoon of Hitler. Chaplin’s Hynkel is wildly funny, though he does not mean to be. He is also terribly insecure, always seeking the advice of his Minister of Interior Garbitsch (pronounced “garbage” and wonderfully played by Henry Daniell) who is modeled after Joseph Goebbels. Jackie Oakie plays Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, with showy arrogance. Hynkel and Napaloni are fighting over who will take over Osterlich (Austria) and the battle of wits between the two makes for some funny sequences. Billy Gilbert plays the feeble Minister of War (talk about your paradoxes) Herring, who is the subject of much of Hynkel’s abuse. Rounding out the lead cast is the beautiful Paulette Goddard who plays Hannah, a fearless resident of the ghetto and the object of the barber’s affection.

The scene that the film is most famous for is the one when Hynkel dances with a large, balloon-like globe, while he fantasizes about overtaking the world. He does this to Wagner’s Lohengrin, and at the very end of the sequence, the balloon, of course, pops. The scene I can’t get enough of – and I think it’s one of the funniest scenes in film history, is Hynkel’s first speech to his people – and Chaplin’s wonderful mockery of the German language. It’s an extraordinary scene that showcases the comedic brilliance and wonderful acting abilities of Charlie Chaplin. Do yourself a favor, and watch the video below.

The Great Dictator is no doubt a phenomenal cinematic achievement. Chaplin was never one to back down and was very politically-minded (see J. Edgar Hoover). Here, he has created one of the very best satires of all-time, not to mention one of our very best comedies. For those unfamiliar with Chaplin’s prolific canon of work, I would recommend The Great Dictator be your introduction to his genius. He does lay it on a bit thick at the end (when his barber gives the speech imploring Hannah to look up to the skies above), and though a bit melodramatic, I can forgive this as it is simply Chaplin speaking to his audience. Watching it again reminded me that, yes it’s funny watching a woman shit in a sink — but it is the stuff of Charlie Chaplin that remains timeless, original, important, and yes, remarkably funny, now 70+ years later.

Friday Flashback: Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire CircusVampire Circus

87 min
Director: Robert Young
Cast: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, David Prose


The 70’s were a very strange time for film – and for horror in particular.  Prior to the late-1960’s most horror fell into a pretty standard motif. Most were period pieces with classic monsters and relatively tame violence (at least by today’s standards).  But the 60’s saw radical changes in the horror film.  With classics like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, the horror had not only moved into our modern times, but to the very house next door.

The prototypical Hammer vampire: Exaggerated fangs and ruby-red blood.

So it’s interesting and rare to see a period horror film in the 1970’s, especially one that’s not attempting tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre. I’ve always been a fan of Hammer Studios and their body of work.  For those of you unfamiliar, Hammer is a UK-based studio known almost exclusively for its horror productions and in particular its reimagining of many of the famous Universal monster ensemble (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc.).  Hammer saw its greatest output from the mid-50s to the mid-70s thanks in large part to the frequent casting of Christopher Lee (usually in the role of Dracula) and Peter Cushing (usually in the role of Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula’s nemesis Dr. Van Helsing).  These greats embody the essence of Hammer and account for some of Hammer’s best performances, even when the material is not quite up to their legendary status.

Vampire Circus doesn’t feature Lee or Cushing. Count Mitterhaus is not nearly as frightening, in name or performance, as Dracula. And with the tagline: “The Greatest Blood-show on Earth” the movie pretty much sets itself up for potential that is nealry impossible to deliver.

Beware Count Mitterhaus!

The story goes something like this: The Count, living in the requisite creepy castle just outside of the village, seduces the local women into luring children to his lair in which to feed upon.  After losing his daughter, Professor Albert Müller convinces the other townsfolk that the time has come to raid the count’s castle and get rid of the scourge.  After an awkwardly staged battle, the Count ends up with a stake in the heart and his castle is burned to the ground… problem solved!  But, not so fast! Fifteen years later, a plague is ravaging the village.  The avengers assume it’s a curse bestowed upon them in the Count’s dying breath, but the local doctor isn’t buying it.  He feels that if he can get to a city, he can procure some medical treatments for the ailing, but the town has been quarantined by the surrounding settlements and anyone attempting to flee is shot on-sight.  The doctor, using his son as bait, manages to escape.

At the same time, a mysterious traveling circus comes through town.  Even though their arrival is suspicious, the villagers initially welcome the distraction from their fears of the plague.  The circus features a clown-faced dwarf, bizarre acrobatic performers, and panthers that seemingly morph into people. Amused at first, town leaders become horrified when young children start disappearing and turning up dead.  Of course, this is the work of vampires led by shape-shifter Emil, who turns out to be the Count’s cousin.  Their plan is to drain enough blood from the villagers’ children to revive the Count. 

No cross? No problem. A trusty crossbow will do.

Does the scheme work?  Will the villages be rid of their dreadful plague or will darkness consume them?  Will Count Mitterhaus rise from the grave and avenge his death or will the townsfolk again be victorious against the evil circus clan?  Although you probably have a good idea, if you really want to know, you’ll have to watch the film yourself.

Overall, it really isn’t that bad.  Rated PG, it has a surprising amount of graphic violence and nudity for its time, though mostly harmless (and hokey) by today’s standards.  The pacing and characterizations could be better and the presence of a heavy-weight performance by Lee or Cushing is missed.  It’s definitely a curiosity and it’s only through curiosity (and Hammer completists) that I would recommended it over many of the other entries in Hammer’s long catalog. 

As a final aside – it’s worth noting that the cast includes Lynne Frederick – future wife of Peter Sellers, and the circus strongman is played by David Prowse who would go on to portray the physical embodiment of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Finally, for additional perspective on the film, check out this very clever post: What I Learned From Vampire Circus.

Friday Flashback: The Boston Strangler (1968)

Based on a true story, The Boston Strangler follows the police investigation of the notorious serial killer responsible for killing 13 innocent women in the city of Boston. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film does a fine job of capturing the gritty and seedier streets of Boston as the police (led by Geroge Kennedy as Detective DiNatale) go from crime scene to crime scene hunting down their man. Fleischer utilizes some interesting camera work for this movie, especially his use of split screens throughout the film.

The movie stars Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the chief detective who is ordered to take over this investigation, which has (for good reason) thrown the public and the media into an absolute tizzy. Playing the intriguing role of the strangler, Albert DeSalvo is none other than Tony Curtis. Because he was mostly associated with light comedic fare at the time, it took a lot for the studio to finally give the greenlight to casting Curtis in the chilling role of DeSalvo. Originally, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were attached. So it came as quite the surprise to all when it was announced that Tony Curtis would be playing the iconic serial killer. And he does a wonderful job too! We don’t even see him until one full hour into the film, and by that time, the build-up to revealing the killer is overwhelming – but Curtis doesn’t disappoint. He is a family man and our first look at him is sitting in his modest living room staring at the coverage of JFK’s funeral on TV, with his young daughter on his lap. Then, we see him spring into action and get a glimpse of what makes this guy tick.

When DeSalvo is captured by police for an entirely different matter, the court realizes that he is ill and place him in a hospital to be examined and diagnosed. Clues are pieced together and Bottomly and DiNatale realize that they have their man. The scenes where Fonda is interrogating Curtis are enthralling to watch. The doctor explains to the police that DeSalvo may be genuinely sick – that he has two distinct personalities and the working family man literally has no idea of the unspeakable acts he has committed – so Bottomly must tread lightly in his questioning or DeSalvo will burst. Curtis is great in these interrogation scenes… he doesn’t overdo it at all and is quite subtle in his actions. The viewer can’t really tell if he is faking it or if he is truly ill.

The Boston Strangler is a very interesting watch, with a smart script by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank. The camerawork and some of the techniques utilized draw you in even more than the gripping story already does. Though critical reception was mixed at the time of release, I think the movie has received much wider acceptance and appreciation over time. I’d recommend it just to see Curtis’ fine work which shows off his range. The last image that we see as the end credits appear is haunting and lingers in your mind long after – we see Albert DeSalvo standing in the corner of an all-white room – by himself, no musical accompaniment, as the camera slowly fades back and gets whiter and whiter.

Friday Flashback: My Fair Lady (1964)

I’m not much of a movie musical kind of guy. More times than not, there is so much that is lost from the stage to the screen. The immediacy and magic of the live theatre is absent and we are usually left with shells of what the productions once were. In my experience, there have only been just a few musicals that have been successfully adapted for the silver screen – and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady is certainly one of them. Winner of 8 Academy Awards (including “Best Picture”), this classic piece of cinema is based on the Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner stage musical – which, in itself is based on the brilliant stage play Pygmalion by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s 5-Act play, a wondrous social satire, is inspired from the renowned Greek myth of the woman-hating sculptor who falls in love with his very own creation.

Set in Edwardian London, My Fair Lady stars the lovely Audrey Hepburn as the infamous Eliza Doolittle – a poor flower girl with a horrific Cockney accent and modest dreams of being “a lady in a flower shop.” Rex Harrison plays the arrogant, uncouth, impetuous Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who haughtily makes a bet with a colleague that he can transform Eliza, a “deliciously low” piece of baggage, into a lady by passing her off as a Duchess at the royal Embassy Ball. Harrison was born to play Henry Higgins. He is absolutely marvelous here and took home the “Best Actor” Oscar for his multifaceted performance. Higgins takes the frightened and naïve Eliza into his luxurious home where he and his phonetics associate Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) clean her up and teach her how to speak properly. Gladys Cooper plays Henry’s mother – the only woman who can really put Henry in his place. And really, Higgins comes off like an absolute mamma’s boy in their scenes together. Stanley Holloway does a fine job at playing Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, a common dustman who is looking to profit from his daughter’s good luck.

Surprisingly, the musical is (for the most part) remarkably faithful to Shaw’s original work. Much of the earlier dialogue is still in tact – and Shaw’s societal statements (on language, education, social classes, et al) still come through very well. Cecil Beaton’s costume design is exquisite – featuring the lavishness of the upper class and the browbeaten garb of the lower class. The musical numbers are woven into the story quite nicely. It’s no secret by now that Ms. Hepburn did not do her own singing…I guess this was not her strong suit. Rather, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. And Harrison doesn’t really have to do much singing. Most of his vocal work is him speaking in key. Musical highlights for me include the humorous “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain” (which accompanies the classic scene not illustrated in the play), and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

It is fascinating to watch Hepburn’s slow transformation from a poor, disheveled girl into a model of style and grace. It is equally fascinating to see all that Eliza is sacrificing in order to achieve her goals and win Higgins his bet. The chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is riveting throughout. There is obviously something between the two – but both are too stubborn to relent. The one scene that always makes me tear up happens late at night, after a long and arduous day of trying to get Eliza to speak properly. Everyone is drained and feeling hopeless. Finally, after constant verbal attacks, Higgins gives her a confidence builder for th every first time: “think what you’re trying to accomplish. Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer Eliza. And conquer it you will.” This, combined with Hepburn’s reaction to this speech, always makes me lose it.

My Fair Lady is a classic motion picture and a few years ago was ranked #8 in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Musicals” list. It is an enchanting piece of movie-making, to be sure and is part of an era when Hollywood was famous for its majestic and sweeping musicals. And for 168 minutes of its 170-minute running time, it represents all that is right in movies. The last minute or so has always bothered me — and I can’t help but feel that the brilliant G.B. Shaw is always turning over in his grave at what they did to his sensible and realistic conclusion. (SPOILER ALERT!) In the film, Eliza and Henry have just parted. They will sadly go their separate ways. Henry walks home alone and has a light-bulb moment…an epiphany. He loves Eliza. “Damn, Damn, Damn, DAMN!” he shouts, and breaks into “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” But does he do anything about it? Does he rush back to Eliza and confess his feelings? No! He slumps back home, plays an old recording of Eliza’s voice, sulks in his chair, and begins to wallow in self-pity — forever missing Eliza, even though they’ve been apart for all of perhaps 30 minutes. What happens next? Eliza is the one to cave in. She instantly walks back to Henry’s home and sees him stewing in his melancholy. When he realizes that she has come back, a Cheshire cat-like smile appears on his face…he tips his hat and asks, “Where the devil are my slippers?” as one would ask a maid. She smiles. She will stay. And the two live happily ever after. [INSERT VOMIT HERE] The play does not end this way — because it shouldn’t end this way. Shaw explains his reasoning in a rather lengthy epilogue. The Hollywood execs though would have none of that — and we are treated to Eliza, the woman, being the one to relinquish her power to the mighty male figure…and it always ruins it just a little bit for me. I hate that she does that. I hate that he “wins” that way. And I think it’s more than just another one of my little pet peeves. This is a big deal. In spite of this small travesty of an ending, I can’t help but return to this film often…because there is so much right with it, and the performances are wonderful. It remains one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Sorry G.B.S.

Friday Flashback: Arthur (1981)

Thirty years ago we were introduced to the eccentric, drunken playboy Arthur Bach in Steve Gordon’s hilarious and tender-hearted film, Arthur. Terrified to death by the idea of actually working for a living, the spoiled Arthur has inherited his vast fortune and has no shame in treating the world like his own little playground. “I race cars, play tennis, and fondle women, BUT…I have weekends off, and I am my own boss,” he says. The late Dudley Moore played the lovable man-child and in doing so, created one of the funniest characters in film history. I’ll go one step further…I think Arthur is one of the Top ten funniest films ever made – and this is due, in large part, to Moore’s magnificent, unconstrained performance (which rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination).

On top of the hysterical one-liners that are delivered at breakneck speed throughout (“Do you have any objection to naming a child Vladimir? Even a girl?”), the nucleus of the film is an unlikely father-son relationship – between Arthur and his valet Hobson (Sir John Gielgud in an Academy Award-winning performance). It’s an unconventional bond, but it is all that Arthur has. You see, Arthur is the heir to a $750 million fortune – but will only receive this if he marries the suitable Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), an upper-class woman who Arthur does not have any feelings for. In fact, Arthur doesn’t really have feelings for anyone but himself – that is, until he meets Linda (Liza Minelli), a working-class waitress from Queens who he sees stealing a tie from a department store. He is instantly smitten and determined to have her, despite what his wealthy family (and Hobson) might think.

Gielgud and Moore are wonderful together. Moore is so outrageous in his manner, and the classically trained Gielgud is superb in his matter-of-fact, composed delivery. Their rapport and comedic timing is impeccable (Arthur: A hot bath is wonderful…Girls are wonderful! Hobson: Yes, imagine how wonderful a girl who bathes would be. Get dressed.”). But what begins as a dynamic that seems more babysitter-child, slowly reveals its true colors. There is genuine love between the two. Though he certainly does not approve of his employer’s behavior (in fact, he frequently mocks it), Hobson will do anything for him and when Hobson falls ill, Arthur’s entire world falls apart. At one poignant moment, Hobson tells him, “Arthur, you’re a good son” – and it breaks your heart.

Moore’s chemistry with the wise-cracking Minelli is equally as impressive. They might not be the most glamorous couple in film, but they are perfect for each other. If anyone can tame this man whose only overnight guests are limited to prostitutes, it is Linda. And what’s more, she couldn’t care less about his inheritance.

Arthur features a delightful score by Burt Bacharach and the famous Oscar-winning single “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross. It was, sadly, the first and only film to be directed by Gordon, who died at a young age the following year. But the comedy here is timeless. Moore rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his performance and, despite what some Hollywood execs might think, his work here his beyond reproachable. He is cinema’s greatest drunk, bar-none. And yes, the movie goes right up there with the very best comedies of all-time, to be sure. What makes it even more special is watching the irresponsible and selfish Arthur Bach slowly take stock in himself and his life. We watch him grow up — and we are laughing the whole way through.


Friday Flashback: The Seventh Seal (1957)

In honor of Gunnar Fischer, the brilliant cinematographer who passed away last week at the age of 100, I thought to dedicate this week’s ‘Friday Flashback‘ to the movie he is most closely associated with — the classic, and beautifully shot film The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman. After directing 16 films, it was The Seventh Seal that brought Bergman (and his stars) recognition from around the globe — and established the filmmaker as an art-house favorite. The film, one of my all-time favorites, was ranked #8 in Empire magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema last year, and was just one of about a dozen films that Fischer collaborated on with Bergman (beginning with 1948’s Port of Call).

The film is set in the 14th century amidst a ravaging plague and follows the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) who, upon his return from fighting in the Crusades, meets Death (the very pale and ominous Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. The two commence in a game of chess…the knight’s way of delaying the inevitable that we all must face. But the disillusioned knight wants to use this momentous reprieve to commit one meaningful deed.

The film is filled with wonderfully delectable symbolism and religious themes (Bergman favorites). And Fischer’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning to digest — he gives the film a wonderful expressionistic look, with gorgeous black-and-white contrasts, especially in the chess scenes between the knight and Death. As he did throughout much of their time together, Fischer was able to bring Bergman’s themes of one’s fear of death, sexual agony, emotional isolation, and redemption into fantastical light. The solemn Dance of Death sequence at the film’s end is a terrific example — an iconic image in the history of cinema and a scene which instigated a number of parodies in later years.

Max von Sydow is perfectly cast as Antonius Block, the knight. Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnar Bjornstrand (Jons), and Nils Poppe (Jof) also deliver standout performances — though, I think its screenplay and luminous visuals play the real stars here. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that this masterwork was shot in a mere 35 days. The subplots here (the servant girl, the family of actors, etc.) are also engaging and play vital roles during the course of our knight’s newfound quest.

The Seventh Seal was my first foray into the world of Bergman. After watching so many Woody Allen films and learning about his deep admiration and infatuation with the Swedish filmmaker, I figured it would be wise to see what all the fuss was about. After watching The Seventh Seal, I began to take in as many of Bergman’s films as I could at a feverish pace — reading all about him, studying the themes and symbols in his works, and eventually naming my very own movie blog in his honor. The Seventh Seal makes for an ideal baptismal for those unfamiliar with the director’s canon of work. Though heavy in its use of imagery, I still feel it is easily accessible to a mainstream audience — and remains one of the finest films ever made.

Next Posting on The Lantern: Will Return with William Buhagiar’s “Harry Potter Retrospective” series.

Friday Flashback: Les Diaboliques (1955)

I watched this film for the first time a couple of years ago and all I could think was that I couldn’t believe I waited so long to see this masterfully haunting film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. In 2007, Time magazine even placed this thriller on their list of the Top 25 horror films (ranked 19th). Now, it gets a marvelous new Blu-Ray release from the wonderful folks at the Criterion Collection. The Blu-Ray contains many new features (as Criterion usually includes), including a new digital restoration.

Based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More, Clouzot was able to grab the film rights to the book – just before Alfred Hitchcock, “the master of suspense” was able to. In watching Les Diaboliques, you can clearly see just how much Hitchcock would have loved to have gotten his hands on this project – it fits in so well with his body of work. The film would go on to inspire one of Hitchcock’s latter efforts, the American classic Psycho.

The film takes place at a boarding school run by the despotic and cruel Michel (Paul Meurisse). The school is owned by his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), who works there as a teacher. Christina is a fragile, timid creature who is the object of her husband’s abuse. Michel is also having an affair with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school – and he isn’t exactly discreet about it. The two women devise a plan to kill this beast of a man. Signoret takes the reins here, leading the hesitant Clouzot on as they plot to drown him in a bathtub and throw him in the school’s deserted pool. When the body floats up, it will simply look like an accident…But the body doesn’t surface. In fact, when the pool is drained, the body is nowhere to be found – leaving the delicate Christina in an absolute state of horror and petrified of getting caught.

This is a classic “revenge film” with twists in the story that you surely do not see coming. Clouzot also captures some frightening images in this glorious black-and-white film. The performances by the three stars are marvelous – and the finale just takes your breathe away – so much so, that the end credit asks viewers not to give away anything to others – an olden-day “anti-spoiler” alert, if you will. As a horror/thriller, the film sets a benchmark for others that would follow, including the aforementioned Psycho, Polanski’s Repulsion, DePalma’s Sisters, and Sluizer’s The Vanishing. One of the very best films ever made, for sure – surely strong enough to be widely appreciated and admired by a new audience 50+ years later. Rent it, buy it…watch it if you haven’t already…and you can thank me later.

Friday Flashback: The Rapture (1991)

I must admit, I have absolutely no idea what all of this talk about the coming rapture is all about. I keep seeing posts on Facebook, but haven’t bothered to look into reading anything about it. Colleagues at work have spoken about it, and, if I understand correctly, the end of the world is supposed to happen tomorrow, May 21, 2011. So I guess this will be the final post on The Lantern – and I’m not sure why I bothered going into work with the end of the civilized world so near.

Anyway, I thought to celebrate (if that’s the proper word) the impending apocalypse with another must-see/4-star film for the ‘Friday Flashback’ feature — The Rapture, written and directed by Michael Tolkin. Now, twenty years later, I vividly recall being a student at New York University when this came out and seeing it at the Angelika Theatre. I also remember being absolutely blown away with this astounding work – and when the credits finally rolled, with no music accompanying them, I remained quite still in my seat, taking in what I just witnessed on screen. This movie made next to nothing at the box-office (estimated 1.3 million), so chances are you may not have seen it – but again, the purpose of this column is to urge film lovers to see these mighty achievements in film from yesteryear.

The film revolves around Sharon (an extraordinary Mimi Rogers), a telephone operator who is living a pretty unfulfilled life. Her job bores her to tears, and in the evening, she goes out with her male partner Vic (Patrick Bauchau), cruising the hot spots of Los Angeles in search of swingers to spend the evening with. Sharon is clearly not happy and begins to question her amoral lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Vic who is completely content with their behavior. Sharon comes into contact with a religious sect who inform her that a rapture is at hand, which sparks a massive awakening in her. She begins a completely new life as a born-again Christian, devoting herself completely to a higher power. We later see her with a handsome husband (a very young David Duchovny) and beautiful little girl. I won’t give away much more than that – because Tolkin’s impressive script throws a few curve balls at the viewer that we surely do not see coming. But I will say that after giving herself completely to God, Sharon turns and questions God’s compassion and goodwill – even with the possible end-of-the-world approaching. She believes she must take her daughter to the desert for this day of reckoning and here, she comes in contact with a concerned deputy (Will Patton), who looks after the two women in the unforgiving terrain, while mother and daughter wait.

This was Michael Tolkin’s directorial debut (he has since directed only one other feature film, while working chiefly as a screenwriter since) – and he presents us with a powerful and courageous film. This is surely a movie that goes places others dare not approach. And at the center of it is Mimi Rogers who is nothing short of sensational. I am always dumbfounded at her lack of recognition – especially after seeing her work here. She was surely robbed of a well-deserved Oscar nomination for this performance – her work here is uninhibited, brave, and overpowering. If for no other reason, people should see this solely to watch her – she is that riveting. Because of the strong sexual and violent content (not to mention the prominent religious themes), The Rapture is not a movie for everyone, that much is certain. But for those who appreciate daring independent films, put this one right on top of your rental queue.

Friday Flashback: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

For those of you who read the Magic Lantern (and I humbly thank you for that), you know that I don’t hastily throw around the word “masterpiece” upon every film that I have a deep admiration for. In fact, I think it’s somewhat rare for me to label a film as such. However, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist film The Bicycle Thief is a small gem of a masterpiece indeed. Last year, Empire magazine even went so far as to rank it #4 on their list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” – just one of many notable film lists it rightfully appears on.

The story is simple enough. Set in Rome during the economic depression of post-World War II, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to land a good job pasting posters throughout the city’s walls. But he is told that he must have a bicycle for the job (“No bicycle, no job.”). Antonio has an adoring wife and two small children to support – and just recently hocked his bicycle to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and makes the decision to pawn their bedsheets so that her husband can re-claim his bicycle and go to work. Things are finally looking up and Antonio will now be bringing in some money. Of course, his precious bicycle is stolen on his very first day on the job – right under his very eyes. The next day, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) walk the streets of Rome desperately looking for the stolen bicycle.

The film was shot on location in Rome with De Sica (staying true to the Italian movement initiated by Roberto Rossellini) casting non-actors with no training whatsoever in order to give the film a truly authentic quality. In fact, Maggiorani, the lead, was a factory worker – and he is riveting and heartbreaking here. And though the plot and De Sica’s style can be seen as somewhat minimal, it is in this simplicity that makes this glorious movie a must-see for every fan of film, both young and old. There are just too many scenes and brief moments that, simple as they may appear, manage to capture your heart and your mind.

The love between Antonio and his wife is illustrated beautifully at the onset of the film – they are playful and affectionate. And Maggiorani and Carell have a dynamic and very believable chemistry together. As the son, young Staiola has magnificent screen presence. You can easily tell what the distraught boy is thinking as he futilely walks the streets with his father – even when he isn’t saying a word. When all hope is near lost, his father asks him if he is tired and hungry and the way Staiola answers without even speaking a word is beautiful to watch. Even the tiny, quick gesture of Antonio fixing young Bruno’s scarf on the way home makes for a delightful moment.

The New York Times heralded The Bicycle Thief as “brilliant and devastating” – and that, it certainly is. Italian cinema in the 1940’s was dominated and influenced by the neorealism movement. Its impact was enormous and would later serve to inspire the French New Wave cinema. Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, and even Fellini were staples of this movement, with brilliant films such as Rome, Open City (1945), La Terra Trema (1948), and my personal favorite, Umberto D being released. The Bicycle Thief, now 60+ years since its release, still is a magical watch and one of the most touching films to grace the silver screen.

Friday Flashback: Fail-Safe (1964)

At this point, it is no news that we lost one of our most gifted filmmakers this past April, when the Sidney Lumet passed away at the age of 86. With such brilliant works as 12 Angry Men, Network, The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and so many others, Lumet surely deserves to be mentioned any time we speak of cinema’s greatest film directors. The past few weeks, I went back and re-acquainted myself with a handful of his films – my own personal and quiet way of paying homage to the legend…and fell in love again with some splendid old friends. It was the haunting and compelling 1964 film Fail-Safe though that inspired me to get my ass back in gear and get back to the Magic Lantern Film site. I understand that I have not stayed on top of this blog for the past few months, but I am working my way to writing on a regular basis once again. Watching the awesome Fail-Safe once again prompted me to coming up with the “Friday Flashback” feature, where I’ll be paying tribute to some of the very best films from years past – perhaps you have seen them already…but in case you have not, consider this my way of saying to you, “You haven’t seen that one?! Rent it…now!”

In short, Fail-Safe tells the story of a fictional (but seemingly very probable) nuclear crisis during the Cold War – when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their peak. Due to technical failures, mistrust, and the jamming of radio transmissions, a series of American bombers are sent to bomb the city of Moscow. With absolutely no music used throughout, the film is set in four separate locales, with only a small handful of scenes being shot elsewhere. Lumet uses a very effective minimalist approach here – and much like he did with his magnificent debut 12 Angry Men, he keeps his audience from feeling claustrophobic in such restricted settings. Because he received no help or cooperation from the U.S. Air Force whatsoever, Lumet was forced to use stock footage of planes taking off or soaring in the sky. The effect is not impressive in the least, but certainly forgivable. In the end, it doesn’t matter — as the film goes deeper and deeper, the tension continues to rise until its harrowing conclusion.

Lumet is blessed with a tremendous cast here, led by Henry Fonda as the President of the United States. Fonda is affable, but strong and almost all of his scenes are inside his bunker where he speaks on the phone with the Soviet Premier, with the help of his trusted interpreter played wonderfully by Larry Hagman. Hagman’s performance here could easily be overlooked, but he is doing so much while trying to translate the actual language in addition to capturing the Premier’s mood and tone. The Soviets are never seen in the film, but the scenes with Hagman and Fonda are fascinating to watch. Dan O’Herlihy is excellent as General Warren Black, a man with recurring nightmares and one of the military’s chief critics against nuclear armament. A young Walter Matthau is also frighteningly powerful here, playing Groeteschele, an outspoken professor with some outrageous theories about nuclear warfare.

Of course, the constant (and perhaps unfair) comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove will always arise. Indeed, when it was released in 1964, Fail-Safe was a box-office bomb (pun, well…intended), though it garnered glowing critical reviews. Much of this was due in part to Kubrick’s film being released first – at his insistence (no shocker there). But both films were both produced by the same studio. One went on to become known by cinephiles everywhere as one of the greatest films ever made and one of the greatest comedies of all-time…while Lumet’s film doesn’t get near the high praise it deserves. Both films tackle the same subject matter – but told in two completely different ways. I think (and I know most of my blogging brethren will shudder at the thought) that Lumet’s film is better in many aspects, though I am not making this out to be a contest. Lord knows I am a huge Kubrick fan and I put Dr. Strangelove up there with the very best. But the ending to Fail-Safe, for me, is more powerful, more gripping, and more disturbing. If you haven’t seen it and you consider yourself to be a fan of film, I would urge you to see it – and see what you think. It’s a 4-star film of the highest caliber…and one of just a handful of movie gems directed by someone who will be missed dearly.

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