Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.
Dead Calm: This is among the best thrillers in recent memory, directed by Phillip Noyce, who later went on to make the Tom Clancy movies Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger and the justifiably lambasted Ira Levin adaptation Sliver. The underrated Sam Neill and the formidable Nicole Kidman play a couple taking a long voyage on their sailboat to purge the pain of losing their child in a car crash. In the middle of the ocean, they encounter another vessel from which terrifying psycho Billy Zane is fleeing after some never-fully-explained event. When he kidnaps Kidman, leaving Neill aboard the sinking ship he quitted, an absolutely nail-biting nautical adventure ensues.
The Deep: As mentioned, I have a prejudice for underwater films, and since the characters in this film rarely poke their heads above the surf, I love it! Peter Benchley’s followup to Jaws was directed by the eclectic Peter Yates. Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset (memorable in the famous wet T-shirt) play a vacationing couple who seek sunken treasure in Bermuda, joining forces with local curmudgeon Robert Shaw and squaring off against nasty villain Louis Gossett, Jr. With Eli Wallach as a wily boozer, spectacular underwater cinematography, and a superb John Barry score.
The Defiant Ones (1958): Another socially conscious classic from director Stanley Kramer (On the Beach, Inherit the Wind). Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are escaped convicts shackled together by a length of chain. Curtis is a racist cracker and Poitier is, well, you know, so they find they’re their own worst enemies. The supporting cast (e.g., Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, King Donovan, Claude Akins, Whit Bissell, and Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his best non-horror roles) and gritty black-and-white photography stand out; Poitier’s plaintive wailing of “Long Gone” is unforgettable.
The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil’s Bride): One of Hammer’s best. Director Terence Fisher is in top form, and Richard Matheson’s superb adaptation streamlined the oft-verbose Dennis Wheatley’s novel into an action-packed 95 minutes. Christopher Lee actually gets a decent hunk of screen time in a rare heroic role as the Duc de Richelieu, with Charles Gray as the memorable, Aleister Crowley-inspired villain, Mocata, and a dynamite James Bernard score. Unfortunately, although this and Michael Carreras’s vastly inferior The Lost Continent were meant to kick off a series of Wheatley films, both bombed and the idea went down the toilet. Soon after, Fisher suffered the first of several accidents that prevented him from directing both Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Lust for a Vampire; in his later years, his health was so bad he was uninsurable and thus could not work, leaving the studio’s last two Frankenstein films, …Must Be Destroyed and …and the Monster from Hell, a final legacy in 1980. “Yes, Simon. He is the one we must thank.”
Die Hard: Bruce Willis is a fish-out-of-water New York cop trapped in the unfinished upper floors of a Los Angeles office building during a Yuletide attack by faux terrorists led by Alan Rickman (whose character is the namesake of “Silent Night” composer Hans Gruber). There is an interesting dynamic between page and screen at work here: the novel on which Die Hard is based, Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever, was actually a belated sequel to Thorp’s The Detective, filmed with Frank Sinatra twenty years earlier, but any connection between the two was eliminated from the film. Conversely, Die Hard 2 was based on an entirely unrelated novel, 58 Minutes, by Walter Wager, whose work was also filmed as Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming and Don Siegel’s Telefon. The underappreciated Bonnie Bedelia shines as Mr. Willis’s semi-estranged wife.
The Dirty Dozen: Robert Aldrich directed this unconventional and influential war movie, based on E.M. Nathanson’s fine novel. Lee Marvin has the unenviable task of trying to forge twelve convicts into a viable fighting unit for a suicide mission in occupied France on the eve of D-Day. The superb cast includes Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown and Clint Walker among the dozen, plus Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Ralph Meeker.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: One of the few absolutely perfect films in existence. I wouldn’t change a single frame. Based on the novel Red Alert by the pseudonymous Peter George, who co-wrote the script with Terry Southern and director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick set out to make a serious film on the subject of an accidental nuclear conflict (like Fail Safe, released the same year by Sidney Lumet with a virtually identical premise), and rightly decided a black comedy would be more effective. Sterling Hayden is demented General Jack Ripper, who unilaterally orders a nuclear attack on the Soviets he believes are threatening our “bodily essence”; George C. Scott has one of the best roles of his career as gung-ho General “Buck” Turgidson. Peter Sellers superbly plays three parts: President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and the title role; his intended fourth, Major “King” Kong, was finally played by Slim Pickens, supposedly because Sellers had broken his leg (though some say he didn’t think he was up to playing it anyway). “You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.” Superb.
Duel: Based on a real-life incident that happened to the legendary Richard Matheson and his friend and fellow genre writer Jerry Sohl on the day of the JFK assassination, this early TV-movie effort from Steven Spielberg was adapted by Matheson from his eponymous short story, originally published in Playboy. It’s a virtual one-character story about an average guy (Dennis Weaver, whose character is appropriately named “Mann”) who runs afoul of a sadistic and unseen trucker during a drive through the desert that turns into a taut cat-and-mouse game. It’s simply super stuff.
Dune (1984): One of the underdog films I have most vigorously championed over the years. I remember when it came out, many critics said that if you hadn’t read Frank Herbert’s source novel, you’d never understand it, but my future wife and then-fourteen-year-old sister-in-law and I had no trouble. I’ve read the book since then, and feel that in spite of the inevitable streamlining (which would be reduced if writer-director David Lynch could reconstruct a true director’s cut, rather than that televised abomination from which he rightly removed his name), it does Herbert’s brilliant work justice. The real star is Lynch’s evocations of four distinct worlds. In a nutshell, it’s the story of how Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) meddles in the battle between House Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Kyle MacLachlan) and House Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan, Sting, Paul L. Smith) for control of the desert planet Arrakis (aka Dune), source of a mind- and space-altering spice, and how said battle affects the very fate of the universe. Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Virginia Madsen, Everett McGill, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Max Von Sydow and Sean Young are among the cast; the splendid score is by Brian Eno and Toto.
Ed Wood: Right from its teaser and credits—clever variations on Criswell’s opening monologue and the cartoonish tombstones in Plan 9 from Outer Space—and its demented bongo-driven main title theme by Howard (The Lord of the Rings) Shore, this is a masterpiece. In glorious black-and-white, director Tim Burton celebrates legendary no-budget auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr., specifically the three films he made with the fading Bela Lugosi before and after his death (Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9). The chameleonic Johnny Depp, who starred in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, among others, is the eternally optimistic Wood (“It’s uncanny!”), with Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, Bill Murray, and Sarah Jessica Parker among the pathetic oddballs in his orbit. Martin Landau (“Pull ze strings!”) and makeup man Rick Baker won Oscars for recreating Lugosi, but the public stayed home in droves. Pearls before swine.