Wednesday, October 31, 2018

HALLOWEEN (1978): Early Low Budget Slasher Film

Forty years later, one of this film’s sequels is setting box office records.  Yet the original Halloween cost only $300,000 (though $300,000 meant a lot more at that time), and had a running time of only 93 minutes.  It was also the start of a long film career by Jamie Lee Curtis, cast in the lead victim role as Laurie.  Yet Laurie survived all of the mayhem.

We never figure out in that early film why Michael Myers in his Halloween mask so much wants Laurie dead.  Even Dr. Loomis, the intrepid psychiatrist played so adeptly by Donald Pleasance, can’t ever figure the serial killer out.  All Loomis knows is that Michael Myers should never go free.

Michael ended up in a psychiatric ward when only six-years-old after stabbing his sister, Judith, to death.  Fifteen years later, when Dr. Loomis was already planning on putting Michael away permanently, Michael makes his escape.  Of course, he breaks out just in time for Halloween.

Everyone knows pretty much the rest of the story.  Michael returns to his hometown and virtually kills anyone getting in his way.  Most of his victims are teenagers just a few years younger than himself.  We think many times that Michael Myers is dead.  Yet he keeps coming back to life.  (This trend was to continue through all of the Halloween sequels and remakes – most of them very bad.)

Halloween is superior to most other slasher films because of its director, John Carpenter.  Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis obviously helped as well.  Carpenter not only directed, but he also helped write and create the screen music. He also had an uncanny sense of timing.  Right when he made the audience feel they could relax, something sudden and terrible would occur.  This low-budget film at times can be frightening.  Carpenter also never makes the mistake of trying to pretend this movie was something more than it really was.

The problem with this kind of film is you’d think it has to end at some point.  Yet forty years later, Jamie Lee Curtis keeps making appearance and keeping this sort of film somehow relevant.  And some critics say that the current version of Halloween is as good as this original.  (The fact that critics keep saying such things mean we’re going to see more of the same.  What’s truly astounding is they say the same thing about other movies that are also sequels.)

That the success of this original film was in large part accidental should surprise no one.

October 31, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

MISSOURI BREAKS (1976): Or How to Kill All of the Bats

Many of the best movies ever made were low budget films with big stars released in the 1970s.  I’m not being nostalgic in saying that because many of these films were anything but nostalgic.  The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones came out in 1970.  There was McCabe and Mrs. Miller starring Warren Beatty and directed by Robert Altman released in 1971.  Straw Dogs featuring Dustin Hoffman also came out in 1971.  And Mean Streets with Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorsese came out in 1973.
Jack Nicholson especially played in some of the best films.  Nicholson appeared in Five Easy Pieces in 1970, co-starred with Bruce Dern in The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972, co-starred with Randy Quaid in The Last Detail in 1973 (one of my all-time favorite movies), played alongside Faye Dunaway in Chinatown in 1974, and finally appeared with Marlon Brando in Missouri Breaks.  Missouri Breaks may go down as one of the more bizarre and quirky westerns ever made.  And it isn’t Nicholson that gives the film it’s peculiar edge.  That left up to Brando, and the technique of telling the story by director Arthur Penn.  

Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a good-natured horse thief and cattle rustler, who would more than anything like to find a good woman and settle down.  Unfortunately, he has a friend hanged by a large landowner named Braxton (John McLiam).  Tom purchases a tract of land next door to Braxton’s property.  This tract is a sort of meeting place for Tom and his gang of cattle rustlers.  While Tom and his gang are intent on revenge against Braxton, Tom also falls in love with Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).  His confused loyalty does not prevent his gang from hanging Braxton’s foreman.  This results in Braxton’s hiring of a bounty hunter to take care of all of the cattle rustlers once and for all.

The bounty hunter is none other than the famous Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando).  In all movie history, there is probably never a more eccentric villain than this character.  Clayton will do practically anything to get information about the cattle rustlers.  This includes disguising himself as a preacher and as a grandmother in dress and bonnet.  Clayton can kill a man from a long distance with the rifle he carries.  And he will explain to anyone willing or unwilling to listen that he passes gas anytime he gets too upset.

Clayton knows that Tom is not a farmer, and he suspects him as being the leader of the gang of cattle rustlers.  One by one he kills the rustlers off.  These are all of Tom’s best friends.  Clayton is so effective and single-minded in killing off the rustlers that he even frightens the man who hired him.  Braxton eventually tries to fire Clayton only to find out that Clayton is not interested in whether he does get paid.  All Clayton wants to do is finish his job.  Clayton compares pursuing cattle rustlers to the hunting of bats.  He said that if you gather them all together, you have the “evil buggers” at your mercy. 

But Tom is wily enough to escape Clayton.  In fact, he cuts Clayton’s throat while Clayton is sleeping under the stars.  Tom then wants to leave the area with Jane, but after Braxton feigns having a stroke Jane is unwilling to leave her father’s side.  This elaborate ruse is an attempt to get Tom at close range and kill him.  But Braxton fails to accomplish this and ends up shot himself instead.  We presume at the end of the film that Tom and Jane will someday be together. 

Missouri Breaks is 126 minutes long.  There’s some good action sequences, but there are also some very long scenes where nothing occurs other than listening to the characters talk to each other in a comical and sometimes cynical fashion.  Yet with all that occurs, the two characters who survive in the movie are in their own peculiar ways the most decent characters in the film: Tom and Jane.  There is a sort of happy ending at the end of this strange film.

Many recent critics remain puzzled at why this film never made it at the box office.  This seems especially odd when at the time of its release the movie featured two recent Academy Award winning stars.  But when you see what films do make the most money, it’s really not a mystery.  Most blockbusters fit a formula.  Because moviemakers are frightened that anything new may not bring in money right away, most blockbusters have sequels.  And most blockbusters along with the sequels will make money and be deservedly forgotten in ten years.

The beauty of Missouri Breaks is that one can watch it over and over again, and still enjoy it.  One can catch reruns of the film on late night television.  You can even watch the entire film on YouTube.  It was too unorthodox to ever become extremely popular in the theater.  Yet it’s too original for those who saw it early on to forget it at a later date.

September 22, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018

PATHS OF GLORY (1957): Fighting In World War I

As director Stanley Kubrick’s earliest blockbuster, Paths of Glory is so much more than almost every film ever made.  As one of the earliest antiwar films, it is relevant.  It has characters we care for, and some that we despise – all well played.  And at only 88 minutes, it is an instance of concise and powerful storytelling.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is ordered by the French General staff to attack a well-fortified German position known as the “anthill.”  While even the generals believe that a successful attack is virtually impossible, the possibility of a promotion makes the general in charge, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), decide that such an attack is indeed necessary and doable.

Despite the bravery of Colonel Dax and many of his men, the attack is a disaster.  When it appears that the men will have to retreat, General Mireau orders that the artillery fire on his own men in order to motivate them to keep moving forward.  But because an artillery commander refuses to do so without written authorization, Mireau’s plans are thwarted.  Eventually, Colonel Dax and his men retreat back to their trenches.

Mireau is outraged and wants to execute 100 men.  However, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), Mireau’s superior, convinces Mireau to reduce the number of executions to three.  The commander from each of the three squads under Dax’s command will choose which soldier would be put in front of the firing squad.  Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is chosen by his company leader, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris).  Corporal Paris was aware that Roget was drunk at the time of the raid and probably responsible for the death of another French solider due to Roget’s negligence.  Therefore, Roget viewed Paris as the best choice because Paris knows too much.  Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is chosen to be executed because his commander considered him a social degenerate.  With two bravery citations, Private Arnaud (Joseph Turkel) is chosen because his commander decided to draw lots.

Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the three men.  This enrages Mireau who would more than anything like to see Dax broken and used as a scapegoat for the failure of the raid.  But Mireau knows that he does not have any justification to bring charges against Dax.

The entire trial is a sham.  No one intended to ever give the three men a fair trial, and all three are ordered to be executed at dawn.  Still, Dax does have sufficient evidence on his side to convince General Broulard that Mireau did intend to fire on his own men.  While Broulard has no intentions of stopping the executions, he does use the evidence to bring an investigation against Mireau.  Mireau, to the very end, protests that Broulard has just stuck a knife in his back.

Dax, knowing Roget’s complicity in having Paris executed, orders Roget to supervise the shootings of the three men.  The three soldiers react to their sentences very differently.  Ferol subs and is meekly blindfolded.  Paris refuses a blindfold and is executed standing on his own two feet.  Arnaud, injured the prior evening in a prison fight, is carried out on a stretcher and tied to the post to give the appearance that he is standing up.  

We don’t know what Kubrick thought of this film.  He could be extraordinarily harsh about his films where he didn’t have full control.  And how much control he had over Paths of Glory remains debatable.  Nevertheless, Paths of Glory was highly praised as well as highly criticized and censored.  It would be almost twenty years before the film could be shown in France.  And it would not be shown in Spain until well after the death of Francisco Franco.  

But for me, it probably is my favorite of all Kubrick films – many of whose films are among the best.   Paths of Glory does not have the humor of Dr. Strangelove nor does the violence shock like it does in Clockwork Orange.  Yet everyone in the audience understood what the soldiers must have felt.

At the end of the film, the soldiers are in a saloon at first having fun with a young German girl who is asked to sing in front of the French troops.  Understandably frightened, she still manages to sing a well-known German song.   The French soldiers stop mocking her and listen.  Many of the soldiers even sing along.  Colonel Dax knows that the soldiers are ordered back to the front.   But Dax cannot tell the soldier the news as of yet until they had their chance to listen to the singing.

To my knowledge, no other film has had a more moving ending.

August 21, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018